Nobody likes a lawyer. Nobody likes a journalist. Nobody likes a banker. In fact, with the possible exception of doctors (who come top of the 'respectable profession' list in virtually every society), nobody thinks much of anybody else's profession.
In Britain, business has suffered more than most. Even at the height of empire those working in 'trade' were looked down upon. For a large part of this century, successful business people were often perceived as mercenary, with the scruples and skills of wartime black marketeers. More recently business has been viewed in this country as dull and unimaginative, with any right-thinking young person spurning it in favour of the professions, the media or the City. The most exciting thing that ever happened to British business was James Hanson stepping out with Audrey Hepburn.
Suddenly but imperceptibly, the status of business has changed. It's noteworthy that the terminology employed in the political debate on 'stakeholder society' is drawn straight from the language of business.The success in mainstream publishing of Charles Handy and Will Hutton says a great deal about the new focus on good business and management. There are ever-increasing numbers of television programmes on business, and news coverage is no longer restricted to job losses and share prices. In the run-up to the General Election, politicians are arguing about what will be the best environment for UK business to thrive - with it being taken as read that what is good for business is good for Britain.
What lies behind this reappraisal? It is hardly a legacy of Thatcherism since part of the new-found status of business is based on the comprehension that business is not rooted in callous self-interest. The reason lies in a combination of other factors. The collapse of Communism has meant that the ideological debate is centred on how capitalism works best: the most effective way to assess - or change - a society is through its businesses. At the same time, speed of information has made the world increasingly competitive: many who might previously have perceived themselves as requiring no skills beyond those of their trade or profession are realising that some business nous is essential to their success in it. They are no longer embarrassed to admit that they are actually in business. These changes have also taken place when enlightened management in this country has realised that people operate best when they are given responsibility. Employees who previously had little involvement in the management and decision-making of their organisations are finding that this is part of their job. For many, this has brought the realisation that business can be exciting.
Doctors need not fear that business will replace medicine as Britain's most admired occupation. The acknowledgement that business success is the key to a nation's well-being is reason enough for celebration.