Ken Clarke: "The government has completely ignored the advice of business"

The former MP on Brexit, the responsibilities of business and why we need to do more to ensure that half the country isn't left behind.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 09 Dec 2019

Like most public figures, Ken Clarke has acquired a myth or two. One popular misconception about the former chancellor of the exchequer is that he only wears Hush Puppy shoes; another that he refuses to drink anything but beer. 

The truth is that he "wears brown suede shoes [i.e. not Hush Puppies] 90 per cent of the time" and "actually rather likes red wine". Another myth that he’s keen to dispel is that Brexit will be anything but damaging to the UK economy.

A life-long Europhile, Clarke was part of the Ted Heath government when the UK joined the European Economic Community in 1973 - something he describes as Heath’s finest hour - and was a vocal champion for remain in the Brexit debate that dominated his last few years in Westminster. 

In the second part of an exclusive interview with Management Today on the eve of an election "quite unlike any that he has seen before", Clarke reflects on why he thinks Brexit happened and whether the Conservative Party is still the party of business. 

Why Brexit happened

"People voted to leave the EU for a variety of different reasons. Many of them were just protesting, but there is also a slight feeling of people not wishing to go any further into the 21st century. They wish to get back to a calmer, simpler time when somehow, with the Dunkirk spirit, the UK had always looked after ourselves. That is a very dangerous attitude. 

"We have to ask why they feel like that and then come up with a remedy. There has been a collective failure on the part of the leadership of this country to ensure that the benefits of a modern globalised economy are spread more fairly across the UK.

"A good half of the population doesn’t think that the rapid pace of change in the business world is benefitting them personally at all, so they’re resentful. We’re pressing the benefits of staying in the Single Market and proposing ambitious plans like creating a belt between Oxford and Cambridge that will rival Silicon Valley, but when we pursue such plans we have to ask ourselves what is it doing for the population of Barnsley or Hartlepool?

"The answer is absolutely nothing. There’s an angry reaction that is being exploited by the populist politicians." 

Is that really business’s responsibility? 

"I think we all have a certain amount of responsibility as part of the community in which we live. We all have duties not only to the company, but to society at large, to behave ethically and reasonably. 

"We have to abandon the idea that the sole duty of the management of a quoted company is to maximise returns for shareholders. Over the last 20 years, certainly since the financial crisis, the public have lost confidence in business and no longer think that the interests of business coincide with their own. 

"I have been on the board of FTSE 100 companies with CSR efforts that they have taken seriously but we have to make it more visible and ensure that it is actually genuine and reflected in the decisions of the company. 

"We also have to do something about the obscene levels of executive pay, which a laissez faire approach and the weakness of remuneration committees has allowed to explode in the last 20 years or so."

So what should business do to help spread that wealth? 

"The answer of the Brexiteers is ‘stop the world we wish to get off’. It’s no good just saying we’ve got to bring the shipyards back to the North East. All that nostalgia is extremely damaging. We’ve got to continue to focus on policies that will help us keep up with the rest of the world. 

"Well-incentivised by the government, we've got to spread the benefits of economic growth across the country and we have to accept the burden of policy and taxation. Infrastructure schemes like HS2 are important, but they won't work unless we also tackle our big problems, ones of which continues to be education standards.

"We've been talking about skill shortages in the British economy my entire political career  and it’s a subject we have failed to tackle successfully."

It’s election week - which is the real party of business?

"Throughout my lifetime the Conservative Party has always been pro-business because we believe that’s the way to improve the general wellbeing of the population. 

"But I don’t recall any previous time when the British government has completely ignored the advice of the CBI, Made In Britain, all the major car manufacturers, the chemical industry and so on. I haven’t yet left the party, so I hope that the Conservative Party eventually goes back to its role of being pro-business.

"I haven’t made up my mind yet*  whether I’m going to pursue a protest vote of voting Lib Dem or vote for the Conservatives; the difference in this election is that I’m no longer able to vote for myself."

*at the time of the interview in early November 2019

 

Image credit: Dan Kitwood / Staff

 

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