Editor-At-Large: Nobody has a stake in Britain until they have grafted too


Janet Street-Porter
Saturday 31 March 2012 22:55
Tempted: Sally Bercow tweeted her unusual line on drugs
Tempted: Sally Bercow tweeted her unusual line on drugs

The findings of the report into the causes behind last summer's riots fell back on that over-used piece of political jargon, the term "stakeholder". It claims that one of the reasons people didn't take part in the looting was because they "did not want to jeopardise their stake in society". The report's chairman, Dara Singh, a former council leader, says "we must give everyone a stake in society.... When people don't feel they have a reason to stay out of trouble, the consequences for communities can be devastating."

I hope that when David Cameron read this piece of bilge he chucked it straight into the bin, because it is based on the completely erroneous concept that we all deserve a "stake" in society for nothing, a free gift we receive at birth. If you'll pardon the expression, this is utter bollocks.

The modern notion that society is a business in which we are all shareholders is deeply flawed. Originally, the term related to money – in the 18th century, a stake was a bet or a wager. In the Wild West of America, stakeholders were farmers who fenced the parcels of land they had claimed with stakes and then lived and worked on it. In other words, they slogged hard to make their stakeholdings support them and their family. Gradually, the term came to include those involved with every aspect of a business, from customers to workers, managers, owners and suppliers.

By the mid-1990s, economists and writers such as Will Hutton started using the term to apply to members of society, and it was picked up by Tony Blair as a central part of his vision for New Labour.

In gambling, a passive third party holds the stakes – they are not involved in the game. That's exactly what's wrong with the idea of a stakeholder society. Stakeholders who have not paid money, or who have no responsibility for their shares, have no impetus to work to behave well or maximise their investment. If citizens are stakeholders in society, where's our contract? What's expected of us in return for our stake?

New Labour's notion of stakeholders conveniently forgot about our responsibilities. This led to the idea that we are all entitled to everything as our birthright, sowing the seeds for a generation of young people who expect something for nothing – resulting in the rioting. In their eyes, it was a perfectly legitimate way of getting what they wanted.

We've ended up with a situation where people talk about their "rights" and needing "respect" but have no idea that they should be contributing anything in return. How can a state dish out stakes anyway? Britain is not like a giant branch of John Lewis, no matter what Nick Clegg might say. He talks about "responsible capitalism" and the "John Lewis economy"– but workers at John Lewis have a clearly defined contract. In return for working agreed hours and abiding by company rules they receive dividends and a say in the running of the company.

In modern Britain, a large section of the population thinks that rules are there to be flouted. Cynicism about politicians and their promises is at record levels. If Britain plc is to be compared to a company, it seems to be run by a bunch of incompetents who can't even tell the truth about where and when they bought a pasty.

Even the John Lewis model has its critics: no matter how praiseworthy, it's still a business where people at the top earn far more than those at the bottom, and rewards are not equal. To be truly fair, bonuses should be based on hours worked, not salary, because it is the humble sales assistants who make John Lewis everyone's favourite shopping experience.

In stakeholder Britain, someone else is always to blame. According to this report, it is parents and "forgotten families" – modern code for problem households who are unemployed or living on low incomes, dependent on benefits. The riot report says "poor parenting" and "lack of values amongst the young" are key factors behind the civil disturbances. It moans about a culture of materialism and blames "excessive marketing" at the young.

Surely, if young people grew up understanding that they will only get out of society what they put in, they wouldn't be burning down shops and grabbing trainers. But as long as they are told that they are stakeholders, don't expect mindsets to change.

Motormouth Sal is talking sense, for once, on recreational drug

I rarely agree with Sally Bercow, but this time she's right – the Government's proposed ban on the recreational drug known as "mexxy" only increases interest in it. The drug was touted as a "safe" alternative to ketamine, which is illegal – but after two people died using mexxy in February, it was referred to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. Like Motormouth Sal, I hadn't heard of mexxy, or methoxetamine, until the Government announced its change of policy. She tweeted "am I the only one now slightly tempted to try mexxy before it becomes illegal? I won't, obvs".

Why hadn't the advisory council on drugs already been monitoring mexxy, if it was being used by lots of people who might suffer harmful side-effects? If it's that dangerous, why wasn't it reclassified ages ago? To announce that the ban is forthcoming is just cack-handed, and will ramp up the drug's appeal amongst the young. Banning drugs has not deterred anyone from taking them – the numbers of people who have tried illegal drugs in the UK continues to grow. Lots of substances can cause us harm – banning new drugs won't make a blind bit of difference.

Everything and the kitchen sink

The Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics provide great opportunities to showcase our cultural achievements, and the V&A has mounted a huge and very thorough exhibition celebrating landmarks in British Design since 1948. There are some real stinkers: I would have left the hideous coronet designed by Louis Osman for the investiture of the Prince of Wales in the vaults, and I can't really wax lyrical over a simple sink, no matter how design-forward it might be. Why include a model of David Bowie wearing the famous knitted jumpsuit by Kansai Yamamoto? (I've still got the matching jacket.) The E-Type Jaguar is still brilliant, and the pink Dyson cute, but this show needed brutal editing. British design has led the world, but it has had as many triumphs as tragedies.

Trending can ruin lives

Here's a good reason why I will never use Twitter, apart from trolling. After my appearance on Question Time the other week, I was trending for several hours, abused by all and sundry including Duncan Bannatyne (as if I cared). More worrying, is the misinformation that is circulated as fact. An innocent couple, a retired school dinner-lady and her sick husband, have been forced to flee their home in Florida and go into hiding to escape death threats after film director Spike Lee erroneously tweeted their address as the home of George Zimmerman, the security man who shot dead black teenager Trayvon Martin. The guard alleges he was thrown to the ground and claims self-defence, while protesters claim it was racially motivated. Either way, you won't uncover the truth on Twitter.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments