They should wear masks

Paul Foot

  • Stagecoach: A Classic Rags-to-Riches Tale from the Frontiers of Capitalism by Christian Wolmar
    Orion, 227 pp, £18.99, November 1998, ISBN 0 7528 1025 1

When I heard that Christian Wolmar was to write a book about the transport company Stagecoach I rejoiced that one of the great privatisation scandals of our time would at last be fully exposed. My hopes faded with the first sentence. ‘This book was written with the active co-operation of Stagecoach’s senior executives.’ After ‘initial doubts’, Stagecoach’s founder and driving force Brian Souter ‘gave his time for a series of lengthy interviews’. Souter no doubt worried that the hours he spent talking to Wolmar might prove a poor investment. He must be utterly delighted with the result. A billion pounds’ worth of advertising would not buy Stagecoach so extended and glittering a puff. The praise for Souter himself starts in the first chapter and goes on and on and on. He has an ‘exceptional business brain’, he is (passim) a ‘genius’, he is also ‘an ideas man’, a ‘pacifist’ and even from time to time has ‘socialist instincts’ and ‘does believe in public transport’ (provided, presumably, it is privately owned). ‘Hardly anyone dislikes him’; he is at the same time ‘an old trade-union hand’ and ‘a frontiersman who conquered the West’. ‘The secret of his success is built on relationships with people’ and ‘he is head and shoulders above most businessmen of his generation.’ The book ends with an excited little orgasm of flattery and gratitude. ‘His certainty, his confidence and his encyclopedic knowledge, combined with the fact that he is an affable, pleasant, charming and very agreeable man, made him into an extremely engaging fellow ... he lifted my sights quite substantially.’ Wolmar imagines that Souter ‘will hate to see this in print’, so we can obviously add modesty to his talents. The genius of Brian Souter carries all before it in this ‘classic rags-to-riches tale from the frontiers of capitalism’. Each decision, each acquisition, is reported as part of the ascent to the peaks of capitalism made by Souter and his sister Ann Gloag. The reader is left with the unmistakable impression that anyone can end up, as Gloag has done, in a Scottish castle, if they have charm, genius, an exceptional business brain and a few socialist and pacifist instincts.

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