A Nation of Shopkeepers?

So Napoleon famously mocked the English, or so it is said. Actually the phrase came from Adam Smith in the Wealth of Nations, where he wrote — “To found a great empire for the sole purpose of raising up a people of customers may at first sight appear a project fit only for a nation of shopkeepers. It is, however, a project altogether unfit for a nation of shopkeepers; but extremely fit for a nation whose government is influenced by shopkeepers.” Napoleon may have taken up the phrase, and used it, but I seem to recall that actually his tone may have been rather more respectful than is general believed. Still, whatever the truth, has anyone wandered down the Regent Arcade, Cheltenham recently? It was Lisa who pointed out to me the large number of empty shops — when this happens to Cheltenham, you have to wonder. I think I might try soon to interview either the Town Centre Manager or the Economic Development Officer for the borough, though to be fair they probably have rather more important things to do. Cheltenham has weathered the recent economic storms quite well, but the changes are visible on the High Street, and a host of innovative new shops appear to be opening to offer the cheapest of the cheap to the once prosperous shoppers of this fine city. I’m not moaning, as I say, Cheltenham is still much more prosperous than most places, even if that prosperity is rather unequally divided among its citizens, with areas of (in 21st century terms) deprivation, but nothing like the real poverty of some cities districts.

I’m moved to write by something I read yesterday, by of all people Prime Minister David Cameron. Amid much nonsense (he seems to think businessfolk are motivated by altruism and social concern, and the belief they might be motivated by personal gain is “dangerous”!) he accused the British of having a snobby anti-business attitude — and I happen for once to agree. In fact it has often been said that I have a Cavalier attitude to work, and I don’t think those who accused me of idleness realized how right they were. The real “cavalier” attitude of the Seventeenth century, but which existed for centuries before and centuries after, was that Trade and Commerce were little better than manual labour, being the lot of the unwashed asses, and certainly not at all respectable. One did not worry about where one’s money came from: and one certainly did not indulge in crude money making schemes. One sets one mind on “higher concerns”, and academia, the clergy, government or administrative posts are just fine, as is a career in the Armed Forces — but running a business? That is for peasants! 😀

For all their aristocratic aloofness, the ruling class of England have actually never been adverse to owning money. If they had adopted Apostolic Poverty one might have more sympathy for them, but the cavalier attitude of anti-trade that I am said to be (mistakenly, but according to my friends) an arch-exponent of was always tempered by a desire to live well and have plenty of money. Historically one achieved this by various means, such as marrying well, inheriting vast amounts of money, exploiting the labour of the lower classes, gambling, carving out a private domain in some other foreign lands and if worse came to the worst investing in some scheme or other. (I guess nothing changes much 😉 ) Jokes aside, there has always been an element of the British upper class who have troubles themselves with improving crop yields, creating new machines to make labour more efficient, and running commercial concerns, and another element who have jumped on get rich schemes like the infamous South Sea Bubble, or the Dotcom Bubble.

Generally though Cameron is right – historically there has been a desire to own land, avoid grubby commerce, and spend ones time in other pursuits, such as chasing members of the Vulpes family, chasing a Mr Darcey (or young actresses), snoring through sermons or engaging in heroic-age science, like that of Buckland, Darwin or Kelvin. Yet despite this, Britain had developed, even in those cavalier times, a great tradition of tradesmen, artisans and merchants, and in fact by the time of Napoleon we had half the population of France, but greatly exceed it in industrial output.

And in fact our great Empire, and all the abominations which came with, was founded on trade and commerce: Napoleons was at least based on the ideological principle of “Liberty, Fraternity, Equality” albeit much tempered with his dynastic ambitions and the inevitable rise of the bourgeoisie. The British Empire was a trading empire – the vast wealth of Victorian England founded on the horrors of colonialism, and the good things which came from it too, as well as the wonders of the Industrial Revolution. And the Victorians knew that, and many of them, like Prince Albert, believed that trade and commerce were the way the world could be improved not just for the British but for all, and knew that commerce and industry underlay the great literature, judicial and engineering achievements of their rapidly improving world. Faced with global warming, pollution and scientific atrocities we fear technology and progress: most of our ancestors seem to have embraced it lovingly with a feeling of optimism, with the exception of those dispossessed and ruined in the name of progress. We are all Luddites now, compared with the world known by H.G.Wells.

In recent decades we have seem something of a return to the world of HG Wells – in the last few years I have watched with wry amusement the rise of the New Atheists, whose faith in Science is untempered by the horror the previous generations felt at a world where ‘progress’ had led to the threat of nuclear ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’. In the 1960s and 1970s a lot of popular music looked to a lost Eden, and pre-scientific Golden Age that never was; an Atlantis of “Merry England”. The Hippy/New Age advocates of that generation were castigated by the punks, but it is the New Atheists who really embody the reaction against this mythic woo, and fervently embrace the hope that Science van lead us forward, as it has extended our lives, saved us from the ravages of disease and fed millions. It’s hard not to sympathise with their optimism and hope, rather than the doom laden nay-saying of the hippies. I am thinking of things like Eve of Destruction (YOUTUBE sound link) by Barry MacGuire, or In the Year 2525 (Exordium & Termius) (YOUTUBE sound link) by Zager & Evans, typical of the apocalyptic end of that era.

Now the old post-war critiques of science as enslaved by what the hippies called the “Military-Industrial complex” are largely forgotten I think – certainly the rhetoric of the New Science fans tends to look to what I have termed the “heroic age” of 19th century gentleman scientists of independent means, not the reality of commercially driven science research programmes of today, but the point could be made there is little scope for the amateur scientists these days, with a few exceptions – astronomy still throws up discoveries by empirical observation by the amateur, and the natural historians still do invaluable work as do volunteer conservationists learning about ecological systems, and the Zooniverse Project is an amazing example of what can be done with public participation, as was the recent work in protein chain folding by gamers. Science is hip, and the fact that for many science graduates the career outlook is very bleak indeed is largely overlooked.

If there is part of our society that is invaluable but has really suffered from a loss of prestige, I’d say it was the poor engineers. Engineers used to be heroes, and still should be, but outside of late night cable TV shows, when did you last see a big name British engineer lauded? In the 19th century we produced an awesome crop of engineers, with a disproportionate number of Scottish or Welsh, and yet nowadays engineering seems to be neglected, unless you happen to create microcomputers. I’d love to see greater public awareness of the amazing achievements of the engineers of the past, and even more so greater public appreciation of what engineers continue to do for us today, but somehow I doubt any will be pushing Cheryl Cole off the covers of the tabloids soon…

David Cameron - from Wikimedia

So is the British attitude to commerce and wealth creation really ambivalent? Hating investment bankers has certainly become a national sport (with some good reason I fear) but actually we have long been pretty negative about the world of business. I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s, and the TV dramas of the period often had villains who were corrupt amoral grasping businessmen, or mad scientists. Was there any thing extolling business? Perhaps Dallas from the USA, or are more parochial Crossroads Motel, but as far as sitcoms go there were leftist gentle critiques of our rat-race like The Good Life, and Rightist critiques embodying cavalier attitudes like To The Manor Born? Actually Only Fools and Horses gently mocked the yuppy mentality, and Open All Hours and Are You Being Served? arguably at least showed businessfolk as heroes, but the inherent drama of the Public Sector jobs in The Bill, London’s Burning, Casualty, Soldier Soldier and other shows arguably did a great deal to gain public respect and lead to the pay rises and improved conditions public servants gained in the last three decades. I would not push it too far – I doubt many peoples career aspirations were shaped by Porridge!

The social class struggle in the English sitcom still awaits a definitive treatment – Polly Cox did good work on it in her undergraduate dissertation, but I have seen little since. Still, business does not come off well in our popular culture, even in the yuppie 80’s. Now for Prince Albert there was a great hope that trade and commerce would build a peaceful world, and the Victorians seem to have seen globalization as benign and a huge positive — something few do today it would seem, but Albert’s beliefs were something along the lines of the modern adage that no two countries with a Macdonalds have ever fought a war, though since the 90’s that is no longer true. It is however a tempting vision of peace and prosperity, and today I don’t think many people see business as a major benefit – most kids really do seem to regard employers as oppressors, which in an increasingly de-unionized society could happen. There are still good employers out there, and millions of people who love their jobs though.

So yes, Cameron is probably right – and the division between the commerce loving right and the commerce hating right may have been healed, with everyone an heir to Thatcher, Blair and Cameron at least. Us Britons are not enthused by wealth-creation – we want instant gratification, via the National Lottery, instant fame by the X Factor or some other get -rich-quick-scheme like those Del-boy and Rodney dreamed of. More interesting to me is the changing social attitudes, the different heroes of each generation.

In the 19th century industrialism was associated with horrors, but actually Whig Liberals and Fabian Socialists, left-leaning Nonconformists such as Unitarians and Quakers, owned and built many of the great mills, and many did much to try and help the poor trapped in the industrial city hellholes with their philanthropy and model communities. Their fate was probably at times little worse than those left to starve in the countryside in the agricultural slump of the 1880’s, where right-leaning Tory squires likewise did much to assist in some cases.

Where are we now? I think Cameron should be mollified – while I despise The Apprentice, a lot of people love it. Alan sugar, Richard Branson, even dare I say it Clive Sinclair, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates – all household names, all major entrepreneurs, seeming loved, even idolised by the public. There is perhaps a new enthusiasm for business; or was, when The Apprentice was conceived in 2004. I remember hearing from a Commisioning Conference that TV back mid-last decade was to be “aspirational” – that was the buzzword. The crash of 2007 caused it to falter, and perhaps now the slump has killed it, but I think last generation was in the UK broadly that. It was the decade when grunge was abandoned by students in favour of a lifestyle more like Friends — and when I see students now, they look attractive, well dressed and wealthy, far more so than in my day — because their expectations were shaped by two decades of wealth from the businesses they despise now.

I started this ramble, which in no way should be mistaken for a coherent critique – I was thinking as I wrote — with Cheltenham. Cheltenham today is arguably one of the very few pieces of evidence for the trickle down effect, where the poor benefit from the rich, working spectacularly. What could have been a tiny market town much like Tewkesbury benefited from the immense wealth of the 18th and 19th century visitors, and the quack spa cures they enjoyed. It’s a town built on “alternative medicine”, and on snobbiness, but it is a lovely place to live. Ironically it was never much of a producer, or manufacturer, until well after it was wealthy – Dowtys and others went on to make it a major manufacturing centre, but Cheltenham was really little more than a quack cure super-casino for dilletantes to pursue each other, find mistresses and enjoy the snobbery of their exalted social position. Thanks to the generosity of James Agg-Gardner, Baron Ferrieres and others who donated and subscribed to the parks and museums, art gallery and library, we all benefit from that past, and reading the towns history there was little oppression and a lot of opportunity, albeit with much horrible poverty and illness, for the poorer inhabitants.

I’m left wing as most of you know, but Cheltenham does seem to show that business is not all heavy industry, investment and mercantilism – there is room for prosperity based on a service culture of entertainment, so long as wealth is being created **somewhere** to be spent here. So come back Cheryl Cole, all is forgiven, and come and spend a few million in our town. Maybe Cameron forgets that in some industries, like pop music, TV, and entertainment software, services and tourism, we are still world class business folks.

I think it’s gonna be OK, but I was always an optimist.

cj x

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About Chris Jensen Romer

I am a profoundly dull, tedious and irritable individual. I have no friends apart from two equally ill mannered cats, and a lunatic kitten. I am a ghosthunter by profession, and professional cat herder. I write stuff and do TV things and play games. It's better than being real I find.
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One Response to A Nation of Shopkeepers?

  1. Matt murdoc says:

    As much as I try to avoid politics, this was a good read. Cheers Chris x

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