Despite living just 80 miles from central London I rarely make it down to the capital. When I do I tend to pack a lot in. With the price of train tickets today you need to make the most of it! It’s an opportunity to meet friends and touch base with contacts as well as to make the most of what London has to offer. Yesterday I popped on the train and made the journey down through the Essex countryside to Liverpool Street station. I had very kindly been invited as a guest to a lunch of the 75 Club, a distinguished group of leading farmers and others involved in the food sector, at the Farmers and Fletchers livery Hall in the historic heart of the city. The theme for the lunch was centred on family enterprise and the speakers spoke eloquently and refreshingly honestly about what it means to run a family farming or food business today, on various scales. The room oozed with drive and ambition, as well as decades of collective experience in the farming sector, but it was clear that family was a vital cog for all of them. They are businessmen but critically they are businessmen who hold family at the core of how they understand their business interests. This was an important message to take away. For me, family is an intensely important unit, for support and security as well as identity and purpose. The lunch reaffirmed to me how important it is to others too.
Anybody who is involved in a family business will understand the complexities involved. Managing relationships within the family and finding ways of separating business from personal life are usually considered the key challenges, but there are many. There are similarly many advantages, and working together as a family can bring family members closer together. The family unit has a shared ambition as a result and a shared interest in moving forward together. The business isn’t something that you do 9 to 5, but becomes part of the family identity itself. It can be a strain, but also a means of holding family together and of mutual support. Family becomes a community with multiple layers, through which each family member must navigate.
It was the subject of community that dominated my evening. A last-minute invitation from a friend took me to the London School of Economics to see a lecture by the Guardian columnist George Monbiot, who was publicising his new book. Monbiot called on us to ‘restructure the political narrative’ by ‘rebuilding community’ and moving away from the economics of perpetual growth. He suggested that, although a part of human nature occasionally brings out our being selfish and greedy, we are intensely altruistic as a species. For Monbiot the neo-liberal agenda goes against our very human nature and we should plan for an alternative system which puts community at its heart. In his lecture, which he carried out over an hour in his usual polemical style, he drew upon examples from across Europe and North America to illustrate how communities are coming together and reshaping societies through local action, from gardening in Todmordon to a reading room in Rotterdam and the Bernie Sanders campaign in the States. He called for the economy to focus on the household and the commons, in addition to the state and the market, which in recent years have dominated economic and social thinking. ”In an age of alienation we need a politics of belonging”.
I must say that a lot of his message I agreed with. No matter what every modern government says, we cannot sustain economic growth indefinitely without wrecking the natural world. We need to sit up and accept the reality. We need a model that takes things other than economic growth into account when looking at what it is that makes a successful society. We need to give local communities more real power when it comes to local housebuilding, and I liked his ideas about a community being able to commission, design and build housing with people and the local environment in mind through a shared commons. However, I continue to believe in the power of entrepreneurialism in turning people’s fortunes around, and I struggle to see how many small farmers would make a living if a land value tax were implemented as Monbiot suggested – surely land rents would increase to account for the rising tax bill faced by the landlord. We need to make room for entrepreneurialism which takes society, community and the environment into account, rather than being beset by the narrative of economic growth or the potential for socialism to ‘cure’ contemporary problems. I don’t wish the state to dominate, and I would welcome a society that encourages community to stick together and work together, but I wouldn’t want to lose the entrepreneur, often the supporting figure for a family unit and, if not directly, the local community. Like it or not, I see most social benefit through the liberal model, but it needs adapting and reinterpreting to encourage greater community resilience and to tackle the wider ecological crisis that we face this century. These are all just words, and I realise that, but I haven’t quite worked out in my own mind yet how a new model could actually be feasibly implemented when all of us are simply going about our lives trying to get to the next stage.