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Q and A with John Giles: New UK exit referendum talk in Scotland

Mira Slott

Editor’s note: Prior to the London Produce Show and Conference in March 2022, Special Projects Editor, Mira Slott, spoke with John Giles, divisional director for Promar International, the value chain consulting arm of Genus plc. In his session at the London show, Giles addressed a plethora of topics from a UK perspective, including labor issues, new trade deals, the product industry post-Brexit and post-COVID, among other interests. Here, we share a little of their conversation about Scotland, specifically, which is re-evaluating its relationship with the rest of the UK, particularly in the wake of Brexit.

Q: How is it working with Brexit and Scotland? Is it still a concern about Scotland wanting to break away, do its own thing and stay with the European Union?

Giles: Yes, they’d love to. What Brexit has done in the UK has formed the basis for a debate about the whole future of the United Kingdom. There is a considerable number of people in Scotland who believe breaking away from the rest of the UK is what they should do. To be fair, I think in Wales it’s less of a consideration, and in Northern Ireland, of course, it’s historical. Northern Ireland’s relationship with the rest of the UK and Southern Ireland is probably a concern. The Republic of Ireland just celebrated the 100th anniversary of its creation, but that issue goes back 300 years. It is provoking conversations about the future makeup of the United Kingdom, and certainly in Scotland and Ireland, and their relationship with the rest of the UK.

Q: How likely is it that Scotland would break away, and what are the ramifications? Would there be a domino effect of other countries to follow suit? Is this top of mind now, or something lingering as a concern down the road?

Giles: I think Scotland is pretty top of mind, following COVID, obviously, if you’re talking about the wider economy. COVID-19 has been a uniting factor across the United Kingdom. We’ve been thinking a lot about how to manage the COVID situation, but also it’s shown that in Scotland, England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, we’ve all chosen — the governments have chosen — to deal with it in slightly different ways. So it’s also exposed some of the differences between us.

Q: What is your analysis of how it’s been handled differently? Has there been any assessment, or was one way more effective in reducing COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths?

Giles: Yes, that’s a really good question. Probably, it will show that nobody got it completely right, and nobody got it completely wrong. Particularly in terms of imposition of regulations, and then relaxing the regulations, about how many people you could see, where you could go, did you need to take a lateral flow test, did you need to get jabbed, were restaurants and pubs open, were other forms of public entertainment open, could you go and watch sports matches, could you go to the theater or the cinema. It was just varied, all four countries did it in a slightly different way. In England, they would sort of release various restrictions, and then Scotland wouldn’t release those restrictions for another month. And people would say, ‘well, who’s got this right?’ In Scotland or Wales or Northern Ireland, they were much more cautious.

Brexit triggered a debate about the whole future of the United Kingdom.

Q: What’s John Giles’ personal opinion on a referendum? I’m interested to know…

Giles: It’s complicated. I think the pandemic has exacerbated some of the tensions that exist between the UK government that’s based in London and that’s Boris Johnson, and the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Where this all leads, who knows? But it’s clear that in Scotland they will push for another referendum. The view, so far, has been that we’re going through this period of great change. Brexit is not the right time for this fundamental question to be asked, but they will push for the referendum — whether it happens in two years’ time or five years’ time, or in 10 years’ time — they’ll keep pushing for it.

If you keep pushing for a referendum and keep getting a referendum, at some point, you really need the vote to go the wrong or the right way once. So, if Scotland did vote for independence, or a difference in relationship with the rest of the UK, they’d only do it once, and that’s it. It’d be a long time to change it back.

Q: Well, what is the impact of that?

Giles: It could give encouragement to other parts of the UK that also don’t really identify with the London government. So people in Cornwall, in the west of the country, they sometimes talk about a Cornish Parliament. The government has a policy of looking to devolve powers of the regions. So people in Yorkshire sometimes say, ‘well, look we’re a big enough economy in our own right, we want our own parliament, if Wales got one, and Scotland got one, we’ll have one.’

Q: So, it could end up being like a wave or domino effect?

Giles: Yes, and you go to a system that is probably more like the German system of a regional devolved government. Look at you guys in America, where the individual state, California — if it was a country — would be the biggest, most powerful country in the world.

If you go down that route, it could spark off, how should I describe it — a stronger sense of real identity and governance than we’ve ever seen before, where, historically, it’s been accepted the power resides in London. And you might look at what they’re doing in Scotland and Wales and Ireland, where they’ve already got their own devolved government, and compare with other parts of the country. I don’t think that’s a massive swing, but, yes, over a period of time, that could simply gain momentum.

John Giles is a divisional director with Promar International, the value chain consulting arm of Genus plc. He has worked in the fresh produce sector in some 60 markets around the world including Europe, the U.S., Latin America, the Middle East, Russia, China, India and SE Asia.



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