There’s a political vacuum and we can’t let Nigel Farage fill itby John McTernan / December 1, 2016 / Leave a comment
The business of America is business, said US President Calvin Coolidge. Now, more than at any other time, this needs to be adopted as the watchword of British companies. After the Brexit vote, there was a profound lack of political leadership. Space in politics never goes unfilled and leadership was—briefly, disconcertingly, but significantly—taken by Nigel Farage. The same phenomenon was observable immediately after the US elections. With the British political classes paralysed by a mixture of shock and grief, it was Farage who crossed the Atlantic to become the first foreign politician to meet President-Elect Donald Trump.
It is the great strength of politics that it allows us to dream of different possibilities. It becomes a weakness when those dreams become a denial of reality. Brexit means Brexit may be a mockable tautology But it affirms a truth—Britain is leaving the European Union. Similarly, Donald Trump is going to be inaugurated. No amount of opining, blogging, and tweeting will change that. If the only meaningful political leadership is going to come from Nigel Farage then Britain needs to look wider. The obvious place to look is business.
Ever since Theresa May became Prime Minister there has been a restless search for a theme by which to govern. First there was the reheated Milibandism of her speech in Downing Street, which made many people think the theme was going to be social justice. That was dumped when expanding grammar schools was revealed as an ambition. Then there was her conference speech which latched onto industrial strategy as the central aim—with a kick at those rootless cosmopolitans who have been the greatest entrepreneurs down the years.
Finally, a strategy is being sketched out, in an article and a speech to the CBI and in the forthcoming Autumn Statement. At its heart is a 5 per cent increase in R&D spending by 2020. Not exactly a cry that resounds: “What do we want? A modest rise in R&D spending! When do we want it? Gradually!” Oh, and there will be the re-announcement of infrastructure spending, with the breathless briefing that these are “shovel-ready,” as if we still live in the age of the navvy.
It is disappointing that politicians cannot speak coherently about business growth. Governments spend the proceeds of growth but they don’t create it—individuals and businesses do, often in spite of the best efforts of government. That is why we need business to lead. What Britain needs is hope and optimism. A sense of where we are going, and that we can make it. Many mocked Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again,” seeing it as a rejection of the present rather than an embrace of the future. The truth, though, is that the financial crisis rocked many ordinary people’s faith in the future.
Leaders are not to mock or question that feeling, but to harness the desire for something better. Pride is a huge energy and it comes in large part from doing things, the right things, and doing them well. That pride needs to be harnessed to a greater purpose: making Brexit a success. There is no alternative. It is happening. How, though, to take leadership. Well, businesses spend millions to gain small market shares—and the biggest one available today is the 52 per cent of voters who believe in backing Britain. That’s 17m people, plus the millions who voted Remain who now want to make Brexit work. It’s the biggest untapped market in the UK and the prize will go to the first movers, the companies who are proud to be British.
How can they do this? Wrap themselves in the flag. William Gibson once wisely observed that the future is here—it’s just unevenly distributed. Go into any supermarket in Scotland and you will see that they are slaves to the saltire. Meat, vegetables and dairy products are all proudly Scottish. There is no bar to British beef being so proudly identified. Agriculture is, of course, a small part of our economy—however powerful it is symbolically. The trick is to stretch the branding to everything we make—manufacturing and services alike. But perhaps the major task is to stop being embarrassed of the union flag—that most powerful of global brands. We don’t have to invent a new symbol for “Made in Britain/Making Britain Great” we have it already in red, white and blue. We just have to abandon the elite distaste for the flag. It’s been done once already with the patriotic embrace of the St George’s Cross by England football supporters. It can be—and must—be done again. As ever, who dares wins.