Terry Leahy: Horsemeat to Horseshit

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Horsemeat: what would Tesco have done without this apparently essential ingredient?   Presumably it would have continued to make a profit and found some other tasty substance to feed to its shoppers.   And yet the Terry Leahy the former CEO of Tesco would have us believe that business is driven by the demands of the consumer.   The grinding of poor Dobbin to mincemeat shows otherwise.

Leahy, much loved by the business community, has just taken it upon himself to lecture the world on how the global economic crisis might be overcome (Financial Times 16/3/2013) or more exactly how the British predicament can be solved.   Unsurprisingly pain is part of the solution but, he says, it will be worth it.    Sounding like the lunatics of the US Tea Party he preaches that a low tax small-state is the answer.   Once described as a man with an innate sense of justice and fairness Leahy’s brew for success is not simply an economic imperative but one which can be justified on ethical grounds.   He writes: there is a moral case for low taxation . . . the freedom to spend one’s money as one chooses, and the independence this brings, underpins strong societies.   This from the man who bribed his children to spy on his wife’s shopping activities to ensure the family’s meat and veg were not coming from a competitor.

So from strong societies and freedom we come to family life and snooping.    Regardless of the dubious practise of having children spy on their mother in his own terms his attempts to control his wife was wrong.   Where was freedom and consumer sovereignty here?   But we should bear in mind that Tesco is the company constantly accused of buying land to help stall competition.   So when Leahy says competition should be embraced and the consumer is sovereign listen for the voice of Evelyn Waugh whispering, up to a point Lord Copper, or in this case Sir Terry.

From a man of such high moral standing how can we not be anything but impressed and willing to follow him in his mission to bring us (after the bit of pain) health, wealth and happiness?   The pain will of course fall hardest on those who can least afford it. His great knowledge of business finance and his experience of extending the global reach of Tesco lead him to conclude that the NHS, pensions and overseas aid can no longer be protected; in other words cuts need to be made.   He writes (and we can picture the bluster and posture of the man) that this would, indeed, require painful decisions and tough action, and with bloated Churchillian rhetoric roars economic war demands a radical approach.

So, get ready for the pain if you use or work for the NHS or are dependent on the state pension.

It is clear that we need take no lessons on morality from this man but we might also ask why heed his economic judgements, after all he was there when Tesco decided to enter the Japanese market which proved a failure although not quite as disastrous as the £1 billion loss with “Fresh & Easy” in America.   Whilst he extols the virtue of competition and the rise to dominance of Tesco and other giant food retailers, part of progress he said, we hear little from him that the losses associated with his business ventures are also part of progress and as such should surely be welcomed in the greater scheme of things.   At the end of the day, regardless of all the high blown rhetoric and the statistics on state spending etc, Leahy is just another ideologue voice which would have us believe that wealth creation is and can only be a question of profit and loss.   Britain, he says, is sadly lacking in the correct attitude as demonstrated by its doctors who, unlike physicians in America, are not comfortable talking about stocks and shares and the panoply of the market place.   Compare healthcare in the US and the NHS and you’ll see why medicine and profit and less are uncomfortable bed-fellows.

Being such a great believer in the power of the market and competition and their ability to give us the best of all possible worlds it should come as no surprise when Leahy preaches that rules and regulations in the business world must be reduced – bureaucracy, he told the Telegraph in 2012, was anathema to enterprise. He favoured a less restrictive, a more open and expansive approach to commerce.   He said he would like to see more trust in our teams across the country – and later the world – to do what they thought best.

The horsemeat saga, still fresh in our memories, if not in our nostrils, is where such a cart-wheeling approach to regulation can lead.   Whether Dobbin was galloping towards the check-out at Tesco when Leahy was in charge is an open question.   What we can say is that the great and noble Sir Terry is no stranger to horseshit.

Hugh Miller

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