If it came to a British in-out referendum on membership of the EU, how many business leaders would be in the “out” camp? That is an intriguing question. Some are backing renegotiation, but who would back withdrawal if it came to the crunch?
Heads of big businesses such as Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson and Sir Martin Sorrell of the advertising group WPP remain pro-EU. Among smaller and medium-sized businesses it is more complex, as a British Chambers of Commerce poll shows. Almost half want the UK to renegotiate its relationship with Europe – close to Prime Minister David Cameron’s position – while 26 per cent want to retain the status quo and just 12 per cent want to leave.
Edmund Truell, the private equity investor, seems firmly in the “out” camp. He told The Sunday Times he would be “quite happy to see the UK leave” if a free-trade type deal could not be reached. A few others skirt the renegotiate/withdrawal boundary. Lord Wolfson, chief executive of fashion retailer Next, told The Sunday Telegraph: “Britain should stay in Europe, but only on the right terms.” Luke Johnson, the FT columnist who chairs Risk Capital Partners and StartUp Britain, backed renegotiation but cited favourably the example of non-EU Norway and Switzerland. Jon Moulton, venture capitalist, was quoted in the City AM newspaper as saying leaving the EU could boost the economy in the long run. Open Europe, the think-tank, has supporters such as Jardine Matheson’s Lord Leach of Fairford and Michael Dobson, chief executive of Schroders. But although it lobbies for renegotiation, it wants to retain EU membership.
It may not come to an in-out referendum, of course. The prime minister opposes the idea, saying it would offer a “false choice”. But if Mr Cameron (assuming he were still PM) failed to reach a new settlement satisfactory to eurosceptics, pressure for such a vote would grow.
Mats Persson, Open Europe’s director, probably had it right when he said that “a lot of big business people don’t have a firm view yet: they just know they want all the trade benefits of EU membership and they don’t want uncertainty”.
In the Financial Times interview last week with Lord Heseltine, former Conservative deputy prime minister, we asked him what his proudest achievement in government was. He mentioned his struggle with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the 1980s and his role in the sale of council houses, but appeared to suggest his efforts to revive local economies topped the list. “What I am pleased about is that all of this stuff is on the record going back 30 years,” he said.
No mention, I note, of the pro-European cause: he and fellow europhiles failed to get Britain into the euro. Or the Millennium Dome. Or of ending Margaret Thatcher’s prime ministership with his leadership challenge in 1990 – though that, he could argue, was achieved when he was out of government.
The BBC’s James Landale asked Ed Miliband, Labour leader, in an interview at the weekend: “Have you changed your party’s name to One Nation Labour?”
Mr Miliband replied: “I’m definitely using the name One Nation Labour.”
Scottish friends point out that this concept does not work in Scotland: its inhabitants belong to the British state, but Scotland is their nation.
I cannot imagine it has much resonance in Wales and Northern Ireland either. Perhaps he should call it Four Nation Labour.
Robert Kee, who has died aged 93, was a distinguished television journalist and a noted historian whose history of Irish nationalism, The Green Flag, is highly regarded.
But Notebook recalls an unusual slip when he was interviewing David Owen, one of the “gang of four” who founded the Social Democratic party, on television in the 1980s.
He said: “Well now, Dr Death … I’m sorry, Dr Owen.”
My daughter has just returned from a conference in Londonderry. A local told her: “It’s a divided city, but the Catholics and Protestants of Derry are united in hating the Catholics and Protestants of Belfast.”