Saturday 10 September 2016

Liam Fox's speech on British business

Liam Fox, the minister responsible for post-Brexit international trade, has created controversy in a speech in which he castigated British business for being insufficiently export-oriented, which he ascribed to it having become “too lazy and fat”, resting on previous achievements. Too many executives prefer an easy life playing golf rather than seeking exports, according to Fox. Which makes him wonder “what is the point of us going out and looking for new markets for the United Kingdom”?

It was a strange speech for a trade minister seeking to make deals to make, as it hardly paints a positive picture of UK businesses. And a particularly strange speech for a Brexiter to make. After all, their claim during the referendum campaign was that ‘buccaneering’ British businesses needed only to be set free from the ‘shackles’ of Brussels to take the world by storm. On the other hand, since Brexit has created highly uncertain trading conditions for British businesses in their biggest market and beyond, it seems through a referendum result that most businesses cautioned against, it seems at the least tactless. One interpretation is that Fox is ‘getting his excuses in early’. Given what is acknowledged by most experts to be the near impossibility of the quick, good trade deals that the Brexiters promised, perhaps Fox is getting ready to blame the failure of Brexit on others?

The speech also underlines the fragility of the politics of the UK’s post-Brexit government. Only a few days after the Prime Minister had to disown the comments of the Minister for Brexit about the single market as ‘expressing a personal view’, she had to do the same about Fox’s speech. It’s the third time in two months that May has disowned something that Fox has said. And the speech also contained a renewed criticism of his Brexiter cabinet colleague, Boris Johnson. Small wonder that a columnist in the Brexit-inclined Daily Telegraph recently suggested that Fox “is a ticking time bomb” in May’s cabinet. And this is not just about personalities: it reflects the fact that there was and is no consensus amongst Brexiters about what post-Brexit Britain looks like.

However, I am more interested in the less-reported parts of Fox’s speech. For in it he also insists that “we must be unreconstructed, unapologetic free traders”. This is an important statement because during the referendum, a vote to leave was portrayed as a chance to reverse the impact of globalization, and the leave vote itself has been widely portrayed as the revolt of those dispossessed and left behind by globalization. Indeed the left-wing case against the EU – subscribed to by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn – was precisely that. But as Fox’s remarks in this speech – along with his support for TTIP, opposition to which was another plank of the left-wing Brexit case – show, those leading Brexit are not in the business of protectionism.

So just as those who voted for Brexit on the grounds that it would yield £350M a week for the NHS have been misled, so too have those who imagined that it dealt a blow to neo-liberalism. It’s an unusual achievement to make a speech which alienates both right-wing business elites and left-wing anti-globalization activists, but Fox has managed just that.

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