Experimental feature

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00
Experimental feature
or

Business leaders have managed for two long years to avoid becoming involved in the fractious issue of Scottish independence. But this week they reluctantly entered the fray after the penny dropped that the Yes campaign could win the day.

A string of chief executives from across a range of sectors have in the past 72 hours spoken out on independence, encouraged by Downing Street and the Treasury.

BP, John Lewis, B&Q owner Kingfisher, Asda, Next, Lloyds TSB, RBS, Standard Life and the Weir Group have all issued statements outlining to the Scots what the fallout will be should they choose independence next week. Banking headquarters will move, clothing and food prices could rise.

It is a huge turn of events for a business community that had been concerned about speaking on such an emotionally charged issue.

“Every PR and public affairs director is telling chief executives not to do it, but this is important, this is a personal leadership question,” said one chief executive who warned on the risks of independence this week. “To not speak out is an abrogation of responsibility.”

Another senior executive who has also aired his views on next week’s referendum said he has resisted until now because of the “aggression of the Yes campaign”. He decided this week that the Scots needed a better understanding of the risks that come with a Yes vote.

“These issues have not been given a proper airing,” he said. “I don’t want to pick a fight with the Scottish government, I don’t want to mess up our relationship with important people in Scotland but I have spoken out because I decided it was more irresponsible not to say something on it.”

The prime minister this week personally implored leading chief executives to speak out over Scotland as part of a co-ordinated effort on the part of Downing Street, the Treasury and the Better Together campaign to halt the surging Yes campaign.

The prime minister – together with Alistair Darling, George Osborne and Danny Alexander – has been telephoning senior business figures across a number of sectors in recent days in a “man marking” exercise orchestrated by Downing Street. He also issued a “call to arms” to save the union at a Downing Street reception and dinner in Monday attended by business figures.

The push has been masterminded by Andrew Dunlop, a special adviser at Number 10, who has been liaising for 18 months with business leaders and others to organise a high-profile campaign in favour of the union.

Sir Ian Cheshire, chief executive of Kingfisher and chair of the British Retail Consortium, said fellow executives had been caught off-guard by the late surge in the Yes campaign.

“I started talking about this in May because I didn’t want to leave it to the last week of campaigning. The reality is that people assumed it was a done deal, that the No campaign would win. But I always said it would be too close to call. There is a realisation that a safe issue is no longer safe.”

But as Charlie Mayfield of John Lewis, Lord Wolfson of Next and Andy Clarke of Asda took to the airwaves to warn consumers of possible higher prices in an independent Scotland on Thursday, other business figures remain unwilling to be bounced into commenting publicly. The prime minister’s personal pleas to Tesco and J Sainsbury are thought to have been rebuffed, according to one person familiar with the operation.

“Tesco and Sainsbury are refusing to come out, despite phone calls from the PM,” said one senior business figure familiar with the process. “Frankly they ought to be embarrassed.”

In response, Tesco said it did not comment on conversations with government and said it was “neutral on the referendum”, while Sainsbury said “we’ve made our position clear and we don’t have anything else to add”.

Meanwhile, all the big mobile operators are refusing to risk antagonising their customers by taking a clear stance.

“Number 10 has been ringing around and wanted the industry to present the bigger picture around cost and uncertainty if there was a split,” said one person close to the situation.

Telecoms executives said they were also still unsure about the impact of devolution given uncertainty on the national rules over spectrum ownership. Many agree there is a risk that prices could rise should they be needed to reach remote areas of Scotland.

Additional reporting by Martin Arnold

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.