The Grangemouth dispute makes it clear who really runs the country

The crisis has become an opportunity for the rich  to acquire more wealth and power

Share

A Swiss-based private company has held to ransom not just hundreds of workers and their families, not just their community, but an entire nation. The Grangemouth dispute was not some parochial, localised affair, a potential tragedy for yet more livelihoods sacrificed on the altar of global capitalism. It wasn’t just that its closure would have had a shattering impact on the Scottish economy, as well as frightening implications for Britain’s fuel security. The whole episode raises again an age-old question, not whispered enough, let alone asked loudly: who runs Britain?

Inevitably, in a country with a media institutionally hostile to what remains the country’s largest democratic movement, Fleet Street has embraced a narrative of scapegoating trade unions and ignored the fact that Ineos is the secretive, largest privately run company that operates in Britain. Having fled Britain’s tax regime in 2010, Ineos is a corporate giant that has legally saved millions from the greedy clutches of schools and hospitals by operating in up to six tax havens.

It made up to $2bn profit last year, though the company is reportedly saddled with debts from its insatiable take-over bids. According to Ineos Chemicals Grangemouth Ltd accounts last year, sales had grown by more than 50 per cent, and there was a gross profit of nearly 20 per cent.

That’s not to say Grangemouth is not confronted with real problems: over the course of the past decade, North Sea gas arriving at the site has declined by 60 per cent. But it was ludicrous to suggest that labour costs – just 17 per cent of the plant’s total costs – were entirely responsible for Grangemouth’s plight. Workers had better pay and conditions here than elsewhere, it was argued: in modern Britain, that’s presented as an argument to trash them in an endless race-to-the-bottom, rather than dealing with the scandalous plight of other workers. With suggestions that Ineos had saddled external debts on the plant for tax purposes, there was clearly an overwhelming case for the plant’s books to be laid open and independently scrutinised, as well as for an HMRC investigation into the company’s tax affairs.

But this was not a company that wanted anything other than the Unite union to be comprehensively crushed. As crucial negotiations between Unite and the company were underway, Stevie Deans, the senior Unite convenor, was placed under investigation for issues related to Labour’s row in Falkirk. Unite had begged Ineos to negotiate at the Acas conciliation service, which Ineos stomped away from despite guarantees of no strike action. Indeed, in the end the workers didn’t strike, it was the bosses, who promptly shut the whole plant down.

And so the workers and Scotland as a whole had a pistol pointed at their head. Capitulate on our terms, said Ineos, or the plant will go. It could have blown away around 10 per cent of the Scottish economy, triggering economic ruin for entire communities dependent on the plants. More radical voices wanting the sort of occupation that the iconic Jimmy Reid led in the Upper Clyde in the early 1970s will have noted the cheers of the workers at the announcement that the site would be saved. They just wanted to keep their jobs.

Clearly such a strategically vital  asset should have been removed from private control into public ownership. But London’s Tories – bankrolled by hedge funds, banks and asset strippers as they are – were hardly going to nationalise Grangemouth. Though the Scottish Government recently took over Prestwick Airport to save jobs, taking over Grangemouth was probably beyond its means even if it wanted to.

“There’s class warfare, all right,” said US billionaire Warren Buffett a few years ago, “but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” It is a point underlined by this episode in Grangemouth. Since this economic crisis began, the business elite has used it as an opportunity to shift wealth and power even further in their direction. It is not just the fact of the surge in the fortunes of the top 1,000 wealthiest Britons since Lehman Brothers came crashing down, even as workers face the longest fall in living standards since the reign of Queen Victoria. The crisis has become an opportunity to further strip workers of security, rights and power.

Sound like a bonkers conspiracy theory? The business elite are entirely open about their aims. In a 2009 report entitled The Shape of Business over the next 10 years, the Confederation of British Industry – the main bosses’ organisation – called for businesses to use the economic crisis to create a so-called “flexiforce”. This would mean a “new employment model where the core of permanent staff is smaller”, with ever growing dependence on temporary workers.

And so the explosion of zero-hour contract workers, temporary workers and the insecure self-employed is not a passing side-effect of the economic crash. They are here to stay. It is being accompanied by Government attempts to tip the balance further towards employers, such as the assault on industrial tribunals. Trade unions have faced a battering over the past generation, but they have remained redoubts of strength that our business elite is determined to defeat.

So here is the choice that faces us. We can resign ourselves to vast swathes of our economy under the control of economic heavyweights, casually deciding the fates of entire nations from multi-million pound yachts. We can accept that the stripping of rights and security from working people is just one of those things, a fact of life like the weather. We can passively sit back as wealth and power is indefinitely shovelled in the direction of those who already have too much of it. Or we can start asking fundamental questions about how society is structured in Britain.

The power exercised by the likes of Jim Ratcliffe depends on our collective resignation, a sense of fatalism and powerlessness. Grangemouth could be a turning point, a catalyst for other employers to demolish what remaining power and rights working people have. Or it could be a moment where enough of us realise what is happening to modern Britain, and – in the finest traditions of this country – do something to challenge it.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Riyadh is setting itself up as region’s policeman

Lina Khatib
Ed Miliband and David Cameron  

Cameron and Miliband should have faith in their bolder policies

Ian Birrell
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor