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  • Ian Ritchie : Scottish Business Insider

Simplistic columns mislead on Brexit

WHEN WE last voted on our constitutional future here in Scotland, the SNP government provided a 648- page white paper describing in huge detail what an independent Scotland might look like. We can’t say we weren’t properly informed.

This time round the only written manifesto was a lie on the side of a bus.

The implications of a Brexit decision were defined at a ‘back of a fag packet’ level of detail mostly by a pair of politicians, Boris Johnston and Michael Gove, both of whom have made a living out of writing newspaper columns.

A short column invariably takes a simplistic point of view and assembles a case to defend that position, often ignoring any awkward evidence to the contrary. Its pretty straightforward debating tactics but it worked, and it ended up winning the day with the voting public.

So we are now faced with trying to work out exactly what the Brexit vote means for the Scottish technology scene and its place in Europe?

It must be said that Europe has never managed to create the attractive technology innovation climate that it has always desired. Today’s global technology superstars, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple all hail from the west coast of the USA and even when European companies have shown breakthrough success, like a Skype or a Deep Mind, they promptly get bought by a US multinational.

European policy to encourage innovation has tended to support consortia of companies as long as they consist of participants from different member states. Unfortunately this is not a formula that actually encourages risk-taking and ambition and the kind of climate that encourages enterprise. It is hard to find any successful European start-up companies that have arisen from this process.

Looking specifically at the Brexit vote, the tech community seem to take exactly the opposite side from the majority of the public who voted in the referendum – they don’t worry too much about access to a ‘single market’ but they are very worried about constraints on movement of labour.

In terms of access to the ‘single market’, this is not really of much relevance to the technology sector. There have never been tariffs in software and services. The most significant market is the USA, not Europe, and when sourcing development talent they outsource work to Bangalore just as easily as to Poland.

However, restrictions on ‘freedom of movement’ could be a real issue. A large proportion of our talented scientists and engineers, and a disproportionate share of our entrepreneurs, hail from outside the UK. Anything that interferes with the ability of talented young people to study in the UK, or that constrains high quality international researchers from working in our elite universities, could severely damage our ability to invent and develop new innovative technologies.

One of the start-up companies that I chair was founded by, and is led by, a citizen of another EU nation. If there were to be restrictions on such individuals staying on after their studies to start businesses here in the UK it could have a devastating effect on our ambitious technology sector.

However, the details under which we will have to operate will have to wait until the newly appointed Brexit team of ministers agree on what positions to take, and then negotiate as good a deal as possible from a surly and embittered EU.

What will we end up with? Your guess is as good as mine. And it’s a great deal more complicated than a newspaper column. ■

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