Opinion Articles

City Bankers - Spivs or Profiteers?

  • RSS Feed Icon

Positioning himself and the Liberal Democrats to the left of their Conservative allies, the business secretary Vince Cable attacked the 'spivs and gamblers' in the City at his party's conference last week. No doubt he hoped his rhetoric would chime with party activists and a wider public. An imagined audience that blames Britain's bankers for the country's current economic woes and cannot believe that these economic saboteurs have gone unpunished, receiving bonuses that are as big, if not bigger, than those they received before the global credit crunch.

But the use of the term 'spiv' diminished the force of Vince's argument and revealed his age. The word doesn't conjure a vision of sinister black market dealers akin to the drug dealers of today. For most people who can't remember the 1940s, it summons up the image of Private Walker, the dodgy dealing member of the Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard in the ever popular BBC sitcom Dad's Army. Those with a longer memory might recall the bookie Flash Harry who took the schoolgirls' bets in the St Trinian films or Arthur English's music hall character 'Tosh - Prince of the Wideboys'.

The comic spiv, a working-class penny capitalist decked out in a double-breasted American Look suit with a trilby perched at jaunty angle on a brylcreamed head, was a social type familiar to many in post-war Britain. Standing in their two-tone shoes, they were the gateway to a black market of exotic products: dodgy ration coupons, nylon stockings, and, at Christmas, turkeys and toys. They soon became a nationwide phenomenon. Only an out-of-towner would buy a bottle of whisky from a spiv working the concourse of Glasgow Central. If they did, upon opening the bottle once the train had left the station they would be met not by scotch, but by a mixture of cold tea and meths.

Like today's chav, the spiv was a linguistic phenomenon. The writer Bill Naughton introduced the public to the type in his article 'Meet the Spiv', published in the News Chronicle in September 1945. Reporting a conversation with a South London lorry driver, Naughton introduced his readers to this new word to describe a familiar figure in austerity Britain. Naughton's article struck a chord and the term - well known to members of London's criminal fraternity since the turn of the century - chimed with the public and soon entered the wider lexicon.

Having supplied the public with the label for growing number of young working-class men living by their wits after the war's end, it became a national pastime to spot spivs at work. They could be found in London's pubs, clubs and dance-halls where they combined business and pleasure, flogging ration coupons or goods unobtainable elsewhere to a population hungry for that 'little bit extra' that made life worth living. Soho was their playground and in the district's greasy spoons, spivs often congregated en masse talking business.

The word 'spiv' might have been new, but the young working-class entrepreneur who ducked and dived to make a living was not. His predecessor the 'wide boy' of the 1930s could trace his lineage back to the mid-nineteenth-century costermongers described by the social investigator Henry Mayhew.

Film makers latched onto this figure, which allowed them to domesticate the American gangster film, twinning the mean streets of London's East End with those of Chicago or New York. With rationing's end, the spiv became an endangered species, reduced to selling santa hats in Giles cartoons or taking the school girls bets at St Trinian's. But he did not disappear completely. Social commentators worried that his disdain for authority and lack of respect for the law had infected the population as the fifties gave way to the sixties. Indeed, the same Bill Naughton who introduced the public to the spiv in 1945, updated him for more affluent and permissive times in his 1963 play Alfie, a character immortalised by Michael Caine in the film version three years later.

The working-class wideboy came into his own during the Thatcher years. The 1980s was a time in which these working-class penny capitalists were held up as paragons of the enterprise culture. The City recruited heavily from their ranks as deregulation went hand in hand with the expansion of the financial services industry. At the same time, bankers moved eastwards into new developments in the regenerated docklands of East London - spiritual home of the working-class wide boy.

So there is something to Mr Cable's charge that the culture of black market spivvery associated with London's post-war street traders has displaced the City's traditions of gentlemanly capitalism. But the force of his argument is undermined by invoking the spiv as there is something perversely appealing about British banks run by latter day Private Walkers or Flash Harrys - working-class rogues sticking two fingers up at the privileged, helping themselves when social policies fail to help their peers.

And Mr Cable should take note. This is not the first time that 'the spiv' has met with derision from the political class at times of austerity. Herbert Morrison, Peter Mandelson's grandfather, a powerful figure in Labour's post-war government, saw 'spivs, drones, eels and butterflies' as the enemies of 'fair shares for all', and tried to clamp down on their activities in spring 1947. Faced with an acute balance of payments crisis, the Labour government exhorted people to increase their productivity and cut back on consumption. Urging the Labour Party Conference to support the 'We Work or We Want' campaign, Morrison criticised 'useless mouths' and 'people engaged in activities which are a hindrance to the national effort or, in some instances definitely anti-social'. He encouraged delegates to 'point the finger of public scorn at such parasites who make themselves comfortable at the expense of the whole community', and point they did, attacking parasites, drones, professional rentiers, gamblers and, of course, spivs.

Perhaps Mr Cable should note too, that demonising the spiv proved singularly unsuccessful - the spiv's activities turned out to be more in tune with a frustrated public who were starting to question the need for rationing and had a soft spot for these cheeky chappies, not moralising politicians. These working-class peacocks brought a welcome flash of much needed colour as they strutted their stuff across the greyness of war scarred Britain.

But Vince's 'spivs and gamblers' have more in common with the first world war profiteer, a type the cartoonist David Low made his own when satirising big business between the wars. The corpulent figure of the profiteer in top hat and tails while smoking a cigar would need updating, but the trope comes closer to capturing the social distance between city bankers and the wider public. A more powerful rhetorical device no doubt, but missing the acute insight into the post-war mingling of city and East End traditions that Vince's reference to 'spivs and gamblers' highlights.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


To hear Mark Roodhouse's essay on BBC Radio 4's Broadcasting House.



Papers By Author

Papers by Theme


Sign up to receive announcements on events, the latest research and more!

To complete the subscription process, please click the link in the email we just sent you.

We will never send spam and you can unsubscribe any time.

About Us

H&P is based at the Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, University of London.

We are the only project in the UK providing access to an international network of more than 500 historians with a broad range of expertise. H&P offers a range of resources for historians, policy makers and journalists.

Read More