When it comes to me and corporate responsibility I adopt the George Orwell position towards the British left; standing on the home terrace holding a season ticket but spending most of my time shouting abuse at my own team. I believe in the possibility of good business and its potential value, but often the practice of corporate responsibility leaves me frustrated and angry.
Partly this is CSR sector’s bland, complacent rhetoric, more substantively it’s about how businesses claiming to be virtuous insist on keeping certain issues off limits. Two of these sinful issues are executive rewards and company governance.
Both are at the forefront of the row over BHS, in which Sir Philip Green enriched himself and his family while loading BHS with debt and failing to put money aside to cover its pension liabilities. Now, as well as the 11,000 workers facing redundancy, the taxpayer and other pensioners will have to pick up various parts of the bill. To add salt to the wounds Sir Philip (a man with friends in very high places in the British establishment) went to considerable lengths to limit his family’s own tax liabilities to this country.
This takes me to another problem with the CSR discourse. Whilst company bosses like to make self-serving distinction between the bad practice they have ended or avoided and the great things they do now, there is an unwritten rule that business leaders don’t publicly attack each other. Perhaps this is because they each know too much about what really happens behind the rhetoric.
So, despite the BHS story apparently exemplifying all that is wrong with shareholder capitalism and corporate greed I suspect we will hear little or nothing on the issue from business leaders or their organisations.
Yet it is not just Labour, the trade unions and the critics of capitalism that are outraged by what is unfolding; some of the most critical comments about BHS’s former bosses came yesterday in the House of Commons from Conservative MPs.
Big business faces a legitimacy crisis. It is not just that we have a thriving activist left in Britain - including at the helm of the Labour Party – not afraid to attack the unacceptable faces of capitalism. There is also an emergent right of centre populism (which may well take a dynamic new institutional form after the EU referendum) happy to join the attack if it helps attract supporters to nationalism and social conservativism.
It is therefore not only ethical but strongly advisable for the business community to demonstrate a capacity for self-criticism and self-regulation. Either collectively through its various associations like the CBI and IoD, or individually through prominent business leaders speaking out, the business community needs now to show the clarity and courage and to recognise and condemn the deep systemic failings revealed by the BHS saga.
If they keep quiet, for fear perhaps of some awkward encounters in the first class lounges of international airports, they have no one but themselves to blame if the reputation of big business as a whole is tarnished by this sorry tale.
Matthew Taylor Anthony Painter
Instead of hoping for national politicians to solve our hardest problems, we need to ask them for the final pieces of a puzzle we have started to solve together.