Feb 26 2012: Monochrome Photograph of Six Businessmen With Flowers (October 31st 1957)
Much of the dissatisfaction with the world of business in 2012 comes less from a critique of the capitalist system itself as a sense that the motives of those running it have changed: there’s a real case to answer, since following the deregulation of the City in 1986 financial engineering of various kinds tended to become the big money-spinner, and it’s arguable that instead of a system that (to some extent, anyway) encouraged the building of actual businesses, a short-term mentality – in which takeovers, asset-stripping and resale of businesses became the primary engine driving share prices – the ‘Big Bang’ of 1986 led directly to the 30-year period in which leveraging debt and creaming off profit became the standard methodology for those seeking quick returns. But while deregulation can be seen to have heightened these practices, it’s not quite as certain that any particular golden age preceded it. Even in the 1950s, when the photograph of six solidly responsible businessmen above was taken, various kinds of corruption were far from unknown: a previous post touched on the story of Ernest Marples, the Conservative Transport minister who set the terms for Dr Richard Beeching’s subsequently notorious report that led to the decimation of the British railway system, whose private interest in roadbuilding (through ownership of Marples-Ridgway), undoubtedly shaped the decision to exclude every criteria other than economic viability from the terms of Beeching’s remit in order to ensure motorways would dominate public policy (to the direct financial benefit of the minister himself) over the decades that followed. Equally well known is the corruption in public housing and buildings contracts represented by the activities of men like T. Dan Smith and John Poulson during the 1960s, though whether their actions were personally corrupt, or – as both maintained – necessary ways of getting things done within a system that was already corrupt, is something of debatable point, and one that remains of live relevance in an era where public contracts are being put forward for sale to often unaccountable private contractors. Whatever the truth, it’s clear that even in the days of solidly respectable businessmen like those seen above, when banks built their high street branches with stone neo-Classical facades to emphasise their permanence and stability, the power of private finance to corrupt remained a constant background to public life. Perhaps all the deregulation of the 1980s really did, and continues to do, was to legitimise and render this existing corruption the driving force of much public policy while ensuring that rather than hold it to account, we simply accept it as inevitable. It isn’t, of course. But a population that expects better of its politicians, businessmen and institutions is also an electorate that will be more inclined to hold them to account. In this light, it’s worth considering carefully exactly whose interests political cynicism actually serves.