Liam Fox recently told an audience of Tory activists that it’s the “duty” of our business leaders “to contribute to the prosperity of our country”. Instead, Fox complained, they are letting us down by choosing to play golf on Friday afternoons rather than spending the time finding new export markets and growing their businesses.
The UK business community were understandably up in arms about Fox’s comments – particularly his description of them as having become “fat and lazy” on past successes. Businesses and other politicians were quick to point out how hard all businesses work with no time at all for playing golf.
But, what if we look at both Fox’s comments and the reaction of businesses and the media to his outburst through different eyes?
Why is playing golf on a Friday afternoon rather than working to grow the market for your business such a bad thing? Is it because it’s golf – arguably an elitist, rich man’s sport? What if these business leaders take Friday afternoons off to walk in the country with their partner, or visit an elderly relative or sing in a choir or play football with their kids? Would we deem that a better or worse way to spend an afternoon than signing up new trade deals? And what if the business leader in question also gives all his or her employees Fridays off to spend doing something of their own choice other than work? Does that contribute more or less to the ‘prosperity’ of our society? What if some don’t even want or need their business to grow – is that bad or ‘undutiful’? Maybe they are quite happy at its current size and turnover and would rather they and their employees had time for other interests in life and time to spend with friends and family?
It depends how we understand national or individual prosperity and whether it is actually dependent on our GDP in the way that successive governments clearly believe. As Professor Tim Jackson points out in his book ‘Prosperity without Growth‘ “The narrow pursuit of growth represents a horrible distortion of the common good and of underlying human values“. Robert F Kennedy recognised this right back in 1968 “the Gross National Product measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile“.
So what if we consider an alternative definition of prosperity as “a successful, flourishing, or thriving condition“? That certainly challenges whether spending Friday afternoons working hard to negotiate new trade deals and thus expand shareholder dividends represents the best way to contribute to one’s own or the nation’s prosperity. It’s also a definition of prosperity which might stimulate a wider debate around the possibility of a universal unconditional income as a way to cope with the reduction in paid jobs and reduce the ever-widening gap in equality. In contrast, Liam Fox’s call of duty to grow business and shareholder profit will certainly do little for economic equality.
Having never played golf and with no desire to do so my advice is nevertheless: “enjoy your Friday golf …. but think about giving all your employees the afternoon off too….”.