James Moore: Standard Life’s conservative view wins friends south of the border

 

Outlook “In making our comments, we were not seeking to make a political comment.” If he can make more disingenuous statements like that with a straight face, then a political career may be ahead for David Nish, the chief executive of Standard Life.

You might have missed the fact that the life insurer actually came out with a rather good set of interims, because the company made sure the focus wouldn’t be on them.

A reiteration of its warning about Scottish independence was close to the top of emails ostensibly containing the results’ highlights sent to journalists yesterday.

So was the fact that Standard felt that it hadn’t received answers to questions about an independent Scotland’s currency, EU membership and the way it will handle financial regulation.

At a time when most big companies are doing everything they can to avoid getting entangled in the debate, Mr Nish and Standard Life jumped right into the middle of it. Which seems to have been their intention, despite what they’d have you believe.

Of course, Standard has long been a bastion of old-style Edinburgh Unionism, and conservatism (only sometimes with a small c). Its late chief executive, Scott Bell, was a vocal opponent of devolution and communicated that very clearly to his staff, and to anyone else who cared to listen.

But his successor, and the company, are playing a subtler game here than simply trying to persuade fellow Scots to vote “No”, by threatening to shift jobs south if they say “Yes”. 

For starters, the company needs to reassure its customers and shareholders during a period of uncertainty. If it loses too many toss-ups for mandates to English-based rivals, such as Legal & General or Prudential, then future results won’t look too good.

But that should have been covered when Standard first said it was making contingency plans to move businesses south in the event of a “Yes” vote several months ago.

Yesterday’s statements, coming so close to the vote, may actually have been aimed at a rather different audience.

However Standard’s words are perceived North of the border, they will go down very well in the South, and especially in Westminster. By banging the Unionist drum it will have won friends, and be owed favours, enhancing its prestige and clout in the process. That’s something the company’s canny – and well-connected – chairman, Gerry Grimstone, will have been well aware of. The after-hours chatter holds that certain life insurance bosses, notably the Pru’s Tidjane Thiam and Nigel Wilson at Legal & General, were called by the Chancellor, George Osborne, before he made the surprise decision to scrap the requirement for people to buy an annuity with their pension savings. If Mr Nish wasn’t on the “to call” list, he will be in the future.

Yesterday’s noise was therefore part of a clever play by Standard Life. A deliberate, and a very political one.

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