(This article appears on the CBI Great Business Debate web site)
Over coming years, at least until Britain has established a new global role following the ‘Brexit’ referendum, the spotlight of public scrutiny will fall on business more than ever before. Its ‘licence to operate’ will have to be more obviously earned, whilst thoughts that business was somehow above the tawdry world of (small ‘p’) politics will have to be reassessed. Brexit is changing everything.
Big business was clear about where it stood on Europe: international trade requires maximum market access with minimum trade barriers so access to the single market was the obvious compromise. Smaller companies were more equivocal and less loud but not overwhelmingly pro-Brexit.
Yet business failed to convince enough people that their profits and voters’ jobs shared a common cause in ‘Remain’; polls show that business leaders’ opinions have no more credibility than those of politicians or red top journalists. Overseas investors in the North East wrote to employees, begging them to back ‘Remain’ in areas which subsequently returned large Brexit majorities.
And whilst the City, the FTSE community and big business generally were seen as pro-Europe the leafy home counties – where the captains of those very industries live – voted ‘out’. Did they not believe their own rhetoric?
Two groups emerged as pariahs during the referendum campaign: immigrants and, less predictably, ‘experts’. Anyone who knew what they were talking about was, bizarrely, not to be trusted. Leaders of multinational corporations suffered three-fold: they associated with Johnny Foreigner, they were experts and their interests were perceived as alien because of their size, distance and lack of a uniquely British focus.
Business was blamed for recruiting foreign labour at the expense of native British, with some employers cynically only advertising vacancies abroad or in another language, such as Polish. Since the referendum Muslims have borne the brunt of an unleashed tide of racism; Eastern Europeans, even families who arrived as refugees before the EU existed, have found themselves abused for the first time. Employers must work hard to prevent such neanderthal attitudes poisoning the workplace.
A sense of powerlessness, alienation from the establishment, contributed to the Brexit vote: inflated top salaries, growing levels of working poverty and multinationals’ optional approach to taxation all represent just that. Business must address these issues.
Our country must rebuild. Most intellectual leaders are still stunned by the unexpected and irrational nature of the June 23rd decision. Leading politicians have jumped ship rather than take responsibility for the decision they advocated: business must not do the same. Business has to find a new identity, less distant, a more human approach to the bottom line, one that promotes inclusivity not just in the workforce but alongside others in local communities.
This story is not over: social and economic conditions could get worse before they get better. Certainty and stability are gone, for how long?
The phrase ‘better together’ has never been more true; even if together we are to turn our backs on the biggest single market in the world and on 40 years of social and environmental progress. Business must be part of ‘together’ without being arrogant or lofty; our future depends on the Company Citizen stepping up to the mark.
(Picture from FreeDigitalPhotos.net Stuart Miles)