Ian Swanson: All hands to pumps as BP speaks out?

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BOB Dudley is not a household name – but he grabbed the headlines and topped TV news bulletins earlier this week with his comments on independence.

As global chief executive of BP, Mr Dudley is the most senior business figure so far to add his voice to the debate on Scotland’s future.

And his remarks were not particularly helpful to Alex Salmond or the Yes campaign.

The BP boss said the issues of currency and Scotland’s membership of the European Union were “quite big uncertainties for us”.

He continued: “At the moment we’re continuing to invest at the same pace because these projects are under way. But it’s a question mark. I think all businesses have a concern.

“My personal view is Great Britain is great and it ought to stay together.”

Oil is obviously a key factor in the Nationalists’ vision for a prosperous independent country – indeed, it is the main thing that allows the SNP to say Scotland’s economy is in better shape than the rest of the UK.

So Mr Dudley’s views on independence cannot easily be shrugged off. And anti-independence politicians were quick to seize on them as evidence of business fears about Scotland leaving the UK.

The pro-independence camp, however, has pointed out that BP operates in more than 80 countries around the world, many of them with much bigger “uncertainties” than Scotland.

And the Scottish Government has pointed out record amounts of money are being pumped into the offshore sector, by BP and others, with £100 billion of investment planned.

Most of the business community in Scotland has been noticeably silent on the independence question so far – reluctant, it is suggested, to incur the hostility of the SNP.

There are business people who back independence and others who don’t, whether they go public with their views or not.

It is perhaps understandable that businesses do not want to alienate either side – especially if they feel their own contribution to the debate is unlikely to affect the result. Some who took sides on devolution back in 1997 now regret doing so.

But the politicians are desperate to get business people on their side and persuade them to speak up.

And in the past week or so, there have been a few more voices raised. The outgoing chief executive of Sainsbury’s, Justin King, said if Scotland became independent, retailers would have to “take a view” of costs and revenues and added: “If you were to strike that today, there is no doubt Scotland is a more costly country in which to run a grocery retail business.”

And Owen Kelly, of Scottish Financial Enterprise, which represents the pensions, banking and life insurance industry, warned if Scotland became independent it would mean setting up a new regulator. “The cost would run into millions and have to be paid for by the industry in Scotland.”

He said fund managers would need to tailor their products and services for Scottish clients to a new tax, consumer protection and regulatory regime, creating additional complexity and costs.

Mr Dudley won’t have a vote in the referendum, but if people take seriously the comments he and others have made, they can nevertheless have a significant influence on the outcome on September 18.

It remains to be seen just how much attention voters will pay to the views of business. Perhaps the first test is whether Mr Dudley’s comments will now embolden other senior figures follow his lead in speaking out.