Brexiteer elite appear to believe the pain of leaving the EU is for the little people
James Dyson and others making moves that will insulate themselves from the damage
James Dyson, founder of the eponymous company, says the decision to relocate its headquarters to Singapore has nothing to do with Brexit. Photograph: Christophe Archambault/AFP/Getty Images
Let’s give James Dyson the benefit of the doubt. Let’s take at face value the assurances issued by his multibillion pound company – whose products involve the generation of hot air – as to why it is relocating its headquarters from Wiltshire to Singapore.
Apparently, it has “nothing to do with Brexit”. What’s more, it’s barely a move at all, since it will see only two people, both top executives, actually moving to Singapore. Dyson will continue to employ 4,000 people in the UK, many of them in research and development, and the relocation is really just about wanting to keep a closer eye on the firm’s investments in Asia. That it chose to do that in Singapore, where companies pay a mere 17 per cent in tax – rather than, say, India or South Korea – is surely pure coincidence.
Let’s accept all that and agree that the Dyson decision is merely symbolic. What’s it symbolic of? First, it’s worth remembering the special place in Britain’s mythology that the company acquired early in its life. Before Dyson, so the story went, we were terrific at inventing bright ideas but rubbish at turning those ideas into profitable businesses. Brits would have the lightbulb moment, but when it came to manufacturing the actual bulbs, that work – and profit – would be shipped far away.
Hypocrisy is emerging as a defining trait of the loudest Brexiteers
Then along came James Dyson, hailed by successive governments, who proved it didn’t have to be that way. A British idea produced a British business. Well, that story has now come full circle. With its headquarters in Singapore, Dyson will no longer be a British firm. Indeed, the chief executive, Jim Rowan, has asked that from now on it be referred to as a “global technology company”.
Second, and for all its protestations to the contrary, Dyson’s decision is inevitably rolled in with all the others that suggest UK companies, and those based here, are now guarding themselves against Brexit, especially a Brexit of the no-deal, crash-out variety. How else are we to interpret Dyson’s admission that it’s moving to Singapore to be “future-proofed”? What future exactly does it wish to be proofed against?
After all, Dyson’s announcement came on the same day that P&O revealed that it will be re-registering its entire cross-channel fleet of ferries under the flag of Cyprus. To their credit, P&O were upfront: they’re doing this because of Brexit. Similarly, Sony is moving its European HQ from London to Amsterdam. Meanwhile, Bentley is stockpiling parts, and Dixons Carphone and Pets at Home are making similar moves. “We don’t want families to run out of food for their pets” after March 29th, the latter company said in a line that, oddly, did not appear on the side of a bus during the 2016 campaign. Again, these firms could not be clearer. In the words of Bentley’s chief executive: “It’s Brexit that’s the killer . . . It would put at fundamental risk our chance of becoming profitable.” Another line that never made it as a Vote Leave slogan.
How apt it is that one of those P&O ferries soon to be flying under the proud colours of Cyprus is called the Spirit of Britain. For this is the spirit now animating alarming numbers of Britain’s captains of industry: with the Brexit iceberg looming, they’ve concluded that they need to find safe harbour somewhere else.
So why then might James Dyson be so coy? Why would he not admit it if he is shipping out to avoid Brexit, rushing to Singapore, whose trade agreement with the EU, signed in October, could well give Dyson better access to European markets than the company would have if it stuck around in no-deal Brexit Britain?
Perhaps he feared the charge of hypocrisy, given that he was one of the few business leaders to back leave, a man who once urged a no-deal exit from the EU, arguing that “they’ll come to us”. And yet had he faced such a charge, he’d have hardly been lonely. For hypocrisy is emerging as a defining trait of the loudest Brexiteers.
Recall the gap between Jacob Rees-Mogg’s position as leader of the European Research Group and his stance as co-founder of, part-time worker for and 15 per cent stakeholder in Somerset Capital Management – which has warned its investors of the dangers of a hard Brexit and which has now set up not one but two funds in Dublin. Recall too the advice from fellow arch-Brexiteer John Redwood, who has a sideline as chief global strategist for the Charles Stanley investment bank, suggesting a year after the Brexit referendum that those with money pull it out of Britain and “look further afield”.
Whether it’s Nigel Farage taking care to ensure two of his children can live, work and travel freely across the EU by having German passports, or Nigel Lawson, who lives in France, taking the precaution of applying for French residency, the pattern is familiar. It suggests a Brexiteer elite who believe that the pain of Brexit is for the little people. They are rich or powerful or connected enough to be insulated from the damage it will cause, making them free to sound off about its supposed benefits in the abstract – sovereignty! control! – while everyone else deals with the grim reality.
So Dyson and his base will be safe in Singapore, leaving Britain to deal with the consequences of the disastrous decision he demanded. With every day the mess of Brexit is becoming clearer, and it will take more than a high-priced vacuum cleaner to clear it up – no matter how much it sucks. – Guardian
Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist