North-east business leaders delivered a resounding verdict against Scottish independence after a debate in Aberdeen last night.
More than two-thirds said they would be voting No in September’s referendum having heard Danny Alexander and John Swinney go head-to-head at the Press and Journal-sponsored event.
But both campaigns were also told to go back to the drawing board and up their games, with more than half of the audience saying neither Yes Scotland nor Better Together had been persuasive so far.
And 60% said Prime Minister David Cameron should agree to face First Minister Alex Salmond in a televised debate.
More than 150 people attended the biggest independence debate in the north-east yet, organised jointly by Aberdeen and Grampian Chamber of Commerce, Aberdeen Entrepreneurs, the Federation of Small Businesses, the Institute of Directors and the Scottish Council for Development and Industry.
Exclusive polling carried out for the Press and Journal using keypads at the Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre confirmed the views of business chiefs in Scotland’s economic powerhouse region.
More than half of the audience – 54% – were company directors and senior managers, with 42% of the total working in professional services and 18% in oil and gas.
They were largely pro-Union at the start of the night, before Mr Alexander or Mr Swinney had taken to their feet, with 72% planning to vote No, 12% saying Yes and 16% “unsure”.
During the exchanges, Liberal Democrat Mr Alexander warned of jeopardising the economic recovery, saying he had no doubt Scotland was “stronger, more prosperous, more successful and influential” in the UK.
The SNP’s Mr Swinney insisted taking the “wealth and job creating powers” through independence was in “the best interests of people in Scotland”.
A fresh poll was held after the audience heard from the UK and Scottish governments finance chiefs – as well as experts Professor David Bell from Stirling University, Brodies chairwoman Christine O’Neill, and the event’s chairman Keith Aitken.
It found the Yes vote had increased by four points to 16%, and the No was down four to 68%.
Asked who had made the better case on the night, 45% of the audience said Mr Alexander, 26% backed Mr Swinney and 29% declared it a draw.
Despite Mr Swinney winning over some, the result was clear – the business community in the north-east remains overwhelmingly opposed to independence.
The result echoed concerns raised repeatedly about uncertainty, currency and the EU from high-profile figures such as BP’s chief executive Bob Dudley.
As in national polls, men in the audience were slightly more likely to back independence or remain undecided than women.
And despite the strong overall support for the Union, 51% said they had not found either campaign persuasive to date.
The findings may reflect criticism of Better Together and UK ministers for “scaremongering”.
And in a blow to the UK Government, a majority backed a debate between Cameron and Salmond.