Michael Kelly: Moguls must make up their own minds

Alex Salmond at the launch of the 'Yes' campaign. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Alex Salmond at the launch of the 'Yes' campaign. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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WHAT is it that businessmen don’t get about politics? Over the past week, we have heard enough from at least two successful entrepreneurs to suggest that the skill set they have used to make loads of money is not really up to handling the issues thrown up by the independence debate.

First Sir Tom Hunter –who can credibly compete for the title of most successful businessman of his generation – hits out at both sides of the Yes/ No argument demanding answers to key questions. Why can’t he work them out for himself?

In business, facts have to be assembled and judgments made on many factors, such as the cost of raw materials and wages, competitors’ prices, the trends in the overall economy and, in particular, industries. At the end of the process, judgments – that are often no more than educated guesses – are made. Why can’t businessmen see that, to a certain extent, the same process applies in politics, though here the uncertainties are much greater?

If Sir Tom wants answers to questions about Scotland’s place in the European Union or about what currency we’ll be landed with after independence, then he can surely work it out for himself. Much of the data is there and he certainly has the analytical tools to work the figures.

Of course – and this is where politics and business sharply diverge – no matter what the facts appear to show, politicians interpret them against the background of their own philosophy. Politicians take positions on issues based on their views of what society should look like. They may want higher taxes or lower taxes. They may favour nuclear deterrence or they may be opposed to it. They may prefer more or less state intervention. That’s the soul of politics and once young men and women have developed a political stance, the facts on any short-term situation are less important to them than these principles. Maybe it is this lack of pragmatism that irritates the businessman. But politicians who shift with the wind attract even more opprobrium. And what kind of society can be built on shifting sands?

It baffles me how businessmen who generally want government to “get out of the way” are all too ready to call on government when it comes to providing things they want – contracts come to mind, immunity from “unfair” foreign competition, infrastructure – without recognising the anomaly.

It seems to show an untypical foible in a man known to be hard-headed and tough to claim that he is a floating voter waiting to be convinced on the merits or otherwise of independence by politicians’ arguments. Does he really respect MSPs that much? Basically, Sir Tom is looking for information that just isn’t there.

As a committed politician, I approach the independence debate from the point of principle. I am against it on principle. From that viewpoint, it is easier to see the answers to many of the questions that have been raised.

I can give them now for the sake of businessmen everywhere. On the EU, no-one can tell whether Scotland would be admitted or not. On the currency, no-one can tell what it would be. If the English don’t want to support the pound in Scotland, then a currency union won’t work. If the Spanish and others with internal minority problems relent and let us into the EU, we’ll have to adopt the euro.

The same is true of Nato. No-one can say whether or not we will be allowed in with our unique brand of nuclear disarmament. What share of oil revenues will we get? What share of the UK’s national debt will we have to shoulder? No-one knows how Scotland will look until after the terms of disentanglement have been agreed with England, which will hold the whip hand. And don’t fall for the SNP’s assumption that the English will fall over themselves to accommodate us. They won’t. Why should they be interested in the fate of a country that has spurned them?

So, those are the answers. From the independence side, there are no clear-cut ones. That is why the argument is going round in circles.

This fact seems to have belatedly struck Nicola Sturgeon this week when she admitted that “exact answers might be beyond reach”. This explains the SNP’s shiftiness on all issues of substance. All it can promise is uncertainty, a leap in the dark, a “suck it and see” approach. For the principled believer in independence, that does not pose a problem. Independence is an article of faith. It doesn’t really matter if you can prove it would be economically inadvisable, the SNP would still vote for it. I don’t blame it for that. But it undermines the case for a single referendum. Any negotiated package must be put to the sovereign people of Scotland. Thank God all indications are that next year’s vote will bury the issue for generations.

But the blind faith of the politician cannot be true of the businessman who loves stability. That’s what the No campaign can offer. But if Sir Tom is looking for a glowing picture after a No vote, then he’s not going to get that either. Not much will change. That’s a fact. Other things being equal, this is what it will be like in October 2014.

But Sir Tom – along with other businessmen such as Tony Banks, who wrote for this paper earlier this week – says the status quo is not enough. That statement to me is a preference for independence. Business is confused. I simply cannot understand Banks’s belief that, after independence, he will still be British.

That claim is another part of this SNP mantra that we will be independent but nothing much will change. It’s the weirdest form of independence ever and no-one should be fooled by it. There will be fundamental, uncomfortable and irreversible change.

Banks may continue to feel British. The English are unlikely to take his passport away. Or are they? Certainly, people born after independence will be Scottish citizens. Are they too expected to enjoy divided loyalty? Tony is really arguing for devo-max. He just doesn’t know it. Or maybe there is some kind of “status quo plus” that these dynamos are looking for? If so, can it be defined for us? We need answers from business.