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19 September 2014
Vested interests

Vested interests

For business, perhaps it boiled down to this: if your company has shareholders, you are inclined to indicate No; if it doesn’t, you are more likely to say Yes. There are exceptions, inevitably. But the fiduciary duty of the directors of traded companies requires that they display “judgment, skill, care and diligence”, hence the spate of cautions to investors over the implications of ending the Union. Equally, companies that have not (yet) floated have been more receptive to the aspirational nature of independence.

Businesses in the No camp have argued that economic ties inside the United Kingdom are close and support almost one million Scottish jobs. The rest of the UK is Scotland’s biggest market by far. “As job creators, we have looked carefully at the arguments made by both sides of the debate. Our conclusion is that the business case for independence has not been made,” wrote signatories to a letter to The Scotsman at the end of August.

Uncertainty surrounds a number of vital issues including currency, regulation, tax, pensions, EU membership and support for exports around the world; and, they said, “uncertainty is bad for business”. With Scotland’s economy growing, record levels of investment and a high employment rate, people should be proud that Scotland is a great place to build businesses and create jobs, “success that has been achieved as an integral part of the United Kingdom”.

The letter was signed by Audrey Baxter, executive chairman of Baxters Food group, Niall Booker, chief executive of the Co-operative Bank, Hamish Grossart, chairman of Artemis Investment Management and Iain Napier, chairman of John Menzies plc, among others. “The United Kingdom gives business the strong platform we must have to invest in industry. By all continuing to work together, we can keep Scotland flourishing,” they wrote.

A letter signed by business people in favour of independence says: “An independent Scotland will recognise entrepreneurs small and large as the real wealth and job creators of the nation’s economic future. It will encourage a culture in which innovation, endeavour and enterprise are nurtured. It will place power in the hands of Scotland’s people to channel the huge resources of our country in the interests of those who live and work here.”

It did have the distinction of one signatory backing independence as a mechanism for rebalancing the economy in England. “The London-centricity of Britain’s economy is unsustainable,” said Professor Nathu Puri, founder of Purico, a former Labour donor in the English Midlands. “We must reindustrialise the nations and regions outside of the south east of England. We must rebalance the British economy by sector and geography to ensure sustainable economic growth. Scottish independence will be a major step forward towards that goal in the interests of not just Scots but business and jobs in Wales, Northern Ireland, the Midlands and the north of England.”

Brad Mackay, Professor in Strategic Management at Edinburgh University, who has conducted extensive research on the views of the business community, said that both groups of companies represented by the two letters are important for a thriving economy. “Indeed, both groups of firms need each other for the Scottish economy to remain strong, grow, and create jobs and wealth.”

But Mackay added: “Our research has consistently shown that, depending on how the key uncertainties, highlighted in the first letter, are resolved following the referendum, up to 10 per cent of firms could scale back their business activity in Scotland, and shift it elsewhere.

“A very small proportion of firms in Scotland, around 100, account for an estimated 60 per cent of Scottish exports. They are the economic backbone of the Scottish economy and many of those firms are signatories of the first letter. For the aspirations outlined in the second letter to be realised – invigorating and supporting the entrepreneurial biodiversity and growth of the forested ecosystem – there also needs to be a canopy of large firms to help nurture it, whether through contracts, financing, research and development or supplying a pool of talent to draw from.

“The reality is, if some of those large firms scale back their activity in Scotland, or disappear, there will be a drop in private sector employment and turnover in Scotland, and the productivity, taxes and incomes they provide. The sheltering canopy could become much thinner. This would hurt the prospects of the companies represented by the signatories of the second letter in two ways.
“First, a drop in private sector output will put pressure on government finances, and this will lead to difficult choices over tax and spend. Government resources to support, for example, a reindustrialisation strategy, may become much scarcer.

“Second, the indirect support that large companies give to the overall economy would also become scarcer if they scale down business activity in Scotland. What is even more problematic is that, at present, there simply is not yet the stock of medium-sized companies to replace them.

“What the business landscape looks like following the referendum vote, whether for Yes or No, will be critical for the economic and material prospects of Scotland’s future, and the public services and quality of life that the Scottish economy will support.” 

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