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Hoses of the Holy in the Parallel Universe

May 20, 2005

Yanks for the memories

I've been discussing the Great Manchester United Robbery with Eric over at Diderot's Diary and something he said made me think about British attitudes to ownership and entrepreneurs.

There's always been a paradox in this country, with a strong contingent of forelock tuggers who think that share ownership, entrepreneurism and business are "not for the likes of us" (like the person who claimed that the "ordinary working class" people who watch Manchester United could never have bought enough shares between them to protect their club from the sharks); by the same token, we show very little respect for successful businessmen and women in this country - past a certain point.

Clive Sinclair, for example, who could have been a Jobs or a Gates, is really just a figure of fun in the UK, based on his ill-fated C5. Even though Steve Jobs claimed that cities would be designed around the Segway, people are still willing to take him seriously - yet nobody paid a blind bit of attention to Sinclair after the C5. Richard Branson, too, there's another one. Everybody hates him, don't they? And you just think of him falling out of balloons, when you think of him.

And everybody hated Robert Maxwell, even before it was discovered that he'd robbed the Mirror group pension fund blind.

One of our problems has always been that, once in a position of influence, wealth, or power, most people can't wait to stick it to everybody else. Management of British Companies is always conducted in a "them and us" atmosphere, which is why there were always so many stupid industrial disputes about whether windows should be open or closed, or whether it's acceptable to wear shorts.

I remember one manager at my first job who criticised me for not wearing a collar and tie. "When I was starting out," he said, "You might - might, if it was a very hot day, be allowed to open a window and hang your jacket on the back of your chair." When my next girlfriend encouraged me to wear a certain kind of shirt and tie, he called me back in his office to tell me that he didn't like my collars (buttoned down, it was the 80s) and he didn't like my ties (er... it was the 80s).

Another manager called me in to say that he'd seen me searching through files with one hand, that it looked too casual, that I should use two hands, in order to look busier. He was personally embarrassed, he said, to have employed me, when other managers were making remarks about my casual attitudes and appearance.

I like to think I was ahead of my time.

My point is that this is the kind of conversation that traditionally takes place in the British workplace. Not, "How can we make this better or do this better?" But, how can we manipulate the appearance of things to it looks like everything is going really well? No matter what your talents or abilities, if your face didn't fit, you were consigned to the mental trash can, while management went about the national business of mediocrity.

That's what the Thatcher era was all about: appearances. They gave the appearance of a strong economy by selling stuff off and using the money raised to plug the gaps. Never mind that for every 100 people living here, only 4 were engaged in actually producing something (probably 2 or 3/100 by now). As long as you could drive a flash German car and sport a flash Japanese mobile phone, wear a flash Italian suit, everything is righerrtt with the world.

But it's hard to get really worked up about anything when you know that, in the end, when the oil runs out, it's going to be horses and carts and growing your own vegetables. About that time, I will be living off blackberries from the brambles at the side of our house.


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