If you head an apolitical organisation that publicly takes a neutral position on a major political issue then when questioned by the media – as a representative of your members – you should not take a political position. So, during the independence referendum in Scotland the Law Society of Scotland did not take up any public position. It was conscious that among its membership there were supporters, and active campaigners, of both sides. And during the referendum the Society enhanced its reputation by providing balanced papers on a variety of issues on the implications of a vote in favour of independence. As a member of the Law Society of Scotland I am not conscious of any senior officer bearer taking up a public position during media interviews. Former presidents of the Law Society appeared on both sides of the referendum debate. But they did not do so in any representative capacity, and no then current office bearer, nor the chief executive assumed a public position. If any had – for one side or the other – the membership of the Society would, rightly, have objected that a person worthy of interview solely because he or she was in a representative role in the Society was not representing those members and should be suspended or dismissed. As it was, that didn’t happen and the Society left the referendum campaign with reputation enhanced – as a decent and honest broker trying to provide independent information to the public and the media.
This shouldn’t need explaining but given the hysterical reaction of disgraced former Cabinet minister, Dr Liam Fox (who resigned in disgrace) and Boris Johnson to the suspension of John Longworth, as director general of the British Chambers of Commerce it appears necessary to state this. The BCC represents 52 chambers of commerce across the UK. And through that it represents thousands of businesses of all sizes. That membership is split. The BCC has taken up a neutral position to respect that split. For the director general, interviewed solely because he is director general, to take a public position undermines his organisation and its membership. His suspension is not government interference or indicative of project fear, as the journalistic cheerleaders for the leave campaign (those fans with laptops like Julia Hartley Brewer), are arguing this morning. It is an organisation trying to protect its reputation and its neutrality. Those who argue that the media was interested in the views of Longworth know the only interest people have in his views is as a representative of the BCC. I don’t recall the press rushing to the door of John Longworth for a quote prior to his assumption of the role of director general of the BCC in September 2011 (apart from the time he was representing the CBI as chair of its retail and distributive trades panel).
He represents a neutral organisation. He took a line while speaking as representative of that organisation. He therefore undermined its neutrality. His suspension is right.