John Lewis & Co-op are not numpties

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DISTRICT LINE — I love the way that the mainstream of public discourse can so easily reject different approaches as silly. I didn’t see the show on John Lewis last Wednesday — Inside John Lewis. A friend of mine did though. And he says they were painted as a bunch of numpties. And a bunch of numpties who don’t know how they’ve got so lucky. Which is ridiculous, obviously.

It is, right!?

You’re not so sure?

One of the great charms of Great Britain is the complexity of its history and the variety of narratives that can emerge. In this century, so far, we are all committed to the Dickens narrative:

• We used to work in coal mines, our bosses were mean and nasty, but the world was worse,
• Then the benevolence of man created commercial enterprise — overseen by faceless gods in expensive shoes — who made everything right.

It’s a capitalist fairy tale that insists that the Corporation is what built Britain (and therefore the world).

But the truth is far less clean and consistent. Companies like JLP and Cadbury and The Co-op did it very differently. Their approach to business was closer to socialist than to our capitalist democracy. And they succeeded.

We read in Fast Company and other coffee-table management magazines that ABC Co offers free dog washing to employees who show up on a Sunday, or all you can drink from the booze cart on a Friday afternoon. But when compared to the approach of a John Lewis Partnership or a Co-op that is as parsimonious and fatuous as could be.

Maybe John Lewis are not numpties. Maybe they’ll still be here when the rest of us have folded up our tents. Maybe we can learn something from them.

/df



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