Unlike the boss, I thought Liam Fox’s comments on fat and lazy British businesses that could be exporting more but aren’t because, well, an afternoon on the golf course is more comfortable than striving for Britain were deplorable. But they were also telling.
Because they were a further confirmation that the United Kingdom now has a nationalist government. The liberal Toryism of the Cameron era is gone, sunk with a whimper in record time. In its place is a Conservative nationalism that envisages SS Britannia buccaneering its way across the world’s oceans. This, after all, was the animating spirit of what we might call the Brexit campaign’s more cheerful wing. Well, it’s a nice idea even if it’s also one that, despite its apparent thrusting modernity (Out and Into the World and all that jazz) is also tinged with a certain nostalgia.
But then that is the way with nationalism; it simplifies things wonderfully. That’s one of the reasons it is always so appealing. Us good; them bad. Worse than that, however, is the manner in which nationalism appropriates everything for itself. You do not toil for your own good and advancement. No, you labour on behalf of the state itself. And if you do not contribute to that great national project you are shirking your duty. Tellingly, it’s always the little men who insist upon this.
There’s no need to take my word for that. Just ask Dr Liam Fox:
‘We’ve got to change the culture in our country. People have got to stop thinking about exporting as an opportunity and start thinking about it as a duty. Companies who could be contributing to our national prosperity but choose not to because it might be too difficult or too time-consuming or because they can’t play golf on a Friday afternoon. We’ve got to be saying to them: if you want to share in the prosperity of our country, you have a duty to contribute to the prosperity of our country.’
Oh really? Companies have many duties of care and obligation. To themselves, firstly, but also to their shareholders (if such exist), their employees and the communities in which they operate. But, beyond paying their taxes, they have precisely zero obligation to this or any other bloody government.
Do you think you have a duty to serve the government or further its ambitions? Of course you don’t (or at least you shouldn’t). In like fashion, no corporate entity is obliged to please Dr Liam Fox. His happiness should be reckoned a happy but accidental by-product or consequence of companies acting in their own interests.
This is not a war-time, all hands to the pump, emergency. It would be a very good thing if Brexit proves a success but if it isn’t it won’t be because British business is too fat and too lazy to make a go of it. It will be because of other things, most of them beyond the control of even the great Dr Fox. (Still, it’s interesting to see how the blame is already being shifted, just in case Brexit does not deliver us unto the sunlit uplands. If that proves the case – as one hopes it does not – it won’t be because the Brexiteers miscalculated. Oh no, it will be because of someone else. Rotten foreigners, perhaps, or feckless businesses too golf-addicted to recognise the glorious opportunities before them.)
Of course, some exporting companies will do very well this year. Devaluing your currency tends to have that effect. But one reason why Britain exports less than other EU countries is because, more than most EU countries, Britain’s strengths lie in services. For years British governments have argued that the common market must be completed and made a true single market in services as well as goods. That process remained maddeningly incomplete (one of the many legitimate criticisms of the EU) but, from the perspective of British service industries, leaving the EU ensures that it never will be. Exporting becomes harder when you shut yourself out of your nearest and largest markets. Yes, there are new opportunities elsewhere; they will have to pay-off handsomely to compensate for the likely increased cost of doing business closer to home.
Granted, governments are always chivvying everyone to do more and always hectoring the populace. But the old saw, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country is a repellant piece of work nonetheless. It gets matters precisely the wrong way round. We elect governments to serve us in the organisation and provisioning of public goods. That done we ask for little, save for the occasional moment of piece and quiet. A government that insists upon shoving its people around – as every nationalist government does – is a burdensome thing indeed.
It’s a strange sort of liberation that insists upon increasing the duties we, as individuals, owe to the state. The Brexit movement was, in part, a reaction against being shoved around by others; now that the Brexiteers are in charge they have discovered the joy of shoving themselves. That should not surprise. It’s what nationalist governments demand and Britain now has its most nationalist government in decades.