North East business leaders debate the Scottish question

Expert panel leads discussion on independence at Journal breakfast event

Business leaders from throughout the North East turned out at the Hilton Newcastle Gateshead for a Journal-run breakfast event focused on how the region could be impacted by Scottish independence.

Supported by UBS Wealth Management and hosted by the BBC’s political editor for the North East and Cumbria, Richard Moss, the discussion brought together an expert panel to analyse the implications of the vote on September 19.

Among them was former North East LEP director Ed Twiddy, now director of innovation at Atom Bank; chief executive of the Wallsend-based subsea engineering firm SMD, Andrew Hodgson; president and chief executive of electric vehicle control manufacturer Sevcon Ltd, Matt Boyle; and Liberal Democrat peer Lord Shipley.

All took questions supplied by the audience - among which firms of all sizes were represented - the first focussing on how prepared the North East’s business community was for a yes vote.

“It’s one of those things that businesses in the North East are good at - looking forward,” said Boyle.

“The one thing that concerns me most is taxation north of the border as that could be an incentive to move work there.”

Hodgson agreed, saying his business already exported to 35 countries.

“If that becomes 36, it’s not likely to make much impact,” he added.

Twiddy, meanwhile, suggested there just was not that much to worry about.

“I am not sure I would regard tax as that big an issue,” he said.

“We are already in tax competition with many jurisdictions, but we can compete against those jurisdictions.

“I am not sure adjacency matters.”

More important, perhaps, was the issue of currency, although Twiddy suggested that whatever the outcome, a solution could be accommodated.

There would still, however, be a period of uncertainty and Lord Shipley said this would be pronounced among investors.

“That means a huge opportunity for the North East and Cumbria, but this is not just a border issue,” he said.

“We’ve been told there would be an 18 month period before Scotland becomes independent.

“Then there would be elections.

“I think it would be hugely complicated to get it right in that period.

“There’s a big question mark on the issue.”

Indeed, the panel agreed that people were being expected to vote on a subject on which they were not yet well-informed.

“There should be an intelligent debate on this,” Boyle said.

“Should Scotland be independent? Surely, if that’s what Scotland wants.

“But there should be a logical process that leads to that point.

“Currently, we’re in a very dangerous place, with one vote on one day that will be so monumental.

“If there’s a rational argument for this, then nobody is articulating it.

“Give us the arguments on both sides, let’s make an informed decision, then let’s have a referendum, rather than just a knee-jerk reaction.”

With the polls currently suggesting the vote could be close, there was also agreement on the panel that though a ‘no’ vote with a slight majority, uncertainty would increase rather than decrease.

“A close ‘no’ vote is probably as bad as any result,” Hodgson said, while Boyle described the scenario as a “nightmare”.

Twiddy, however, suggested that it was not really public investment that would drive the North East forward in any case, but the attitude of businesses here.

“That’s what’s created 60,00 jobs in the last year; it’s nothing to do with public investment,” he said.

The panel likewise agreed that, while instability and uncertainty were inevitable, new opportunities could arise within the North East’s future relationship with Scotland.

“I think there are opportunities,” Hodgson said.

“For everyone in our sector, the North East’s reputation is built around technology.

“There will be customers of ours who, for logistical reasons are based in Scotland, but who may see opportunities in the North East.

“I do think a number of offshore businesses would see the North East as place to invest because of the uncertainty.”

The North East could likewise benefit from a central power in Edinburgh through collaboration on subjects such as transport links.

Increased resentment between England and Scotland would be unlikely, according to the panel, with Boyle even suggesting an ideal future would involve a strengthening of the relationship between the two.

“I’d like it to be as strong as it is today and to grow strong stronger over time,” he said.

“The people of Scotland are hugely entrepreneurial and will reach out to the North.

“They will look at this region as a region of strategic importance to them.

“I see that relationship as being collaborative rather than confrontational.”

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