Magazine article The Spectator

Osborne Sends Boys Up Chimneys - but Offers Them Shares in the Sweeping Company

Magazine article The Spectator

Osborne Sends Boys Up Chimneys - but Offers Them Shares in the Sweeping Company

Article excerpt

George Osborne knows how to stick pins in his enemies. Using the phrase 'Workers of the world unite' to introduce a wheeze that will allow employees to swap employment rights for shares in their employer got well up the noses of the left. 'There are so many holes in this it deserves to sink without a trace, ' said Mark Serwotka of the Public and Commercial Services Union, no doubt hoping to restore his good name after his calls for public-sector workers to use the Olympics as an opportunity to strike. 'Remember this lot were quite content to put small boys up chimneys, ' typed one Guardianista with a loose recollection of the last Conservative manifesto. Osborne has 'as much knowledge of economics as a stick of rhubarb', declared Paul Kenny of the GMB in a sweeping dismissal of the Chancellor's entire party conference performance.

Even the CBI was only lukewarm, it has to be said, greeting rights-for-shares as 'a niche idea. . . not relevant to all businesses'.

But still the scheme circumvents the reluctance of Vince Cable to allow his coalition partners to tear even the smallest hole in the panoply of rights relating to dismissal, redundancy, flexible working and maternity leave which - although clearly an improvement on putting boys up chimneys - are most often mentioned by small-business and start-up entrepreneurs as a deterrent to expansion. And it's surely good for workplace harmony and prosperity to foster pride of collective corporate ownership.

Beyond that, however, the Osborne scheme needs a health warning attached, because it invites workers to gamble on the qualities of their employer. In a company destined to fail because its directors are incompetent or its products are uncompetitive, you'd be better to hang on to your rights.

In a start-up that has just patented cures for baldness and the common cold, by all means go for the shares - but even then the sharktank of venture capital will pay scant respect to the interests of employee-shareholders, particularly in businesses that need successive capital-raisings to bring their ideas to commercial fruition. So the CBI's cautious assessment is probably right but - as with so much party conference content - the symbolism and pin-sticking make for the sort of lively debate from which more practical reforms should eventually flow.

Irrepressible To Berkeley Square for coffee with Sir Ronnie Grierson, whose German origins, war record in the SAS and subsequent career of 65 years (and counting) in business and public service make him a living repository of modern European history. A protege of the banker Siegmund Warburg before becoming managing director of Harold Wilson's interventionist Industrial Reorganisation Corporation - the precursor of Vince Cable's 'business bank' - he went on in the 1970s to be director-general for industry at the European Commission in Brussels.

There he worked under a federalist fanatic, the veteran Italian socialist Altiero Spinelli, who provoked Grierson to hold 'Brusselssceptic' (rather than broader Eurosceptic) views ever since. …

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