Business is more than a necessary evil

EDITOR'S BLOG: Steve Hilton and the other founders of the Big Society got together for a shindig last night. They should make the case for a better breed of business.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 30 Jun 2016

To Shoreditch - where else? - to hear Steve Hilton give a little speech. Guys of your age, Steve, really should not wear T shirts in public. Even if you’ve been pumping iron on Muscle Beach in California until the sun sets over Hawaii. But, hey, at least you kept your shoes on.

Fresh from stabbing his old mate the prime minister in the back over Europe, Hilton was appearing with his old mucker Giles Gibbons at the 20th birthday celebrations for Good Business, the consultancy they founded together. I’ve rarely seen so many virtuous people under one roof.

Here’s a version of a short piece I wrote for Good News, Giles’s anniversary magazine. The others can be read here.

Good name in man and woman, dear my lord
Is the immediate jewel of their souls:
Who steals my purse steals trash; 'tis something, nothing;
'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him
And makes me poor indeed.

- Othello

I’d say the good name of business is at a pretty low ebb at the moment. It’s been stolen, filched and has left its owner poor indeed.

Recently I made a BBC radio 4 programme about Trust in Business. Levels are currently not high, as anyone who makes a close study of the annual Edelman Trust barometer will tell you.

After I’d interviewed among others the Chairman of Audi to ask why his organisation appeared to be think behaving like a cheat and a bounder was acceptable, my producer suggested we get out onto the street for a vox pop. The BBC is paid for by ‘the people’ so their voice must be heard at every available opportunity.

We marched up and down Oxford Street seeking the opinion of the shopping public. Few we approached were terribly positive about commerce - maybe they would have them all back using the tradesman's entrance.

In the end we used the short quote of a late middle aged woman who was exiting John Lewis with her daughter, a nurse. "Business? What do I think of business? Well, it’s a necessary evil, I suppose.’ Jeez, i thought. Have things got that bad?

When the Panama Papers scandal was at its height recently Boris Johnson weighed in - or rather willy-waved - with his last four years worth of tax returns. And, glory be, if he wasn’t raking in substantially higher sums of money than the Prime Minister or the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

I couldn’t help but calculate that, thanks to his lucrative Telegraph column and his book royalties, Johnson had paid enough tax in the previous year at around a quarter of a million quid to cover the salaries of both Jeremy Corbyn and his side kick John McDonnell. Well done him, I thought. And yet the latter pair, neither of whom have ever removed themselves from the teat of the public sector in search of their wage packet, was keen to make him and all others who bring in more than the minimum wage ashamed of the fact.

Business badly needs to get back onto the front foot when explaining why it isn't ‘a necessary evil.’ Why it creates wealth, pays very large sums of money in tax, employs people - even giving them purpose in the process - and makes the world go round. Never mind the fact that the whole CSR debate is long won and any business that pays it no heed is regarded as beyond odd or Trump-like in its obtuseness.

I think Giles’ and Good Businesses mission for the next twenty years should be to assist business in this basic process of education. Because we’re currently in danger of getting completely lost in a fug of ‘fairness’ and wooly thinking that wouldn’t have been out of place in 1960s Cuba. 

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