Where is the voice of business in the Scottish referendum debate?

A growing number of media commentators have expressed their surprise and disappointment that businesses, especially those north of the border, are remaining mute on the subject of the Scottish independence referendum in September.

The great divide: Businesses fear taking sides on the issue of Scottish independence
The great divide: Businesses fear taking sides on the issue of Scottish independence

A recent Telegraph leader column and an erudite piece by Terry Murden, business editor at The Scotsman, both ask the same question: Why are Scottish business leaders not contributing to the most important domestic debate of the past 20 years?

Commentators have gone so far as to suggest that business leaders are being wrongly advised to keep their heads down at a time when nothing less than the future of Great Britain is at stake. 

Surely the country’s employers have a responsibility to contribute to the debate – even if it is only to inform us as to the potential consequences of Scottish independence on the economy on both sides of the Tweed?

From a brand management perspective the answer is, perhaps regrettably, all too straightforward. 

Any brand owner that comes out with a view on the future of the Union immediately risks alienating half of their customers. 

And that consideration, at least with the referendum still nine months away, holds greater sway over the concerns that an independent Scotland might be bad for business. 

And it works the other way as well, with pro-independence business leaders scared at the prospect of irritating their Unionist customers. 

From a purely London perspective, it is very easy to underestimate just how polarising the debate is becoming in Scotland. 

I know of longstanding friends in Scotland who have literally come to blows over the independence issue.

A very senior journalist at a Scottish newspaper told me that anyone with any sort of profile in Scotland lives in fear of a militant Nationalist backlash – often orchestrated through social media channels – should they come out in support of a "no" vote. 

And because so few business leaders are willing to voice an opinion, any public comments in support of the "No" campaign are seized on and magnified by a Scottish media that is living on scraps when it comes to high profile individuals speaking out on the issue. 

So in this climate, it is hardly surprising that brand owners are keeping their own counsel. 

However, while the referendum is still nearly nine months away, there is little doubt that it is impacting business investment decisions.

Nothing hurts business confidence like uncertainty and the prospect of a close-run referendum is being felt by the Scottish economy today.

Brand reputation managers know all too well the dangers of entering into any political debate, but the possibility of Scotland wresting independence from the rest of the UK poses such profound commercial questions that it may prove impossible to avoid. 

Given that likelihood, brand owners with any sort of presence in Scotland need to start addressing the referendum question today. 

Andrew Murray-Watson is head of corporate for Mission Media and former City Editor of Scotland on Sunday.

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