Something strange appears to be happening in the Scottish Referendum battle: with less than a week to go voters are finally listening to big business. It’s a neat contrast with the continuing debate over that other referendum. Business leaders galore have queued up to sign open letters to newspapers, appear on television, put their names to articles all extolling the virtues of remaining within the EU – and it does not seem to have made one jot of difference.
North of the Border, however, in the last 24 hours, the public have sat up and taken notice. The threat by the major banks that they would base themselves in England, coupled with statements from Tesco, TSB, Standard Life and others, all saying they would be relocating operations and staff southwards, have galvanised minds – this regardless of the fact that several of these business indicated weeks if not months ago what they were planning.
I want to believe that this is a breakthrough. For far too long in these islands we’ve not paid enough attention to business. Worse, in the last few years we’ve become nakedly hostile, treating anyone who works for a major corporation, or so it feels, with suspicion, regarding all bankers as corrupt, viewing anyone in a senior position as a corporate fat cat in receipt of a reward for failure.
Much of that antagonism has been justified. The sheer failure of business to make a proper case for itself, to explain the good it does, to describe how much worse off we’d be without it, is shocking – and depressing. They’re staffed with some of the sharpest minds on the planet; they employ some of the most sophisticated image manipulators using every technique under the sun – and still our companies are treated with general disdain. They’re viewed as scandals waiting to erupt: a chemicals supplier that must be causing pollution; a pharmaceuticals manufacturer that has to be ignoring the chase for a cure in preference to something more lucrative; a weapons-maker that just has to be up to its neck in bribing officials.
And in a world imbued by the likes of Michael Moore that often turns out to be the case. But not all the time and not every company.
What is not mentioned enough is how many people companies employ, how much tax they pay, the steps they go to in order to improve their products and services, their constant quest for innovation, and the amounts they give to charity. Instead, attention is paid to the size of the profits, jobs lost in one area as opposed to jobs created in another, and the wage packet of the highest-paid director.
Somehow, the business trade associations have failed to redress the balance. They don’t go on the front foot enough, they’re too cosy with leading politicians usually from the right, they don’t thrust themselves forwards. Too often, you turn on the TV and there is neither anyone there to defend a charge laid against capitalism or if there is, they talk in a strangled, business-school format.
It does not help that businesses are themselves inherently conservative. Anyone who speaks out is viewed with suspicion by the rest of the business community. Consequently, genuine voices of business are few and far between.
Of course, while most companies have not done anything wrong, plenty others have. From Gerald Ratner’s “crap” remarks, to the mis-selling of financial products by banks, to energy firms not lowering their charges in response to falling oil and gas prices, recent history is littered with examples of companies and their bosses displaying disregard for their customers, and losing their trust.
In pictures: Politicians scramble for Scotland
In pictures: Politicians scramble for Scotland
1/6 Politicians scramble for Scotland
Labour Party leader Ed Miliband speaks during a campaign meeting in Cumbernauld in Glasgow
2/6 Politicians scramble for Scotland
British Prime Minister David Cameron gestures as he speaks during a visit to Scottish Widows offices in Edinburgh
3/6 Politicians scramble for Scotland
Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond campaigns for a Yes vote in east Edinburgh, Scotland
4/6 Politicians scramble for Scotland
John Prescott campaigns for a 'No' vote in the referendum on Rutherglen main street in Glasgow
5/6 Politicians scramble for Scotland
Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg talks to the media during a campaign visit to the market place in Selkirk
6/6 Politicians scramble for Scotland
Better Together campaign leader Alistair Darling speaks to the public in Glasgow
The widely-held feeling, always, is that whatever business does or says it is on the make. That’s not to say that some companies aren’t. But I’ll say it again: not all.
The result has been a growing detachment between the public and our largest corporations. Not between the ordinary man and the SMEs. As far as our small and medium enterprises are concerned, there is still residual affection towards them. Again that appeal can be explained by the common view that the Goliaths are out to monster the Davids, that like us, small firms are the victims of big business.
So when corporate titans enter the political arena, they’re ignored. That has certainly been the case where the EU referendum is concerned. The business argument for staying in the EU – and from that, future jobs and economic prosperity – is cast-iron. The line-up of those in favour of staying in versus those industry leaders who have declared their opposition to EU membership is completely skewed towards the former. It’s not even a contest. And yet, Ukip and the sceptics carry on making ground and having their views heard.
Suddenly, though, in Scotland, business has spoken and the public has listened, and agreed with what they’ve heard. What would seem to be the case is that the nearer they’ve got to voting day the more that minds have become concentrated.
Yes, there’s an emotional argument in Scotland breaking away. But voters are also fixing in the financial consequences, on the strength of the economy they would be left with, on the danger to jobs if businesses follow through with their threats and move away. The heart is saying independence; the head is saying guard the money.
For now, the EU referendum is too far away to make a difference so the entreaties of top commercial figures are simply ignored. But the pro-EU lobby should not lose hope. On the eve of the independence ballot, the business view may finally have carried the day – Scotland should tell us that.