Stephen Jardine: Tasty poll battle is on the menu

ON THURSDAY, some famous faces sat down to a private dinner at Gleneagles. In the room were celebrities, important figures from the food and drink industry and the leadership of the SNP.

On the menu was some of our finest seasonal produce and the small matter of the constitutional future of the country.

As the countdown to the independence referendum continues, pressure is growing on those with influence to take a position. Some 18 months ago, the Yes campaign began finding out what mattered to the food and drink industry. With more than 360,000 people now working in the sector, it is a key constituency that could help swing the vote for either side.

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From fishing to farming, restaurants to manufacturers, the concerns are many and varied, but what no business likes is uncertainty. Thursday night’s dinner was an attempt to offer reassurance and to sway the undecided.

While the rest of the economy remains in the doldrums, the food and drink industry is still showing growth, particularly in the export sector. Opponents of independence argue that is best maintained within the framework of the United Kingdom. The muscle of the Department for Trade and Industry and the infrastructure provided by a global network of embassies provides solid support for businesses looking to enter overseas markets. However, the Yes campaign argues it takes a Scottish Government to fight for Scottish business – such as recent food trade delegations to the Far East and the Middle East.

When it comes to incentives for business, the economic situation makes it hard for First Minister Alex Salmond to promise anything with serious budget implications.

That said, the Yes campaign is rumoured to be looking at a major sweetener for the hospitality industry. The UK has one of the highest rates of restaurant VAT in Europe. Restaurant operators believe a cut could have major benefits for the industry, encouraging more people to eat out and producing more employment and investment. France slashed its sales tax on restaurants from 20 to just 5 per cent and saw a resulting boom in eating out and the creation of nearly 40,000 jobs in the sector.

The Nationalists are rumoured to be examining a cut to VAT on eating out if Scotland opts for independence. Such a move would be warmly welcomed by the hospitality sector. However, the problem with politics is that you can only give away what you take from someone else

Few high-profile figures in the food and drink industry have declared either way on the independence issue. Both sides are now stepping up the pressure to attract support.

It’s a battle for hearts and minds, but it is also down to who can promise most.