Wednesday, 2 July 2014

"Oh them? They're trade." Thoughts on who the Conservative Party is 'for'...


This post is a bit of a mish-mash - partly it bounces off Chris Dillow's idle considering of who the Tory Party is 'for' and partly it extends on my own musings about the continued disdain - from professionals and increasingly from public servants - for people who make their living running private businesses. A while ago I wrote about my mum having to use the 'tradesman's entrance' to deliver meals-on-wheels to the relicts of vice-admirals:

So mum delivered the dinners to these very posh ladies, so posh that, for one, mum had to go through the kitchen door. The front door was only opened for visitors and mum, for all that she was bringing the only hot meal that lady would get that day, didn't qualify as a visitor. Mum was trade. And trade used the kitchen door.

This was pretty typical of a 'certain sort' - there was something slightly grubby about the mundane business of producing and delivering the goods or services people need. And front doors weren't for that sort of thing. However, we should be more concerned by the constant drip of 'profit is bad' arguments emanating from the publicly-employed middle classes.  Partly this argument is a response to the perceived (wrongly perceived, I would judge) threat to these comfortable public servants that comes from the disruption of public monopoly - either by fiat through outsourcing and competitive tender or else through technology throwing up different approaches to the services those public monopolies deliver.

However, I was struck by this extract from an essay by Don Boudreaux about the work of Deirdre McCloskey on the reasons for capitalism's success:

Until the 17th century, those who earned their living through trade were the Rodney Dangerfields of their eras: they got no respect.  Merchants and other people operating on the supply side of commercial activities and transactions were tolerated.  But they were viewed and spoken of with contempt.  Unlike warriors who dirtied their hands honorably (namely, with blood), traders dirtied their hands dishonorably (namely, with profit).  Unlike the nobility who got their riches honorably (namely, by idly collecting land rents), merchants got their riches dishonorably (namely, by actively trading).  Unlike the clergy who won their rewards honorably (namely, by pondering the eternal), the bourgeoisie won their rewards dishonorably (namely, by responding to what Hayek later called “the particular circumstances of time and place”).

I would suggest the 'profit-is-bad' argument justifying public monopolies (and indeed justifying creating new public monopolies) still echoes what Boudreaux is saying - not simply the view that such a public monopoly in say transport systems is a better way to run those systems but that, by removing profit, the system is morally better regardless of whether the service it provides is improved.

We see, in the ever more shrill and strident verbal assaults on News Corp and the Daily Mail, another echo. Indeed, the attack on free speech implicit in the Leveson witch hunt should remind us that the target wasn't the press in general but the for-profit press and especially the part of the press making profits for Rupert Murdoch. The behaviour of The Guardian (owned by a trust) or the BBC (a public sector body) was not under scrutiny in this process because these are noble undertakings whereas Rupert and Paul are merely trade. Indeed the sneering dismissal of Rebekah Brooks on the basis of her working-class - 'trade' - roots amplifies the echoes of the time when business was grubby. Reading some pieces you can almost hear the shock at hearing Rebekah, the daughter of a 'tug-boat captain', was allowed in through the front door.

So when Chris Dillow observes in stumbling around the target audience of the Conservative party comments that:

Now, you might reply that this merely shows that Tories are the party not of big business but of economically illiterate little Englanders - hence its vulnerability to Ukip.

Even this, though, isn't wholly clear. Austerity has clobbered a lot of traditional Tory voters - older, wealthier people who have suffered from low returns on their savings. This makes me wonder whether our (OK my) longstanding prejudice is actually true. Maybe the Tories are not any longer the party of big vested interests in general.

...I am struck by the realisation that the Conservative party is 'for' (if that means much these days) people who work in the world of making goods and producing services that are sold in markets, some of which might be free and open. And the Conservative Party isn't just 'for' the owners and directors of these free enterprises but it is 'for' all the people who work in those businesses - from the boss to the tea boy, from the financier to the cleaner. In the broadest sense of the word, embracing the sneering meaning 'trade' held for many in the traditional elite and in the professions of law and medicine, the Conservative Party is 'for' trade and 'for' the people who engage in trade.

And I would like to think, against those people who literally or metaphorically make people like my Mum use the kitchen door.


1 comment:

Junican said...

What makes things even worse is that many of this aristocratic elite are actively engaged in making the ability to 'trade' harder and harder.