Tuesday 23 April 2013

Small businessmen with small minds

Small business interests ought to enjoy more sympathy from Liberal Democrats. After all, they represent a Liberal ideal of small-scale, local economic power and are a preferable form of enterprise to large corporations.

Why do Liberal Democrats retain a lingering suspicion? The probable reason is a fear that small businesspeople are not just Tories but Poujadists, the sort of people Eric Idle moaned about in Monty Python’s Travel Agent sketch:
“...you get cornered by some drunken greengrocer from Luton with an Instamatic camera and Dr. Scholl sandals and last Tuesday’s Daily Express and he drones on and on and on about how Mr. Smith should be running this country and how many languages Enoch Powell can speak and then he throws up over the Cuba Libres...”
These suspicions will not have been allayed by the response of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) to the mock funeral of Margaret Thatcher held last week in the former coal mining village of Goldthorpe in South Yorkshire.

The FSB alleges that the Goldthorpe protest, which was broadcast around the world, will deter foreign investors from investing in Yorkshire.
[The FSB’s claim dominated last Friday’s edition of BBC1’s Yorkshire area local news programme Look North, which for some reason is not available to view on the BBC iPlayer.]
It is highly unlikely any foreign investor will be deterred, since such one-off protests would have no bearing on the sort of considerations investors normally make. There has been no serious investment in Goldthorpe since the pit closed in 1994. This suggests that the lack of investment has more deep-seated reasons, such as poor infrastructure, low levels of educational attainment and high crime.

People living in and around Goldthorpe must feel strongly resentful at their economic predicament, so last week’s emotional outburst was understandable. But their mock funeral, along with all the other anti-Thatcher protests last week, was a futile gesture. It was pointless because Thatcher has been out of power for 22 years. The point now is to contest the ideology not the person, and that requires a completely different strategy.

The obsequious tributes to Thatcher need countering, principally to challenge the widespread fallacies that Thatcher’s policies were inevitable and that her legacy remains permanent. But none of the street protests articulated any coherent criticism. Instead, they seemed to consist of warmed-over SWP slogans from the 1980s.

So the key thing about the protests is that they were ineffectual. Talking them up serves only to salvage them. Which is precisely the mistake made by the FSB.

The FSB succeeded only in extending the media coverage of the Goldthorpe protests by an extra day. It is behaving as if it were playing a computer game set in the 1980s called ‘Fantasy Union Bashing’. It has confirmed the worst suspicions about the political prejudices of small business people. This may be unfair, but the FSB should have considered the consequences for its reputation before it spoke.

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