They are no longer defending traditional values of national character and continuity, but rather catering to big business
It’s a remarkable thing to witness: senior Conservatives attacking big business. It is not just Boris Johnson exclaiming “fuck business” – it is their furious and sustained response to the corporations threatening to disinvest after Brexit, exemplified by the resignation of the Welsh Conservative leaderafter his attack on Airbus.
Most remarkable – and least remarked upon – is an article in the Daily Mail a couple of weeks ago by the former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith, in which he rehearses what anti-corporate campaigners have been saying for decades. “The public,” he complained, “is urged to accept, without challenge, the views of corporations and their representative bodies such as the Confederation of British Industry.” According to this “fashionable narrative”, the opinions of corporate chief executives “should count for much more than the decisions of voters exercised through the democratic ballot box”.
The contradictions run throughout conservative Britain. As a young man, I was amazed to see the burghers of middle England look the other way as their beautiful market towns were turned into car parks and the glorious countryside that surrounded them into chemical deserts. They claimed to love a national character exemplified by independent butchers, bakers and greengrocers, but shopped at Tesco. They didn’t blink while our national institutions – universities, schools, the BBC, the NHS, the rule of law – were vitiated by corporate interests. As a road-building programme driven by the demands of construction companies ripped through ancient monuments and nature reserves, they did nothing, leaving hippies and anarchists to defend our national heritage.
I began to realise that the whole thing was a racket. Conservatism professed to be one thing, but in reality was its opposite. Everything could and should be sacrificed to money and its organised form: corporate power. Stripped of its professed adherence to tradition and continuity, all that is left of conservatism is property paranoia, xenophobia and a patriotism so coarse and ill-defined that it loses all meaning. This makes it easy to manipulate. When transnational corporations cannot be blamed for ripping apart communities and national character, immigrants must be blamed instead. A paper by Italo Colantone and Piero Stanig at Bocconi University found that, while there was no relationship between the number of migrants in a region and the extent to which it voted leave, there was a powerful relationship between the leave vote and what they call “Chinese import shock”: the displacement of local businesses and jobs by imports. Brexit was driven, they say, by the uncompensated effects of globalised trade. But as the instigators of the leave campaign were beholden to financial interests, such effects were unmentionable. So scapegoats had to be found.
It would be delightful to imagine that people such as Duncan Smith and Johnson are seeking to defend democracy and popular sovereignty from the perennial threat of corporate power. Nothing could be further from the truth. Intimately associated with the campaign to disentangle us from the EU is an effort to entangle us further with a more distant and less amenable power: the United States. Food, environmental and workplace standards must succumb to the maelstrom of US corporate lobbying and the demand that everything on Earth is exchangeable for something else.
As foreign secretary, Johnson granted free use of rooms in the Foreign Office to the Initiative for Free Trade, a group of dark-money thinktanks that see Brexit as an opportunity to rip down public protections. The trade secretary, Liam Fox, is seeking to force the UK into the Trans-Pacific Partnership, whose radical assault on standards, and secretive offshore courts, present a far greater threat to national sovereignty than does the European Union. US and UK banks have already seized their chance, threatening to walk away from London after Brexit unless they get further tax cuts and a new round of deregulation. They have plainly forgotten what caused the last financial crisis. Broadly speaking, Brextremists such as Fox, Johnson and Duncan Smith favour the most ruthless and antisocial businesses over more responsible ones.
Even so, the unusual conflict between transnational corporations and senior Conservatives should also discomfit defenders of the European Union. Why are big companies so keen to stay in? Because the EU, in essence, is a vehicle for their expansion. By regularising standards within the bloc and striking trade deals that are, to a large extent, fashioned by business lobbyists, it helps big companies to sweep away smaller competitors, and extends corporate power at the expense of democracy. As I’ve long argued, as a Eurosceptic remainer, the EU is like democracy, diplomacy and old age: the only thing that can be said for it is that it’s better than the alternative. The alternative is hideous.
If established corporate power is perceived as an obstacle by senior Conservatives, it is not because a higher principle is at stake. It is simply because it conflicts with a more immediate aim: a Brexit that can be played to the advantage of one faction and the disadvantage of another.
But as the contradictions emerge between what the Conservatives profess to be and what they are, it is instructive to watch the party split, as it did around the repeal of the Corn Laws, over the competing interests of different forms of capital. Expect this struggle to continue. But don’t expect to see anything resembling conservatism to materialise, on either side. Perhaps it is time they renamed their party.
Published with kind permission from the author