Outlook: Is the CBI the voice of business?

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The Independent Online
Is the CBI the voice of business?

If the Confederation of British Industry thought this week's annual conference was dominated to an excessive degree by the single currency debate, then just wait until the great and the good of business reconvene in Birmingham in a year's time.

By then EMU will be a mere two months away. The hysterical euro polarisation of the last week may, with the benefit of hindsight, be remembered more like a sixth form balloon debate. By then, we will know who is in and who is out of EMU and the exchange rates at which the first wave will enter. The Blair administration will be staying out of Europe's most ambitious project while simultaneously leading from the front and the CBI will probably have produced another survey of its membership showing still more support for the single currency.

Unfortunately, we will not know whether business support has actually increased because the CBI, cleverly, never asks the same question twice, preferring instead to ask the question likely to illicit the biggest yes vote. And we will still not know whether the CBI really does speak for the broad sweep of British business or merely the big multinational battalions with little geographic allegiance to Britain.

For all the CBI's unwavering support for a single currency, the fact is its membership has not lashed itself to the euro mast with quite the same enthusiasm as the club itself. The longest and the loudest ovation this week was reserved not for Gordon Brown or Niall FitzGerald, both euro enthusiasts.

Actually it went to William Hague. Either the euro lemmings secretly agree with much of the Tory leader's prognosis on EMU or they must have a real liking for self flagellation. The euro engenders real dislike among a significant swathe of the business community for whom EMU signifies higher labour and social costs as much as lower transaction charges. Because the CBI is by its very nature corporatist in its approach, it finds it difficult to reflect these nuances and shades of opinion. The same is true whether it is speaking as the voice of British business on working hours or green taxes or even late payment for that matter.

Martin Taylor, the chief executive of Barclays, summed it up best when he said the choice facing business was to decide whether the economic risks of joining EMU were outweighed by the political risks of remaining outside. Between now and next November, the choice facing many company executives will be to decide whether to stay with an organisation that is bound to misrepresent some of them on one of the most fundamental economic and political decisions this century.