Two Men Who Mean Business

The economics ideas of two successful entrepeneurs — one Tory, one Labour

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.

It would be wrong to think of Vinson as merely the money-man behind these and other think-tanks: he also contributed much to their thinking. Gerald Frost’s authorised biography rightly gives him credit for his many achievements in the world of ideas, but also gives an illuminating account of Vinson’s other contributions to public life, most notably in his service as a Conservative peer, and his contribution to the rural economy and the safeguarding of traditional crafts. More recently, Vinson has vigorously campaigned to pull the United Kingdom out of the European Union. Where his views sharply depart from the Thatcherite mainstream is on interest rates. He believes that the high interest rate policies of the early Thatcher years were disastrous for British industry — and that it has proved all but impossible for it to recover from this medicine.

John Mills shares this analysis — but has a solution to offer, namely the devaluation of the pound by 30 per cent. Mills is that rare breed, a successful entrepreneur — he owns and runs a thriving consumer products business — who is a lifelong Labour supporter. During the last parliament he was the largest individual donor to the party, gifting it £1.6 million of shares in his business. 

The overvaluation of the pound, argues Mills, is at the core of all of Britain’s economic problems. It means that British business cannot compete and has led to chronic underinvestment. Britain has become over-dependent on financial services. Only a steep devaluation will rectify these ills, leading to rapid economic growth and in turn bringing about an end to austerity. Mills and his co-author Bryan Gould — a leading Labour moderniser of the late 1980s and early 1990s — make their case well. 

Impressively, Mills is advocating a policy which goes directly against the  interests of his own business — the import price of the type of consumer products that it sells would soar if his policy proposals were adopted. The careers of both Vinson and Mills — and their important contributions to public debate — should be considered by all those who are cynical about business leaders contributing to our national discourse.

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