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How much value has business added to independence debate?

IT seems that Scottish businesses have been falling over themselves in recent weeks to give opinions on independence.

At times, the degree of similarity of their posturing has appeared more than sufficient to make an Olympic medal-winning synchronised swimming team envious.

So, after this big splash, are we any further forward in the debate?

Yesterday, it was Scottish engineering company Weir Group's turn to hold forth on independence.

And chief executive Keith Cochrane could certainly not be accused of being unprepared as he hit the airwaves first thing. He had an 80-page report.

We knew Weir had commissioned an external report on the potential implications of independence. Given past mood music from Mr Cochrane, the chances of a 500-1 shot winning this weekend's Grand National always seemed much greater than Weir doing anything other than highlighting potential costs and risks for businesses in the event of independence, on the back of this research. So it turned out.

Mr Cochrane said Weir was publishing the report because it believed voters deserved access to well-informed analysis ahead of the September 18 referendum.

The report concluded that, under any currency scenario, it was likely an independent Scotland would face increased borrowing costs and taxes and significant public spending cuts.

It claimed a new Scottish currency could cost households and businesses north of the Border about £500 million-a-year in transaction costs. One-off costs of transition to "the new arrangements", we were told, could be a further £800m. This focus is interesting, given First Minister Alex Salmond appears to have no intention of creating a new currency.

It is hard not to get the impression that, if there were to be a vote for independence, the Westminster Government would for pragmatic reasons form a currency union with Scotland, in spite of all the coordinated posturing we have seen from the Better Together team. The economies north and south of the Border, whatever the constitutional set-up, would remain similar in nature.

As we have seen with the Coalition Government's latest efforts to kick-start the belated recovery ahead of the 2015 General Election, these are economies in which people are driven, if not obsessed by, the housing market. The Coalition's moves to inflate the housing market look dangerous, but they have for now supported consumer spending, albeit fuelled by debt.

The Republic of Ireland's painful experience of moving from the punt to the euro shows why currency union between Scotland and the rest of the UK would be best for all in the event of independence. The European Central Bank benchmark interest rate, while fine in the good times for economies such as France and Germany in which there is far less focus on house prices, was much too low for Ireland. People in Ireland borrowed heavily at low interest rates to chase the housing market too high, as shown by the Dublin property boom and bust.

Mr Cochrane, for all his altruistic tones about Weir's release of the research by Oxford Economics, did not merely publish the report. He offered what looked like a categoric opinion.

He declared: "I support the Scottish Government's desire to make Scotland a more competitive place in which businesses can prosper but the report by Oxford Economics suggests that the current independence proposals may add substantial costs, at least in the short term and perhaps for many years to come. That is obviously concerning for anyone who wants to see the Scottish economy continue to succeed. For businesses, the conclusions seem clear: the costs of independence are guaranteed but the benefits are uncertain. That has the potential to make Scotland less competitive, not more."

That is not to say that Mr Cochrane is not entitled to an opinion. He is.

And Iain McMillan, director of the Confederation of British Industry in Scotland, could certainly have been afforded more courtesy by SNP MSPs when giving his membership's views on independence to the Scottish Parliament's economics, energy and tourism committee this week.

There is no doubting the independence topic is a delicate matter for business leaders. Barrhead Travel founder Bill Munro this week found himself having to distance his personal views from those of the company and its employees after an email to staff, in which he warned of "impending disaster" in the event of a vote for independence, became public.

Aberdeen Asset Management chief Martin Gilbert this week took a more relaxed stance on the independence vote than many others in financial services, declaring: " I think there will be plenty of time after the referendum to make whatever plans are necessary or changes are necessary."

However, by and large, the recent input from business leaders has been as similar as it has been predictable, with Standard Life warning it might move operations south of the Border in the event of independence.

Businesses must plan for each constitutional scenario. But what is in it for them to make their views public?

Some might feel they will influence the opinions of the individuals who will have the say in the referendum.

And it will be fascinating to see whether the public takes on board the views of business, is indifferent to them, or reacts in the other direction.

However, while businesses perhaps deserve credit for risking the wrath of some customers and politicians by expressing opinions, it is worth asking what they have added to the debate.

And, given they appear to be more interested in setting out entrenched positions than becoming engaged in a two-way dialogue, the answer is probably not a great deal.

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