Last September, Scotland In Union hosted an event at which Canadian journalist Peter Scowen spoke about the damage caused to Quebec’s economy by the threat of independence, and the ‘neverendum’ which persisted until the nationalists lost power there.
Here in Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon has recently revised her plan to try to call ‘indyref2’ by 2019, but still says she will attempt to bring one forward at the time of her choosing, telling the BBC that she thinks it will be before 2021. Welcome to Scotland’s own neverendum.
The neverendum effect harms Scotland. It distracts elected representatives from the effective use of devolved powers; it perpetuates the divisions of the 2014 campaign and it has a chilling effect on business confidence.
I have recently spoken with a small business which is closing in Edinburgh and focusing on the North of England; a senior executive in a Scottish-based bank saying his company would move south if there was independence; and an investment professional who can point to deals which were going ahead despite Brexit, but are now on hold following Ms Sturgeon’s referendum announcement in March.
Of course these are anecdotes; of course they are anonymous; and of course I am more likely to be speaking with pro-UK businesses. But the doubts are there.
The cases I cite are unattributed because many businesses are reluctant to speak out. This is a mystery: when it is in the long-term interests of owners, customers and shareholders to support stability and free trade, why don’t more businesses speak up?
One response is that “they don’t want to lose a third of their customers”, but businesses with strong brands and sound models need not worry. A few extremists might get upset, but speaking up for the UK has done Tunnock’s and Barrhead Travel no discernible harm; and nor has manufactured outrage at union flag labelling dealt a mortal blow to Hovis, or forced Tesco to discontinue raspberries as a product line.
Another explanation is that businesses worry they will lose custom from the Scottish Government, or that they might be treated less fairly if they take a stance. While direct evidence of this may be hard to find, I’ve spoken with business owners who express that concern, and say it keeps them quiet. The good news on this front is that the SNP’s dominance of Scottish politics is waning, which should encourage greater frankness.
So, what can businesses do? First of all, they can speak out directly – as Ross McEwan, CEO of RBS, did at their 2016 AGM, saying RBS would relocate its HQ if Scotland left the UK. Others should follow this lead.
Smaller firms can also lobby their trade bodies and industry groups. And these bodies can be bolder in representing the majority of Scotland’s employers, who contribute most to the economy, rather than lapsing into silence because of a few vocal nationalist members.
We have seen signs of this at the UK level, with business groups taking clear positions on the kind of Brexit their members want. It’s now time for the main businesses and business groups in Scotland to speak up about the neverendum.
Alastair Cameron is Executive Director of Scotland In Union.
This article first appeared in The Scotsman on July 2017.