The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) used to have been the bastion of the UK business establishment since 1965. It was formed by a merger of the Federation of British Industries, the British Employers’ Confederation and the National Association of British Manufacturers. It claims to speak for some 170,000 businesses of all sizes and sectors, across every region and nation of the UK including over 1,100 corporate members, plus nearly 150 trade associations.
Its mission statement proudly declares: “We actively shape the future economy in a way that works for UK business – and so do our members. That means proactively speaking to government about issues and opportunities, ensuring firms of all kinds get to use their voice”.
The question today is: who is that voice speaking to, and is anybody listening? It appears the Government hasn’t been, which is why Prime Minister Sunak set up his own business council of 14 top business leaders, saying: “I look forward to hearing first-hand from business leaders about how we can break down the barriers they face.”
External affairs chief of the Federation of Small Businesses Craig Beaumont commented: “We’ve been told this group has been formed after complaints that corporate Britain isn’t getting a hearing.” Perhaps the CBI has been too busy talking to others outside the UK?
It would seem not.
The CBI opened a Brussels office some fifty years ago in 1971, followed by other international offices in Washington (2002), Beijing (2005) and New Delhi (2011). The last three are now being closed as part of a cost-cutting drive, sadly confirming the CBI vision as looking inwards rather than outwards to the wider world.
Given the closure of these three offices result in job losses of just ten people, one can only wonder what they were ever designed to achieve, or whether their existence was merely “tokenism” in the first place.
Certainly when I was a member of the European Parliament for ten years the CBI Brussels office was notable for its invisibility. Former CBI boss Digby Jones, a great champion for British business back home had increased the office numbers, but their central mission seemed to be to report back to the UK on what was happening rather than proactively trying to influence what was happening in the first place.
Meanwhile UK Trade Union leaders regularly patrolled the corridors and committees in Brussels, as was their right and as they saw it their clear responsibility. They were always well-briefed and focussed on what their members wished to achieve. So too was BusinessEurope, the EU equivalent of the CBI, with some 40 member organisations from 35 countries including European Economic Area (EEA) members as well as some others from Central and Eastern Europe.
When I was Parliamentary Rapporteur for an important review of trade union legislation in the workplace BusinessEurope was on the ball and on the case, with helpful amendments and negotiation fallback positions: the local CBI remained sedately on the sidelines.
I recall an earlier occasion when I was invited to talk to a group of senior business leaders at CBI HQ in London about the work of the European Parliament. I was hoping for a constructive dialogue and a meeting of minds but was met with blank faces when I described our role, the mission of the European Commission, and the need as well as the opportunity for all stakeholders to influence the work of both. It was a salutary experience.
The CBI should not just be a cosy club, talking to itself at conferences and conventions. Today it is not even cosy: Following a series of allegations of scandal a number of major members have now publicly announced they are leaving the CBI and new President Richard Soames has a major chance to reboot and rebuild.
The latest CBI website includes in its mission statement that “we follow closely the implementation of the Trade and Co-operation agreement.” This is passive claptrap and anyway clearly the role of Government. The new CBI mission should surely be proactively to shape the next iteration of the agreement, so that it more fully reflects the various needs of business rather than allows others to set the agenda.
The current CBI Director-General has hinted there might be a change of name at some stage in the future. What is really needed is not a change of name but a change in role. It needs not just to be a voice for UK business talking to itself but a crusade to make things happen.
Hundreds of years ago Leonardo da Vinci highlighted the issue precisely: “It had long come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.”
Condemning Brexit Idiocy would be a good place to start.
This article was written by Philip Bushill-Matthews before his untimely death in December 2023 and is published here with the permission of his family in honour of his memory.