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David Cameron has suggested that exporters based in an independent Scotland would suffer as a result of losing access to the Foreign Office’s global network of embassies.

Mr Cameron, speaking in Glasgow ahead of the Commonwealth Games, said that British ambassadors were now working effectively as a sales force for exporters.

Although the prime minister avoided making direct reference to Scottish independence – part of an unofficial political truce with Scotland’s first minister Alex Salmond during the games – his message was clear.

Mr Cameron’s speech to business leaders carried the hint that an independent Scotland would not carry such global diplomatic clout, adding that British diplomats were aiding sales of Scottish products including insurance and whisky.

He said that immediately after becoming prime minister in 2010 he told Foreign Office diplomats that their job description was changing, telling them: “You’re not just ambassadors for the UK, you’re ambassadors for UK plc.”

Mr Salmond has said that an independent Scotland would set up its own network of embassies around the world, based initially on existing offices set up in big capital cities to promote inward investment.

Although Mr Cameron’s speech was ostensibly politically neutral, it was clearly aimed at branding the Glasgow games as “British” – an attempt to stop Mr Salmond claiming them as distinctively Scottish.

He said he hoped the Commonwealth Games would put Glasgow on the world stage as successfully as the London Olympics showed the capital in its best light in 2012.

“That’s the British way: going for gold in all its forms,” he said. “And that’s what these games are about too: showing the UK off to the world.”

Mr Cameron was speaking after visiting the Shetland Islands – the first premier to do so since Margaret Thatcher in 1980. He arrived under a virtual publicity blackout, intended to avoid any confrontations with nationalist supporters.

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