In the small hours of 24 June 2016, seemingly almost a lifetime ago, David Dimbleby made an announcement to a stunned nation: “At 20 minutes to five, we can now say, the decision taken in 1975 by this country to join the Common Market has been reversed by this referendum to leave the EU.”
For both sides, it was a moment of confusion and shock – Remain, complacently assuming the status quo would be maintained, fell short at 48%, while a vociferous Leave campaign won 52%, having barely considered the possibility of victory.
In the vote’s wake, it almost seemed the squabbling and infighting would subside and, as PrintWeek wrote in the weeks after the vote, we would “keep calm and carry on”.
Two years on, much has transpired and little of it could be described as ‘calm’. David Cameron jumped ship almost immediately, while his successor Theresa May squandered her majority in a rash snap election. The pandemonium continues even now as Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg continue to rabble-rouse, while Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party struggles with its own divisions.
Meanwhile, 29 March 2019 is creeping ever closer.
It’s caused headaches for businesses on both sides of the debate – whether they wanted Brexit or not, the question of how exactly we will leave remains unanswered, and there are few things businesses hate more than uncertainty.
“At the time of the referendum in June 2016, our members were split almost exactly 50/50,” says Mike Cherry, chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB).
“The primary concern from the small business community is what impact Brexit would have on their firms, which two years later remains to be seen.
“SMEs will need to be made aware of any changes to their trading and working lives in order to fully prepare. The dangers of a sudden and unplanned no-deal Brexit have been laid bare.
“A pro-business Brexit is one with a transition period – a vital lifeline that won’t be there in a no-deal scenario. The smallest firms will be the least able to cope with a cliff-edge moment. It’s right to prepare for a no-deal outcome.”
‘Uncertainty’ is the word on everyone’s lips – pro-Brexit or not, there is little confidence in the business world that May’s administration can pull this off.
In 2016, PrintWeek spoke to printers, suppliers and manufacturers across the leave/remain binary, capturing a mood that was blindsided, but quietly confident that successful negotiations could create a prosperous, independent UK.
Returning to those same voices now, it seems the mood on both sides has soured, and printing businesses have taken matters into their own hands, rather than waiting for the government to reveal the state of play, deal or no deal.
Macclesfield-based Plastic Card Services was one of the lead print voices post-referendum, with leave-voting director Rob Nicholls appearing on BBC Breakfast in July that year to extoll that “opportunities are opening up and it’s up to companies to make hay and chase after them”.
Now, he says: “No matter how you voted, both sides have been let down by the government. I voted on the basis of regaining control of our country’s destiny from an unelected body we had no great influence over dictating how we run our country.
“We sought to use Brexit as an opportunity to grow our export market share, which we have done in places like Scandinavia and Ireland. So far, we have not felt any impact. Now we are investing £1m in the business, which has reassured our staff.
“You cannot just sit on your hands because our government has missed an opportunity to make the most of this opportunity while the EU is treating us with disdain. This has only solidified my stance that we are better off out of that whole equation.”
Many of print’s biggest names have roots in both UK and EU markets, which means significant preparation has been required to mitigate against all eventualities. Heidelberg UK managing director Gerard Heanue was in Dusseldorf for Drupa in the run-up to the vote and had a chance to speak to a number of UK customers, who skewed 75%-80% pro-leave at the time.
“It was interesting to hear because there was a strong feeling within our customer base that they wanted to take back legal control as the EU was making it hard to run streamlined operations,” he says.
“Obviously, we import most of our spare parts and machinery from Germany so we had to consider whether we stockpile supplies ahead of the March deadline and run through a number of contingency plans. However, we have had a UK presence since 1975 so we were relatively confident of our prospects.
“Speaking to clients and other importers now, the main concern is still the lack of clarity on matters such as import duties and exchange rates. I can see the final decision going right to the wire and being revealed at the last minute. Just now, I’m putting together an email for staff about our current plans as they are concerned about the impact Brexit could have on their livelihoods.”
However, even in the face of what some might call impending doom, there are print companies more than happy to muck along as usual, in the knowledge that their strong and stable business practices will help them ride out the storm.
The boss of one successful print firm says he is concentrating on getting on with getting on: “Regarding the subject of Brexit, I am pretty bored with it all and it takes up 1% of my thinking time.”
So much time, so much talk, little progress and no clarity
Charles Jarrold, chief executive, BPIF
And so, two years on from the Referendum result we seem to be in the same place that we were back then. There is a month to go until a key EU summit at which the EU/UK withdrawal agreements need to be adopted, in order to allow time for UK and EU approval, and we still have no idea what form Brexit will take.
Remain means remain; however, Brexit means a variety of apparently irreconcilable different options. The politics are disappointing and the consequences for the UK are uncertain, but what does this mean for our sector?
Two years ago, I wrote in PrintWeek about the short-, medium- and long-term considerations. In the short term, we at the BPIF were concerned about the impact of exchange rates on input prices. Input price pressure remains an ongoing issue.
In the medium term, we wanted and still want to see stronger support for manufacturing, and for the entrepreneurial, technology-led, skills-focused businesses typical of our sector.
We are encouraged by the government’s concern over the productivity gap in the UK economy and with the level of engagement from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and constituency MPs.
Let’s see that engagement drive actions that make it easier for companies to back themselves. Big business may capture the headlines, but local businesses are the ones that provide the employment and growth opportunities for the future.
So, more dialogue, more support, please, for productivity improvement, skills development, investments and grassroots entrepreneurs. And, as for Brexit, we hope that government continues to listen to the range of businesses about their views on the risks and opportunities and develop solutions. Time is running out.
What are your thoug hts on the Referendum two years on?
Andy Cook, managing director, FFEI
“I thought we would vote to stay so I was certainly surprised on the day. We did not do a lot of work in Europe back then, so it was not a major issue. However, we are now doing a lot more work in Europe and our main concern is not knowing what the conditions of the deal will be. I worry there will be a major rush at the end for businesses to get ready once it is finally clear. We are enjoying a lot of business right now but there is every chance it could disappear after Brexit.”
Patrick Headley, group chief executive, Go Inspire Group
“At the end of the day, I did not want Brexit – the world is getting smaller and we have seen positive impacts from migration. Going out is a step backwards – we are better off inside the EU. As a business, we are still carrying out the same activity with an increased focus on the creative side. We have unfortunately seen some of our EU migrant workers leave us to go back home and I am concerned about paper supply. I believe we have to stick to it now, but we need a strong, pro-Brexit leader to guide us out properly.”
Ian Simkins, executive director, Infinity Group
“At the time, I was expecting us to go through a transitional period and be positive about it. However, people voted for a number of different reasons such as immigration or the NHS and the government cannot make everybody happy. They have certainly done business no favours. I have spoken to my suppliers to prepare for a hard Brexit. Our busy periods are busier than before, and the quiet ones are quieter – the pendulum is swinging more dramatically. Printers need to be positive and strong or get left by the wayside.”