I worked for Standard Life over 16 years between 1991 and 2006 in a variety of senior roles. During my time at the company I worked on a series of projects including the demutualisation project, which readied the group for flotation. It came as a surprise to me to hear claims that the company had made negative statements regarding independence.
These reports contradict what I have been told by senior contacts at Standard Life. They stress that the company – which operates in 14 countries across the world – is neutral in the independence debate. From selective quoting of the Standard Life report today you would assume otherwise.
Beyond the headlines
It’s important to look beyond the headline and consider the detail of statements that are made.
Today Standard Life has called for agreements on currency, regulation and taxation. This is exactly what the Yes Campaign and the Scottish Government have been calling for over the past few months. In response, George Osborne appeared in Scotland and rejected the possibility of in-depth talks. This is despite the fact that the UK Treasury has already guaranteed the security of all UK debt in the event of independence.
To settle the concerns of Standard Life, Westminster needs to ‘set aside its differences and get around the negotiating table’ on issues such as currency and the EU. There is no use in Westminster complaining about ‘uncertainty’ when leading politicians replace mature discussions with posturing.
In fact Business for Scotland predicted just two weeks ago following Osborne’s speech that companies would call for certainty on the currency union:
The actual statement from Standard Life, concerning where to base operations, was the following:
This is a purely precautionary measure, and customers do not need to take any action. We are simply putting in place a mechanism which, in the event of constitutional change, allows us to provide continuity to customers and to continue serving them, wherever they live in the UK. ”
This is known as contingency planning – nothing more, nothing less. Companies do it all the time as a sensible measure to lower risks. Whether Standard Life, with 5,000 employees in Scotland and a 189 year history of having its headquarters here, with the possibility of gaining business from the investment of an independent Scotland’s oil fund, and of other lucrative opportunities, will actually move its headquarters elsewhere is a decision for the future. What Standard Life and other businesses deserve is for the UK Government to engage in common sense discussions on currency, regulation and taxation in the event of independence.
There are precedents on this and negative reporting.
Previous fears were unfounded
Concerns about constitutional change are nothing new in Scotland.
Standard Life were reported as raising the possibility of moving its operations prior to the referendum on devolution. It didn’t come to pass. William Hague warned of a “high-tax ghetto”. It didn’t come to pass.
I remember how colleagues at Standard Life were disappointed with the negative stories concerning the company.
Now, as we approach another referendum, the same stories are appearing all over again – despite the fact that the rumoured exodus of big business after the birth of the Scottish parliament never took place.
Change with influence or change without influence
The reality is, as Tony Banks recently set out in a speech to Business for Scotland Aberdeen, that Scotland exists in a rapidly changing world. Scotland can either have the fiscal powers to set its own economic priorities and develop its strengths or those decisions can be taken elsewhere. Business is a constant process of change and the balancing of opportunity and risk. Independence is the process by which business in Scotland will have a greater influence over its own interests within the global market.
Only yesterday business figures at the Scottish Parliament called for the No Campaign to set out its plans for what happens to Scotland if people vote for no change. So far there has been no detail. Business figures also set out the opportunities of independence, for which there is growing evidence.
From discussion with former colleagues at the firm, it’s clear that the media is not representing this balance accurately or Standard Life’s insistence on its neutrality. Yet that is what matters most for Scotland’s post-independence economy.