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Over the past seven months there have been accusations of bullying aplenty in the Scottish independence debate. Many of these have come from the pro-independence Yes camp. The Scottish National party leader Alex Salmond and his colleagues have accused Westminster politicians of leaning heavily on the Scots by issuing stark warnings about the costs of separation, such as the loss of the right to use the pound and the uncertainties clouding EU membership.
Now, however, it is Mr Salmond who stands accused of employing heavy-handed tactics. Business leaders have complained that Scottish ministers have used aggressive methods to force them to keep quiet and stay out of the debate.
Bosses of the business federations representing three crucial sectors – whisky, fishing and financial services – contend they have been leaned upon. A spokesman for Scottish Financial Enterprise said that Mr Salmond had telephoned its chairman, Sir Ewan Brown, and discouraged him from publishing a briefing paper on the referendum. In a television interview with Channel 4, Gavin Hewitt, a former chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association, the industry body, said he been told by the Scottish National party to stay out of the independence debate or “there would be retribution”.
The Yes camp and the Scottish government have denied the allegations. But Katja Hall, deputy director-general of the CBI employers’ organisation, has observed that it is “worrying that some firms feel unable to take part publicly in this important debate because of concerns about possible intimidation”.
Although business does not have a vote in September’s poll, its views are important. From the outset Mr Salmond has sought to appeal to Scots’ wallets, attempting to persuade them of the economic advantages of separation, while also declaring that these can be delivered without jeopardising the security and advantages of the status quo.
The attitude of business clearly has a strong bearing on the credibility of the first minister’s vision. Companies, especially those with options to invest outside Scotland, are well placed to assess the pros and cons of separation, not least its consequences for transaction costs, employment and incomes.
True, attempts by Mr Salmond or his colleagues to influence business are unlikely to pay many dividends. They might encourage some union-supporting proprietors and managers of smaller local enterprises to stay silent. But given the risk of alienating customers and employees, many would be unlikely to intervene anyway.
Large, internationally minded companies have been more willing to speak their minds. Weir Group, the engineer, and Standard Life, the financial group, have both expressed doubts about secession. Given their ability to relocate operations to avoid political risk or burdensome new regulations, their concerns represent a serious contribution to the debate.
More troubling is what the row says about Mr Salmond’s “Braveheart nationalism”. The SNP leader has built his case for independence around a cuddly inclusive pitch that eschews the politics of anti-English grievance. His aim has always been to smother troublesome questions with his breezy optimism. But as the vote nears and the polls have started to swing against him, the temptation to pursue rougher tactics may mount.
The bosses of Scotland’s big companies should not be impeded from speaking out on the issue of Scottish independence if they wish to do so. The poll will be decided by the 5m people who live in Scotland and no one else. But it is in the interests of both those voters – and the 58m other inhabitants of the UK whose lives will also be affected – that they go to the polls with the fullest possible knowledge of the consequences.
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