Scottish business group steps up anti-referendum drive

Although losses by the SNP in the general election has been seen as killing the party’s hopes for a second referendum, some pro-Union Scottish business people are determined not to be complacent

A Scottish business campaign group is stepping up preparations to oppose a future independence referendum, warning that supporters of union with the UK have become too complacent about the threat of secession.

The Scottish Business UK group founded by care home entrepreneur Robert Kilgour will announce this month the creation of an advisory board that includes a leading publisher and a former chairman of employers’ lobby CBI Scotland. 

Losses suffered by the Scottish National party in June’s UK general election has been widely seen as killing SNP hopes for an early second referendum on leaving the UK. 

But Mr Kilgour, who has already spent more than £30,000 to establish the SBUK group, said the independence push might quickly regain momentum. 

“I still feel it is very much a real and present danger,” said Mr Kilgour, who believes that relatively late and limited interventions by pro-union corporate figures was a factor in the narrower than expected victory over independence in the 2014 referendum. 

 “Scottish businesses were too slow and too shy the last time, and too late to the game,” he told the Financial Times. 

While most leading business people in Scotland did not want independence in 2014, many were unwilling to go public for fear of alienating customers, staff or the governing Scottish National party. 

Union supporters also previously had no direct equivalent of the high-profile pro-independence lobby group Business for Scotland, which has continued to operate since 2014. 

Journalists knew they could go to Business for Scotland for a pro-independence business view and SBUK would aim to be the “go-to group” for a pro-union perspective, Mr Kilgour said. 

Opinion polls suggest support for independence has fallen slightly this year, but it remains close to the 45 per cent level recorded in the 2014 referendum, despite an oil price slump that has dramatically increased the fiscal difficulty of leaving the UK. 

Mr Kilgour said more than 400 businesses had signed up privately to support SBUK. 

The group’s chief executive is former Conservative member of the European Parliament Struan Stevenson.

It will soon announce the appointment to an advisory board of Hugh Andrew, managing director of major Scottish publisher Birlinn, Jack Perry, a former chief executive of investment agency Scottish Enterprise and chairman of CBI Scotland, and accountant Ian Condie. 

Mr Kilgour, who has in the past been a substantial donor to the Conservative party, said a renewed push for independence might be triggered by a “hard Brexit” that would alienate many in Scotland, which voted strongly to stay in the EU last year. 

An earlier than expected general election might open the way for another referendum. “It’s not inconceivable that the Conservatives could self-destruct,” he said. 

Mr Kilgour warned the UK government that it risked fuelling support for independence if it refused to pass on to the Scottish parliament powers that are returned from Brussels after Brexit. 

The Scottish and Welsh governments have accused Westminster of planning a “power grab” with Brexit legislation that will see powers initially at least repatriated to London even when they are in areas such as agriculture that have been devolved for nearly two decades. 

 “If we vote to stay in the EU, and still get dragged out, and all that happens is that Westminster takes the powers and doesn’t devolve them to Scotland, then the Scottish electorate are going to take a dim view of that,” Mr Kilgour said.

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