The more observant among you may have noticed that, since the date of the general election was fixed last month, this column has addressed political themes that impinge on the business process. I started by suggesting that the New Labour stakeholder values of the Co-operative Wholesale Society were far too precious to be thrown away in a break-up bid from the likes of Lanica Trust (recent events only serve to confirm this view).
I then noted that Labour still has much to do to win the confidence of the City’s equity markets. This was followed by a brief comparison of the spiralling fortunes of John
Major and Sears chief executive Liam Strong, which both appear to have developed an irrecoverable momentum (if Major wins now, even Strong could survive).
Finally, over the past couple of weeks, I have suggested that one of the greatest challenges for the next Government is a meaningful post-privatisation policy for the private sector and that Labour cannot rely on the services sector alone to supply its promises for economic recovery.
Next week, I hope to summarise the election prospects for Britain – where the marketing vote should go, as it were. But this week I want to address the single most important issue that faces the British business community in this election: Europe.
The sheer volume of press that was devoted to this issue last week is amply demonstrated by a weekly election bulletin supplied by CARMA International, which provides media content analyses to public sector clients and corporations from IBM to Coca-Cola and BT. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, last week’s bulletin showed that Europe had shot to the top of the Conservatives’ issues chart, relegating sleaze to seventh place. But, intriguingly, Europe ranked behind education and what is called “electioneering” in Labour’s leading issues chart.
Much of this will be down to Michael Heseltine’s new career in graphic design and I don’t intend to add to the burden of coverage over whether or not Tony Blair should be portrayed as Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s ventriloquist’s dummy (incidentally former Conservative MP Sir George Gardiner’s term for Major).
More important for business than politicians’ views of one another is their attitude to Europe as defined by the timing of this general election. It is right up against a crucial Inter-Governmental Conference (IGC) on progress towards a single European currency in Amsterdam in June. Nobody appeared to give that any attention until Major talked about being naked in the conference chamber and having his hands tied by turbulent backbenchers last week.
Compare and contrast this lack of awareness of the timing of elections in the European schedule with President Jacques Chirac of France. By the time this column is read, Chirac may well have announced an early parliamentary election to avoid a clash with next year’s deadline for a decision on the launch of a single European currency – a move that could throw out the timing of the already sensitive privatisations of defence electronics cong lomerate Thomson-CSF and France Telecom.
It is difficult to imagine a British government taking single-currency issues into account in the timing of an election, far less threatening a privatisation timetable in doing so. Major appears not to have taken even June’s IGC into account, if the European mess he got himself into last week is anything to go by. Nor does Labour appear to have exploited the timing of our election in relation to the European timetable.
I have long argued that the European agenda will be driven by British business rather than by British politicians. A single currency is of fundamental importance to our trading pros-pects. For it to have been relegated for so long in this election campaign behind matters such as sleaze, or even education, is iniquitous.
It is, therefore, incumbent on British business to put the single currency firmly back on the political agenda. And there are some encouraging signs that we will do so. Next month sees the publication of a report from leading British business people which, among other things, argues that the competitiveness of European companies is lagging badly behind US and Japanese rivals, due to inertia in Brussels and a preoccupation with monetary union. The group, headed by former Grand Metropolitan chairman Lord Sheppard, will emphasis the point that business must drive the process of change in Europe.
I know this because Lord Sheppard has granted a sneak preview to the Financial Times. We may have cause to disagree with some of the conclusions that his group comes to – as it happens, I think that a single currency is more important than the bureaucratic machinery of the single market – but at least here is a force in British industry that is pushing the European debate into rather more important areas than Helmut Kohl’s knee.
Unfortunately, the report is timed to come out after, rather than before, the election. Some read significance into Sheppard’s long-time support for the Conservative Party, but he is said to have been scrupulously even-handed in the compilation.
In this last week before the voting, it would be great if British business pushed the European issue to the forefront of serious political debate and beyond the trivial, because all the evidence so far is that the politicians won’t do it on their own.