Brian Wilson: The ridiculous business of CBI ‘row’

NATIONALISTS’ attempts to whip up controversy merely highlight their lack of support in industry, writes Brian Wilson

The CBI was never likely to support a policy which would erect trade barriers. Picture: Getty Images

IT IS still not quite clear why the Electoral Commission advised CBI Scotland that it would have to register as a referendum partisan in order to carry on saying what it has been saying for months.

Having now de-registered, the organisation should continue to put forward the same arguments. The companies it represents provide around 500,000 jobs in Scotland and include all our major industrial sectors. And that is a much more important consideration than an artificial dispute about registration.

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Mind you, it is even more puzzling how any member of CBI Scotland could have been unaware of the position it has been articulating consistently and which represents the overwhelming view of its members.

Against that background, the commotion of the past week has involved a lot of huffing and puffing about not very much.

At the end of it, a remarkable fact emerges. Not a single company which actually makes or sells anything in Scotland joined the mini-exodus. It might now be more useful to concentrate on the reasons for that mass vote of confidence in the CBI’s position than to concern ourselves further with the fringe departures.

That, of course, is the last thing the Nationalists want. Everything is to be turned into “a row” about process, lathered with indignation of the “how dare they” variety. The past week’s efforts to discredit and disrupt opposition do not augur well if the future ever belongs to the promoters of such intolerance.

Until this week, it had not occurred to me that an array of Scottish Government quangos, universities and public broadcasters were members of the CBI, which I had always thought of as a lobbying organisation for big industry.

I’m still not sure why VisitScotland or the Scottish Qualifications Authority wereCBI members. Maybe it doesgood lunches?

Even odder is the fact that these Scottish Government quangos had remained as members of an organisation which declared, last November: “Our conclusion is that the white paper does not offer a coherent vision for how or why an independent Scotland would be better off from erecting barriers between itself and its biggest export market” – and went on to explain, in great detail, that view. The CBI did not exactly hide its light under a bushel.

Of course, the CBI takes positions on a wide range of issues, many of them highly political and partisan. We can only assume our Scottish Government quangos, universities and public service broadcasters felt able, in good conscience, to reconcile their continuing membership with any disagreements about what the captains of industry were saying on taxation, workers’ rights and immigration. In fact, everything – except for one single issue.

The quangos are wholly-owed subsidiaries of the Scottish Government, which effectively means the SNP, while the universities live in fear of retribution if they open their mouths to express even the most obvious concerns about what would happen to them under independence. Scotland is a small place in which the Scottish Government has many tentacles, each with cash attached to its end.

Any university principal who points out that Scottish universities receive 14 per cent of UK research funding – which would have to be funded from within Scotland in the event of independence – has learned to expect the 8am phone call from St Andrew’s House reminding them none too subtly that their more immediate concern should be about the money they get through the Scottish Funding Council. Discretion quickly becomes the better part of valour.

I think there was a genuine issue for the broadcasters and, again, the only question is why they were members of a lobbying organisation in the first place. But then let’s look at the private sector which provides the jobs on which Scottish manufacturing, services and exports depend. Not a single business of any size or any industrial body has come out in support of independence. Are they all to be rubbished and ignored?

There were precisely two company departures from CBI Scotland – one by a care home group owned by the chairman of the Nationalist sect, Business for Scotland. The other came from a renewable energy company which depends on Scottish Government grants and is run by a member of the CBI’s Scottish Council. The words side, bread and buttered spring to mind.

With all due respect to care homes and wave power machines that have so far failed to generate anything other than grants, they do not exactly represent the Scottish economy as a whole. And that is why the substance of the CBI’s case, rather than the manner in which it is entitled to advance it, is of so much greater importance. In the interest of those whose jobs, pensions and security depend on it, that case must be heard.

After centuries of a Union, it is inevitable that the economy within this small island is closely integrated and interdependent. We sell twice as much in goods and services to the rest of the United Kingdom as to the rest of the world put together. Creating an international border, even on the most optimistic assumptions, would add costs and barriers.

The two central economic issues remain the currency and continuing EU membership. No matter how often the Nationalists assert differently, the outcomes on these two matters are simply not within their gift. Yet a huge proportion of the people employed in Scotland depend on us being part of the same fiscal and regulatory regime. That cannot be wished away or obfuscated indefinitely.

The history of creating new borders tells us that even if the states on either side of them start out in close alignment, they soon start to diverge. Indeed, the Nationalists’ own position confirms this. Their headline policy of cutting corporation tax would inevitably initiate a competition – or race to the bottom – since the continuing UK is not going to stand idly by while investment and jobs migrate to a neighbouring state.

Tens of thousands of jobs in Scotland depend on UK-wide supply chains. Is it more or less likely that large companies in other parts of the UK would contract and sub-contract work to Scottish companies, if they were operating under a separate political and fiscal jurisdiction? The questions are endless and the fundamental one is: why on Earth would we want to create these barriers and risks?

Both employers and trade unions have key roles to play in promoting these arguments and asking these questions. They must not be silenced.