Scotland is at a crossroads. The twin, closely fought issues of Brexit and Scottish independence have divided the country – and the former is now reigniting the latter.
The UK government’s negotiations with the EU have so far failed to deliver any certainty about how a post-Brexit UK will function, while the opposition appears to be still formulating its position. And while businesses across the whole of the UK are suffering, those based north of the border have a particular cause for feeling badly treated.
With this in mind, and with Theresa May’s government otherwise occupied, the SNP has been quietly priming a report to revive the independence debate.
Scotland didn’t vote for Brexit (62% for remain), and its desire to remain in the EU was arguably a significant factor in 2014’s ‘No’ vote on independence, with the threat of ejection from the EU held up as one inevitable consequence of ‘Yes’.
So now, the question of whether our northernmost nation stands a chance striking it out alone is once again back on the agenda.
At the end of May, Holyrood’s SNP administration unveiled its Sustainable Growth Commission report, looking to the current standing of Scotland’s economy, and whether it could support itself as an independent nation.
“The Scottish government has invested strongly in supporting small businesses, with a competitive system of business rates relief and ambitious targets on apprenticeships and training,” says SNP MSP Ivan McKee.
“However, a hard Brexit continues to hang over Scotland’s economy and Scottish businesses – threatening jobs, living standards and our future prosperity.
“Coupled with the ongoing and rising economic inequality in the UK, and the vast disparity between London, the South East and the rest of the country, it is clear that Scotland needs a different approach in order to grow and prosper.”
But the question as to whether or not Scotland is fit enough to thrive outside the UK remains moot while the issue of Brexit hangs over everything.
Business for Scotland network chief executive Gordon McIntyre-Kemp says: “People are cautious about investing in anything because of Brexit. Sectors such as print are concerned by the uncertainty, for instance if they rely heavily on EU migrant workers they do not know if their staff will stay here.
“As Scotland was largely against Brexit, you see a lot of frustration on all sides no matter how they felt in the 2014 independence referendum. In a survey we conducted, 90% of Scottish businesses did not trust the UK government to deliver a Brexit that would work in their favour.
“Once we know what the Brexit arrangements are going to be, we will be lobbying with the government for policies and funding that will help Scottish businesses.
“We may set up a team to facilitate support and a website to provide advice. But we just do not know what will happen yet and I think once the picture is clearer we will see a lot more outrage from Scotland.”
Whether business is booming or not in Scotland, print is usually one of the first sectors to find out. As businesses’ budgets tighten in response to economic downturns, typically their print spends plummet and the work dries up noticeably.
It’s a problem that has not gone unnoticed by Kevin Creechan, who is doubly aware of Scottish print’s woes as the president of Print Scotland and managing director of Glasgow-based J Thomson Colour Printers.
“Our print market is not strong at all,” he says. “A lot of work for Scotland-based print buyers goes south to England because of the way work is distributed across the UK.
“Alongside this, a lot of companies are at a crossroads because owners are ageing and looking to move on, so they aren’t looking to upgrade or invest in their technology and prices for resources are going up. I can see there being a huge consolidation of companies that will shift the whole market.
“Scotland struggles to compete with English printers, but there is one easy way for our government to make sure the industry is sustained here – anyone who buys print in Scotland should buy from Scottish printers.
“But there is currently no method for looking at that bigger picture, so jobs go down to places like Manchester and London, when they should be in the hands of printers up here.”
Creechan admits, however, that Scotland benefits from a slew of “world-class printers and packaging companies”, as well as its status as a “hard-working nation with integrity”.
This somewhat translates into the forward-thinking nature of a number of Scottish companies of late. Glasgow’s Bell & Bain recently acquired the smaller 21 Colour to sustain a company struggling in the uncertain marketplace, Dunfermline’s Pandaprint has swooped in to take the country’s first Versafire EV from Heidelberg, and Aberdeen’s XIC looks positively towards the future following an MBO.
Scotland’s broader picture may look uncertain, but for printers on the ground it’s about the day-to-day – ploughing ahead and supporting each other where they can. Independence may once again be the question, but for now at least solidarity is Scotland’s answer.
Brexit must be exploited for both Scotland and the UK
Garry Richmond, director, Print Scotland
Scottish print businesses are faced with many concerns, some unique to our country and some not, and they have come together to create uncertainty in the marketplace.
One worry Print Scotland hears a lot from our members is the issue of government procurement. There is a lot of talk about the Scottish government moving to a single-supplier framework for its print, as opposed to commissioning anywhere between eight and 12 printers for its work. This would cause a lot of pain in Scottish print as the distribution of work is crucial to our shared success.
Fears around Brexit have meant that there does not seem to be as much print spending going on. Print is often the first spend to suffer in times like these, when really customers should see print as an opportunity and an investment.
Another concern has been how well Scotland might fare on the international stage. For years, I have worked with or seen companies lose contracts to overseas printers who can offer lower prices. If we are to make the most of Brexit, print jobs that Scotland loses to elsewhere must be kept here, or else millions of pounds will be lost from the country. The government should turn Brexit into an advantage to maximise the opportunities for the home nations.
We hear from Scottish printers about the reduced support for apprenticeships. As a training provider, we are grateful for the grants we do get but the amount is falling. As the government sets targets for more apprentices, the funding is getting spread thinner – falling from £7,000 per apprentice to £3,200 in three years.
At Print Scotland, we have connections to MSPs and the Scottish Parliament. We can only advise on how they approach these issues, but we will continue to lobby for print and Scottish printers, as well as pushing for national press coverage when things do not go in our industry’s favour.
What does the Scottish printing industry need to succeed?
Stephen Docherty, managing director, Bell & Bain
“We need help to invest in technology – a new press could potentially cost us millions. There used to be government support in place to ease those strains. Now, we have to bite the bullet, as well as contending with the rise of costs in resources and consumables, alongisde rising minimum wages. We have faced these factors before but never all at once, and finding the funding to help is incredibly difficult. More emphasis seems to be on start-ups and bespoke businesses, so salt-of-the-earth printers in Scotland are struggling to get the support they need.”
Amanda Creedon Bass, managing director, Solway Print
“We could do with a lot more help with apprentices. We just took on a new one but, from what I recall, there used to be more support – colleges and infrastructure to make sure training was well-rounded. I am lucky to have an experienced team that can support that sort of training, but we need something official. There is a community of printers in Scotland that supports each other, but we don’t seem to get that support from higher up as trade bodies recommend non-Scottish printers to businesses. We are lucky to get a referral, when it should be the norm.”
Ron Davidson, managing director, PM Solutions
“Our own business is solid, but I think Scotland’s print industry is not in a very good position. Work is scarce and larger printers are chasing work that used to be left to smaller ones, and so they are running out of business. The government gives no help whatsoever, as far as I can see, and it puts work out to tender that often goes to bigger companies down south. They should put rules in that give Scottish printers a fair crack of the whip because bigger printers are able to offer ridiculous prices that push them out of the market.”