James Dyson’s decision to relocate reveals the hot air blown during Brexit debate
Posh, rich and unaccountable, Dyson seems oddly deaf to the symbolism of his actions
James Dyson’s announcement is more symbolic, and more curious, than any of those shifts
If James Dyson is as enthusiastic about the UK’s prospects when it leaves the European Union as he says he is, he has a funny way of showing it. The billionaire inventor of the bagless vacuum cleaner was one of the few British business people actively and publicly to support Brexit. “We will create more wealth and more jobs by being outside the EU,” he told the Daily Telegraph before the June 2016 referendum.
Yet on Tuesday this Brexit cheerleader announced that he was moving the corporate headquarters of his engineering company from the lovely English town of Malmesbury to the heat and humidity of super-modern Singapore. The shift had nothing to do with Brexit, we were told. Only two employees will be transferring initially, and the move is simply to bring Dyson nearer to the fastest-growing markets for its products.
Fair enough, one might say. Dyson is a private company, and it has a large operation in Singapore already. Its founder is an entrepreneur who created a successful business making must-have consumer goods. He is brilliant at seizing opportunities and spotting new markets. Still, there was some shock at his announcement. Et tu, Sir James? The man himself sent his underlings to do the explaining. Perhaps he was feeling just a little embarrassed.
Tom Enders is under no such constraints. Two days after Dyson’s announcement, the chief executive of Airbus launched a ferocious assault on the prospect of a no-deal Brexit and the recklessness of those pushing for it. Airbus employs 14,000 people across Britain making wings for its planes. His message will have resounded in Downing Street - as well as north Wales, Bristol and other Airbus sites - like the roar of a jet engine.
“Please don’t listen to the Brexiteers’ madness which asserts that because we have huge plants here we will not move and we will always be here,” Enders said in a three-minute video message on the Airbus website. “They are wrong. Make no mistake, there are plenty of countries out there who would love to make the wings for Airbus aircraft.”
There was more corporate bad news for Brexiting Britain this week. P&O, the shipping company, is putting its cross-Channel ferries under the flag of Cyprus. Sony, the Japanese electronics group, will move its European headquarters from London to Amsterdam. Lloyds of London, the fabled insurance market and pillar of the City, is setting up in Brussels. Goldman Sachs says it might invest in places other than London. Meanwhile the Dutch foreign investment agency is reportedly talking to 250 companies based in Britain about possibly relocating to the Netherlands after Brexit. That will not have gone unnoticed at IDA Ireland.
And so the evidence of diminishing corporate confidence in a post-Brexit UK accumulates. The reason is not Brexit per se - it is too late to reverse that now, and most British companies may be reconciled to the inevitable or not directly affected by it. Nor are the chief executives of these companies threatening to quit the UK. As Enders said, Airbus is not about to pick up and leave on the day after Brexit.
The message is more subtle: that if Britain leaves the single market and customs union, it will become a less attractive place to invest in than it is today. This is what Brexit’s political cheerleaders do not appreciate. Some of them attack the messengers. Yet Enders’ voice, or Sony’s, is as legitimate in the Brexit debate as that of Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Tory MP and leader of the Brexit cult. After all, Somerset Capital Management, which Rees-Mogg co-founded, has set up Brexit-related entities in Dublin.
Yet Dyson’s announcement is more symbolic, and more curious, than any of those shifts. His support for Brexit was the culmination of a long souring of his attitude to the EU. He was once an enthusiast for the UK to join the euro. Otherwise, he argued, British manufacturers would be unable to compete with their German and French rivals in the European consumer goods market.
Later, Dyson moved the manufacturing of his vacuum cleaners from Wiltshire to Malaysia, at the cost of several hundred British jobs. Later still, he became involved in a grinding legal battle with his German competitors, which concerned how the EU’s energy efficiency regulations for vacuum cleaners are carried out. Dyson won that case - in the European Court of Justice, the institution now so hated by the ardent Brexiters.
But that did not satisfy him. Now all of Dyson’s manufacturing is based in south east Asia, and he plans to build an electric car there, targeting the Chinese market. Again, fair enough. In the global economy, corporate entities are moveable. But if Dyson can move abroad because it spots better opportunities overseas, why cannot Airbus move too if it sees threats at home?
Posh, rich and unaccountable, Dyson seems oddly deaf to the symbolism of his actions. It is not his move to Singapore that ought to grate with his fellow Britons, but the sense of entitlement that lies behind it.