Sunday, 8 March 2015

Why Do I Care?

One of my teachers used to explain his inability to solve a problem by saying he was "too close to the board". While attempting to contribute to Scotland's constitutional debate through this blog I feel like I've spent most of the last year with my face pressed firmly up against that board.  So excuse me while I wipe the chalk-dust off my nose and take a few steps back.

We all suffer from a tendency to have a view and then seek data and arguments to support it. Where economic facts are involved we should be able to control that tendency and apply rational objectivity - indeed that's what much of this blog has been about.  But when it comes to more subjective or judgmental issues none of us can be immune from our own preconditioning; we have instinctive reactions and then seek to justify them.

This matters.  We can argue about political policies and economic strategies, we can debate what our priorities should be, what trade-offs we should make - but if we ignore our fundamental differences in perspective we will never understand each other's positions.

I think I have something to contribute to the debate about the impact that businesses have - can have and should have - on our society. But I should be clear about my own prejudices; I need to explain a little about where I'm coming from.

I don't hold with the view that somebody should be embarrassed by a privileged upbringing.  Going to a good private school and enjoying an Oxbridge education shouldn't disqualify you from having a view on the needs of wider society.  You don't have to have been cold and hungry or to have come from a broken home before your are qualified to care for those who have.

But if you have it probably affects the way you think.

By the time I was 9 I'd had three dads, gained and lost a step-brother, had my first name changed once and my last name twice.  By the time I went to university yet another man (I'd never consider him a dad) was on the scene; he suffered from severe mental health problems.  Simultaneously (and not coincidentally) I watched a step-father (who I hated) mentally decay to the extent that his parents had to come and take him home.  I know something about the challenges that result from growing up in a dysfunctional, broken family. I also know a little about mental health issues, alcoholism, and domestic violence - but those are topics for another day.

I know what it means to have very little.  As a child growing up in Norfolk we lived in caravans, boats and various houses without electricity or running water.  For a brief period of time I went to primary school whilst living in a ridge-tent on the sea-cliffs at Mundsley (my mum & then step-dad lived in a ridge-tent alongside me).  I moved from primary school to primary school; I was the grubby, smelly and sometimes bruised child who teachers would worry about.  My school diary was a record of the life I imagined others must lead, not my own.

When I was 9 we moved to Islay:  a new step-dad, another new name, a new primary school, a fresh start. After living in another couple of caravans and a derelict house we eventually settled on the West of the island.  This meant one last primary school and - finally - a house with electricity, a flush toilet, hot running water, a television.  Trust me when I tell you that I still appreciate the differences those things make.

I was living on an Island with only one high school - so when my social worker mother picked clothes for me from the charity donation pile it was inevitable that I would end up sat in class enduring the mocking laughter of the kids who'd thrown out the clothes I was now wearing. I washed properly only once a week and my mum laughed at me when I decided to start cleaning my teeth.  I lived in a cold, filthy house that I was ashamed to invite friends to. I was on the bottom rung; social mobility is not an abstract concept to me.

If you think this all adds up to me having an unhappy childhood ... well you'd be right as it happens; it was fucking miserable.  But that's not my point. I never went hungry and there are plenty who have had it far worse than me. I'm not seeking sympathy here but I am sharing all of this baggage for a reason.

I'm not going to use this post to "sell" my business experience but suffice to say as a moderately successful businessman it's clear why I have a perspective on how businesses work (and sometimes don't work) and how business people think.  What might be less obvious without knowing something of my background is why I'm particularly interested in businesses' role in alleviating poverty and providing opportunity.

I care about the least well off not because I'm some bleeding heart liberal who's guilty about my cozy life; I care because I remember how shitty it can be to feel stuck at the bottom of the heap. I care about the role education can play as a stepping stone to creating a better life because I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to go to university and broaden my horizons.  I care about enterprise and entrepreneurship because I know from first-hand experience how rewarding and fulfilling it can be to create businesses.  I care about social mobility and providing opportunities to all because I believe passionately that where you happen to start from shouldn't limit where you might end up.

There are sound logical arguments for encouraging an enterprising culture in Scotland to drive economic growth ... but there are equally compelling compassionate arguments for pushing businesses to provide rewarding employment and offer pathways out of poverty.

The context of the independence referendum is significant here. Putting aside for a moment concerns about the false prospectus: a significant proportion of the 1.6m people who voted Yes appeared to do so because they believed any change must be better than what they have now. We can - as I often do - argue that they were misguided in that belief but we shouldn't lose sight of the underlying problem this vote highlighted. That hundreds of thousands of Scots feel so disenchanted with their lot that they will grasp at any chance of change must give us pause.

I think Scottish businesses can and should be seen to be playing a more positive role in building better lives for the people of Scotland. Education is - as ever - the key here: educating people to understand the positive role businesses can play and encouraging them to grasp entrepreneurial opportunities and engage in enterprise; educating businesses to adopt discretionary policies that improve employees' lives and provide opportunities to a wide spectrum of society; educating our policy makers to the realities of how business works and how legislation can support (or hinder) positive progress.

That's an ambitious set of objectives but it's all based on a simple belief: Good businesses do good.

You can expect to hear a lot more from me on this topic in the coming months.


Anonymous said...

Isn't it exhausting? Are you not tempted to simply up sticks and move to England? I think in all honesty it would have been better if Scotland left, had to face the reality of the choices it made. Both countries (rUK and iScot) could probably eventually have made a decent try of it, but with reality as the basis rather than festering nationalist make-believe stuff and paranoid self-pity which is not going to be resolved for decades.

James Howitt said...

How do you define "good"Kevin? That is not criticism btw, that is something I would be interested in you exploring; set against the duty to shareholders and what *seems* the overwhelming at times short term attitude in the UK.

Jason Hoffman said...

Kevin, it's clear from what you write that we all have a part to play in order to progress our society. And likewise we all have a right to good health, employment and education prospects, support when we need it and a pension to support ourselves in our old age.

And we do not live in a country that offers us that.

It's something to aspire to in Scotland but I would have to say England is not the nirvana of social democracy.

Mt Anonymous's statement surely is a piss-take. Maybe Kevin you like living in Scotland because its a diverse, cultured, educated and enlightened nation with good opportunities for your business, irrespective of where you were born. Scotland is not a festering cess-pit of misery with a population on the dole, sucking the life out of those jolly Englishmen who have to give them handouts. The paranoia, make-believe crap is something that many Unionists delight in spouting themselves and then claim that the Nats are the ones being exactly that. What a bizarre, miserable comment from someone who hides behind online anonymity. I have to ask that if so many Englishmen think so poorly about Scotland, why the hell did they make such a fuss about keeping the Union together?

Anyway but to your post, the reason that so many people in Scotland voted Yes was because of the desire for change in the face of an increasingly remote Westminster. Rather than the referendum killing the desire for change, the momentum has only increased since.

Until politicians and the media embrace this, take the time to understand why and finally do something about it, the electorate will continue to reject them. This is why Labour, the Tories and the LibDems will lose so many seats in Scotland - they offer nothing. The SNP, despite whatever you think of them, are offering change.

I'd personally love to see other parts of the UK - not just Wales and Northern Ireland but all of the English regions - express clearly their desire for a bigger say in their lives.

I am hoping that May will see a huge change in the make-up of Westminster and finally our government start listening and do something!

Anonymous said...

I can just about relate, old man (God rest his soul) was a fairly successful businessman. However, he operated on the principle of running zero debt, and, as such, ploughed every penny he made back into his business, leaving my own upbringing far, far from comfortable (ie, house falling to bits; bust plumbing and electrics; no heating. My enduring memory of my youth was being cold all the time).

And this is what makes me so sick of Labour and the SNP: the way they bang on about foodbanks and austerity and 'poverty', you would think we were living in the 3rd World. But the reality is that even the poorest in our society do not have such a tough time - financially speaking, at least - as I, and certainly you, and many, many other people of my generation and before had. Indeed, if you were to show someone from the real 3rd World - or even from the 2nd World - around the most disadvantaged areas of Britain, they would think they had landed in paradise (hence the reason, incidentally, that people from those areas are desperate - often at the risk of their own lives - to get in here).

This is not to say that there are not problems with our society and economy that need perpetual attention - dealing with such problems is the staple job of government, after all. But for political parties to portray everything as catastrophic when clearly it is not is deeply dishonest, smacks of political opportunism of the worst kind, and engenders a sense of grievance and entitlement amongst the lower reaches of society - when, in actual fact, a little gratefulness might be in order, as things could be, and were, a lot, lot worse. What Harold Macmillan said applies now more than ever.

In any event, thank you for another excellent, thought-provoking post.


J Mark Dodds said...

'Good businesses do good'. Spot on but a point missed by many people in charge of business. Good business is the future. It has to be because bad business has brought us to the brink of climate catastrophe.

Ron Sturrock said...

Health and Education are devolved issues, so are you blaming the SG in this regard?

In case you have forgotten, 63% of the popluation did not vote vote for independence.

Terry Summers said...

a very powerful statement. I commend your business principles , good businesses do good. Unlike Google's reported motto 'don't be evil' it has a resonance with some of the pioneers of enlightened business such as Owen and the Cadbury's.
Jason, o you have a problem with the English? From my recall the rUK comprises Wales & Northern Ireland as well as England.

Unknown said...

@Jason Hoffman

Why is it that nationalists can only talk Scotland up by talking England down?

There is no less a desire in England to see a society where one has the right to "good health, employment and education prospects, support when we need it and a pension to support ourselfs in our old age" than there is in Scotland.

The difference is in the manner in which voters across the UK believe this can be accomplished, and even then opinion fluxuates between center-right and center-left ideas from year to year with no settled agreement about how best to achieve the goals.

Nobody has ever said that England is a "nirvana of social democracy" by you seriously deluding yourself if you think Scotland is - the SNP themselves are not a true socialist party, they are populists who appeal which ever policy is most likes to get them elected, they did, after all, rise to prominence by filling the void in center-right politics caused by the collapse of the Tories as an electable force.

The idea that Scotland stands unique from the rest of the UK as being a place where socialists ideals can be aspired to where everywhere else - but chiefly England - scorns the very idea is a fallacy, and it is one built upon the most reprehensible of traits found in Scottish politics - anglophobia.

Ron Sturrock said...

It can’t have been easy sharing that with the world, but all kudos to you for doing so.

In response, one can try and empathise but I would suspect that most of us reading this, primarily from working class backgrounds, did not experience the living conditions and personal traumas of your childhood. However, please consider that all children from prosperous families are not immune from mental or physical trauma.

Education, as my parents insisted, was the key to a more fulfilled future, a dictum I believe still holds true. I’ve got to say it, “I didn’t get where I am today”

Your point regarding the education attainment of those from a privileged upbringing, should also recognise those parents who scrimp and save to give their children the benefit of a private education.

Concur with your business summary.

One of my favourite songs is “Cats in the Cradle” by Harry Chapin, I don’t want “my boy was just like me” I want him and her to be better than me.

jason hoffman said...

Kevin, so what specifically do you think businesses should be doing to have a positive impact?

Anonymous said...

That's frankly pathetic, 'festering nationalist make-believe stuff and paranoid self-pity which is not going to be resolved for decades.'

Your belief that due to exhaustion moving south of a line on map makes all the difference. What's pie in the sky is BritNat thinking that the glorious UK is somehow the epitome of the way to do things, that it couldn't possibly be run better from Edin than London.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
bucksboy said...

Decentralisation is no silver bullet. It brings its own problems too.

Most discussions about it are also framed around physical borders, the 'tried and tested' model for marshalling power.

This is not the only approach, or perhaps even an appropriate one in a world that continues to shrink and connections between populations are increasingly virtual.

Arguably it is just as reasonable to hand power to groups within society based factors other than where they happen to live (perhaps one of the most arbitrary attributes of single person's existence). It could for instance be based on particular needs during a person's lifetime, the powers in question would ne relevant to how a person may be living their life at that time (e.g. studying, retired, employed..) or perhaps the environment they live within (city / rural).

Why is it that land borders are the ultimate arbiter in terms of the division of power, maybe one of the least relevant ways to hand out power when it has never been easier for populations to move from one place to another.

Is it perhaps because it is the easiest way, the one requiring the least effort, or because it's just the way it always has been done and we only do it this way because we have never imagined another way to do it. It doesn't have to be that way.

People are happiest the more equal they feel with their peers, a postcode lottery therefore reduces happiness.

FF said...

That must have taken some effort to write,Kevin. Thanks for sharing it.

I too run a UK market business, probably with less success than yours, but facing the same issues around independence, but not exclusively that, as you explain on this blog.

Profitability is always important for any business but we should be motivated to create and do something good for the community, and I believe we are motivated in this way, more often than we are given credit for.

Great post.

Unknown said...

You are writing the best political discourse in Scotland at the moment.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for all your hard work Kevin. I had become tired of people refusing to look up the raw data and your site has been a godsend. Mostly for breaking it into manageable prose and providing good solid references.
That said, I do fear there is a good bit of reverse snobbery in this on going campaign and wonder if a person's privilege somehow disqualifies them from being recognised as a credible source. It's a shame really.

Edwin Moore said...

Excellent, thought-provoking post Kevin. Especially liked this

'There are sound logical arguments for encouraging an enterprising culture in Scotland to drive economic growth ... but there are equally compelling compassionate arguments for pushing businesses to provide rewarding employment and offer pathways out of poverty.'

PS - Have used Endura products for years - cycled from west end to HarperCollins Bishopbriggs for 18 years wearing Endura jackets, and i have a lightweight water repellent one stuffed in my rucksack as I hobble to Waitrose for the shopping!

Unknown said...

You are a coward who blocks people who ask you uncomfortable questions and proves your theories wrong. Using your mother as the causer of your disgusting ambition.

Unknown said...

@Unknown ... Says someone who blocked Kev after making stupid and unfair assumptions about him and refusing to answer an uncomfortable question. Who the hell do you think you are?