ON ANY objective measure, the announcements by RBS and other Scottish banks of plans to move their headquarters south of the Border is not good news for Scotland. It cannot but fuel concerns about the loss of head office functions and the reduction in the status of financial Scotland.
This is a critical sector of our economy, contributing to our status as a leading European financial centre and in the UK second only to London. The industry overall – spanning banking, asset servicing, life assurance and pensions as well as fund management – accounts for close on one in every ten jobs in Scotland, or more than 200,000 in total. So the announcements from RBS, Lloyds, Clydesdale, TSB and Tesco Bank of plans to move their head office registration out of Scotland is of understandable concern.
However, there are several reasons to believe the consequences may be less severe than some of the more troubling projections of No campaigners of a massive exodus of functions and jobs.
First, in every case, bank chiefs have made clear jobs and operations will not change in Scotland. RBS chief executive Ross McEwan clearly set out his view that any decision to move registered headquarters “would have no impact on our everyday banking services used by our customers in Scotland. This is a technical procedure regarding the rotation of our registered head office based on our current strategy and business plan. It is not an intention to move operations or jobs”. Similar statements have been made by other banks. And on a matter of fact, Royal Bank of Scotland will remain headquartered in Scotland; the move relates to RBS Group, taking in NatWest and international operations.
Second, while some key personnel may be moved, no bank has an interest in an expensive upheaval of staff and function from Edinburgh to a London location, where labour and operating costs are significantly higher.
And third, a clutch of senior financial figures, including Sir Angus Grossart and former RBS chairman Sir George Mathewson, have said fears are exaggerated, while Martin Gilbert, head of Aberdeen Asset Management, has expressed his confidence that an independent Scotland would flourish.
The banks have been moved to act in part through a concern that a Yes vote might prompt a substantial exit of customer deposits in the immediate aftermath. A clear re-statement from Bank of England Governor Mark Carney that both deposit-guarantee and lender-of-last-resort facilities would remain in place pending a negotiated outcome would materially help to calm the atmosphere. Few financial advisers would recommend that clients make decisions affecting pensions and long-term savings now, in a highly-charged political atmosphere and with such uncertainty on the outcome of the vote. Calm and cool consideration is never more necessary.
No camp must offer a fair deal
Former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy put his finger on the acute weak spot of the Better Together campaign – the undue delay in agreeing an accelerated timetable at Westminster for “more powers” legislation. Few would dispute his contention yesterday that it has come a year late. Whether it is too late we will not know until the ballot boxes are opened next Thursday evening.
This last-minute rush to put together a credible package strong enough to win over wavering voters has inevitably given rise to several critical charges. The first, already well aired, is that it is a panic response to the YouGov poll last weekend showing the Yes campaign was in the lead.
The second is that, without such a surge in support for Yes, unionist parties at Westminster might not have bothered to pursue any change at all in the event of a No result. It took powerful support for Yes to ignite this response.
The third is that an accelerated timetable, announced in all good faith, may result in rushed and ill-considered legislation. Any legislation, but particularly that dealing with constitutional change, inevitably requires serious and detailed scrutiny to ensure that the final outcome secures majority support in the Commons and that it is robust. That, after all, is what parliaments are for.
The clear determination to pursue more powers at an early opportunity is wholly welcome. But Mr Kennedy is also right in pointing out that compromise will be required if it is to be fair – and seen to be fair – across the UK.
Agreement needs to be reached which meets Scotland’s needs without feeding dissension and voter opposition elsewhere.