According to today’s Times (£), Liam Fox is worried that British businesses just aren’t up to the challenges of Brexit just yet.
The paper reports his feelings thus: “Britain has grown lazy and fat, with business executives more interested in playing golf on a Friday afternoon than exporting products overseas”.
That’s probably not a helpful view for one of the Cabinet’s business-facing ministers to take, and the paper there are concerns that Dr Fox is setting up business as the fall-guy should his vision of a free-trading, global UK not come off.
But people are entitled to hold whatever private views of British they like. Much more concerning is the following:
“The minister, who is responsible for forging Britain’s place in the world after Brexit, even hinted that companies that did not take advantage of new export opportunities could face sanctions. “If you want to share in the prosperity of our country, you have a duty to contribute to the prosperity of our country,” he said.”
Giving policy expression to those notions is an entirely different matter, and there’s something about the idea Fox is alleged to have floated which is a little creepy.
Imagine it: you’re a private enterprise, catering perfectly happily to the domestic market or perhaps a comfortable and well-established range of overseas customers. Suddenly, the Government comes along and instructs you to put your capital into new export markets. If you don’t, it will punish you.
What’s the term for when the state co-opts and compels private resources for its own ends? It certainly isn’t free-market capitalism or free trade.
Fox isn’t the only member of the Government to manifest this attitude: today’s Daily Mail covers Theresa May’s intention to make fee-paying schools work harder for the state. The underlying assumption, that private combinations of individuals need to justify their existence to the Government, is the same.
(Sometimes you even get business clamouring to be turned into instruments of Government policy, which is a new level of creepy and all the more to be avoided.)
Of course, private schools already take children whose parents have paid all their taxes into the state system out of it, leaving more in the government pot for everyone else, just as those companies who aren’t chomping at the bit to scour the globe for deals will still for the most part generate jobs, tax revenue, and good or services which enhance our lives.
At root, the Trade Secretary is probably right about the challenges that many British businesses may face adapting to the post-EU order of things, and there are all sorts of useful and pro-active ways the Government can reach out to them during the secession period and help get them ready and prime them to launch.
Not only is insulting them obviously unhelpful, but threatening to coerce business into serving state policy is a very different programme than the vision of liberal capitalism that was supposed to animate globally-minded Brexiteers.
In fact, to return to the question posed above, we do have a word for the philosophy Fox is hinting at. To quote the Times again: “Dr Fox also reopened his dispute with the Foreign Office, arguing that it needed to change from having a “cartographer’s view of the world” to a mercantile one.”
This is how Wikipedia describes the mercantile doctrine: “an economic theory and practice… that promoted governmental regulation of a nation’s economy for the purpose of augmenting state power at the expense of rival national powers.”
Sounds not a little like the politically-overburdened EU economy the free traders urged us to leave.