Business is not the enemy

Being a bit sniffy about business isn’t considered as odd as it should be in the UK. At university I took a course in the portrayal of business in literature, a subject that DJ Taylor picks up in The Times this week. In the classic English novel, the business man is “little more than a caricature, tending at the upper level to straightforward swindlers of the Trollope variety and at the lower to dissenting grocers calling their assistants into prayers while sanding the sugar”.

Not much has changed: the business man is usually the fattie with the cigar; books on the matter written by anyone with commercial experience “can be counted on the fingers of one hand”; and too many people and politicians still consider business to be the enemy.

You need only look to the rise in membership of the radically anti-business Green party, or to some of Ed Miliband’s exchanges with top businessmen in recent weeks – one entrepreneur even told The Sunday Times that the Labour leader showed a “palpable disdain” for him at a recent dinner.

Not all business is a full-on force for good – HSBC hasn’t covered itself in glory over the last few years. Tax avoidance is a problem for the Treasury (albeit – and this is important – an entirely legal one). And we could do with a little more in the way of activist investment to force change and end the almost comically out-of-control compensation culture at the top of our big firms.

But most businesses in the UK are run by nice, well-meaning people who pay what they can afford to pay; work with their communities; pay their taxes properly; and, crucially, create wealth along the way.

It matters that politicians on all sides recognise this and support them. That’s because there is a simple truth here, one so obvious it seems almost silly to have to say it. But here it is: we all rely on business being successful. Some politicians may think that if they aren’t running a business, working for a business, or receiving a pension via a business, they can feel themselves free from the grubbiness of commercialism. Not so.

Where does the cash come from to pay Miliband’s salary? For the still-sacred NHS? For roads, public-sector pensions, foreign aid and education? Business. Real money just doesn’t come from anywhere else.

The general attack on business isn’t all investors have to worry about. John Stepek runs through the five things we reckon are most likely to cause another whopper of a financial crisis. His number five – the collapse of the bond bubble – is on Professor Robert Shiller’s list too – read our interview with him. Then there is Greece, the slowdown in China and the fact that not a single developed country has managed to reduce its debt pile since 2007. But no crisis comes without opportunity: David C Stevenson tells us where we can shelter our money when the storm finally comes.

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