A bad business

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The Independent Online
First take a big issue of state. Then, to examine it, set up a committee that comprises the greatest corporate and industrial brains of the age, including no fewer than seven knights of the commercial world. Supply loads of expert advice and give them a full six months to come up with a cunning plan. And what do you get? A complete balls-up.

The issue was, of course, executive pay and the committee the Greenbury committee. Presided over by the chairman of Marks & Spencer, the chairmen of Whitbread, Rank, BP, BT, the director-general of the Institute of Directors - a veritable capo di tutti capi - and others pondered over how best to respond to public disquiet about boardroom greed.

The result was truly comic. All had agreed that they should tackle executive share options. They wrestled and argued, debated and dissented, and eventually decided what should be done: such options should be subject to normal rates of taxation.

Then, out of the blue, came unexpected horror: that devious politician, the Chancellor of Exchequer, decided to implement their recommendation. Members of the committee were left little alternative but to admit their mistake - they hadn't thought it through. And they hadn't meant it. Sorry.

Now I happen to think that both Greenbury (originally) and the Chancellor (latterly) were right, and that executive share option schemes have been a tax-avoiding scam. Asda checkout ladies notwithstanding, millions of people who pay normal levels of tax on their salaries should welcome the decision. But Sir Richard ending up shopping his committee and confessing that he'd never even agreed with its recommendation in the first place.

In fact, his entire performance at Thursday's session of the Commons employment select committee, and the subsequent utterances of some of his fellow committee members, were extraordinary moments in the pay debate.

Prior to slipping into the pinny with the cliche on it ("if you can't stand the heat, etc"), Sir Richard, who earns pounds 800,000 a year, expressed his unhappiness with having to work in the open, subject to scrutiny and criticism. It had been a big task, he whined, because "nobody agrees with anybody else, which makes it extremely difficult to steer a sensible course". And he moaned on: "What's been in it for us, except an enormous amount of hard work and a great deal of slagging off?"

Well, what on earth did he expect, this commander of commerce? Rendering public service is often a thankless task; but in this case what was going on was more like a damage-limitation exercise on behalf of the executives of Britain. What's in it for them indeed!

"If only they'd let the businessmen run the country" is a common golf-club aphorism. "Businesslike" has become a complimentary adjective, "political" a pejorative one. And unlike politicians, business people are taken by us at their own self-estimation. Earlier this year, when Sir Richard Greenbury's second marriage failed, he blamed the rift on his long working hours. A 90-hour week (an average of 13 hours a day, seven days a week) had, he said, played havoc with his relationship. It is meant to elicit awe and sympathy. But does it not instead suggest staggering inefficiency and a complete inability to delegate?

The technocratic myth is perfectly exemplified by John Harvey-Jones being parachuted by the BBC into businesses around the world. He stomps around, red-faced and hair aflap, being impossibly rude (or "straightforward") to people whose languages he cannot speak. He may look like an irascible old loony, but, we think, he must be right - he once ran a big company.

Yet the lesson of Ross Perot, Silvio Berlusconi and (I would suggest) Sir Richard Greenbury, is that when you take them out from their limos, their executive dining rooms and their corporate boxes at the lottery- subsidised opera houses, they can't cut it. Like Dracula, they cannot stand exposure to daylight. Give me Ken Clarke and Gordon Brown any time.

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