Since Britain’s decision to leave the EU, whispers of a second Scottish Independence Referendum have been reverberating around the hallowed halls of Holyrood. There’s been a constant back and forth battle over the past few months, and while Nicola Sturgeon recently put the brakes on plans for a second referendum in 2017, it certainly hasn’t been ruled out for the near future.
The revived bid comes after 62% of the voting population in Scotland voted to stay in the EU compared to 48% of those in the UK. Predictions for a turbulent economic future following Brexit have further widened those divisions over the border. Now, some polls are reporting more Scots would vote in favour of independence today, than did in 2014.
So, if renewed calls for an IndyRef2 come to fruition, what options will Scotland have outside the UK, and what are the implications for business?
Are businesses in favour of an independent Scotland?
It has long been argued that Scottish independence would severely damage business both sides of the border, with industry bodies highlighting uncertainty over currency and regulatory regimes as areas for concern. Despite the public vote, it’s reported that 90% of Scottish businesses supported a No vote during the 2014 referendum.
Since the UK’s decision to leave the EU, however, the tables have turned. Hugh Aitken, CBI Scotland Director writes that access to the single market is “fundamental to the Scottish economy’s long-term outlook and business want to see that recognised.
Aitken continues, “businesses need greater clarity on the fundamental issues of skills and barrier-free access to EU markets as soon as possible”. Now, Scottish business seem more concerned with remaining within the EU than it does in the UK.
Scottish business think tanks have put the possibility of Scotland maintaining special EEA or EFTA membership on the table amid Brexit talks. Business for Scotland speculates that “As many as 50,000 finance jobs could move [to Scotland] from London; major companies would relocate here to access the single market; our economy would grow faster; our deficit shrink more quickly than the rUK and increased EU trade would compensate for the rUK economy entering a self-imposed recession.”
As reported in City AM, big players like JP Morgan are now discussing a potential future role for Edinburgh as a finance hub in a newly independent Scotland that sees its future within the EU. In order to make such a deal workable, Scotland would need to be all but independent at the point of Brexit. But there’s an alternative:
It’s been dubbed the Reverse Greenland—allowing the the Scottish government in Edinburgh to take on Britain’s EU membership while remaining in the United Kingdom. Meanwhile the UK government in London, like Greenland in the 1980s, pulls England, Wales and Northern Ireland out of the EU, but keeps the British state united.
How might business rates in Scotland encourage independence?
Business tax is certainly one place to begin speculation, already between England and Scotland there are major differences in business rates. While both systems are harmonious with respect to the Uniform Business Rate and valuation methodologies, when it comes to appealing valuations and qualifying for exemptions, the disparities could be a cause for tensions.
The Scottish large business supplement is lacking in the northern state, too: “Currently, large firms pay double what similar firms pay south of the border, and this impedes rather than incentivises investment.”
In this regard, CBI Scotland has recommended continuing to align the Scottish business rates multiplier with other parts of the UK to avoid a deterioration in Scottish business competitiveness. Bringing rates down to meet the rUK benchmark is surely an argument against an autonomous independent Scottish state?
Empty rates differ too. Following changes made by the Scottish Government to Empty Rates relief in April 2016, industrial businesses in Scotland are now entitled to 100% relief for three months with 10% thereafter, while other properties are entitled to 50% relief for three months with 10% thereafter. That’s less generous than the English offering.
This is rather contradictory, given that according to the Scottish independence movement in 2013, high streets scarred by empty shops were thought to be reason enough to break away from Westminster‘s political dominance.
Business rates alone seem unlikely to fuel the independence fire.
Will Scottish businesses benefit if Scotland gains independence?
As suggested by former top civil servant at the Treasury, Sir Nicholas Macpherson (a staunch critic of the independence arguments in 2014), the present turmoil over access to the single market has endowed Scottish nationalists with a golden opportunity to remake their economic case.
Still, as with Brexit, there’s much speculation and little certainty over what the future might hold for business in an independent Scotland. Most often, it comes down to questions over whether the country could support its own economy.
Last time around, Scotland’s claim to North Sea oil was major factor in pro-independence manifestos. Since then, however, the value of oil has more than halved. The bank has recently warned Scottish independence would only make the Brexit upheaval worse.
In fact, since the first referendum, Scotland’s economy has grown far more slowly than the rest of the UK, with just 4% GDP growth compared to a 23% growth in cash terms for the UK as a whole. This further complicates any talk of Scottish secession.
Critics warn that an Independent Scotland in the euro would be ‘like Greece without the sun’, because its economy is far more reliant on the UK than the EU. Senior unionists, including Gordon Brown and Ruth Davidson, have pointed out that Scottish exports to the rest of the UK are worth £48.5 billion per year compared with only £11.6 billion to the EU.
Meanwhile, The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) told the Telegraph that “we need to understand what the business conditions are going to be before we move forward.” Billionaire North Sea oil tycoon Sir Ian Wood notes that “Scotland would have very little influence in Europe on its own.” All this fails to paint a good picture of a country ready to go it alone, even with EU membership.
Numbers aside, Scottish leaders have some soul-searching to do. If an independent Scotland is going to support endemic business growth, it is going to have to do so on the back of abandoning leftist principles in favour of hard-headed, pro-growth policies, but then that neglects the progressive policies on which the SNP have risen to prominence.
The economy remains widely regarded as the key campaign battleground for any constitutional change. When it comes to predicting what this means for Scottish business and IndyRef2, speculation abounds…