Given the potential impact of a so-called “hard Brexit” on bottom lines, as well as the less-than-friendly tone of recent ministerial and prime ministerial interventions, it’s hardly surprising that relations between the British government and business have been pretty strained lately.
But underlying some of the coverage of their spat is the assumption that capital and the Conservative Party shouldn’t ever fall out with each other. Since the latter is so obviously the political wing of the former, the argument runs, any disagreement between them must spell something pretty serious.
Well, maybe – but only up to a point. Although business funds and favours the Tories, the relationship between them is not, nor has it ever been, one of master and servant. If wealth creators and Conservative politicians are squabbling right now, it’s not the first time, and it won’t be the last.
Liam Fox, one of the government’s three Brexiteers, recently got into trouble for suggesting British businessmen were too fond of knocking off early on a Friday and heading for the golf course. But he’s by no means the first Tory trade spokesman to take such a jaded view of the very people whose vested interests the Conservative Party is supposedly pre-programmed to promote. Nor, indeed, is he the first to discover that the feeling is sometimes mutual.
John Nott, perhaps best remembered as Margaret Thatcher’s defence secretary during the Falklands, was previously her shadow trade spokesman. This was a role which, he recalls in his memoirs, required him “to get around the country persuading businessmen that the Tory party had their interests at heart”. That effort, he noted, often turned out to be a dialogue of the deaf:
Every gathering followed a predictable pattern: the shadow minister made his speech and then a vulgar, tanked-up businessman launched an attack on politicians generally, the Tory Party and its leader … It is extraordinary that businessmen, who often crave some input into government, so often exclude themselves from the whole process by their ignorance of the necessary compromises and realities of political life.
Thatcher herself was well aware of the problem, although, given her forceful style, hardly best-placed to do much about it. The president of the CBI, responding to a private letter she’d written him just after taking over from Ted Heath – who, as the man who abolished retail price maintenance and the coiner of the phrase “the unacceptable face of capitalism” enjoyed more than a few run-ins with business over the years – confessed that “contacts between the Conservative Party and industry are not as close as they would wish”.
But Thatcher’s efforts to remedy the situation seem to have backfired, at least judging from a letter written by one of her shadow ministers to another: the “big industrialists” he met were fed up of being lectured by Mrs T, he confided. Indeed, “one had said: I would not mind being treated as a schoolboy if only she would put me in the 6th form. But I do mind being put in the 4th”.
The atmosphere clearly improved after Thatcher entered Number Ten. But that doesn’t mean we should swallow the idea that her governments were simply about translating business’s wishlists into policy. Many of the flagship policies (privatisation, trade union reform, the slashing of subsidies, pension changes) we now associate with those governments, rather than being urged upon the politicians by the business community, provoked either little initial interest or else a degree of nervousness and even pushback.
Friends or aquaintances?
The fact that the relationship between the Conservative party and business isn’t quite as symbiotic as is sometimes assumed might owe something to the fact that business people have never dominated the ranks of the parliamentary party. Even if they’ve been active in local associations, they don’t often turn their hand to politics – and the results are mixed when they do. One would probably have to go back to Ernest Marples to find a businessman who really made a direct difference to government policy. Even that didn’t exactly end well.
True, businessmen have done rather better and rather more for the party as fundraisers. The late Alistair McAlpine, who raised millions for Maggie in the 70s and 80s, is probably the stand out example.
But, as is the case for Labour and the unions, despite what the Conservatives’ opponents routinely allege, it’s never been – and never will be – simply a case of he who pays the piper calls the tune. Politics, like life, is just more complicated than that. This is partly because it’s more than a superstructural reflection of an economic base and partly because business is not some monolith composed of firms with one identical, unchanging interest.
Ironically, Brexit illustrates pretty much all of the above. Yes, business lobbied both Tory and Labour governments to join Europe and, overwhelmingly, backed staying in ahead of the 1975 referendum. By 2016, however, a Conservative PM had decided to risk a second referendum even though the majority of firms still probably preferred the certainty of remaining.
The campaign itself, however, suggested there was significantly more business support for leaving than there had been 40 years previously. And now the decision has been made (and sterling has reacted accordingly), some firms seem relatively relaxed about it, while others are beginning to panic.
None of this of course means that the Conservatives no longer listen to business. Nor does it mean they no longer worry about being business-friendly. They do: look at their u-turn on naming and shaming firms employing foreigners.
But the Conservatives never have and never will simply do business’s bidding. They produce and implement policies so as to promote what they themselves conceive to be the best interests of business. And they will continue to do that even if it means occasionally provoking disquiet or even squeals of protest from a section of society that ultimately will continue to back them unless and until it has somewhere else to go. And given the current state of Her Majesty’s Opposition, that seems unlikely any time soon.