Standard Procedure


By Derek Bateman
Standard Life – Standard Procedure. What did you expect from a financial company – altruism? Presented with any change they can’t manage themselves, they panic. Oh yes, they do have to plan for eventualities, but they don’t need to make public announcements coordinated with a political campaign.
Notice how early warnings were issued to selected media including the BBC’s Robert Peston who worked hand-in-glove with Alistair Darling’s Treasury during the financial meltdown to get daily exclusives.

He was on air this morning claiming special access – who would organise that? Is it significant that this “politically neutral” company was in recent weeks having its executive board undergo media training in case they faced interview?

And on Radio Four the thunderclap of doom was applied by James Naughtie from Edinburgh, transformed for the day from news presenter into Scotland correspondent, analysing the implications and calling Standard Life one of the Edinburgh “family”.

The tone was set by the Today presenter whose opening question to him was: ‘So Jim, just how bad is this for the Yes campaign?’ That question tells you the BBC already had its narrative in place otherwise, as an impartial interviewer, she would have asked: ‘What’s the significance of this?’ It’s a subtle difference which gives the game away – London has made its mind up and is thrilled at having the nationalists on the run.

But are they right? For as Peston himself writes: ‘What brought this issue to a head for the company was the recent declaration by Chancellor George Osborne, Labour shadow chancellor Ed Balls and the Liberal Democrat Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, that they would all oppose formal monetary union with Scotland.’ Exactly. The contrived opposition to the logical course for the currency is the reason there is uncertainty yet it seems Standard Life is blaming instead the lack of a credible alternative. It seems no matter what Scotland does, it loses.

But there are unanswered questions here. This is NOT a declaration of departure, it is a statement outlining an alternative approach, presumably in response to shareholder requests for clarity caused originally by the independence campaign but deliberately fanned – undeniably so – by the British government refusing to negotiate in good faith as any administration should when  faced with a non-violent, constitutional democratic movement for change.

These questions of uncertainty are clearly the responsibility of the No side designed as a political response, not an economic response.

I see nothing in the words issued which indicates that this company has sought clarification from either side.

  • Have they asked the Scottish government for reassurance on currency or just read the papers?
  • Have they asked for private discussions on the tax regime?
  • How much will it cost to relocate, to make redundancies and find new premises?
  • How can it operate in 50 countries with dozens of currencies but not in Scotland?*
  • Have they read the White Paper, which has a long and detailed outline of the regulatory proposals?
  • Have they asked the British government why it has ruled out a currency union, consequently putting the company in this predicament? I
  • If they are concerned about EU membership, why haven’t they mentioned the UK IN/Out referendum, or doesn’t that concern them?
  • Have they asked the British to comply with the EU’s offer of legal clarification on membership?
  • Has Standard Life consulted its own staff? Or has it unsettled them by openly discussing leaving? Is this corporate responsibility, is it duty of care?

I think the answers are all negative. Yet they have gone ahead to form holding companies in England. That is the clearest indication that far from neutrality, Standard Life has adopted an active programme of anglicisation and set its face against independence. Interestingly, nobody on either side is saying otherwise.

They have identified themselves as English first and Scottish second, because they are by definition happy with whatever London decides on regulation, interest rates or taxation as they haven’t raised any questions with them, yet we know there will be tax increases whoever wins the next general election and Europe is moving towards a unified regulatory system and we don’t know if London be in or out. Only they’ll have to think fast if there’s a Yes vote.

It does seem a pity since what they company is calling for, as in clarification on these issues, is exactly what the Scottish government has demanded but has not received.

And doesn’t it turn your stomach as a Scot that a company started here and which has traded on its Scottish roots can dismiss its origins and associations midway through a political campaign? Have they no inherent pride in their company’s background…no belief that the Scots will find a way of sorting out our constitutional issues…have they forgotten how Scots rallied to support their mutual status 14 years ago, including all parties of MSPs?

You can understand a company sitting down after a democratic vote and looking at their interests but when you are Scottish by definition, it is surely incumbent to treat your own country with more respect than this. But then we know how debased the idea of finance has become in Scotland when the same greedy types ran RBS and sold out Bank of Scotland to Halifax. And after the Crash, there can few, if any, who retain admiration of any kind for the incompetents and crooks and overreached themselves in search of more profit.

This has become the recent hallmark of Standard Life. You may remember that while Scots suffered austerity, the executives under David Nish, pocketed millions in pay and bonuses.

Nish saw his pay packet almost double, just months after the firm announced 490 job losses. He received a basic salary of £720,000, a bonus of  £1.05 million, pension contributions of £179,000 and a further ‘benefit’ of £17,000. Unite union official Paul Neilson said: ‘These pay levels are obscene.’

Pat Connolly, Chase De Vere, said payouts on endowment policies have again been cut and overall returns remain much lower than they were five or six years ago .

‘Standard Life remains an average, middle-of-the-road with-profits provider…existing investors should take this opportunity to review their policies.”

And they have form in this duplicitous handling of customers and their own millionaire salaries. In March 2007 the company announced it would cut 1000 jobs in an attempt to save an additional £100 million per year in costs and a month later it was highlighted in the company’s annual report that three of Standard Life’s top executives were awarded more than £5 million in pay. You can see who these people are really interest in and it isn’t the Scots.

They haven’t been scrupulous either in their activities. A few years ago they were fined for dodgy behaviour. The Financial Services Authority hit them with a £2.45 million fine over the Sterling Pension fund fiasco, in which a fund was advertised   as wholly invested in cash when in fact it was heavily invested in floating rate notes. Guess what? No one lost their job. ‘The FSA has identified that there were flaws in both our systems and controls however they have not identified any particular individuals.

No heads are going to roll on the back of this fine from the FSA,’ they said. So, if we ever were dealing with moneymen on the side of the angels – and they did welcome devolution in in the 90’s – those days are long gone. Profit before patriotism is their motto.

We can expect more of this pro-Union outing. Weir Group will follow them I think. You know Weir, engineers and bribers of Saddam.

‘Glasgow-based engineering firm Weir Group admitted paying kickbacks to the dictator’s government a decade ago to secure lucrative business contracts. The High Court in Edinburgh heard this had contravened the Oil For Food programme aimed at helping Iraqis. Judge Lord Carloway also confiscated £13.9m of illegal profits from Weir.’ (I think it gives a little perspective when they lecture us about our democratic responsibilities).

You could also remember that they can avoid tax – unlike you – by using offshore subsidiaries. From the Guardian: Lord Robertson, the former defence secretary and Nato secretary general, is a non-executive director of the Glasgow-based engineering firm Weir Group, which has subsidiaries in the Bahamas and the British Virgin Islands. He is also deputy chairman of the board of the Russian oil company TNK-BP, registered in the British Virgin Islands. Not bad for a former GMB official, eh?

I liked the following quote from 2000 when financial companies were hinting they were unhappy about devolution. Happily Standard Life and Scottish Widows indicated they were relaxed and plain George Robertson MP said: “It’s a bombshell which blows apart the Tory campaign efforts in Scotland since it shows that Scottish business is not taken in by Treasury scaremongering.” Would he like to repeat that today?

I think what the Standard Life business does is confirm for the fearties that they were right to be concerned. They would have considered a Yes so long as nobody objected and waved them through but they haven’t the stomach for their own independence. They would always wilt and vote No. But the real prize here is that it confirms more surely than ever that No is corporate, moneyed and selfish. Its largest support is outside Scotland, it’s money comes from the millionaires, even it’s boss Alistair Darling fills his pockets with corporate dosh on top of his full-time MP’s salary.

This is diktat. It is a sharp reminder of how Britain is structured and how it works and why we must get out and rebuild our own country. Corporate entities like Standard Life don’t care about Scotland or the Scots as they have confirmed today. They care about profits and will go anywhere and do anything to get them. They epitomize everything the burgeoning new democracy movement stands against. Forget their threats, they are  another reason for voting Yes.

*One of those countries is Canada where the Standard Life head office is located in Montreal, Quebec, a place with a long history of separatists government and campaigning. It hasn’t bothered SL. Quebec even has different tax rates for personal, sales and corporate purposes and there isn’t a cheep of complaint from Standard Life who manage just fine.

Courtesy of Derek Bateman