CUTTING ROOM: Why the CBI should stay single; Guatemala bows to the dollar; power vacuum at the heart of Whitehall; talking telephone numbers again ... Evan Davis at large

CUTTING ROOM: Why the CBI should stay single; Guatemala bows to the dollar; power vacuum at the heart of Whitehall; talking telephone numbers again ... Evan Davis at large - It's a perennial issue and one on which many MT readers will have a view: should

by EVAN DAVIS, economics editor, BBC's Newsnight
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

It's a perennial issue and one on which many MT readers will have a view: should the two big organisations representing British business - the British Chambers of Commerce and the CBI - merge?

The two bodies have toyed with the idea for years - nervously engaging with each other, but never quite brave enough to walk down the aisle. One former director-general of the CBI told me that when he got the job his predecessor gave him a thick file and said words to this effect: 'This is the file on merging with the BCC. At some stage you will pick it up, try to move it along, and then you will pass it on to your successor in much the same way as I am passing it to you.'

Most commentators assume the two should get married, but that personalities, money and pride have got in the way. And it's true that the two often end up calling for the same thing - lower interest rates. (Economist Geoff Dicks has dubbed them the 'whingeing acronyms'.)

But I suggest that these organisations should stay separate. What's wrong with a bit of healthy competition between them? British business is significant enough to have two representative bodies. Anyway, the CBI is primarily a big-business thing, while the BCC represents the more mid-sized firms. And the interests of the two types of company may not always match.

It's time for these institutions to throw the file away, and get on with doing their best at representing the members they have.

Glad to see Guatemala has adopted the dollar as a parallel currency to its own delightfully named unit of money, the quetzal. It has not gone as far as its neighbours, El Salvador and Ecuador, in fully dollarising but is at least halfway there. My prediction at the turn of the millennium that the world would move to fewer currencies over the next couple of decades is well on target - although the nations that have gone for the dollar so far make only a modest contribution to global GDP. But watch that Central American space for the lessons - if it works there, the trend of unilateral adoption of foreign currencies as legal tender could go far.

The big prize will be Argentina, a country that has toyed with adopting the dollar but can't quite make the leap and, indeed, seems to be moving further away from the idea as its fixed one-to-one peso-dollar exchange rate tips the economy into deeper crisis. One commentator at an international seminar on dollarisation said Argentina would adopt the dollar when the Americans put Eva Peron on the dollar bill. We may have to wait quite a while for that.

This is a good time to reflect on a perspective of management offered to me by a senior civil servant, who had circulated through various important jobs in Whitehall before being elevated to one at the centre of government. He had spent most of his career on what he assumed was the periphery of power, hoping to be promoted to a job at the core of the nation's administration, to a place where true power resided, where knowledge was absolute and where levers could be pulled to make things happen. He found to his horror when he got there that it was much like being on the periphery: constantly in the dark, striving to find out what's going on; and pulling levers only to find they are connected to nothing.

The message is: there is no centre of power, even if there is a centre - one worth bearing in mind as we watch politicians striving to get to the top. And I'm sure it's as true of the chief executive's office as it is of the prime minister's.

A quick plea to Oftel, or whatever is set to replace it in a couple of years. Can we have some public information on how to present telephone numbers? The familiar problem in London of showing numbers as 020 7 or 0207 is one important manifestation. But with the new mobile numbers no-one knows where the code ends and the number begins. The confusion makes it hard to pick up the rhythm of the digits, and thus harder to remember numbers.

And one additional gripe. That initial zero - it's not actually part of the phone number at all. It's a digit to tell the exchange we want to phone outside our exchange area. That's why every phone number in the country starts with a nought, and why foreigners have to drop it when they dial in. So why not drop the zero from the conventional format of presenting numbers? We all know we have to dial it to get out of town anyway. The sooner we can sort out the mess the better.

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