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David Cameron issued a passionate defence of the UK and its economic benefits at a dinner of Scottish members of the CBI business lobby on Thursday night, as pro-independence activists outside denounced the prime minister as “Tory scum”.
Inside the banqueting hall, the prime minister had to endure a rebuke from CBI president Sir Mike Rake, who attacked the government for creating uncertainty with plans for a referendum on EU membership. Sir Mike also criticised “ill-considered policy statements” from the “populist right” and the “statist left”.
“We accept that calling a referendum on EU membership is a constitutional issue for government, but the ambiguity has already and is increasingly causing real concern for businesses regarding their future investment plans,” he said. “ . . . The advantages of the EU far outweigh the disadvantages.”
Mr Cameron's appearance at the annual dinner and the hastily organised protest highlighted the fine line being walked by the prime minister ahead of next month's independence referendum.
The Conservative party is strongly disliked by many Scots and independence campaigners say Mr Cameron’s appearances deliver the message that staying in the union could spell the continuation of Tory rule, which in turn could motivate many people who are normally not politically active to vote Yes on September 18.
"We'd be delighted to pay for the prime minister’s travel so he can come back often before the referendum," said a Yes campaign strategist on Thursday. "Every time he comes, it's a barrel-load more votes for Yes."
In his speech to the CBI, Mr Cameron hailed the prowess of Scottish business and laid out what he said were the benefits of remaining in the UK, including the opportunity of a much bigger domestic market, the security of an established currency, the ability to share risk widely and the greater international clout commanded by a larger nation.
“In a competitive, fast-moving world, with the rise of new economies in China, Malaysia and Brazil, size really does matter,” Mr Cameron said. “That size – the sheer scale of our union – gives Scottish businesses a government that fights for them around the globe.”
The CBI leader echoed Mr Cameron’s opposition to Scottish independence in his remarks, saying: “The risks of a yes vote for Scotland and the UK are enormous.”
“The CBI does not see any substantive evidence for the position that independence would be economically beneficial for Scotland or the rest of the UK,” Sir Mike explained. “To the contrary, it is (creating) and will continue to create real uncertainty which could prejudice the recovery both in Scotland and across the United Kingdom.”
Mr Cameron’s visit, the latest in a handful of carefully stage-managed trips to Scotland in recent months, came amid an intensifying battle between pro and anti-independence businesspeople.
On Thursday, the Herald newspaper published a letter signed by 200 Yes supporters from the business world – an effort to counter a similar salvo published in the Scotsman the day before by 130 counterparts calling for the UK to stay together.
But Mr Cameron's appearance at the CBI dinner risked cementing his image among some Scottish voters as a friend of the rich and powerful rather than more disadvantaged groups. The CBI has been strongly anti-independence and its dinner had to be an unusually modest affair in order to avoid falling foul of electoral spending rules.
About 150 pro-independence campaigners – and a huge puppet wearing an anti-nuclear “Bairns not Bombs” T-shirt – gathered outside Glasgow's Hilton Hotel to denounce the prime minister behind a banner reading “Sack the Tories, another Scotland is Possible”.
“I’m absolutely appalled and disgusted that Mr Cameron feels he has any right to show himself in this city when you consider the impact of his policies,” said Ann Aire, 60, a support worker at a women’s refuge.
Ms Aire said Conservative implementation of the “bedroom tax”, a reduction in housing payments for people judged to have a spare room, and other welfare reforms, showed Scotland needed independence. “Scotland has continually voted for Labour and got Conservative governments,” she said. “That to my mind is not democracy.”
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