For pragmatism, read corporatism

True to Michael Heseltine's promise before he left the Department of Trade and Industry, a businessman, John Bridgeman, has been appointed director general of Fair Trading. What is more, he seems to share Mr Heseltine's view on how the job should be conducted - in a manner which is essentially sympathetic to the aims and ambitions of big business but with a strong emphasis on consumer protection.

The two things are not necessarily contradictory. As someone who combines the credibility of a good track record in business with an inside knowledge of the sensitivities involved, Mr Bridgeman will be well placed to nurture the Deputy Prime Minister's cherished dream of producing "national champions" - and of not letting anything as trivial as narrow domestic competition concerns get in the way of their creation. At the same time Mr Bridgeman's knowledge of a variety of industries might also make it more difficult for the best advisers that money can buy to pull the wool over his eyes.

By giving businessmen the freedom to pursue their corporate ambitions, it might be possible to extract a quite considerable quid pro quo in the way of consumer protection. It can also be argued that the British consumer is better served by allowing the creation of competitive businesses that can take on the world than by permitting foreign-owned enterprises to make serious inroads.

Like Mr Heseltine, the new director general believes that business is essentially about being pragmatic. Adopting a strict by- the-book legalistic approach to what is allowed and not allowed is often not the best way to secure the best deal on behalf of the consumer. Certainly competition lawyers believe they will receive a much more sympathetic hearing of the argument that what in the past would be seen as dominant market share is not necessarily a bad thing, provided adequate safeguards exist. For pragmatism, read corporatism.

This is a style of policy, at least in so far as mergers are concerned, already well established. The most recent example of it was Mr Lang's decision to allow the Scottish & Newcastle bid for fellow brewer Courage with only minor conditions. Mr Bridgeman can be expected to continue and reinforce the trend.

Comments