More than a hundred Scottish business leaders wanted to sign a letter backing the Union but stayed silent because they feared “consequences” from the SNP Government, it has been claimed.
Gavin Hewitt, the former Scotch Whisky Association chairman who helped gather signatures, said around half the executives he approached agreed the business case for independence was not yet made but declined to go public amid worries of a Nationalist backlash.
More than half a dozen industry leaders feared planning applications would be stonewalled by SNP-run local authorities if they spoke out, Mr Hewitt alleged in an interview with The Telegraph.
He added that other business leaders worried Scottish Government grants and procurement contracts would dry up if they went public with concerns.
In one specific case, executives with worries about independence declined to speak out because they were involved in a merger between two spirits companies looking for Government support, according to Mr Hewitt.
Asked who was to blame for the fear of speaking out, Mr Hewitt said: “The SNP Government is entirely to blame because it is so tribal. Anyone who actually opposes the Government is in their sights, frankly.”
The worrying claims reignite allegations made earlier this year that the SNP has intimidated businesses and institutions to stay silent over the risks of independence. The Scottish Government has vehemently denied the allegations.
Alistair Carmichael, Scottish Secretary, demanded Alex Salmond “call off the dogs” and make clear businessmen can discuss independence without “fear” of consequences. A spokesman for the First Minister said Mr Hewitt’s claims about the SNP both at a national and local level are “simply untrue”, while an SNP spokesman called the allegations “patently wrong”.
The claims follow the publication of a letter on Wednesday signed by more than 120 industry leaders backing the Union and warning that the “business case for independence has not been made”.
Among the signatures was Keith Cochrane, Weir Group chief executive, Audrey Baxter, executive chairman of Baxters Food Group, Boyd Tunnock CBE and Ian Curle, the chief executive of Eddington, which owns the whisky brands The Macallan and The Famous Grouse.
In one of the most significant interventions by the business community in the referendum campaign, industries as diverse as publishing, banking, hairdressing, engineering and art dealing were represented among the signatories.
“Uncertainty surrounds a number of vital issues, including currency, regulation, tax, pensions, EU membership and support for our exports around the world – and uncertainty is bad for business,” the letter read.
“As job creators we have looked carefully at the arguments by both sides of the debate. Our conclusion is that the business case for independence has not been made.”
“We should be proud that Scotland is a great place to build businesses and create jobs – success that has been achieved as an integral part of the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom gives business the strong platform we must have to invest in jobs and industry. By all continuing to work together, we can keep Scotland flourishing.”
Organisers insisted the letter was signed in a personal capacity by the business leaders and was not affiliated to any political party or independence campaign.
However as the pronouncement begun to make headlines across the UK it was claimed scores more business leaders had refused to sign the letter despite agreeing with its content for fear of retribution.
Amanda Harvie, former chief executive of Scottish Financial Enterprise who helped gather signatures, said a “significant number” of old colleagues and contacts had declined to sign despite backing the letter’s message.
She told this newspaper business people were “fearful of the potential consequences of making their views known”, including employees at organisations that held Government contracts, wanted public grants or were submitting planning applications.
She also named professional services, construction and development, and financial services as industries where leaders had behaved in this way.
Asked what was meant by consequences, Ms Harvie said she was talking about what would happen if someone was “deemed to fall foul of the political view in the Scottish Government”.
“People are concerned that if they voice an opposing view, in other words against the prospects of independence, [then] grants, contracts, potential applications for planning may be threatened,” Ms Harvie said.
“Now the very fact that that perception exists, which is does, is deeply damaging and unhealthy for Scotland.”
Ms Harvie added she would be “very unhappy” if any Scottish Government minister or civil servants were to approach signatories about signing the letter.
Mr Hewitt, a former British diplomat for more than 30 years, estimated more than a hundred Scottish business leaders declined to publicly back the letter despite agreeing with its contents for fear of consequences from the SNP Government.
“I think we have seen right throughout the whole of this debate, and frankly in Government, that dissent is not permitted within the SNP ranks,” said Mr Hewitt, claiming that the party had been “pretty heavy handed” with business leaders who opposed independence.
It is understood the backlash against Barrhead Travel, Scotland’s largest independent travel company which faced boycott calls after its founder warned of the impact of independence, is believed to have put some leaders off speaking out.
Mr Carmichael said: “Alex Salmond now has to call off the dogs and make it clear that business people and anyone else can speak out without fear of unfair treatment in the future. This has got to come from the top.”
A spokesman for the First Minister said the claims were “simply untrue” and noted comments by the pro-independence group Business for Scotland dismissing the business letter. Tony Banks, chair of Business for Scotland, said its 2,500 members all believe “Scottish independence is in the best interests of Scotland and Scottish business”.
An SNP spokesperson: “These claims are patently wrong – for the No campaign to say that business is being stopped from speaking out on the very day they are saying business is speaking out is extremely foolish. The reality is that more business people back a Yes vote, as we will hear from over 150 Yes-supporting business people this week.”