Scottish businesses are facing a political Catch-22 - Andrew Henderson

In recent years businesses have become more wary of entering the public debate, says Henderson. Picture: Contributed
In recent years businesses have become more wary of entering the public debate, says Henderson. Picture: Contributed
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Before a single vote is counted next week, it is safe to conclude that 2019 will not be looked back on as a “business and economy” ­election. It should surprise few that “backing business” did not emerge as a common campaign platform among our political parties this year.

A frequent explanation plays like this: in recent years, the business world has ­followed the well-trod path of other ­previously lauded institutions (the media, parliament, church) in losing public trust. Be it through spiralling executive pay or the pursuit of organisational goals seemingly devoid of social purpose, the ­failings of some companies have tarnished all.

Trust has apparently eroded to such a degree that it has become positively de rigueur for politicians to ignore, discard, or even deride the views of the business world.

Where “big business” was once held aloft as an engine of the national economy, in political parlance the term has morphed into a pejorative tag, deployed to conjure images of a shadowy, unaccountable, profit-hungry elite who are generally “at it”, and more often than not at the expense of the public interest. The exchequer contributions from business to fund vital public services and the millions employed in large companies tend not to get a look-in. Certainly, they are rarely celebrated.

On the other side of the equation, businesses have become more wary of entering the public debate, conscious of the low esteem in which they and their peers are held, and of the many traps waiting to be sprung by those brave (or foolish) enough to risk public proclamations on matters of sensitive policy. Indeed, many businesses still bear the scars of ­forays (either deliberate or inadvertent) into the crossfire of ­previous elections and referenda.

Voters feel business views are important

Have we reached such a low in our ­public debate that businesses fear reputational repercussions so greatly that they no longer feel able to engage in public, even when policy options could have a detrimental impact on their interests and, in turn, those of their employees? Should our elected representatives feel comfortable in breezily dismissing legitimate concerns of business leaders, safe in the knowledge that the public do not believe, or are disinterested in, what ­businesses have to say?

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Well, perhaps not. Research for Pinsent Masons by ComRes found 32 per cent of voters feel the views of business are important in determining which way they will vote on 12 December. A minority, but a weighty minority nonetheless, and a large enough body of opinion to prick up the ears of savvy political strategists.

It also revealed that 62 per cent of voters believe it is important for businesses to make clear the impact the election result may have on local jobs and investment.

This flies in the face of any notion that the public prefer business to “keep its nose out of politics”. However, it also poses a challenge: in an environment where organisations may be nervous about publicising their views, how can business rise to meet this expectation?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer, and businesses will rightly continue to be thoughtful, and at times cautious, over how and when to engage. Those with concerns to air, but reticent to jump feet first into a public debate, can mitigate some risk by working through professional bodies and employer representative organisations.

Those who want to engage directly would ideally get involved when policy is in its early stages of formulation, and before the fervour of an election campaign. Clearly, for this election that moment has passed. Looking ahead though, there is still room to engage on policy matters.

The early days of any new administration are critical for businesses who wish to ensure that their perspective is understood and that concerns are taken on board before manifesto commitments are implemented, or (if Brexit proceeds) before trade negotiations start.

- Andrew Henderson, director of public policy, Pinsent Masons.