Who Runs Britain?

I nominate the CBI.

Essay for the Today programme, BBC Radio 4, 15th December 2005

If Jesus Christ were to return to earth and the beast that ascendeth out of the bottomless pit were to slay the greater part of mankind, the first thing the media would do would be to find out how the markets had reacted. The next would be to ring Sir Digby Jones, the head of the Confederation of British Industry, for a comment.

The CBI is usually described as a “lobby group”. But this reveals a misunderstanding of its relationship with the government. Today the government lobbies the CBI. Every public event the bosses’ trade union hosts is attended by a senior minister, usually either the Prime Minister or the Chancellor of the Exchequer. They come on bended knee to ask permission to stay in office.

Last year Gordon Brown told the CBI’s annual conference, “the whole country recognises and thanks you – the business leaders of our country – for your hard work, your resilience and your courage”. He went on to promise that “we can forge a new consensus – government and business together” and foresaw “a Britain where the whole country is committed to enterprise and flexibility.” Can you imagine the Chancellor of the Exchequer grovelling like this to any other special interest group? The unions? The environmentalists? The Church of England? I don’t think so.

At this year’s annual conference Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Alastair Darling, David Davis, David Cameron, even Ken Livingstone competed for the post of Sir Digby’s best friend. They took turns to try to persuade the CBI that they will go furthest in putting the bosses’ interests ahead of everyone else’s.

In doing so, they ensure that the Confederation of British Industry sets the limits for political action in this country. Britain has a disastrous record of regulatory failure when it comes to defending the health and safety of our workers or protecting the environment. But at this year’s CBI conference Tony Blair promised to water down the rules even more, to keep Sir Digby’s members happy. Britain, as Gordon Brown has boasted, has the lowest rate of corporation tax in history, and a lower rate than any other major industrialised country. Yet the CBI never stops whinging that our business taxes are too high, and will soon drive the entire economy overseas, and no one dares challenge it. Sir Digby blamed everyone but the bosses for the pensions crisis, and lobbied fiercely to prevent the introduction of compulsory contributions from the employers. The government responded by appointing Lord Turner to decide what should best be done. Lord Turner is Sir Digby’s predecessor at the CBI.

Every so often, the Confederation announces that the government, having failed to abase itself sufficiently, is in danger of losing what it calls “the business vote”. Of course, business doesn’t have a vote, but it does control most of the country’s media. The newspapers amplify everything Sir Digby says, and a government prepared to resist his demands, however outrageous, needs be a very brave government indeed. That would not be an accurate description of the current administration.

When Brown claimed that the whole country recognises and thanks the bosses for their hard work, he was wrong. We pay a different kind of tribute. When Sir Digby Jones says “jump”, the whole country asks, “off which high building?”