Liam Fox ranks among the chief fantasists behind Brexit, deplores gay marriage as “social engineering”, and thinks nothing of claiming 3p from taxpayers for a car journey of less than 100m. But even a snake-oil salesman sometimes speaks the truth and in criticising British business as “too lazy and too fat on our successes”, he has a point.
I know, I know. Why defend a Tory headbanger who otherwise thirsts for cuts to the NHS budget and the slashing of taxes upon the rich? Why entertain lectures from someone whose only attempt at job creation was the boondoggle he shamelessly awarded his former best man?
Yet when the international trade secretary says, “If you want to share in the prosperity of our country, you have a duty to contribute to the prosperity of our country”, I fail to muster up the outrage. I share neither Fox’s views on the causes nor his suggestions on the solution. But he is on to something.
For the past six years, the Tory party has barely paused from laying into British workers. From Iain Duncan Smith to George Osborne, senior ministers wrote off a sizeable chunk of this country as “skivers”. The screws were twisted so hard that jobseekers who decline zero-hours contracts are now penalised with benefit sanctions.
And the Tories did all this with the simpering connivance of Nick Clegg’s LibDems. If you think that era ended with David Cameron, remember that Theresa May’s cabinet boasts luminaries who wrote a report stating: “Too many people in Britain … prefer a lie-in to hard work. Once they enter the workplace, the British are among the worst idlers in the world.”
Ever since 2010, the Tories have tried to pin the blame for economic sluggishness on the shirking Brits. At the same time, their ministers have boasted, with all the regularity of a cuckoo clock, about how the number of British people in work is now at a record high. As a matter of logic, both things cannot be true. The British cannot be both workshy and working more than ever before. The Tories have been fibbing – and at last one of their number has come out and said as much.
The real problem in Britain isn’t its workers: it’s the bosses. By this, I’m not getting at the poor old line managers. I mean those right at the top of big business who have got away with paying themselves too much and investing too little in their workers, their businesses and their society.
Consider pay. While the average British worker is barely better off than in 2008, wages for those at the top of British business have just kept soaring. Researchers at the High Pay Centre recently went through the accounts of the FTSE 100 largest companies. They found that chief executives raked in an average of £5.5m in 2015, up 10% from the year before.
Bung in the lavish pension arrangements and generous bonuses and the average chief executive now earns the same as 129 of their employees. There is no justification for such a wide disparity: no one is as productive as 129 other people. We have gone beyond “Because I’m Worth It” to “Because I Said So” (and my mates on the remuneration committee backed me up). Even when shareholders revolt, as happened at BP over the £14m handed out to its chief executive despite huge losses, they are roundly ignored.
The TUC has just crunched the numbers on how much investment the private sector makes in this country. Of the 29 leading industrialised countries, the UK comes in at 27. Businesses in Estonia, the Czech Republic, Poland: all invest more in plants, equipment and the rest. The only countries that do worse are Greece and Iceland.
We have the same calamitous showing in spending on research and development. A few years ago, the Sheffield University physicist Prof Richard Jones went through the figures. He wrote: “In 1979 the UK was one of the most research-intensive economies in the world. Now, among advanced industrial economies, it is one of the least.” All of our competitors – the US, Japan, France and Germany – have maintained or increased their spending on research. South Korea and China are breathing down our necks. But the British capitalist class prefers the safe bets, the quick bucks – and the mega handouts to the senior executives and the shareholders.
Vice chairman of Stronger In campaign calls off Liam Fox after saying is Britain ‘fat and lazy’
Friday afternoons on the golf course? Fox may have watched one too many episodes of Terry and June. But what’s clear is that Britain’s bosses pay themselves far more than is justified either by comparison with their workers or on their performance. They have spent years relying on taxpayers to top up poverty pay and on the regulators to allow pensions holidays – just so they could hand out more money to shareholders.
They take what academic Kevin Farnsworth estimates at £93bn a year in corporate welfare – cash handouts and subsidies. But they react with horror to the notion of decent wages or chipping in for apprenticeships, rather than treating them as the normal overheads of doing business in a developed country. If that’s not fat and lazy, I don’t know what is.
Of course there are good and non-greedy bosses. But I have spent six years hearing the view that the British are lazy spongers with barely a demurral from most of the media or the political classes. It is high time to push the pendulum back a little.
Fox sees the answer to all this as more slash and burn: of taxes, of red tape, of public spending. That is delusional. Britain has spent 40 years making the burden on business easier, and the results have been to create a capitalist class so sluggish and short-term that it now threatens the continuation of capitalism.
Better, by far, to have a more honest capitalism: in which the responsibilities of business – on taxes, on pay and on investment – are laid out alongside their rights.