Big business bypassed democracy in the Scottish referendum

Whilst NGOs and civil society politely facilitated discussion, big business waded into the Scottish referendum with overblown threats. Does free market capitalism really walk hand in hand with democracy?

Liz Murray
3 October 2014


Higher food prices, destabilisation of the financial markets, a drop in the value of Sterling, job losses, capital flight, the next great depression...

All of these things, and more, were being predicted by big business and the financial industry, and faithfully reported by the mainstream media, in the months, weeks and days before the Scottish independence referendum.

In what was a free and democratic vote for the Scottish public, undemocratic business voices waded in in an unprecedented and blatantly unethical way, demonstrating the power that the corporate elite (from wherever it is in the world) has in the UK. Whichever way Scots were planning on voting, they could be forgiven for feeling like they were, at best, being patronised and, at worst, being held to ransom by the increasingly dramatic predictions that were being made by big business as the vote got closer.

In contrast, civil society organisations such as NGOs, the churches, academic institutions and most of the trade unions went to some lengths to provide balanced information and engage the public in a way that allowed them to consider both sides of the debate.

While there were business voices on both sides of the referendum debate, the interventions of big business, multinationals and the financial industry were almost without exception in support of retaining the Union. Senior executives of BP and Shell pretty much instructed the public to vote No (for more detail on BP’s influence on the independence referendum I’d recommend this recent blog from Platform). RBS, Standard Life, Lloyds, TSB, Clydesdale and Tesco Bank all threatened to move their headquarters to England in the event of a Yes vote. Asda suggested that food prices could rise in an independent Scotland. Then it said that actually they could fall, but only if politicians abolished the tax known as the large retail levy.

The Financial Times reported on September 9, after a poll showed the Yes vote in the lead for the first time, that, "Asset managers, investors and pension savers are moving billions of pounds out of Scotland". Deutsche Bank’s predictions were perhaps the most dramatic, claiming that a Yes vote would result in economic circumstances that were ‘incomprehensible’ and predicting another great depression.

I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised by any of this. With one eye on the balance sheet and another on the likely response of shareholders to the outcome of the referendum, big business exposed the extent to which the international markets and the profit motive drive them and their behaviour, and how strongly they can react to any perceived threat to the neoliberal status quo. But we should be angered by it – and the fact that these statements, predictions and (let’s face it) guesses in support of mainstream economic thinking were given such disproportionate prominence.

We are endlessly told that free market capitalism and democracy go hand in hand. But what we saw in the run-up to the independence referendum is that, when the chips are down, they are actually incompatible.

With political engagement at phenomenally high levels in Scotland, and the focus on devolving power, now is the time to recognise the undemocratic influence of big business and to stop this interference in the future.

Find out more about the World Development Movement Scotland here.

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