Do you sincerely want to be rich?

`As a society, we are saying that we don't want loyal, hard-working sloggers; we just want mercurial entrepreneurs'
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The Independent Culture
POLITICAL REVOLUTIONS come in many forms, from violent to velvet, but at least when you are in the middle of one you know it. With social and intellectual revolutions it is different, for they creep up on you. It becomes impossible to have much perspective on them when you are in the middle of the changes, or even to be aware that there is a revolution taking place.

But we are in one now, as Gordon Brown knows. Let's call it the enterprise revolution, because that is the sort of buzz-word that this Government likes, though I think it may come to be thought of as the second stage of the Thatcher revolution. If Margaret Thatcher expanded the role of the market in shaping the economy, Gordon Brown seeks to expand the role of the market in shaping society.

Really? Well, yes. Take three elements of the Chancellor's proposals on Tuesday and follow through their social consequences: employee shares, entrepreneurship, and employment more generally. Share ownership first.

Companies can give employees a wodge of shares tax free and employees can buy more on the same tax basis if they want to. Think through the social consequences of that. For a start, if companies are allowed to do so there will be enormous pressure from employees to push their employers into action. The scheme has to be for all, so quite suddenly every single employee of a firm has a common goal. The workforce is unified in the pursuit of share ownership.

Next, the share performance of a company suddenly becomes relevant to all, not just to the handful of senior executives who get share options at present. So the pursuit of shareholder value, the thing that management is supposed to deliver, now becomes an objective for the workforce as a whole. That is going to affect recruitment; people will seek to work for companies that are likely to make them rich, not just those that offer apparently attractive salary packages.

It does not stop there. What about people in jobs where they cannot own shares in their employer? These include the entire public sector. The Chancellor is, in effect, saying to all public-sector workers: "Sorry, chums, we are going to create a society where private-sector workers have special privileges that you can't have. Tough." Of course, it is not put that way, but that is the inevitable result. The more successful the scheme, the greater the gulf it will create between private- and public- sector workers.

Other groups are excluded: people working for partnerships or mutual organisations. The law of unintended consequences suggests that this plan, if it is really successful, will sound the death knell for any remaining building societies or mutually owned life assurance groups, for they will be under powerful pressure, not just from their members but also from their employees, to float on the stock market.

In short, if this scheme is a success, and experience with the Chancellor's various little wheezes does suggest that we should wait to see the fine details of the plan before making a judgement on that, it will significantly widen the divisions in our society.

Element two: entrepreneurship. The celebration of entrepreneurs was surely the most remarkable element of Gordon Brown's entire speech. He bemoaned the fact that we have only half as many business start-ups as the US, and that our venture capital industry is half the size. This socialist Government of ours is now furiously trying to train more would-be entrepreneurs, and find ways of using taxpayers' money to help them get the seed capital to set up on their own. This is a radical change even from the supposedly pro-small-business ethos of the last Tory government, and light years away from the attitudes of the last Labour government. Rhetoric matters, and it is now clearly fine to become a fat cat provided you do it by working for yourself in a small business, rather than working for an employer in a large one. Set up a business, sell out for a few million, and you are a hero. Make the same total return by slogging away in an established enterprise, and the chances are that you will be branded as greedy. But what is really more help to society: to start a software company writing video games, or to run one of our big banks really well?

There are lots of reasons to support new businesses. The most obvious is that they are the main generators of jobs. Small businesses on balance create new jobs, while large ones on balance sack people. If you net out the pluses and minuses, all the new jobs we are creating in this country come from small enterprises. So there is sound economic logic behind the Chancellor's rhetoric. But think of the social consequences. Politicians' words may not matter as much as they think they do, but they do help to shape social attitudes. People don't like being sneered at and they do like being praised. So it will become harder to persuade good young people to join large firms and stick at it, because the glittering peaks of that sort of career - the seat on the board - suddenly look rather less attractive. It will be easier to persuade young people to chop and change jobs, grab what knowledge they can of how businesses work, and then have a crack on their own.

As a result, we are as a society saying that we don't want loyal, hard- working sloggers; we want mercurial, have-a-crack-at-it entrepreneurs. That is fine for some, the people who have the self-confidence and the ideas to make it on their own. Remember the gilt-dealer in Michael Lewis's wonderful book on investment banking, Liar's Poker? He was offered a better job by a rival firm and his boss made the mistake of trying to appeal to his loyalty to the firm to get him to stay. His immortal reply: "You want loyalty; hire a cocker spaniel." But society needs loyal sloggers, too.

Finally, element three of Mr Brown's peroration: the sanctity of a job. He is proud that we have a higher portion of the population in work than at any time in our history. Not only is unemployment to be eliminated, but anyone who can work is to be encouraged to do so. Again, this makes economic sense. Given the inevitability of an ageing population, one important way to make it possible to increase living standards is to ensure that everyone who can work does so. The only way we shall be able to afford to look after those who cannot work, will be to keep those who can in jobs.

Few people will be in favour of the idea that taxpayers should support the lazy and the work-shy, and Mr Brown's notion of making people suspected of defrauding the taxpayer sign on for benefit every day received a good response. But we should be aware that those without paid work are not necessarily useless drones. We all know people who have done little conventional work but have made enormous contributions to the happiness of others. What is at the moment a sensible and honourable effort to get people into jobs could slide into something harsher, ultimately destructive of society. We need to keep a little slack in the way we live and work - maybe not as much as now - to keep it sweet.

Meanwhile, the revolution marches on. It is a journey from which we cannot turn back. It is a journey that will create a different sort of country, as different in 20 years' time as we are currently different from the Britain of 1979. Kind of scary, isn't it?

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