I would like to have taken more interest in the disasters befalling the Confederation of British Industry, but it has long been an irrelevance. It exists because of a general feeling that something should exist and no more. It no more speaks for business than I might, or a random passer-by.
As a bosses’ trade union, it has had no purpose since the workers’ trade unions ceased to dictate to the nation. As a body from which the BBC can invite talking heads, it might fulfill a narrow need of the shallowness of journalism; but even in that role, any spokesman the CBI puts up can only speak for himself and infuriate those actually industriously labouring.
The latest calamities would be unworthy of comment but that it brings the existence of the CBI into question. The charge sheet against the Director-General reads like no more than a desperate attempt to pin something on the man to force him out for reasons of office politics or ambition. That is the way the world works these days: make an accusation, bear false witness against him and exaggerate, and the victim is expected to resign, even if innocent. Whatever the tittle-tattle, it tells us more about the rot in the heart of the organisation than about the man accused. Unsurprisingly then, that rot that was hidden has begun to be exposed. Those who live in glass houses are throwing stones from the inside.
It seems a noble idea to represent business as a whole. It is just that in practice it cannot.
The concept of ‘business’ is vast and varied, and ever changing as entrepreneurs innovate. Its interests cannot truly be represented. Some general principles may be universal; lowering the tax burden, free trade and so forth, but much beyond that and there is no consensus. You might think that all business wants less burdensome regulation, but the large, semi-monopolies actually encourage it – they nurture regulatory system, growing them as if nurturing some vast fungus, in order to squeeze out smaller rivals. It is those large companies which dominate bodies like the CBI.
The collective voice of business is wrong and self-harming, constantly. Adam Smith noted the way that business interests lobbied Parliament in his time to secure protectionists measures, but he analysed the result and the merchants who had sought those measures suffered from them badly. They would not be convinced though. The same still goes on in Europe, from which we are mercifully extracted, and most of all in America.
As to the conversation of business with business:
People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.
How much more so for all industry? If it were effective, that is.
Those established in business are already out of date. Innovation and improvement for customers comes from the upcoming entrepreneurs. It should be unsurprising then to find that every intervention from the Confederation of British Industry over the years has been catastrophically wrong? In the 1930s, the Federation of British Industries was urging appeasement and settling confortable private arrangements with the Reichsgruppe-industrie. The CBI that it spawned did the same with murderous Communist Russia and opposed Margaret Thatcher, the most pro-business Prime Minister since the Victorians, and the one who allowed enterprise to fly. It is unsurprising that the CBI was virulently against liberating business from Brussels bureaucracy.
The things is – those who have settled into just getting on with life day by day will not want changes that bring uncertainty to their settled world, but prosperity demands change and innovation. Those who reach high postions in trade organisation, especially such a one as the CBI, will be those who want that settled life. Furthermore, they must of necessity be the older, established bosses, because the innovators, those bringing uncomfortable disruptive change, are too busy working. And there in an office, claiming to represent the entrepreneurs, is a man who resents them bitterly.
Furthermore, the idea that the organisation of such size can represent members is a fantasy – indeed an impossibility. It is not an organisation of businessmen: it may be funded by businesses, but practically every function is carried out by hired staff who have never run a business in their lives. Is it any surprise if those staff, with the ear of government, giving power free of responsibility, should run fight each other in power games and run riot with impunity?
Look at the entrepreneur who is finding new ways to get paid for serving the public (not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest) – she may be opening a shop, or a high-tech consultancy, or he may be a builder with new techniques, or a professional launching a novel practice – what do they get from a distant monolith run by staff with no understanding and whose dominating steer is from giant industries who want to squash young, upcoming rivals?
Yet Whitehall listens to the CBI and similar bodies, as if they really do speak from industry, and so they misunderstand and harm actual enterprises. That is a danger for us all.
If there is a need for industry to have a ‘voice’ to remind politicians of what a shopkeeper needs, we may take inspiration from the established principle that competition is needed and monopolies must be stopped: many voices, in whose very disagreement we will hear more truth.