Eddie Barnes: If business leaders stay coy, how central is the constitutional debate?

A PROMINENT pro-Union commentator has been heard complaining this week about what he sees as the timid failure of Scotland’s business leaders to make their views clear on independence, the majority of whom, said commentator declared, were most likely against the whole idea.

A PROMINENT pro-Union commentator has been heard complaining this week about what he sees as the timid failure of Scotland’s business leaders to make their views clear on independence, the majority of whom, said commentator declared, were most likely against the whole idea.

He recounted an anecdote from a recent private meeting between a UK minister and a chief executive of a leading defence business, based in Scotland. The latter told the former he wasn’t getting involved in the debate, because he didn’t want to become a “political football”. At which the infuriated minister “exploded”, asking where he thought he got all of his contracts.

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Several issues may be at play to explain the coyness of these business figures, fretting about the price secession will have on their balance sheets. The first one is that the referendum is not for another two years. Business chiefs note there is no way the big beasts of Scotland plc will want to make enemies 24 months before the big day. They would be there for the short campaign, business sources say – but not until then. Secondly, the SNP government has worked assiduously to listen to business concerns in Scotland, with the consequence that many pro-Union business figures can be heard acknowledging their respect for the way it works (witness Sir David Murray’s conversion last year).

Ministers such as John Swinney, Alex Neil and Fergus Ewing are liked as people who understand the world around them. The administration can, therefore, call on a reservoir of good will from contacts made over the last five years. Thirdly, to this careful use of soft power is added the application of the hard stuff. Executives in a leading Scottish business which recently took part in the UK government’s consultation on the referendum, were heard noting the sustained pressure they faced from advisers close to the First Minister to tone their comments down. That is politics; SNP figures might well argue such pressure is exactly what New Labour used to do. Alex Salmond has not been averse to copying them.

Both sides now have until 2014 to convince Scotland’s big businesses either way in the great national debate. Leaving aside the question of which way firms fall, a salutary message may be awaiting both sides. For, in a globalised workplace, facing catastrophe on all sides, just how central is Scotland’s constitutional debate really going to be? Philip Grant, the head of Lloyds Bank in Scotland, told MSPs recently: “The definitions of country, region and economy are irrelevant for businesses and people who are looking for jobs. What is more important to them is whether there are investment opportunities in places and whether markets are opening up for them.” At a time when the eurozone is imploding and depression stalks the land, the task will be to make the constitutional debate relevant to this, far more pressing, issue.