Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May speaks during commemorations for the 100th anniversary of the battle of Passchendaele at Tyne Cot cemetery near Ypres in Belgium
Among Theresa May’s first promises on becoming Prime Minister last year was that she would protect British businesses from foreign predators.
This was universally welcomed, in view of the fact that, over the previous two decades, there had been a seemingly endless series of rapacious raids on UK companies.
Not only had British corporate giants such as the industrial and chemical firm ICI, Cadbury, Boots the Chemist and Scottish & Newcastle Breweries fallen into foreign hands, but significant parts of the country’s infrastructure had become controlled from abroad.
For example, four of our big six energy companies, some of our most important airports, the National Grid gas network and Thames Water are now owned by foreign companies.
Not only is this a humiliating blow to national pride, it has meant that with these successful firms now headquartered abroad, there is less tax revenue for the Treasury to invest in public services.
Now — aided by the fall in the value of sterling — a new attack by overseas marauders is being made on Britain’s world-beating technology companies, which are mainly the products of our great research universities.
In the year since the Prime Minister’s vow to protect UK firms — which was reinforced in her re-elected Government’s Queen’s Speech in June — foreign predators have launched a £74.5 billion takeover blitz on British businesses.
The Government’s response, frankly, has been pathetic.
Business Secretary Greg Clark has been particularly inept — standing idly by as overseas competitors continue to pick Britain’s pockets.
Some firms, though, have fought back. Only a robust defence by Unilever’s Dutch boss Paul Polman stopped his firm (which produces a host of products, from Dove soap to Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, and has major research facilities in the UK) being taken over by Brazilian billionaires.
At a time when London’s rival European financial capitals, such as Frankfurt, Amsterdam and Paris, are energetically trying to exploit the UK’s perceived weakness over Brexit by tempting away banking and insurance jobs, ministers ought to be fighting back.
But, shamefully, they are not.
The current, most high-profile foreign takeover target is Worldpay, the world’s largest card payment processing firm.
You may never have heard of the company. But it plays a crucial part of our daily lives.
Worldpay handled 15 billion financial transactions (by credit and debit cards, and online) last year, earning money for itself from commissions when its technology is used at card terminals. It deals with more than 40 per cent of such payments in the UK.
British corporate giants such as the industrial and chemical firm ICI, Cadbury, Boots the Chemist and Scottish & Newcastle Breweries have fallen into foreign hands
An American rival — Cincinnati-based Vantiv — has launched a £9 billion takeover bid. Although 5,000 UK jobs are at risk, it seems that Worldpay bosses, led by former CBI president Sir Mike Rake, have succumbed with barely a murmur.
This supine cave-in typifies the attitude of our political and business elite.
They seem totally unconcerned at the speed with which British high-tech firms — built by the scientific and engineering skills of some of Britain’s greatest brains — are falling into the ravenous maw of foreign firms.
With Brexit on the horizon, the timing could not be worse.
Instead of stopping our national assets and technological genius being stripped, employers’ groups such as the CBI — who were used as puppets for the Cameron government’s cynical Project Fear — should now be straining every sinew to protect Britain plc.
This is why the fate of Worldpay — Britain’s largest and most profitable financial technology (‘fintech’) group — is so vitally important.
In the past few days, the firm’s bosses have agreed to the American takeover. Chief executive Phil Jansen, a former catering boss, claims he had no choice.
But Worldpay is precisely the type of company Britain should keep on these shores.
This is an area of business that is booming — with the huge shift from people using cheques and cash to using credit cards and digital transactions online.
Worldpay has been a pioneer in this field — and a great British success story.
Originally using software built at the High Street bank NatWest, it then became owned by the Royal Bank of Scotland. But when the latter fell into dire trouble during the financial crisis, Worldpay was sold to private equity investors and then re-emerged as a publicly quoted company on the London Stock Exchange.
It dominates the world of online payments, operating in 146 countries and 126 currencies. Its clients include Apple and other Silicon Valley giants.
The truth is that its predator, Vantiv, is simply plundering British technology.
Although Worldpay bosses will cash in (for example, chief executive Jansen, who already pocketed £32 million from the FTSE float), the only benefit seems to be the offer of the merged company having an ‘international’ headquarters in Britain.
There is no commitment about keeping research and development, lucrative patents, engineers or jobs in the UK.
Moreover, as we’ve learned from bitter experience in the past, such commitments are rarely worth the paper they are written on. (When America’s Kraft took over Cadbury in 2006, it reneged on a promise to keep open a factory near Bristol.)
Sadly, Worldpay is not the only British ‘fintech’ firm to throw in the towel.
Two American private equity firms, CVC and Blackstone, have launched a £3 billion takeover for Paysafe, another stock market-quoted British payments group. Among other services, it provides much of the software for gaming enterprises across the world.
Its biggest investor, London-based investment giant Old Mutual, capitulated and accepted the offer.
In our high-tech age, these businesses are key to Britain’s future. Their worth is proved by the fact that five out of the ten largest corporations in America are technology behemoths such as Apple, Google and Facebook.
However, in the UK, we have just one world-beater in the technology sector: mobile phone giant Vodafone.
Its wise bosses have shown the way to go by building on their successes and looking to buy foreign rivals, as they achieved with Germany’s biggest mobile firm, Mannesmann.
I wish other company bosses and business leaders showed the same vision.
In the weeks following the Brexit vote, I was told by one of the key policy-makers at the Bank of England that the City of London would thrive, as it had a history of innovation which would keep it ahead of foreign rivals.
He stressed that our best prospects lay with ‘fintech’ — the digital side of finance. The south bank of the River Thames in London, he said, was lined with offices and laboratories where bright young engineers were revolutionising banking and finance.
The Bank of England itself has set up its own team to encourage innovation and help such businesses.
But this enlightened approach is now being betrayed as we are witnessing a depressing exodus of ‘fintech’ firms. For example, the financial technology group Monitise (once a pioneer in payments systems) is also being sold to an American rival.
Britain’s first licensed purely online bank, Durham-based Atom, has become largely controlled by Spanish bank BBVA. And the brilliant, Edinburgh-based flight-comparison website Skyscanner is now Chinese-owned.
However, the biggest and most worrying sale was the £24 billion takeover of Cambridge-based ARM by Japan’s Softbank. ARM is a pioneer in the area of the so-called ‘internet of things’ — the sophisticated system that, for example, lets ordinary household items such as fridges and kettles become linked through the internet.
The scale of this loss was demonstrated recently as Softbank hived off 25 per cent of ARM, valued at £8 billion, to a Saudi Arabian-backed company.
Why are our politicians not doing more to protect such national jewels?
The tragedy is that too many of them seem pre-occupied with seeking to undermine Brexit and talking down what is, in fact, our remarkably resilient economy. By doing so, they are presiding over the slow destruction of Britain’s economic foundations.
Meanwhile, rival governments — across Europe, in Japan, China, India, America, Canada and Australia — are investing money and energy in order to nurture their precious high-tech companies and protect their national assets from foreign predators.
When, in the name of sanity, is Britain going to wake up to the fact that it’s the antagonists within the country that we should fear more than the enemies without?