More than 130 Scottish business leaders have a signed a letter in favour of the Union. Photo: Getty
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Scottish business leaders call for No vote

More than 130 businesses have signed a letter in the Scotsman newspaper calling on Scotland to vote against independence.

Following a plea to Scotland from a list of 200 or so celebrities to vote No in an open letter to its population early this month, over 130 businesses have signed a letter saying the business case for Scottish independence “has not been made”.

The business leaders who signed the letter, which has been published in the Scotsman, head many signature, symbolically Scottish, industries in the country: Harris Tweed Hebrides, Glenkeir Whiskies Limited, The Scotch Whisky Association, University of St Andrews, Cairn Energy, Edrington (which owns the whisky brand the Famous Grouse) and Edinburgh University Press.

The signatories on the letter come from a wide range of industries, including food, drink, energy, banking, engineering, mining and technology. The heads of HSBC, Baxters Food Group and BHP Billiton, a big mining company, have put their names to the letter, which argues that, with the Scottish economy growing, it would be better for Scotland for it to remain in the Union.

Here is the text of the letter:

THE BUSINESS CASE FOR INDEPENDENCE HAS NOT BEEN MADE

The outcome of the referendum on 18 September will affect our generation and the generations to come. Much is at stake. Our economic ties inside the United Kingdom are very close and support almost one million Scottish jobs. The rest of the UK is Scotland's biggest market by far. As job creators, we have looked carefully at the arguments made by both sides of the debate. Our conclusion is that the business case for independence has not been made. Uncertainty surrounds a number of vital issues including currency, regulation, tax, pensions, EU membership and support for our exports around the world; and uncertainty is bad for business. Today Scotland’s economy is growing. We are attracting record investment and the employment rate is high. We should be proud that Scotland is a great place to build businesses and create jobs – success that has been achieved as an integral part of the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom gives business the strong platform we must have to invest in jobs and industry. By all continuing to work together, we can keep Scotland flourishing.

When I went to interview the shadow Scotland secretary Margaret Curran back in June in Glasgow for Total Politics magazine, it became clear during a trip around her constituency that business leaders were struggling even with the uncertainty caused by the build-up to the independence referendum.

We met the head of a local book distributor, which is essentially the trading arm of Publishing Scotland (the trade association for Scottish publishers). He told us:

“On the face of it, we think that a £10 book will be a £10 book if you buy it in England, but a £12 book if you buy it in Scotland… Oh, dear God, separation is an absolute nightmare. It’s not the move to independence itself, per se, that’s going to drive them [customers] away, it’s the uncertainty as we move towards that. It’s the threat of it.”

This is just one example of how not only independence itself, but also the prospect of it, is something the Yes campaign should consider when coming to the effect of the debate on business. The 130 businesses intervening today will certainly speak to both big and small businesses in Scotland, as well as to a number of people to whom they provide a service, particularly as many of them are heritage brands.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation