Business leaders have emerged as clear voices in contrast to the bickering in Westminster
Demonstrators supporting a British departure from the European Union, in London in June, 2016. Photograph: Adam Ferguson/The New York Times
The backdrop to Brexit is an era of declining global trust, with disillusioned and disenfranchised voters causing shock election results, as well as angry protests by those unhappy with the status quo.
Edelman’s most recent trust barometer – in which Ireland featured – found that people here now expect business leaders and chief executives to take the lead on change rather than waiting for government to impose it.
According to Dr Duncan Morrow, lecturer in politics at the School of Criminology, Politics and Social Policy at Ulster University, declining trust in government is inversely proportional to the growing faith in celebrity culture.
“There is this kind of global celebrity culture and looking at other role models outside of politics and that has been accelerated and amplified by the internet,” he says, adding that politicians have not been immune to this.
“Internationally, Berlusconi in Italy was the first to use entertainment and almost blurred the lines between politics and entertainment, now we have Putin and Trump courting the media and using channels such as Twitter; they are tapping into this way of talking to people in popular culture.”
This shift can also be viewed within the context of a more polarised electorate, he adds.
“The pattern of voting tends to become more polarised when people are more fearful, and voting is driven as much by what people are against than what people are for, instead of simply our side and their side.”
The messy nature of Brexit has seen business leaders emerge as clear consistent voices in contrast to the bickering in Westminster, says Morrow.
“We have seen clear differences between the leadership of the DUP and the business community in particular. Farmers, for example, have been very vocal. It’s the first time since devolution that we have seen business stick its head up because business leaders want to ensure stability and support good administration – they have gone out vocally on a limb.”
Morrow believes that ultimately the number of people voting will continue to fall, as they seek guidance and reassurance from other quarters.
“In times like these, people look to other sources such as their families, their communities and indeed business leaders.”
Prof Neil Gibson, chief economist at EY Ireland, sees this divide between public and politics as a critical issue in the evolution of society. “This represents a big cultural shift. What we are seeing in those votes around the world is that is what the public want, they are looking for different voices.”
Gibson acknowledges that across the globe people are rapidly losing trust in the status quo but cautions that a certain amount of scepticism is healthy.
“You do want some level of questioning public policy or civic debate. It is good to have a challenging and thoughtful population, with good civic debate, but we are struggling to have that now.”
He says the public are eschewing the wise words of politicians for those from people they feel they can relate to and trust more: “We are seeing people looking to civic leaders, CEOs, businesses, school principals, heads of hospitals, for people they can rely on or look to for guidance.”
Yet this raises a big challenge for CEOs and business leaders, he adds.
“They have to think about things that go beyond what is involved in the day-to-day running of their business, but we have to be realistic about what it is they can do in that space – sometimes people will look for answers to questions on issues that a business leader has never had to think about. We have to be mindful that we don’t ask too much.”
Nonetheless, Gibson firmly believes business leaders must take a firm stance on the issues of the day.
“Certainly, we hold that very strongly here at EY. If you are trying very hard to build a better working world then you have to contribute to the tough conversations of the time. Equally we can’t expect them to know about areas in which they have no expertise, but we shouldn’t walk away.”
He sees a momentous task ahead for political leaders in rebuilding trust.
“Politicians still have a very important role to play but it may be that we simply need more voices – CEOs and business leaders and entrepreneurs will continue to become bigger players.”
Yet business leaders have always had an “ambitious vision” for economy and society, Ibec chief executive Danny McCoy says.
“Ibec is the leading voice of the Irish business community, working with key economic stakeholders at domestic, European and international level to drive economic growth. We hold an ambitious vision for our economy and our society. It is important that these stakeholders share this ambition.”
Ibec has been working hard to drive policy change and part of this is communicating visibly to the public, he adds. “Through a series of national campaigns, we are leading the way on advocating for policies that make Ireland a better place to live and work, addressing the challenges around Ireland’s burgeoning capacity constraints including housing, planning and sustainability.”
Ultimately, Brexit has been a sharp learning curve for many business leaders, who have by default become experts on the European Union, according to Vincent Power at A&L Goodbody.
“It has certainly caused business people to be more acutely aware of the EU political process and the meaning of various EU concepts. For example, internal market, customs union, Article 50 and so on. It is an education that business people could do without, but it certainly means that businesses are now even more knowledgeable about the EU.”
As for the public looking towards business leaders and chief executives to take the lead on change, Power warns that it isn’t always that easy in turbulent times.
“Introducing the euro was easy; businesses knew to six decimal places what the exchange rate would be. GDPR was easy, there was a 99-article regulation and a long lead-in time with precise rules. Businesses would take more of a lead on change if they knew what, whether, and when were the changes.”
This article first appeared in the Irish Times on Friday 12 April 2019.