Time was when to be a businessman was to be a someone. Not perhaps a figure to be ranked the equal of a doctor, lawyer, bishop or major general, but a someone all the same.
To have succeeded in business was to have displayed the manly virtues of vision, courage, ambition, and tenacity. To be a businessman was not to be confused with “going to business”, which is what you did if you commuted to a London office from a privet-encircled dwelling in suburbia. Clerks, middle managers, and accountants were no more than lieutenants to the businessman’s field marshall. Armed with nothing more than the will to succeed, the businessman created something out of nothing, first carving out a domain, then building an empire.
What happened next was Mrs Thatcher, at whose door all contemporary ills are laid, from ram-raiding to the collapse of Robin Cook’s marriage. For she it was who lauded the enterprise culture and launched a multitude of New Britons into a world of business ill-prepared for such an assault. All was confusion. The age-old certainties of rotary club and Masonic lodge, where the officer class of business clothed itself in respectability, were swept aside. Half the population of Essex swapped its blue collars for white, and the bastions of business fell without resistance to the invading meritocracy. Out went the stuffy conventions of the salaried classes, and in came the chirpy street wisdom of the rough diamond. With the equivalent of a scrap metal millionaire in every cloistered corner, it was a middle class nightmare come true.
Even now, amid the smoking rubble of the enterprise culture, Mrs Thatcher’s legacy lingers on. To be a businessman today is to invite respectable mothers to shield their infants’ ears and to invoke the loathing of waiters everywhere. Richard Branson, who is as near to the genuine article as any entrepreneur thrown up by his generation, wears a beard, forswears neckties, and dresses up as a woman whenever the opportunity arises which, in his case, is surprisingly often. His old adversary, Lord King, should be stuffed and exhibited as a reminder of what it once was to be a businessman.
Lest anyone should doubt that the wheels of commerce and industry are turned by hooligans, the international cabin crew association, UFO, declares that business travellers are the biggest troublemakers during flights. Its chief executive, Otto Ziegelmeier, complains that businessmen are even likely to attack female staff in mid-air. Readers who may have bridled at the politically incorrect use of the word “businessman” thus far will be pleased to hear Herr Ziegelmeier cite a particularly frightful example: “One stewardess was partially strangled by a female passenger in first class who jumped on her.”
What can it be that persuades today’s business person to leap on cabin crew with an intent so violent it verges on the homicidal? Could it be stress? Might it be drink? Possibly it is nothing more than an exceptionally vivid expression of consumerism. The most convincing explanation, however, is that today’s business person is nothing more or less than another example of today’s person.
To give another example, Browns club in Shoreditch, East London, which specialises in lap dancing, was the scene of a shooting last week. Expressing his surprise at the incident, a regular customer, who declined to give his name, said at least 70 per cent of the clientele were well-heeled businessmen from the City. The sort of men who might seize a stewardess in a semi-asphyxiating head-lock but would draw the line at pulling a gun in a crowded place.
For the benefit of those few surviving dinosaurs still slumbering in the upholstered calm of the Institute of Directors Club, the Daily Mail explains what lap dancing comprises. For a 10 tip, women dance naked just inches from the customers. “Now gyrating between his open knees, she wriggles out of her bikini bottoms until she reaches the high point of her performance, her naked moment of glory. She pouts one final time, then pirouettes and bends low from the hip to the polished floor, waggling her undefended rear in his face.”
If there is any crumb of decency to be found in this sordid degrading exhibition it is that the floor is polished. Well-heeled businessmen would properly baulk at observing gyrating female pudenda in grubby surroundings.
Meanwhile the reputation of businessmen suffers. Radio 4 broadcaster John Humphrys, who lives a few hundred yards from a lap-dancing establishment in Hammersmith, says, “I don’t want my area defiled by that bunch of prats”. That such words might have be used to describe the captains of industry of old is unthinkable.
Fortunately, however, in the minds of some people old reputations linger. The former model and Page Three girl Jilly Johnson is currently head-hunting lap dancing girls for the planned Berkeley Playhouse, an establishment that will have a 120-seat restaurant and three bars. Her recruiting criteria include a tall and willowy physique, elegance, and sophistication.
“We certainly don’t want girls thrusting double-Ds in men’s faces,” she says. “After all, they may be executives from top companies.”
Quite so. You don’t go to all the trouble of gaining an MBA, a place on the board, share options, and the promise of a knighthood just to have your eye put out by a pound-and-a-half of carelessly swung silicone.