Referendum: Not too late for both sides to be specific

A general view at the border between Scotland and England just north of Berwick-upon-Tweed. Picture: Danny Lawson/PA Wire
A general view at the border between Scotland and England just north of Berwick-upon-Tweed. Picture: Danny Lawson/PA Wire
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The Federation of Small Businesses has a consistent position on the independence referendum.

We remain neutral, but have worked hard to ensure small business concerns feature in the debate and that our membership is sufficiently well informed to make the best choice for them.

Nowhere is this more important than for our 700 members in the Borders. In April and May of this year we conducted a survey across Scotland. Over 1,800 members replied and the results were analysed independently by the University of Edinburgh Business School. We have now turned this analysis into a handy referendum guide for small businesses which we published last month.

The most consistent response was that the majority felt the standard of debate had been poor. There was also a strong feeling that business owners wanted to know more, not so much about the big economic picture, but what a Yes vote would mean in practice to them, their daily business and their employees.

They raised specific business-related issues such as operational costs, access to customers and the impact on cross-border trade. Questions were asked about currency, tax rates, regulation, EU membership and uncertainty during any transition period.

Firms employing people on both sides of the border have issues about inequalities in take-home pay between those doing the same job. We wonder whether more favourable conditions on one side or other of the border will diminish or increase business.

The fact is that many of these questions can’t be answered fully because no one actually knows how they’ll pan out until after the vote. If it’s a Yes, then a lot of these issues will need to be negotiated – and many will hinge on whether we are in the EU (and, if so, on what terms). If we say No, the main parties at Westminster will need to deliver on their pledge of greater devolved powers.

Earlier this month also saw the Scottish Government publish a leaflet, “Helping Small Businesses Flourish”, which promises a focus on SMEs and increased support for manufacturing, cutting corporation tax by up to three percentage points below the UK rate and better government procurement opportunities. The creation of a more efficient tax system and improved connections for rural Scotland – including broadband – are also highlighted.

Marvellous stuff. But focus means what exactly? Some might argue that the Scottish or Westminster governments could do a lot of this already. Others might say that this sort of pledge should be in a party’s election manifesto, rather than a document about constitutional change.

On the other hand, the Westminster Government has missed the opportunity to get High Speed Rail to Scotland (which has an eight-fold pay-back) and to get moving on completing the dualling of the A1. Further studies aren’t the same as construction.

Half our members think independence may offer new opportunities, while half don’t see any potential benefits and, nationally, ten per cent are considering moving in the event of independence.

But what is also evident is that 27 per cent say they might be influenced further and 13 per cent haven’t decided. Thus, with 40 per cent open to persuasion, it is not too late for both sides to get some specifics on the table. Confidence means investment means jobs.