Comment: Temperature rising on independence paper

There is still a lot of uncertainty surrounding independence but one thing that is becoming clearer is that the business vote can no longer be taken for granted by supporters of the status quo.
Terry Murden. Picture: Ian GeorgesonTerry Murden. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Terry Murden. Picture: Ian Georgeson

Whereas business was generally assumed to be against separation, a big divide is opening up which is turning it into a vital battleground between the Yes and No camps. Business for Scotland, which says all its 1,000-plus members are pro-independence, is giving the other mainly anti-independence leaning lobby groups a run for their money.

The CBI has again said that the decision is one for the Scottish people while at the same time publishing its response to the independence white paper raising concerns about the implications of a Yes vote. Its director general John Cridland was forced on Wednesday to defend its 51-page submission against accusations of one-sidedness.

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Under admirable pressure from STV Scotland Tonight presenter Claire Stewart he was asked twice whether Scottish members had been consulted on the report. Twice he refused to say either yes or no, his evasiveness giving the impression that there had been no consultation.

His answers deserve closer scrutiny. He said that he represents 200,000 businesses in the UK employing 500,000 people in Scotland and that the decisions on the independence policy were set by the CBI Scotland council at its February meeting which he attended.

Unfortunately, as the interview was cut short we were left not knowing whether the Scotland council had merely rubber-stamped a document produced by the CBI’s researchers, or whether it had the full input and backing of its Scottish members.

Speaking yesterday to Iain McMillan, director of CBI Scotland, he insisted that there had been consultation by himself and his team “taking the temperature” of the members. He told me that “our position represents the prevailing view” reflected in the document.

“Taking the temperature” is open to interpretation. One has to assume it amounted to more than a few cosy fireside chats and that businesses were invited to provide feedback on a whole range of issues.

But was it “consultation” in the way that some might understand it?

“Prevailing view” is an acceptance that there are dissenters among the CBI Scotland membership, and we do know that Tony Banks, a vocal member of Business for Scotland is also a CBI member. However, the views of any Yes supporters have been overwhelmingly overlooked in the document in favour of those backing the No camp. This may appear to endorse those claiming it was “one-sided” and confirm that the CBI is unswervingly opposed to constitutional change. In fact, the CBI acts “cabinet-style” in that it does take the temperature, but the majority view will prevail.

These are sensitive times and it is important that issues such as currency, tax and regulation are not lost in a war of words or the semantics of what someone really meant to say.

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Equally, it is important that the debate is genuine, transparent and meaningful. In the end, it is not surprising that the CBI is hostile to independence – it has made no secret of that – but it does not detract from the significance of the points it raises.

We are at least seeing business engage more fully in this most important of issues and the emergence of a strong lobby on both sides should ensure a robust and lively exchange. What must be avoided is a descent into dirty tricks and deceit.