As someone who has been a Chairman of industrial companies in the past I have always thought it best to express no political views in such a role. The interests of a business require the company to get on well with customers, advisers and suppliers with a very wide range of political views. Plunging the company into high political controversy may simply alienate people you need to keep on side. The company needs to show it understands and can work with people of very differing opinions. It is also a community of people with very different attitudes and backgrounds.
If government decides to take an action like imposing a new law or tax that would damage the business interest, then of course the company may wish by agreement between the Board and shareholders lobby or argue against the proposal. This is best done through the proper channels. Companies, like individuals, belong to a particular constituency and can always approach their constituency MP to take up their case. They can also write in directly to Ministers. Some choose to spend money on lobbyists, which should be done carefully and requires good choice. Lobbyists who become too enthusiastic or too careless about the rules can get the company into trouble.
Recently there is a new vogue abroad. Various companies have decided to give us their opinion on the Scottish referendum, and on membership of the EU. As a democrat who believes in good debate, I have no objection to this. I merely ask the companies two questions. Will their expression of view help the cause they espouse, or could it put people off if they think they are being hectored by big business? And is it wise for any individual business to declare a political view on one or both of these very emotional and sensitive subjects?
I can seek to answer this question from an independent viewpoint, as businesses are interfering in the Scotland question mainly on the side of the Union which I also support, whilst companies talking about the EU mainly speak on the other side to my view.
It seems to me in the case of the Scotland debate it could become counterproductive for too many companies to claim they will leave Scotland if the Scots vote for independence. It would not be good if the independence cause is associated with resisting the pressures and hectoring of big business, with Alex Salmond reassuring people that they probably do not mean their threats. Companies that appear to be anti Scotland may lose support in Scotland for their pains.
In the case of the EU argument any business which puts forward the lie that we will lose 3 million jobs if we vote to leave the EU but have instead some kind of trade arrangement deserves to lose customers and annoy people. I am glad to see the CBI accepts that if we change our relationship or simply vote for out we will not lose all our export jobs, if for no other reason than the rest of the EU will still want to sell us more than we sell them and will seek successor arrangements to do so.
So maybe I should welcome misguided businesses trying to mislead electors about the trade and jobs position, as the electorate will see through it and respond negatively to those who put out that lie. What we do know from the polling is any company being too trusting and supportive of our current EU entanglement is upsetting more than half its potential customers in the UK.
We also need to remind electors that in the past certain big businesses intervened in the debate in favour of the Exchange Rate Mechanism, a ruinous policy which destroyed many jobs and hopes. These same big companies also tried to get us to join the Euro, though here wiser decisions were made by the politicians. As these pro Euro companies have been twice badly wrong, their credibility as they tell us today the current EU is just fine for them should cause us to doubt rather than to fall in line. I do not recall any large company leaving the UK in the way they threatened when we did not join the Euro, so they presumably did change their mind in a sensible way about that aspect of the EU plan.