The intervention of a few large firms in the Brexit debate in recent days has certainly stirred things up. A few mild, and some might say overdue, requests for clarity about our likely relationship with the European Union after March next year have provoked an extraordinary reaction from the Brexiteer clan, culminating in an explosion from the Foreign Secretary and chief-Brexit-cheerleader (at least in his own eyes), Boris Johnson. “Fuck business”, he is reported to have ranted at a diplomatic reception.
This ought to be incredible stuff. This, after all, comes from a man who still harbours (rapidly fading) ambitions to be the leader of our nation; a man who wants the UK to be open to the world and attract foreign investment post-Brexit; and a man who is part of Britain’s nominally business-friendly party. Yet in his contempt for the views of business leaders Boris is hardly alone amongst the political classes, and he can say truthfully that he is simply reflecting the views of the public and even of Conservative voters. Poll after poll shows that suspicion of ‘big business’, and of capitalism itself, has never been higher. Many of us, it seems, would echo his trenchant view.
This is daft. A huge proportion of British people work for ‘big’ firms, most of them more or less happily. Those companies are responsible for creating high value jobs, training and developing their staff, for investing and innovating, and for a host of other benefits that might be associated with clever tech start ups but not with mom and pop stores nor with the public sector. Antipathy towards the backbone of our economy makes little or no sense – but still it is flourishing. And it is one thing most politicians seem to agree on.
For that blame all sorts of factors. The behaviour of some companies before and during the great crash of 2008 was despicable. Even today there are plenty of examples of poor practice, from zero hours contracts to tax minimization to environmental damage. Yet most businesses treat their staff reasonably well, if only because finding good quality people is so hard; they ‘give back’ through corporate responsibility programmes; and they pay their taxes. There are legitimate questions about whether some firms are hindering UK productivity growth, but this is hardly a reason to despise big business en masse. So why do we seemingly do so?
One reason is that we take our cue from our leaders. And in recent years politicians have chosen to hide behind scapegoats and bogeymen such as fat cats and rapacious capitalists rather than take responsibility for their own actions. Never mind that the crash resulted primarily from failures of policy and regulation; that zero hours contracts remain legal; or that our tax code has loophole after loophole which companies can exploit. All of these are things legislators can and should change, but they choose not to: far easier instead to blame the whipping boys of big business.
The result is that politicians fetishise small businesseses and entrepreneurs, and they demonise major corporations. Few will speak up for the organisations that create the bulk of the wealth, prosperity and progress in this country; many see nationalisation as a sensible and realistic response to the ‘failings’ of sectors such as water, energy, rail and even banking. Rather than addressing specific instances of regulatory capture and bad behaviour, all too often our political classes just say ‘fuck business’ as a whole.
There are so many problems with this attitude it is hard to know where to begin. It is, of course, totally illogical. Start ups don’t dream of staying at 20 people and a £4 million turnover; thus successful small businesses become big businesses, presumably switching along the way from being much-loved to much-loathed. We spend half the time castigating large firms and the other half looking for big national champions to compete on the global stage against the Americans, Germans and Chinese. And anyone who sees nationalism as a panacea clearly can’t remember the bad old days of British Rail and British Leyland, nor see that, generally speaking, politicians and bureaucrats make decisions slowly and badly.
So being anti-big business makes little sense for anyone in the UK. It is bizarre for a Conservative at any time. And it is inexcusable now for a Party that wants the UK to be open to the world, a strong trading nation, open to foreign investment and foreign workers post-Brexit. Time for the Tories to rethink, and learn to love – and stick up for – business once again.