Bill Jamieson: Is CBI Scotland really fit for purpose?

Bill Jamieson

What is the point of CBI Scotland? Does it have a voice? And, if so, for whom does it speak?

Searching questions, but ones surely due as it starts the hunt for a successor to current chief Hugh Aitken, who is leaving after just two years in the job.

To say the business lobby group has been subdued since the furore over its registration as a ‘No’ supporter in the 2014 independence referendum would be an under-statement. With a few exceptions it has been notably low profile.

Bold utterances have been scarce. Commentary on the descent of Scotland’s economy to zero growth has been absent. On the uncertainty created by the SNP’s campaign for a second referendum there has been an omerta.

Click on the CBI Scotland website and there is little by way of a distinctive Scottish voice or presence. Of the top 50 items on the site’s list of press releases since the end of June, just six refer to responses from CBI Scotland – and two of these are self-regarding – promotion of the annual dinner and a rebuke over the original Sunday Times story of Aitken’s departure.

Many items are blind to differences in Scottish circumstances. For example, there is coverage welcoming buoyant UK retail sales last month but no recognition of the much more subdued retail experience in Scotland; supportive coverage is given to ‘UK’ medium sized businesses but no acknowledgement of the dearth of them here; there are items on rising foreign direct investment but no recognition that totals of FDI in Scotland have fallen back: figures last week recorded 108 inward investment projects for Scotland in the 2015-16 financial year, down from 122 and 119 in the previous two years.

And on the latest Scottish Government Expenditure and Revenue figures (GERS) showing Scotland’s budget deficit ballooning out to £14.8 billion to stand at twice the UK level as a proportion of GDP, there was no recorded reaction.

However, the site duly records speeches on “doing more with digital.”

As for its pronouncements on business rates, CBI Scotland has lagged well behind critical and persistent public commentary by rival business lobbies such as the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, the Scottish Retail Consortium and FSB Scotland.

It could fairly be said that while his combative predecessor Sir Iain Macmillan struggled to keep on the boxing gloves as he stepped out to work, Hugh Aitken has crept out quietly in carpet slippers.

All this matters, because many in Scottish business feel that their concerns have been pushed well down the Holyrood agenda and are barely acknowledged amid the renewed campaign for a second independence referendum with all the added uncertainty this would being for businesses north of the border – as if Brexit consequentials were not enough.

Now it could fairly be argued that little of this is Aitken’s fault. Since the independence referendum row it seems a muzzle has been put on CBI Scotland by the London headquarters. “Say nothing that would upset the Scottish government” seems to be the rule.

But there is deeper problem here. CBI Scotland’s membership is wide – estimated at 1,200 before the indyref vote – and it is (or was) very diverse. Among its ranks were the Law Society of Scotland, several public sector quangos, Scottish universities and BBC Scotland – an organisation that would recoil from being associated with anything approaching a dissenting or even noteworthy point of view.

Are these organisations really businesses in the conventional sense- constantly alive to changing market conditions, earning profits or paying dividends? There’s surely more to business than getting a well-positioned table at the CBI annual dinner. And it’s hard to see what common ground can be established across so diverse and varied a membership.

One further point can be made in Aitken’s defence. “Influence” in public policy cannot always be accurately measured by the volume and vehemence of a lobby group’s public pronouncements. Often the more effective route can indeed be the soft-shuffle “carpet slippers” approach to power: no fiery press releases, no hard-hitting public speeches but instead a discreet visit to Bute House without cameras or press announcements.

The problem with this, of course, is that it doesn’t put ministers “on the spot”. And there is no means of measuring whether any policy change has been the result of such discreet lobbying or brought about by other factors.

And there are other developments which put a question mark by the assertion that the CBI is “the voice of business”. It is certainly widely seen as the voice of big business. But in Scotland the business universe is dominated by small firms while the engineering and manufacturing behemoths of yesteryear have shrunk, died or passed into overseas ownership.

We have more than 330,000 SMEs accounting for some 90 per cent of the total and more than 50 per cent of private sector employment.

In such a diverse business world, with a marked swing to small scale digital entrepreneurship, an issue now keeps recurring and with growing resonance: what is CBI Scotland really for? And is it any longer fit for purpose?

Bill Jamieson is co-editor of Scot-Buzz. Bill is ex Executive Editor of The Scotsman and former Economics Editor of The Sunday Telegraph.

He has been an award-winning business and financial journalist for more than 40 years. He launched Scot-Buzz in the autumn of 2012.

This article first appears in Scot-Buzz.