I have been reading my grandfather’s office diaries, which he kept while working for a mining company between 1945 and his retirement 30 years later. I had never so much as leafed through these before, but their neatness and regularity reminded me inescapably of the white-haired gentleman who used to frown benignly at me from the far end of my rocking horse. Business in his day was something done with ease, and surprisingly little deceit, by people who lived in different countries and met only seldom. What held the nexus together was not so much desire for mutual gain or adherence to a rigid set of rules and regulations, as a common culture based upon a universally accepted system of values.
Since then, business and its role in society have been transformed. Disproportionate increases in executive pay, such as that of the NHS managers whose giant salaries were announced this week, is part of a cultural upheaval which has led to a hard-nosed, highly-trained elite competing with itself for the top jobs. The talent pool, say the recruiters, is tiny–hence the salaries have to be enormous.
My grandfather’s impressive reams of dusty copperplate were depressingly, even (forgive me, pater patris!) unendurably dull. But they also offer a tantalising suggestion of how we might escape from today’s dictatorship of profits and skill sets.
As I read the diaries, I realised business has been hurt as much as society by the loss of our traditional, classical education, which once ran like a streak through the management hierarchy of every large organisation. Not because staff might benefit from speaking Latin, but because it nurtured an ethos which we now derisively refer to as “gentlemanly.” These days, it’s a term most likely to be used in the context of lap-dancing clubs. This forgets that there was much to be said for the old system, which did not require job applicants to be narrow experts at a precociously young age. What was in demand were rounded amateurs capable of getting to grips with tough problems, in the manner of a skilled cabinet minister.
The arguments against this system can be reduced to those of sexual discrimination and class. The first of these objections is entirely justified, since women played almost no role in business, but the second is not. This is clear from the novels of writers such as George Gissing and his later admirer, George Orwell, who make it clear (albeit in a negative way) that the pool from which employers could lure intelligent young classicists or historians was impressively large—far wider, for instance, than those who have “the relevant qualifications” for careers in banking or insurance broking today. The tiny talent pools in which companies fish for would-be executives, baiting the hook with hundreds of thousands a year, used to be considerably larger.
If we are to save our centres of commerce–and the managing offices of our public services–from becoming sterile environments, dominated by a strange alliance of boorish spivs and smug wizards from the American business academies, it might be worth a few HR departments rethinking their selection criteria. The era of my grandfather may not have been absolutely perfect, but it might still offer some useful insights to a culture that has lost much of its hard-won credibility.