Leading Article: Avarice and altruism

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The Independent Culture
THE STORY of the John Lewis Partnership is a parable of our times. The chain of department stores (and Waitrose supermarkets) has been managed for the last 70 years by a trust acting on behalf of its employees. Jobs have been secure, wages good, employee benefits - including annual bonuses and access to the trust's holiday homes and yachts - excellent.

But now the bug of demutualisation has bitten. "Partners" could get up to pounds 100,000 each if the company were to follow the pattern set by the demutualisation of housing associations, insurance firms and, most recently, the Automobile Association. And, like so many others, they are falling prey to "rational self-interest"; but then, how many people would turn down such big cheques in order to ensure future generations got the same conditions of work?

At the heart of this internal company debate lies the future of altruism. One suspects that, despite the support given by yesterday's council meeting, the Partnership will eventually convert to a plc. Then, as jobs are cut and multinationals sniff a new target, we shall mourn its passing. This quaint, if successful, survivor of the Edwardian era will surely prove powerless against the avaricious spirit of our age.

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