Should business have a purpose?

Business is not separate from society.

In February the Public Services (Social Value) Act came into force. The Act very simply requires public authorities to procure services in a way that generates social value. This was a piece of Tory legislation (gasp), so well done to Chris White on seeing his private members bill through to the end.

Social Value seems a long way away from the capitalism of the 1970s and 80s when Milton Friedman famously wrote in his book Capitalism and Freedom: "there is one and only one social responsibility of business–to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud."

This is often condensed into the “business of business is business” quote. This finds clear resonance in the UK Companies Act where the goal of business is to maximise profit for shareholders.

Apologists for Abstract Expressionism in New York in the early 20th Century, Alfred Barr and Clement Greenberg, made strenuous claims that painting was about surface and colour and nothing else, getting rid of the difficulties of subject matter. Like those art critics, doesn’t Friedman’s abstract view strip business activity of all sense of production, all politics and all purpose, leaving it to do its own thing and have no particular social relevance? Such commentary allows for a discussion of business in the absence of any knowledge of what they actually do and what impacts they may have.

Isn’t it just very convenient to isolate business from society when society isn’t very happy with it and is losing a strongly-held faith in the world of business? 

The Edelman Trust Barometer for 2013, which surveyed over “31,000 respondents in 26 markets around the world and measured their trust in institutions, industries and leaders”, opens with the words:

“The 2013 Edelman Trust Barometer demonstrates a serious crisis of confidence in leaders of both business and government.”

The Barometer shows that whilst trust in institutions including businesses rising modestly, the quality of that trust is feeble: the respondent’s category for “Trust a great deal” is at 16 per cent in government and 17 per cent in business and media.

This is pretty lamentable. Business is not separate from society; it is a social activity, literally being busy. To make this clear, the now well-worn quote of Bjorn Stigson, when president of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, that “businesses do not succeed in societies that fail”, needs to be read alongside the Kofi Anan comment that it is the absence not the presence of business that has condemned the much of the world to poverty. 

We have started to see the emergence of a new sense of entrepreneurship which is increasingly called responsible capitalism in the shape of businesses and social enterprises that combine a sense of social or environmental purpose with profit. We can see this in the Social Value Act. How long, we might wonder, before it is common practice for all organisations to think about the social value they create. Would then the Companies Act, instead of enshrining the purpose of business to be profit maximisation whilst nominally nodding at the needs of society and the environment, in fact require businesses to have a purpose in society and, in fulfilling that purpose, they should of course make a profit. 

That might make people trust businesses more; it might make people feel that instead of being self-serving, businesses are in fact part of society.

Richard Spencer is Head of Sustainability at ICAEW.

Photograph: Getty Images
Getty
Show Hide image

Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle