Chris Grayling is MP for Epsom and Ewell, and Secretary of State for Transport.
Be careful what you wish for… Almost every time that something goes wrong with a business linked to the public sector, the Labour Party today shouts “nationalise”.
It’s a long way from the days of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, who for all their failings at least recognised that business and jobs were integrally linked, and that we need to support business if our economy is to succeed.
Such attitudes are a world away from the political universe that Jeremy Corbyn and his team operate in today. They want a socialist-style planned economy, to confiscate the assets of private business, and to take large parts of our economy into government control.
Now let’s be clear. Business sometimes gets it wrong, and badly so. It also sometimes behaves completely inappropriately, and worse. As Justice Secretary, I had to refer two of Britain’s biggest companies to the Serious Fraud Office. As Transport Secretary, I am dealing with a major firm that overbid for a contract – though contrary to the Labour Party’s claims, we have not agreed any “bail out”.
It’s very difficult to defend some executive pay packages as well. There can be no excuse for the massive salaries of some housebuilding bosses at the same time as they are trying to use the freehold and leasehold system to squeeze every last penny they can out of homebuyers.
But only those who do not want to learn from history would argue that the state can do things better. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, when the state owned large parts of the economy, we saw an endless stream of heavy losses and failure – and very poor customer service.
In those days, all telephone services were provided by first the Post Office and then British Telecom. You could only get one type of phone, and it took months to order one. The public water companies presided over a crumbling sewerage network. The government ran truck companies, car makers, ports, airlines, railways, and many more businesses.
And most had one thing in common: they were starved of investment.
Because all the money had to come from Government. Private companies can borrow privately and deliver better services from the investment that results. By contrast the public sector had to scrabble for cash from the resources that the Treasury could fund each year. An annual competition for money to pay for schools, hospitals, defence equipment and so on. There was never enough to go around.
So innovation in the car industry was rare, and it fell rapidly behind its international competitors. I remember television reports at the time showing the state of the water infrastructure and how it was literally falling to pieces. British Rail closed lines, and ran trains that grew older and older – or it occasionally made up cheap and cheerful replacements.
Contrast that with today. Take the water industry. The Thames Tideway project is a multi-billion pound project to expand London’s sewer system. It comes after twenty years of upgrades to tackle the years of decline and decay. Without the Tideway, London’s sewers would not be able to cope with the capital’s growth. But it’s questionable that five years ago, with all the funding pressures on Government, it could have been afforded from the public purse.
Likewise on the railways. The private sector is currently in the process of replacing trains right across the network, including the multi-billion pound inter-city express programme. The first of the new trains are already operating from London to Cardiff, Swansea and Bristol, and they will soon arrive in the North and Scotland. If the Treasury had been forced to pay itself, at the same time of financial pressure, it’s hard to see that the programme would be going ahead in its current form.
All this at a time when a nationalised energy system would have had to pay for a huge investment in renewables, taking us to the point where on many occasions in the past year more than half our electricity generation has come from such sources.
It’s easy to claim that you can just borrow, borrow, borrow to pay for everything, and somehow it will all be alright on the night. But it wasn’t last time. It was a period where large parts of the economy struggled for a lack of investment and with old-fashioned technology. With high unemployment and poor job prospects.
As Conservatives we need to make this point again and again to a generation of voters who did not experience it, and who may be tempted by a concept that seems laced with motherhood and apple pie.
We need to stand up to big business when it behaves badly. But if we become anti-business as a nation, we will all pay a heavy price.