Take Stephen Hester, CEO of RBS, who has been hammered in recent days. Why doesn’t he talk to more journalists more regularly? Why doesn’t he meet opinion formers to explain to them how he is unwinding the mistakes made by his predecessor to try and recover the taxpayers’ investment? This newspaper, for one, would be delighted to give him a platform to present his side of the story and to justify the remainder of his compensation package – or merely to tell us how he feels after the ugly vilification he has been subjected to during the past few days. We wouldn’t print waffly nonsense under his name that didn’t address substantive points, however.
What business people don’t understand is that politics is different to business. Doing deals behind closed doors – UK Plc’s favourite strategy – fails in moments such as these. We are in full-blown hysteria mode, with the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats trying to blame all of the world’s problems on City pay, and the media and pressure groups amplifying these calls. The public is shifting to the left, with increasing support for the 50p tax, a wealth tax and even a 1970s-style incomes policy (with quantitative caps on pay). This is no longer about fighting rewards for failure – a good policy – it is about fighting all rewards and all high wages across all sectors, which is very different. Business leaders overwhelmingly believe such moves would be idiotic, destroy the UK’s competitiveness and mean fewer jobs and reduced investment – yet almost to a man and woman they remain silent, subcontracting their views to cautious industry groups of varying effectiveness.
With years of weak growth and real terms public spending cuts ahead of us, none of this will go away. It will just get worse. It is crazy that business leaders are refusing to fight back. The Treasury may say reassuring things to them in private – but you just need a few tabloid front pages, a push by the broadcasters and hence a big enough row for agreements to be torn up. And by the way, it is right and proper that politics represents public opinion; lobbying behind the scenes is not healthy. We need a more engaged business community, with debates out in the open aimed at convincing the public, not a secretive culture where shady operatives try and convince MPs and civil servants to say one thing to the public and do another when it comes to actual legislation.
Businesses aren’t always right – especially when they want special privileges, subsidies, bailouts or handouts, all abhorrent – but they aren’t always wrong either. They are certainly the only hope for our future prosperity. They need to stop moaning privately about how they are being victimised – and get out and fight their corner.
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