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Great risk, great reward
Written by Alex Massie
6 August 2020
Last week Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and by some measure the world’s wealthiest individual, appeared before the United States’ House of Representatives subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law. The detail of that committee’s investigations into ‘Big Tech’ need not detain us today, but Bezos’ testimony should. Indeed, it might profitably be read by every member of the Scottish parliament.
For Bezos offered an uplifting reminder, whatever you may think of his company, of the virtues and opportunities afforded by capitalism. “In addition to good luck and great people,” he explained, “we have been able to succeed as a company only because we have continued to take big risks. To invent you have to experiment, and if you know in advance that it’s going to work, it’s not an experiment”.
This is a matter of ethos more than of policy. Maintaining a “day one mentality” is a “critical part of our DNA”, marrying the “scope and capabilities of a large company and the spirit and heart of a small one”. Well, he would say that wouldn’t he? And yet, reading Bezos’ opening statement it was hard to disagree with many of his assessments. To wit: “customers are always beautifully, wonderfully dissatisfied, even when they report being happy and business is great. Even when they don’t yet know it, customers want something better.”
Amazon is an exceptional company, of course, and sometimes a controversial one. But when Bezos argues that the United States, as a culture, “embraces resourcefulness and self-reliance, and it embraces builders who start from scratch,” I could not quite banish a simple but important question: could the same be said of Scotland?
It is not obvious that it could. Our political culture is not, as a rule, invested in commerce. This starts at the top. Nicola Sturgeon has many strengths, some of which have been on daily display in recent months, but few politicians are true all-rounders.
The first minister is palpably more comfortable talking the language of the public and third sectors. There is nothing deplorable about this and these remain important constituencies. Sturgeon can talk to business but, however accomplished the performance, it is always clear she’s speaking a foreign language. The words are present and correct, but the idiom is lacking.
Yet, bluntly, commercial activity is what gives the first minister – or any other politician – the opportunity to pursue the programmes and passions that truly interest them. Business is not something up with which we must put but, rather, central to the functioning of a modern democratic, western, society. For it is commerce which builds schools; commerce which funds the welfare state; commerce which provides the state the wherewithal to meet its responsibilities and follow its ambitions. No commerce; no chance.
Capitalism, which ultimately is a question of the most efficient use of resources, drives everything else. Our economic model depends on commercial activity because it is chiefly funded by taxes on labour and taxes on consumption. It is startling how rarely this reality is recognised in Scotland as a whole and at Holyrood in particular.
Quite the reverse in fact. In certain circles, the concept of “degrowth” has become fashionable. We consume too much, exploit too great a portion of the planet’s natural resources, and are, more generally, too preoccupied with concepts such as GDP and economic growth. Now it may be that a calmer, less hectic, life would have its consolations, but it would also be a materially poorer one. Since enthusiasts for “degrowth” typically also desire higher public spending, one is left to wonder how they think public services are currently funded.
Profit is not a four-letter word, nor is it a shameful pursuit. That scarcely means business is beyond criticism or reproach – for corporations often act poorly or stupidly or in ways that discredit their core enterprise – but the sense, quite common in Scotland I think, that the public sector is inherently more virtuous than the private, strips our political culture of a balance that would make it both more stable and more healthy. Too often it seems as though our political class believes there is something vaguely disagreeable or unseemly about the corporate life. Commerce may be necessary, but it is not welcome. It is not quite the thing.
Business should accept some responsibility for this too. If business is uninterested in politics, it should not be surprised if politics becomes uninterested in business. Engaging with politics means something more than bleating about taxes or whining about a lack of opportunity. It means making an argument for commerce, not for individual self-interest, but as a collective means of societal advancement. It means doing the right thing: paying workers properly, behaving in a socially and environmentally responsible fashion, offering services people want at a fair price, and trusting that good behaviour will be rewarded. The golden rule is, or should be, a commercial rule too.
That requires better representative bodies capable of, and willing to, make a case for commerce’s relevance. In this instance, a quiet life is also a marginalised one. For if business will not speak for itself and tell its own story it should not be surprised if others choose not to tell it either. In that absence, in that vacuum, the value of business is easily lost. If building great companies is one challenge, putting commerce at the centre of Scottish public life is another.
About Beyond the Street and Alex Massie
We are all guilty of being too inwardly focused sometimes, especially as we navigate these changed times. It is all too easy to be caught up in the problems close to home, and for overarching trends to pass us by.
To remedy that short-sightedness, Charlotte Street Partners has enlisted the ingenuity and talent of the writer and commentator Alex Massie. As our new correspondent at large, Alex will look at the bigger picture. We have challenged him to come up with something a bit different: broad, lateral thinking, thematic insights and a more global perspective.
Alex is a freelance journalist and commentator based in Edinburgh. Not only is he Scotland editor of The Spectator, but he also writes a political column for The Times and The Sunday Times. He features regularly on the BBC as a political commentator and has written in the past for The Telegraph, Politico, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, the New Statesman, The Observer, and TIME magazine, among others. He was also the Washington correspondent for The Scotsman and assistant editor of Scotland on Sunday.
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