Scotland & the EU

Survey: Scottish business loses trust in UK Government’s Brexit negotiations

Written by Michelle Rodger

Business for Scotland has surveyed 758 business owners and directors across Scotland to map out the business community’s opinion on the ongoing the Brexit negotiations. This, our latest EU research report highlights numerous concerns, particularly from those employing EU nationals and those who either import from or export directly to the EU.

The Survey Results

Summary: Only 8% of Scottish business owners trust the UK Government to secure the best Brexit deal for Scotland, and 79% want to see a second EU referendum after the terms for leaving the EU are clear.

Of those surveyed:

  • 90% did not trust the UK Government to secure the best deal for Scotland
  • 44.57% of all respondents had direct commercial dealings with either customers or suppliers within the EU
  • 84.37% voted Remain and 87.52% would vote Remain in second referendum
  • 11.26% voted Leave and 11.55% would vote leave in a second referendum – this shows that attitudes are hardening, but that the vast majority of past non-voters would now vote remain
  • 78.73% believe there should be a second EU referendum after Brexit terms are clear
  • 88.77% did not trust the UK Government to secure the best deal for the UK
  • Whilst 45.77% believe the UK Government will fail to secure a deal of any kind only 19.18% thought the UK would be able to secure a trade deal at all

Additionally, the respondents were asked if they believed negotiations would be more productive with direct involvement and representation of the devolved administrations – 77.98% said yes.

Introduction: The combined number of employees of the firms the respondents represent was 199,000.  EU nationals employed by the respondents were approximately 11,000; 41% of all respondents had at least one non-UK born EU national on their staff and 100% of companies employing more than 50 employees stated they had at least one non-UK born EU member of staff.

BfS CEO Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp commented: “We intend to repeat this survey periodically to keep track of business perceptions on Brexit negotiations as they progress but even we were surprised just how strong the feelings were on key issues such as a second referendum and how strong business support in Scotland was for remaining in the EU.

“It’s clear that there is an overwhelming lack of trust in the UK Government’s ability to secure a good deal, either for Scotland or the UK as a whole; a whopping 90% see a Brexit with no trade deal and WTO tariffs as having a negative impact on Scotland’s economic prospects.”

Economic Impact of Brexit Scenarios

Respondents were asked “To what extent do you believe the following outcomes of the Brexit negotiations would have either a positive or negative impact on Scotland’s economic prospects?” Their answers were ranked on a scale ranging from ‘extremely negative’ to ‘extremely positive’.

90.19% thought a hard Brexit with no trade deal (WTO option) would have a negative impact on the Scottish economy.  With 68.28% selecting ‘extremely negative’, 15.26% ‘very negative’ and 6.65% just ‘negative’.  Interestingly, only 43% of those who would vote Leave in a second referendum thought a hard Brexit would be positive in any way, suggesting that a majority of Leave supporting business people at least prefer some form of softer Brexit, painting some level of access beyond WTO trading rules.


86% of respondents thought that Brexit with a preferential trade deal (Canada option) would be negative with 25% ‘extremely negative’, 42% ‘very negative’ and 18.88% just ‘negative’. Again, only 7.97% thought this type of Brexit would be economically advantageous in any way.


Opinion started to become less polarised when the option of a Brexit with an EFTA style deal to access the single market (Norway Option) was considered. Although the spread of answers was more equal, only 33.52% thought this would have a positive impact when compared to the other Brexit options. 43% still thought this would have a negative impact but 23.13% were neutral. It’s worth noting that some of the pro-Brexit respondents who thought the WTO option was positive started to rate that the softer Brexit options as bad for the economy, but their numbers were so small as to be statistically insignificant.  


76.81% stated that calling a halt to Brexit would be positive for the economy, and within that 41.37% ‘extremely positive’.  However, 14.56% thought stopping Brexit would be negative for the economy and this included some Remain voting respondents whose comments can be summarised as;  it cannot be stopped now, as that would cause political uncertainty which would now be more damaging than a soft Brexit option.


Respondents’ comments

Common descriptors included “unplanned”, “shambles”, “shambolic” and “disgust”, but a number of respondents detailed why they were so concerned.

A director of FTSE 100 company commented: “When the virtually inevitable car crash happens the Scottish end of the business will most probably be moved to Europe which is a crying shame as the expertise at home is unsurpassed in our market segment. However with no likelihood of stability it will be a logical step to move.”

A director of an NYSE listed company with a base in Scotland said: “Stop now and ask the people, do they want to continue with this process, knowing what they know now?”

A director of a UK bank simply said: “Absolute bloody shambles.”

A senior manger of a global organisation with 800 employees in Scotland and 80,000 world wide said: “Appalling incompetence and condescending to the devolved administrations.”

The owner of a major hotel and leisure group said: “We need to retain our current EU labour base and allow additional EU nationals to join us.”

The director of one of Scotland’s largest waste and recycling companies said: “I think the negotiations are being handled terribly by the UK Government. They treat the EU negotiating team with disdain it would appear and don’t seem to understand all of the potential impacts of a failed negotiation.”

A director of a leading automotive supplier said: “Absolute shambles with no idea what they are trying to achieve or why/how.”

Access to both skilled and migrant workers is a major issue raised by others in the comments section:

  • “Coming from a farming background, I have several friends who have diversified to soft fruit growth who are now looking at possible bankruptcy if they cannot secure a migrant workforce in years to come”
  • “Very concerned about lack of skilled/semi skilled people to help my business peak season and the negative effect Brexit will have in tourists’ perceptions of holidays in UK.”
  • “My business is a cleaning agency, and many of the 25 self-employed cleaners who use us to find clients are EU nationals. It’s already getting harder to find good, reliable cleaners. I have no doubt that this is related to Brexit. I seriously doubt the government’s “sector by sector” approach to dealing with labour from outside the UK will be done in a way that helps us.”
  • “There is so much uncertainty it is impossible to plan how we should mitigate the potential risks to our business – losing non UK, EU nationals, increased costs of business, need for European office presence, increased travel difficulty etc. We are a specialist technology company and the skills our workforce have cannot be replaced overnight.”

As is the loss of EU funding for innovation:

  • “We have won over 20 EU funded R&D projects and these jobs will be lost to our Ireland office unless the negotiations are successful.”
  • “I have two members of staff employed on projects part funded via EU grants and we are advertising for another researcher but I have no guarantee that those grants will be matched by the UK Government post Brexit, in fact I don’t believe the UK Government will be able to afford to match the EU grants ongoing”.

For others, the concerns are around increased costs of business:

  • “For my company customs import/export issues have become a very serious problem now, the UK Government and customs are in a terrible state and have no staff to help us now, so no one knows what is happening, this is a serious issue , we are having to hire a company to try and sort these issues out and it is costing us thousands of pounds.”
  • “My costs have already risen and I have been warned by suppliers that they are likely to rise even further as a result of Brexit and I am unable to pass on any increases to customers.”
  • “The cessation of free travel will have a very negative effect on construction with a high proportion of employees being from within the EU. We are also seeing increased cost on materials from Europe following the devalued pound, a situation which is largely expected to worsen as the pound devalues more upon completion of Brexit added to any tariffs we can expect after leaving the trading agreement.”

Opinion from Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp, CEO of Business for Scotland

“It’s clear from this survey that any kind of Brexit is bad for business and bad for Scotland.  The business community has been notably quiet on Brexit, but this survey has allowed it to find its voice; 90% do not trust the UK Government to secure the best deal for Scotland, whilst 89% don’t even trust the UK negotiating team to secure the best deal for the whole of the UK.

“No one knows what kind of Brexit we will end up with, or what level of access our businesses will have to the single market and that’s a problem for business. Last week’s contradictory and quite frankly impossible to implement so-called Brexit deal has just added to the confusion.  Business owners and directors are angry. Many commented that the referendum result was based on lies and they have labelled the Brexit process a shambles, and (excluding ‘don’t knows) 79% want a second EU referendum once the terms of the Brexit deal become clear.

“Scottish business is rejecting the UK Government’s shambolic Brexit plans and has made it very clear that Brexit is bad for business, bad for the economy, bad for jobs and could be disastrous for key sectors, so we need the opportunity to think again on Brexit once the arrangements are finalised, especially if they don’t include arrangements for Scottish business to have full membership of the Single Market and Customs Union.”

Notes on Methodology

Business for Scotland wanted to measure how business people in Scotland felt about the Brexit negotiations and what the implications would be for their businesses.

  • The survey was conducted by Business for Scotland via an internet poll between Monday, November 13 and Monday, December 11 2017.
  • Our poll received 758 responses from senior business people and the combined number of employees of the firms they represent was 199,000.
  • Invitations to participate were distributed to owners of businesses operating in Scotland that we identified as employing minimum of 10 full time staff but were also targeted towards directors and senior mangers of much larger companies.
  • The number of senior business people invited to participate was approximately 15,000.
  • The BfS subscriber membership mailing list of business people 4,000 was also invited to participate.
  • Thus the response rate was significantly high at around 4%.
  • The geographical spread of respondents was Scotland wide, representative of all regions and all key business sectors.
  • There were no significant variances on any of the questions between respondents who were subscriber members of BfS and those who were not.
  • There were no significant changes in the nature of responses on either voting intentions or confidence in the UK Government following any major/breaking news stories connected with Brexit negotiations during the collection of the survey data.
  • This survey will be repeated again in 2018 to monitor how business attitudes to Brexit are changing.



About the author

Michelle Rodger

Michelle is a former national newspaper journalist who co-founded an award-winning IT business before launching Tartan Cat Communications. A social media and crowdfunding expert she manages media and communications for Business for Scotland.


  • It would be interesting to know how many respondents are BfS subscribers like myself?
    What proportion of respondents voted leave and remain?
    If the highest proportion of respondents are BfS subscribers who voted to remain how likely is it that you have learned anything useful?

    • Brian we state in the methodology that there was no significant variance in voting intentions nor general opinion on Brexit between BfS subscribers and members and those that responded via the wider email group. BfS members not the majority of respondents and the single largest difference between the groups surveyed was that non BfS connected business were about 2% more likely to think the UK Government would do a good deal for Scotland and good deal for the UK. That is statistically irrelevant given the size of the gap that existed and also includes an attempt to game the survey by leave supporters when it was noticeable that 20 or so (many known to us) responded with identical answers in a mater of hours. If you survey the bosses of the top 100 companies in Scotland you would get different results but still a general mistrust in the UK government as they have different political motivations and risk parameters to the SME owners and entrepreneurs we a targeted. For clarity the final survey found 11.25% voted Leave – in identifiable BfS subscriber respondents 10.75% voted leave – so in general terms 11% either way.

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