As the political and business environments have changed, so have the risks for industry leaders speaking upby Christopher Grey / June 13, 2020 / Leave a comment
The news that the government will temporarily operate a slimmed down system of checks on goods entering the UK from the EU when transition ends may seem like a sign that it is listening to business concerns. Yet, in general, business has been neither very influential nor very vocal throughout the Brexit process.
This is in marked contrast to the high-profile and pivotal role it played in the 1975 referendum on whether to remain in what was then the European Economic Community. Then, businesses both campaigned vigorously for and extensively funded (what wasn’t then called) remain. That was much less so in 2016 and, certainly, in the years since, up to the present debate about transition period extension, business has been relatively muted. This despite the fact that most surveys show that the great majority of leaders of large businesses, and a smaller but still clear majority of small business leaders, were or are opposed to Brexit. What explains the contrast?
There are many reasons. The entire political environment is different. In 1975 the strongest opposition to EEC membership came from the left of the Labour Party, including most trade unions, and indeed it was largely to satisfy them that the referendum was held at all. The Conservatives, then considered the party of business, were much more united in being pro-membership, and the only major figure on the right supporting leaving was Enoch Powell, who had left the Tory Party—over Europe—the year before. So businesses were in step with their natural political allies.
By 2016 that had all changed. The Conservative Party had become viscerally Eurosceptic to an extent which would have been unimaginable in 1975. So too had much of the press. In 1975 the only national publications backing a “no” (leave) vote were the Spectator and the Morning Star, and there had been nothing remotely like the drip-drip of years of anti-European press coverage that preceded the 2016 referendum. Whilst there were a still a few “Lexiters” in 2016, Labour was largely pro-membership as were most trade unions.
Equally, although the subsequent decades had seen the growing dominance of business interests, and a decline in the strength of unions, by 2016 the memory of the financial crisis loomed large. Any sense that businesses spoke…