This article is taken from the February 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
It was an agreeable New Year of raclette, cosy wood fires and cautious skiing — these days, lust for adrenaline is more than offset by fear of fractured femurs. Alas, now it’s back to being woken up in the dark to the twittering of the Today programme’s 6.20 business bulletin.
I used to groan every time I heard those dreaded words: “And now, over to our Salford studio … ” But, three years after the BBC shifted its business desk 200 miles north, I have concluded it was, after all, a rather smart move — though not for the “levelling up” reasons given by the Corporation.
The decision by our national broadcaster to exile its business journalists from the home of the Stock Exchange and the headquarters of most of our great companies seemed at the time to be an act of anti-capitalist self-harm.
Manchester is not the trailblazer of economic progress it once was. The city’s stock market building is now a hotel owned by footballers, and the mighty Royal Exchange — the court of King Cotton — has been converted into a repertory theatre. A latter-day Karl Marx is unlikely to be inspired by the second-tier professional services firms which now occupy the Victorian mills.
But then, though it pains me to admit it, the City of London is also no longer as relevant as it used to be, both as a global entrepôt and as a mirror on the nation’s commercial life. In the past, the London Stock Exchange hosted important dramas which encapsulated bigger shifts in our culture.
In the early 1970s, the rise of the charismatic Jim Slater from newspaper share tipster to leader of a takeover-fuelled international business empire gave flesh to Ted Heath’s Selsdon Man. His subsequent fall from grace summed up the end of the Barber boom and the slump into stagflation.
In the 1980s, the privatisation of BT, British Gas and other public monopolies again placed the City at the centre of national life. During the late 1990s and early noughties, the City enjoyed its own version of Cool Britannia, with the half billion pound flotation of Baroness Lane Fox of Soho’s lastminute.com and the global triumph of Vodafone led by the cricket-loving Chris Gent.
The global financial crisis, which gave us colourful villains such as Fred Goodwin and equally vibrant heroes like — er, um — Robert Peston, was the last time the City acted as a theatre for the nation. Since then, the personalities, the stories and the money have moved elsewhere.
The FTSE 100 index has long ceased to be a barometer for Britain’s economic health
The fortieth anniversary of the FTSE 100 index came and went last month with a collective shoulder shrug — it has long ceased to be a barometer for Britain’s economic health.
The public companies which dominate this league table are an odd mix of imperial vestiges (such as the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation) and flag-of-convenience blow-ins like Glencore, the Swiss-based commodities trader and miner. Whilst the BBC newsreaders still incant the FTSE’s daily rises and falls, its pertinence seems as remote as the shipping forecast for South Utsire.
More than ever it is the businesses of the two global superpowers, the United States and China, which are shaping how we live. Any modern Marx would be advised to seek insights into the future of capitalism in the venture capital shops of Palo Alto and the gigafactories of Shenzhen.
But the thing that has really undermined the apparent relevance of the City in our national story is the fact that fewer businesses are choosing to go public. Coming to the market is no longer an essential rite of passage for the leaders of Britain’s aspirant Mittelstand. Part of this reluctance is a result of the growing number of environmental and other governance regulation imposed on public companies.
However, it is also about the shrinking availability of UK pensions money for equity investment and the avalanche of cash from media-shy private equity funds (mainly American) and sovereign wealth funds (mainly Asian).
This means much of the M&A of the past 15 years has taken place not on the gossipy public markets of the Square Mile, but in anonymous brass plate offices in Knightsbridge or in the new clubs that have sprung up around Shepherd Market, whose annual subs comfortably exceed the budget of any modern journalist’s expense account.
Indeed, I suspect, many trades involving British businesses are struck virtually on Teams calls by dealmakers who have rarely set foot on our soil. And, unlike the past, the drama of those deals rarely finds its way onto the printed page.
The man who epitomises this new more discreet world is Sir Jim Ratcliffe, who built a near £30 billion fortune through a policy of eschewing both publicity and the public markets. “Once it’s gone you never get it back,” he once said about selling equity.
Whilst he keeps a small office in London, his success seems to owe very little to our capital city. His is a story of Scottish oil refineries, Midlands motoring icons — and, in his latest move, the 71-year-old Lancashire lad has bought a quarter share in his childhood football team Manchester United. All of which means that Salford Quays is as good a place as any to chronicle the nation’s business life.
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