Sir Nick Clegg: 'Business leaders must speak up over Brexit'

Privately, chief executives speak of disaster ahead. They must make their voices heard, says ex-Lib Dem leader Sir Nick Clegg.

by Kate Bassett
Last Updated: 25 May 2018
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Down to business

Sir Nick Clegg has made no bones about his views on Brexit. The former Lib Dem leader, who served alongside David Cameron until the Tories won an outright majority in 2015, has written a book called How To Stop Brexit (And Make Britain Great Again) and published a video to encourage people to 'push the pause button and think again about what's right for our country'.

Speaking at The Economist's Pride & Prejudice conference in London yesterday, Sir Nick encouraged business leaders to speak up over Brexit too – or pay a hefty price for their silence.

Sir Nick Clegg on...

Brexit:

I’ve lost count of the number of chief executives, chairmen and captains of industry of big British businesses who say to me privately: ‘Brexit is a disaster. It’s terrible for my shareholders. It’s terrible for my customers. It’s terrible for the economy. It’s idiotic. The negotiations are going nowhere.’ I say: ‘For heaven’s sake, speak out!’ The government is making pivotal decisions – decisions that will set the tramlines of the way this country will function for years to come – and yet businesses are staying silent. I’m starting to lose patience with the lack of courage and bravery. A lot of people have persuaded themselves – foolishly, in my view – that Corbyn is a bigger risk to their businesses than Brexit.

The coalition:

Of course I realised that leading a political party into government with our erstwhile enemies at a time of financial crisis was a risk. But, let me be clear, I did so in the hope that it would pay off. I thought if I do the 'right thing', then the political reward would come. That calculation turned out to be wrong. And, actually, it was never going to work out. If you look at the fate of coalitions across Europe, the smaller party always gets disproportionate blame for the bad stuff and the bigger party always gets disproportionate credit for the good stuff.

Lessons learned:

The economic firestorm of 2008 and deteriorating public finances meant that the coalition government was inescapably condemned to do a lot of controversial things. In hindsight, I should have spent far more time explaining the problems to people. If you don’t explain the problems, you can’t expect them to accept the solutions. I learned that the hard way.  

Out-of-touch MPs:

The claim that MPs are out of touch with 'ordinary' people is complete nonsense. No matter how high or low you are in the pecking order of politics, you have to be in Constituency Surgery every Thursday chatting to a family about how you’re going to help their daughter get into the local school or speaking to a single mum who isn’t getting access to benefits. That’s hugely valuable and boy does it keep politicians’ feet on the ground. The vast majority of MPs I knew – across all parties – had a forensic understanding of their local community. I was an MP for Sheffield for 12 years representing 70,000 odd people and I knew every blade of grass, every school, and every street. I’m not defending British politics – the whole system should be swept aside and replaced – but I am defending politicians. They work extremely hard to understand the people they represent.

Social mobility:

I’m chair of the Social Mobility Foundation. It’s the only nationwide organisation that doesn’t just talk about social mobility or publish research on it; it actually takes around 1,500 talented kids from the poorest families and then works with them over a period of 7-8 years to get them into their preferred universities and professions. The headwinds which prevent people from advancing socially and economically, regardless of the circumstances of their birth, are still so great. Class still plays a big role in this country. Social mobility isn’t just an issue for government, civil society or business – it’s got to be a shared endeavour.

The current government:

This government is completely dysfunctional. It’s so immersed and gridlocked by its own internal contradictions, it can’t speak with one voice on anything.

Image: Shutterstock

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