Mark Leftly: Business dominates British politics as the two become inextricably linked
Westminster Outlook In 1826, many years before he embarked on a Westminster career that would eventually see him reach 10 Downing Street, Benjamin Disraeli wrote: "In politics, nothing is contemptible."
Aged just 22, "Dizzy" had shown in his first novel, Vivian Grey, that he was well on his way to mastering the art of the devastatingly cutting epigram. Later, this rhetorical device would serve him well in brushing aside such formidable opponents as Robert Peel ("reminiscent of a poker – the only difference is that a poker gives off the occasional signs of warmth") and, to a lesser extent, William Gladstone ("not one single redeeming defect").
And Disraeli was right about what he described as the "Grand Game": in politics, anything goes.
But what he failed to note was that this does not prevent politicians from drawing on their own considerable reserves of contempt for those who do not want to play the game and have arguably failed in other pursuits.
Today, the Palace of Westminster is filled with politicians of every (or no) ideological persuasion who take every opportunity they can to voice their discontent, fury and revulsion at a business world they blame for pushing Britain to the edge of economic ruin. The City and big businesses are, then, particularly deserving of their contempt.
On 9 August 2007, BNP Paribas told investors that they would not be able to take money out of two of their funds. This was the 21st-century economic equivalent of the day that Archduke Ferdinand was shot: the credit crunch, which became the financial crisis, had begun.
From October the following year, when Royal Bank of Scotland was rescued by the Government, politicians have taken more interest in business than at any time since Margaret Thatcher's privatisation programme three decades ago. Anonymous business secretaries have come and gone, but today's incumbent, Vince Cable, is as well known as any of the occupants of the traditionally great offices of state, such as the Home or Foreign offices.
A quick look at this week's parliamentary business, the first of 2014, shows just how business now dominates Westminster's agenda. The regulator Clive Adamson has come under fire for approving the extraordinarily flawed and ill-qualified Paul Flowers to chair the Co-op Bank; the arms export trade has been attacked; Northern Ireland's banking system debated; and there's even a hearing into what retailers are doing to stop shoppers using so many environmentally unfriendly plastic bags.
This all comes at a time when both sides of the House seem determined to encourage the private sector to spark a recovery through spending billions on vast infrastructure projects, from super-sewers to high-speed railway lines.
Politicians also want businesses to break what they see as the Civil Service's bureaucratic mishandling of services traditionally overseen by the state. The government contractors Capita, Serco, G4S, and Atos alone received more than £4bn of public sector work in 2012, in the hope that their commercial nous would lead to huge cost savings and therefore slash the deficit. But the many scandals on outsourcing contracts that have engulfed some of these companies, in particular Serco and G4S, have dominated the headlines of the political pages – and Westminster – for the past year, leading to yet more inquiries.
The boundaries between business and politics, the Square Mile and the Westminster village, have then all but disappeared. The two disciplines never practically operated in isolation, but with the scrutiny that business now faces, there can no longer be any pretence that the two are anything but inextricably linked.
That other great wordsmith prime minister, Winston Churchill, once said: "Some see private enterprise as a predatory target to be shot, others as a cow to be milked, but few are those who see it as a sturdy horse pulling the wagon."
This new weekly column looks to show who holds these differing views of business in Westminster, why that matters, and whether the City is successfully responding to the concerns of British democracy at a time when its reputation is so low.
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