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Sunday, 7 February 2016

“Ladies and Gentlemen, please fasten your seatbelts”. It seems time for British companies to buckle up for the approaching Brexit, as mood seems to go over mind in the United Kingdom.

Lately I have written a few articles about the United Kingdom (see also this one) , where a Brexit seems the inevitable climax of a process going on for years and years: a culmination of the feelings of anger and alienation against the EU, that had already been simmering for years since the 1980’s. Feelings that have mounted to an ubiquitous, national resentment in England during the last five years of the Euro-crisis.

People look at the EU as the institution that should be blamed for the industrial downfall of the United Kingdom and especially England, as ‘they’ allegedly made an end to the British steel industry, the coalmines, the independent British car industry  – except for a few outlying, high-end car companies –  and many other parts of the British industrial legacy.

Four of the bedrocks of English quality, attention for detail and luxury lifestyle – although very much alive and kicking – in the British car industry could not recover independently from  the European  scourge in the past:  Bentley, Jaguar, Aston Martin and Rolls Royce.

Bentley is now a subsidiary of Volkswagen and Rolls Royce is now part of BMW, both extremely successful brands from the UK’s adversary-after-all-these-years  Germany.  Jaguar, the luxury brand for the intermediate budget, is owned by Indian steel maker Tata Steel (‘Oh Irony’)  and Aston Martin, the British builder of iconic thoroughbred sports cars, is partially privatized in 2007 after a 13 year marriage to the American Ford Motor Company.

And while England (i.e. London) is an absolute stronghold in the financial and  commercial services industry and holds a position virtually second to none, this success and wealth has turned London and its suburbs into a ghetto for ‘the rich and shameless’, with unlimited amounts of money to spend. And on the other hand, the successful position of London as beating heart of the UK did not lead to a distribution of wealth to the more rural and formerly industrial parts of the United Kingdom, where the income per capita is much, much lower than in the City.

It is easy to blame the European Union – instead of the British government – for the general demise of the British industrial glory and so it happens quite often. Nevertheless, one should ask himself how all these aforementioned brands and other large industries would have done in the relative vacuum of total British independence in Europe. Would the UK and England still be the glorious industrial stronghold? Or would the decay have set in even stronger than nowadays?! We will never know.

Yet, when an American cartoon movie – Cars 2 –makes jokes about the quality of the British cars and engines (i.e. the starring Landrover in the movie allegedly having “the worst engine ever built”) and the UK’s national number one motor show Topgear broadcasted numerous displays of utter self-loathing (all episodes about ‘British Leyland’ products), one should understand that it was not the competition from Germany alone that did all the damage to the British national car industry.

Still, the EU is now the national scapegoat in England and an increasing number of English citizens is seemingly heading for the exit, now that they have the chance. And there is probably nothing that David Cameron can do about it anymore, as his cheap and translucent blackmail attempt of the EU has seemingly blown up in his face. 

See for instance the following outraged headlines of last week: 

Headlines of  The Sun and the Daily Mail
Pictures courtesy of: The Sun and the Daily Mail
Click to enlarge

Headlines of  The Daily Express
Pictures courtesy of: 
The Daily ExpressClick to enlarge
The following, more business-like snippets were printed in the Guardian:

A new poll has suggested more Britons favour leaving the EU over staying in, with 45% supporting “Brexit” compared with 36% against, while a fifth remain undecided.

The YouGov poll for the Times was carried out in the two days after publication of an outline deal that David Cameron negotiated which could change the UK’s relationship with Brussels while keeping it within the European Union.

The poll suggested the number of voters wanting to quit had risen by three points on the previous week, the Times said.

As I said, I don’t see how PM David Cameron can turn the tides for a prolonged British stay in the EU, as the momentum for his desired outcome of the referendum – staying ’in’ the EU – is killing at this moment.

My readers could think that I am gloating about the situation in the United Kingdom, but I really don’t. As far as I’m concerned, the British can stay by all means, albeit under the current conditions with only a few minor changes!

Nevertheless, I was outraged by the cheap blackmail of PM Cameron. By the way he put pressure on the rights and privileges, as well as the ideas about democracy and ‘their’ European Union of almost 400 million European citizens on the continent. And on the political representatives that these 400 million citizens chose to act on their behalf. PM Cameron wanted to change the EU towards his vision of a neoliberal free trade zone, with only the benefits and without the hassle: at gunpoint! How is that for democracy?!

Of course I know that the resentment against the EU is also mounting on the continent at this very moment. It would definitely be grotesque to state that ‘every European citizen’ supports the EU at this very moment. They don’t. Yet I believe that most of the quiet European citizens all over the EU are still firmly behind the EU, although I don’t have the data to proof it. As many people still don’t forgot what the EU has brought them over the last 70 years.

Therefore I really hope that the EU stands tall and hands out an ultimatum to the British: “Stay with a clear majority and without further conditions and opaque deals, or leave as soon as possible and face the consequences of a life on your own...!”

Yet, if I had to make a prediction at this moment, I would go for the last of the two possibilities, even if Donald Tusk will pull yet another rabbit from the hat.

Therefore it was extremely surprising for me to read in the Financial Times that British companies are seemingly assuming the ostrich position, with respect to the national mood in England. Here are the pertinent snips of this FT article:

The boards of many of Britain’s largest listed companies have made no contingency plans for a possible Brexit amid polls showing rising public support for leaving the European Union.

The Financial Times contacted every FTSE 100 company, and only four — Easyjet, Persimmon, GKN and Standard Life — said they were engaged in detailed planning for a Brexit. Asked what measures it was taking to prepare, Vodafone, on the other hand, said “none of note required”.
One in 10 of the constituents of the City benchmark have not yet taken a position on Britain potentially leaving the EU, the FT research found, with three companies saying they had not even discussed the issue at board level.

The prime minister last month urged business leaders to start speaking out for Britain’s membership of the EU, amid frustration in senior Tory circles that some companies seemed prepared to keep their heads down.

Ian Peters, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Internal Auditors, said it was dangerous for boards to ignore the potential impact of Brexit. “[It] has rather crept up on boards.” It affects all organisations to a “greater or lesser degree,” he added.

Analysts warned that even those companies with limited operations in the UK should not dismiss the effects of a Brexit. “Chief executives come in two stripes concerning Brexit: those who think it won’t happen, and those who think it won’t matter,” said Mujtaba Rahman, from Eurasia Group, a firm of political risk consultants.

“This complacency has prevented boards from investing serious resources into understanding Brexit risk and planning around it were it to happen...”

Although the remainder of this important article showed a few good reasons for companies to keep their profile low and not put their cards on the table yet – in order to be not accused of ‘high corporate treason’ when they bet on the wrong horse – the impression of Mujtaba Rahman is undoubtedly alarming. The result of the Brexit might be an untwining process and an adaptation to a new and unknown situation that would put the Y2K-bug (“who does remember that one?”) and the introduction to the Euro to shame. As I worked as an ICT consultant during both events, with a lot of active involvement in the Euro-project, it is hard for me to understand the logic behind this ostrich behaviour of the listed British companies.

Even if the untwining between the UK and the EU runs its course in a friendly and cooperative way, the effects and longevity of the process will be enormous. And then I don’t even mention the internal tensions between the countries of the UK that may mount after the Brexit, as that is probably not in the heartfelt interest of the citizens of Northern Island, Scotland and Wales

The only thing that I can think of, after reading this article, is that the emergency scenarios are lying in the company vaults after all, for the moment that Br€xit day emerges indeed. Otherwise I have to assume that these companies are acting out of hope and/or sheer naivety.

As I stated before, I really don’t see how Cameron can change the current hostile anti-EU mood in England and I don’t know how the Scottish, North-Irish and Welsh votes could stand up against the highest populated part of the UK. Seeing the near-majority of 46% in favour of the Brexit in the aforementioned poll, I neither see possibilites for Cameron nor the other British countries to turn the tides. Therefore I can only summarize with the following statement: 

‘Ladies and gentlemen, please fasten your seatbelts, as the plane towards Brexit is about to leave!’ Companies better buckle up!

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