Lesley Riddoch: CBI compounds the error of its ways

With its latest U-turn, the group has only revealed and added to, rather than solved, its problems, writes Lesley Riddoch

After a very bad week at the office, CBI director John Cridland has insisted his position is still tenable. Picture: Getty

THE tortured tale of the CBI and its stance on Scottish independence has taken yet another incredible twist. Just when it seemed impossible to inject more contradiction, confusion and lack of leadership into a single week, CBI director John Cridland has managed to go the extra mile.

His veteran Scottish director Iain McMillan has been forced (or allowed) to step down over a London-based mistake. The only question is, which one?

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First, the body that represents Britain’s captains of industry decided to become a registered campaigner against Scottish independence. Impartial public sector institutions announced they’d resign – surprising all with the speed of their decisions and the fact that universities, broadcasters and Scottish Government-funded quangos were members of this right-wing, market-favouring lobby group in the first place. The BBC said it would suspend membership for the official referendum campaign, from 30 May to 18 September. Presumably a further month between now and 30 May as members of a No campaigning body is somehow acceptable for a public service broadcaster.

This vain attempt to find non-existent middle ground has simply vindicated Auntie’s legions of critics and must surely also be reversed.

Nonetheless, in the face of 18 resignations and suspended memberships, John Cridland stuck to his guns for a week, suggesting the decision to register was honest and transparent and would enable the CBI to host expensive No dinners without breaking election rules once the pending period had begun in late May.

One day later though, the story was quite different. The CBI had asked the Electoral Commission to “nullify” its application on the grounds that it was improperly submitted by a junior London-based member of staff who had overstepped his or her pay grade. But in a (perhaps) final twist at the weekend, it was announced that CBI Scotland boss Iain McMillan will take early retirement after the referendum. No connection with CBI-gate you understand. A timetable for McMillan’s departure was apparently agreed in January, “before [the CBI] came under fire”. Aye, right. The other leg has bells on and the latest volte-face still leaves the CBI with problems aplenty.

Problem one: a junior member of staff in London – reportedly the CBI’s head of campaigns – was allowed to take an executive decision on a massive constitutional issue without oversight, consultation or discussion.

Anyway, how does such a dereliction of duty exonerate CBI bosses? John Cridland has said: “I did not OK the decision. The CBI’s leadership did not OK the decision. There was no senior executive involvement in the decision.” Well, there should have been. Only a chronically disconnected management operating on autopilot could have left a junior employee to decide a vital issue like its campaigning stance on Scottish independence.

Senior executives should have taken that decision. The fact they didn’t compounds the offence and gives a strong impression of presumption, high-handedness, a willingness to blame others and a London-centric contempt for the importance of the whole Scottish debate.

Problem two: is the CBI still campaigning for a No vote or not? The CBI website still carries headlines which say “Why the Scottish Government’s economic plan doesn’t add up” and “The latest on the business case for Scotland staying in the UK.” And yet, according to John Cridland: “We’re not campaigning in the referendum. We’re not a single issue group set up because of the referendum.” This, of course, is true. But it’s precisely because the CBI is not set up solely to campaign against independence that it should have asked its Scottish members before taking a stance. Instead it “took soundings” – limited enough to “overlook” the organisations that subsequently resigned – then made a set of presumptions and battered on regardless. That’s not just undemocratic, it’s also bad management. And lest we forget, the CBI exists only to represent managers who pride themselves on excellent decision-making, transparency and accountability. Is the CBI actually fit for that purpose?

The CBI’s contradictory stance and dubious claims have been highlighted by the pro-independence Business for Scotland (BfS) group – a new kid on the business block formed in 2013 by six small business owners. BfS members join as individuals, and numbers had risen to 1,800 by last week. BfS claims CBI Scotland membership may be as low as 60. It would be nice to know. Meanwhile, a problem looms if CBI Scotland continues to promote its August dinner – with keynote speaker David Cameron – as a platform for the No campaign. Balance could of course be restored by inviting Alex Salmond. I’m not holding my breath.

Problem three: a Scot, not a London CBI boss, has stepped down follwing the “London-based” mistake. This suggests that Iain McMillan was either the real culprit, or a scapegoat, or furious at the U-turn, or simply resigning as planned and picking a strange time to announce it. No possible explanation adds credibility to the standing of the CBI.

Problem four: scrapping the application is not even a done deal. An Electoral Commission spokesman said at the weekend: “We have received representations from the CBI to de-register. We are currently considering whether this is possible under the relevant legislation”. Maybe it’s not.

Problem five: the CBI is now as badly unstuck as the Labour Party in the assumption that all members will automatically vote No. This debacle has simply demonstrated that independence cuts across all previous political divides in a new, vigorous and relatively open way.

So is there a plus side? Well, in a lacklustre Better Together campaign, the CBI has finally managed to inject colour, contradiction and a whole raft of new talking points beyond the tired old No staples of currency union and EU membership. Though that might not seem like much of an achievement to John Cridland.

Asked about the impact of the row on his job, the CBI director-general said: “I do believe my position is tenable as head of the CBI.” Sorry Mr Cridland. It isn’t.