Sunday, 28 November 2010

View from the Vicarage December 2010

When I was young, I loved Fry’s Chocolate Cream. It was a good size, hard on the outside and soft white fondant when you bit into it. Just wonderful. I bought Rowntrees fruit pastilles and fruit gums with my pocket money – only I didn’t like the green ones. Big bars of Cadbury’s chocolate (a glass and a half of milk in every bar) were holiday treats and bribes. Being a big family we bought loose, broken Huntley & Palmers biscuits from tins you could peer in (if you were tall enough) and the grocer brought our purchases on his bike. My sisters and I wore the same type of sandals. Clarks – with crepe soles and a starburst cut out on top.

I’m not just reminiscing, or recalling a world long gone. No – all these products have something in common. They were all made by Quaker firms. There are many others – like Barclays and Lloyds Bank, Friends Provident, Bryant & May and so on.

I worked as a Factory Manager for Clarks Shoes early in my career. There were no licensed premises in Street. Clarks was efficient and tough as an employer, but caring and almost paternalistic. Everything was provided. You never needed to leave Somerset. All the houses looked the same. On Sundays, people volunteered to do communal tasks, helping the elderly, painting railings, or picking up litter. Clarks had 22 UK factories. Now it has none. It is no longer Quaker.

Bourneville railway station is painted purple, and the Arts & Crafts houses with neat little gardens and excellent public facilities still attest to the Quaker vision and values of the Cadburys. Like most of the brands so familiar from my youth, they have been subsumed into global conglomerates. Cadbury’s was acquired by Kraft Foods In February this year. Apparently a hedge fund was willing to sell out. They didn’t care about past history, values, or tradition. They didn’t even care much about chocolate. A premium of 20p per share was enough.

The loss of a proud heritage is sad, but is there something more important going on here? On Radio 4 recently I heard a discussion about values in business. Honesty. Treating employees fairly and compassionately. Sensible multiples of remuneration between high and low paid jobs. That sort of thing.

One politician deplored the death of Quaker values, and wondered how in the absence of a religious underpinning we might return to times past. The thing is, he added, these firms were incredibly successful. They treated people well, but made huge profits. People liked working for them, and enjoyed living in their model villages. Consumers loved their products. They still do, but something is missing and their futures are all now less secure. The discussion ended rather bleakly: someone quoted Voltaire. If God didn’t exist, we’d have to invent Him. Without religion, to return to these values that served us so well, we might have to reinvent it.

Everything has a price, so we are told. Even people these days are called human capital. Trading shares reduces chocolate bars to mere banknotes. Luckily not everyone thinks this way, and not everyone is prepared to sacrifice the goose for its golden eggs. The good news for our secular politician is that religion has not died. In our village, lots of people work tirelessly for each other, without thanks, sometimes without recognition, and usually without recompense. Our ‘big society’ is alive and well, and, like religion, does not need reinventing. Thank God for that.

Now – can we all settle down, and learn that like the banks, greed and avarice have led us astray? We can’t turn the clock back, but can we not adopt once again some of those kinder, compassionate, and highly successful values that served us well for so long? Oh yes – and whilst we are at it, can I have my Fry’s Chocolate Cream back, please?

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