We should focus on the things Scotland and England want to do together, says CBI chief

6 Sep 2012 01:25 PM

In a speech at the CBI Scotland Annual Dinner in Glasgow later today, John Cridland, CBI Director-General, will spell out the views of business communities north and south of the border on Scottish independence.

Mr Cridland will say:

For business, uncertainty is the biggest bogeyman of all. We do not want any more of it than is absolutely necessary.

Here in Scotland the debate over independence - however necessary or merited that debate may be - is adding a thick layer of uncertainty.

Reading the coverage, you could be mistaken for thinking that the only three issues are: when the referendum will be held; who’ll be able to vote; and what the phrasing of the question will be.

What I think the Scottish people – and, indeed, all the British people – really want to know is what separation or continuing union would mean to them and their families.

It’s only when some fundamental questions about how we live together or might live apart are discussed that voters will be in a position to make an informed choice.

We have two years to get this right, and get it right we must. 

If the vote is a yes to independence, the CBI will, of course, work with the mandate. We have always said the decision is one for the Scottish people. But we could have several more years of upheaval and negotiation. The immediate effects would be profound, and in the short term costly. When Slovakia separated from the Czech Republic, it cost the country four per cent of its GDP in the following year.

What’s on offer here is often described as divorce.

Those proposing a permanent split say there’s no animosity to this, it’s just that after 300 years of relatively happy marriage, they feel it’s time we started seeing other people.

My view is that’s the wrong way to look at it.

Yes, there are differences, as there are in any marriage. But if the differences were all we focussed on, few relationships would last long.

What’s more important – and much more positive – are those things we like doing together. And in this case, we need to ask what the Scottish and English want to do together.

A single head of state seems to be a given, and in this jubilee year the polls show the queen has never been more popular. But I would be surprised if the monarch were the only thing we’d want to share.

If we like winning at sport – and we do – then competing as one team has shown itself to be a great source of patriotic pride. Edinburgh-born Chris Hoy or Glasgow-born Andy Murray of course add an extra golden glow here north of the border. But they won gold for all of us, just as Mo Farah, Jessica Ennis and Ellie Simmonds did.

People in our armed forces, or those thinking about a career in them, might consider what uniform they want to wear. With British troops – Scottish and English - having stood shoulder to shoulder for centuries in the face of common enemies, will they only be able to do so in future on UN peacekeeping duties?

We do so much together, and have done for so long, that I think we forget the value of it.

As Charles Moore recently said, on the back of the new Bank of England £50 note are pictures of James Watt and Matthew Boulton. They were a great partnership of Scots and English engineering talent, making the steam engines that changed the world.

We can’t say whether they would have achieved as much apart, but we do know that if you tear the banknote in two, each half is not worth £25.

On the subject of currency, I suspect keeping the same one would be high up the list of things people want, for convenience if not for reasons of sentiment. If this wasn’t the case before the euro-zone crisis, it surely is now. And having a single currency means a single central bank and a single monetary policy for the whole island.

But let’s again ask what people want to do together in the future.

We’re tackling climate change together, knowing this is the only way to meet the challenge it presents. The effects of climate change will never respect national borders, so should our energy policies?

The UK Foreign Office is using its operations overseas to improve commercial diplomacy and tap us into high-growth economies. We have to decide whether separate embassies would have the same impact.

We want effective transport, both within and across our borders. But would the same incentives be there in a separate future to share the costs in delivering high-speed rail to Glasgow and Edinburgh, or getting more ‘M’ all the way up the A1?

And if people want to enjoy the benefits of our single market, we need to articulate better what these are, and so what’s on the line.

There’s a raft of common laws and regulations which make operating across the different constituent parts of the union more efficient. So with corporation tax rates, company law, consumer protection, pensions and employment contracts we need to consider whether we want to act in concert, or apart.

So plenty of questions to be asked, and public opinions sought.

The CBI has a collective view on independence, and, I believe, a duty to express it.

CBI Scotland Council is not convinced of the business and economic case for Scotland seceding from the union, and judges that businesses - Scottish, English, British - would lose out from the fragmentation of our UK single market.

If the job of one group of politicians was to secure the referendum, then that job is underway.

Now it’s also the job for a far-wider community to show what the answer to the referendum question would mean on the ground, to people and their employers, and to the way we choose to do things together.

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