It is tough to be in business when you already know that things are bad but people nonetheless insist on knowing at regular intervals how you think things are. It is rather like being in an intensive care ward with a doctor who keeps popping in every five minutes to ask, 'Are you sure you're all right?' Such is the situation of businessmen. They are intensively polled by exhaustive questionnaires or quick but intrusive telephone calls from all and sundry. This leads to a kind of depressing navel-gazing that cannot help the process of running a business on a day-to-day basis. The results, uppers or downers, are promulgated almost instantly, scattered on the public at large like confetti and analysed with an intensity that would make racing form addicts seem half-hearted.
What everyone is looking for, of course, is confidence. It has become a national quest. Those who felt they had it, at least when the question was first put, might have qualms when poll results are published. Suddenly they find themselves in a minority, the only one in the wrong form of dress at a wedding - or funeral, as the case may be. Should they, they must ask themselves, be more cautious next time or more bullish? Thus confidence may make cowards of us all.
It will be seen, from this issue, that we have been confidence-gazing ourselves, adding to the businessman's burden - only top businessmen, of course. They have not been interrogated about confidence in themselves but their confidence in the Government and its policies - something of a change. Obviously, as some 42% replied, it was not too onerous. Indeed, the high response suggests a measure of enthusiasm, perhaps because accountability, so beloved of those in high places was, to a degree, being pointed the other way.
The conclusion offers little to reassure the Government. Despite all the soundbites about getting our industrial act together with the enabling assistance of our leaders, 90% of those reponding felt that the Government had no clearly-defined industrial policy. It cannot be because they had not been listening; it must be because the bites did not hang together or, perhaps, because conviction is lacking. Industrialists are, in the main (see p34), not worried about shortages of skills among apprentices, manual workers, or junior managers (they show slightly more concern - perhaps because the inquiry is closer to their hearts - when asked about middle and senior managers). In general, they believe, as commonsense would indicate, that there are enough skilled people out of work to take care of the short to medium term.
They are not, of course, ingrates. Most would probably not presume to punditry; they are just people given the opportunity to poke their heads out of the trenches. They make it clear that they want to get on with their jobs and achieve prosperity. We have tried to tell it all: the way we think it is; the way the Government thinks it is; the way top companies think it is - and what the latter think it should be. We have addressed it as a memo to John Major, hoping not to be thought presumptuous but knowing he will understand, after his election campaign, that soapboxes can have their uses.