George Osborne knows how to stick pins in his enemies. Using the phrase ‘Workers of the world unite’ to introduce a wheeze that will allow employees to swap employment rights for shares in their employer got well up the noses of the left. ‘There are so many holes in this it deserves to sink without a trace,’ said Mark -Serwotka of the Public and Commercial Services Union, no doubt hoping to restore his good name after his calls for public-sector workers to use the Olympics as an opportunity to strike. ‘Remember this lot were quite content to put small boys up chimneys,’ typed one Guardianista with a loose recollection of the last Conservative manifesto. Osborne has ‘as much knowledge of economics as a stick of rhubarb’, declared Paul Kenny of the GMB in a sweeping dismissal of the Chancellor’s entire party conference performance.
Even the CBI was only lukewarm, it has to be said, greeting rights-for-shares as ‘a niche idea… not relevant to all businesses’. But still the scheme circumvents the reluctance of Vince Cable to allow his coalition partners to tear even the smallest hole in the panoply of rights relating to dismissal, redundancy, flexible working and maternity leave which — although clearly an improvement on putting boys up chimneys — are most often mentioned by small-business and start-up entrepreneurs as a deterrent to expansion. And it’s surely good for workplace harmony and prosperity to foster pride of collective corporate ownership.
Beyond that, however, the Osborne scheme needs a health warning attached, because it invites workers to gamble on the qualities of their employer. In a company destined to fail because its directors are incompetent or its products are uncompetitive, you’d be better to hang on to your rights. In a start-up that has just patented cures for baldness and the common cold, by all means go for the shares — but even then the shark-tank of venture capital will pay scant respect to the interests of employee-shareholders, particularly in businesses that need successive capital-raisings to bring their ideas to commercial fruition. So the CBI’s cautious assessment is probably right but — as with so much party conference content — the symbolism and pin-sticking make for the sort of lively debate from which more practical reforms should eventually flow.
To Berkeley Square for coffee with Sir Ronnie Grierson, whose German origins, war record in the SAS and subsequent career of 65 years (and counting) in business and public service make him a living repository of modern European history. A protégé of the banker Siegmund Warburg before becoming managing director of Harold Wilson’s interventionist Industrial Reorganisation Corporation — the precursor of Vince Cable’s ‘business bank’ — he went on in the 1970s to be director-general for industry at the European Commission in Brussels. There he worked under a federalist fanatic, the veteran Italian socialist Altiero Spinelli, who provoked Grierson to hold ‘Brussels-sceptic’ (rather than broader Eurosceptic) views ever since.
He’s currently animated by his solution to the question we’ll probably never be allowed to address by referendum, of Britain’s future in of Europe. He thinks we should opt out of the EU and into the European Economic Area, which is a partnership between the EU itself and Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway — allowing those countries to enjoy the four EU ‘freedoms’ (of movement of labour, goods, services and capital) without significant loss of sovereignty. Trading Places, a recent report by the Open Europe think-tank, expands on this, pointing out that common agriculture, fisheries, justice, asylum and defence policies — pretty well all the things that most enrage us about Brussels — are excluded from the EEA agreement, but that membership would still impose a burden of regulation and employment law over which we would no longer have voting rights.
And would we really want to bracket ourselves with the fringe of Europe, in what Open Europe calls, with a hint of disdain, ‘the Norwegian option’? ‘I wouldn’t mind being like Norway,’ Grierson says. ‘They’re one of the richest nations on earth’; overall, the EEA is ‘exactly what Brussels-sceptics should be looking for’. It may not be quite that simple, but as one who has seen the whole evolution of the botched ideal of Europe since the end of the second world war, the irrepressible Grierson’s is a voice worth hearing.
At a point-to-point about 30 years ago I remember a very pompous young man braying at me, ‘I say, that’s a frightfully senior Barbour.’ The long waxed coat concerned, certainly the oldest working item in my wardrobe today, still gets an occasional outing — and over the years I’ve kept a close eye on the fortunes of the company that made it. J. Barbour & Sons began selling oilskins to fishermen in South Shields in 1894, flourished as a maker of motorcycling and shooting jackets, and has developed since 1972 under the chairmanship of a self-effacing former schoolteacher, now Dame Margaret Barbour (widow of the founder’s great-grandson John, who died of a brain haemorrhage at 29), into a highly successful upmarket ‘lifestyle brand’.
So I was intrigued last week to spot the cool-but-butch ‘Steve McQueen’ range in the window of its Regent Street store, evidently celebrating the fact that the film star wore Barbour kit when he raced motorbikes in the early 1960s, and to see that despite the double dip, company profits are up by half to £17 million on sales up 35 per cent to £122 million. Meanwhile the family still owns all the shares, Margaret’s daughter Helen is vice-chairman, and their charitable foundation has given millions to local causes ranging from skills training to the Sage concert hall. As a model of corporate durability, like my old coat, it’s hard to beat.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 13 October 2012