Who was in the driving seat?

Some thrived, some fell off the edge. Over the next three pages we look at the UK's business personalities of 1997
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The Independent Online
At the height of the Thatcher boom in the mid-1980s it seemed as if the Government and the businessmen close to it were driving events. This year it seemed as if events were driving business leaders.

The drama was in the stock markets. The first half of the year produced almost giddy rises, as the FT-SE, Dow, and bourses round the world surged. In the second half the Asian crisis revived memories of the 1929 Wall Street crash and the Thirties depression.

In the event the bears were proved wrong. In London last week the All- Share Index hovered just 5 per cent down from its 1997 peak. On Wall Street the S&P index touched a new high.

In Europe over the past 12 months the single currency dominated headlines. For all the lingering ambivalence, the rest of the world increasingly views the euro as a done deal.

When it comes in 1999, 40 per cent of world finance will be denominated in the euro, another 40 per cent in the US dollar, while the remaining 20 per cent will be denominated in yen, Swiss francs, and minor currencies. This reality will trigger a shift of as much as $1trn of international money into the euro.

In May New Labour's business-compatible government came to power. Now the honeymoon is over the national agenda is focused on sorting out the contradictions of Blair's programme. How, over the medium term, is New Labour going to square the circle of the party's ethical foundations with the Thatcherite notion of turning Britain into an internationally competitive powerhouse? The economic ramifications of this question will dominate home news in 1998.

If the Government can reconcile past and present, there is little doubt Britain has the creative energy to compete internationally.

But the wellspring of British creativity, from Johnny Rotten to today's techies churning out computer games in their attics, is anti-corporate. The acid test facing New Labour is the reformulation of Britain's anti- corporate genius for a world in which the transnational corporation has become the basic economic unit.

How difficult this will be can be seen from the list of personalities dominating the business news this year. A disproportionate number are individuals who have beaten the corporate system, not reinforced it. Others are imports. None come from the high-tech industries spurring global economic growth in 1997.

There is a sickening glorification of businessmen in America. But the corollary is the secret ingredient of the country's economic power. Much of the US regards Clinton and Washington as laughing stocks or nuisances. America is run by the senior managements of its multi-layered corporate community.

Britain would not wish to ape the US as a corporate state, even if it could. But if New Labour's "project" is to succeed, Blair must find a way to fashion Britain into its own kind of corporate state. Britain needs more heads of its biggest and fastest growing companies dominating the news.

PETER KOENIG

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