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Business Comment: Terry Murden

McColl changed view on independence before referendum

Jim McCollIt came as a shock as one of Scotland’s wealthiest businessmen and SNP supporters admitted that even if Scotland had voted for independence the UK would have retained an alliance of armed forces, the Queen as head of state and embassies around the world. Even Trident nuclear weapons may have remained berthed at Faslane.

And if David Cameron had agreed to have a third question on the referendum ballot paper, one that offered enhanced devolution powers, “then that is what we would have got – everyone would have voted for more powers, but remaining part of the UK”.

These are the thoughts of Jim McColl, Scottish billionaire, now widely reported to have changed his mind about the merits of independence.

Except the comments  above are not from an interview in today’s Financial Times, nor from the lifted versions appearing in tomorrow’s papers. They are from an interview he gave just a few days before last September’s referendum.

Mr McColl was softening his views even before last year’s historic poll. 

He was always an advocate of more meaningful powers for Scotland, particularly those that gave it control over the levers of the economy. But he has shifted his beliefs from supporting full independence to accepting the benefits of collaborative power-sharing, as long as it gives Scotland a better deal from the union.

He “came out” as an adherent to independence two years before the poll, stating in September 2012 that “only independence as defined by the Scottish government, an independent nation within this social union and common market of the UK, will allow England and Scotland to pursue distinct economic policies in the face of different demands and competitive pressures.”

That statement singled him out among Scottish business leaders who were, and continue to be, generally opposed to independence. Mr McColl’s position earned him a place among former FM Alex Salmond’s Council of Economic Advisers, though privately he never came across as an independence zealot. In conversations with me before Christmas he questioned the value of devolving income tax and never indicated a commitment to severing all ties with Westminster or the British establishment.

Mr McColl has built his personal fortune through a series of global businesses which have drawn heavily on the money men and advisers in the City of London and beyond. He knows the value of cooperation, shared interest, and access to resources. He would have been well aware of the limitations of a tiny nation, even one ranked highly in the league of financial services, to operate on the global stage should its currency and capital reserves be exposed to the risks of international lenders and ratings agencies.

It is likely that he has been torn between the realities of these economic challenges and a sentimental attachment to Scotland. He lives as a tax exile in Monaco, something his critics have seized upon, but he spends as much time as possible in his homeland, not only working on his latest business project, but with the unemployed and underprivileged on the Glasgow housing schemes. The son of a butcher, he knows where he came from and his political beliefs are built on the desire to encourage as many of his countrymen to emulate his success.

For that reason, his politics and aspirations for Scotland are more pick-and-mix rather loyalty to any political ideology. He will no doubt agree with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s “fairness and equality” agenda, but his comments over the years make it clear that his first principle is in ensuring there are no barriers to progress or to allowing companies to flourish, whether through an independent Scotland or not.

On a practical level he wants Scotland to gain more fiscal powers and to be relieved of unpopular or unhelpful taxes, such as those which have hindered the North Sea oil industry. This tax liberalisation would enable Scotland to achieve the sort of self-governing capabilities that it really wanted, but he now seems to believe that this could be achieved without the full transfer of tax powers.

To that end, he told his interviewer last year that his simplest wish from the struggle over the constitution was for Scotland to get its fair share from the union.

“I’m just attached to the potential of Scotland being economically stronger than it is,” he said. Even in the event of a Yes vote “win-wins for both sides would emerge”.

 

 

 

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