I welcome free speech in our democracy. I strongly disagree with the CBI’s stance on the EU, but I do not challenge their right to hold it. I would suggest they pause and reconsider their enthusiasm for intervening in debates about identity and belonging, as they can now appraise the results of their current campaign over Scotland’s future.
They have adopted similar tactics in their approach to Scotland as in their stance on the EU. Their threats to Scotland about what might happen to business there if the Scots vote to leave the UK look as if they have been counterproductive. They certainly show a lack of wisdom.
Mr Cridland is a passionate advocate of the union with Scotland. There’s nothing wrong with that, and as a private individual he is welcome to speak out all he likes. As Director General of the CBI he has to consider the views and interests of his members. He claims that his members are also Unionists. Many might be, but as we have seen, the CBI is now facing the resignation of various member firms because they are either not Unionists, or think it is wrong for the CBI to take a strong political stance on such a divisive issue. It does not look good to see resignations on principle as the result of the CBI declaring a view on Scotland’s future. That cannot help the cause of Better off together. Was it wise?
The main CBI tactic in the Scottish debate has been to claim that various businesses will either leave Scotland, or would cease new investment and job creation there should Scotland leave the UK. This statement was countered by some businesses making the opposite case, saying they might find Scotland more attractive if it was independent. For example independent Scotland could set a lower aviation tax than the rest of the UK which aviation businesses would find attractive. The original claim created a sense of disunity, with other voices trying to undermine its credibility. Far from helping the Better Together campaign, it looks as if the business interventions have hindered the cause they are trying to help. At best they have not been able to prevent a clear swing towards separatism in the polls.
Which brings me back to the issue of the CBI’s stance on the EU. The CBI want to negotiate a new deal with the EU, but also want to say that the UK must stay in whatever the results of the negotiation. Good business people understand that to negotiate successfully you need to be able to walk away from the negotiation if necessary. The CBI is out to hobble the UK before it begins discussing what a new relationship with the EU might look like.
Maybe I should not worry about the CBI stance, because on the EU as on Scotland the voters may not be swayed favourably by it. It would be good, however, if the EU debate were spared the misleading claims that many businesses would pack up and leave if the UK left the EU. This was after all a claim many in the business community made if we did not join the Euro. They were wrong about that.
Mr Cridland may have had good reason to think most member firms were pro the union of the UK. He should not be under any delusion about belonging to the EU on current terms. Most people are against that and do not want our negotiating power hobbled, and that must include some business leaders. What he is experiencing today with the CBI’s unfortunate incursion into the Scottish referendum would be small beer compared to the grief intervention in the EU debate might cause him. It is not wise for business organisations to interfere in matters of belonging and identity, matters more of the heart than head. Sticking to the facts is one thing. Claiming you know how businesses will react, when you were wrong last time about the Euro, is not wise.