The EU referendum outcome will be a pivotal moment in UK history and as the largest private employer our industry must join the debate.
Anyone who feared that the Brexit debate would be a lacklustre battle of statistics and detail around the finer points of EU bureaucracy will have been grateful for the way it exploded into life in the past week.
One of the seminal political moments in modern British history will be given the stage it deserves as, within days of Prime Minister David Cameron’s return from renegotiating the UK’s relationship with Europe and announcing the date of a referendum, political and business heavyweights began to take sides.
From Zac Goldsmith to Sadiq Khan and Boris Johnson to the PM himself, the campaigning will rightly include some of the great orators of our time, ensuring both sides of the story will be told from a political point of view.
Meanwhile, in a letter published on Tuesday, leaders of about a third of FTSE 100 companies lent their support to the pro-European camp saying that Britain is better off staying in a reformed EU.
There were some big retail names on the list, ranging from Dixons Carphone’s Seb James to Burberry’s Christopher Bailey and Ocado’s Tim Steiner.
Some very big retailers were absent from the list though.
Public declarations of a political nature by business leaders have the potential to backfire, as Boots boss Stefano Pessina discovered during last year’s general election campaign – although he has also lent his name to the latest letter, in a personal capacity.
Circumspection among retail chiefs is understandable because a strong anti-business agenda in some quarters underscores a school of thought that it is simply not the role of business leaders to influence the way their customers or staff vote.
But the EU question is an emotive topic for retailers, not least because of the vast number of people employed in the industry and the scope of its reach into the everyday life of millions of shoppers.
“Retailers have a huge role to play in understanding and articulating the issues in a way that their employees and customers can understand, and simply informing the debate about the consequences of staying in or coming out”
So while retail chiefs must, of course, weigh up whether it is in the interests of their businesses to join the debate, they must also overcome their legitimate fears.
Retailers have a huge role to play in understanding and articulating the issues in a way that their employees and customers can understand, and simply informing the debate about the consequences of staying in or coming out. As the passion and emotion builds, that will become increasingly important.
As so often, the John Lewis Partnership has taken steps others could follow. Recognising the importance of equipping its partners with knowledge about the referendum, the group staged a debate with Lord Stuart Rose and JML owner John Mills – who sit on opposite sides of the in-out fence – on the consequences of the vote.
Whatever the result of the vote in June, the decision is one of the pivotal moments of British history that will have consequences for us all.
Such high stakes demand that every stakeholder join the debate. And, as the UK’s biggest private employer, retail’s obligation is greater than most.