Analysis: Scottish big business is swinging behind May’s deal – is anyone surprised?

Ben Wray

It was naive to think Scottish business elites would turn their back on the British state and back independence, Ben Wray finds

SIR IAN WOOD, billionaire Scottish oil tycoon, is the latest of Scotland’s corporate big-wigs to do what many Tory MPs won’t: endorse Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal.

Wood joins RBS chairman Ross McEwan and Ineos owner (and Britain’s richest man, until he became a tax exile in Monaco) Jim Ratcliffe who over the past week have swung in behind the Maybot.

He told Good Morning Scotland this morning that it was “a good deal for Scotland”.

“I frankly think we do need to move ahead – it’s what you hear most business people saying,” Wood said, adding: “I think it is better than we have – we’re out of Common Market membership, but we’re maintaining some of the advantages.”

Of course what Wood means by “business people” isn’t your shopkeepers and entrepreneurs, it’s the big corporate lobbyists like CBI, who have also backed up the prime minister.

READ MORE – Analysis: What would RBS have to do for the kow-towing from politicians to end?

It’s important to make this distinction because too often it is assumed that “the business community” is some sort of homogenous group with the same ideas and interests, and thus the individuals and corporations with a massive media reach can act as spokespeople for all of them.

What has the head of RBS, a bank which has admitted to operating a unit which deliberately ran down small businesses so it could seize their assets, got in common with the majority of Scottish businesses in Scotland, which are small and medium sized? What has Wood, who is seeking to suck the last drop of oil out of the north sea, got in common with the Scottish businesses which rely on a sustainable ecosystem for their future prosperity? If Ratcliffe had got his way, he would be fracking all over Scotland – how many small businesses want their shop closed down because it’s suddenly in the fracking earthquake radius, as has happened in Lancashire?

Big banks and big oil are significantly detached from the economic needs of most of us – their profits can rise and the 99 per cent can get poorer. What is important to them is not necessarily what is important to us. So while some seem surprised that “business people” are getting behind May’s Brexit deal, let’s think this through: why do you think the current deal is not in their interests?

Take banking. Robert Peston has reported that “the City has got most of what it requested”, he added that “it would be business as usual if May’s deal is approved”. So what would RBS have to worry about? They remain in a country which bends over backwards to put the financial sector’s interests before everyone else’s, and they are going to be able to trade with the EU in almost exactly the same way as they did previously.

READ MORE – Analysis: Scotland’s 11 billionaires – did they really get rich ‘through their vision and tireless endeavours’?

Do you think the City are worried about the fact that Britain will be a rule-taker on future EU financial regulations changes rather than a rule-maker? Why would they be concerned about a lack of democracy? Why would they fear that the EU, of all institutions, is going to do something to harm the big banks in future? Don’t let the sight of Boris Johnson and Jacob-Rees Mogg railing against this deal confuse you: they speak for a section of British elite thinking which cares about British sovereignty and a romanticised notion of Empire 2.0. Most of the British ruling class don’t agree.

There was a somewhat naïve moment post-Brexit where some independence supporters thought big business would shift towards independence. That the City of London was finished and Edinburgh could be their next destination. Pete Wishart tweeted shortly after the Leave vote that “overtures” should be made to “international multinations” about coming to Scotland. Gordon Macintyre-kemp argued that, post-Brexit, a “cash bonanza” could be on its way to Scotland.  

“Financial services is worth about £7 billion to Scotland’s economy,” he said. “Independence within the EU managed correctly could see that double and along with other relocations create an instant, independence-related finance, exporting, manufacturing and construction/property price-led economic boom for Scotland.”

Growth Commission chair Andrew Wilson wrote in the Times following Brexit that “senior and experienced people need to be recruited to client handle the leaders of major employers and wealth creators and the major international businesses that would consider expanding here or locating here. We need to make this our national priority”.

(What sort of senior and experienced people could the head of an Edinburgh based corporate lobbying firm be thinking of??)

Indeed, the most convincing explanation for the neoliberal Growth Commission, which included a ‘come to Scotland’ tax relief policy for corporations willing to headquarter here, is that it was a report to win over the boardrooms. Wilson implied as much in an interview with the National after its publication.

It was never realistic that an alliance between Scottish corporate elites and Scottish independence would emerge, however much Wilson may desire it. It was RBS and Wood who swung behind a No vote in the days before the 2014 independence referendum. One asset fund manager told the FT that it was “almost considered treason” to back a Yes vote in the sector. The idea Brexit was going to make them see the light, or that there would be a fundamental rupture between big oil, banks and the British establishment, was fanciful. They know where their bread is buttered.

The reality is that May’s deal is one that protects British capital and, most of all, The City of London. Independence could only ever be a project to break with that, and thus will only ever find a reliable base of support among the Scottish working class. By all means make a business case for independence – but make it about the thousands of small and medium sized businesses in Scotland who don’t benefit from neoliberalism, not desperate attempts to win over those who are doing very well with the British state running the show.

Picture courtesy of CommonSpace