Stick or twist: will the tech industry thrive in an independent Scotland?

Rockstar North
Rockstar North office in Edinburgh

Should Scotland be an independent country? That's the question 8 million Scottish people will be asked in the independence referendum come September 18.

It seems like, with such a highly emotional issue, the thoughts and needs of Scotland's tech industry don't really matter when considering the future of the country's sovereignty. But as technology and innovation are increasingly driving economies around the world, a future union or independent Scotland will have to embrace technology to keep up.

There are two potential paths for the Scottish tech scene. Does Scotland roll the dice, go independent, start from scratch and let the tech industry flourish with competitive tax rates like in Ireland? Or does it stick with the union and enjoy the collective benefit of an already powerful countrywide tech industry?

Most Scottish tech companies I spoke to flat out refused to comment on the question of independence; I suspect because they're aware of the strong emotions this issue can evoke in people. I've seen BBC reports on the subject with small business owners happily talking about their fear of the vote going one way or the other, but I haven't seen a voice from the Scottish tech industry speak so candidly, or even at all.

It's just not the tech industry's style to be that involved in politics, and Scottish tech companies are no different. But they should be, because not only is Scotland a magnet for games companies and programmers, but also because the world economy is rapidly moving towards technological innovation.

Illustrious history

From manufacturing the Sinclair C5 to Rockstar North employing over 200 people and producing Grand Theft Auto, one of the highest grossing games of all time, Scotland has a long and illustrious history when it comes to tech. The tech scene is quickly growing too, with the creative industry in Scotland currently worth £2.8 billion.

IT and IT-related jobs are on the rise too. Scottish jobs site, S1 jobs, explained to me that it saw an increase in IT job listings of 31.3 per cent year-on-year (YOY). A total of 9,397 positions were advertised online across Scotland in May 2014 compared to 7,156 in May 2013.

Sinclair C5

The Sinclair C5

Interestingly there has also been a sharp spike in listings for security-related jobs. The number of security-related IT jobs has increased by 265 per cent, although Gavin Mochan from S1 jobs admitted that it was coming from a low base. The rise in interest in IT security bodes well for Scotland as in global terms, security is grabbing news headlines and has rapidly risen to the top of company agendas.

The demand for developers, however, remains highest of all, which is understandable since Scotland is famed for its gaming industry. Listings for senior Java developers are up 191 per cent YOY, application specialists are up 153 per cent and senior developers are up 190 per cent. In May 2014 alone, 342 Java developer jobs were advertised on S1 jobs.


Scotland has a chance to stick or twist

Huge growth

Clearly, the Scottish IT and creative industries are experiencing huge growth. It's a good time to be a startup in Scotland. But is this recent success due to steely Scottish determination, or because the country has been given a leg-up from Westminster?

A spokesperson from the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills seemed to answer with an emphatic yes, stating: "The UK Government argues strongly that Scotland's reputation for excellence in manufacturing and research is strengthened through its membership of the UK."

The spokesperson continued: "Scottish technology firms and research institutions benefit from access to secure and stable funding, a shared world-class research infrastructure and skills base, strong intellectual property protection and unfettered access to domestic and international markets. Scottish researchers benefit from a higher than average share of the national funding via the UK Research Councils, underpinned by a UK-wide tax base.

"Scottish companies gain from joint large-scale UK investments including from the Technology Strategy Board's Catapult Centres in Glasgow, and over £100 million being spent in Scotland to deliver high-speed broadband to rural areas.

"Maintaining the Union will also help provide certainty across the UK's large domestic market, encouraging business investment and supporting growth and jobs in Scotland."