Britain’s business elite is becoming increasingly Eurosceptic

 
Allister Heath
A PERNICIOUS myth has finally been laid to rest. From today, nobody can claim any longer that British business is united in its support of the European Union and the ever-greater centralisation of powers in Brussels. With over 500 business people – from top FTSE 100 bosses to entrepreneurs – signing up to Business for Britain, a campaign to renegotiate the UK’s membership of the EU, Euroscepticism has truly gone mainstream.

The idea that only idiots or xenophobes could possibly question the euro or the EU’s economic and democratic viability – an ubiquitous argument in the 1990s – ceased to be tenable with the onset of the Eurozone crisis, which has been playing out almost exactly how sceptics such as Harvard’s Martin Feldstein predicted it would many years ago. More recently, even staunch Europhiles in the City have looked on in dismay as the EU has pushed through a series of rules hugely damaging to UK interests, including the extra-territorial Eurozone Tobin tax, attacks on alternative investment managers, proposed changes to insurance rules and the bonus cap.

Despite all of this, a rearguard campaign a few months ago, led by the pro-EU Business for a New Europe (BNE), managed to convince some commentators that the biggest business beasts remained squarely behind the EU. The group, chaired by Roland Rudd, founder of RLM Finsbury, is indeed backed by some top names, including from global banks, and at the time the Eurosceptics were disorganised and had few senior business supporters to help them put the other side. That is no longer the case today.

Today’s list of signatories to Business for Britain includes blue chip heavyweights such as Lord Wolfson, the CEO of Next, Ian Cheshire, CEO of Kingfisher, Sir Stuart Rose, now of Ocado, Michael Spencer, boss of Icap, Richard Burrows, chairman of BAT, Sir John Ritblat, the property guru, among many others. John Caudwell, Britain’s biggest personal taxpayer and founder of Phones4U, is also one of the signatories.

It is also good to see key figures in financial services on the list, including Robert Hiscox of the eponymous insurer, Stephen Catlin, who runs Catlin, the biggest syndicate at Lloyd’s, Peter Cruddas of CMC Markets and a small army from the world of fund management and venture capital. CEOs of several smaller banks and brokers – such as Simon Stilwell of Liberum, Henry Angest of Arbuthnot and Oliver Hemsley of Numis – have put their names to it, as has Mark Florman, boss of the British Venture Capital Association.

The launch of Business for Britain is a historic moment in the decades-long struggle between those who believe the UK’s future to be global, and thus that our political ties with Europe should be loosened, perhaps drastically so; and those who believe ever-closer European political unification – for there is no such thing as the status quo when it comes to the EU – to be the only way forward.

Pro-EU lobbyists would like us to believe that moving powers back to Westminster would destroy jobs, growth and export opportunities. That is, of course, utter tosh. The fact that so many business people have signed up to a campaign to loosen Britain’s ties with the EU is better proof of this than any complex economic study could possibly be.

The battles ahead will be tough and bitter. But the Eurosceptics have one great advantage. There was a time – after the second world war, and until the 1980s – when hope was the driving emotion of those who wanted more Europe. These days, it is fear, and that is never a good sign.

allister.heath@cityam.com
Follow me on Twitter: @allisterheath