Scotland politics

Scottish independence: Price warning letter due as business row intensifies

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Media captionKingfisher Group owns retailers including B&Q

The referendum row over business has intensified as retail bosses plan to publish a letter warning of price rises if Scots vote "Yes" to independence.

First Minister Alex Salmond described recent interventions by business figures as "blatant intimidation from Westminster".

But a spokesman for David Cameron said the prime minister wanted "stakeholders to set out their views".

A new poll has suggested the referendum race is too close to call.

The ICM poll for the Guardian newspaper put "No" on 51% and "Yes" on 49% once undecided voters were excluded.

It came after a YouGov opinion poll was published on Thursday evening suggesting that the "No" campaign was leading by 52% to 48%, once undecided voters are excluded.

The letter warning of price rises has been written by Kingfisher Group head Sir Ian Cheshire, and signed by other business leaders, including the heads of John Lewis, Asda and Marks and Spencer. It will be published in the coming days.

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Meanwhile, BBC economics editor Robert Peston said he had been told the Treasury briefed journalists about Royal Bank of Scotland's plans to move to London in the event of a Yes vote before the RBS board had formally approved the move.

Our correspondent said that when journalists were emailed on Wednesday evening by the Treasury, to tell them about the relocation plans of RBS and Lloyds, RBS's board "was still meeting", to decide whether to tell shareholders the following morning.

Police Scotland have confirmed they have received a complaint from RBS shareholder Peter de Vink, a supporter of independence for Scotland, alleging the UK government leaked market-sensitive information about the bank.

In other developments:

  • The Treasury confirmed Chancellor George Osborne and Bank of England Governor Mark Carney were pulling out of G20 talks in Australia so they could be in the UK for the Scottish referendum result
  • Ukip leader Nigel Farage, who is visiting Scotland to speak against independence, called for the Queen to intervene in the debate - a move which Better Together described as "preposterous"
  • Jim Sillars, a former deputy leader of the SNP, claimed banks and big businesses who "scaremonger" during the referendum campaign face a "day of reckoning" if Scotland votes for independence. The Yes Scotland campaign for independence has distanced itself from his remarks.

What have other retailers been saying?

John Lewis, Asda, Marks and Spencer, the Kingfisher Group and the former boss of Sainsbury's have all said they believe their prices will rise if Scotland votes for independence, but Tesco last week played down suggestions in a Better Together leaflet that its prices would go up.

BBC Scotland's Louise Sayers asked five other major retailers who operate in Scotland if independence might affect their prices.

Morrisons: "We are neutral on the issue of Scottish independence. We have consistently said that if the cost of doing business was to change in an independent Scotland due to government policies then Morrisons would have to consider raising or indeed lowering prices in that independent Scotland to reflect those differing costs."

Lidl: "It is too early for us to speculate on business decisions that would follow Scottish independence - should that happen. We simply await the final outcome of the referendum and will continue to monitor the situation until then."

Aldi: "As an international retailer operating in 18 countries, Aldi's business model is proven to adapt efficiently to each market's requirements. As a result, Aldi's commitment to providing customers with the best quality, value and price in Scotland will remain unchanged."

The Co-operative: "We are not speculating on the topic of Scottish independence."

Wholefoods (US chain specialising in organic produce): "We have no statement to make on this subject, at this time."

Speaking during a visit to Aberdeen, Mr Salmond said the prime minister had his "fingerprints all over" the recent interventions by retail bosses.

Asked whether Mr Cameron had been privately pressing business leaders to speak out about the potential consequences of a "Yes" vote, the prime minister's official spokesman said that Mr Cameron had "made no secret" of his wish for anyone with concerns to make their voices heard.

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The spokesman added: "Is it a surprise that in a debate, stakeholders set out their views? I don't think that's a surprise. If there are individuals or organisations that choose to put out their opinions in whatever format, that is entirely their decision."

The spokesman declined to give names of business leaders with whom the PM has spoken in the final weeks of the campaign, saying: "He speaks to business leaders all the time, and of course business leaders set out their own views."

Food prices

The focus on what might happen to food prices if the country voted "Yes", has prompted Business for Scotland to argue that prices could also go down after independence.

The organisation's Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp suggested to BBC Radio 4's Today programme that some of the business interventions warning of the impact of independence may have been orchestrated.

Mr MacIntyre-Kemp added: "I understand that Morrison's and Tesco are refusing to sign this retailers' letter and we've had Tesco say that price rises are entirely speculative."

The chairman of pub chain Wetherspoons, Tim Martin, told the BBC there was "no reason in theory why Scotland couldn't be a very successful independent country".

He added: "New Zealand has got the same population, does very well, Singapore, a smaller population, incredibly successful economy, Switzerland does well. There is a lot of nonsense talked, particularly by businessman, also politicians, to say that it is impossible for Scotland to survive as successfully by itself."

Mr Martin also said there was "no sensible reason" for the price of a pint of beer to increase after independence.

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Five banks - including RBS - have said they might move their registered offices out of Scotland, while John Lewis and Asda warned prices may rise.

Mr Salmond said it was an attempt of scaremongering aimed at damaging the independence campaign and called for an investigation into civil servants leaking market sensitive information.

He said: "This is further evidence of the lengths to which the Westminster establishment are going to in an effort to spread scare stories about business activity in Scotland following a 'Yes' vote next week.

"That includes the reports that the Prime Minister met with supermarket bosses in Downing Street yesterday to try and persuade them to comment on their price structure in Scotland - again, an extraordinary revelation given the strict controls on retailers' pricing."

Analysis: Robert Peston, BBC economics editor

Some of the fuss and furore about whether prices in an independent Scotland would be higher than in the rest of the UK is bonkers.

When retailers - food and non food - say they might have to push up their prices if Scotland were to introduce higher taxes or rates or if it were to change employment and planning laws, this is simply to remind Scots why they are voting for or against independence.

The whole point of Scotland becoming a separate nation, for its proponents, is to give Scots the ability to make different choices about the nature of the society they inhabit from what prevails in the rest of the UK.

Inevitably those choices would have an impact on businesses. And frequently they would have an impact on the level of prices.

So talking about the emergence of inevitable price differentials between Scotland and an independent UK is to say something stunningly obvious and uninteresting.

For example we don't expect prices to be the same in UK and France, because the UK and France make different choices about the structure of their respective economies, and these choices have an impact on the productivity and pricing policies of their respective businesses.

Read more from Robert

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Politicians on both sides of the independence debate are ramping up their campaigning on Friday.

With many voters still undecided, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon are touring Scotland's cities highlighting "seven key gains of independence".

They say independence would bring gains including job-creating powers, protection for the NHS, the removal of nuclear weapons and control of social security.

Ms Sturgeon said: "Independence isn't a magic wand but it's an opportunity we simply can't afford to pass up - which is why I am so confident that the people of Scotland will vote 'Yes' next week."

'Starkest warning'

Elsewhere, the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland has said he will lead prayers appealing for harmony ahead of the referendum.

The Rt Rev John Chalmers will deliver his sermon live on BBC Radio Four's Sunday Worship at St Mary's Episcopal Cathedral in Edinburgh.

The Better Together campaign released a letter signed by more than 200 NHS professionals who claimed a "No" vote was the best way to protect the Scottish health service, while former Scotland rugby internationals including Gavin Hastings and David Sole also backed "No".

Entrepreneur Richard Branson - whose wife is from Glasgow - also said he would like to see Scotland stay part of the UK, and backed devolving further powers to the Scottish Parliament, adding: "Keeping the status quo is no longer an option".

And the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, said global finance firm UBS had "issued the starkest warning yet about the immediate damage a Yes vote would do".

The company has issued a report on the potential debt burden of an independent Scotland.

Mr Alexander said: "Alex Salmond dismisses all these real world warnings, but most Scots will shudder at the idea that he is willing to take on risks of this scale with our country."