Scottish Businesses and the Referendum

Published: 4 September 2014

Charlie Jeffery reflects on the business community's stance on independence in light of two letters published in Scotland's national papers. Brad MacKay analyses the letters in a blog published yesterday.

What Scottish businesses think about the referendum on 18 September has often been presented with some crudeness. We saw this in the letters pages last week when on one day 134 business figures wrote that for them the case for independence has not been made, and on the next day 200 other business figures wrote - I paraphrase - 'Oh yes it has'! This was debate at the level of 'my letter is bigger than your letter'.

While some businesspeople, like those who signed last week's letters, are happy to come out in support of one side or other, most are not. Why most are not happy to make a public statement I will come to in a moment. 

But it is clear enough from our researchers' findings what most businesses think. Large scale surveys carried out by Professor David Bell for the Scottish Chambers of Commerce and Professor Brad Mackay for the Federation of Small Businesses in Scotland, and Brad's more detailed interviews with company directors, all show the same pattern.

Businesses tend to see significantly more risk and uncertainty associated with Scottish independence than they do opportunity. If the franchise were restricted to people running businesses, it's a fair bet there would be a clear majority against independence.

All this has tended to prompt frustration on the No side of the debate. Why, if that balance of risk vs. opportunity is stacked so high against independence, don't more businesses nail their banner to the Better Together mast? The answer, it is muttered darkly, is that they must have been nobbled by powerful figures on the Yes side.

One or two have indeed said publicly they have been on the receiving end of 'difficult' phone calls. Perhaps others are suffering in silence, though it is hard to see too many businesspeople in Scotland as easily intimidated.

More plausible is that when business figures tell our researchers they think the risks of independence outweigh the opportunities they are making a business calculation, in the same way they make business calculations about other things that could affect their business. They worry first and foremost about risks to the smooth operation and future prospects of their business.

One of Brad's interviewees makes the point with piercing clarity:

"So it's: does the economic environment in which we operate, does it support the continued sustainability of the business ...? And if it doesn't, what do we do about it? It's not a political debate for us. It's not complicated. But it's trying to take the politics out of it that's the difficult thing.'

Businesses in other words are generally trying to avoid making political statements (or statements that could be understood or spun as political) as the referendum approaches. And that's logical enough. They are reluctant to say things that get them sucked into - and used by - political campaigns. After all they will have employees and customers on either side of the referendum debate. They are unlikely to want to annoy one or other chunk of their workforce or those buying their products by jumping head first into a heated political debate.

So, while the two campaigns' masts might see a few more banners attached to them before 18 September, most businesses will not express a view. That's because they do business, not politics. 

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