Businesses’ threats on political questions are empty and silly

Quitting the European Union would leave the UK worse off. Prices would be higher, there would be fewer jobs, and exports would slow down. At least, that is according to a report published on Monday morning by The City UK, the trade group that lobbies for the interests of the financial sector.

The arguments were hardly unfamiliar to anyone who has followed this debate over the years. Nor were they very likely to change anyone’s minds. It is hard to see why they bothered.

Business has increasingly been getting involved in Britain’s debates over national identity. A series of companies have been lining up to deliver dire warnings of the consequences of Scotland leaving the UK. Even more have been warning about a bleak future outside the EU. But in fact, none of them know what would happen if Scotland voted for independence or Britain decided to leave the EU.

The chances are they would make a pragmatic decision based on the policies the government put in place – which is what sensibly run companies usually do. All they do is make themselves look silly by making empty threats about quitting if the vote goes one way or the other.

The interventions over the future of Scotland have been the most cack-handed. With the referendum just a few months away, and with the polls suggesting the result could still go either way, it is understandable that businesses north of the border are feeling anxious.

The fund manager BlackRock said it would create ‘major uncertainties’ for the financial sector if the Scots voted for independence. The Weir Group, the engineering conglomerate based in Glasgow and one of Scotland’s biggest employers, warned it would create higher costs and have few benefits.

BAE Systems, which runs military shipyards in Scotland, argued a ‘No’ vote would be better for Scotland. The CBI landed itself in hot water by giving its support to the ‘No’ campaign, then reversing that decision, which led to the early retirement of the director of the Scottish wing of the employers’ federation.

Businesses have been just as keen to lend their support to British membership of the EU. With a referendum possible in the next parliament, and with Ukip’s support increasing all the time, it is of course understandable that companies are anxious about the UK leaving Europe. The City UK report is just one attempt among many to influence the debate.

Car maker Nissan warned of the threat to jobs if Britain left. So have Airbus, Nestlé and Citigroup. Few people will have missed the message that the so-called ‘Brexit’ may hurt employment.

But in fact, companies would be better advised to stay out of these debates. They are not changing anyone’s mind, and they are not doing themselves any favours.

First, they have no way of knowing what they might do. Would any major companies leave Scotland the day after Alex Salmon was installed as Lord Protector for Life of Scotland, or whatever grand title he choose to bestow on himself?

Perhaps they would and perhaps they wouldn’t. The reality is, it would depend on what sort of policies the newly independent Scottish state put in place. If it was a François Hollande-style mix of punishing taxes and heavy-handed regulations, then they would probably be queueing up at Waverley station to get on the first train south.

If it was a pro-business mix of lower taxes and lighter rules, along with membership of the EU and free access to the English market, they would probably be quite happy to stay where they are. There might even be companies moving in the other direction. After all, big companies flocked to an independent Ireland when it introduced pro-business policies.

Likewise, would any companies leave the UK if it was outside the EU? Once again, it would depend on what sort of policies Britain adopted in those circumstances and what kind of trade deal it had with the rest of Europe. If British exports were banned from France, Germany and the rest, they would most likely head off.

If, as seems more likely, British companies had the same kind of market access as American or Korean businesses, and so long as taxes remained competitive, they would probably be quite content.

Nestlé seems happy to remain in Switzerland even though it is outside the EU – so are lots of other companies. Conversely, under the last Labour government, companies started moving operations out of Britain as a result of ever-rising taxes, even though that was a very pro-EU regime.

These are primarily emotional decisions. Whether Scotland remains in the UK, or the UK in Europe, is a decision most people will make based on their views on sovereignty and self-determination. Arguments about a few companies staying or leaving won’t make much difference.

That is partly because they sound bogus (most people know that companies are just instinctively conservative, and don’t like change of any sort, and that when the moment comes they won’t necessarily leave anyway).

But it is also because, in the end, it does not matter. Even if Scotland were to be slightly poorer as an independent nation, most nationalists would be perfectly content with that. The same is true of Britain’s membership of the EU.

  • Rambler

    There is one point you have missed. Companies such as Standard Life would at least most likely relocate a large chunk of their business south of the border due to Pensions. Many companies, the one that I work for included, would not like to see their DC pension schemes controlled by a foreign company located in a foreign country.

  • EM99

    Thank you Matthew for a balanced, level headed article. I was beginning to give up hope that Money Week was capable of looking objectively at the issue of Scottish Independence.