Ebenezer Scrooge: Green, and not so mean

Is it time to reclaim Dickens's 'miser' as a heroic entrepreneur and pioneering eco-activist?
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As Mr Ebenezer Scrooge sits down to his 164th Christmas dinner tomorrowhe may be forgiven for thinking that the world has treated him badly. No contemporary business leader has been more cruelly misrepresented or more unthinkingly lampooned. Many of our mostcelebrated artists have subjected him to the most merciless caricature. Legions of actors - everyone from Sir Alec Guinness and Alastair Sym to Bill Murray - have cheerfully traduced him on stage or screen. The standard biography - Professor Paul Davis's The Lives and Times of Ebenezer Scrooge, written without its subject's connivance - is no more than a succession of slurs. Even his name has become a byword for the worst kinds of penny-pinching and ground-down meanness of spirit.

A less sharp and circumspect operator would long ago have had recourse to the law, but Scrooge - thankfully for his detractors - has never been a litigious man. As for his own failings, his only crime has been to maintain a series of undeviating business principles without regard to passing fads and affectations. Perhaps it is merely that, even in this supposedly democratic age, no one likes a meritocrat - a meritocrat, more to the point, who has conquered spectacular adversity to reach his current resting place at the summit of our national life.

Perhaps wisely, Mr Scrooge has never spoken of his early career; neither has he attempted to disguise any of the psychological traumas with which it appears to have been hedged. An early biographer represents him as "a solitary child, ignored by his friends". Sent away to school by an abusive father, left for long hours in abandoned classrooms, he suffered further mental scarring through the premature death of a much-loved sister. A long-term relationship with a mysterious woman known only as Belle perished on a point of principle, Scrooge believing that he did not possess the resources needed to fund the lifestyle that she sought.

Scrooge instantly made his mark in commerce. After a successful apprenticeship at Mr Fezziwig's counting house, he proceeded into partnership with the late Jacob Marley. Something of the esteem in which Marley held his energetic younger collaborator may be gauged from the fact that, after his death, Marley was discovered to have appointed him sole executor, administrator and legatee of his will. Further poignance was added to this abrupt severance by Scrooge's decision to occupy his partner's home and to pay him the tribute of retaining his name on the firm's letterhead. He was once heard to remark that Marley was "always a good friend to me".

Undoubtedly this setback contributed to the psychological maladjustment and self-imposed sensory deprivation that certain critics have detected in him. But Scrooge did not repine. A less astute man would have retreated into himself, followed the prudent counsels of his early years. Scrooge, on the other hand, though burdened by the sole proprietorship of his company and a temperamental reluctance to delegate, embarked on a series of innovations whose radicalism is only now beginning to be appreciated by his commercial peers. He was one of the earliest environmental activists. In the London of pre-Clean Air Act days, when hundreds of tons of coal were burned daily, he made do with the smallest of fires, - his clerk's was smaller still - while his business premises were famous for their excellent air conditioning (as one observer put it, "He carried his own low temperature always about him") and imaginative use of space.

To proto-Green credentials, at a time when such things scarcely existed, can be added a reputation as a model employer. An independent survey conducted at Scrooge & Marley at the very beginning of his career disclosed that his head clerk received a salary of fifteen shillings a week - twice the national average - that he lived, additionally, in his own house rather than the slum tenements inhabited by the clerical class, and was able to care for at least one physically challenged dependant and enjoy a Christmas dinner of roast goose and plum pudding.

All this is highly creditable to Mr Scrooge. And yet his real importance is as an economic influence. It is not going too far to say that without the benefit of the commercial maxims pithily formulated by him at a very early stage in his career ("It's enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people's") the whole concept of supply-side economics would have been very different. What might be called the Scrooge principles, though abused by opponents, constitute a model of social responsibility, promoting industry and frugality, offering an example to the underclass of how to escape poverty and, through the employer's hard work, providing jobs for others. As a macro-economic model designed to lessen the overbearing influence of the state this could hardly be bettered. While Keynesians have attacked his stance as a root cause of unemployment and changes in the business cycle, Scrooge's trademark business technique - hoarding - is a virtue, contributing to capital formation, job creation and economic health.

Scrooge is an economic hero, a free-market titan, a trail-blazing pioneer of enterprise and vision. Attacks on him have tended to come from welfare state liberals, keen to disguise the fact that poverty might be the consequence of the poor's refusal to practise the work ethic he so unselfconsciously preaches. Unsurprisingly, his laissez-faire principles have been imported wholesale into his personal life ("Keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine," he is supposed to have told his nephew.) Scrooge is a man of ready wit and humour, rarely intimidated by interviewers, contemptuous of politicians, a rationalist always keen to ascribe alleged spiritual manifestations to a physical cause, yet with a romantic side seen in nostalgia for books read in childhood.

Only recently have observers detected the odd hint that the rigidity of economic principle that has brought him fame might be lessening its grasp. Press coverage of this year's Scrooge & Marley office party suggested that annual bonuses have risen to a level out of keeping with the firm's animating spirit. It would be a pity, after all that he has endured, that Scrooge should be seen to be losing his grip.

When one thinks of some of the capitalist princes offered up for edification, it seems extraordinary that he has not been given his due. A commercial environment that can admit Messrs Branson and Murdoch to its pantheon ought to be able to find space for the most neglected economic prophet of our age.