Greece and France have defied the eurosceptics

Both countries voted for pro-European politics and confounded the anti-EU right.

So what does the eurosceptic elite, which controls most of the media, the governing party and has its representatives in both the Lib Dems and Labour, do now? For months, we have been told that "Eurogeddon" or "Grexit" was just round the corner. Lucky Britain with its pound and made-in-Britain recession was not involved as the dreadful Europeans, with the deadweight euro around their necks, would sink below the waves. The best and the brightest of monolingual English commentators flooded into the Plaka in Athens to sip their ouzo with their columns already written, explaining how the Greeks pulled the plug on the euro. The Greek people have let them down.

In the French election, the left-wing windbag, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, was given star treatment by the BBC and English papers, who love a leftie as long as he beats up on Brussels. Then it was the turn of Alexis Tsipras. The Financial Times cleared away its usual stable of Nobel-prize winners on its comment pages to welcome the populist posturing of the new anti-Brussels oracle of Delphi. He said Greece would stay in the euro but not meet a single condition of continued EU help.

Both Mélenchon and Tsipras have a critique of the way the economy has been run in their countries and, more broadly, in Europe in recent years. They are right to reject the recession-generating austerity of British and German conservatives. But it is one thing to denounce 1930s economics, another to come up with policy that makes sense to a democratic electorate. In both France and Greece, voters had a second chance over multi-round elections to reflect and, in the end, they voted to reject the false prophets who offered simplistic solutions that could not work. They also rejected the advice from British pundits like Norman Lamont, Nigel Farage, David Owen, and nearly all press commentators, who insisted that the euro was all a dreadful mistake and the sooner Greece was booted out, the better.

There was generalised talk about the need for a referendum, promoted by both Tories and Labour, as if a single plebiscite (on what question exactly is never made clear) would settle the Europe question once and for all in British politics. Among our political and media elites there was an almost Trotskyist fervour of “the worse the better” as if a collapse into chaos of banks closing down and the euro being forcibly converted into drachmas or pesetas would be a ritual purging of Europe into a new entity approved by the bankers and bank-rollers of entrenched British euroscepticism.

But as so often, Europe failed to conform to the eurosceptic script. Both the Greeks and the French voted for pro-European middle-of-the-road politics. Neither the victory for the left in France or New Democracy’s win in Greece solves any of the underlying problems both countries face. Hard decisions have to be taken and there will be social unrest just as there was a year ago in Britain or as we suffer when doctors and bus drivers go on strike. There is no Brussels fix or German cash cow that can solve the democratic capitalist world’s core problem, one neither the US nor Europe will admit, namely that debt-driven economics and state-financing no longer works.

But just as the US keeps rolling on, so does Europe. Britain can join in a conversation about what needs to be done with the new MPs in Paris and Athens. Or we can believe the Greeks and French have made a terrible mistake and keep pumping eurosceptic iron, hoping the final crisis is only around the next corner.

UK Independence Party leader and MEP Nigel Farage. Photograph: Getty Images.
Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and was a minister at Foreign and Commonwealth Office
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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.