My fireworks were of the indoor, metaphorical variety on Bonfire Night last week. I was, nevertheless, made to feel like a well-stuffed guy.
I was debating the relative benefits of doing business with the US and Europe at Claridges, as a guest of the Marketing Group of Great Britain (MGGB). I was partnering the debonair and thoughtful Maurice Levy, the chairman of Publicis who was so embroiled earlier this year in the takeover bid for Cordiant, which he contested with (the ultimately triumphant) Sir Martin Sorrell at WPP. We were, unsurprisingly enough, presenting the case for Europe being the UK’s natural commercial home. We were up against the Vulcan-blooded former cabinet minister John Redwood and the mild-mannered economist and guru of the right-wing think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs, John Blundell.
The 100 or so guests were asked to tick a white-board as they arrived, indicating their position on the subject. They were evenly balanced – though this may have had more to do with what, on reflection, was a difficult motion (at least for marketing and media people swigging champagne): “This house believes that, in business, the Channel should be wider than the Atlantic.”
I offer what happened next not as an attempt to extend the debate, far less as an act of special pleading – I approached the evening as a bit of dialectical fun – but rather as a microcosm of existing positions on the UK’s place in the European and world economies.
Redwood opened with a barnstorming and, so far as I could see, impressively noteless speech about the importance of allying ourselves with the Americans in trade matters. The thrust of what he had to say was that the US economy is very big and is getting bigger, so we should back the world winner, rather than hopelessly divided and divisive Europe, with its stifling bureaucracy and over-regulation.
Next up was Levy, who gave a charming and languid speech, not in his mother tongue, to the effect that the European Union and the UK needed each other as partners to make most of the trade opportunities that the US presented us.
Our chairman, style commentator and The Sloane Ranger Handbook author Peter York (aka Peter Wallis, who recently bought out his qualitative consultancy, SRU, from the Brunswick Group) cut Levy a little slack on his allotted eight minutes for the language difficulties. York immediately received a scribbled note from Redwood that this was “grossly unfair”, despite Redwood having taken considerably more than eight minutes himself.
Here was an early indication that matters were being taken rather more seriously than some of us had expected. In the centenary year of the Entente Cordiale, it would be a mistake to think that everyone is willing to be cordial to our French cousins.
Blundell then spoke empirically of how “happiness” indices supported the US economic model and how other informal indicators, such as the number of phone calls to loved ones at Christmas and holiday destination research, indicated that the US was where the British heart lay.
Then it was my turn. I opened by saying, in response to Blundell, that phone calls were perhaps an unreliable indicator. After all, the overwhelming majority of website hits are for pornography, and Los Angeles is the porn capital of the world, but no one would offer that as a reason for cosying up to the US.
I said that the UK was a bridge to the US and a gateway to Europe and that the US needed us to be the latter and would soon lose interest in us if we ceased to be so. I also said that Redwood was simply drawn to backing winners of the moment – in business if not in politics – and called him anti-European. I also called the motion proposers “the two Johnnies”.
I provide this detail because, when we proceeded to dinner before contributions from the floor and the vote, Redwood laid into me for being “gratuitously offensive” and for misrepresenting him. The latter point was odd, since I was quoting from a PowerPoint presentation that he had prepared for his professorship at Middlesex University.
But I apologised for the offence and in the ensuing calm I discussed the Cordiant bid with Levy. At the close, on a show of hands we were divided by a single vote. A recount showed a slightly more substantial majority in favour of Levy and me, but York stammered out a peace-keeping statement that we should call it a draw.
So we did. And we left, my ears ringing with our opponents’ charges that we had rigged the result by packing Claridges with our stooges (as if we could be bothered!).
An illuminating evening. If the MGGB is representative of British marketing – and I suspect it is – the Euro/US debate is very evenly balanced. This has interesting implications for world trade, not least because the EU and the US will be asking us to make our minds up in the months to come.
Finally, I think we may have been given a demonstration of the febrile nature of feelings towards the issue of Europe on the Conservative backbenches. The shadow cabinet under Michael Howard is hailing a new dawn, but unless it forges a sensible attitude to Europe around which the party can rally, it will be a false dawn.
George Pitcher is a partner at communications management consultancy Luther Pendragon