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Read all about it! The hidden threat that's been obvious for 30 years
on 18 January 2013
I've noticed something about books written by journalists. They tend to have a larger format than standard paperbacks, are generally printed in bigger typeface, and each page only runs to about 340 words, compared with about 420. `Britain for Sale' would therefore make a rather slender standard paperback of about 200 pages. A flashy slightly frothing red-top-type cover, a bit of playing around with line spacing, fonts and margins, and conveniently forgetting that the 15-page index could be compressed into half that space if it were typeset smaller - just right for this selective skim over Britain's manufacturing victimology of the past few decades.
And the point about journalists? Well, they tend to write in newspaper-length paragraphs, particularly if they write for the Daily Mail, as Alex Brummer is currently. The paragraphs would look very short indeed if printed in standard paperback format. All this is speculation, but I wonder if anyone else has noticed the phenomenon (there are wonderful exceptions, for example Larry Elliott of the Guardian, but his articles are always notable essays to begin with; writers who can think book-length can become good journalists, but the converse is rarely true).
Minutiae apart, (and as MadMax31 much more concisely expressed it in a recent review) Brummer arbitrarily and sentimentally centres his tale around the malevolent takeover of `iconic' Cadbury, manufacturer of all that sort-of chocolate, by Kraft, the manufacturer of sort-of cheese. A highly successful and brave British company with multiple brands and a great moral core, we are told, that was pitilessly pursued by a slightly less successful company with multiple brands and no ethics. The excessive narrative detail, such as the touch-down time of the Kraft CEO's private jet, may read well in sequential newspaper reports of the day-to-day jostling that always occurs with these takeovers. But we need a much bigger picture for a book.
So, that bigger picture is frustratingly missing, and in his many omissions and casual elisions, one suspects that Mr Brummer has an eye to his continuing future employment with the Daily Mail, arch-supporter, you'll remember, of the `Tell Sid' cut-price hive-offs of the 80s that started this whole dismal process; we get the chronology but not a lot besides, other than the barely believable subtitle of the book: British Companies in Foreign Hands - the Hidden Threat to our Economy. Hidden? Where has he been since 1980? His crashingly banal final paragraph implies that Thatcher's magnificent `revolution' had as a mere side effect the pendulum swinging against British business that was then cranked up by Blair and the current coalition. He is profoundly wrong: the demise of British business was a primary vindictive aim of tooth-and-claw neoliberal Thatcherism. However, among the light-touch banalities, he does provide a few good quotes. Try this one, from the Chairman of ICI when it was being hounded by NobelAkzo in 2007:
I did float the idea ... to the civil service whether anyone in the government or in the upper reaches of Whitehall had any kind of policy on protecting British companies. The answer came back: `Absolutely not. We don't feel in any way that it's part of a government's job to protect ICI or anybody else from a foreign takeover. We're interested in jobs [really?] but we're not interested in who owns the company'.
What we need, then, is not another narrative of Britain's manufacturing base going down the swannee (which as Larry Elliot in Going South persuasively argues has been occurring for the past century or more: this is just the accelerated terminal phase); we need a coherent story of why it happened so completely here, and, except for the USA, almost nowhere else. To me it seems there has been a trio of 30-year slow-motion train crashes. The UK and USA were the first to capitulate to every raw, unadorned tenet of Thatcher-Reagan neoliberalism, which demanded that everything deemed inefficient, even if eminently retrievable, and especially if nationalised, must go to the free enterprise wall. Then, and associated with second-wave Blair-Clinton neoliberalism, we moved equally enthusiastically into our current extreme form of hectoring moralistic neoconservativism, associated with uncritical and mandatory compliance with every demand emerging from government and its hugely more tentacular quangocracy. Brummer tones even this down to the barely critical: `The British mentality is to take EU directives at face value; the European mentality is to interpret them according to national interests'. Unwittingly, he nails the point in this feeble sentence: other than narrow jingoism, we - people, government and especially the commercialised and politicised civil service - have lost any sense of long-term national interest, and have lost the will and ability to ring-fence anything, apart from the revolving door in and out of the private sector. We still have the pitiful and transparent charades: Brummer and many others describe laughable verbal raps over the knuckles issued by toothless organisations like the Mergers Commission and the terminally enfeebled Takeover Panel that like every other potentially vigorous and independent body have been absorbed into the self-serving gong-seeking quangocracy. I'm sure the very thought of receiving a fax from such imperious bodies makes the venture capitalists very quake in their leather private-jet seats.
It's been a lost cause for 20 years, and Brummer's blend of misty-eyed soft-focus consumerist hokum with an heroic battle for Britain roll-call of clichés (`The bid battle lines were now drawn and Cadbury's public relations machine roared into action') tells us nothing about why, having dumped Wedgwood, for example, we can't even raise the money to keep its legacy collection intact, and soon the only places we will be able to marvel at this astonishing phenomenon at the heart of the industrial revolution will be the V&A and British Museum (and of course eBay), while the pottery and glass industries of Germany thrive and create (and they make their own cutlery as well). Bemoaning our wretched fate as the hapless battling victims of other countries' perfidy doesn't cut it when we were in the vanguard of deregulation and the other neoliberal precepts that had industrial implosion as a necessary accompaniment, and we now urgently need a great polymath economic historian to write the 1000 page footnoted corrective that could straighten the record. But the only person to have the guts and intellect to write it - Keynes - is long gone, and the other possibles are mostly staying shtum in first class in the privatised gravy train while day-dreaming of perpetually revolving doors.