Friday, 1 May 2015

“Britain is Open For Business” (part 1)

In which I stretch a metaphor as far as possible.

 “Britain is open for business.” this is a phrase that comes up again and again in the media, either as a cliché from journalists or a direct soundbite from an MP. It is usually linked to economic reports that show growth in the UK economy, or a piece of legislation that makes international trade easier (or less regulated) is going ahead. The emphasis is that the UK is a company and that that company is profitable.

I have issues with this premise and consequently, every time that hackneyed line is rolled out I find myself on the phone ranting to somebody, usually my poor beleaguered father. In my opinion, expecting a country, even a western capitalist country like the UK, to function as a business is fundamentally wrong. It is this drive for profit, for pleasing investors and stakeholders and putting coffers ahead of people that leads to spending cuts, service cuts, privatisation, right wing and socially conservative rhetoric. When your key measure of success is how “healthy” the bank balance is, all sorts of other markers will be ignored.
“Britain Open for Business” means that we treat the country as a business and the populace as workers with no real function other than to serve the profit of the country. If the profit margins are not big enough then the workers, us, the citizens, will be sacrificed as cuts are made in the name of efficiency.
But is profit, economic growth and a national bank balance really the best or only way of measuring the success of a nation? In short, no it isn't. So let's examine this metaphor.

Being open for business, a nation trading as a company is based in free market economics, the very backbone of western capitalist government. It is nice and neat to think about the country as a single business entity that opens its doors, trades and then balances the books at the end of the day. However, that's not how a market works. Not a money market, not the stock market, not a traditional farmer's market. It's also not how the country works. Whatever the size and scope of a market there are many different elements that can dictate its success or failure. If a CEO or board member of a FTSE company is exposed in a drug scandal, the company’s shares will take a knock and the whole balance of trading on the stock market might shift. Yet recreational cocaine use has little to do with product quality or unit sales?
So instead of thinking in terms of a country as a single business, why not think of it in terms of the market as a whole being ready for business. The UK itself is a marketplace, and actually, that's what economists really mean when they make this statement. The UK as a place were other countries and international companies can feel confident trading. Where people and their businesses will be happy to spend their money and in doing so will enrich the UK.

This is where I start to really stretch the metaphor. I want you to picture an actual physical marketplace: perhaps your town has an indoor market or a weekly produce market. I'll be keeping St George's Market in Belfast in mind throughout this. Now lets start thinking about what makes a good market and how that applies to national economics. Just trust me and go along for the ride.

A market that does as advertised

If I go to a flower market and find that they are selling some flowers but also a lot of fish, maybe some car parts, some cheap clothing and a small selection of artisan breads I'm going to be confused and a little disappointed. On the other hand if I went to somewhere described as a “general market” I might be pleased with finding all those different stalls.
If I went to a market and found that all the market stalls just advertised jobs in the market working on stalls that advertised the market, I might be disappointed (unless I was really in to recursive markets).
What is the UK market and what does it trade? Honestly I'm not really sure. I live in the UK, I am in that market and I don't really know what type of market this is. We used to be a manufacturing market. Previous to that we were shipping and distribution. We have also had stints at oil gas and coal. What about agriculture, good home grown produce, the cornerstone of a market? A market that has no clear identity is a disappointing and eventually struggling market. We have lost our “unique selling point”, to borrow a phrase from retail. It's not clear what our market is for.


Have you ever been to a trade show or market and felt very out of place? How much did you spend there, did you linger? Did you tell your friends they should take a look? The ideal markets are those that do not judge people based on any individual difference; be it ethnicity and skin colour or expertise in a certain field. I should be able to go to a market and know that my religion has no bearing on how I will be treated. I should be able to work in a market and know that my gender will not affect how my stall is managed or what I am allowed to sell. Even visiting a market with very little money to spend or knowing little about some of the products on offer shouldn't lead to a negative experience.
The UK currently doesn't do this. The UK market currently advertises through how it treats its own populace that it will judge you based on immigration status, colour, language, social background, gender, religion and health. The only people who want to trade in a market with that attitude are other countries who have the same attitudes. Considering we have actively been at war with countries that exclude people based on all of the above characteristics why do we conduct ourselves this way? If we continue to operate the UK market like this we will limit ourselves to those traders who have exclusionary attitudes. That's nothing to be proud of and it is, I like to believe, unsustainable.
The best markets are those that have a bustling array of people of different backgrounds and social experiences. Caribbean food stands owned by a Caribbean-English woman and her German migrant husband next to a fabric stall owned by a Yorkshireman born-and-bred, over the way from a Pakistani guy selling the most divine smoothies you have tasted? That's a great market.
A country that can pull together the expertise and experience of a score or more different nationalities, ethnicities and cultures is just a richer and more dynamic country and will have a far more robust economy. A country that has good international relationships can draw on those relationships to further strengthen itself.

A safe and healthy environment

Some of the best markets take places in grand old buildings purpose-built in the 19th and even 18th century. Despite being old and having been through an industrial revolution, two world wars and, in some cases, having had fish guts liberally strewn over them, the reason they still function and thrive today is because they are well maintained. For example, Kirkgate Market in Leeds is currently undergoing refurbishment to repair damaged walls and floors, improve stalls, install modern lighting and better electric and phone access.
A good market has good ventilation, but will usually install heaters for colder months. Most have good natural light and will do their best to make sure things are well lit. There is always a small first aid room and public toilets available for patrons as well as rigorous health and safety inspections, licensing and risk assessments. This is all to ensure that patrons and vendors can use the market safely and not worry about their health whilst they are there. That includes not worrying about contracting a stomach bug from spoiled meat they bought there and knowing that if I do trip over, somebody will look into it and address any trip hazards, that I will be sat down in the office, have a first aid officer check my knee and provide a bandage if necessary, often with a nice cup of tea whilst I wait.
In our national market place a well functioning, friendly and free at the point of service NHS helps to keep us safe and healthy. A well regulated health and safety executive keeps us safe. Funding for research into health and medicine means that we stay healthy. An NHS that looks at long-term care, preventative care, holistic (not homeopathic, never homeopathic) treatment and values the health and well being of the population makes for a good market. A country functions at its best when its population is healthy and can remain healthy regardless of their social position, wealth, race or ethnicity, gender or, religion. A physically healthy country can be productive in both the short and long term and instils confidence and no small amount of envy in people and business from elsewhere. A market that says they won't help me because I use a walking stick is not a market I will return to, and a country that tells me that I have no value because I can't work is not one I can comfortably support.

Yes, you read the title right, this is part one. If you have stuck with me this far then wait for part two for further metaphor stretching and a conclusion.

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