Life & Culture

British businesses must stop selling out


The overseas takeovers of British-based enterprises roll on. Among the latest UK companies to find a new home is Staines-based NDS, originally an Israeli start-up, bought last month by California's Cisco Systems for $5 billion in what was claimed to be Israel's biggest high-tech deal yet. For Cisco this is just a another deal in the San Jose-based group's search for new technologies as it seeks to boost its existing suite of products.But for the UK, where NDS is the leading developer of software for pay television companies, it is a loss of control. And for Israel, where the technology was first researched at the Weizmann Institute, it is another innovative firm vanishing into the depths of Silicon Valley.

The argument in favour of such transactions is that the cash received will be reinvested in new ventures. In the case of NDS however, it will go to private equity concern Permira and NDS's biggest customer, Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, which has a 49 per cent stake.

NDS is by no means the first British software group to vanish into overseas ownership of late. Last year Autonomy, which came out of Cambridge University, was sold off to another Silicon Valley fading star Hewlett Packard for £7 billion amid promises that the brains of the firm would remain in the UK.

When it comes to technology the pull of the San Francisco Bay area is so powerful that it is hard to imagine that, over time, the best and the brightest companies like NDS and Autonomy will not migrate to California where taxes are lower and there is a huge cluster of such companies.

In an age of free and open capital markets and an increasingly globalised world, the welcome which Britain gave to overseas predators, particularly during the fast growth decade of 1997-2007, was seen as a good thing for the economy.

‘The pull of the San Francisco Bay area is powerful’

Indeed, in certain sectors, notably the car industry, the arrival of new management and investment at Jaguar Land Rover, Mini, Rolls-Royce and Bentley has revived a moribund manufacturing base. But car production is one of a few exceptions of inward investment that has been really positive.

It was only at the end of 2009 when Irene Rosenfeld of Kraft made her move on Cadbury that a nation of angry chocolate eaters demanded tougher City rules governing takeovers and overseas bids.

It is often Mrs Thatcher who is blamed for destroying the UK's industrial base when she took on the miners. In fact when Labour came to office in 1997 manufacturing was still the biggest part of the economy, accounting for more than 20 per cent of national output. By the time Labour left office in 2010 it was down to 12.4 per cent.

This decline was partly due to the rise of manufacturing in the fast-growing emerging economies including China and India, and the export of jobs from textiles to call centres.

But the foreign takeovers left no part of our economy untouched. Much of the nation's infrastructure is in overseas hands which veteran industrialists view as threatening to the UK's economic security.

Almost every company with "British" in its name including British Airports Authority, British Oxygen, British Steel and Associated British Ports have been absorbed by a foreign buyer.

Some of our greatest enterprises have been defenestrated. Take, for instance, the chemical industry. In 1926 British industrialists showed great foresight by welding together our four biggest chemical and pharmaceutical companies into a national champion, Imperial Chemical Industries.

Now that company, which once bestrode the world and gave us everything from plastics to polyester to beta-blockers, is no more.

As a result Britain, alone among the rich industrial states, no longer has a chemical industry champion like Germany's BASF or the US's Dow Chemicals and Du Pont.

Among the serious threats from overseas ownership is to the nation's energy security. Four of the big six energy companies are in overseas hands and successive governments have trusted the country's nuclear future to big foreign players.

Just how risky this can be was demonstrated when the two big German power companies RWE and E.ON. which had committed to the UK's nuclear future, pulled out of project Horizon to build two nuclear stations. Britain's nuclear renewal is now largely in the hands of the French government-controlled energy group, Electricite de France (EDF). The withdrawal of the German consortium leaves EDF with enormous bargaining power as it seeks to haggle with the UK government over the "base" price it will obtain for its electricity and the surcharges - likely to end up on our bills.

But does the great fire-sale of Britain's corporate sector really matter? It has never mattered more.

Foreign ownership nearly always means loss of command and control, headquarters staff, supply chain, expertise and R&D, which have taken decades to build. That cannot be to the UK's advantage.

Alex Brummer is City Editor of the Daily Mail. His new book, Britain for Sale, is to be published by Random House on 27 April

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