Selling the family silver

Tony Blair has yet to reply to my letter urging him to block the sale of BAA – and with it London’s main airports along with the airports at Edinburgh, Glasgow and elsewhere – to a Spanish company, but from his speech the day after my letter, we know he will not act and he favours foreign takeovers. Gordon Brown has said the same.

What they have actually said is that they favour free trade – so do I – and that Europe is now a single market and everyone benefits. I support that too. But, there isn’t free trade. The UK is more open than other countries. Most of our energy and water companies are owned by the French and Germans. Our telecomms are in French, German, Spanish and American hands. Associated British Ports has just accepted an American-led takeover. British Gas, once part of Government and now called Centrica, is being stalked by the Russian government owned Gazprom and our government has said it will do nothing.

The trade would not work the other way. Recent events have shown that America, France, Germany, Spain and Russia will each act to keep their ports, airports, utilities, telecomms and banks in their own nationals’ hands. Free trade is limited by national strategic interest.

Perhaps they go too far. But our governments, both Labour and Tory, go nowhere to protect national interests in takeovers. They do not show that they even consider the matter, mocking other countries’ protectionism, while the interests they should protect are left exposed.

I want free trade. Actually, if we had free trade it would be what the development lobby calls fair trade, because the developing world would have open access to our markets. But, I believe that there are strategic activities that a country should control – like its own airports and ports. Of course if overseas companies have money to invest I would rather they invested in creating jobs here than elsewhere. But, I want the government to consider whether any foreign takeover is in the national interest.

A Spanish company in control of Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and the others will be in a position to put direct and indirect pressure on Gibraltar. Next time there are discussions with Spain on thwarting the Gibraltarians’ democratic wishes and compromising British strategic interests, Her Majesty’s Government may find that by failing to act to protect BAA it will have given the trump cards to Madrid.

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