Small Talk: After two years of debate the effect on small businesses of a Yes vote in Scotland remains a guessing game


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The Independent Online

With less than two weeks to go until Scotland’s referendum, small business leaders appear to be sanguine. In March, 90 per cent of them told the entrepreneur network Ingenious Britain that they knew how they would vote, with 48 per cent concerned that independence would hurt their business. But by the summer, two-thirds of small and medium-sized business reckoned independence would make no difference to them, according to a survey by the networking group Vistage.

Similarly, the 130 Scottish business leaders who last month signed an open letter urging a No vote were more than matched by the 200 of their peers who put their names to a different letter advocating independence.

The arguments are just as finely balanced from the perspective of smaller businesses as elsewhere in the debate. On business tax, for example, some believe rates would rise under an independent government – but the Scottish Parliament is in any case due to get greater power on taxation.

Small businesses with exposure to the oil sector will welcome greater Scottish control over the country’s assets, while the financial sector is nervous about an exodus of leading firms in the event of independence.

Even here, however, the arguments may be overdone. On oil, the size of Scotland’s remaining reserves is not clear. On financial services, the threat of companies to leave in the event of a Yes vote may not be fulfilled if the new government can provide reassurance on issues such as regulation.

Then there’s the question of currency: will small businesses still be dealing in pounds following independence, or switching to the euro? The answer is remarkably uncertain given its importance, but there are pros and cons either way. For example, while the rest of the UK will be a crucial export market for Scottish firms, the wider eurozone market is potentially bigger – a switch to the euro might not be such a bad thing.

More localised policymaking would certainly help Scottish small businesses in at least one way: Scottish Enterprise, the former Scottish Development Agency, is already a devolved agency and therefore survived the cull of regional development agencies in 2011 – nevertheless, Westminster policy on small business support remains centralised and offers Scottish firms little practical support.

On the really big issues, however, the debate that has been going on for more than two years has been frustrating. We are no closer to answers on the currency question than when we started, or even to a basic matter such as what Scotland’s share of the national debt would be.

A Yes vote would simply be a starting point in the journey towards these answers. It would trigger difficult negotiations between Edinburgh and London – as well as Brussels – over the terms of the divorce.

For those making a practical decision about independence, this referendum remains a guessing game. The good news is that it would be in both sides’ interests to conclude negotiations quickly and amicably. That may be enough to reassure those whose hearts lie with independence – but there are no guarantees.

Small Business Person of the Week: Ian Baxter, Founder, Baxter Freight

I qualified as a solicitor and worked in London and Hong Kong for several years, but the turning point for me came in 1995: my father had founded a successful freight business in the early Seventies and he asked my advice about buying some land that had come up for sale nearby in order to expand – it was too good an opportunity to miss and that was when I went to work with the family company.

In time, I became managing director of the firm, RH Freight, which we built up and eventually sold in 2011.

I had a couple of years off but I was only 45 when we sold the business and I knew I would want to do something else. I considered all sorts of opportunities but in the end I decided the best option was to do something I knew about, but to do it better.

I launched Baxter Freight in January this year but we didn’t start selling to clients until March; we bought a database from a credit reference agency, spent some time working on it to establish what businesses needed and then picked up the phones. So far, we have nearly 60 staff and about 500 accounts.

RH was an international freight business whereas we’re a one-stop shop for firms’ logistics requirements, targeted particularly at small and medium-sized enterprises.

It’s very different starting a business to running an established company, but I really enjoy it. The management is closer to the action and absolutely everything matters – every job, every opportunity and every supplier relationship. It’s all about the details and new challenges are presenting themselves all the time. That’s what I wanted: I didn’t just want to replicate what I’d done in the past.