Chris Kelly is the Member of Parliament for Dudley South.
Paul Goodman recently wrote that "Euro-sceptics won't win an EU referendum without a Business for Britain campaign". He was absolutely right that the vast bulk of business opinion is firmly Euro-sceptic and that that scepticism now needs to be cultivated, harnessed and focused.
I would warmly welcome the formation, in 2012, of a "Business for Britain" campaign of the sort Paul has called for.
From my desk at my family business in the Black Country in the early part of the last decade I helped to organise and letter write for Business for Sterling (BfS) in the West Midlands and went on to intern for the No campaign during the Treasury's five economic tests in the summer of 2003 during a stint at business school. The No campaign, chaired by Lord (Rodney) Leach, was staggeringly successful, helped – in no small part – by Gordon Brown's lack of willingness to handover huge swathes of economic control to the European Central Bank. Incidentally, despite being cross-party, that campaign provided invaluable experience for many influential people on the right today including the Rt. Hon. Nick Herbert MP, George Eustice MP, Policy Exchange's Neil O'Brien and Michael Gove aide Dominic Cummings.
The formation of BfS towards the end of Blair’s first term and the harnessing of business opinion was absolutely critical in winning the debate and persuading the public that the then Prime Minister’s aim of scrapping the pound was wrong because, by and large, the public respect the views of entrepreneurs and wealth creators. Broadly, owners and managers of small and medium sized businesses were against scrapping the pound for the euro. The leaderships of large businesses, particularly multinationals (Unilever’s Niall FitzGerald and BP’s Lord Simon, in particular) were massively in favour of euro entry and made substantial donations – and/or provided other support and assistance – to Britain in Europe and the 'yes' campaign to try and bring it about.
The split in business opinion was borne out, first, by the Federation of Small Businesses opposing euro entry (and signing up to the No campaign) and, second, by polling of Institute of Directors members which always showed a majority against euro entry whilst the Confederation of British Industry, led by Adair Turner (in his own words a "technocrat", not a businessman) and then Digby Jones (a legal professional, not a businessman in the traditional sense), represented the vested interests of big business and their corporate members by calling for the pound to be scrapped (Peter Oborne's "Guilty Men" is very illuminating on this point).
I sense that the desire for reform of the European Union amongst business people today splits in a very similar way as over euro entry. My experience of talking to small and medium sized businesses in the Black Country and to family businesses from across the UK indicates to me that those business people and entrepreneurs who backed BfS a decade ago now back calls for a referendum on Britain's relationship with the EU. Interference, particularly European working time regulations, are frequently cited by such business people as a major concern.
The backdrop to all of this is the unfolding eurozone crisis which has already led to tighter economic and financial governance arrangements within the currency union, with the Franco-German axis – as the bill payers – (understandably) calling the shots. The business community in the UK is still extremely nervous of what the crisis and the response to it means, not just for the health of important export markets but also in terms of increased powers for Brussels to interfere in the way they run their businesses.
Recent polling shows that owners and managers of small and medium sized businesses backed David Cameron's use of the veto at the recent European Council despite, by and large, not being in the financial services sector or connected to the City of London. At the multi-national and FTSE 100 level, however, business leaders tend to be even more pro-European than a decade ago and less happy with the Prime Minister’s wielding of the veto (WPP's Sir Martin Sorrell has been particularly vocal on this point). As Paul Goodman argues, “big business” is quite happy with “the status quo”.
Roland Rudd is up and running with his Business for New Europe group with a stellar cast of FTSE 100 Chief Executives and Chairmen. It’s time that BfS’s successor was up and running to bring Euro-sceptic business voices together.