Former CBI boss says BCC boss wasn’t doing his job

by Richard Lambert | 07.03.2016

Directors of industry trade associations are paid to represent the views of their members. If they badly misread the mood of their paymasters, they find themselves in big trouble.  So it is with John Longworth, the director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC).

A recent survey of BCC members found that three-fifths of them wanted to stay in the EU, yet Longworth spoke a week ago in favour of leaving. He was, he said, only speaking in a personal capacity – but that is not his job. He is of interest to the public only as the spokesman of a large trade association. No surprise then, that he has been suspended by his employers for breaching the Chambers’ policy of neutrality on this issue*.

No surprise, either, that Boris Johnson and the Brexit press have attacked this decision as a scandal. According to the Mayor, “It cannot be right that when someone has the guts to dissent from the establishment line, he or she is immediately crushed by the agents of Project Fear”.

But this completely misses the point. If the BCC were determined to argue that the moon was made of cheese, it would be Longworth’s job to choose between Stilton or Cheddar.

He is by no means the first trade association boss to get into this kind of trouble. The best known precedent is that of Terry Beckett, a highly successful and extremely self confident industrialist who became the director-general of the CBI in 1980. He hit the headlines at that year’s autumn conference by proclaiming that “We have got to take the gloves off and have a bare knuckle fight” with the Thatcher Government over industrial policy.

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    Five of the CBI’s most substantial member companies promptly resigned. Just as embarrassing, some tycoons from the left – led by Robert Maxwell – announced that they would sign up as CBI members instead.

    Shortly afterwards Beckett hurried round to Number 10 and explained to the Prime Minister – according to Nigel Lawson’s memoirs – that “industry loved her after all”. He was much more circumspect in the future – but the “bare knuckle” phrase stayed with him.

    Of course, industry leaders are supposed to lead. They should be at the head of their troops, seeking to line them up behind their arguments. But if they find themselves too far in front, they either have to retreat like Terry Beckett, or find a different way of making a living.

    Richard Lambert is a former Financial Times editor and former CBI director-general

    Edited by Hugo Dixon

    *John Longworth resigned on 6 March 2016

    Tags: Categories: Articles, Economy, Industry