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CBI and Sturgeon: will the eyes have it?

Terry MurdenTonight members of the CBI Scotland gather in Glasgow for their annual dinner at which the newly-anointed UK president Paul Drechsler will deliver a speech on the importance of Britain remaining in Europe. More interest however is likely to focus on the message from First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

This will be her first formal outing with the CBI since the bruising showdown during the independence referendum campaign, and the body language and sidewards glances along the top table this evening may say more about the state of current relations than any of the words spoken.

Since her election as First Minister Ms Sturgeon has pledged her commitment to business, although one that is couched in conditional terms. The Scottish Government’s “Business Pledge”, one of her first public statements on assuming the job last autumn, was an offer to develop a working relationship with business if business complied with a list of nine principles. These ranged from delivering the living wage to gender equality.

The nationalists and the CBI have always engaged in a bit of rough and tumble but never before has government policy towards business been prescribed in quite this manner.  Ms Sturgeon didn’t exactly spell out her real message, though it was quite clear: if business refused to play ball on the government’s terms, she will be taking it away.

This unspoken warning threatens to unleash another bout of hostilities. Business knows full well that both the SNP and Labour will be fighting the election on the same equality ticket and that this can only lead eventually to higher taxes. It doesn’t take a genius to work out who will be asked to make the biggest payment towards their welfare wish-list.

Even so the change at the top of the SNP and therefore in government has been accompanied by a change at the head of CBI Scotland which offers the opportunity for a new entente cordiale.

Hugh AitkenHugh Aitken (left) returned from the US earlier this year to take over from the staunch unionist Iain McMillan and in his maiden speech, delivered at a Daily Business summit in April, Mr Aitken confirmed that he was in the process of building a working relationship with Ms Sturgeon and her party and that he had invited the First Minister to speak at tonight’s dinner.

Since then not much has emanated from Mr Aitken and it must be hoped that he has not been ordered by his London paymasters to say nothing in an election year when business requires leadership and a strong voice.

Certainly it would be uncharacteristic for him to remain silent given his track record on speaking out when something does not suit him. He crossed swords with government in the early 2000s over its manufacturing strategy and it was hoped by some that he would once again speak up on matters that need to be heard.

His bosses may well be wary of the fiery First Minister, particularly after their bungling over the electoral commission registration last year which did untold damage to the CBI north and south of the border. McMillan, who has since received the consolation of a knighthood, is believed to feel aggrieved that he was hung out to dry over the CBI’s decision to register as a no campaigner, only to withdraw its application over what director general John Cridland claimed to be an “honest” mistake. Mr Cridland is also on his way to retirement and will be replaced by former television executive Carolyn Fairbairn, providing another opportunity to strike up a new partnership.

Whatever the circumstances of its electoral commission debacle the CBI was left tarnished to the extent that critics who didn’t much like it before the referendum campaign now regard it as either bogus or irrelevant. While such accusations are overstating the case, it is clear that the CBI and Ms Fairbairn have a lot of work to do if it is to win back hearts and minds in Scotland.




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