It seems to be de rigeur for columnists returning from holiday to somehow work the details of their holiday into their columns, betraying thereby the dearth of genuine ideas they had whilst away.  Not me, though.  Always ahead of the game, I’m going to write about my 2003 holiday…


Last summer, I had a mini epiphany (and before you fill in the gags for me, I’m not talking about a car).  It happened while visiting Cornwall for the first time in years.  As I was sitting in The Smuggler’s Arms, trying to choose between the Smuggler’s Pastie, the Smuggler’s Pie and the Smuggler’s Lunch (that’s like a Ploughman’s Lunch, but with Spanish cheese), I was inspired to reflect on this most enduring example of our ambivalence when it comes to crime.  We live in a society seemingly teetering on the brink of vigilanteeism, with many demanding the right to kill burglars in self-defence; and yet we relentlessly romanticise the criminal, be it a smuggler, a Kray or a train robber. 


This ethical ambivalence extends beyond the idolisation of historical ne’er-do-wells.  We all constantly flex our own definition of what is a criminal act.  The workplace is a wonderful example of this.  Research suggests that as many as three-quarters of all employees steal from their employers at least once.  (If you find this statistic a little OTT, you may congratulate yourself that you would never take pens or copier paper home, put something through on expenses that wasn’t strictly business, go to sleep in a toilet cubicle in the company’s time, put something on your c.v. that wasn’t completely true… need I go on?).  In the US, the National White Collar Crime Center puts annual losses from employee theft at $240 billion, accounting for approximately 30 to 50 percent of all business failures. 


There is, interestingly, a common distinction between the crimes we condemn and the crimes we excuse, whether at the macro level (smugglers) or the micro (pens, mouse mats, my highly prized polo shirt with Amalgamated Wall Cavity Fillings Ltd in big letters on the back).  Crimes committed against the individual (such as burglary or assault) tend to be reviled, while those committed against the faceless ‘system’ tend to be revered.  Smugglers in this context are not criminals, but brave campaigners against excessive import duty, whether their booty is a boatload of wool in the 14th century or 15,000 packs of cigarettes ‘for personal use’ in the 21st


Similarly, in the workplace, the employee who feels undervalued and unrewarded sees the stationery, the blank computer disks or the ‘sickie’ as compensation wrestled from a system that doesn’t care sufficiently about him or her as an individual.  Traditional solutions to this phenomenon tend to veer between the punitive (which works in the short term but does little to cure disaffection) and the cowardly (the 1970s habit of paying workers a bonus if they actually turn up at work).  We can be more creative about it, surely? 


I have recently come across two rather more original solutions to the problem of white collar crime, both using a version of the ‘reversal’ or ‘as if’ technique.  One story I heard concerned a toy car factory where pilfering was rife.  The organisation spent lots of money (in addition to the cost of the pilfering itself) trying to stamp it out, until someone asked the question: How might we make pilfering a useful thing? They realised that if they monitored the models being pilfered, they would have an easy measure of which were most in demand in the market place: it ended up saving them a lot of money on market research.


And, as a cure for the favourite British pastime of pulling a sickie, the best I heard of was the case of a boss who was convinced that one of her employees was taking sick leave when there was nothing wrong with her, but couldn’t prove it.  So she sent to the employee’s house an enormous bouquet of flowers with a note saying how much they all missed her.  The employee returned to her desk the next day and took no more time off for the rest of the year.


Whether it’s another symptom of appreciation deficit or a protest against economic injustice, the criminal within us all will doubtless refuse to lie down completely.  And what of the smuggler?  Well, times change:  I predict that 200 years hence, the casual tourist will be sitting perusing the menu in the Car Boot Sale Arms, trying to choose between VAT Dodger’s Pastie, Dubious Imported Fag Seller’s Pie or Bloke In The Pub’s lunch (That’s like a Ploughman’s, but the cheese, lettuce and pickle have been nicked off someone else’s plate). 


© Phil Lowe, 2004.  All rights reserved