Martin Vander Weyer

A land of puritans, snobs and socialists

Martin Vander Weyer on the British idea that businessmen are by nature greedy, heartless, incompetent or dishonest — or all four

Text settings

Martin Vander Weyer on the British idea that businessmen are by nature greedy, heartless, incompetent or dishonest — or all four

Our local arts festival this summer included a community opera with a large cast of children and teenagers, playing to a capacity audience of their families and friends. The show was so full of joy and energy that I came out with tears in my eyes — but also a feeling of unease. The problem was ideological: Maggio’s Magic — book and lyrics by Peter Spafford — was a theatrical triumph, but it was also a vivid parable of the perceived evils of capitalism, a reinforcement in all those young minds of an age-old British prejudice against the profit motive.

The elderly Maggio keeps his puppets in a dilapidated inner-city warehouse, whose owner wants to evict him so that she and a gaggle of women in black representing Mildew Developments can exploit the site. Maggio pleads that he and the puppets have nowhere else to go. In pantomime style, the landlady asks the audience whether she should relent, or force Maggio on to the street. ‘Let him stay,’ we all shout, but she’s having none of it. She arranges, unsuccessfully, for the warehouse to be burned down for the insurance claim. Just in time, the puppets come to life and rescue Maggio from the smoke, and the wicked landlady is led away in handcuffs.

Arson and insurance fraud are, of course, unacceptable business methods in any circumstances. But up to that point — it seemed to me — the landlady had a reasonable case. It was her warehouse, after all, and Maggio was no longer paying rent for it. According to the rather persuasive Mildew ladies, it would have made a lovely wine-bar-and-loft-apartments conversion, giving new economic purpose to an under-utilised asset. If I had not been so swept along by the emotion of the piece, I might have shouted, ‘Kick him out’, or perhaps more helpfully, ‘Tell him to apply for a relocation grant and look into the tax breaks available to help him build his living puppet show into a media and leisure miniconglomerate.’ But before I reached the end of that sentence I would probably have been kicked out myself, because — even after many years of evidence of the benefits of free enterprise — business in Britain is rarely allowed to play any role except, at best, that of comic villain.

Am I overstating my case? I don’t think so. Consider the enduring popularity — to the umpteenth repeat — of ‘Del Boy’ Trotter, the dodgy-dealing self-styled ‘entrepreneur’ of Only Fools and Horses. Consider Coronation Street, that bellwether of British social mores: its only substantial enterprise, Mike Baldwin’s knickers factory, is called, significantly, Underworld, and the only ‘financial adviser’ ever written into the script, Gail Platt’s late partner Richard, turned out to be a serial killer. Or consider The Representation of Business in English Literature, a collection of essays published in 2000 by the free-market-favouring Institute of Economic Affairs. John Morris of Brunel University, in his chapter on mid- and late-20th-century writers, cites Martin Amis, Caryl Churchill, Will Self, Julie Burchill and even Philip Larkin (‘Ah, were I courageous enough/ To shout stuff your pension!’) as subscribers to the view that a megalomaniac ‘money-conspiracy’ has corroded human decency. The IEA’s own John Blundell, scouring the horizon for examples of positive ‘literary capitalism’, is reduced to commending the thriller writer Dick Francis for creating ‘self-employed small business characters who are heroic yet humble; problem-solving and law-abiding; self-reliant and self-interested but not selfish.’ From my own reading I can think of only one modern novel in English (but by an American) that deliberately sets out to illustrate the moral virtues of the free market: it is The Invisible Heart by Russell Roberts, and no less a reviewer than Milton Friedman called it ‘a page-turning, well-written love story that also teaches an impressive amount of good economics’.

But elsewhere on the fiction shelves, on television, in theatre and cinema, in everything on Radio Four from You and Yours to The Food Programme, there is an endless stream of what Friedman would certainly consider bad economics: propaganda for the idea that business people are by nature greedy, heartless, incompetent, dishonest or — like Maggio’s landlady — all four. This is true even in parts of the right-wing press: for a really depressing read, try the Mail on Sunday’s Personal Finance section. But it was most especially true of BBC news reporting until the arrival in 2001 of the veteran City journalist Jeff Randall as business editor at the instigation of the self-made millionaire director-general, Greg Dyke. The appointment was hailed as a breakthrough by those who regretted the Corporation’s consignment to a perpetual sin bin of anything to do with money-making. Henceforth, business stories would be given air time without the traditional overtone of Hampstead-leftish disdain, and the insistence that such stories had to have wider social significance to merit being reported at all.

Randall does his job well — he gave an admirably fair summing-up in his obituary of Lord King, the corporate bruiser who revolutionised British Airways but stained his escutcheon with ‘dirty tricks’ against Richard Branson. But he ploughs a lonely furrow. Tune in to any BBC regional news programme this evening and — if there are are any business stories at all — you will find yourself transported back 30 years to a world in which companies exist only to provide jobs and pay wages, and interviews with ‘management’ have to be matched in length by interviews with shop stewards.

Underlying all this is an outdated yet somehow enduring British mixture of puritanism, post-war socialism and snobbery about trade. But in fairness, the business world has provided plenty of ammunition for its own ideological critics in the years since the euphoria of Thatcherite popular capitalism. To name but a few: the way in which mortgage lenders urged homebuyers to borrow more than they could sensibly afford in the 1980s property boom, then brutally repossessed their homes in the early 1990s recession; the widespread mis-selling of personal pensions; the collapses of Equitable Life, Marconi and Barings; the absurdities of the ‘dotcom’ share boom; and most recently, the Enron scandal — which, although it did not happen here, seemed to carry a universal message about the propensity of top executives to go astray. And throughout the era there has been a stream of fat-cat pay stories, in which bosses have awarded each other gross rewards for mediocre performance. Hardly a month goes by without a new fat cat, but let us cite as just one of many egregious examples — the ousted Sainsbury chairman Sir Peter Davis, who collected a £2.6 million pay-off last September despite presiding over a period of dismal earnings and shrinking market share for the grocery chain.

So no one can argue that the corporate world is always a paragon of good behaviour. Markets are too susceptible to what Alan Greenspan of the Federal Reserve called ‘irrational exuberance’. Executives sometimes make terrible misjudgments. Greed is a perpetual human weakness. But my point is that British opinion, echoed in public debate, literature and entertainment, still largely refuses to recognise the other side of this argument: that when market forces work as economists say they should, they encourage efficiency, choice, lower prices and rapid technological progress; that entrepreneurs risking capital to back bold ideas have produced almost everything in our daily lives that makes us safe, comfortable and happy, from the aspirin tablet to the iPod; and that — so long as it is matc hed by responsible citizenship — the urge to make money, otherwise known as greed, is one of the most dynamic forces for good on the planet.

The refusal to give business the benefit of the doubt was strikingly evident in reactions to the £2 billion profit announced by Tesco in April this year. There could hardly be a more perfect model of how capitalism is supposed to work. Tesco provides handsome returns for its shareholders by giving customers what they want conveniently, in profusion, at competitive prices. It will create 11,000 British jobs this year and collect £1 in every £3 spent in British supermarkets because, quite simply, the great British shopping public loves it.

Yet when it announces record profits, a hostile media declares Tesco to be something much more sinister: a monstrous destroyer of the high street and the Green Belt, a ruthless exploiter of struggling farmers and Third World factory workers. Far from being congratulated on its efficiency, Tesco is damned as another component of the great money conspiracy. What utter nonsense, but how easily a portion of the great British public can be persuaded to believe it.

This strange British syndrome is to be found at its most extreme in attitudes to privatisation, and the use of private-sector companies in public-sector services. The sell-off of utilities and other industries that the state should never have been allowed to run has produced memorable episodes of fat-cattery and bad public relations, as in the case of Yorkshire Water, which some years ago managed to combine huge executive bonuses with half-empty reservoirs because of poor maintenance, and standpipes in the street. But any fair assessment of the overall impact of privatisation must acknowledge that it has brought previously unimagined improvements in service and choice, even to the extent of allowing domestic customers to switch effortlessly to cheaper suppliers of electricity and gas through the same wires or pipes. Even on the railways, where the Major government’s privatisation is habitually dismissed as a botched job, travellers mostly agree, most of the time, that trains are more pleasant and more reliable than they ever were under British Rail.

One of the few things to be said in favour of New Labour is that it actually recognises the capability of the private sector to deliver almost everything more efficiently than the state itself. In the education sector, for example, underperforming authorities are handed over to be run by companies — Bradford and Walsall are administered by Serco, a company which also provides 300 school inspections a year for Ofsted. But such arrangements are made very quietly because ministers never like to be caught in capitalism’s embrace, for fear of antagonising not only their own trade-union-Methodist roots but the much wider audience of money-conspiracy subscribers. For public consumption, the rhetoric is still all about the vocational commitment of public-sector workers versus the profit-maximising short-termism of private contractors.

If that bias still holds sway, are British attitudes ever going to change? If churches are echoingly empty, but the opening of a new Ikea store on the North Circular can provoke a riot in the middle of the night, surely the British public is beginning to give itself wholeheartedly to the cult of consumerism, which ought to bring with it a belief in enterprise? As the Amazon online bookstore celebrates its tenth birthday, who would not admit that — despite the hot air generated and the paper fortunes lost — internet entrepreneurs have brought extraordinary advances in consumer convenience? Likewise, who would not salute Ryanair and other buccaneers of the low-cost airline industry, who have smashed open a statist European airline cartel that really was a conspiracy against us all?

Commentators — including the editorial leader-writer of the Financial Times — have made much of the recent success of business-related reality television series. In The Apprentice, the computer tycoon Sir Alan Sugar picked a trainee manager for his company by putting contestants through role-play exercises and subjecting them to tirades of Essex-boy-made-good advice. In The Dragon’s Den, a panel of venture capitalists heard pitches from would-be entrepreneurs, tore them apart and decided whether to invest in them. Both programmes became cult viewing, and the subject of innumerable dinner party conversations. According to Roly Keating, controller of BBC2, audiences now have ‘a real hunger for programmes that reflect the cut and thrust of business’.

But still I wonder how long it will take to eradicate the old prejudice. Are businessmen such as Sugar the new celebrity chefs because enlightened viewers are genuinely interested in their skills, or because less enlightened viewers get a cheap thrill out of the humiliation of unsuccessful contestants? The not-so-subliminal message of these programmes is that successful entrepreneurs are dragons. Like Maggio’s landlady, they are comic villains. Just below the surface, I suspect, nothing much has changed in Britain’s view of big business and high finance since J.B. Priestley wrote in 1933 about the City doing to the industrial working classes of the north of England ‘what the black-moustached glossy gentleman in the old melodramas always did to the innocent maiden’, and Caryl Churchill said similar things in a different way in 1987 in her verse play Serious Money, with its chorus of futures traders singing:

Money-making money-making money-making money-making caper

Do the fucking business do the fucking business do the fucking business
And bang it down on paper.

Two decades later the refrain is remarkably unchanged, wherever you happen to listen. As John Kay put it in The Truth about Markets (2003): ‘In academic or artistic circles, among religious leaders, for people successful in any sphere of life outside business itself, the market, the market economy and market forces are terms of abuse.’

In illustration of that — and Kay may have had this example in mind when he was writing — listen to what Dr Rowan Williams had to say in the Guardian about Barclays’s plan to close some of its rural branches in 2000. The great churchman felt ‘a twinge of wry sympathy’ for Barclays, since as Archbishop of Wales he too was in the business of running a network of costly, underused premises. But in his view, the question of branch closures should not be decided by conventional cost-benefit analysis, even if it would be too ‘utopian’ to expect government to intervene ‘to make banks behave’. The implication was that banks, and perhaps businesses in general, do not ‘behave’ if allowed to follow their own instincts; that the state knows better; and that decisions arrived at by pure economic reasoning inevitably have adverse social consequences. If old Adam Smith is a subscriber to the Guardian’s celestial edition, he must have scratched his head in sad bewilderment to find everything he taught repudiated by one of the highest moral authorities in the land.

No wonder our young people’s minds are filled with nonsense about the inherent evils of capitalism, even though their present wellbeing and future prospects depend upon it and they are surrounded by evidence that, compared with many other forces at work in the world today, it is not really evil at all. So it’s time for some lyrics in praise of making money. I think I shall start work on the book for a new community opera, in which the hero and heroine are as much in love with entrepreneurship as they are with each other; in which they create jobs for their neighbours, sell innovative products that change their customers’ lives for the better, borrow money, use it wisely, pay it back, and make handsome profits for themselves and their backers — out of which they all give generous ly to charity.

Sounds uplifting, doesn’t it? But will anyone be brave enough to stage it?