Opinion

Unfettered riches? That’s just bad business

Let’s stop creating such unsocial billionaires. It’s bad for all of us

Shopping around Debenhams and Arcadia brands will leave a gap in the market – what springs up in their place is up to us

Who didn’t I work for? From my work memory I recreate my brief time in the counting house of Debenhams as we witness its decline into troubled waters.

Back then, aged 19, I masqueraded as some kind of clerical assistant. All I remember though is that I was royally punched on the nose and knocked to the floor by a short, powerful man who objected to my antisemitic joke, back in those days when I was an unreconstituted racist. This ended my time at the Debenhams empire of department stores, and in some ways the punch on the nose may well have led me towards my later conversion to anti-racism.

The demise of Debenhams and Sir Philip Green’s Arcadia empire drives home the change in the way we shop. But it also drives home the way in which traditional businesses of long standing can be turned into new ruses for offloading debt. And making big money for new short-term minded investors.

One wonders if it was within the gift of Sir Philip, for instance, to cough up from his own resources the £30m that would supposedly allow his empire to carry on until into the New Year. Certainly his earlier spending of a reported £6.5m on a joint party for his 60th and his beloved daughter’s 21st birthday in 2012 shows he can flash the money around when required.

Once upon a time the then-prime minister Mr Edward Heath could describe some dodgy business practice as “the unacceptable face of capitalism”, as if to underline its rarity of occurrence. The argument in the Seventies was around the arrival of ‘asset strippers’ who could see value in troubled companies and just cream off bits, leaving the rest of the business to flounder. Now business has marched on and new ways of squeezing money out of traditional and time-honoured businesses have become an even cleverer art form.

Is there anyone watching assiduously, with power to intervene, over the companies that take enormous risks with their future? Often because the company board have enriched shareholders in the short term at the expense of business sustainability. Pensions should be protected before anyone else. But there seems little bite in pension authorities’ ability to stop bad business behaviour; however legal it may appear.

The near-death of the high street department stores may well have been coming, with the advent of the ‘armchair consumer’, a later version of the ‘armchair philosopher’ where movement is not required. But businesses straddled with devices to extract money from the older businesses must bring these businesses perilously near to legal and moral collapse. Perhaps one thing we have learned from the pandemic year we’ve gone through is the need for honesty and good social behaviour. To witness the collapse of big shops leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth. And hopefully, a forceful demand that we look into the entrails of the businesses to see how the blighters got away with it.

Depression, insecurity and a sense of loss that will grow out of job losses are things we need the government to get behind and prevent. Only they can make sure that we weather this change in circumstances. The appalling damage done by the pandemic should not be allowed to grind us down and destroy the wellbeing of us and future generations.

We must also remember at such times that unless we change our buying patterns we will see even more business tragedies

Morally poor business should not be allowed to triumph at this time. A lax legal system has facilitated the enriching of some at the expense of the many. Perhaps we need to demand stronger morally clear businesses.

Of course one of the big issues must also be how we control those that have been so advantaged by the online shopping boom. How we get them to pay for the damage caused by their sweeping success. The waste that is left in their wake is so socially damaging that it threatens to grow new poverty whilst they walk away with their new wealth.

Last week I wrote about Social Kindness breaking out throughout the year 2020. Maybe we also need to mention the outbreaks of ‘social unkindness’ that have left many struggling with a threatening year’s end.

But we must also remember at such times that unless we change our buying patterns we will see even more business tragedies. Tragedies for the people who work in enterprises that can be stripped of their assets for the advantage of the shareholders, without taking into account its workers.

How do we change our buying patterns? How do we support the small against the big? How do stop the asset-stripping that 50 years ago we saw coming down the line?  For all of the supposed protections we have loaded businesses down with in the years since, we do not seem to have stopped what Edward Heath warned us against so long ago.

The big lesson must though be, can we find a way of converting the new consumer trends of buying online to our social advantage? Admittedly there are new jobs created in vast warehouses. But what about the new jobs that will replace the old jobs that are not low paid?

We are buying differently. We are enriching people who we don’t particularly like. Where are the big social consumer fulfilment houses that we will need to build to stop all of our money ending up in the pockets of the one per cent who have never been high in our affections?

That really is a thing to reflect on as the online traders raid our high streets as we spend our money with them. So let’s stop creating such unsocial billionaires. It’s bad for all of us.

John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue

@johnbirdswords

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