Theresa May's newfound populism threatens to alienate business from politics

EDITOR'S BLOG: The rhetoric from Birmingham has put a cat among the UK Plc pigeons.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 06 Oct 2016

It’s less than ten days ago that I wrote about the anxiety business is currently feeling about its relationship with HM Government. And that was sparked merely by the largely symbolic closing of David Cameron’s Business Advisory Group. Since the Brexit vote and the arrival of the new occupants of Downing Street things have taken a more negative tone. What was an anxiety has now morphed into a very real alarm.

The speeches at the Tory party conference this week felt like government is opening up with both barrels on the role of business in our society. Business was portrayed as a threat and a menace to our national well-being. It neglects the homegrown population in favour of cheap recruits from abroad. It doesn’t spend enough on training. It dodges its taxes. It seeks to obfuscate and trick consumers with ‘deliberately complex pricing structures.’ (This was a tilt at the utilities and train companies that could have come from the Corbyn hymnbook and its songs of widespread re-nationalisation.) There was a necessity to ‘repair’ markets to make them fairer.

The prime minister's speech was a diatribe against ‘the powerful and the privileged’ and the liberal elite. There was a powerful warning that there will be ‘naming and shaming.’ Business feels this means them.

One of our great successes has been the way in which we’ve embraced globalisation and made the most of it. Individuals and companies come to the UK and create businesses and jobs because it offers great opportunity here. There was very little encouragement for others to follow in anything that came out of Birmingham.

So when the leader of our country makes a barbed philosophical comment that ‘If you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the word citizenship means’ what is she saying? It suggests that we should all retreat behind the walls of the populist nationalism that sweeps the Western world at the moment. (‘We’re not citizens, anyway,’ muttered one of my colleagues when hearing this one. ‘We’re subjects.’)

I had thought that you can be a citizen of multiple places. Nationality has become a fluid and complex concept however much UKIP hates the thought. This now appears naive. You are either a true blue Brit - One of Us - or you are not. What matters is that you feel you belong, can be respected for who you are and what you can contribute to our country. Those who were born abroad and work in either banks or the NHS must now be feeling deeply uneasy about whether they are valued for what they bring to our society - and we’re now allowed to believe in society again - or vilified as free-riding interlopers.

It’s significant that in the main broadcast media over recent days there has not been one major business leader willing to put his or her head above the parapet to defend what business does. Where would be the win in that? The block would get shot straight off. It simply can’t be permitted for the impression to be given that those who lead UK plc are all Mike Ashleys or Phillip Greens - to whom Theresa May made acid reference in her speech.

Lord Bilimoria made a brave attempt to protest about the messages contained in the suggest that companies could henceforth be made to compile lists of their foreign workers. Don't think this policy has gone unnoticed all around the world - the Sir Lankan prime minister has just complained about it at a speech in Delhi. Closer to home, the IoD protested that business people and its members from smaller businesses were not ‘pantomime villains.’ But there weren’t many voices like theirs.

Party conference speeches need to be tub-thumping and get the faithful roused to go back to their constituencies and keep the party in power. (There is currently little risk of them losing that power.) But this was almost quasi-religious in its fervour. It didn’t appear reasonable. It felt reckless. I hope that my deep alarm at the tone and content of the last week is misplaced. I hope that actually this was playing to the crowd and the country in an attempt to keep her fractious party together and ensure it doesn’t turn on itself.

I hope that when it comes down to it there will be no harmful bills and policies that materialise from these threats. But it’s a high stakes game to play. Business will have its hands full coping with the all-encompassing implications of Brexit without feeling it has no friends and allies in Whitehall. One leader of a FTSE 100 company said to me yesterday, ‘I haven’t ever felt so alienated from politics.’ That is no state in which to be approaching the deadline of March when all our economic futures start being negotiated.


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