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Unionist captains of industry on the wrong side of history

There was a dreary inevitability about the latest open letter from 133 Unionist businessmen and women warning about risks and uncertainty in voting Yes.

This epistle from "captains of industry" was granted top billing across the BBC news and current affairs in a way Business For Scotland's backing for independence at Edinburgh's Dynamic Earth earlier this month was not.

You might have thought these business types condemning austerity and public spending cuts, and calling for worker participation in an independent Scotland, was a rather better story than a predictable declaration of capitalist solidarity with the UK. But no. The former chief executive of betting giant William Hill, Ralph Topping, even confounded his own firm's odds by telling Business For Scotland's launch that he's voting Yes. Surely that is as near to "dog bites man" as you can get.

It is not that I think he or any business person should be regarded as economic oracles or constitutional authorities. There is a cringeworthy deference accorded to members of the "business community" by some media folk. I blame programmes such as The Apprentice. But like Lord Sugar, businessmen are by definition mostly in it for themselves. Bulletins suggested the Better Together bosses represented "50,000 employees in Scotland". Nonsense. No-one has asked their workers what they think. Businessmen only have one vote, like everyone else.

And some businesses (mentioning no names such as Amazon) have an unfortunate habit of avoiding tax and holding countries to ransom. As news of the 133's letter broke on Tuesday night, BBC's Scotland 2014 devoted a large chunk of the programme to a report on how Scots businessmen are supposedly preparing to "sneak across the Border" to escape a high- tax Scotland. Actually, this was just a little previous, since the SNP have been falling over themselves to promise cuts in business taxes in an independent Scotland. Are business people so blinded by their animus towards self-government they can't even see their own bottom line?

I think the SNP are too deferential to the cult of capital, too ready to entertain the idea you have to bribe wealthy to people stick around; not so. If tax was all that motivated them, the entire UK business community would have relocated long since to Albania or Romania, where taxes are the lowest in Europe. Personal taxation is, anyway, a relatively minor factor in business creation. New businesses look for markets for their goods, access to capital and credit, an educated work force and a lively entrepreneurial environment.

And social protection is not incompatible with economic dynamism; indeed, it is often a precondition for it in the age of the internet start-up. This is why countries such as Norway and Denmark, which have higher taxes than the UK, are cited by the World Bank as the best countries in Europe in which to set up a business. Not many people know that.

Enlightened business organisations realise that low-tax, low-wage economies are not the best places to set up shop. If you are looking for stability and market demand, the best place to find it over the last decade has been in the small countries of Europe. Even the Economist magazine said recently there is a new model of socially-responsible capitalism developing in northern Europe.

In July, Credit Suisse published a report, The Success Of Small Countries, in which it said the rise of countries of Scotland's size was "one of the great megatrends of the 21st century". Two-thirds of the 130 new countries to have emerged since 1945 have populations of less than 10 million people.

They have proved much more resilient and entrepreneurial, especially in the EU, than the older middle-sized countries like the UK. They also have higher public spending and higher taxes. People keep telling me Norway is losing out to countries with lower tax rates.

With per capita GDP at $60,000, unemployment at 3 per cent and growth at 3.5 per cent, this is failure we could live with. Denmark and Norway are not immune to property bubbles (they have one now) but they weathered the financial crisis far better than us, essentially because people were not thrown out of work and because wealth is spread more evenly. Norway has high taxes but it also has the highest standard of living in the world and tops the UN's Human Development Index Of Wellbeing.

Are Better Together business names interested in human development or all that guff? They are trading in fear, echoing Alistair Darling's tiresome complaint about the lack of a Plan B if Westminster rejects currency co-operation. Keith Cochrane, of the Weir Group, said he was worried about the ability to trade freely across the UK. Who, exactly, is proposing to obstruct trade across the UK?

It is Westminster politicians who are threatening to erect a financial Hadrian's Wall to stop Scots using their own currency: the pound. The idiocy of this exclusion, as Professor Joseph Stiglitz pointed out at the Edinburgh Book Festival, is precisely that it would disrupt trade and force companies to change money every time they or their goods crossed the Border with England.

And what about the uncertainties of remaining in the UK? The Unionists' epistle did not consider the impact of the referendum on British membership of the EU, arguably a greater risk than Scottish independence. The Times reported last week, without irony, that banks and businesses are already relocating to Dublin because of the possibility of British departure from Europe. A British exit puts Scottish companies at risk of losing privileged access to the biggest market in the world: 500 million consumers. By 2017, rUK businesses might start relocating to an independent Scotland to remain in the EU.

Of course, Tory hostility to Europe is largely about wanting to cut immigration. Even Ed Miliband is talking about future restrictions on EU migration. But I did not hear the 133 Scottish businessmen and women warning about the risks and uncertainties posed to the free movement of labour and capital. Yet, as even the Institute For Fiscal Studies think-tank observed, immigration is essential to Scotland's economic welfare because of our ageing population.

The Scottish Government says it needs another 14,000 each year. Yet, UK border controls already make it difficult for workers to come to Scotland; difficult for students and academics to do research in Scottish universities; and difficult for Asian entrepreneurs to come here without being suspected of being illegal immigrants and urged to "go home".

But when all is said and done, Unionist declarations by bankers and chief executives is probably good news for the Yes campaign. These are often the same people who opposed the Scottish Parliament in the 1990s and for the same reasons. They are narrow minded, unimaginative and self interested and, just as in 1997, they are on the wrong side of history.

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