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EU Referendum neutrality not the easy option

There has been a bit of a controversy at the British Chambers of Commerce recently. John Longworth stood down as the Director General after expressing his personal views about the European Referendum at the BCC annual conference. John has been a committed servant of the work of Chambers of Commerce over the past five years, but the BCC board felt it wasn’t possible for him to fulfil his duties as Director General whilst publicly expressing his support for Britain leaving the EU from a Chamber platform.

That’s because the BCC has a stated policy of neutrality, choosing not to campaign for either side in the referendum. The most recent survey showed that just under 60% of members surveyed across the UK would vote to stay in the EU and 30% would vote to leave. In Scotland the gap is slightly wider at 68% to 20% in favour of remaining in the EU.

There was some debate about whether John had been pressured to step down, but he himself has denied that. If there is one lesson from the incident it is that neutrality is not the easy choice for a membership body. It can have consequences.

The members of the BCC are the 52 accredited Chambers of Commerce, like Glasgow, who pay subscriptions to British Chambers to represent our views to politicians in Westminster and negotiate arrangements which are beneficial to the individual Chambers’ own members.

Since individual Chambers may be taking very different positions on the referendum, neutrality is really the BCC’s most sensible position however tricky that may be. I am aware of a number of Chambers expressing concern that John’s views – no matter that they were sincerely and openly expressed on a personal basis – were causing confusion amongst members.

At Glasgow Chamber we’re tackling the European Referendum in much the same way as we tackled the Scottish Referendum. We have a Constitution Committee, chaired by Katy Wedderburn of MacRoberts, that guides the Chamber team on a package of work to explore the evidence behind the issues involved and consult with the members through events and surveys.

From that work the Constitution Committee will make a recommendation to the Chamber’s governing Council of Directors on where the Chamber should stand. We start from a position of neutrality and will not be campaigning for either side of the argument. We will be working to provide information to our members to help you to reach an informed decision.

We will let you know soon when we are going to hold events to explore what are amongst the most fundamental issues involved in growing trade and investment in Glasgow.

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