Lord Lawson's argument with business

  • 7 May 2013
  • From the section Business
  • comments
Nigel Lawson

Naturally most coverage of Lord Lawson's euro-Damascene moment in the Times has focussed on who he is - one of the two most influential chancellors of modern times - rather than what he says.

So what about the content of his argument that the UK would now be better off outside of the European Union.

Perhaps his most interesting point is this one:

"Too much of British business and industry feels... secure in the warm embrace of the European single market and is failing to recognise that today's great export opportunities lie in the developing world, particularly in Asia."

In other words, he is not claiming that those who run our companies agree with him that exit from the EU is optimal for them or the economy.

As it happens, those who run our biggest companies would tend to be horrified at the idea of withdrawal from the EU.

Our multinationals, unlike those of Switzerland, increasingly think of themselves as global corporate citizens, as much as British citizens. And whether they started life as British or not, they have a mindset that they are in Britain because it is an attractive place to be located within the EU.

Bosses of big banks and financial institutions would have this European mindset in spades. And many of them would take serious issue with Lord Lawson's idea that they would be liberated to thrive again, outside of the supposedly deadening clutches of EU financial reform and its planned new tax on financial transactions.

Since the crash of 2008, they've felt - if anything - more bashed and battered by UK regulators and politicians than by EU ones. And Lord Lawson, with his partly successful campaign to reinforce barriers between retail and investment banking operations, would not be seen by them as a champion of City laissez faire.

Of course smaller companies, including smaller City ones, are more patriotic in a conventional sense. But right now and in recent years they have been less important to British economic performance than the giant companies - although the government is desperate for smaller business to increase its relative output and influence.

I am not sure whether it is a paradox or not, but smaller and medium-size companies in the UK, which tend to have more eurosceptic bosses than bigger companies, are less important to British prosperity than smaller companies in Italy or Germany, for example.

All that said, the consensus of those in charge of businesses large and tiny would be for changing the terms of EU membership, to reduce the regulatory burden on them (yes, I know you know this).

In other words, they are hoping that David Cameron succeeds in his ambition of scaling back aspects of EU rules and regulations that they see as undermining their competitiveness.

Lord Lawson, never one to mince his opinions, thinks the prime minister will fail, and that - anyway - companies are wrong to place their faith in him.

But let's return to Lawson's claim, that ease of trading with the EU damages the UK because it somehow prevents British businesses working hard enough to gain access to the faster growing markets of Asia and Latin America.

If there is something in this, one important question is why it doesn't apply to Germany - whose exports to China, per capita, are more than four times the UK's.

However, it is important to note that ease of access to the EU market has not been an unalloyed boon for the UK.

For years, the UK has run a significant current account deficit with the rest of the EU. In other words, our business with the EU has contributed fairly significantly to the growing indebtedness of the UK, at a time when many would say the debt burden on the UK is unsustainably high (and, to remind you, I am talking here about the aggregate of household, business, financial sector and government debt - not public sector debt in isolation).

Of course there has been an enormous deficit in British trade with China. But the UK's consistent surplus with the US shows that Britain isn't doomed to be constantly in the red with economies regarded as formidable.

Image caption Margaret Thatcher and Nigel Lawson in 1989

For decades, and pretty consistently since the UK joined the European Common Market, the EU's previous incarnation in 1973, the UK has been a deficit nation in its trading relationship with the rest of the world as a whole rather than a surplus nation.

Some would argue that the biggest problem currently faced by the UK is its failure since the great crash of 2008 to start generating a current account surplus, in spite of sharp falls in the value of sterling that should have made UK exports more competitive - because with the current account deficit bigger than at any time since 1989, it is impossible for the overall indebtedness of the UK economy to shrink.

The European Commission itself forecasts that the UK will continue to be a significant net borrower from the rest of the world for at least the next couple of years (at a rate of 2.5% of GDP in 2013 and 1.8% next year - compared with 3.5% in 2012).

So maybe Lord Lawson can be seen as kicking off an important debate, which is whether the UK will find it easier to start paying its way in the world on the inside - or the outside - of the EU.