Old labels die hard(A)
Old labels die hard. Those of us who have been around for more than five decades remember the Labor Party of Britain as a socialist organization with an anti-business agenda. The Labor government in power now has abandoned that mission. Instead, as I saw during a recent visit, “New Labor” is trying to establish itself as a stanch friend and supporter of business enterprise.
Gordon Brown, Chancellor of the Exchequer, published a manifesto in which he declared that “we must forever renounce those old stereotypes” and embrace a new revolution designed to “unlock entrepreneurial ability.” To that end, the Chancellor opened Britian’s first National Enterprise Week celebrating young entrepreneurs and the fastest-growing inner city start-ups.
“When I was in school,” the Chancellor said, “no business ever came near my classroom. Fellow university students shied away from commerce in favor of the professions.” That’s changing, he added, pointing out that “now half our schools teach enterprise” and beginning next year, “every secondary school will offer pupils not just work experience but education in enterprise.” Brown’s program also calls for the introduction of enterprise partnerships with the United States. He pointed out that Britain’s rate of business creation is half that of the U.S. – and that, he said, “is simply not good enough.”
In time of course Britain may be able to develop its own Enrons and WorldComs. I saw good evidence that they are already on the way. In the 1990s the German car maker BMW acquired the Rover passenger car business. Failing to make a go of it and knowing the British affection for this brand, the Germans sold the company in 2000 to four Birmingham businessmen for a token price of 10 pounds (about $20 at today’s exchange rate) along with a soft loan of 427 million pounds.
The Birmingham Four have done little to revive the brand – sales are down, profits are non-existent – but they have managed to pay themselves handsomely. In 2003, for example, they took home three million pounds apiece (roughly $6 million dollars), which was more than double the pay of management board members at BMW. In addition, they have put 16.5 million pounds into a pension trust fund for themselves. Never mind about selling cars, just go for the money.
Meanwhile, the Labor Party was trying to protect the right of some British smokers to threaten their lives with this habit. Ireland has banned smoking in all public places including bars and restaurants. Scotland plans to do the same by 2006. But the Brits are fiddling with ideas for a ban that has exceptions. For example, smoking might continue to be allowed in pubs where cooked food is not prepared. This plan unleashed the legendary British sarcasm, delivered by Alan Coren, columnist for the Times of London, who wrote:
“Smoking is to be outlawed everywhere except in public houses where food is not prepared. The only food available will be crisps, pork scratchings, nuts – anything, in short, with enough salt, fat and sugar in it to make arteries crack like pipestems. Smokers will thus be corralled into places where they can not only inhale to their hearts’ discontent, but also gorge themselves on vast intakes of alcohol and crunchy snax until the walls have to be knocked down to allow them to squeeze out again….”
“These customers… will primarily be members of that underclass who have nothing else in their lives. What, therefore, the inspired White Paper is advocating is a joyous return to the lowlife stews of yesteryear, the pothouses and shebeens and boozers ankle-deep in spit-and-strawberry slurry, good enough not merely for the likes of them, but also for the likes of their betters, tottering out of their smoke-free Connaughts and Savoys and Annabels to cab themselves to their inbred conks, to the lower depths of Whitechapel and Shoreditch for a bit of slumming and a bit of rough.”
Bring back Charles Dickens!