The last time The Bookseller took a measure of the trade’s attitudes to the European Referendum (12th February), the business was firmly in the “remain” camp (71%), and the possiblity of Brexit (the term given to an exit from the EU) seemed a distant possibility. We couldn’t find a single trade voice to advocate for “leave”; in truth, it was difficult to fathom what, if any, the impact would be on publishing either way. On the eve of the vote things have changed: the trade is, if anything, more strongly in the remain camp (78%), while the publishing arguments for and against have solidified. The country, though, if the polls are to believed, has moved the other way. Brexit is not just now a possibility: it is likely. A clear and present interruption.
The bad news is that there is still as much uncertainty about what a vote to leave could mean for the country as there was back in February. The worse news is that the expected short economic shock is likely to be compounded by the two-year negotiation before the UK actually exits. Pan Macmillan m.d. Anthony Forbes Watson has warned of “long, drawn-out and toxic negotiations” that, in my view, will suck huge amounts of oxygen from more important political and economic projects, such as, for example, the recovery.
For the trade, the dangers have become more obvious. Consumer spend could fall (particularly on discretionary items such as books), the pound could continue to drop (good for exports, perhaps, but a disaster for those buying in paper, skills and print-runs from abroad), and those UK businesses that rely on flexible and unskilled labour could find it tough to meet seasonal demand. UK publishing’s sway over European rights would likely be weakened once the arguments over the open market are effaced, creating huge opportunities for the US giants to annex Europe. Furthermore, the EU’s reforms on copyright, e-commerce, VAT, and its investigation into Amazon, would simply pass us by. If there’s an upside to all this, I’m failing to see it.
Dismissing Brexit supporters is the wrong option. The book business is broadly middle-class, metropolitan and outward-looking. There are moments when you realise how out-of-step we have become with the society around us, and this may be one of them. Being diverse cuts both ways: if the nation votes to leave, then we need to redouble our efforts to build a country where everyone is a stakeholder and where the joy of reading is part of everyone’s day-to-day.
We also need to better demonstrate in our publishing the benefits of immigration, of reading diversely and of being open to different views. In a way, despite what may happen this week, the solution is to become more European but this time take the citizenry with us.
See what senior book trade figures think about the EU referendum here.