19 November 2018

  |  CBI Press Team


Director General Carolyn Fairbairn's speech to the CBI Annual Conference 2018

Carolyn Fairbairn calls for a new joint venture between business and government, to meet the greatest challenges of our times

Director General Carolyn Fairbairn's speech to the CBI Annual Conference 2018


Thank you, and it’s wonderful to welcome so many of you here today, at this extraordinary moment for our country.

John has already talked about the events of last week and Brexit, and I won’t cover the same ground.  But I do just want to reinforce one point.

Brexit is consuming government – every politician, every civil servant. And it is also consuming British business.

Our firms are spending hundreds of millions of pounds preparing for the worst case – and not one penny of it will create new jobs or new products   

Investment is flooding out of the right areas like skills and tech, and into areas which do absolutely nothing to help our productivity. Some of it is leaving our country altogether.

While other countries are forging a competitive future, Westminster seems to be living in its own narrow world, in which extreme positions are being allowed to dominate.

The result is a high-stakes game of risk, where the outcome could be an accidental no-deal

Surely, we can do better than this.

The Prime Minister’s agreement is not perfect. It is a compromise. But it is hard-won progress.

This is not a time to go backwards, because there are so many other challenges we need to respond to.

  • The Robotics revolution
  • The rise of China
  • Climate change
  • Rising inequality
  • Global protectionism

These are the forces that will shape our future.

And I’m delighted we are joined so many young people today. You are a generation who knows what you believe in and are prepared to stand up for it.

This is one of the brightest changes of the last few years. We want to hear from you - please carry on.  

Now, there is some talk of your generation being worse off than the one before you. Well, today is all about how we as a country make sure that does not happen.

Many of the answers to that challenge lie right here with us, with business. And this is what I’d like to talk about this morning. A UK beyond Brexit.


Real challenges

The challenges are, of course, very real.

In 2007, we had the biggest crash since the 1920s. Too few people have seen their living standards rise.

And too many feel a sharp-edged sense of unfairness, a feeling that the rewards of the market have been concentrated at the top.

And while technology holds huge promise, it is also fuelling unease, as people wonder what it will mean for their working lives. Yes, there have been changes to celebrate. But there’s no question: these are uncharted waters, where no-one has the answers.


Uncharted territory - but we agree the goal

And here we have a problem. In a world of great uncertainty, ideology can too often fill the void.

We’ve seen it – and not just in the Brexit debate.

Radical ideas are being put forward, and some offer genuine solutions. But others risk harming the very people who place their hope in them.

We all agree new ideas are needed. But if any idea is to succeed, it must be done with business, not done to business.

Now, I say this with humility. Business gets things wrong. Sometimes badly wrong.

And I don’t claim business has all the answers we need. But we do have some that are proven and powerful, and working today.

Because of business, employment in this country is at a record high; 27 million jobs and counting; four fifths of all UK tax revenue enabled by private enterprise.

Business has been more resilient than anyone could have imagined during this period of seismic uncertainty, protecting livelihoods across the country.

Business has proven itself time and time again to be an extraordinary force for lasting and positive change.


Shared vision

And we have a pretty clear idea of how this force needs to be used. I hear it all the time, especially from our younger business leaders.

Across business and politicians, there is real agreement on the kind of country we want to build.

The Conservatives call it “A Country that Works for Everyone”.

Labour call it “For the Many not the Few”.

At the CBI, we call it ‘Prosperity, Shared’.

We have a common goal – to build an economy of high-productivity jobs across the whole country. An economy built on science, innovation, rule of law, services and – dare I say it – predictability. That renews our infrastructure and doubles our innovation spend. That creates opportunities for everyone in the next generation, in which every young person has the training and skills to succeed, regardless of background or birthplace.

In short, business and politics agree – we want the UK to be prosperous and fair.


Looking for answers

Where there is rather less agreement is on the how – on the policy ideas to get there. And here we need a much better conversation.

We have a pretty good sense of where not to look. The answer is not to resurrect old, failed ideologies from the past.

Our message to those advocating re-nationalisation is – talk to business about the problems you want to fix. Let’s discuss how we can build the best possible rail, water and energy services for consumers.

It will need a new mixed economy, because neither business nor government can do it on its own. And we should remember that when nationalisation was last tried in the 1970s, it ushered in one of the darkest periods in our country's modern economic history. Let’s not return there.

On the other hand, extreme market ideology does not get us much further. Becoming a hustling cowboy nation with minimal regulation is not what people want.  

Nor is it what business wants.

But there’s one further answer that’s not good enough either.

And that’s the status quo.

It was Winston Churchill who a century ago said:

“The ‘maxim of the British people is ‘Business as Usual’”

That was the right motto for then, but it is not right for today.

Choose one for our times, and it might be something like: “disrupt or be disrupted”.

And it applies to business.  CBI members have been clear – business must change too.

Now, more than ever, we need to demonstrate that business is about so much more than just making money.

We know this to be true. Whether it’s banking or brewing, business is about making a difference.

About creating jobs, services, products, ideas, opportunities.

That is the true purpose of business.

And now is the moment we must rekindle that sense of purpose.

Not just in what our companies do, but in how business is perceived.


A joint venture

So what needs to happen next?

Well, the greatest achievements in our society have come when business and government have worked not in opposition, but in partnership.

The way our privatised energy sector, working with government, has cut emissions by almost 60% since 1990.

Or further back – Harold Macmillan’s housebuilding programme - 300,000 homes a year built by private companies.

What these examples have in common is this: they’re business and government, together, often alongside others too


We need that spirit of collaboration back again today, because too much of the UK’s current approach is characterised by enterprise and government acting apart.

So, what if, instead, we decide to build something different. As business, we might call it a Joint Venture. Others might call it something else. The name is less important than what it could do.

And let me give you just one example; in the area that matters most to business.

And that’s: people. If we built a joint venture on skills, we could create some hard-edged commitments on both sides.

As the government evolves the Apprenticeship Levy into a broader Skills Levy, business would respond in kind, and ensure that every penny of the £45 billion they currently spend on training goes into getting the UK ready for a new digital age.

This would transform the UK’s competitiveness, and at the same time answer the false challenge that business would rather recruit low-paid labour than invest in skills.

We can extend this thinking to immigration policy. The government is about to do something it has not done for 40 years: set the UK’s own, independent immigration policy.

It’s an opportunity, but it’s also a great responsibility.

And what has been proposed so far won’t work; the idea that anyone earning less than £30,000 can’t contribute to our economy, for instance.

Together, we could do so much better - through a jointly-developed immigration policy, one that avoids false choices, that does away with arbitrary targets, and focusses instead on the people we need to build our economy.



So, in conclusion, the turbulence of our times is a challenge.

And nothing I have talked about can be achieved without a good Brexit outcome.

But if we can secure this outcome, then we have a very real chance to turn challenge to opportunity.

We can use this as a moment for new possibilities, new solutions to old problems.

But it must be about getting beyond the divisions and working together.

Employer and employee. Unions and investors. Universities and industry. Business and government.

So my question to the Prime Minister, and to the Leader of the Opposition, is this.

Business is ready for a new partnership.

We will step up to the change that’s needed.

We share your goals, we have the ideas and solutions to achieve them.

Will you join us?

And if so, together we can deliver prosperity, shared.

Thank you.


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