Gordon Brown was serious yesterday about creating an environment for "business
dynamism" like that of the United States, he could do no better than to champion
the entrepreneurial work of Conwy Council in North Wales. Conwy has done as all
business people advocate, and turned its liabilities into assets.
every local authority in Britain, it was faced with demands for money it did not
possess. Among its liabilities were a secondary school in Llandudno in urgent
need of modernisation, and a piece of land which no one wanted to buy. In the
best business tradition, it has decided to resolve its two problems into a
single opportunity. Rather than rebuilding the school on its existing site, it
will sell the property to the superstore chain Asda/Walmart, for a rumoured
pounds20 million, and move the school onto the unwanted land.
land is unwanted because part of it is a toxic tip. It contains arsenic,
mercury, lead, cadmium, asbestos and, according to the Environment Agency,
"explosive levels of methane". Interestingly, the council justifies its decision
to move the school on the grounds of health and safety: it would be dangerous,
it claims, for children to go to classes on the old site while their buildings
were being renovated. While dumping the school on a toxic tip is better for the
children’s health, selling the old site to Walmart will allow US business
dynamism to flourish, sweeping away the unamerican economy sustained by
Llandudno’s scores of small shops.
Though Mr Brown may not be aware of Conwy’s luminous example, the press
conference he held yesterday suggests that we’re likely to see rather more
entrepreneurship of this kind: Labour, he announced, will change the planning
laws to make the approval of major developments "quicker and easier".
means, of course, less time for such old-fashioned activities as public
consultation. The government has already proposed that special "orders" should
be issued, authorising big developments without the need for "unnecessary
speculation and debate at … planning inquiries": the issues, its consultation
paper suggests, should be "settled" before the public has the chance to
interfere. Business, on the other hand, will be helped by the government "to
become more closely involved in the planning process."
shouldn’t be too surprised to see among the signatories of a letter in the Times
yesterday, exhorting the British electorate to vote Labour, the former chief
executive of Asda/Walmart, Allan Leighton. His sentiments are shared, the letter
shows us, by the heads of arms, construction and private health corporations, as
well as the chairman of Kelda, one of the UK’s most controversial water
companies, which last year sought to transfer pounds1.4 billion of debt to its
customers. If I had supporters like this, I would ask them to keep quiet about
it. Instead, determined to prove that it is "economically competent", Labour is
showing off its new friends at every opportunity. Tony Blair’s first public
engagement since launching the election campaign was a meeting yesterday with
business people in Coventry.
Labour’s problem, in seeking to persuade big business not to defect to the
Tories, is that it has already given away just about everything it can lay hands
on. Britain, Gordon Brown has boasted, now has "the lowest rate in the history
of British corporation tax, the lowest rate of any major country in Europe and
the lowest rate of any major industrialised country anywhere, including Japan
and the United States." Corporate executives have been appointed to the cabinet
and hundreds of quangos. Most of the assets of the state are quietly being
privatised by means of the private finance initiative. The better regulation
taskforce, which was supposed to defend workers and consumers from the erosion
of standards by big business lobbying, has been handed to the head of Northern
the more they take, the more the corporations seem to want. On Sunday, Digby
Jones, director-general of the CBI, warned that the lowest corporate taxes in
the industrialised world are so onerous that British companies might soon start
moving abroad. "The UK planning system," he charged, "is failing the country at
every level". He’s right, of course, but for the opposite reasons to the ones he
cites. But, as JK Galbraith observed, "the complaints of the privileged are too
often confused with the voice of the masses". The government remains convinced
that what is good for Asda/Walmart is good for all of us.
political costs of corporate power are subtle, diffuse and momentous. It is
impossible to be the party of both big business and big ideas. Retaining the
confidence of the corporations means curtailing attempts at social reform and
environmental protection. It means managing change, rather than initiating it.
Above all it means excluding from the political agenda most of the key areas of
inconsequential issue of saving the planet is confined to the political margins.
When even the government’s feeble climate change levy is condemned as a
disproportionate assault on business, then any talk about eliminating fossil
fuels entirely must be stifled before it begins. Lionel Jospin’s new proposal
for a European rate of corporation tax would prevent companies from threatening,
as Digby Jones has done, to leave the country unless taxes are further reduced.
But it has to be dismissed before it can even be discussed.
private finance initiative, which almost everyone in politics privately agrees
is a disaster, is out of bounds. No one in government dares to question the
creeping privatisation of our schools, the corporate sponsorship of the police,
domination of agricultural policy by the National Farmers’ Union, the
Competition Commission’s failure to regulate the superstores, the construction
companies’ grip on the department of environment, or the quiet agreement
formulated by Tony Blair and Bill Clinton to reduce all regulations on either
side of the Atlantic to the lowest common denominator.
keep faith with the corporations, the government has had to gag itself and gag
our representatives. The control freakery of Number 10, the liberal use of the
whip and the refusal to ban the private funding of political parties all testify
to the power of big business. This diplomatic silence spreads inexorably to the
press: if an issue does not divide the parties, it’s of no interest to
is, in other words, a conflict between the business dynamism of the kind that
Gordon Brown seeks to encourage and the political dynamism which guarantees the
survival of a democratic system. The key electoral choice we should be making
when we go to the polls next month — the choice between democracy and
plutocracy — will not be presented to us by the major parties. We can vote out
the management, but we can’t vote out the firm.