Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.
Brexit was never going to kill the City. It is a measure of how demented our culture war became after 2016 that that notion was ever seriously entertained. London gained the top spot through strong property rights, incorruptible courts, secure contracts, light-touch regulation and low taxes. Everyone understood that the system was impartial, that the rules would not be rigged against foreign companies, that all were equal under the law.
Those features allowed London to retain its pre-eminence despite the decline of sterling as a global currency, despite the Second World War, and despite the economic collapse of the 1970s. Companies from around the world recognised that the best and cheapest money markets were disproportionately concentrated in the Square Mile. EEC membership had little to do with it.
Eurocrats never saw things that way, of course. In their eyes, London was a parasite, moving money around while honest Europeans did the more “real” work of making cars, producing chemicals and ploughing fields. Brexit, they believed, was an opportunity to shift jobs to Paris, Frankfurt and Milan, and to divert the accompanying tax revenues to their own coffers.
Emmanuel Macron came to London and pitched directly for companies to relocate. His ministers set up offices to advise on the transition. Frankfurt expanded its English-language schools.
Meanwhile, Brussels set out to be as bellicose as possible. UK-based firms found that the letter of the law was suddenly being forced on them with a perversity that their Japanese or American rivals were spared. At the same time, the EU refused to grant equivalence to British financial services providers.
Equivalence – essentially an agreement to trust each other’s regulators – is a normal courtesy among advanced economies. The EU offers it to Brazilian, Chinese and Mexican companies. Britain, naturally, offers it to the EU. But the EU evidently believed that refusing to reciprocate might somehow asphyxiate London.
It didn’t work. This would have been obvious had it not been for the hysterical tone of Britain’s Europhile broadcasters, determined as they were to show that Brexit had been a catastrophe.
Every relocation of a UK job to the Continent was drooled over with a kind of excited despair, while almost no attention was paid to jobs moving the other way – or, indeed, new jobs being created. When, as a result of EU restrictions, Amsterdam briefly overtook London in the volume of shares being traded, there was terrific excitement; when London reclaimed its place last week, coverage was muted.
The EU’s strategy is self-harming. Protectionism always makes the state applying it poorer. Making it harder for continental firms to access London finance does more damage to the continental firms than to London. It also signals to the world that Brussels discriminates on the basis of nationality, subordinating prosperity to prejudice.
Had the EU been more adroit, it might have sought to make itself more attractive. Instead of denying Britain equivalence, it would have looked for ways to lower its own taxes and to reassure the world that it would not tilt the scales against foreign companies. But, for whatever reason, it cannot bring itself to think that way.
Don’t imagine for a moment, though, that London’s dominance is guaranteed. The City has no automatic right to the top slot. It must earn that place anew every day. Brexit doesn’t just allow the City to make its regulatory regime more competitive; it obliges it to do so.
As Andrew Bailey, the Governor of the Bank of England, put it earlier this year: “I’m afraid a world in which the EU dictates and determines what rules and standards we have in the UK is not going to work”.
There was an argument – a weak argument, in my view, but an argument – for matching some EU standards for the sake of equivalence. But when Brussels won’t recognise even our current rules, which are identical to its own, there is no argument whatever for holding back.
We should begin by repealing those EU rules which were opposed by the industry when they were brought in, even if, having now assimilated the compliance costs, some established actors have lost interest in repeal. We need to think of future businesses as well as existing ones. We should undo the parts of the EU’s MiFID 2 and Solvency 2 regimes that we opposed at the time, and scrap the Alternative Investment Fund Managers Directive and the short-selling ban.
More broadly, we need lighter-touch regulation. Many of our rules are still aimed at preventing the 2008 crash, rather than at facilitating future growth in fintech, green investment and digital trade. At the very least, we should make competitiveness an explicit part of the regulators’ mandate – certainly no less than stability, confidence or consumer protection. Other regulators, such as Singapore’s, take it for granted that boosting competitiveness is part of their role.
And let’s not be shy about cutting taxes in ways that will attract investment and so, over time, increase revenue. It is hard, on Laffer curve grounds, to justify the bank corporation tax surcharge or stamp duty on share trading. We also need to end the absurd rule which limits bonuses – thus whacking up bankers’ basic salaries and reducing the link between performance and pay.
Some of these reforms might be unpopular. But, with our public finances in the state they are in, we can’t afford to subordinate our recovery to the prejudices of focus groups. Financial services are, to Britain, what tourism is to the Maldives. As our mediaeval wealth rested on wool, so our modern wealth rests on banking, insurance and investment. I’m not asking you to like bankers and hedgies; I’m just asking you to recognise that they pay 10 per cent of Britain’s taxes.
The PM wants to show that Brexit has tangible benefits, and commissioned Iain Duncan Smith, George Freeman and Theresa Villiers to look at ways to raise our competitiveness. Their report in May set out a measured and realistic plan to do precisely this.
But, as anyone who has worked in politics will tell you, the real challenge is turning your vision into hard policies over the head of an often change-averse civil service. “Between the idea and the reality,” wrote T S Eliot, “Between the motion and the act falls the Shadow”. Between the speech and the implementation, between the report and the legislation, between the ambition and the deregulation – falls the Shadow.