Kirkwall in the Orkneys may have a small business community. But it is diversified, it is lively, well-tuned to concerns on the mainland and it has a voice to be heard in the great Scottish Brexit debate.
This week I had the pleasure of visiting Kirkwall to speak to the first open meeting of Business Gateway – and a lively session it proved. The audience raised many issues of concern over Brexit that resonate across the business community generally in Scotland.
The audience ranged across retail, hotels and tourism; farming and fisheries sectors; IT and business consultancy; building and maintenance; and the hassles that daily confront service providers and multi-taskers. Our business universe is dominated by small and medium-sized enterprises – and a growing number of these are micro businesses, with many characterised by multi-tasking.
There are many and complex issues now facing this business community and they are echoed by dozens of Business Gateway branches across Scotland, faced not simply with a choice between hard and soft Brexit but now a bewildering array of no less than 42 different types of Brexit –from the Switzerland and Faroes basic symmetric free trade agreement to the Macedonia Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (Pending).
How appropriate, if an accident of timing, that the meeting coincided with the Supreme Court ruling that the UK parliament must hold a vote on whether the government can start the Brexit process. But it also ruled that the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies did not need a say.
Bang on cue, our First Minister Nicola Sturgeon protested, saying that Scotland had every right to have its voice heard. And she pledged to hold a Holyrood vote on the matter regardless of the ruling.
Now here I have some sympathy with the First Minister. There are issues of critical importance to Scotland that need to be heard and discussed. The outlook for Scotland’s farming and fishing sectors is prominent among them. So too is EU funding for the renewables sector, research support for our universities, and how our manufacturing sector will fare with the prospect of tariff barriers being imposed in a world outside the Customs Union: nitty-gritty stuff, but vitally important.
The First Minister may well have these concerns at heart. But it is difficult to tell from a rhetoric that barely proceeds beyond the all-too familiar calls of ‘Let’s have another referendum’.
We look headed for a lengthy period of negotiation on the fine detail of our trade relations with the EU outside the single market and customs union. On matters of specific and particular concern to business, who speaks for Scotland?
The SNP administration lacks for nothing by way of advice. But how much of it is relevant to business concerns?
The Scottish Government’s 50-page policy paper ‘Scotland’s Place in Europe’ makes much of the contributions from a body called The Standing Council on Europe.
It has 17 members under the chairmanship of Professor Anton Muscatelli. One would hope to find some neutral and impartial expertise on the concerns being raised by Scottish business, and with some practical and positive advice of relevance to the enterprise sector.
But on the evidence of the administration’s door-stopping paper, a business-specific and objective assessment is not what’s on offer. Its members include Vasco Cal, former economic adviser at the European Commission; Sir David Edward, a European Court judge; Charles Grant, of the London-based Centre for European Reform; David Martin MEP (pro Remain); Professor Alan Miller, former chair of the Scottish Human Rights Commission; Alan Smith MEP (pro Remain); Grahame Smith (STUC and Scotland Europa); Frances Ruane, Irish academic economist (pro Remain); Fabian Zuleeg of the European Policy Centre in Brussels; and Dame Anne Glover, former chief scientific adviser to ex-European Commission president Jose Manuel Barosso.
A business person looking for objective advice might be excused for feeling a little like that other Jose – Jose Marinho, the feisty manager of Manchester United on being assured that he could pick any of these referees for a fair assessment of goal mouth incidents, and not to worry that they’re all wearing Arsenal shirts.
Arguably more concerning than the worthy bodies on this Standing Council list are the bodies that are not on it. There are few from the heartland of Scottish business: no-one from a Scottish business organisation, no-one from the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, no-one from the Federation of Small Businesses, no-one from Scottish Enterprise or Highlands & Islands Enterprise or Scottish Development International, whose expertise in attracting foreign direct investment might be considered of some import, and no-one from the one body that has the widest experience of real-world problems on the ground involving tens of thousands of SMEs: Business Gateway, no less.
Now many would contend that such bodies are set up by government to help and advise business and that they should have no policy-making role separate from or different to that of their Holyrood overseers. But the problem here is that with so few MSPs at Holyrood with practical, hands-on business experience, these pressing concerns over the nitty-gritty of the upcoming Brexit negotiations are just not being heard, or heard with convincing clarity.
It is one thing for the First Minister to posture that “Scotland’s voice must be heard” as she clamours for a second independence referendum. But who is hearing the genuine concerns of business and putting these at the top of Scotland’s agenda?
Liz Cameron, chief executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, surely has a point when she says “many businesses that we speak to are becoming increasingly tired of the legal and political machinations around the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. What they are interested in are the practicalities of what this will mean for their business and their future planning.”
Kirkwall is no different from other Business Gateway organisations in Scotland anxious to give the best guidance and advice on offer – but in the difficult months ahead they are going to need more from Holyrood than the tired mantra for a referendum re-run. Vexing through it may be for the occupant of Bute House, the Supreme Court judges had a valid point that the UK voted as a whole for Brexit and that Scotland was part of their UK – a position reaffirmed in the Scottish independence referendum.
Now attention should focus on securing the best possible deal and hunkering down on the details. On the customs union I suspect we will end up not with 42 different types of Brexit, but 43: by the time we have finished the UK will have a complex, and ambiguous relationship, like the household cat at the kitchen door – hovering between going out and hankering for the warmth of staying in.
Sorting that out and being firm on our priorities is now task enough for Holyrood.