IT would be entirely justifiable for the Scotch whisky industry to be feeling the UK Government should be doing more to protect its interests at this moment in time.

Scotch whisky is one of Britain’s biggest exporters, generating overseas sales worth £4.9 billion in 2019, and the industry and wider supply chain support more than 40,000 jobs across the UK. Its importance is notable for rural areas around Scotland, where it provides employment for about 7,000 people. However, with the continuing US tariffs costing the industry millions of pounds in lost exports every month, and as the UK seemingly hurtles towards a chaotic no-deal Brexit, it is hard to escape the impression Boris Johnson’s Government is not doing enough to insulate this vital sector. Particularly at a time when the coronavirus pandemic continues to weigh on sales. The damage caused by Washington’s 25 per cent import tariff on single malt, a consequence of a long-running trade dispute with the European Union (EU), is well known. The Scotch Whisky Association calculates the tariffs have led to a 30% fall in exports to its most lucrative market since they were introduced in October, with the tally in lost exports now standing at £330m.

Distillers say the tax means their product less price-competitive versus other spirits, and is making life difficult for up-and-coming Scotch whisky producers, which are so important for driving diversity and innovation in the category.

It is little wonder that the SWA is warning that jobs will ultimately be at risk if the current direction of travel is maintained.

The UK Government may point out that the tariffs are the consequences of a US-EU trade dispute, separate to its attempts to secure a free trade deal with Washington.

However, with the UK having technically left the EU in January, (it will continue to have access to the single market until the transition period ends on December 31), the SWA says the Government has the opportunity “to settle the UK share of the Airbus/Boeing and steel and aluminium disputes directly with the US and get tariffs removed on Scotch”.

Unfortunately, the UK has made no progress on this front, and that is despite tough rhetoric from Secretary of State for International Trade Liz Truss prior to her meeting her counterparts in Washington last month. Indeed, far from showing itself open to removing the damaging tariffs, the US kept them in place. Moreover, with campaigning for the November US presidential election now in full swing, it will, realistically, be well into 2021 before there is any movement on the issue.

Now, compounding distillers’ woes is the growing risk of a no-deal Brexit. While the SWA retains hope that the UK can agree a deal with the EU that “allows for zero tariffs on all goods, protects UK and EU geographical indications and puts in place governance structures to limit any new barriers to trade from forming”, Brexit has already come at a significant cost.

Massive amounts of money were invested to stockpile goods ahead of the UK’s original, slated departure date of March 29, 2019, in a bid to deal with potential congestion at borders, and to this day companies are working on establishing new distribution arrangements.

But despite such investment, the haulage industry is concerned preparations are still woefully inadequate. The Road Haulage Association warned this month that the UK was “sleepwalking into disaster”. It is one of eight logistics groups that have written to Michael Gove, Minister for the Cabinet Office, calling for urgent talks amid fears supply chains will be severely disrupted. Such concerns are not news to Ewen Mackintosh of whisky company Gordon & MacPhail, who told The Herald “there are going to be challenges around shipment of goods”.

The SWA shares those concerns, and told The Herald yesterday: “The industry has dedicated a good deal of time preparing for Brexit, for example on the changes that will be necessary to Scotch whisky labels, and we have outstanding requests for information from the UK Government about the changes that will take effect at the border from January 1st 2021, including how the Government’s new IT systems will work to ensure imports and exports flow without disruption.”

The UK Government has had years to prepare for Brexit. It would be a serious dereliction of duty if the ideological drive to leave the EU compromises one of the UK’s most important sectors.