BUSINESS leaders are divided by the independence debate, with 200 company chiefs declaring that leaving the UK is in Scotland’s “best interests”, amid claims many pro-UK supporters are too afraid to speak out.
High-profile business figures, including Stagecoach chairman Sir Brian Souter, Clyde Blowers boss Jim McColl and retired William Hill chief executive Ralph Topping, are among those who put their names to an open letter urging Scots to vote Yes in next month’s referendum.
The group also includes whisky boss Neil Clapperton of Springbank Distillers and Michelin-starred chef Andrew Fairlie.
First Minister Alex Salmond described their letter as “hugely significant” in the run-up to the 18 September ballot, adding it is “clear recognition of the massive opportunity that a Yes vote represents for Scotland’s economy”.
Earlier this week, 130 company leaders – together employing more than 50,000 people in Scotland – insisted the case for leaving the UK “has not been made”. Former Scotch Whisky Association Gavin Hewitt, who helped gather signatories for that letter, said about half the people he approached were opposed to independence but did not want to make their views public, fearing an SNP backlash.
Labour shadow business minister Ian Murray said: “It is deeply troubling people still feel they cannot air their view of what is best for Scotland for fear of the wrath of Alex Salmond.
“We are about to make the biggest decision of our lifetime. There will be no going back, and yet still people feel they cannot speak out against Alex Salmond’s unanswered questions.”
He added: “The fact is, leaving the UK would hurt Scottish jobs. Our businesses today can sell to a domestic market of 63 million rather than just five million. One in five Scottish jobs [is] with companies headquartered elsewhere in the UK. Scotland working together with the rest of the UK, as part of the UK, creates jobs.”
But Mr Clapperton, managing director of Springbank Distillers, said: “The Scottish whisky industry has nothing to lose and everything to gain from independence. Whisky is an iconic Scottish product hugely important to our economy. It accounts for a quarter of all UK food and drink exports, earning £135 every second.
“We must do all we can to support every stage of its production here in Scotland, from our barley farmers through to our whisky producers. I am certain that is best done as a normal nation with the full powers of an independent country.”
He warned: “The biggest threat to the whisky industry comes from the in/out European Union referendum the UK is planning, and the fact this could close EU influence in getting whisky into foreign markets.”
In the pro-Yes letter, the Springbank boss and others state that “independence is in the best interests of Scotland’s economy and its people”.
They add: “We will gain the powers to give our many areas of economic strength even more of an advantage in an increasingly competitive world. There will be more opportunities for our talented and determined young people to stay and succeed here in Scotland.”
The letter also argues the biggest threat to Scottish business is the “real possibility of a British exit from the European common market” if an in/out referendum is held after the next general election – as proposed by the Conservatives.
It claims: “Westminster governments do not and never will pay sufficient attention to the interests of Scotland’s economy”.
Mr Salmond said: “The 200 signatories to this letter are among the nation’s leading job and wealth creators – and they recognise the need for Scotland to be given the powers we and they need to grow our economy and create more jobs.
“What impressed me most about this letter was the positivity in which some of our greatest businesses regard Scotland’s prospects as an independent country.
“People’s jobs are at the heart of this referendum campaign as people want to know that Scotland will get the powers that will attract investment and create employment opportunities.”
Prime Minister David Cameron said staying part of the UK “family of nations” would be good for business in Scotland.
Speaking on a visit to the Malcolm Group in Linwood, he said: “The solidarity that the UK has as a family of nations is good for business and good for jobs, and that means it is good for people living and working in Scotland.”