Don't expect businessmen to protect any interests other than their own

To suggest British entrepreneurs are pretty thick is to risk being denounced as a patrician snob
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"AT THE end of the day, the only thing that matters is the British national interest" (John Major in the Commons debate on Europe, Wednesday night).

"Take your programme over to Germany and ask them what their motives are! D'you think they are there to sell out to some European superstate? They are in it because they think Germany can gain!" (Michael Heseltine, on BBC's Today, Thursday morning).

All last week, the dull grey voices of English Gaullism resounded. The European Union, they boomed, is just a club of nation-states. And nation- states are the only real political units, because they were invented to express collective self-interest.

We are all in this Europe thing (said the voices) for what we can get out of it - not just the Brits, but the Frogs, the Eyeties: all of us. Only nauseous hypocrites like the Germans pretend that they want to move beyond the nation-state. But who are they kidding? Every day, more foreigners come round to the British point of view. They may not actually say so out loud, but in private they are all agreeing that Europe is a Europe of nations, and no hogwash about superstates and single currencies will ever change that.

We listen to this amazing rubbish day after day. And every time I am reminded of that famous aphorism by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the theologian murdered by the Nazis 50 years ago: "It is no good getting on board the wrong train and then rushing down the corridor in the opposite direction." Mrs Thatcher boarded the integration express for Brussels when she signed the Single European Act in 1985. Since then, Tory ministers have been stumbling through the carriages, assuring startled passengers that this train is heading for Atlantis via Westminster.

This will solve itself when the train stops. Meanwhile, I am intrigued by this fashion for talking about "the national interest". It is a phrase from deferential times, when governments announced what was good for us. In those days, we accepted statements about the national interest as humbly as statements about the national debt. It was "their" business to know. But today is different. People ask questions.

Who is entitled to say what the national interest is? If politicians draw it up, then it may be interesting but certainly won't be impartially "national". If some Great & Good committee defines it, then it may be national but is damned unlikely to be interesting. The truth is that this is a silly non-problem, and as such it has been given a silly non-answer. For the past 15 years or so, British governments have tried to persuade the rest of us that the best judges of the national interest are ... businessmen!

This may be a ridiculous statement, but - ominously - fewer and fewer people laugh at it. Somehow, it has sunk in. The sexist word "businessman" has been upholstered into "entrepreneur" or "representative of local enterprise" or "industrialist" or even "wealth-creator". Notice the altruistic varnish on those terms. A businessman makes money, has too much lunch and waddles off to play golf - whereas your lean, fit entrepreneur is always seeking ways to make society leaner and fitter too, and your wealth-creator is a fountainhead whose money trickles endlessly down to the parched masses below.

With the wordplay goes a new prudery about those who say unkind things about wealth-creators. To suggest that wealth is accumulated largely by robbing workers of the full value of their labour - that is to be pitied as a geriatric Marxist unhinged by the collapse of the Soviet Union. To suggest that British entrepreneurs, as a group, are pretty thick - that is to risk being denounced as a patrician snob disguised in leftie clothing.

So it has become remarkably difficult to be critical of this particular species which now packs quangos of every kind all over Britain. The species, disgustingly flattered by intellectuals who have learnt to conceal their own shame and resentment, struts the land as the patrons of painting, music and theatre, as the sponsors of university departments and research projects, as the paymasters of cancer wards and heritage parks, as the reformers of government departments or the arbiters of railway closures. The wealth creators have become the custodians of the national interest.

To suggest that this is farcical is not rude. It only suggests that the British entrepreneur may be up to many jobs, but not this one. There are other cultures in which the idea might be more plausible. For instance, it made some sense in a maritime city-state like Venice that Venetian interests should be assessed by a committee of silk importers, slave dealers and other "merchant-venturers". (They knew a thing or too about paintings, as well.) But to ask a bunch of Tory-nominated nobs who live in commuterland Wadhurst or Otley or Altrincham or Bearsden to decide the "interests" of Leeds students or chronically ill women in Manchester or graphic artists in Glasgow - why should knowing about interest rates and Finnish pulp futures qualify them for that job?

It is a fact, and a deplorable one, that the ruling ethic in Britain is still anti-commercial. As a result, British business leaders - the big shots with six-figure salaries, not the humble managers who do not get offered quangos - are a slightly paranoid bunch. They suffer in exaggerated form the isolation which afflicts any caste seriously committed to making money. They are in society and yet marginal to it - like professional politicians or drug abusers.

In the manner of gamblers, entrepreneurs and financiers tend to act on hunch rather than judgement. High on self-preservation, their empathy for the thoughts and interests of other people can be slight. So, often, is their knowledge about the world outside their own preoccupations; especially in Britain, cupidity and stupidity tend to go together. In short, this group which seems so "materialistic" is actually quite unworldly. How much sagacity - what sense of proportion - do we associate with the following names: Robert Maxwell, Sir Hugh Fraser, Tiny Rowland, Cedric Brown, Lord King? It is true that everybody needs their money, since the taps of public expenditure were turned off, and the courtier-like skills of the fundraiser have become the key profession of the 1990s. But why do we have to get their advice as well? That we do not need.

Their advice, for instance, is that the British national interest requires us to become a low-wage economy. Really? Here it is worth looking at what the Germans - those cunning brutes - think about their own interests. Germany's eastern neighbours are post-Communist states whose labour is at once skilled and cheap. Czech labour costs are about a tenth of Germany's. So the Germans have concluded that lowering wages in order to compete is sheer lunacy. Instead, they will shift much production into the neighbouring countries while retaining high-wage, high added-value work at home. The result, in the long-term, is that Germany will again become hugely competitive as the core of a new central European bloc within the European Union.

Now that is what I call a shrewd calculation of national interest. It is shrewd because it is free of the bone-headed obsession with pushing down wages that blinds British employers. But it is especially smart because it accepts that national interests have become international ones. At the end of the day, as Mr Major likes saying, the British national interest lies in sharing the interests of others.