Independent.ie, Published: 16/09/2014
It’s the biggest decision affecting the UK in centuries – but what’s best for the economy: independence or Union? With the vote days away Colm Kelpie met business leaders on the yes side.
It showcases an old black and white photo of a dining table named after the monarch, whose reign was associated with Britain’s age of industrial expansion, economic progress and, especially, empire.
I wonder is it an omen to be meeting an English man who supports Scottish independence in the lobby of a hotel that links its glory days to when Britain was at the centre of the world.
Surely he’s a rare creature? Not so, says David Cairns, below. The executive chairman of communications software company PrismTech points out that there’s even a group – English Scots for Yes – comprised of English people living in Scotland who believe independence is in the country’s best interests.
“Because my business life has been one of taking responsibility for my own decisions – I’ve had no silver spoon, I’ve always had this acceptance that you don’t depend on other people, you take charge, you take responsibility – the natural inclination is always going to be, you want control of your own destiny, and naturally it would be that you’d lean towards wanting your nation to be independent,” he says.
The business case has been dominated by warnings and concerns from some big corporate players about the impact that seceding from the three centuries-old union could have.
Banking giant RBS – the parent of Ulster Bank – is reportedly considering moving its registered headquarters to London if Scots vote for independence on Thursday. The head of BP hopes Scots vote no because the UK would better provide the stability required for long-term investment in the oil-producing North Sea.
HSBC chairman Douglas Flint believes uncertainty over currency arrangements could prompt capital flight, leaving Scotland’s financial system in a “parlous state”. But others are not quite as pessimistic. Insurer Prudential will continue operating in Scotland and fulfilling its obligations irrespective of the outcome. Kingfisher says the home improvement retailer’s DIY chain, B&Q, would not leave the region after a yes vote.
Mr Cairns says the bigger companies pushing for a no vote lack the entrepreneurial energy at the core of Scotland’s small and medium business sector.
“These are professional managers that are there to manage. They want to have as little disruption as possible,” he says.
“If you look at small businesses, these are entrepreneurs. What they’re looking for is how can you take advantage of disruptive technology, how can you move faster than big businesses in an uncertain environment to get a competitive advantage.”
PrismTech was originally set up in Newcastle, but when Mr Cairns took a major shareholding in the company within the last decade, he moved its head office to Stirling in central Scotland where he believed he would get more support.
With operations in Scotland, Newcastle, Ottawa and outside Amsterdam and Paris, it employs about 90 people. Mr Cairns spends his time between Stirling and Perth, north of Edinburgh, where he has a house.
“As a businessman, a good piece of my own personal wealth is wrapped up in how my company does. But I just believe that, with a nation of 5.5 million people and the government on my doorstep, access to policy makers is much easier than it is as a satellite regional economy,” he says.
“I know the finance minister. I’m able to go in as chairman of ScotlandIS – the trade body for digital industries in Scotland – and get decisions changed because they don’t benefit Scottish businesses the way they ought to, and I get a government that’s willing to listen, that understands, and has the ability within the constrained powers it has, to make a difference.
“Whereas the UK government is like a distant planet in terms of how a company here can influence any policies.”
Mr Cairns dismisses the controversy over whether an independent Scotland would be able to retain the pound.
“The problem that the rest of the UK would have is that without Scotland’s stronger economy, without the underpinning of the exports from Scotland, particularly oil, you’re going to find that sterling will come under pressure,” he says.
“Self interest will dictate that there will be a currency union. There’s a lot of scaremongering. Scottish companies sell their goods and sell their services because somebody needs or wants those products or services and they’re getting them at a decent price.
“Nobody buys Scottish goods or services to do Scotland a favour. That’s not going to change under any scenario.”
That “scaremongering” has some of Tracy Griffen’s clients worried. The personal trainer runs a small business in the heart of Edinburgh and counts professionals in the city’s large financial services sector among her clients. “It’s one of the subjects we don’t talk about in the sessions because it actually does stress people out quite a bit.
“I have an academic that I train and she is in a terrible state worrying about it, about the impact either way. People just want it to be all over now.
“A number of my clients are employed in the financial sector and I know a few people who are quite worried about their jobs. My clients will be affected.”
But she believes a yes vote is in Scotland’s best interests.
“I don’t think the sky will fall in. I don’t think it will change that much. People think they’re going to wake up and there’ll be a completely different situation.
“There’s obviously going to be a period of transition, and things like the currency will have to be considered. But I don’t think that a no vote is going to improve the [business] situation.”
In one of Edinburgh’s grand squares, there’s a temporary arts and crafts fair. Margaret Stewart has been operating a handmade jewellery and cards business for the last three years.
“Scotland as a nation has got so much potential. England is the bad neighbour that’s always pulling us back. We have so much that goes down to England and then gets exported back to Scotland. It’s time for Scotland to stand up,” she says.
It’s a sentiment shared by Mr Cairns, who believes Scotland has been the backbone of the UK for too long. But he warns those who favour the status quo that promises by the no camp of more devolved power won’t be followed through.
“There are certainly business people that are concerned about what’s going to happen. They’ll say ‘Wouldn’t I be safer just sticking with what I’ve got?’
“The argument to that is, you don’t have a choice. Tomorrow isn’t going to be the same as today, no matter what happens. There’s more austerity coming from within the UK and once the vote is over, Scotland will have lost any leverage.”