The Business of Britain Should be Business
If good political coverage is the life blood of good government, political gossip is a blood cancer. It blows up minor stories into all-consuming events. How can we have time to think about things that matter — like China’s evolving relationship with Russia — when we are bombarded with news about Keir Starmer’s chicken korma? It creates a debilitating sense of crisis as one breaking story gobbles up another. And it puffs up journalists’ egos as they regurgitate the latest so-called revelation.
Brand-name hacks not only earn far more than the people they cover but also hang around at the top of the tree for far longer, not having to test talk against action. No wonder they treat politicians with contempt — as when the BBC’s Nick Robinson told Boris Johnson to “stop talking” during an interview.
But in many ways the most important reason the obsession with politics is so unhealthy is that it crowds out serious news about business. The mainstream British press almost never put business stories on its front page (the exceptions are the Financial Times and The Economist, which are now as much global products as British ones). Business is relegated to the back of the paper along with sport and horoscopes.
Yet most of the political news Britain obsesses about is small change at best and irrelevant at worse. It is intriguing to debate whether Johnson will survive or whether he will be replaced by Liz Truss or the new favorite, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace. But whoever lives in Downing Street will be confronted by soaring inflation, a destabilizing cost-of-living crisis and an underlying productivity problem that, if unaddressed, will make the country’s welfare commitments unaffordable.
By contrast, business is changing the world at breakneck speed. Many of the world’s most consequential companies are much younger than the current generation of leading politicians: Amazon.com Inc. was founded in 1994, Google (now Alphabet Inc.) in 1998 and Tesla Inc. in 2003. New technologies such as artificial intelligence and gene therapy will change it even faster in the future. And giant new companies from Asia will shift the balance of global economic (and therefore political) power inexorably from the West to the East, leaving “global Britain” an irrelevance unless it can improve its game.
You would think that this would arouse some interest in the BBC, which has a duty to explain the world to its license payers. How did the business corporation become the major building block of the modern economy? Why is the US so much better at producing high-growth companies than Europe? What do we know about the new business empires that are emerging in Asia and, in the case of Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries Inc., stalking Britain’s high streets? All these subjects are left unexplored while an ever-growing tribe of political journalists hangs around on the prime minister’s doorstep.
What are the reasons for this lopsided view of the world? Laziness is clearly one. With politicians dependent on the oxygen of publicity, governments hold press conferences and publish press releases, cabinet ministers give interviews and would-be cabinet ministers break bread with journalists. Westminster is a village built on semi-public gossip. You can make a respectable living as a political journalist either as a stenographer to the powerful or as a reliable purveyor of anti-government verbiage. And business doesn’t do itself any favors with the diet of guff coming out of PR departments and from the mouths of chief executive officers who are so used to being given a hard time that they don’t dare say anything interesting.
But cultural disdain is the biggest problem. For all its journalistic faults — and watching Fox News or MSNBC is enough to induce fears about the future of the Republic — Americans have access to a never-ending flow of information about business: well-informed business pundits such as Andrew Ross Sorkin (as well as, it must be admitted, more than a few carnival barkers), web sites such as Axios, magazines for every niche, an omnipresent ticker telling you what is happening to the markets. In the wider culture, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, DC, has an exhibition devoted to entrepreneurs. Across the country, great companies such as the Coca-Cola Co. and Harley-Davidson Inc. have splendid corporate museums. Britain doesn’t have any of this because it continues to regard business as something that civilized people don’t talk about, let alone indulge in.
Britain’s ancestral disdain for people who make money in “trade,” started with the landed elite, extended down to writers, artists members of the professions and now consumes the welfare state bureaucracy. The public schools and Oxbridge focused on subjects that were marked by their lack of practical utility: A fifth of Oxford dons between the wars taught the ancient classics, for example. Novelists such as E.M. Forster and C.P. Snow portrayed business people as “devastatingly uninteresting.” In “Of Human Bondage,” his thinly disguised portrait of his schooldays at King’s College, Canterbury, W. Somerset Maugham wrote that “those whose fathers were engaged in business were made to feel the degradation of their state.”
British business people internalized this general disdain. If the aim of successful American tycoons was to make their businesses bigger and bigger and then pass them onto their children, the aim of successful British tycoons was to sell-out, buy an aristocratic pile in the country, and ensure that their children could live on the dividends, free forever of the mark of Cain. The ranks of British journalists are stuffed full of people whose ancestors did something in “trade,” rendering them free to sound off about the evils of capitalism.
For a while it looked as if Britain was shaking itself out of its anti-business lethargy. Margaret Thatcher celebrated entrepreneurs as both the founders of Britain’s greatness in the Victorian age and the solution to its contemporary malaise. Tony Blair cultivated business titans such as BP’s John Browne. Labour’s Peter Mandelson expressed intense relaxation with people becoming “filthy rich.” Even Oxford and Cambridge were forced to move with the times and, against considerable internal opposition, established business schools.
Yet recently Britain has returned to its ancient prejudices. The Conservative Party fell out badly with the business establishment over Brexit and has made few attempts to rebuild bridges. In his most recent address to the Confederation of British Industry, Johnson was so ill prepared that he resorted to making car noises and ad-libbing about Peppa Pig. The Labour Party has replaced a hard-left leader (Jeremy Corbyn) who thinks that business is too evil to be redeemed, with a soft-left leader (Starmer) who thinks that it can be redeemed if it pays enough taxes and abides by enough regulations. The BBC’s 22,000-member staff remain as unreconstructed in their anti-business prejudices as they were in the 1970s, though they are more likely to have been weaned on Hobsbawm than on Homer.
The grand irony in all this is that the sort of people who have an instinctive suspicion about business are the ones who should be keenest on examining its entrails. The solution to regulating business intelligently lies neither in indiscriminate disdain for it nor in relentless cheerleading but in an informed understanding of what is going on.
Never has business had a greater capacity to change the world for the better than it has today. Thanks to Google we have the world’s information at our fingertips; thanks to Amazon we can have the products of the entire world delivered to our doorsteps within 24-hours. But never before has business posed a greater threat to the good life. Surveillance capitalists are gathering information not only in order to keep a sleepless watch on everything we do but also to shape our behavior. Delivery giants are developing ever more merciless ways of squeezing the maximum of labor out of their workers. Media giants such as Fox News and Facebook are making fortunes out of commercializing anger and anxiety.
The great task of the coming decades is to ensure that business uses that enormous power to the common good without either killing its own creative spirit or handing that power, unchecked, to an over-mighty state. To have any chance of succeeding in that delicate operation, we need a public that is as well informed about business as it is about the minutiae of the political drama.
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(Corrects third paragraph, deleting reference to length of the thought for the day segment on the Today programme.)
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Adrian Wooldridge is the global business columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. A former writer at the Economist, he is author, most recently, of “The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World.”
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