Comment: It’s time to look past attention-grabbing Brexit

There is potential for policy debate to evolve more calmly than in recent years, says Andrew Henderson. Picture: Wullie Marr
There is potential for policy debate to evolve more calmly than in recent years, says Andrew Henderson. Picture: Wullie Marr
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When parliamentarians return to work next week they will be bracing themselves for what is being widely billed as the most tumultuous political autumn in living memory.

However, for assiduous business leaders, it will be well worth keeping an eye on the wider policy agenda. Domestic policy development may go under-reported in the coming weeks and months, but will have a significant impact on many organisations and the wider economy.

Without doubt, Brexit will dominate, both north and south of the Border, as the UK government seeks to agree a deal with Brussels and then, crucially, muster a majority at Westminster to approve it.

Meanwhile, the SNP-led Scottish Government must judge how to respond to Brexit as events in London and Brussels unfold, against a backdrop of calls from an eager “base” to drive for an early second referendum on Scottish independence. However, polls still indicate an uphill struggle to achieve a majority for “yes”, and there is no certainty that the UK government would willingly acquiesce to allowing a second vote in the near future.

Amid an ongoing constitutional bunfight being waged on four fronts (leave/remain, yes/no), one crucial element of debate which has suffered is the economy.

Both 2014 and 2016 referenda saw bold claims made from each side as to the relative prosperity a vote in that direction might yield, against the catastrophe the other would wreak on the nation. In the years since, there has been little appetite for nuance in a binary debate, leading to a paucity of grounded, realistic discussion about the future of the economy managing to cut through.

Might that be changing? While a sudden outbreak of consensus and reasoned debate looks unlikely, look beyond the near-term heat and noise that the Brexit denouement will generate. With the Scottish public not due to return to the polls until the Holyrood elections in 2021, there is the potential at least for policy debate to evolve in a slightly calmer fashion than we have seen during the seemingly perpetual electoral cycle of recent years.

Certainly, recent interventions such as the publication of the long-awaited Sustainable Growth Commission have succeeded in stimulating what appear to be the beginnings of a new discussion over Scotland’s economic future, one which, irrespective of where one’s constitutional preferences lie, might just be seen as the green shoots of a more adult conversation.

Brexit aside, domestic measures which impact business and the country’s economic fortunes continue to churn through the policy machine, sometimes almost unnoticed. Many of these are worthy of the close attention of businesses and, indeed, everyone with an interest in Scotland’s economic performance and global competitiveness.

Take for example the Planning (Scotland) Bill which envisages significant changes to the planning system and is already proceeding quietly through parliament. Over the coming weeks, MSPs will debate amendments to the bill including proposals which could have a major impact on the business world through significant alterations to the system of planning appeals.

Next week, too, the Scottish Government will publish its programme for government. After 11 years in power the SNP will wish to project a fresh, attention-grabbing, and progressive vision. Many of these policies will naturally affect business and consideration of their impacts and opportunities is advisable.

Of course, at times it may be hard for business to focus on the more granular measures that government brings forward on the domestic policy agenda, both in Scotland and at Westminster. However, close consideration of policy as it develops is almost always time well spent and will help shape future growth plans for businesses large and small.

Andrew Henderson, director of public policy, Pinsent Masons.