For decades, we lefties have taken it for granted that the Tories are the party of big business. This is now questionable in at least three ways:
- Austerity. In calling for greater spending on childcare and a cut in NICs today, the CBI seems to want unfunded fiscal commitments. "Deficit reduction doesn't need to be cut and slash” says CBI boss John Cridland. This reminds us that, in depressing aggregate demand, austerity can harm business interests. Granted, this isn't always the case: business might welcome austerity if it reduces interest rates or averts a profit squeeze by reducing wages. But these are not today's circumstances.
- Immigration. The CBI opposes the immigration cap. In preventing bosses hiring whom they want, immigration controls harm firms.
- Europe. The CBI wants the UK to stay in the EU, which some Tories don't want. And it's plausible that, in creating uncertainty, an in/out referendum in 2017 would depress investment and output before then.
Now, this is not of course to say that Tory policies are always against business interests: they agree, for example, on the desirability of low business taxes and undesireability of living wages. Nor is it to say that just because Tories are opposed to big business they are on the side of workers; capitalism isn't always a zero-sum game.
Nevertheless, the knee-jerk lefty assumption that the Tories are on the side of business is dubious.
Why is this? There's a generous and an ungenerous answer.
The generous answer is that there has always been a strand of Toryism which is, or should be, unhappy with business. Capitalism is a process of creative destruction which - as Marx and Engels famously pointed out in 1848 - "constantly revolutionis[es] the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society." Conservatives who value settled communities and established ways of life and who, in Oakeshott's words, tend to view change as deprivation, should be unsettled by this. Until the mid-19th century, remember, Tories were definitely not the party of business.
The less generous reading is simply that the Tories have given into a lazy populism. "It's good for business" is no longer a vote-winner.
These, though, might be different ways of describing the same thing. Big business wants globalization, but some voters - especially the older, unskilled ones attracted to Ukip - do not.
In this sense, if the Tories are to resolve the tensions between them and big business, they will have to find ways of ensuring that globalization works for everyone. However, they seem to have little interest in doing so.