Lloyd George defined ‘profiteer’ more than a century ago. It may be time to revisit it | Tim Adams

The scandal of PPE procurement is surely reason enough for the term to be debated in parliament

The last time that the UK parliament tried to define the word “profiteering” was in 1919, as the country emerged from war and unscrupulous traders made fortunes by criminally inflating prices on everything from shoes to building materials. David Lloyd George’s government was moved to attempt to outlaw those practices that fed on national scarcity and that signalled corruption to the wider world. For the purposes of that debate. his trade minister, Auckland Geddes, argued that “‘to profiteer’ is to make unreasonably large profit by the sale to one’s fellow-citizens of an article which is of common use by or for the majority of the population”.

There was universal agreement about the immorality of the trade, but plenty of scepticism about the chances of the legislation, not least from Colonel Josiah Wedgwood, great-great-grandson of the potter. “So long as human nature remains what it is every man is going to get as big a profit as he can,” Wedgwood argued. “From my knowledge of human nature that is likely to continue in spite of any Act of Parliament…”

The bill passed, but Wedgwood’s prediction was sound. The word “profiteering” has only persistently recurred in Hansard twice: in 1939, at the outbreak of the Second World War, and in the last 18 months when it emerged, for example, that during the pandemic, Somerset Capital, the investment firm established by Jacob Rees-Mogg, was alerting its clients to the prospect of “once in a generation” opportunities to make “super normal returns” by buying stock in crippled companies.

So far, the scandal of PPE procurement in the first weeks of the Covid crisis has mostly focused on government law-breaking. But reading further revelations last week about some of the 47 firms that were fast-tracked into the ministerial “VIP channel” to supply gowns and masks to the NHS frontline, with profits in one case soaring 4,700%, surely Lloyd George’s profiteering bill is overdue another look.

Off the beaten track

Forty years ago, the literary magazine Granta made its name with the new “travel writing”, a catch-all term to describe intrepid, in-depth reporting in far-off places, from the likes of Bruce Chatwin and Jan Morris and Redmond O’Hanlon. The current edition of the magazine is also devoted to travel, but contributors now invariably have to overcome potential derailment before they even get out of the door: do the tales they tell justify their carbon footprint or, as the issue is succinctly titled, “Should we have stayed at home?”

Venus ascendant

Venus Williams at a premiere screening for King Richard in Los Angeles.
Venus Williams at a premiere screening for King Richard in Los Angeles. Photograph: Ringo Chiu/Reuters

There has never been a sports coach to rival Richard Williams, with his prenatal plans to produce two of the greatest female tennis players of all time. Will Smith captures all the drive and insanity of that mission in the new biopic King Richard.

Watching it, I was reminded of interviewing Venus, just as she became world number one, and just how infectious her father’s myth-making was. Inevitably, I asked her how it all began and she patiently told me how, when she was three and a half years old, her daddy took her down to the nearest exclusive club in Los Angeles and organised a game for her against the pro.

“How did you do?” I wondered.

Well, she said, she was shy at first. “But soon I was serving aces… I was used to beating guys by then, so I beat this guy, too...”

“Really?” I said, wide-eyed. “You beat him? When you were three and a half?”

She paused a beat, stared at me, laughing hugely at my credulity. “Nah. Of course not!”

• Tim Adams in an Observer columnist

Contributor

Tim Adams

The GuardianTramp

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