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Signatories ranging from the head of the world’s biggest mining group to the skipper of a single east coast trawler have put their names to an open letter which shows the breadth of business opposition to Scottish independence.
The organiser of the letter – Keith Cochrane, chief executive of Weir Group, one of Scotland’s biggest manufacturers, said more than 130 business leaders had signed. Their opposition to independence in next month’s referendum represented “the vast bulk of the business community in Scotland”.
Pro-independence campaigners responded with a rival business letter, which was to be published early on Thursday with 150 signatories. The Yes campaign says more than 2,500 business people have joined their Business for Scotland group.
But concerns about the risks of leaving the UK tend to outweigh enthusiasm about independence, particularly for bigger companies in Scotland.
“Uncertainty is bad for investment and bad for business . . . and it feels like independence will add to costs,” said Angus Cockburn, interim chief executive at Scottish-based global generator supplier Aggreko.
Many executives are reluctant to take a public stance on an issue that divides staff, customers and investors. Some companies have said independence will make no difference. But high levels of disquiet have been voiced by Scotland’s large finance industry, which would be the most affected by uncertainty about which currency and regulator an independent Scotland would use.
In the fund management sector, backing a Yes vote is “almost considered treason”, one pro-independence fund manager told the Financial Times recently.
Standard Life, the Edinburgh-based insurer, has said it could move some operations south of the border after a Yes vote. Royal Bank of Scotland, Tesco Bank and other lenders have highlighted risks that could stem from leaving the UK.
There is widespread scepticism in the oil sector, with only 13 per cent of industry participants at one campaign debate this year backing independence. Shell chief executive Ben van Beurden has said the energy group needs political stability in the UK to underpin its investment decisions.
Not everyone is so downbeat. Jim Ratcliffe, chairman of petrochemical group Ineos said Scotland could prosper in, or out of, the UK.
Opposition is strong in the Scottish legal establishment, despite the likely volume of work that would be generated by the hugely complex task of untangling Scotland from the UK.
Leaders of smaller, more locally focused companies, or those in sectors that enjoy strong support from the Scottish government, such as renewable energy, are often more positive about independence. They argue that Edinburgh would be more responsive to Scottish business and better able to tune policy to local needs.
Tony Banks, founder of the Balhousie Care Group and chairman of Business for Scotland, says childcare policies promised by the Scottish National party after independence would a boon for a care home sector heavily reliant on female staff.
SNP pledges to scrap air passenger duty have cheered airlines, with Ryanair and Willie Walsh, chief executive of the International Airlines Group, which owns British Airways, saying independence could be good for business.
Scotland's whisky sector has generally been coy on independence but Wednesday’s pro-union letter was signed by a clutch of senior figures from the sector including Ian Curle, chief executive of Edrington, maker of The Macallan, and Peter Gordon, director at William Grant.
Gavin Hewitt, a former chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association who helped organise the letter, said many distillers were worried about disruption to Scotland’s membership of the EU, a more complex regulatory environment and a lack of diplomatic clout in ensuring international market access.
However, Neil Clapperton, managing director at Springbank Distillers, Scotland’s oldest privately owned distillery, dismissed such concerns, arguing that independence would be a huge boost to Scotland’s brand.
With the referendum looming and the No camp’s big lead narrowing slightly, more business people may venture into the debate. Mr Hewitt said some supporters of the union with the UK were deterred by the prospect of criticism from nationalist internet users and of reprisals from the SNP administration.
“They worry about planning applications, grant approvals and export support,” Mr Hewitt said. “The SNP government remembers its enemies.”
Edinburgh and SNP leaders have dismissed suggestions that pro-union business people have been silenced.
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