Brexit debate shows diversity of business opinion

January 27, 2016, 12:31 PM GMT+0

The voice of the business community will be crucial in the EU referendum – but how can we know what that voice really is?

To get a better idea, I looked at three distinct groups: I interviewed 15 leaders of FTSE 100 and FTSE 250 companies, and surveyed 42 digital entrepreneurs (in partnership with Founders Forum), and 500 small businesses.

Ahead of the referendum the business community is not a unified whole. While large companies and digital entrepreneurs strongly favour remaining in the EU, small business are, like the general public, more divided. That's understandable. While they are still highly affected by the general British economy they are less likely to deal with cross-border trade.

To explore the topic further I hosted an event with Founders Forum. Big names such as Chris Grigg (CEO British Land), Ronan Dunne (CEO Telefonica UK), and Richard Johnston (CEO Endemol Shine UK) favoured staying in the EU, although some expressed grumpiness that the “unnecessary” referendum is happening in the first place – basically asking “why put at risk something that isn’t working that badly?”

Hotelier Rocco Forte spoke the sceptics, arguing that if Iceland can negotiate a good deal outside of the EU then so can the much more powerful UK.

Since the banking crisis, business leaders have largely shied away from the limelight but business will be a crucial battleground in the referendum.

When corporates jumped into the Scottish referendum they made an impact. The public discerned that when it came to jobs and the general economy, what was bad for business was also bad for them.

My research among business leaders found that many companies regard it as reasonable, indeed a duty, to be involved in this referendum. "This time it's about the head not the heart", one said, "and we have a positive role to play".

During the campaign we’ll hear from big corporations, but maybe not as loudly from small companies that account for around 60% of British employees. Understanding what the different parts of the community think will be a major part of the referendum and is something I’ll explore in greater depth in the coming months.

This article originally appeared in City AM

Image from PA

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