By Mark Craddock. Published on 23 May 2016
Please note: A version of this article was originally written for the CIMA newsletter which is distributed to members at all stages of their careers.
After months of intense debate, lobbying and political infighting, we, the electorate, finally have a chance to have our definitive say. By the end of this month we will know whether the UK will remain part of the European Union, or will seek to make our own way in the world.
It’s arguably the most important vote we will cast in our lifetimes.
I should say from the start that there is no official Eton Bridge Partners’ line on this; the conversations in our office have been as diverse and animated as I’ve seen anywhere. So we thought it would be interesting to ask a sample of our candidates and clients working in finance, HR, business transformation and technology about their attitudes to the EU and a potential exit.
The results, together with some of the additional comments they provided, present a fascinating preview of the issues and considerations.
Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the EU?
We first asked our sample about their position on Brexit from a personal point of view. An overall majority (57%) believed the UK should remain within the EU, although more than a third (34%) said the country should end its membership. Nearly one in ten had yet to decide. This means that even if all the undecided votes were convinced by the arguments of those wanting to leave, the remain camp would still win the day.
The comments we received, however, present a more nuanced story. Several ‘remain’ voters told us they’d like to see significant reforms to the EU and the UK’s relationship with it to feel entirely comfortable.
One respondent plaintively said: “I want to be in Europe, but not this version of Europe.”
It seems there is a greater appetite for reform of our current relationship than for exit, but the Prime Minister’s negotiations for a new relationship with Europe do not seem to have impressed many people. More than half of respondents (55%) said the UK remaining within the UK under the new deal would have no impact on their business and we received many comments from both sides dismissing the agreement as meaningless or insubstantial. That said, almost twice as many believed the deal would be good for their business (23%) than bad (12%).
One positive comment about the negotiated deal came from a financial professional, who said “the protections put in place for the City of London are critical, and have been given insufficient airtime.” It was an interesting, but lonely voice in the wilderness.
Communication of the arguments for and against EU membership were generally considered to be poor, though it should be noted that the survey was conducted before the start of the campaign proper. In particular, many of the respondents who said they wished to remain in the EU felt that no compelling case for Brexit, nor plan for what would happen after, had been made.
Otherwise, the most common arguments for and against remaining in the EU can be broadly divided as follows (in no specific order):
When respondents were asked the same question from the perspective of the company they work for, the majority for remain was even greater, with 61% believing that the UK should stay within the EU. A quarter (26%) said we should leave, while nearly one in seven respondents (14%) were still considering their position.
The potential impact on businesses
We asked our participants about the potential impact of Brexit on their businesses. Just over half (51%) said it would be bad for their business, while a third said they thought the decision would have no impact.
Only one in fourteen (7%) believed it would be good for their organisations, with many citing a reduction in red tape imposed by Brussels as the reason. One respondent, from an SME, told us,
“There are many businesses that have to follow 100% of EU red tape but less than 13% trade in EU. The economic case is largely driven and portrayed as positive by large corporates.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, organisations with international operations were broadly supportive of remaining within the EU. We also received comments from those working in financial services who feared exit might threaten the London’s position as a leading centre for their industry, while a small number of change consultants saw money making opportunities in a Brexit.
The fact that 34% of people believe the UK should leave the EU while only 7% believe such a move would be good for business is worthy of note. Clearly, for our sample at least, factors way beyond the potential impact on their organisation’s prospects are influencing opinions.
The potential impact on attracting talent
Finally, we asked respondents about the potential impact of an exit on their organisation’s ability to attract or retain talent. Nearly half of respondents (49%) anticipated a Brexit would have no impact and a similar number (45%) thought there would be a negative impact. Just one in twenty (5%) believed the impact would be positive.
Those who thought the impact would be negative believed Brexit would result in restrictions in the free movement of labour and consequently skills shortages and inflationary pressure on wages.
“It’s tough enough to get the right skill sets,” said one respondent. “Without reducing the pool of talent so dramatically.”
A conclusion (of sorts)
This snapshot of opinion from our network makes no pretence of being a scientific survey. And we all know how inaccurate the most stringent of polls have been in recent times. I don’t think people deliberately provide misleading answers to pollsters, but when faced with the stark reality of the voting booth opinions can change
Nevertheless, when I add the anecdotal evidence I’ve picked up to the results of this survey, I believe the UK will be remaining in the EU. But equally I am sure the arguments about our relationship with Europe are far from over.