The Brexit effect may have been masked by the Covid economic crisis, but it is clear that difficulties in exporting goods to the EU are still a major problem and not a temporary glitch that would be resolved in a few weeks.
Small firms are having particular trouble with the cost of extra bureaucracy required to trade with the EU hitting them hardest. And, given it is often said that small businesses constitute the backbone of the UK economy, that should worry us all.
Jimmy Buchan, of the Scottish Seafood Association, reported that larger firms were absorbing smaller ones “like a sponge” because the latter could not longer afford to export.
Martin Morgan, of the Scottish Association of Meat Wholesalers, estimated that exports to the EU had fallen by “at least 50 per cent, maybe two thirds”. “It just reflects the consequences of the trade deal that the UK made with the EU commission,” he said. “The meat industry has been hit hard.”
And Colin Borland, of the Federation of Small Businesses, said that while the UK government has been providing some help for firms, it needed to do more. Perhaps pointedly, he added: “We’re not seeing many businesses at this stage reporting major dividends associated with the decision to leave the EU.”
In response, the UK government said it was providing “the support that businesses need to adapt to our new trading relationship”. But it also resorted to the same rhetoric used during the Brexit referendum campaign, saying “the Trade and Cooperation Agreement has allowed us to take back control of our money, borders, laws and waters”.
"Take back control” expresses an idea that was attractive to just enough people to secure a UK majority for Brexit. However, ideas are no longer enough; instead we need practical solutions to the problems caused by the reality of our departure from the EU.
Scotland is rightly proud of its food and drink, the quality of which is reflected in the fact that it is our top international export sector. According to HMRC figures, Scottish food-and-drink exports were worth £6.3 billion in 2018, an increase of 17 per cent on 2013, with exports to the rest of the UK estimated to be £4.5 billion in 2017.
And, while the drinks industry is dominated by large multinational companies, the food sector is “mainly smaller firms, including single employee or family businesses”.
Given 62 per cent of people in Scotland voted to remain in the EU, it’s unsurprising that Brexit has been used by independence supporters as a rallying cry.
The UK government needs to realise the importance of the food-and-drink industry to Scotland and make doubly sure it is doing everything that needs to be done to help small firms cope with the disruption of Brexit.
If it fails to do this, Scotland’s economy will suffer and the hearts and minds of ‘Middle Scotland’ – those who are neither fully committed unionists nor nationalists – are only likely to drift further away from Brexit Britain and closer to the nationalists’ vision of “taking back control” in a different, but similar, way.