LONDON — The businessman who spearheaded the campaign to keep Britain in the European Union believes that most business leaders failed to speak out about the dangers of Brexit because they feared a public backlash.
Stuart Rose, chairman of retail group Ocado, led the “Britain Stronger In Europe” campaign and was one of the Remain campaign’s most vocal supporters.
“Sadly, I think industry was pretty quiet about the pros and cons. Most people don’t like the result and it’s too late. They should have said something at the time and they didn’t,” he told an audience at Retail Week Live on Thursday.
“I think there’s a very short list of business people who stood up and were counted about the pros and cons. Many people wanted the heavy lifting to be done by other people, they didn’t want to put their heads above the parapet,” he added.
“They said, ‘Look, we don’t want to upset our customers, we don’t want to influence our workers, we don’t stick our heads out, we’ll let someone else do the talking.’ At the end of the day that’s fine, as long as they accept the consequences.”
Rose was criticised himself for his role in the blunder-ridden Remain campaign, and said afterwards that he had been “marginalised” after a string of gaffes in a TV interview.
He believes, however, that business leaders should have been willing to “stick their heads above the parapet.”
He said: “Since the global financial crisis and the demonisation of bankers, and then the washover into the demonisation of business, people have found it easier to keep their heads down. Easier to keep their heads down when it comes to the subject of renumeration, easier to keep their heads down when it’s the subject of Brexit.
“If you put your head up, you get a punch in the face. So you can see why they don’t do it, but responsible leadership is about standing up and being counted. If I started my career again today, I would like to work for a leadership that stood for the sorts of values that I would like to believe in.”
“This wasn’t a general election where five years later you can say, ‘Well I don’t like this lot, I’ll have another lot.’ This is it. I’ve spent all my working life in Europe, and it might be another half-century before we have another debate again. It might never happen.
“So it’s a very serious debate, I just think more people should have embraced that conversation and taken part in it so that when they got the result, they were absolutely happy with what they got.”