The people of Scotland will shortly decide the fate of the UK. The implications are far bigger than the immediate issue of how a newly independent Scotland may choose to run its economy. Much of the UK’s and Scotland’s prosperity is founded on financial services, an industry that is the country’s biggest taxpayer, its largest export earner and one that attracts more foreign direct investment than any other sector. Edinburgh is the nation’s second City for finance. The spine that joins London to Edinburgh supports 2m jobs across the country.
The closeness of recent opinion polls has led to statements about the precautions companies must now put in place in case Scots vote Yes to independence. This is prudent, and the 177,000 people in Scotland who work in the financial and related professional services sector also need to know what is at stake. These jobs are in banking, insurance and asset management, as well as in the supporting services of accountancy, consultancy and the law. Banking employs more than 40,000 people in Scotland, and related professions employ more than 80,000.
A Yes vote would reverberate across the rest of the UK and raise questions about its attractiveness to inward investors. Financial services attracts more foreign direct investment than any other sector. Since 2007 foreign groups have invested about £100bn in UK financial companies. Investors are drawn here because of our competitive advantages: timezone, language, rule of law, openness to migration and a business culture that welcomes international ownership. Beyond these factors businesses want ready access to talented people and the ability to expand their operations as business prospers. Scotland’s expertise in financial services has always been a boon to UK-wide inward investment. Companies that once moved jobs offshore are being enticed back. Major international banks, as well as younger and smaller players, can base themselves in London but take advantage of the quality of people and operating costs that Scotland has offered by operating within the same country with no thought needed for issues of tax, regulation and currency.
Competition for foreign direct investment is fierce. Across the world governments want to create new international financial centres. They emulate London because of the economic benefits it brings and the high-value jobs it captures. A break-up would naturally weaken the UK and strengthen our competitors. Much of our appeal comes because we operate in a single market, not just in the UK but across Europe. All our energies should be devoted to reinforcing and strengthening this single market – not in disrupting it.
The financial industry helps the UK pay its way in the world. Last year the sector ran an impressive £55bn trade surplus, more than all other exporting sectors combined. It is the combination of companies from across the UK, working together, competing, striving to enter new markets and serve their customers across Europe and around the world that delivers this result. Perhaps it can be replicated when the cities of Scotland and England belong to different states, but it will take much time and effort to regain what will immediately be lost, and the resulting productivity dip is obvious but uncosted. PwC has estimated that financial services could add £62bn to annual economic output by 2020, with Scotland benefiting most, if trading conditions remain calmer.
The referendum is a matter for the Scottish people but it will impact on everyone, wherever they live in these islands. It will exert influence on any vote on the UK’s membership of the EU, and it will bear on the global competitiveness and attractiveness of the UK. Individual companies will do what they can to ensure that change will not disadvantage its customers. But the nation’s prospects need equal care and attention.
The writer is chief executive of TheCityUK, which represents the UK financial industry