By Paul Sheerin

If a week is a long time in politics, then last week felt like a fortnight, with more drama and disagreement packed in than is frankly decent. As ever Brexit remains the gift that keeps on giving, when we started the week with an admission that the newly revealed Internal Market Bill will break international law, but only in a “specific and limited way” in case you were worried. Add to that the resignation of the permanent secretary to the Government Legal Department in protest, the resignation of the UK Government’s law officer for Scotland (his resignation letter a masterclass in politely worded derision), and the UK’s five living ex-prime ministers setting aside their usual mutual dislike to join together in their condemnation of the destruction of the UK’s stature of trust internationally. And that was just the big stuff.

As someone whose working purpose is to represent the best interests of Scotland’s engineering manufacturing sector, thankfully the wider implications of this move in areas such as the Good Friday Agreement and the UK’s devolved administrations I can leave for others to chew over. However the further erosion of trust and goodwill with the UK’s largest trading partner – 43% of exports in 2019 – resulting from this bill is something I am happy to wade in on, as I am yet to find anyone in my industry willing to defend an action that tears up a legally binding agreement signed and celebrated by the same Government just months before.

There are those who will say that this is just a hard-edged, yet masterful example of this UK Government’s ability to play hardball in the negotiating arena, perhaps bringing risk but also the potential for reward. To that my first thought is that of all the negotiations I have taken part in, or read about in leadership books and articles, I don’t believe that breaking the law, and especially through reneging on a previously signed agreement was ever used as a negotiating ploy, and for good reason. My second thought is that an action risking the economic recovery of our currently beleaguered manufacturing sector (and wider economy for that matter) should never be an acceptable risk decided by the toss of a coin, where the outcomes are people’s livelihoods.

Even in the event that such strategy delivers an agreement, we should consider at what cost if it’s achieved through the use of a such a threat. Who would want to do business with a UK that behaves in such a way? Inwardly invested businesses (owned outside of the UK) in Scotland represent a very small proportion of our companies and a much larger proportion of our employment and gross value-added. Some are headquartered in Europe and some will have choices where to base their high-value operations providing quality skilled employment.

I started by mentioning some of the larger headlines from last week, and I’d like to add one that was probably much further down the page. The UK freight industry body Logistics UK reported that the UK Government had confirmed that the SMART Freight system crucial to maintaining the flow of goods across the UK’s borders will be launched in beta version in mid-December with a fully tested and stable version expected by April 2021, at least three months after the end of the transition period on December 31. It is yet another example of risk to critical supply chains arising from Brexit. Viewed individually it is a plausible argument that there is an even chance that the beta version will work adequately from day one. But when we view the multitude of risks associated with Brexit, it’s just not reasonable to say they will all land “jelly side up”.

What to do then? Well, if the UK was a business, and its managing director was engaging with their mentor on the predicament and possible solutions, I could imagine two pieces of advice. The first could be that if the bubble of the senior team you listen to is telling you that your decision and course of action are excellent, while the five people who previously sat in your seat are a chorus of agreement of dissent, it is time to stop and think. The second would be to hold your hands up, admit your mistake and begin to make amends before the damage becomes irreversible.

Paul Sheerin is chief executive of Scottish Engineering