David C Watt: We must push politicians for evidence on Brexit claims

In the latest on our series David C Watt of the IoD in Scotland says it's important to separate facts from fiction

In or out, we have a skills gap to fill, particularly in areas that require science,  maths or engineering degrees   and Scotlands population is growing slower than the rest of the UK
In or out, we have a skills gap to fill, particularly in areas that require science, maths or engineering degrees  and Scotlands population is growing slower than the rest of the UK

Some might say that we have a bit of an advantage here in Scotland when it comes to the referendum process, and everything that goes along with it. We’ve been here before and we’ve seen what the unsettlement can do. We know how referenda work – both in terms of importance as well as rhetoric.

What is striking for the impartial observer is the similar arguments being used about the EU, as were used with regards Independence – often by the same people but arguing the opposite view. Some of those that fought to keep the UK together are now fighting to split from Europe, and vice versa.

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Some, perhaps not many, have learned from the lack of ­reasonable debate and the absence of facts – but the void when it comes to the EU debate is still fairly large. “Fear not facts” is rearing its head again, and as the split runs across political ­parties, just working out who’s for what is a challenge.

What is also interesting is the way the key focus seems once again to be the economy – often erroneously referred to as “the pound (or euro?) in your pocket.” The error there being that what people are actually voting on is economic competence and the future functioning of the economy after they cast their vote.

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It is now widely accepted that the key losing ground for the Yes campaign in Scotland was this one – the economic future of Scotland. It appears that the Brexit campaigns are fighting a similar battle. I suppose they are just glad currency is not an issue for them too.

It should be emphasised, too, that when people consider the economy, in a large scale constitutional referendum, they are not just meaning just now but the future prosperity of themselves, their children and even their grandchildren.

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One argument I struggle with now, as I did in 2014, is the view that Britain, or then Scotland, could not go it alone. To me this is patently wrong and rather the question is should it go it alone and what the impact of that would be.

The Institute of Directors has come to the view that it will not take a stance but will rather engender debate and try to educate and inform members and other business leaders, pointing them in the direction of academic information and our own research papers, rather than espousing political rhetoric to shape their views before voting on 23rd of June.

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The IoD is taking a position of concerned neutrality and is actively interrogating all the positions and propositions being adopted by both sides. We do have a genuine concern about what exactly the impact of Brexit would be and when knowledgeable people from a non-political background, like the Governor of the Bank of England, express concerns then they have to be taken seriously.

The very interesting position in Scotland is that no major serving politician and even very few of the previous generation have taken a position against staying in the EU – so the debate is quite limited.

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Indeed, a political debate about the EU, in Scotland, inevitably comes back to the subject of the last referendum we went through. In the business community too, most have taken a position of neutrality. Business leaders have had their fingers burned before, so with nobody engaging in vigorous, quality debate, getting a variety of views is quite challenging.

For the observer, it will be interesting to see if, in fact, the outcome of the poll is in any way different in Scotland to the rest of the UK – not just to ­analyse the possibility of another ­referendum here – but to assess how our attitude to Europe is in 2016.

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Of course businesses – especially smaller ones – do have major issues with employment law legislation and are less than enthralled with the EU tendering processes, but even they or their bigger customers will be engaged in the trade aspect of Europe and will not want to see that endangered in any way.

It is worth remembering that while Scotland’s top export destination is the USA – most of the Top 10 export destinations are in the EU, and as an ambitious country, with a recession (hopefully) behind us, the desire to do more business with our closest neighbours will shape views. While we might not have the strongest exporting record at the moment, if there was a time to improve, it would be now.

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Then we come to some of the more impassioned issues, which are more emotive than exporting, but of course, touch on businesses in Scotland ­every single day. Immigration, and the potential overheating of all our services, such as the NHS and housing, are massive issues in the south-east corner of the UK and some other hotspots. The almost opposite position is true in Scotland – our population is growing more slowly than in the rest of the UK and we desperately need more economically active ­people to balance our population and to enliven the workforce. We are sending bright, educated young people away, and at the same time crying out for just the same to feed our business sector.

The public is being very ­poorly served by the current level of the debate on immigration in this country. Let’s remember why people come here in the first place – because the UK is one of the best performing ­economies in Europe and business are creating lots of jobs.

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Employment is at a record high, and there are big skills gaps that employers cannot fill domestically. Despite the overblown rhetoric that today’s figures have sparked, the actual numbers have not changed much in the last year.

In or out, there is a skills gap to fill, especially in areas which require science, maths or engineering degrees, where we just don’t have enough UK graduates – and Scotland must battle all the harder to attract these people. If less people are allowed into the UK, London will retain more than its fair share of them.

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With neither side of the referendum debate prepared to adequately address the question of what the migration rules should look like after 23 June, this serves as just one example where business leaders are being asked to make a shot in the dark in what is probably the most ­important political event in our recent history. On this issue as with most others, we are having far too many people expressing opinion as if it were fact, something we can all be guilty of from time to time but for this crucial decision it is just too important. We all need to push politicians and other spokespeople to evidence their assertions and provide well researched and reputable sources for their claims – many of which are outrageous and based on little more than prejudice and pre-conceived notions.

Business really wants to know from both sides some of these facts about what will happen, in or out, in the future about items like – the regulatory regime; trade; financial transactions; tendering processes; short and longer term economic impacts. In the case of Brexit where there is less certainty a clear indication of proposed timescales and processes would be particularly welcome.

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In the search for accurate information and wisdom people should look for the many academics who have contributed to the area – such as Professor David Bell at Stirling or Professor Nicola McEwen at Edinburgh – and others across the country who have done the research for some facts to shed genuine light on our thinking.

The fundamental vote for many, I suspect, is one of the heart not the head – a belief in nationhood, power and who is seen to pull the political strings. Many like the idea of a large group of countries working together, but equally a lot of people are very uncomfortable with the perceived lack of sovereignty which goes with this cooperation.

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The most important thing is that everyone turns out and votes, as they did in Scotland in 2014 and, while it is unlikely we will see an 80 per cent turnout, it is vital that we all have our views reflected in this historic vote – certainly one of the most important of my lifetime. It is for us and our ­children, indeed our grand­children, and it not to be taken likely and certainly not bypassed as ­something which will come round again – because for most us it won’t.

• David C Watt is Executive Director of the IoD in Scotland