Would Scotland really suffer if RBS moved after independence?

Any relocation would be largely symbolic but the Scottish economy desperately needs to be rebalanced.

Vince Cable became the latest UK government minister to warn (or imply, at any rate) that the financial crisis would have sunk an independent Scotland when he gave evidence to the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee at Westminster yesterday. In response to a question from Labour’s William Bain about the consequences of removing the Bank of England as lender of last resort to the Royal Bank of Scotland, Cable said: "I think if you were managing RBS you would almost certainly want to be in a domicile where your bank is protected against the risk of collapse. I think they already have a substantial amount of their management in London and I would have thought that, inevitably, they would become a London bank, which would be symbolically quite important."

You can see the Business Secretary’s point. RBS, which is headquartered at Gogarburn, just outside Edinburgh, has a balance sheet roughly ten times the size of Scotland’s entire economic output. Had Scotland been independent in 2008, when the bank imploded under the weight of its own reckless lending and acquisition practices, the Scottish Treasury would have gone bust trying to keep it afloat and the Scots, like the Irish, been forced to seek a hefty EU/IMF rescue package.

But the problem with Cable’s argument – an argument which has featured heavily in unionist rhetoric over the last five or six years – is that RBS is a British bank, not an exclusively Scottish one. At the time of the crash, RBS had more customers and employees in the rest of the United Kingdom than it did in Scotland, as well as a majority of its capital assets in the City of London. Today, as it edges back into private ownership, it still has 24 million customers across the UK and, as Cable acknowledges, "substantial" management in the British capital.

On what grounds, then, would the rest of the UK have insisted that Scotland take responsibility for the full cost of the £45bn RBS bail-out?  Moreover, what obligation would an independent Scotland have had – or currently have – to guarantee the deposits of RBS customers south of the border? That was – and would remain were Scotland to leave the UK – the role of the British government.

Cable’s position is further undermined by experiences elsewhere. Not long after the near collapse of Britain’s financial sector, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg joined forces to salvage Fortis, a major European bank. Bail-out costs were divided according to the proportion of Fortis’s operations in each of those countries. National boundaries, it seems, matter little to financial institutions capable of straddling continents.

Yet Cable has, however unwittingly, raised one interesting question. To what extent would Scotland suffer if RBS did move its headquarters from Edinburgh to London after independence? RBS employs about 12,000 people in Scotland, while the financial sector as a whole employs roughly 85,000 people and accounts for between 7 or 8 per cent of Scottish GDP. Only a small number of these jobs – most likely those at Gogarburn – would be at risk were RBS to relocate down south. It’s difficult to imagine what reasons the bank would have to further reduce its Scottish operations. Indeed, Cable himself concedes any such relocation would be little more than "symbolic".

And what would that symbolism amount to? Finance capitalism, particularly of the sort practiced by RBS in recent years, is predatory, monopolistic and crisis-prone. It’s hardly a coincidence that those countries, such as the UK, Ireland and the US, which allowed their economies to become heavily leveraged on financial services in the run-up to 2008 also suffered the longest and most severe post-crash downturns in the developed world.

The Scottish economy desperately needs to be rebalanced. It currently exports more in financial goods and services than it does in manufacturing (the underlying weakness of its trade balance is disguised by strong oil and whisky exports). Were its banks to run into more trouble, it would lack a robust manufacturing base to fall back on. RBS won’t flee an independent Scotland. But if it did, the long term effects would probably be beneficial. 

A general view of RBS's company headquarters at Gogarburn on December 12, 2011 in Edinburgh. Photograph: Getty Images.

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.