There comes a moment in British prime ministers’ careers when they feel compelled to get all Churchillian. David Cameron had his at the Confederation of British Industry’s annual conference on 19 November when he – absurdly, insanely – claimed that the UK is “in the economic equivalent of war”.
With the air of a man about to snap on a pair of flying goggles and sprint across a field towards a Spitfire, he added that “in this global race you are either quick or you’re dead”.
Government has to Do Something to ensure that the UK doesn’t become a backwater, the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf like something from Planet of the Apes, with weeds growing through the pavements and wild animals sniffing at the carcasses of commodities traders.
(It’s worth pointing out, for those outside the UK, that this weapons-grade sound bite follows a debacle last week when elections for new police commissioners were held, to widespread apathy – at one polling station, not a single person turned up. It also emerged that another flagship government policy to give people grants to make their homes greener has failed spectacularly. They expected 14 million householders to sign up. The real number? Er, zero.)
So it’s all pretty desperate stuff and probably not to be taken too seriously - especially as in the same speech the PM also accused the EU of “picking the pockets” of British people. The UK does at least 50% of its business with the EU. How you can be pro-business and anti-customer is unclear. But that’s not surprising, because you can be sure that when people start comparing business to war, 50 shades of hooey will follow.
There are a lot of silly books that would have you believe that the battlefield tactics of ancient Chinese generals or the musings of Renaissance diplomats will help you iron out supply-chain problems or glitches in the order-processing software. It’s baloney.
A more sober view than the PM’s was heard from the CBI’s president, Roger Carr, who advises private equity house KKR, is a director of the Bank of England, and has been a chairman of too many business to list. (In other words, he actually knows what makes companies tick).
He urged that despite the ongoing PR campaign to keep the City out of any pan-European regulatory system – regulation, as we all know, being the bane of responsible banking – Britain must not forget “old friends” in Europe.
That’s an interesting word, “friends”. It suggests that doing business is a question of relationships, not fisticuffs. Most businesses probably recognise that far more than the idea of business as war. The original insight of the EU’s founders was that countries which trade together don’t fight each other.
And that’s part of a deeper insight that business and trade are part of a worldview that involves respect for the rule of law and a desire for stability, and which aims for cool, calm, mutually beneficial collaboration. Yes, vulture capitalists exist and aggressive takeovers happen. Yes, some businesses drive others out of existence. But deep down doing business means making peace, not war.