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With nearly 5,000 staff at its handsome sandstone offices around Edinburgh, the very suggestion that Standard Life might leave is enough to send shivers through the Scottish capital where it was founded 189 years ago.
By warning it might move its operations elsewhere if Scotland votes to leave the UK on September 18, the financial services company instantly became the embodiment of the possible risks of independence to a city and nation for whom financial services have been an important driver of prosperity.
With polls suggesting that the referendum result will swing on economic issues, anti-independence campaigners seized on the warning to pile new pressure on the ruling Scottish National party. The SNP has struggled to shake off doubts about core economic policies such as the choice of post-independence currency.
“Independence will cost jobs,” said Alistair Darling, former UK chancellor and leader of the pro-union Better Together campaign. “Companies like Standard Life rely on the strength, security and stability of the UK.”
The health of the financial sector would be hugely important for a newly independent state. Financial and associated professional services contribute more than £14bn to the Scottish economy, or more than 13 per cent of GDP, according to the UK government.
Even more crucially for referendum campaigners, financial companies and related professional services employ more than 148,000 people in Scotland – 6 per cent of total employment. Few among the swaths of swing voters across central Scotland will not know somebody whose livelihood depends on the sector’s success.
And Scotland has particularly outsize clout in life and pensions, accounting for 24 per cent of UK employment in the sector, even though it represents just 8.3 per cent of the overall UK population.
Standard Life’s intervention highlighted widely shared worries about the currency arrangements of an independent Scotland and its likely regulatory and tax regimes.
In its first substantive look at the likely creditworthiness of an independent Scotland, international ratings agency Standard & Poor’s warned that independence could result in much of the financial sector removing itself to the remaining UK.
Nationalist leaders on Thursday stood by their insistence that Scotland would be able to seal a formal currency union with the remaining UK that would allow continued shared use of the pound and Bank of England.
Batting aside opposition assaults in the Scottish parliament, Alex Salmond, first minister and SNP leader, said Standard Life’s intervention merely showed the importance of sealing such a currency pact.
But companies can hardly ignore the concerted rejection of formal currency union by all the UK’s main political parties. The SNP’s vision of closely harmonised post-independence regulatory systems and tax requirements also depends on London’s co-operation and in some cases EU approval.
“It’s not possible ahead of the referendum for the Scottish government to give any reliable guidance to what the business environment will be like,” says Owen Kelly, chief executive of industry body Scottish Financial Enterprise.
Standard Life stands for many of its peers in having to consider the implications of a new border between Scotland and England. The company says only around 6 per cent of its 6m worldwide customers are in Scotland, compared with the just over half who live in the rest of the UK.
Of course, revelations of corporate contingency planning do not offer a definitive verdict on whether Scotland would prosper outside the UK. Nationalists on Thursday took comfort in S&P’s wider conclusion that an independent Scotland would have a rich and relatively diversified economy that would qualify for its “highest economic assessment”.
“The challenge for Scotland to go it alone would be significant, but not unsurpassable,” S&P said.
But with polls still running against them, independence campaigners fear that interventions such as Standard Life’s and recent warnings of uncertainty from BP’s chief executive, Bob Dudley, will fuel voter scepticism.
People familiar with sentiment in the financial sector say most companies are still reluctant to be as up front about their worries as Standard Life. Taking a stand can be unpopular with nationalist customers and staff.
Standard Life’s Facebook page was deluged on Thursday with negative comments and reviews by Scottish users of the social website who saw its warnings as an attempt to shift opinion.
“On your Scottish independence ‘intervention’, what a disgusting way to treat your staff and the country you have been based in for so long,” wrote user Jamie Bannister. “Bad move – you can be assured that I won't be taking out any Standard Life products in the future.”
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