Tuesday 24 February 2015

Business is no longer Conservative - this is why

I've written a blog on the Lib Dem Voice site today explaining the background to the pamphlet which I wrote with the investor Joe Zammit-Lucia, after the series of events he organised to allow businesspeople to talk more informally to politicians.

The idea is that business is an increasingly radical force, no longer tethered umbillically to the Conservative Party.  Hence the title of the pamphlet, A Radical Politics for Business, which we launched at a business reception in London on Monday night.  

You can read the blog here and the pamphlet here.

But it is true that I ought to spell out why this counts as a new idea, or at least the revival of an old one.  The idea of business as a radical force in politics, however careful they might be not to be political themselves, is unexpected for the following reasons:

First, this is not the way that the official organisations supporting business tend to explain it..

Second, this report happens to coincide with the nadir of the reputation of business in the UK, which may have been unfairly blamed for the failures of the banking and regulatory system in 2008, but which has also been tainted by the continuing scandals from Enron to Robert Maxwell’s pensions theft, insider trading, Guinness, and so on, where business has suffered for the sins of relatively few – and politicians have failed so far to shape a regulatory system that can distinguish the few bad apples from the bad barrels.

The point is that businesses are not widely understood to be radicals in any way.

Third, businesses have been known – for a century or so – as bastions of support for political conservatism.

Often, it is true, they have done this mainly for fear of the alternative. But it has usually been more than this. Businesses have been a bastion for conservatism in other ways too: business people have dressed conservatively. They have encouraged conservative living, thrift and hard work. They supported the status quo.

You might feel, after a century or so of business walking hand in hand with conservatism, that it would continue like that forever. But the signs are that a big change is happening, and there is no reason to think this is confined to the UK.

Something in that old relationship between business and conservatism has broken. Business wants openness to ideas. They want open borders. They want long-term thinking, not the insane short-termism of the political world. They increasingly want education that promotes practical vocations, rather than suppressing them. They want schooling that looks beyond basic skills – important as they are – and trains people to be entrepreneurial and creative, not just train them to mind machinery. In short, business is emerging as a different kind of political force altogether, and advocating something altogether more radical.

What is interesting about this shift is that it isn’t unprecedented. For most of the nineteenth century, business instinctively supported the radical force in UK politics. It was Liberal then, just as it is increasingly Liberal now.

But then, Liberals and Conservatives see business differently. Conservatism regards business as supporting the status quo. For Liberals, business has always been about change. It has always involved allowing new ideas to challenge old ones, for new innovations to challenge the entrenched ways of doing things. It has always meant that the small should be allowed to challenge the big. Conventional wisdom has to be challengeable, by ideas or entrepreneurs, which is why – as Karl Popper put it – open societies tend to be more adaptable than closed ones.

Conservatism wants business to achieve some sort of stability. Liberalism wants them to be resilient, aware that change comes from everywhere and is rarely predictable.

Victorian business, proud of and committed to their cities and towns, steeped in the ideals of self-help, was a radical force – politically Liberal, passionately committed to the idea that people should be able to do business where they saw fit, and determined to tackle the vested interests that prevented them (businesses are aware that there are rival vested interests out there now, just as there were in the nineteenth century). The political force behind ‘free trade’ has always been Liberalism. Free trade, that is, as it was originally understood – the right of the weak to challenge the strong.

If you are as fed up as I am by the assumption, particularly by the BBC, that business will always be Conservative - and the endless repetitive non-debate by the same old voices - then give the pamphlet a read.  And talk about it in public.

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1 comment:

Matthew Green said...

It is interesting that the journey of business people from Liberal to Tory is reflected in the Thatcher family history. Margaret Thatcher's father started out as a Liberal, and always maintained he stuck to old Liberal values. It was the Liberal Party that let him down. Mrs Thatcher, arguably, took these old Liberal ideas forward with her ideas on rewarding enterprise and giving everybody a chance to compete. But now it is the Conservatives that are letting business down - though our ideas of liberal values have moved on a bit from Mrs Thatcher!