Just before Christmas 1843, London publishers Messrs Chapman and Hall published a book that sold half a million copies (and sold out) by Christmas Eve; to great acclaim (and with, I guess, not a few gnawed-at consciences) Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” had arrived.
As Londoners head for home this Christmas, after one of the most tumultuous years for the Capital, for our Country and for the World for some time, let’s take one of the great author’s ideas and ask those Three Ghosts to look at the business scene.
The Ghost of Christmas Past takes us back to the beginning of 2016; the Prime Minister and his Chancellor were riding high, having unexpectedly won the General Election some seven months before. UK Business was working out how to contend with the upcoming Apprenticeship Levy but given the many warnings of how training and upskilling were just not good enough (and the Country’s productivity was suffering as a result) and how the imposition of compulsory training by every employer (in the public sector as well of course) had been resisted for so long by the promise of putting their own house in order, they could hardly bleat.
Faced with Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition comprising one of the most anti-business, anti-wealth creation and anti-aspiration political parties ever, George Osborne set about shooting another Labour Fox and his Budget introduced a dramatic, though to be phased in over a few years, increase in the National Minimum Wage up to the levels of The Living Wage. To ask the employer to bear the burden of supplementing low pay rather than all taxpayers through the tax-credit system had considerable merit but the consequences remain to haunt the Economy. The Conscience of the Nation, the House of Lords, rejected the immediate reduction of tax-credits (it was not the Labour Party who did this whatever their convenient memories may say; it was many Tory and Liberal Peers who threw out the Bill) and so with other things on the Government’s mind the Chancellor gave up the fight and so we are left with inflationary, differential-busting pay rises to come with no commensurate tax credit reductions. Unless Business gets its productivity improving quickly there is big trouble ahead on this one.
And then came 23rd June! London got the shock of its life. The great economic Powerhouse of the UK, which had made a financial success of immigration and saw globalisation as a huge opportunity not a threat, lost out in the EU Debate to the rest of England and Wales. Business doesn’t like bad news but it prefers it to no news. It hates uncertainty, it likes to touch the bottom as it swims through the risk-taking waters of wealth creation. Predictability is much needed. To the Brexit mourners, to the Government, to all those who still hanker after a different result I say: SUMO….Shut Up Move On. We are where we are, turn all this to advantage, grasp the initiative and, as the Ghost of Christmas Present takes over from his shrouded predecessor, let us end the year realising that Brexit can give this outward-looking, globally-engaged Country of ours such a fabulous future if only we believe in ourselves but…..Mrs May…….GET ON WITH IT!
But Christmas Present will also point out another big challenge for Business. Its reputation. A businesswoman working hard, taking risks, employing people, training youngsters or a businessman putting his house on the line to make profit (not a dirty word Mr Corbyn) which generates tax which pays for schools and hospitals must shudder as the general public (and not a few politicians and the media ocean they swim in) believe a different portrayal. The perception is that Business is all about Sir Philip Green, Mike Ashley, the exasperating and inefficient call centres of mobile phone companies or banks or the tax-avoidance schemes of some multi-nationals; that apprenticeships are a world where someone gets out of a Rolls-Royce and shouts “You’re Fired!”
2016 has not been a good year for Business Reputation yet 99% of businesses are wonderful organisations, essential to our Country and the bedrock, the epicentre of local communities without whom there would be no jobs in the private sector and, because of the tax they generate, no jobs in the public sector either.
Lastly we are led by Charles Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come into next year. What will this Phantom reveal? British Business has shown itself so much more resilient than the Experts (remember them?) and the Remainers would have had us believe. The UK Economy is in good shape with unemployment down again, exports up and confidence steady. As for the pound, there isn’t an exporter around (nor a UK tourist destination or University with overseas students) who isn’t smiling.
There will be a lot of choppy water in 2017; how will a Trump Presidency develop? I believe he will turn out to be quite a business friend to the UK (after all, US companies are the largest investors in this Country and 4 million Americans go to work every day for businesses headquartered in the UK). But his protectionist promises do not auger well for us; we do not need an America taking its bat and ball home; we need a free-trading World not a beggar-thy-neighbour protectionist group of democracies pandering to base instincts.
We are one of the most globally-engaged countries on earth; globalisation was made for us; Brexit was never about isolationism; indeed it is about wriggling out of the growth-inhibiting shackles of an EU marching valiantly towards 1970 and doing what we have always done well: trading with the World on terms we agree, not some unelected civil servant in Brussels who most certainly does not have our best interests at heart. We need quality, skilled immigration but controlled by our elected Government. We need to continue to be a beacon of tolerance in a nasty World.
But our Third Apparition says goodbye with a warning that we will be foolish to ignore. The Brave New Brexit World that will provide for our grandchildren, the success of our schools and our beloved NHS, the ability to provide pensions and care for generations to come all hinges on vastly increasing our productivity as a Nation. Getting more out of the pound we invest or the hour we work. We need our physical infrastructure quickly and radically improved; our roads, our airports, our railways, our ports and our energy generation. We need our human infrastructure improved as well; schools which produce massively improved results in literacy and numeracy and computer skills would be a great start and then UK Business must step up to the plate and deliver the best trained workforce in the World. 2017 can be the year we start on that journey.
The short-sighted, besieged scales fell from Ebenezer Scrooge’s eyes as the Third Ghost left him. He had been shown a different World and he went out into the snow and started to make a difference. That is what UK Business can do in 2017; we need some help, we need some understanding and we need us all to pull together
In the last words of Dickens’ great Christmas work: “And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!”