Wake up – the house is on fire!

Wake up – the house is on fire!

A guest blog from Cliff Mills of Anthony Collins Solicitors, partners in The Exchange venue at Greenbelt, following on from his session at the festival on generational justice with Daniel Tomlinson.

When Greta Thunberg addressed the world’s leading business executives earlier this year at their annual get together in Davos, Switzerland, the 16 year-old told them she didn’t want them to be hopeful: she wanted them to panic because the house is on fire. There is a crisis.

Meanwhile, our somewhat distracted politicians are more concerned about breaking-off relations with their next-door neighbours and are talking excitedly about making better friends across the road; or maybe on the next estate. It’s political pandemonium as they run around in ever decreasing circles.

When a crisis occurs, our human instinct is to look out for each other, to help those in need, often putting ourselves second. When our community is threatened, we come together and support each other. Barriers come down, old enmities seem unimportant as something bigger faces us. In times of need it is in our nature to face challenges collectively: to co-operate.

Apparently not so with politicians. It continues to be a game of who blinks first.  They talk magnanimously of seeking compromise: by which they mean conceding the absolute minimum and grinding down others, hoping it will somehow lead to an acceptable accommodation which can be claimed as victory. 

This is competition, not co-operation.  It wants to give nothing away and is simply a continuation of working against rather than working with. 

Ironically, competition is also human nature. It is deeply embedded, particularly in the male of the species, and it is the very basis of survival. (With males in charge for much of history, should we be surprised at our plight today?)

Competitiveness has underpinned human affairs for all of time, and the history of civilisation is a gradual awakening to the need to hold it in check: somehow to be able to harness strength and power in order to keep the peace; but at the same time to curb oppression and the abuse of that power. Autocracy, constitutional monarchy, democracy …

Holding competitiveness in check – maintaining it where necessary, but over-riding it when it risks undermining the body – is and always will be at the heart of the challenge of government and of governance. Ultimately civilisation, living together in society, rely on individuals being willing and able to subordinate their own interests to the common good. Enlightened self-interest, the golden rule, the Good Samaritan – call it what you like.

We all need to co-operate more and compete less.

When politicians, because of the baggage they carry, are incapable of sitting down together and openly considering together what needs to be done, they no longer deserve our support and loyalty, lose any remaining moral authority, and risk undermining constitutional stability. But it’s not just a problem in politics.

The world of commerce is addicted to it too.  Competition clearly helps to prevent monopolies, to stimulate quality improvement and to reduce waste and inefficiency; but where competition becomes a way of life, where it becomes something ideological which must be preserved at all costs, then alarm bells should be ringing.


Because competition provides cover for practices and behaviours which should never be tolerated: banks manipulating interest rates, tobacco companies marketing to teenagers and younger children, the funding of climate denial campaigns by the fossil-fuel industry, modern day slavery in retailing.  We know these things happen; but that’s just competition, it’s how (much) business works.

We cannot just blame faceless corporations: we are the customers. Nor can we run away from the fact that human beings – executives and managers – make these things happen. Why? Because the pursuit of success, which means increased profits, requires it. Because of the duty to maximise shareholder value.  Because investors expect the best possible return on their shareholding. Because the most successful fund-managers are the ones who back the businesses that make a good return without doing anything scandalous or unlawful. 

Or maybe that should read “without being caught doing anything scandalous or unlawful”.  This is where we can now see that the modern world really has lost its bearings, when household-name organisations are fined huge sums for doing the opposite of what we expect them to do, and today’s world just shrugs its shoulders and moves on.

Competition in the world of commerce is a good thing; but not when it becomes the only fuel that powers business. A child can see that this will end badly.

When politics cannot see beyond competition, it destroys itself.

We will never compete our way out of the climate crisis, or the constitutional crisis.

But we can get somewhere by co-operating; by collectively seeking the right way forwards, subordinating our own aspiration and recognising the importance of the common good. 

Will humanity wake up to the need to co-operate rather than to compete?

I hope so.  Alarm bells are ringing.

Cliff Mills, Anthony Collins Solicitors

The Exchange at Greenbelt is where we explore how business needs to be different; how private profit must come second to social justice; how social businesses pursue the common good, not private gain; and how it is essential that we play OUR part in radical change.  The Exchange at Greenbelt 2019 was brought to you this year by Central England Co-operative, Traidcraft, Resonance, CMS and Anthony Collins Solicitors.  Looking forward to seeing you in 2020!

Watch out for recorded talks from Miatta Fahnbulleh, Grace Blakeley, Paul Mason and Danny Dorling from Greenbelt 2019 which resonate with Cliff’s writing here – coming soon!