On the whole, British small businesses are unimpressed by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), the organisation the media trots out when it wants someone to “represent business”. The CBI is actually the voice of big business, and it is dominated by people are too frightened of rocking the boat – lest it endanger their firms’ government contracts and their personal hopes for knighthoods or peerages – to speak out boldly.
So it is a pleasant surprise to read the outgoing President of the CBI, Sir Richard Lambert, telling the truth very bluntly indeed. It is perhaps significant that he is the outgoing president, that it was his last major speech in office, and that he is already a knight. Perhaps he felt he had nothing to lose. Clearly there will be no Lord Lambert.
Sir Richard, as he will remain, started by reaffirming that business supported the British government’s spending cuts. However, he went on to say it was “not enough just to slam on the spending brakes”.
If government wants the private sector to generate employment – not least to replace jobs lost in the public sector through cuts – then government should be “making it easier to employ people, not harder”.
The opposite is happening. Politically motivated initiatives are actually damaging the private sector, says Sir Richard. Although, typically, the government-owned and centre-left BBC report neglects to mention it, this is clearly a reference to the generally despised Equality Act, and to the proposal to extend paternity leave, among other things.
It seems that the current British government, like its predecessor, will pay lip service to the needs of private business, because it knows it needs it, but has no real sympathy for it. Given a choice between increasing the nation’s wealth and engaging in populist stunts, no matter how damaging, it chooses the latter every time.
Sir Richard sums up the problem by saying that the British government lacks a broader vision of what the economy should be.
This is a fair criticism – but it applies to more than just the current British government. The same can be said of its predecessor, and of the American government, and of most of Western governments of the last twenty years.
To find governments that really cared about productivity, we have to go back to the Cold War period. It cannot be denied that the socialist regimes of the East had a vision of their economic ideal, albeit a nightmare vision. What the West needs are governments that share the obsession of totalitarian states with increasing production figures, but which realise that liberal free-market policies are the best way to attain them.