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Scottish Business Leaders: Independence Debate

Volume 575: debated on Wednesday 5 February 2014

1. What steps his Department is taking to encourage Scottish business leaders to participate in the independence debate. (902338)

I speak to businesses from across Scotland regularly and frequently. In those meetings we highlight the importance of the decision the Scottish people will make on 18 September, and encourage them to get involved in this important debate.

Has my right hon. Friend seen the recent intervention of Bob Dudley, the chief executive of British Petroleum—which, after all, has a major stake in Scotland—whose views should be taken seriously? Does he agree that other business leaders with a big interest in Scotland’s future should follow that example, and set out clearly the implications and consequences of independence for their employees, suppliers, and shareholders?

I have seen and studied the intervention from Bob Dudley yesterday. The terms of that intervention do not surprise me at all as they very much reflect the concerns expressed to me when I speak to businessmen and women across Scotland who represent businesses of all sizes. They all tell me the same: they see independence as being bad for their business. It brings uncertainties, uncertainty means risk, and that is bad for their business future.

11. Has the Secretary of State had any meetings with Sir Tom Hunter, who has been pretty vocal about the whole issue, and, if he has not, will he have such a meeting? (902349)

I recently met Sir Tom Hunter at a business breakfast organised by the Prime Minister in No. 10 Downing street. The hon. Gentleman will have seen the recent initiative by Sir Tom, which is interesting and valuable, and sits well with the efforts of Her Majesty’s Government to ensure a solid base of information to inform the electorate about the decision they are being asked to take.

14. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that he is aware of the fears and concerns of businesses about the uncertainty posed by an independent Scotland, not only the currency but the fact that interest rates and borrowing costs could be set from outside Scotland? (902352)

Indeed, the hon. Lady makes a point that was made eloquently—and, I thought, in a very measured way—by the Governor of the Bank of England in his speech last week in Edinburgh. He made the point that a currency union such as that proposed inevitably involves ceding some degree of national sovereignty—the very opposite of what independence is supposed to be about. One wonders why any nationalist would, in all sincerity, genuinely want one.

This week the Financial Times reported that an independent Scotland should have healthier state finances than the rest of the UK. So far, more than 1,200 business owners and directors have declared their support for a yes vote by joining the pro-independence business group, Business for Scotland. Does the Secretary of State recognise their role in the Scottish economy and welcome their contribution to the referendum debate?

I will, of course, speak to businessmen and women of all views at any time in Scotland. The difficulty for the hon. Gentleman is that the most recent polling exercise undertaken in the business community showed that roughly three quarters of business people in Scotland intend to vote no. They know that independence would be bad for their business.

All the evidence from polling in recent weeks shows a substantial swing to the yes campaign, and the polls also show that by a majority of 4:1, the public wish to see a debate between the Prime Minister and First Minister Alex Salmond. How long can the Prime Minister continue supporting everybody else becoming part of the debate, but run away from one himself?

Make no mistake, Mr Speaker, we know exactly why the nationalists want that debate between the Prime Minister and Alex Salmond: they are trying to set the decision up as a contest between Scotland and England, which it absolutely is not. This is about Scotland’s best-placed constitutional future, and it is to be decided by Scots in Scotland.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the First Minister dismissed Mr Dudley’s remarks as purely a personal opinion. In the light of that, may we take it that all those in the business sector who have apparently subscribed to independence can have their opinions dismissed in the same way?

I would dismiss nobody’s opinion and I would engage with people of all shades of opinion across this debate, but the fact is that Bob Dudley is not a lone voice. He is part of a growing chorus from the business community in Scotland who highlight the dangers that would come from independence. They all say the same—it would be a risk to their business because of the uncertainty of the future position of the currency and membership of the European Union. On those two key issues, the nationalists have no comfort for business.

As the Secretary of State has said, it is welcome that the chief executive of BP and the outgoing chief executive of Sainsbury’s have both spelled out substantial concerns about independence. Does the Secretary of State agree that all businesses, trade unions and voluntary organisations have a right to be heard without insult, intimidation or fear of the consequences, regardless of which side of the debate they are on?

I do, absolutely, and in that regard I commend the efforts of the Scottish Daily Mail, which in recent weeks has sought to highlight the poison coming into the debate from some of the cyber-interventions. Other hon. Members have also raised this issue. Whatever the outcome on 18 September we will all have to work together in Scotland for its best future, and that will not be possible if we allow the well to be poisoned in the way the cyber-Nats in particular seem determined to do.

I thank the Secretary of State for that response, but may I press him a little further? Business leaders have told me of intimidatory tactics being used in an attempt to stop them intervening in the independence debate. One leader of a FTSE company told Robert Peston of the BBC that the Scottish Government “became very aggressive” when he tried to raise concerns about independence. Just yesterday, Bob Dudley of BP was dismissed by the yes campaign as “a British nationalist”. Will the Secretary of State join me in condemning the pattern of behaviour that we are beginning to see in Scotland and say, in the strongest possible terms, that it has no place for us Scots as we debate our future?

I agree with the hon. Lady on that point in the very strongest terms. She knows as well as I do that the incidents she highlights are by no means isolated—we hear them anecdotally all the time. I encourage anyone who is bullied or intimidated in that way to follow the example of Chris Whatley, an academic from Dundee university who appeared at a Better Together event before Christmas, following which a Scottish Government Minister was on the phone to his employers saying he should be silenced. That is deplorable and no way in which to conduct the debate on Scotland’s future.