x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Sugar and spice and all things, not necessarily, nice

There's no business like show business, they say. Gordon Brown, Britain's stand-up prime minister.

There's no business like show business, they say. Gordon Brown, Britain's stand-up prime minister, dying on his feet to a barrage of catcalls and rotten tomatoes from the electorate, has grasped the straw of business celebrity in a last pathetic bid to see him through his act before he gets hauled ignominiously off stage. I refer to the appointment of Sir Alan Sugar - henceforth "Sralan" as he is known on his hugely successful TV show, The Apprentice - as "enterprise tsar" for the last days of the Labour government. (Why are these appointments always called "tsars", by the way? The history of the Russian Romanov dynasty suggests neither business nor political acumen.)

Sralan has been called in ostensibly to show that Mr Brown and Labour, baffled and beaten by the global financial crisis, really do understand the practicalities of business after all. Moreover, that they can handle finance and economics with the same practical, populist touch that made Sralan a multi-millionaire and a household name across the UK, spawning imitators of his TV show around the world, even in the UAE.

I'm not so sure about Sralan's business credentials. True, he had one truly visionary entrepreneurial idea in the 1970s, when he realised there was a huge market for good quality, affordable electronics. The result was his range of Amstrad (Alan Michael Sugar Trading - get it?) stereos, personal computers and satellite decoders that helped propel a generation into the digital age. It made him relatively wealthy and prominent, but thereafter the track record has not been so impressive.

Ten disastrous years as the owner of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club in London, where he wasted millions of pounds for virtually no gain; some pretty ill-judged new product launches that were billed as "blockbusters" but failed to recapture his original entrepreneurial élan; and some embarrassing misjudgements on trends in the electronics business - in 2005 he wrote off the iPod as a passing fad.

Now, apart from the TV series, his business is mainly in property, and he cannot have had a very good time of that lately. Bill Gates he is not. But it isn't his patchy track record that makes me doubt the wisdom of his government appointment (for which he will soon become "Lord Sugar"). All businessmen have some failures on their CVs. It is the basic concept of trying to graft "business" on to "politics" and expect some dynamic new species to blossom.

It is a flawed concept, which tells us much about the deficiencies of Britain's class system and Labour's warped ideological heritage. Other countries, including the UAE, do it much better. Britain's ruling classes, traditionally drawn from the landed aristocracy, distrusted "trade" as a rather grubby occupation to which gentlemen would resort only as a last desperate measure; if one really needed cash to drain one's moat, for example.

Labour's socialist lineage made it further suspicious of businessmen as the capitalist exploiters of the proletariat. Tony Blair's "new" Labour got over these prejudices, to some extent, and began the practice of using entrepreneurs as frontmen for their policies (though it must be admitted that an early prototype was Margaret Thatcher's shameless exploitation of Richard Branson's superstar status as her "litter tsar").

Mr Blair took it to new heights during his prime ministerial reign, with showbusinessmen such as the retailing magnate Philip Green, media men Gus McDonald and Paul Myners and countless bankers and financiers, all co-opted into government to show it "understood" business. All have been failures, or passed into obscurity after the first blush of headlines. The dire state of the British economy, and its bombed-out and nationalised financial sector, is at least in part evidence of the basic failure of politicians to understand the first principles of business.

Sralan is just the latest in a line of business celebrities Labour has used to cover up its own economic incompetence. The same is not true of other societies. Take the two biggest economic powerhouses in the world today: the US and China. Since the founding of the US, entrepreneurs and politicians have had a mutually beneficial relationship, with Stuyvesants, Carnegies, Rockefellers and Kennedys all making an easy transition from capitalism to Capitol Hill, and even the White House, using the skills acquired in commerce to enhance their political and administrative activities.

In China, at least since the policy of "socialism with Chinese characteristics" initiated by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, the essential element of the country's dynamic economy has been the fluidity with which businessmen and politicians move between their different spheres. Business is as much the state ideology of China now, rather than communism. Both systems leave themselves open to accusations of graft and corruption, it is true, and the charges against the American "military industrial complex" and the Chinese state-run conglomerates are numerous.

But both systems have produced dynamic and flexible economic structures that will dominate world trade for the rest of the century. In the Emirates, which began as trading and commercial posts between East and West, there has always been an easy relationship between business and civil administration. The majlis system encouraged such communication, with the views of the region's great trading families a vital part of daily discourse.

Today's ruling sheikhs and their families almost invariably study business, often in the great international educational centres of the world, before they move into government, and many maintain active business interests after they assume a more formal political role. A symbiotic relationship already exists between business and politics, without it having to be artificially grafted on. I guess the closest the UAE has got to a Sralan figure is Sulaiman al Fahim, if only because he runs the Hydra Executives TV series.

The man buying Portsmouth football club has an impressive entrepreneurial record. But the chance that he would be invited into the UAE cabinet to give entrepreneurial advice is remote indeed. His talents would be superfluous. Unlike Britain, the UAE establishment already has all the business acumen it needs, and no fear of "trade". fkane@thenational.ae