Company chiefs in Scottish independence warnings

Businesses have warned of price hikes and plans to move south. Picture: Joey Kelly
Businesses have warned of price hikes and plans to move south. Picture: Joey Kelly
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ALEX Salmond was dealt a series of blows yesterday as retailers warned independence could lead to price rises and several Scottish banks unveiled contingency plans that would see them registered in England in the event of a Yes vote.

And a YouGov poll last night suggested gains that had put the Yes camp into the lead at the weekend have since been lost. It had the No side on 52 per cent and Yes on 48 per cent, a reversal from Saturday, when the same pollster had No on 49 per cent and Yes on 51 per cent.

Clydesdale Bank, TSB and Tesco Bank joined Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds to say they would move their legal bases south of the Border if Scotland voted for independence.

However, former RBS chairman and chief executive Sir George Mathewson dismissed the warnings as “UK government-driven scaremongering”, and Martin Gilbert, chief executive of Aberdeen Asset Management, said an independent Scotland would be a “big success”.

The banks’ plans came to light as major retailers Asda, John Lewis and Next all warned that uncertainty over an independent Scotland’s currency could lead to price rises in the shops.

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Yes Scotland claimed Prime Minister David Cameron was at the heart of a co-ordinated campaign to scare business into speaking out against a Yes vote.

But Better Together claimed Mr Salmond was so obsessed with independence that he wanted it whatever the cost.

RBS, which has been based in Scotland since 1727, said it would be necessary to re-domicile the bank’s holding company and its main operating entity to England if Scotland votes Yes.

Chief executive Ross McEwan told staff moving the registered offices did not mean it would cut jobs in Scotland or move operations away, and that it would not affect its day-to-day services.

“This is a technical procedure regarding the location of our registered head office,” he said in a memo.

The bank said there were a number of “material uncertainties” arising from the referendum that could have a bearing on the bank’s credit ratings and the fiscal, monetary, legal and regulatory landscape.

It said: “For this reason, RBS has undertaken contingency planning for the possible business implications of a Yes vote. RBS believes this is the responsible and prudent thing to do.”

A Lloyds spokesman said the group – which includes Scottish Widows – had been contacted by concerned customers, staff and stakeholders about its plans in the event of a Yes vote. “This is a legal procedure and there would be no immediate changes or issues which could affect our business or our customers,” he said.

Clydesdale Bank said its contingency plans for a Yes vote included re-registering as an English company to mitigate risks, while Edinburgh-based TSB said it would establish additional legal entities in England.

Tesco Bank said its contingency plans included a new registered company based in England. It would change the address of its headquarters but did not expect “any immediate impact” on staff at existing centres.

International life insurance company Aegon said it had plans to establish a new registered life company in England.

Last night, Keith Cochrane, chief executive of Weir Group, told an audience of business people in Glasgow he was unable to say if the company would leave Scotland when he did not know what the currency arrangements, relationship with Europe and tax regime would be after a Yes vote.

Reacting to plans being made by the banks, he said: “This is not bluff. This is reality, not rhetoric. Companies do not make these announcements lightly.

“These are the very real risks businesses now have to address and they have the potential to have serious impacts on Scotland’s economy and the prosperity of her people.”

He added: “On a purely personal level, I am deeply worried for my country. We are all proud Scots, but we shouldn’t be ­seduced by soundbites alone. Scotland is a country built on reason, a place which traditionally favours substance over style. If we vote Yes, we walk away from the most successful ­economic union the world has ever seen.”

The warnings continued when Andy Clarke, chief executive of Asda, suggested Scottish consumers could be hit by price rises. He said: “If we were no longer to operate in one state with one market and one set of rules, our business model would inevitably become more complex. We would have to reflect our cost to operate here.

“This is not an argument for or against independence, it is simply an honest recognition of the costs change could bring.”

Sir Charlie Mayfield, chairman of John Lewis, said: “As a businessman, it is not my place to tell voters how to vote in next week’s referendum. But from a business perspective, there will be economic consequences to a Yes vote, not just in uncertainty but some of the turmoil we are hearing about.

“And it is also the case that it does cost more money to trade in parts of Scotland and therefore those hard costs, in the event of a Yes vote, are more likely to be passed on.”

Lord Wolfson, the chief executive of Next, said his company would remain committed to Scotland whatever the outcome.

But he added: “We are concerned about what will happen to the currency. My second worry is taxes . . . whether taxes will remain where they are.”

In another development, the International Monetary Fund warned a Yes vote could lead to “negative market reactions” in the short term.

Better Together leader Alistair Darling said: “Alex Salmond is now so obsessed with separation that he wants it whatever the cost.”

Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon hit back by claiming that a meeting Mr Cameron held with supermarket bosses yesterday showed he was orchestrating a scaremongering campaign.

She said: “This ­incredible revelation proves beyond doubt that the Prime Minister himself is co-ordinating a scare campaign to pressurise business into coming out against independence.

“The idea that David Cameron thinks it is acceptable to put pressure on business to meet his party political ends is utterly unacceptable. Earlier this week, David Cameron claimed to love Scotland. Now his weasel words have been exposed. He is actively trying to undermine the Scottish economy.”

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