Bill Jamieson: Why the doom-mongers are wrong

STICKING with Europe will cost Scotland more than we will get back. Far better to keep calm and carry on, says Bill Jamieson

The Second World War slogan appealing for calm has never been more timely than it is right now. Picture: Getty
The Second World War slogan appealing for calm has never been more timely than it is right now. Picture: Getty

Keep Calm and Carry On? You must be joking. But it’s exactly what we must do now.

It could hardly look worse. The UK is without a Prime Minister. The Conservative Party is split. The Chancellor is on his way out. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has suffered mass defections and is urged to quit.

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Here in Scotland Holyrood rails against the chaos and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon battles to secure a Scottish exit from Brexit.

Meanwhile on the Twittersphere hate mail abounds.

What an unholy mess. We seem to be caught between the political equivalent of a nervous breakdown and a potential break-up of the UK.

Keep calm? Really? But yesterday, I should point out, the pound rallied. And on the FTSE100 Index rose a further three per cent and is back above 6,300. The “billions lost in market bloodbath” have largely been put back.

That’s by no means the end of the market traumas. But it sends a signal: that the future need not be the bottomless pit of despair that the recent doom-mongering would suggest.

Beware of bowing too readily at “the settled will of the British people”. There’s nothing settled about it when you look at our history.

The great driving force of any society and any economy is constant and continuous change – that, and a spirit of enterprise to take advantage of it.

And few doubt the referendum result is a catalyst for change. It has exposed an almighty disconnect between the established political order and the many millions of voters.

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We do need change: both in the EU’s direction of travel and here at home. What‘s common with most such catalysts is that there are opportunities as well as threats; gains as well as losses.

So let’s avoid trudging down a road of despair that leads to nowhere. Many may share the nihilist Professor Anthony Seaton’s bleak verdict this week on the Brexit “poison” and “the poor, the disaffected, and those with poor education and weak abilities to reason had swallowed it.”

Really? All 17 million people who voted Leave? All with “poor education and weak abilities”? It smacks of Berthold Brecht’s famous verdict in the wake of the 1953 East German uprising: “Wouldn’t it be simpler if the government dissolved the people and elected another?”

So what possible grounds could there be to look with anything other than foreboding on our predicament in Scotland now?

If I were running a tourist business today I might be cheered that the lower pound against the dollar will bring more US visitors. If I were a small and medium sized enterprise (SME) I might be cheered at the prospect of not having to document compliance with regulations that do not apply to my business. In the meantime, there is the prospect, not just of interest rates lower for longer, but of a further interest rate cut and a fall in the cost of my borrowings. If I were a fisherman or a farmer, I might be pleased that control over farming and fisheries policy could be transferred to Holyrood where it belongs – these are, after all, devolved areas.

If I were an exporter, the fall in the pound might be an opportunity for me to sell more of my goods and services abroad, And if I were the finance minister, I might not despair at the prospect of Brexit because Scotland, as Professor David Bell of Stirling University pointed out recently, is no longer a beneficiary of EU largesse: we pay in £64 per person more to the EU than we get back.

And it’s not as if a second independence referendum to retain our EU membership would fling open the doors to a Caledonian El Dorado. The biggest change since the 2014 referendum is that North Sea oil revenues have collapsed. Revenues that were expected to hit between £6.8 billion and £7.9 billion this year have shrunk to just £0.5 billion - £2.8 billion. Scotland’s budget deficit is already more than three times higher as a percentage of GDP than the UK average. None of this may matter a jot to voters. In the EU referendum, credibility in official statistics and economic forecasts took a battering. In any event, that would be to assume that economics would be the deciding factor in voter minds second time around, and that, in today’s circumstances, would be a dangerous assumption.

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Why did we vote as we did last week? I suspect it’s not the machinery of Brussels to which Scots relate as much as the values and ethos that is seen to surround “Europe”. We voted Remain because we associate the institution of the EU with all manner of virtues: it’s seen to be progressive, inclusive, liberal, ecologically-minded. But such qualities do not inhere exclusively in the institutions of the EU.

Meanwhile, we now have big challenges at home. As if the complexities of Article 50 and renegotiating our trading relations were not uncertainty enough for Scottish business after two referendums, now it faces a potential second referendum on independence.

It’s like living in a perpetual students’ union. How can business possibly plan and invest in such an atmosphere? At this rate the only businesses left expanding in Scotland would be sandwich bars, charity shops and Greggs.

We’re too dominated by what governments and politicians think and do, when our welfare more critically depends on a growing economy. That requires support for enterprise and allowing our entrepreneurial spirit to flourish.

This referendum aftermath may be messy, disruptive and unsettling for many. But an outcome will emerge from which we can move forward. It’s not the “settled will” of the people or the constant visitations to the polling stations that will lift our well-being. It is the restless, creative energy of entrepreneurs and a dynamic enterprise sector that makes the difference.

Constant change is a given. What’s needed now is a positive response and our own enterprise to make the best of our situation as we can.