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Reports that the Football Association is ready to roll over and sell Wembley Stadium to the American billionaire Shahid Khan only confirms to me that Global Britain – the holy grail of Brexit – will only intensify the UK’s global sell-off.
In future – as now but with the afterburners at full thrust – anyone with enough cash to free existing owners from the tedium of having to protect and grow their assets will be treated not as predators, but as a chance to cash in. British entrepreneurs have lost the will to take on the best and win. They’d rather take the money and run. They want the world to beat a path to their door, which they will then sell to them, plus anything that comes attached, if the price is right.
Don’t be surprised if Saint Pauls ends up as the Sinopec National Cathedral, or Stone Henge as the Disneyworld Henge. And it needn’t stop there. Buckingham Palace as the House of Saud, leased back to the Queen by Crown Prince Mohammad; the Amazon Prime Palace of Westminster; the Lords Brahma and Vishnu Cricket Ground; the Gazprom Tower of London.
It may sound crazy today, but with a majority of Britain’s utilities and railways already owned by a mix of overseas corporations and foreign governments, the precedent is well established. What started with ailing industries will end with the sell-off of our cultural heritage. The likely takeover of Wembley is just another step down an all-too-familiar road that will end only when all Britons, like an ever-growing percentage of Londoners, become tenants in their own country.
The process – a kind of post-modern apology for the excesses of Empire – has a history dating back to the 1960s and ’70s. Some older readers may remember a wonderfully droll speech given by Harold Macmillan to the Tory Reform Group in 1985. In it, the old fraud delivered a warning from history that, unfortunately, fell on deaf ears. “It is,” he began, “very common with individuals and states when they run into financial difficulties to find that they have to sell some of their assets. First of all, the Georgian silver goes. And then all that nice furniture that used to be in the saloon. Then the Canalettos go.”
It touched a chord with the British people.
Unsurprisingly – a bit like Amber Rudd rowing back on her refusal to rule out British membership of the Customs Union – Macmillan, then aged 90 but still knocking spots off the younger generation of Tories, later felt obliged to, er, modify his message
“I have learnt now,” he told the House of Lords, “from the letters that I have received, that I am quite out of date. Modern economists have decided there is no difference between capital and income. I am not so sure. In my younger days, I and perhaps others of your Lordships had friends, good friends, very good fellows indeed, too, who failed to make this distinction. For a few years everything went on very well, and then at last the crash came, and they were forced to retire out to some dingy lodging-house in Boulogne, or if the estate were larger and the trustees more generous, to a decent accommodation at Baden-Baden.”
Wonderful stuff: Wodehouse with wisdom. But again, no one was listening.
There is little point here in listing off all the great British corporations that have fallen into foreign hands in recent years. We could be here all night. Nor would there be much future in debating the undoubted fact that Britain holds significant stakes in economies beyond our shores, most obviously in the United States. But can anyone pretend that the great British sell-off has been balanced by equivalent purchases abroad, leading to UK boardrooms controlling flagship German, French, Italian, Chinese or Japanese corporations? When a British company buys Volkswagen, or Renault, or McDonnell-Douglas, or Asahi – or any company of which anyone has heard – I will reappraise our equity. But I won’t be holding my breath.
Like Macmillan, I understand that modern capitalism is by its nature global. Money swirls around the world in all directions. Yet when the day comes in which Britain finds itself almost entirely without ownership of its own manufacturing economy (which I reckon will be the case within the next 20 years), so that we really are reduced to being a nation of shopkeepers, what ability will be left to us to make our own decisions? After all, it will be their capital that is at stake, not ours. And what happens when there is nothing left to sell? What happens when the last two Rembrandts have finally been put under the hammer?
There is an argument, of course, that Britain is in fact ahead of the curve and that our sell-off of boring old companies that make things will be more than compensated for by our advances in New Age technology, including robotics and artifical intelligence. But here, too (leaving aside the argument that we are enginering our own redundancy), the trend is to pursue an idea, build it into a going concern, and then flog it off to the first foreign bidder. There is no British Google, or Apple, or Amazon, and nor will there be. “Global” means other people, not us.
If it was the same in the U.S., China, Japan or the EU – or India, or Brazil, or Russia, or Nigeria – I would understand that I’d got it wrong. But it isn’t. No other great industrial country has followed this path. We are unique in our belief that it is better that others should own our means of production than that we should own it ourselves. To which I can only respond, wait until the crunch comes, maybe 30 years from now, and decisions have to be taken about where jobs should be located and to whom the profits are owed.
But hey! When the Shahid Khan National Stadium hosts the final of the 2034 World Cup, the curtain goes up on a production of Tosca in the Samsung Royal Opera and the Tesla wing opens in the General Electric British Museum, don’t say you weren’t warned. We may be leaving the EU, but our leaders have no intention of quitting the auction room. We reap what they sow.