Tory party should rekindle its warmth for business

Theresa May’s attitude to markets amounts to the intellectual self-disarmament of her party

British prime minister Theresa May: it is not that she has ever had much interest or enthusiasm for the market-liberal side of Conservatism. Photograph: Eddie Mulholland/AFP/Getty Images

British prime minister Theresa May: it is not that she has ever had much interest or enthusiasm for the market-liberal side of Conservatism. Photograph: Eddie Mulholland/AFP/Getty Images

 

Capitalism’s worst doings bring it into disrepute but so, in a roundabout way, do its best. An attractive feature of the latest boom was corporate social responsibility, also known as corporate citizenship or, gratingly, corporate conscience. Business aspired to good conduct that went beyond the formal demands of the law. The legacies are tangible in sponsored galleries, mentored children and ethically sourced supply-chain inputs.

The perverse (and unavoidable) byproduct was the tacit concession of a premise: that the normal operation of business does no good. It must therefore be offset by acts of benevolence. The employment of people and the creation of useful products were treated as givens. Business, even law-abiding business, became something to be morally hedged against, not saluted for its innate value.

Ten years into a reputational beating that takes in the crash, egregious tax arrangements and the recent fall of Carillion, a construction company, British business feels as friendless as it has for a while. The people who would ordinarily make the case for it from first principles, the Tories, are meeker on the subject than they have been since the pre-Thatcher era of gentlemanly corporatism and managed national decline.

The blame does not start and end with Theresa May, who became leader of the party only 18 months ago. By then, anti-EU Tories had already won a referendum with arguments that focused on the disruptive effects of open markets, and the untrustworthiness of “fat cats” who campaigned for Remain. They should not feign surprise that voters still take them at their word.

Nor did May have much choice but to serve as a friendly critic of capitalism when she took over. After three liberal decades and a slow economic recovery, the electorate ranged from those who were open to change to those who craved it.

Traditionalist sensibility

The trouble is that “friendly critic” is too tame a description of the role she has performed. It is not clear that May has ever had much interest or enthusiasm for the market-liberal side of Conservatism. Some of this is down to career events beyond her control (she was never given a business-facing portfolio in government or opposition), but the rest is her own traditionalist sensibility.

There was more than tactics about her froideur with business in her first year. It reflected her own instincts. In a home secretary, this is no great problem, even if the treasury found it a nuisance. In a prime minister, especially one governing at this fraught hour for business, it amounts to the intellectual self-disarmament of the Tories.

May can only be who she is. Her taste for a familiar, ordered society over a wildly entrepreneurial one is not just legitimate, it carries much of the nation, even if she herself does not. All the same, her colleagues have to decide whether the Tory party, or indeed the cause of capitalism in the UK, can afford her eventual successor to be quite so ambivalent about markets.

Either answer is respectable. The Tories might see their future as a Christian Democrat-style party, and Britain’s as a more statist economy. In which case, a better version of May would match the leadership brief nicely. If not – and I cannot count the number of MPs and donors who would flinch at such a vision of the future – then the party has to choose its next leader accordingly. Without being doctrinaire, he or she should have a liberal-ish take on economics, some experience of business or a business-relevant brief and, more than anything, a desire to rouse the cause out of its defensive crouch.

Entire idea

At the moment, the Tories think they will be choosing the leader of a political party. In truth, they will be choosing the face and voice of an entire idea. The challenge is for business lobbies, too, which have to examine whether august old vehicles with names as stiff as the Confederation of British Industry and the Institute of Directors cut it at a time when capitalism has to scrap for its reputational keep.

Some businesses deserve their infamy. But others are socially responsible even before they are Socially Responsible. Whoever emerges to make this mislaid case might find a receptive audience. It is not true, as is sometimes suggested, that the passage of time alone has blinded Britain to its last experience of corporatism.

The 1970s are a long time ago but so is non-universal healthcare, and there is no great clamour to try that again. People have withdrawn their implicit trust in one economic model without really committing to another. If Tories want to win them back for capitalism, May was always a strange choice of leader. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018

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