Theodore Dalrymple

Global warning | 5 January 2008

A friend of mine, a very busy man who knew that I had retired and had little to do except meet deadlines, asked me recently to help him find a flat for rent in a distant part of the country.

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It was part of the convenience of modern life that information about agents in the area should have been immediately accessible to me at the touch of a few keys on a keyboard. Shortly thereafter, however, a rather less pleasant aspect of modernity made itself manifest: most of the agents charged their callers for calling them.

No doubt some will applaud this as evidence of the entrepreneurial spirit that has seized the whole nation. But it seems to me that this misses something about the modern British spirit. At first, I could not quite put my finger on what it was that it missed, and then it came to me in a flash of inspiration, in the shape of a single word that is not much heard nowadays, perhaps because it is too near the bone: spiv.

It is not easy to define spivvery but, like kitsch, it is not difficult to recognise. One definition I found of a spiv is ‘a person without employment who makes money by various dubious schemes, goes about smartly dressed and having a good time’.

Naturally enough, this definition made me think at once of Mr Blair. Does it not fit him very neatly? Was not the sight of a former British prime minister taking a lot of money for speaking briefly at a Chinese sales meeting for expensive luxury houses confirmation strong as proofs of holy writ?

But let us not descend to the merely personal; rather, let us ascend to the altogether higher plane of sociological, political, economic and historical generalisation. Has not British government policy been, at least since the time of Mrs Thatcher, the ever-widening extension of the realm of spivvery? Why, even our civil servants have become spivs, hoping for some crack in the façade of legality to creep into and make their fortune in a few months.

What is the difference between a spiv and an entrepreneur? No doubt the difference is sometimes one of degree rather than of kind, but that does not mean there is no difference at all. It is not easy to say at what precise height a man may be considered tall or short: but that does not mean there are no tall or short men.

An entrepreneur, while not necessarily admirable in all his qualities (as which of us is?), thinks of something new and adds it to stock of wealth-production. A spiv creates nothing himself, but rather flourishes in an over-regulated world. He is to commerce what an apparatchik is to public service. He is sharp, but only in a world blunted by bureaucracy.

If you want to know why and how we can spend untold extra billions on public services and end up with nothing to show for it, you could do worse than reflect on spivvery. But is Mr Brown a spiv?

Well, the various dubious schemes seem to fit him pretty well. But a good time? It is hard to tell. As they say in Germany, every little animal has its little pleasure.