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  • Capitalism in Contention: Business Leaders and Political Economy in Modern Britain
  • Timothy Alborn
Capitalism in Contention: Business Leaders and Political Economy in Modern Britain. By Jonathan Boswell and James Peters (New York, Cambridge University Press, 1997) 251 pp. $59.95 cloth $22.95 paper

This book is about recent British business leaders who spoke prose and were at least occasionally aware of it. Its authors combine this descriptive task—to chronicle the contributions of business to public debate—with the normative goal of encouraging a more pluralistic framework in which business, professional, and political leaders all have access to a free market of ideas. To the latter end, they present the “articulacy” of business leaders as interesting, well-informed, and more divided internally than the stereotype of a single “business interest” would imply. Their conclusions are cautiously optimistic. A business community that is more thoroughly integrated into civic life, they predict, will enrich existing ideological debate, but such integration will continue to be hindered by poorly structured representative bodies, deference to overly narrow conceptions of the firm, and political parties that speak a different sort of prose than any businessman.

At the center of the study are the opinions of a core group of sixty-eight British business leaders, gleaned from interviews, organization archives, and published books. The criterion for inclusion in this cohort is “public articulacy,” or a willingness to speak about issues that are more general than one’s specific economic interests. Executives from Wimpeys, Tesco, and Whitbread fail to make this list, as do a majority of influential City financiers and small businessmen. Dominating the (all-male) list are corporate executives in heavy industry and in the consumer goods sector. A typical case is Michael Clapham (son of John Clapham, the economic historian), a twenty-five-year manager at ICI [End Page 316] (Imperial Chemical Industries) who served as president of the Confederation of British Industries (CBI) and published a book on multinationals.

To highlight ideological divisions within this group, Boswell and Peters identify three ideal types around which their subjects migrate, and trace changes in the relative status of each over time. “Revisionists” are identified as defenders of a mixed economy, in which business works together with labor and the state to improve productivity; advocates of this ideal are presented as having the greatest weight within the business community in the 1960s. “Liberationists” defend inequality and the moral discipline of the market, and oppose excess baggage both in the state and in large corporations; their trajectory in this book moves from marginalization in the 1960s to near-orthodoxy in the 1980s. Finally, a smaller group of “reconstructionists” exists at the margins throughout the period under discussion; they see business as a “tributary” of social democracy.

These ideals and their exponents are examined primarily in the context of Britain’s major business forums: the cbi, the Institute of Directors, the British Institute of Management, and the British Employers’ Federation. Instead of seeing these groups as essentially single-voiced apologists for a homogenous set of “business interests,” Boswell and Peters dig deeper into the archives to uncover a series of internal struggles, which they attribute to members’ pre-existing social views, as opposed to their divergent economic interests. Although it is not too surprising that such would be the case—most archival excavations reveal more contention than is apparent in the published record—this “behind the scenes” report will greatly assist future historians who happen to stumble onto a CBI pamphlet or an article in Management Today. These sections of the book also reveal the many weaknesses of the different business ideologies, which are less apparent in more confident published works—such as the revisionists’ futile reliance on “persuasion” to change the behavior of less-progressive capitalists (and hence keep state intervention at bay), or the liberationists’ failure to agree about Thatcherism’s real significance.

Capitalism in Contention is perhaps best viewed as a companion piece to Boswell’s Community and the Economy (London, 1990). Whereas the earlier book cogently defended a social order in which capitalists responsibly take part in public debate, this one claims that they have always done so up to a point...

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pp. 316-317
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