It was concerns about future employment prospects, together with an abhorrence of the growing xenophobia, that made me return to political activism in support of Remain. Subsequent researches on the impact of Brexit on local employment have drawn my attention to the gravity of the local problem.
Generally North Norfolk can be described as an area of low unemployment, with below average wages and productivity, and a higher than average number of smaller, or micro, businesses. I was therefore pleased to take up an invitation to attend a ‘Brexit: Opportunities & Challenges for Small Businesses’ organised by the East Anglia branch of the FSB (Federation of Small Businesses). The event, which was held in Norwich, took the form of a panel discussion; it was well-organised and well-attended.
It was also thoroughly depressing. Small businesses face an uncertain future and, half way through the negotiation process, we are no clearer on the shape of any trade deal.
There were some impressive performances by knowledgeable panelists at the FSB event. Professor Hussein Kassim of the University of East Anglia argued that large companies can take care of themselves but small business are vulnerable. The former are always able to ‘up sticks and go elsewhere’. The Norfolk Chair of the National Farmers Union, Tony Bambridge, tellingly stated that ‘at present I can put my potatoes on a lorry to Spain as easily as I can put them on a lorry to (nearby) Shipdham’. The FSB’s national Policy Director, Martin McTague pointed out that ‘negotiating trade deals is a minority sport’. For most small businesses the challenge was meeting the needs of the immediate customer base. Moreover his evidence suggested, that, given the current uncertainty, many of them were avoiding borrowing and putting any expansion plans on hold. He also pointed out that 20% of small businesses currently employ EU labour.
Another panelist was the Norwich North Tory MP, Chloe Smith. After a shaky start to her Parliamentary career (she was famously mauled and accused of incompetence in a television interview by Jeremy Paxman) she is now an assured and polished performer. She has clearly positioned herself as a loyal and unquestioning supporter of Prime Minister Theresa May and set out to defend the indefensible. Her line was that the Government was ‘doing things in sequence’ and small business must continue to apply common sense when coping with uncertainty. She made a half-hearted attempt to suggest that the extended transition period agreed on 19th March represented some form of clarification and even went on to imply that a solution was in sight on the Irish border.
Although the meeting was polite in tone, and concentrated on preparation for, rather, than the politics of Brexit, Chloe Smith was given a rough time by some sections of the audience. There is little prospect of new international deals replacing any loss of existing EU customers and, for many of our local small businesses, this is a serious immediate concern. Given the tone I left feeling that we could win the political battle in a fresh referendum. Unfortunately, on the drive home, my car radio informed me that Jeremy Corbyn had just sacked Owen Smith from the Shadow Cabinet for suggesting just that.
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