It started when a Sunday newspaper printed an interview in which Stefano Pessina said some unflattering things about the Labour party. “If they acted as they speak,” the Boots executive chairman said, “it would be a catastrophe.”
Then came t he rejoinder. Ed Miliband decried the “unholy alliance between the Conservative party and people like him”, by which he meant Mr Pessina. “Frankly,” the Labour leader said, “I think he should be paying his taxes.”
This is not the first time in recent memory that business figures have offended politicians by speaking publicly about how a looming election might affect the prospects of British companies.
In the weeks before Scotland voted on whether to dissolve its three-centuries-old union with England, discussions about what that would mean for companies with a presence in the country began spilling out of the boardroom and into the television studios.
Bankers fretted publicly over what currency an independent Scotland would use. They wanted to know how they would be regulated and who, in a pinch, would act as lender of last resort. Exporters wondered aloud whether access to European markets would be disrupted. Businesses of all kinds worried about the economic effects of a spell of uncertainty.
At the time I was chief executive of Kingfisher, the owner of B & Q — and I, too, joined the chorus of concern. I told the Financial Times: “The uncertainty . . . would definitely mean we would pause before putting further investment in.”
On that occasion, the most vocal business leaders were on the same side as the main Westminster parties. It was the nationalists who were incensed. Jim Sillars, a former deputy leader of the Scottish National party who sometimes campaigned with former leader Alex Salmond, told companies who opposed the independence campaign that they faced a “day of reckoning”. Some executives told of receiving threats and abuse after expressing their support for the union.
My only involvement in this week’s row was to say what should be obvious, that Mr Pessina has the right to make a comment, and that Labour should respond to it rather than attack him as a person. But even that was too much for some.
John Redwood, the dissident Conservative, has argued that businesses should not make comments at all. One newspaper commentator took aim at me directly, saying I should keep quiet because of my role in government. (I am about to take over from Lord Browne in a non-executive Whitehall role, which clearly requires me to stay nonaligned in terms of politics — but not, as I see it, to enter a state of purdah.)
Business leaders have many reasons for staying out of political debate. It certainly makes for a quieter life, and it avoids the risk of upsetting customers and staff who might not share your views. Many executives doubt whether their interventions would make much difference.
Virtually every public relations adviser will tell chief executives to keep their heads down. Too much downside; little upside.
It is certainly true that entering into debate makes your business a legitimate target for scrutiny, for which you need to be prepared. (Sadly, you should probably gird yourself against personal attacks, too.) All of that tilts the balance towards off-the-record briefings, or not saying anything at all.
I think that is wrong, and that business should be involved in the national debate. After all, charities, campaign groups and unions are, and business is just as important to our way of life.
Furthermore, on issues that affect the economy, businesses have a uniquely informed point of view. It is essential that they should share it, especially when the professional political class consists almost entirely of people who have never worked outside Westminster.
Voters want to hear what business thinks about the consequence of their decisions. Clearly, the choice is theirs alone. But they want to take it having heard all the facts, all the points of view. That, at least, was the lesson I drew from the Scottish referendum. Many commentators credited the interventions of business people with having made a difference to the final tally.
I think businesses have a responsibility to meet voters’ demand for a more informed perspective about the weighty decisions they have to take. Still, executives should tread carefully. At Kingfisher I held myself to three principles.
First, speak out only when there is a clear rationale for doing so. I commented on Scotland (as an employer of more 3,000 people there), on the UK national insurance system (as an employer of 35,000) and on the European policy on illegal timber (which seemed reasonable, since we were using up a forest the size of Switzerland every year).
I did not, however, comment on foreign policy, defence or national health. When it came to these issues, I did not see how we could make a valid contribution.
Second, stick to the facts, adding information for the electors to review. Companies that said they would move out of Scotland in the event of independence were not issuing “threats”, as was often claimed. They were sharing plans that were relevant to voters. The same went for oil companies, who had an informed perspective on how independence would affect their industry.
Third, never tell the electors how to vote. Help them decide, by sharing knowledge they may lack. But tell them what to do, and you become a politician rather than a business person.
Of course, you have a right to become a politician if you so choose. Lord Rose, for example, is an accomplished executive and a Conservative peer. But as a politician you speak for yourself, and perhaps for your party, not the company you run.
Business people should be clear about their role in the national debate. We can make a crucial contribution if we stay within our bounds. We should be independent. But we should not be silent.
The writer is a former chief executive of Kingfisher
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