Opinion - Does biggest necessarily mean the best?

Chris Swinson reflects on a previous attempt to merge the ICAEW with other professional bodies.

While I was at university, the ICAEW was attempting to reorganise the UK accountancy profession. A wonderful scheme was proposed which would have brought all of the professional bodies together in one. My father, who was a chartered accountant, thought I might be interested in all of this so sent me the institute's prospectus for the scheme. He also sent me the record of the debate at the special meeting of members to discuss the proposals. This was held at the Albert Hall. I still have both of these documents.

The debate was an interesting introduction to the institute. The Grand Old Men of the institute were all there. Benson, Leach, Rae Smith, Parker et al all laboured to persuade members of the wisdom of the scheme. Against them were the voices of Hugh Nicholson and Bruce Sutherland. Who could have envied Stanley Dixon his role as president?

In the event, the institute failed to win the support of a sufficiently large majority of its own members and the scheme fell. The members of all of the other accountancy bodies had voted in favour. Since then, there has never been a time when such a scheme could have been launched. Members and institutes have become too entrenched in their own strategies. We have all been too proud of our own institutes and qualifications to make mergers an easy possibility.

What undermined the 1960s scheme fatally was the undeniable conflict between size and the elitism. Members of the institute believed that they had joined an elite. Not enough were persuaded that they would remain members of an elite once the mergers had taken place. They suspected that size had become a more important objective than quality. The attitudes behind this may not be comfortable to examine, but they were undeniably important.

Strategic disaster

In retrospect, that decision was a strategic disaster for the profession.

Of course, the profession has been very successful since then. Large numbers of people have become members. They have enjoyed (many of them) successful careers. The economic success of firms has been remarkable. The accountancy profession is one of the UK's world-class sectors. But division within the profession has nonetheless tended to limit our influence and effectiveness.

Now the institute is in discussion again. I well know how difficult such discussions can be: I wish the negotiators well.

But the effort may still turn out to be pointless. I am not persuaded that members will readily vote to remain the largest professional body.

When I studied, I do not recall knowing how large the institute was. I joined because I believed that the institute's qualification would provide me with the best foundation for a career. I wanted to join the best.

Obviously there is no logical reason why the biggest should not also be the best. But it will not necessarily be the best.

I have many good friends in CIPFA and have good reason to respect both them and the quality of their institute's strategic management. I also have good friends in CIMA; and their members have good reason to be proud of their institute's standing and development. Personally, I have no reason to object to either institute as a merger partner.

Applying the same test

Yet the members are likely still to apply the same test. Will whatever scheme emerges lead to a body which will be and aim to continue to be the best? Will its qualifications offer the best platform for high-performers' careers? If, but only if, negotiators can persuade members of this, then success should and will follow.

More on the merger proposals, p5 and p11. - Chris Swinson is senior partner at BDO Stoy Hayward and a past president of the ICAEW. If you wish to debate with Chris, email him at chris@swinson.co.uk.

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