BRITAIN is almost unique among advanced western countries in its resolute reluctance to protect key industries and corporate success stories from predatory foreign buyers whose primary goal is often to sell off the most profitable chunks of the business they've bought to the highest bidders and ignore any worker protection conditions attached to the purchase.

The recent sale of Wimborne-based Cobham plc, a UK contractor specialising in state of the art defence technology, to American private equity company Advent International may well not fit this pattern, but the loss of this critical national asset and the manner of its disposal should give us serious pause for thought.

One of the world's leading developers of critical control solutions in fields like air to air refuelling, life support and electronic warfare since its inception in the mid-1930s and family-owned till the recent takeover, Cobham has consistently pioneered cutting-edge progress in – inter alia – satellite, spacecraft, and deep-sea radar communication technology, currently employing a workforce of nearly 2,000 in the Bournemouth area and a further 8,000 worldwide. The announcement of the sale (on a Friday of course) was controversial and duly reported in the national press: one defence analyst remarked that it was as if the government rather wanted no-one to notice what had happened.

It illustrates the sensitive nature of Cobham's business that much of the competition regulator's report on the takeover was simply blacked out. In an unedited passage, the Ministry of Defence warned that if the deal went ahead there was "a risk that the institutional framework and safeguards required by the government's security framework may be undermined".

Even Ed Davey, acting leader of the Lib Dems, a party hardly renowned for an obsessive commitment to national defence, commented that the announcement was "deeply concerning and we have yet to see evidence that concerns over national security have been mitigated". And yet the proposed sale elicited barely a whimper from local MPs or BCP councillors, let alone our Prime Minister. For what did he have to say when asked if he was comfortable with the transaction? "I think it's very important that we should have an open and dynamic market economy". Translation? “Let’s never try to discourage the rest of the world from buying up Britain”. Sic transit gloria mundi.


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