A consolation of the financial crisis is that it is producing a bumper crop of fiction, the best of which will be read long after all the hefty works of investigative non-fiction have been forgotten. Last year I praised Sebastian Faulks’s A Week in December, and my Christmas reading this year will include Justin Cartwright’s Other People’s Money and Robert Harris’s The Fear Index. The ‘silo mentality’ of the hedge-fund manager offers a rich psychological seam, the drama of the trading floor provides all the McGuffins to sell the film rights, and the contrast between the financiers’ lifestyle and that of the people whose livelihoods they damage is the 21st-century zeitgeist captured in a few keystrokes.
But on the wider subject of the role of business in society, the best parable yet written is 168 years old. As I was reminded by a lively local school production of A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens managed to encapsulate the whole debate. ‘It’s enough for a man to understand his own business and not to interfere with other people’s. Mine occupies me constantly,’ barks silo-mentality prototype Scrooge when the ‘portly gentlemen’ (with whom I always identify strongly) ask him for a donation to provide seasonal cheer for the poor. ‘Business!’ cries Marley’s ghost, wringing its hands in the manner of the late Body Shop founder Anita Roddick, ‘Charity, mercy, forbearance and benevolence were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!’
A realistic definition of ‘good business’ lies somewhere between those two positions. But still it would be nice on Christmas morning to encounter bankers dancing with the joy of rediscovered fellow-feeling, sending turkeys to their clerks and pressing cheques into the pockets of portly gentlemen.
Whatever happened to trust?
My other holiday reading recommendation is The Trust Deficit — Views from the Boardroom, a Populus report commissioned by the law firm DLA Piper. This posits ‘an increasingly cynical and sceptical environment’ in which trust not only in business but in politicians, public institutions and the mainstream media is rapidly eroding, with implications for the way senior executives now have to steer their companies.
Where trust still exists, it is unevenly distributed — often reposing in high-profile individuals whose true nature is far more ruthless than the persona admired by consumers. Apple users’ reverence for the late Steve Jobs, a monster sociopath in real life, was integral to the ‘trusted’ Apple brand. Trust is also unstable: social media can spread adverse rumours and allegations like wildfire. And once lost, it is awfully difficult to recover — can BP ever expunge American memories of the Gulf of Mexico disaster? Companies operate against a background of underlying suspicion of bad practice or bad motives even when their products have long been part of consumers’ daily lives. A single incident destroys decades of goodwill; as one FTSE director told Populus, ‘We’re moving towards the stage where you’re not presumed innocent until you’re proven guilty; it’s the other way round.’
How should business respond to this challenge? NatWest is trying to regain ground by advertising an audited ‘Customer Charter’ which promises better treatment for customers. Others seek favour by upping the ‘corporate social responsibility’ quotient, backing community projects and emphasising ethical sourcing. The risk in both approaches is that an instant Facebook campaign spreads word that the reality doesn’t match the marketing hype, and the well-intentioned company suddenly looks dishonest. More robust, but tough to pull off, is Ryanair’s subliminal message: you don’t have to trust us, just buy our low fares.
But somehow business has had to adjust to the fact that trust is no longer offered, in any sphere, as it used to be; distrust is now the default response. It’s easy to argue that business leaders, especially in the City, have brought this on themselves by behaving greedily and uncaringly. But that’s not the whole story, which is also about social change. The conclusion I drew from The Trust Deficit, perhaps perversely, is that we should relearn when to give business the benefit of the doubt — it’s only human, after all.
From the pulpit
Never let a year go by without a new experience. I don’t want to boast, but here’s a selection of personal firsts from the past decade. I white-water rafted in the Canadian Rockies. I caroused with the governor of West Kazakhstan at his dacha in the frozen steppes. I played the butler in a production of Rossini’s Cenerentola. And I was guest of honour at the best — possibly the only — Spectator party ever held in Istanbul.
My achievement for 2011, however, was one that I would previously have listed, along with having cosmetic surgery and becoming a contestant on Strictly Come Dancing, in the category of things I was pretty certain I would never do. I preached a sermon in my parish church. It was titled ‘Godliness and Economics’ and it set out to describe a spectrum of business activity that stretches from the wholly ungodly (the drugs trade) to the wholly benign, which might include the good farmer taking his produce to market. In between are all manner of ethically neutral transactions, but also many which fall — like the dealings of unreformed Scrooges — at ‘the edge of ungodliness… acts that are not evil in themselves, but unthinking, misguided or negligent acts with evil consequences’. Those are the ones the City must learn to avoid if its professions and companies are ever to be trusted again.
Please email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you would like to receive copies of ‘Godliness and Economics’ or The Trust Deficit. Archbishops and Occupy protestors might find them particularly useful. But that’s more than enough from the Any Other Business pulpit for this Christmas. ‘And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!’