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Business has finally entered the Scottish independence debate, kicked off the fence by narrowing opinion polls and panicked investors. Better late than never.
Scotland’s largest banks are reassuring their customers that – whatever the outcome – they will stay British, backed by the Bank of England, and if that means changing domicile, so be it. Supermarkets have warned of rising prices. A growing chorus of bosses is now urging the Scots to vote No. The future of Scottish business has become a battleground of the campaign.
What took them so long? Many companies clearly felt it politic to keep quiet, whether to avoid annoying customers and employees with strong views, or to dodge the rough edge of the nationalist leader Alex Salmond’s tongue. The clenched fist rhetoric of Jim Sillars’s “day of reckoning” speech – in which he threatened to renationalise BP – speaks to a virulent anti-business strand within the Yes camp.
Shocked into finding their voices, businesses have started explaining the cost of Mr Salmond’s dream. They should be still more explicit: pricier postage stamps, kettles or baked beans are not abstractions: they hurt.
The Yes campaign is riddled with economic uncertainties. No one knows what currency arrangements an independent state would adopt or whether it would be part of the EU.
The negotiations to decide the future of important Scottish business sectors, such as renewable energy and oil, will be complicated and acrimonious. No energy provider will invest more in Scotland without knowing whether UK consumers still want to buy their expensive power. The oil sector needs to know the future fiscal regime before drilling more in the North Sea. The Yes side’s contention that all will be well is based on blind assertion.
Now they have entered the fray, business chiefs need to hammer home the consequences of unravelling a British single market woven over three centuries – one whose importance to Scotland far exceeds any other. Some 70 per cent of Scotland’s external trade is with the rest of the UK – many times what it sends to the rest of the EU.
A new border will affect those who never stray over it. Take Royal Mail. Scotland is covered by the universal service provision that obliges the postal service to make deliveries at the same cost across the UK. With independence, this will go: meaning increased costs for businesses that use the post and a sting in the wallet for anyone mailing birthday cards to relatives down south.
At present many British retailers absorb the higher costs of doing business in Scotland to offer standardised prices. Sir Charlie Mayfield, chairman of John Lewis, warned last week that this will end with independence. He is not alone: Asda and Marks and Spencer say the same. Groceries cost 4 per cent more in Ireland than they do in the UK.
To be blunt, most big Scottish companies have more customers in the UK than in Scotland. Take Standard Life, 90 per cent of whose British clients are south of the border. To keep them happy, the Edinburgh-based insurer has said it will redomicile in the event of independence. While the implications of this for jobs remain unclear, in the long run it is likely to mean more operations relocating to the UK.
Mr Salmond claims independence will unleash the energy and self-confidence of entrepreneurs. Maybe so: but their first task will be to deal with the self-inflicted damage caused by replacing a highly-integrated single market with a looser relationship with Scotland’s biggest trading partner. On this point it is the Yes camp – rather than business – that chooses to remain silent.