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The young Nigel Vinson: Dedicated to broader pursuits than simple wealth

For both Nigel Vinson and John Mills, creating highly successful businesses — and in the process making themselves very rich — has not been enough. Both have also devoted much time and effort to engaging in the battle of ideas. They have sought to persuade Britain that there need to be fundamental changes to the way the country and its economy are run.

While Vinson’s story is not a classic rags-to-riches tale — his parents were affluent Kent farmers — his achievements are entirely his own. After doing his National Service, he set up his own plastics business in 1951, at the age of 21. The firm developed a new process for coating metal with plastic — this found many applications with the rise of time-saving consumer appliances in the 1950s. The business, Plastic Coatings Ltd, was floated on the London Stock Exchange in 1969 with Vinson retaining a 54 per cent stake. In 1971, the same year that the company was awarded the Queen’s Award for Industry in recognition of its record of technical innovation, it was bought by Imperial Tobacco for £4.7 million (roughly £65 million in today’s money). Vinson was only 39 and felt that he should henceforth devote his life to broader pursuits than simply further boosting his wealth. “What’s the point? You can only eat three meals a day.”

Like many entrepreneurs, Vinson was very taken with Ayn Rand and her novel Atlas Shrugged. Its heroic portrayal of businesspeople who are the bulwarks of societal progress, and without whose achievements society is bound to atrophy and eventually collapse, must have had great resonance in  the collectivist, anti-entrepreneurial 1970s.  The hard edges of this philosophy were, in Vinson’s own worldview, smoothed by his belief that everybody had the right to be treated with respect, and by his profound if somewhat unorthodox Christian commitment. 

Vinson discovered that he shared much of this thinking with the founders of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), Ralph Harris and Arthur Seldon, who in the 1970s were fighting a lonely battle in support of the free market. Vinson became one of the most generous and consistent financial backers of the IEA, serving as a Trustee from 1972-2004.

When it came to be felt that the ideological battle for markets that the IEA was fighting needed to be underpinned by a new organisation with a more practical roadmap for an incoming reforming government, Vinson, along with his friend Keith Joseph, then a Tory leadership hopeful, founded the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS). Vinson was an early financial backer and first treasurer. The CPS was the vehicle for Joseph’s assault on the collectivist orthodoxies which had come to dominate British politics. When Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Conservative Party the CPS did much of the groundwork for her early reforms.

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