Chris Blackhurst: Big business has to speak up for a Yes vote on EU membership

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There is something terribly wrong with our attitude to big business in this country.

The idea that the Prime Minister should urge corporate leaders not to speak out in favour of staying in the EU, for fear of tipping the argument the other way, is a shameful indictment of how low our opinion of company bosses has sunk. 

Indeed, when I read of the development I had to a do a double take. This, after all, was from David Cameron, a Conservative and supposedly the party for business. 

Yet there it was. In the face of a swing in the polls towards euroscepticism, the Downing Street team is concerned that if business chiefs voice their support for the status quo, they risk damaging the renegotiation process, “as well as potentially turning public opinion against continued membership”.

They like receiving their money in donations, it seems, but not what the businesses have to say. 

They love using factories for picture opportunities, complete with hard hats and yellow jackets, and borrowing bemused workers to hear them make policy announcements, but other times they would rather keep well alone.


David Cameron meeting apprentices at the KLM factory

The Prime Minister and his colleagues go on trade missions and champion British business. They make its leading lights industry ambassadors and invite them in for breakfast and tea. 

But they would rather the bosses stayed silent on one of the biggest issues affecting the country, one that hits companies and employees directly, in case they upset the populace.

It may be that Cameron’s thinking is steered by the possibility that the corporate chiefs would say they would pull their businesses out of Britain if the No side prevails. 

Nobody likes to be threatened, and that is how it would be perceived: the titans holding a gun to British heads and demanding their own way. 

Voters would call their bluff and remove Britain from the EU. Except these are unlikely to be empty promises, not in the cases of the many foreign businesses who use this country as a stepping-off point for the EU.

Talk to any head of a City firm and they speak of companies leaving and relocating their head offices. They can’t all be excellent actors. There must be some truth in what they’re predicting. 

Surely, the public has the right to know what they’re saying? Evidently not; Cameron would rather they kept their counsel and said nothing. 

Is it any wonder, though, that we struggle to produce an entrepreneur culture, that parents encourage their children to eschew going into commerce, when the prevailing attitude is that big business should be seen and not heard?

The timing, just as a new Yes business body — backed by Lord Sainsbury of Turville, the former Blairite minister and member of the supermarkets dynasty, gears up for launch — could not be more deliberate. But it’s very difficult to find anyone in the No camp who runs a major business. There’s Simon Wolfson of Next but his opposition to staying in does not appear total.  

The Yes campaign, by contrast, can count on the likes of Dame Helen Alexander, Sir Roger Carr, Sir Philip Hampton, Sir Mike Rake, Sir Martin Sorrell, Christopher North, Richard Cousins, Richard Gnodde, and Sir Nigel Sheinwald, to name just some of those who support remaining within the EU.


WPP chief Sir Martin Sorrell is voting Yes

There are many others, from right across the corporate world, from every sector of business. The fact is that support for remaining in the EU among big business is pretty much universal. 

In any other major developed economy, certainly in the US, the view from such a vital constituency would matter. It would certainly be listened to, and perhaps heeded. Here, our Prime Minister wants big business to shut up, and worse, he’s afraid voters in the referendum may choose No because big business is saying Yes.

Our major employers, exporters, generators of wealth for our economy, want to stay in, but Cameron would prefer it if they kept their counsel. It’s bizarre, and unacceptable. 

The argument will be that these corporate chieftains also hail from a UK Plc that has become identified with excessive remuneration, rewards for failure, convoluted structures to avoid paying tax, bullying of small suppliers, mis-selling and market rigging. 

The reality, that these scandals only concern a minority of big business, and many of them emanate from just one area, banking, does not seem to resonate. 

Much of the tarnishing with a broad brush is down to the politicians, down to Cameron and his ilk, who in their desire to obtain votes, to reach the lowest common denominator, stoked the populist anti-business boss propaganda. 

But business is also to blame, in not fighting back, in not coming out on the front foot and making a case about the good it does.

The lack of business leaders prepared to step up, and speak up, at times has been embarrassing. 

They’ve not been helped in this regard by their main representative in trade bodies, which have not done enough to condemn the few bad apples and put clear space between them and the majority.

The result has been the cementing of the widespread belief that all big business is somehow corrupt, and therefore to be opposed or at best, ignored. This is a shameful state of affairs. It should be of huge significance to the referendum decision that big business is united in its anxiety to stay in the EU.

Fundamentally, the EU vote is about the economy. It’s not about common law and order, health, education, defence. To say that big business should play no part is absurd, and wrong. 

In the Scottish referendum, big business made its views known only at the very end. Until then, it had remained largely silent. Possibly, it was that intervention, and Gordon Brown’s impassioned late speech that swung the vote away from independence. But it was a close-run outcome. 

We can’t let that occur again. Business should ignore the Prime Minister and say in no uncertain terms what Brexit would mean. Its views must be taken into account.

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September 9, 2015 |
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