Business on the couch

Capitalism in Contention

November 19, 1999

There is no simple depiction of business thought in modern Britain. It is a plural world: factious, often ill tempered, one industry against another,each region for itself, with civil servants and local-authority planners trying to put some shape around often incompatible demands. While many businesses have excellent relations with the public sector, there is also an undercurrent, almost a culture in some quarters, of hostility to government. A typical example was described in the Bolton Report (1971) as a feeling by many businessmen "that Westminster and Whitehall were on the look-out for every opportunity to destroy some element of small business". This sense of grievance, given most samples of business views, would translate well to the moan lists of middlebrow newspapers: taxes, government, paperwork, imports, other businesses, excessive pay in the public sector; but for which business acumen and endeavour would be more successful.

Fortunately, British business has associational and sectoral organisations that speak to members' concerns, and provide a forum for social events, and it is from these that much agreement has evolved between government and business. The Confederation of British Industry, and others of similar status, are responsible for the more lucid expressions of what business thinks. But they cannot overcome the fraught nature of inter-firm relations, and the obvious fact of conflicting ideas about what government should do. These business organisations include numbers of prima donnas, who think they would do a better job of sorting government out than their executive, and who threaten to resign when faced with policies they dislike. This has enfeebled business thought. The fall in morale at the CBI in the 1980s was a casualty of internal wars. Moreover, business often shows little understanding of long-term trends, and, judging by bankruptcy reports, of even basic management. So anyone coming to study business ideas will benefit from academic training and knowledge.

What might good practice be? As so many business ideas need amplifying and rethinking to bring out their logic and significance, it may be that a narrow compass, a particular region or industry, is more productive, and better value for teaching purposes, than taking on the country. This angle was well illustrated in John Foster and Charles Woolfson's The Politics of the UCS Work-In (1986), which explored the disintegration of old Clydeside and the problems of the ancient families of Lithgows, Colvilles, etc, struggling to adapt rambling family businesses in heavy industries. They were faced with pushy US and foreign business, backed by government. These ignored agreements between Clydeside firms on labour costs. As one banker noticed, these Americans played ping-pong using tennis rackets. The UCS book puts the mass of ideas in context, brings out their origins, explains why government picks up some and not others. By the time the reader arrives at the UCS battlefield, the points at issue are clear, and thus why, ultimately, Jimmy Reid, the workers and the old families would disappear into the history books.

Jonathan Boswell and James Peters in Capitalism in Contention are nothing if not ambitious. They are against using conceptual frameworks from economists, sociologists and political theorists, preferring to avoid "pre-judging business social ideas". They include much that is relevant to business, including the outward-looking and the paternalistic, and move freely to grand politics; they utilise their own typology for business ideas, categorising various strands of thought as ideal types, contrasting,for example, revisionists (working with government for common ends) with the 1980s liberationists.

Boswell and Peters have a familiar problem: many businessmen are not prepared to commit their ideas to paper and will not give much away in interviews beyond the anecdotal. The ones who do may not be the more important. Some firms do have excellent strategic material in their archives, and some businessmen will speculate on their social role, though,sadly, many capitalists find this unsettling. Where you may find more discussion is from those who have been seconded to government, as they will be required to argue positions in depth. But again, apart from a range of memoirs of varying quality, one always wonders about the contribution of business ideas to government, given the sophistication and range of the civil service and academic advice.

The authors deal with some of this problem by paying particular attention to the CBI and similar organisations. They have also accessed other individuals' archives. This enables them to throw light on the degree of influence exercised by business, although their hold on this is patchy. We are faced with questions about other influences. Further, it is not always clear whether we are dealing with pressure driven by fundamental ideas, or short-term worries about this or that government initiative.

Many matters are treated in a cursory fashion. The text would have been stronger had the authors reined in their enthusiasm for trying to precis. Many sections, especially in the first two chapters, would have benefited from rewriting and greater length. All too often, interesting ideas are left without clear signposts. It is often unclear which aspect of government legislation is in focus. For most crises since 1960 the authors bring something to the table, but not usually enough to work out how business interacted with the detail of government.

There are some strong sections. They have interesting material on the free marketeers, and on right-wing pressure groups. The chapter on a small group of "reconstructionist" thinkers is effective, and if the authors have extra material on these Christian and ethical businessmen (there were many more around than cited here), the subject would make an interesting monograph. Overall, business people's ideas are important for the growth of UK plc, and teaching business students more than nuts and bolts is no bad thing. This text is not as good a shop window as it might have been, had the authors concentrated on fewer themes, and written on them at greater length.

Richard Saville is lecturer in economic history, University of St Andrews.

Capitalism in Contention: Business Leaders and Political Economy in Modern Britain

Author - Jonathan Boswell and James Peters
ISBN - 0 521 58225 3 and 58804 9
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £45.00 and £15.95
Pages - 251

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