Why Some British Businessmen Are Turning Pro-Brexit

Unlike most leaders of finance and commerce in The City, leaving the EU is not a frightening thought for the Business for Britain movement.Â

London's Millenium Bridge
London's Millenium Bridge
Marie-Hélène Martin

LONDON â€" It's at the Goring Hotel, a symbol of eternal England and where Kate Middleton famously spent the night before her wedding, that we meet Alan Halsall, an industry titan who looks more like a gentleman farmer with his beige blazer and plaid shirt.

Between meetings, the Eurosceptic who co-chairs Business for Britain and also heads the nursery company Silver Cross Ltd. takes some time to explain why he's so energized about the United Kingdom's impending referendum about whether to stay in or leave the European Union. Sipping his coffee, the contractor's refrain is familiar on this side of the Channel: Directives from Brussels asphyxiate companies and unnecessarily burden executives with bureaucracy and paperwork.

"We keep hearing the same people over and over about European subjects," Halsall says, implicitly targeting the BBC, his nemesis. He's not surprised that the CEOs of Nissan, BP and Goldman Sachs are content with the present situation, but he notes that plenty of other CEOs are of a different mind: small businesses in particular, and namely those that are subject to European regulatory policies even though they don't work with any EU member countries.

Restaurant owners, for instance, believe that nitpicky European policies cost them $304 million per year, and he says he's co-chairing Business for Britain to defend small businesses.

A few weeks ago, the movement was still lacking in organization and media coverage, mostly because it was overshadowed by the general election in which Prime Minister David Cameron was reelected. Halsall, 61, has been awaiting this referendum for a long time, though he's only supporting the Brexit solution should the EU governing apparatus in Brussels fail to offer the UK some concessions. "We are not the UK Independence Party, and we want to help the government," he says.

What Halsall is demanding â€" and he's not alone â€" is that relations between the EU and the UK be renegotiated. Likewise, Sir Anthony Bamford, a major donor to the Conservative Party and owner of JCB, a multinational corporation specializing in construction equipment, says that if Cameron fails to convince Brussels to renegotiate, the United Kingdom should leave the EU.

Business for Britain, which has more than 1,000 members, was launched two years ago and claims to be non-partisan, though many sympathizers are openly Conservative. Halsall explains that the group "is exclusively funded by those who support our cause."

Among its most powerful weapons is Matthew Elliot, one of Westminster's most most skilled lobbyists who has been described as a "formidable activist and propagandist." Also among the Eurosceptic elite is Ian Cheshire, CEO of multinational retail company Kingfisher, and Lord Wolfson, head of clothes retailer Next, who is a member of Open Europe, a think tank that believes the status quo isn't an option.Â

Halsall says his members are firmly grounded. "We represent companies from all over the UK," he notes. "Most of them are SME small and medium-sized enterprises, but some bigger ones as well. The SME owners have to live every day with the superimposed European decisions from high up. We want more extended free trade and a reduced political union â€" more authority for Westminster, not for Brussels."

Managing on their own

The group claims that nearly 65% of all legislation that has been sent to the British parliament since 1993 has been influenced by the EU. To rally even more people to its cause, the movement raises the topic of VAT (Value-Added Tax, or consumption tax). Its members believe Brussels is pressuring London to give up its low tax rates, potentially harming the purchasing power of Britons in the process. As it is, British people pay 346 euros ($381) toward the European budget each year, 110 euros ($121) more than the EU average.

Halsall is confident in Britain's ability to thrive outside of the EU, especially against the backdrop of a globalized market. He denounces the over-alarmist stance of opponents who are trying to scare Brexit supporters. "I would prefer if we stayed in the European Union, but if we do not get the reforms that we want, I'm not worried," he says. "We are the world's sixth-largest economy."

In January, the European Commission actually ranked the UK as the fifth-largest economy, while France dropped to sixth. Halsall believes commerce and free trade agreements with thriving economies such as China or India would be easier to obtain once outside of the EU. As a bonus, the country would be able to remove certain rules that he believes hinder its growth.

French protectionism

Problems don't stem exclusively from Brussels. Halsall also has beef with the French. "We had to take back all of our products, which cost us a few thousand pounds," he says. His company Silver Cross was attempting to export its high-end strollers to the French market but couldn't because of what he perceives as French protectionism.

He is certain that his strollers fit the European norms, but he couldn’t get in because France threw up obstacles. "It is legal, of course," he says. "I should have known, but I thought we were engaging in free trade. It wasn't the case."

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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