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Why it’s important to choose your own path in business (and life)

Someone asked me the other day what my father would think of me if he heard me agreeing with some things the Conservative party said and not adhering religiously to a left-wing ideology.

The answer is quite simple. My father would have been proud of the fact that I am a free thinker. I see right and wrong on both sides of every argument and I make up my own mind after weighing up the arguments.

Likewise, in business he would’ve been proud of the fact that for the last 24 years I have had no boss but myself. I have not had to put up with the unreasonable behaviour that people I know experience on a daily basis from their employers. I have been able to choose who I work with and when I work and I have been able to see my children grow up and spend quality time with them, never once saying to them “Sorry, I can’t, I’ve got work to do.” And he would’ve been proud of the times I have walked away from paymasters who have chosen to take advantage of my gentle approach. One client was worth £15,000 a year to me but he seemed to think that gave him the right to patronise me, abuse me and keep expecting more and more of my time while slashing the rate he was paying me. It didn’t.

Of course, before my father left this planet for a better place he was already immensely proud of my achievements. He was delighted that at just 20 years old I was able to leave the family home in Bredbury, near Stockport, and move to London on my own, barely knowing where I was going, let alone knowing anybody when I got there.

He was proud of the fact that the son of a steelworker and hat factory worker got on to a journalism course – the only one of its kind in the country – that had just 32 places. Incredible odds and a massive life-changer for me. He couldn’t have been happier… well, at least not until I passed the NCTJ course with a distinction and moved into my first editorial position.

I then carved out a career for myself in journalism in London and within just three years was the Editor of three engineering magazines, the youngest ever in the country at the time. He loved the fact that this job saw me travel to various countries and places, including East Berlin where I was able to stand at the wall looking over to the West. Whenever I came home the hugs had that extra meaning and feeling, the conversations had more depth, and the farewells were harder than ever. A few years later I was Editorial Director of an international marketing agency with a company car, complete with carphone, and finally earning a salary that nearly matched my three factory-working siblings. And then I started up my own company and was able to decide how much I paid myself, in my best years approaching £50,000. Not bad for a working class lad from a house that used to have a ‘coal hole’ and a clothes wringer in the wash house.

My father held such extremely left-wing views that he made Arthur Scargill look right-wing. Scargill got it right, my dad thought, and would have loved him to run the country (an aspiration Scargill himself was accused of having at the time) whereas I believed that Scargill was equally to blame as Margaret Thatcher for the demise of the UK coal industry, the appalling violence in the country and the desperate destruction of communities. Talk about following an ideology and damn the outcome…

I knew where my dad was coming from though. For him, unions were an essential means of enabling workers to get the rights that employers did not want to give them. The bullying company owners I mentioned earlier were far more prevalent when my dad was looking for work and having someone fight your corner, bringing together the collective power of other workers around the country, was absolutely essential at the time.

My own experience of unions, however, saw me doing my homework by candlelight when I was a kid because there was no power to our house for long periods of time. The three-day working week was a reality and the mining unions had managed to do what the Luftwaffe had failed to achieve – they had shut down large parts of the country and turned out the lights. I saw flying pickets where solidarity often morphed into transportable and inexcusable violence and people who disagreed with them called “scabs” and blacklisted or ostracised. When I was a student I saw the NUS advise me to plead guilty to a misdemeanour I did not commit “because it will be better for you”. To this day I regret listening to them.

When I went to work I saw Unison unable to support me when a ruthless employer used me for cheap labour then told me to leave after he had come back from the pub clearly worse for wear. When I worked for the public sector I saw Unison again flex their impotence when a job evaluation exercise left dedicated staff thousands of pounds a year worse off. When I asked why the union did not fight for its members the reply came back: “They should consider themselves lucky that they still have work, in other local authorities people have lost their jobs.” Essentially, then, just accept the pay cut, keep your head down and be grateful you have a job – not really what my dad would expect from a trade union.

Yes, much of this can be put down to unions having less power nowadays and that can definitely be blamed on Thatcher, but the extreme behaviour of unions that thought they could override democracy and bring the country to its knees – leading to unbelievable suffering by working people who are expected to back them – cannot go blameless either.

And, of course, while it is acceptable to question how much MPs are paid and what expenses they claim (because it’s taxpayers’ money, obviously), there was a deathly hush when I asked a prominent union leader to reveal his salary and benefits. This was two years ago and he was said to be paid £140,000, getting a pay rise of 3.7 per cent while the people he claimed to represent saw their pay frozen year after year then told to be grateful when given a 1 per cent increase for the foreseeable future. £140,000? On a par with how much the person elected to run the entire country gets in 2016 and way above and beyond the dreams of most working people.

I have never been one of those football supporters who thought that every penalty given against my team was a referee error while every penalty given to my team was the correct decision. That blind faith is great for the terraces and represents real passion and commitment for many people but, for me, I like to see the good and bad in everything and come to my own conclusions. Likewise, I can see the good and bad in unions, in political parties, and in business. And I’d like to think I’m intelligent enough to know where to lend my backing and where to withhold it.

Independent, not dictated to by an ideology, with the freedom to choose my own path in life and who I want to work with. Never a slave to anyone, never abused by anyone in business more than once, willing to speak my mind (fairly and politely) and walk away from the bullies, and able to look back on my life in the knowledge that I never once let my family down and prioritised work over them.

Yep, my father would be so proud of his youngest and I live my life in his honour.

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Rory Baxter, owner of The Word Factory, has decades of experience as a writer, editor, and public relations practitioner.

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