to boycott or not

John Mason stirred the Unionist nest the other week with his statement that he personally boycotts Barrhead Travel following its Tory owner’s intervention in the 2014 Referendum when said owner wrote to each individual staff member calling on him or her to reject the Independence question.

Deputy Tory Leader, Jackson Carlaw MSP, called John’s political statement in a tweet, ‘petulant beyond belief’. Nothing like a touch of faux outrage with your cornflakes of a morning. The official SNP response was dismissive in its usual anonymous manner: personal trivial statements, not the party line.

What would have been more helpful all round is if there had been a debate about how business engages in politics in general and using the Referendum campaign as a case in point.

In April 2014 I spoke at a renewables conference in Inverness on the very subject with my day hat on as a political public relations gun-for-hire. I remember my presentation well because it was fascinating to look at how both the UK Government, particularly through the Scotland Office, and the Scottish Government were courting business to support their respective sides in the campaign.

My advice to the assembled group of developers, landowners, lawyers and interested persons was clear: open your eyes before you wade in. I took several examples of high profile business leaders – Bob Dudley at BP, Katherine Garrett-Cox at Alliance Trust, Bill Munro at Barrhead Travel – and showed how each of them claimed to make a personal political statement in the Referendum campaign which they are and should be encouraged to share in the public domain, but didn’t back it up with a robust business justification or mandate.

Some, however, didn’t stop at stating this is how or why I say Yes or No. Most wrapped themselves in their corporate brand, or certainly didn’t sufficiently distance themselves from the office they are employed to protect, knowing full well that the personal has crossed a line.

Anyone with an employment contract of any sort nowadays will likely have a clause to the effect that you may be in breach of your employment contract if you bring the employer into disrepute through association with your personal actions and your work, i.e. if you say something political on social media and your workplace is linked to such publicity, usually in a negative way, that is likely to lead to disciplinary proceedings. A natural extension of workplace surveillance into your private sphere perhaps, but it is intended to catch the ‘fascist lurking in the typing pool’ is how it is defended and nobody wants those sorts working for you, surely?

Anyhow, the shoe rarely fits the bosses’ feet. Business leaders wade in on subjects which they may or may not have a good understanding of or, more likely, have a political leaning to and, therefore, give credence in half or full measures to political forecasting or as we might call it in local parlance, Project Fear.

Personally, those business leaders do a dis-service to their employees, shareholders and stakeholders but it is for their governance structures to tackle that. For just as the sage advice of the business leader may be delivered on the back of strong reputational capital, so narrow interference in politics may wreck not just the organisational reputation but also the bottom line as voters (or is it consumers?), blend the political and the personal in their shopping habits.

For example, I used to be a regular visitor to the Waitrose store in Stirling and was always captivated by the employee-owned John Lewis tagline – never knowingly undersold – except when its chief executive Sir Charlie Mayfield told me to vote No and I decided I would try not to shop there again if I could help it.

Just as the people of Liverpool boycotted The Sun over their appalling treatment of the city in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster, so Scottish voters have every right to change their shopping habits to align their political and personal buying power.

We have done so throughout the ages. Over apartheid in South Africa (choose your oranges carefully) and still ongoing over Israel occupation of the West Bank (AirBnB being the latest to face charges of aiding and abetting the illegal occupation). Even countries do it – remember the British ban on Argentinian beef?

Whilst we can all be ethical shoppers by defining our own ethics, we should be aware that for every action there is a reaction. If Indy supporters boycott Sainsburys, what might shoppers in the rest of the UK do to Scottish producers in our strongest market? Perhaps therein lies the Scottish Government’s cautious, if not dampening, approach to political boycotts.

So perhaps it is a personal thing. Maybe when John Lewis Partners give a guarantee not to tell me how to vote in IndyRef2 without explaining why, then I might consider changing my mind. Or just maybe we get business associations to agree a code of conduct for industry to adhere to during times of political pressure.