Since my last column in the Press, I have continued to use the Scottish Parliament's summer recess to get out and about in the constituency. What has struck me, in particular, is that one of the most common topics of discussion amongst local business people has been Brexit, and the impact on business. In particular, people have, understandably, wanted to know what impact it will have on their business. I will continue to be mindful of that, as I am due to meet local businesses eCom and Rapier Systems in the coming weeks.
Recently, I was delighted to address lunch at the Dunfermline Rotary Club, which meets at Garvock House Hotel. A large cross section of the business community forms membership of Rotary, and Rotarians often participate in business networking groups and networking events.
It was incredibly interesting to hear about the work of the Dunfermline Rotary Club, including their project to build a new classroom in Ethiopia. Dunfermline Rotary Club has also joined with several other Fife based Rotary Clubs, to build a health centre in a populous, hard-to-reach area of the Rwenzori mountain foothills in Western Uganda. I understand that this project is to provide locals with access to a permanent, government-run health centre with medical officers, nurses, and pharmacists. Rotarians are a vital part of the community, for their contribution to business and the welfare of those at home, and abroad.
I used my address to the Rotary Club to discuss the impact of Brexit on business. Alert readers will have noted that over the weekend, we heard that the UK Treasury is now, for the first time, considering leaving the single market entirely. This is not what the UK had voted for. The Leave campaign’s “strategy” on the economy was to argue that the UK would be able to retain membership of the single market, from outside the EU. We repeatedly heard Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, the Leave campaign’s most influential figures, make this argument. However, hours after the Leave vote, it was clear that neither the Leave campaign, the UK Government, nor Treasury, had a clear plan for business – that is quite astounding.
On the other hand, our First Minister was quick to speak to the business community, and to assure members that the Scottish Government was working hard to protect Scotland’s interests in the EU. Nicola then met with senior business leaders in July, and has called for unity amongst the Scottish business community, as a mechanism to protect Scotland’s interests. Indeed she said that Scotland's economy is fundamentally strong, but continued EU membership and our place in the world's biggest single market is absolutely vital when it comes to protecting jobs, investment and long-term-prosperity.
I wholeheartedly agree with the First Minister’s comments. With no specific agreement with the EU to retain single market membership, only “World Trade Organisation” (WTO) rules will apply to the UK. This means that the UK would be outside the EU’s customs union and Single Market. Businesses would be required to pay WTO-level tariffs on goods and services exported to EU countries. Businesses are understandably concerned about such an arrangement, and if the UK ends up outside the single market, that would be harmful to Scottish business interests. Free trade would surely be one of the major casualties of Brexit, and would characterise its destructing legacy.
At this point, I would like to remind readers that Scotland voted to remain by a 24-point margin. That is highly significant, and indicates that Scottish attitudes to the EU are vastly different to English or Welsh attitudes. Just as the Scottish Government must be mindful of those in Scotland who voted Leave, the UK government must remain mindful of the Remain vote in Scotland, if they are to take our role in the UK, and wish to remain in the EU, seriously.
Indeed, the Secretary of State for Scotland must do more than simply assert that the UK works for Scotland, and ensure that Scotland’s wishes are accommodated and its interests are protected. He must use his place in Theresa May’s cabinet to stand up for Scotland. Personally, given his track record, I am sceptical as to whether the Scotland Secretary is up to the task. The jury is still out and the whole of Scotland is watching.