Confederation of British Incoherence
The CBI has reversed its decision to become a registered campaigner against Scottish independence with the Electoral Commission. The scale of the CBI’s failure in terms of professional governance, administrative ineptitude or the managerial incompetence required to produce such a volte face could provide a raft of juicy potential Business School case-studies: after all, what we have had from John Cridland, Director-General of the CBI in explanation of this abject failure is a series of Grade One blunders in which; the CBI first registered with the Electoral Commission as an anti-independence campaigner, then ‘nullified’ its initial registration; was obliged to acknowledge that it made an “honest mistake”, then revealed that the registration was made by a “junior” member of staff (in London) who did not possess the authority to register, did not know that he [or she?] did not have the authority, and did not seek any higher authority.
Cridland seeks to explain the nature of the problem in a Daily Telegraph blog by Ben Riley-Smith (Saturday, 26th April). In his interview Cridland says: “What’s happened this week is that our political impartiality has been questioned. It appears that we have changed our position, changed our role, are looking to do something different going forward. We are not. We have not changed our role. That was never the purpose of registering for the Electoral Commission”. It would be fairer to say that the CBI transparently does not understand either what its role is, nor the nature of the real problem; the CBI is obtuse, and like too many of Britain’s larger institutions, possesses absolutely no capacity for self-awareness. Cridland goes on to claim that “We’re not campaigning in the referendum. We’re not a single issue group set up because of the referendum. We’re not a political party”. But of course everyone can see that they are campaigning in the referendum. Now in a deep hole, Cridland just goes on digging in the best Unionist tradition.
He argues: “The decision to register was not done with the CBI’s normal corporate governance procedures because it was seen as an operational compliance issue. It didn’t receive the legal advice it should have done and it wasn’t signed off in an approved way … I did not okay the decision. The CBI’s leadership did not okay the decision. There was no senior executive involvement in the decision”.
Whatever this is intended to look like, this haplessness does not have the merit of an excuse; it is rather a (no doubt unconscious) revelation of the CBI’s profound ignorance, laxity or indifference at the highest levels of the institution regarding the great British constitutional issue of Scotland’s place in the Union – or perhaps all three; for only ignorance or indifference could produce the revealing additional information that the Scottish referendum could conceivably be seen anywhere in the CBI as a mere “operational compliance issue”. Indeed Cridland does not seem, even now, to understand that the CBI had changed its role; that indeed it was involved in a campaign, that campaigning is not restricted to single-issue groups or political parties and emphatically that its changed role is not avoided by the claim to be British, a kind of Potteresque Union-flag ‘invisibility cloak’ that renders it immune from being seen as campaigning, or showing bias; and therefore by a mere rhetorical device Cridland can miraculously render the CBI above the fray by the mere ploy of claiming to be British.
For the avoidance of doubt, scapegoating a junior London-office manager does not cut the governance mustard. The ritual repetition of the magic word “British” by ideological Unionists does not automatically render their opinion ‘impartial’. The idea that simply being “British” provides every eccentric institution ( that has outlived its now recondite purpose), with a special ability that allows Unionists simultaneously to be impartial observers, activists and arbiters as to partiality in their own case, is not especially unusual in a Britain today of broken banks, unusable regulation, industrial-scale tax avoidance and failed institutions; but it remains patently absurd. The CBI has not only lost the plot, but the characters and the text.
Cridland’s problem is compounded by the ineptitude of Better Together, which in an extraordinary non-sequitur said of the CBI policy meltdown: “The Electoral Commission must urgently provide clear advice to organisations on whether or not they should register. Whether it’s business, civil society, or nationalist organisations like Business for Scotland, there should be clarity about registration”.
By the time we have finished with this issue Unionism will no doubt find that the real blame for Unionist incompetence actually lies with the Electoral Commission. Meanwhile the real problem for Cridland, the CBI, Better Together and indeed only too many Unionists across Britain, is much more fundamental than the concatenation of operational blunders that Cridland feebly lists in expiation of failure. The CBI has quite clearly not addressed the Scottish referendum with the seriousness, the attention, the grasp of the underlying issues that might have led it to realise something untoward was likely to happen to a gathering list of institutions including the BBC, STV, private companies and great universities that were obliged to leave or suspend CBI membership to protect their impartiality. It could have figured that out by inspecting the CBI list of members and reflecting momentarily on the likely approach of these members to the CBI stance and their own commitment to the principle of “impartiality”. But why would it? Clearly the CBI did not need to address the principle: for the CBI is British; therefore it is impartial.
This is Unionism’s deep and entrenched problem. Unionists do not understand the complex, elaborate, consensual nature of the Union or what has actually held it together. Unionists do not do consensus; their Union is simple, naive and profoundly wrong-headed; a centralised London-centric British State. The failure of Better Together to ‘rise to the occasion’ is thus a function of Unionists’ failure to understand the real nature of what they believe in. Bewildered, frustrated and uncomprehending about what is happening to their unconsidered, confused, ill-thought-through verities; Unionists have replaced argument with resentment; facts with accusations; debate with hectoring. Nevertheless it is worth remembering that modern Unionists are not to be blamed, but pitied. They have long outlived the world they yearn to inhabit. It does not exist; it probably never did.