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Opponents of Scottish independence have generally struggled to persuade business leaders to take a stand for staying in the UK: plans by the pro-union Better Together campaign for a Business Together subgroup, for example, have yielded little more than a Twitter feed.
But with debate rising in intensity before next month’s referendum, some big business voices are making themselves heard – and most reflect the widespread scepticism in corporate circles on the case for a Yes vote.
Douglas Flint, chairman of HSBC, warned this week that uncertainty about the currency of an independence Scotland might prompt capital flight from the country, leaving its financial system “in a parlous state”. Mr Flint’s opinion article in The Telegraph followed an intervention by Sir Ian Wood, former head of oil services supplier Wood Group and one of the Scottish energy sector’s most respected figures, who contested Edinburgh’s estimates of future oil production.
The warnings from Mr Flint and Sir Ian have added to personal expressions of support for the union or announcements about the risks of independence. BAE Systems said this month its business would face more uncertainty if Scotland left the UK. The head of General Electric’s European business and Shell’s chief executive have both made clear that they hoped Scottish voters would back the union.
Some industry observers say the narrowing of the No campaign’s opinion poll lead could be encouraging business leaders to risk upsetting independence supporters and the governing Scottish National party.
But one person with extensive connections in Scotland’s finance sector says that, although many companies with operations or customers south of the border are unpersuaded by the SNP’s vision, there is no sign of a sudden outpouring of public opposition in the last month of the campaign.
Instead such companies have been quietly putting in place contingency plans, he says, characterising the mood in the financial sector as “wary, thoughtful, hard-headed”.
In part such reticence reflects a widespread belief that voters will reject independence on September 18.
It is unclear how much impact on voting those business voices that have spoken out will have. Pro-independence activists point out that Mr Flint is an established opponent of independence and donor to Better Together and previous comments from Sir Ian suggested that higher oil production estimates might be reasonable.
The Yes activists have also been energetic in mustering corporate support. The Business for Scotland group claims well over 2,000 members, mostly from small and medium sized enterprises, and hundreds flocked to its annual dinner in a Glasgow hotel ballroom to hear Alex Salmond, first minister, set out his vision of a wealthier but more socially just nation.
Some business people, including Ralph Topping, former head of betting group William Hill and Sir George Mathewson, former chairman of RBS, have offered public backing for Mr Salmond’s insistence that an independent Scotland will remain in a formal currency union with the remaining UK.
But with all the main Westminster parties rejecting such a currency union, many find it much easier to see the risks and difficulties in independence than any possible benefits.
“Compared with the business environment as it stands, greater cost and complexity are certain in an independent Scotland,” says Owen Kelly, chief executive of Scottish Financial Enterprise, which represents the financial services industry.
The “dispassionate” research from industry institutions of the currency suggests businesses and customers should plan on the basis that Scotland would end up using the pound without a formal union, a situation known as “sterlingisation”, Mr Kelly says.
“All of the currency options would have serious implications for the financial services industry and we have seen no analysis from any industry source that suggests a currency union is likely,” he says.
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