Words: Ownership

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WHEN John Major said last week that he expected his ministers to 'listen to ordinary people and give them greater ownership of their lives', I thought I heard a distant 'hear hear' from Humpty Dumpty astride his wall. It was the dear old egg, you will remember, who believed in using words for his own purposes; and ownership is a fine, accommodating one, bending itself readily to the occasion.

Among the traditional left it was once a dirty word. Since the poor owned nothing, ownership implied oppression. You didn't have to go all the way with Proudhon, who called it theft, to see that. Instead you supported Clause Four, and hoped that one day everyone would own everything, whereas Conservatives merely wanted everyone to own something. So both sides ended up in favour of ownership, differing only in the matter of what they meant by it.

Mr Major's use of it, as quoted above, is from another world altogether. It takes the word by its scruff, gives it a good bath and brings it back in fresh clothes, making it pretty well unrecognisable. You can be without goods or chattels, ox or ass, it says; but you are still an owner. You have 'ownership of your life'.

Mr Major didn't mean quite this, he meant that the citizens should be enabled (or empowered, as we say nowadays) to stand up to the bureaucrats. But the word has strayed yet further than that. In the business world it is now a handy instrument for the gratification of employees. Where managements used to speak of 'participation' they now speak of ownership. 'I believe strongly in ownership,' says the chairman, though the workers he has in mind may own not so much as a single share in the business. 'The idea is,' a City friend explained, 'that being owned by something makes you feel that you own it. When the chips are down it doesn't amount to much, but it gives a nice


Perhaps it fools some of the workers some of the time.