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Is CBI Scotland feart of hearing two sides of independence story?

HERE's an idea.

If CBI Scotland had wanted to focus on the independence referendum at its forthcoming annual dinner without forcing member resignations by taking a political stance, it could have pitched to host the debate Alex Salmond so dearly wants to have with David Cameron.

It is difficult to disagree with the First Minister's portrayal of the Prime Minister as a "big fearty", given Mr Cameron was champing at the bit for the television debate with Gordon Brown ahead of the 2010 General Election.

Then again, Mr Cameron might feel more comfortable if he felt he were addressing a friendly crowd at CBI Scotland's annual dinner. And the Scottish arm of the Confederation of British Industry would surely feel able to give him the necessary reassurance that the audience at its annual dinner at the Glasgow Hilton on August 28 would be suitably supportive.

After all, it is presumably satisfied that its now-official support for the No vote camp reflects the views of at least the vast majority of its members, which fund its operations. And you would imagine most of those members that have taken issue with CBI Scotland's decision to register as a supporter of a No vote with the Electoral Commission will not attend.

There has been a string of resignations by corporate members in recent days, after it emerged that CBI Scotland had made its evident anti-independence stance official, with broadcaster STV, Aquamarine Power, and Balhousie Care Group leaving.

A raft of Scottish universities have meanwhile resigned from the business organisation. And Scottish Enterprise, VisitScotland, Skills Development Scotland, and the Law Society of Scotland have also resigned.

It is obviously unlikely that Mr Cameron would have a change of heart on going head-to-head with Mr Salmond in a debate about the merits or otherwise of independence, in spite of the Prime Minister's past enthusiasm for important debates in front of big audiences.

And the CBI has spelled out why its Scottish arm had to register as a No vote supporter with the Electoral Commission. Those who register such an interest are allowed to spend more than £10,000 on campaigning in the run-up to the referendum.

A spokesman for the CBI in London highlighted the fact that spending by the business lobbying group on its annual Scottish dinner and on other planned events north of the Border during the referendum period, which runs from May 30 to the September 18 poll date, would exceed £10,000.

It was observed in this column last September that, if anyone had accidentally teleported from outer space into CBI Scotland's 2013 annual dinner, they could have been forgiven for thinking they had pitched up at an anti-independence rally.

And you can bet your bottom dollar, or whatever currency you wish, that CBI Scotland will be adopting an even more robust stance on the constitutional issue on August 28, if such a thing is possible.

At last September's annual dinner, Nosheena Mobarik, who was stepping down from chairing CBI Scotland, and CBI national president Sir Michael Rake focused on the questions which the employers' organisation wanted answered by the Scottish Government ahead of the referendum. They reeled off a long list of question topics, including currency and financial oversight, European Union membership, and the cost of statehood.

The CBI very much gave the impression at that stage that it had made up its mind that potential problems it had identified with independence were insurmountable regardless of the answers. And Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg put in a brief appearance to lend support with a familiar speech.

So presumably the view at CBI Scotland is that, if there is going to be a repeat performance, it must register. And it must surely have been aware that registration of a formal position would have major consequences in terms of resignations by members which, in some cases, are duty-bound to adopt a neutral stance in the independence debate.

All of that said, CBI Scotland surely did have a choice. It could have invited heavyweight speakers from both the Better Together and Yes Scotland camps to this year's annual dinner.

The Federation of Small Businesses in Scotland and Scottish Chambers of Commerce are to be commended for an even-handed approach, recognising diversity among their memberships and allowing people to make up their own minds, while seeking information.

CBI Scotland is right in pointing out the question of independence raises major economic issues. It is also correct, in the service of its members, to lay out the issues, and seek answers.

So would it not be better to let its members hear these issues addressed by both camps at its annual dinner?

This would surely be more constructive for everyone, but especially for undecided people in the audience, than the one-sided, familiar and somewhat tiresome diatribes against independence at last year's CBI Scotland dinner.

Perhaps CBI Scotland is taking the view that none of its remaining members at this year's dinner will be undecided. But then what is the point of preaching to the choir?

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