Our world in their hands: The Rover takeover shows that businessmen, not politicians, pull the strings, says David Nicholson-Lord

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WHAT would those old-fashioned backbench Tory knights of the shires, who thought they had cornered the market in patriotism, have made of Tuesday's exchanges in Parliament? The sale of Rover to BMW hadbeen announced. In future, decisions about the jobs of 33,000 Rover car-workers - and another 100,000 in the industries that supply them - will be taken, not in the English Midlands, where most of them live, not even in Farnborough, Hampshire, where their erstwhile proprietors, British Aerospace, are based, but in a tower block in the suburbs of Munich.

Yet it was left to a Labour opposition leader to question the sale while a Conservative prime minister dismissed his objections. John Smith was stuck in the 1960s, said John Major. The Labour leader should 'catch up with the modern world . . . He simply does not understand how free markets work'.

We know how they worked in the Rover case. British Aerospace wanted the profits - around half the pounds 800m sale price - to rationalise, reduce its liabilities and improve its share price. The day after the deal, its shares leapt 55p, a rise of 12 per cent. BMW wanted a base in a low-wage economy. Britain's wage costs are now the lowest of the 10 main car-producing nations, and about half those in Germany. Both the German government and industrialists are worried about the relatively high wages and long holidays of its workers. Last week more than 250,000 German engineering workers staged strikes over plans to cut their salaries by 10 per cent. BMW last year announced the siting of its first car plant outside Germany - in Spartansburg, South Carolina, where wage rates are half those in Germany and there are no trade unions.

So the Rover takeover has cold economic logic behind it. It also represents another small step forward for the free-market global economy, which took a giant stride in December when the Uruguay round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (Gatt) was signed. But it is a decision without ethical content: wider social concerns, beyond the creation of jobs and wealth, do not figure in the calculus. Does it matter? Should we expect anything different?

What Mr Major should have said in his homily to the Labour leader is that this is how free markets operate now. It is doubtful that Adam Smith or David Ricardo, who developed free market theory in the 18th century, would recognise the economic universe of the late 20th century.

In the global market of the 1990s, investment is footloose - BMW had the choice of 250 locations before it alighted on South Carolina - and increasingly free of fancies about loyalty and obligations. Thanks to computers, electronic information highways and round-the-clock trading, capital washes through the world's financial systems at speeds and in volumes that dwarf trade flows, destroy currency systems and undermine governments. Nearly a trillion dollars changes hands on the foreign exchange markets every day.

The market has become the most dominant institution on the planet. Who runs it? Worrying about the influence of multinationals has gone out of fashion - hence, in part, the quiescence surrounding the Rover sale. But industrial concentration and the creation of market monopolies accelerated in the 1980s. The world's largest 350 businesses have combined sales totalling nearly one-third of industrial countries' GNPs. In most industrial sectors, five firms account for at least half the sales. Five hundred firms control two-thirds of world trade.

These are immensely powerful bodies where shareholders' meetings are a travesty of democracy, workers have diminishing rights and public accountability is minimal. But other hands are also on the world's purse strings. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund this year celebrate 50 years of managing the global economy. Like the World Trade Organisation being set up to manage Gatt, these carry far more clout than the merely political institutions of the UN and their mission has been to convert the world to free trade, industrialism and strict economic rectitude. Like the multinationals, they are run by businessmen and economists, operating in an air-conditioned world of hotels and executive travel far removed from those whose lives are affected, for better or worse, by their decisions. Again, like the multinationals, they operate far from the public gaze.

The multinationals reply: so what, as long as we create jobs and wealth? This defence needs close examination. The jobs now being created, both in the UK and the rest of the world, are poorly paid, part-time, less unionised, less secure. There are now almost as many women as men in the UK workforce, largely because the number of male full-time jobs is falling and that of women part-timers, particularly in service industries, is rising. The overall impact of such changes on human well-being can be only guessed at, but if insecurity translates into anxiety - worrying constantly about one's job, turning oneself into a competitive animal to survive at work - then the combination of footloose capital and fickle employment is a recipe for family and social stress.

Wealth is not necessarily synonymous with welfare. Many indicators of social progress - child mortality, age expectancy - have shown continuous improvements since the 1950s. Since this has coincided with a doubling of living standards in the UK, and an elevenfold increase in world trade, we have assumed the two are connected - but it is an unproven and increasingly dubious assumption. The relationship between GNP and happiness, as measured by polls since the 1950s, is non-existent. Britain's experience in the 19th century shows that wealth has to be consciously diverted into welfare - through laws, through taxes, through regulation.

The growth of the free, deregulated market is putting welfare and social stability under pressure throughout the world. A report from Unicef last month blamed the 'shock therapy' of an attempted overnight transformation to capitalism for the descent into social chaos of Eastern Europe; others have pinned the blame squarely on the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. Mexico's uprising was similarly blamed on the reaction by a long-exploited peasantry to the newly-created free trade zone of North America and an IMF-inspired industrialisation programme.

The common thread linking these and other conflicts is a widening gap between the haves and the have-nots. Just about everywhere in the world, income differentials are widening. In Mexico, the 35 richest families own between them as much wealth as the 15 million poorest citizens. Britain's poorest fifth saw its share of national income almost halved during the 1980s.

This is more than a question of simple inequity: income differentials influence health and social stability. According to research by Sussex University, two-thirds of the variations in life expectancy between countries is related to income distribution. Japan shows how attention to employee welfare and avoidance of the extremes of the free market can produce both economic and social progress. Since the 1970s, its income distribution patterns have become among the most egalitarian in the world; its people's life expectancy has also risen. On both counts, Britain's relative position has worsened during the same period. A country such as Brazil, meanwhile, where economic 'success' has produced some of the most skewed income distribution patterns in the world, is a byword for malnutrition and murderousness: here, businessmen employ death squads to rid the streets of children.

The principles of the free market have been elevated into a world order. Welfare - better health, education, social stability - is usually created by government intervention. But governments are increasingly reluctant to risk alienating the international bankers and capitalists who want lower costs and, therefore, minimal employment and environmental regulations as well as lower taxes. Part of the answer must lie in strong multinational political institutions, which can regulate standards and prohibit social and environmental 'dumping', thus balancing the economic, market-driven institutions created by business people. Yet the British ministers who defended the sale of Rover to BMW oppose such institutions, within the European Union at least. Until these are created, Planet Earth plc - a formidable new conglomerate whose regulators have absconded, whose management is all-powerful and whose workforce is dispossessed - seems destined to prosper.

(Photograph omitted)