Thursday 26 March 2020 12:01 am

Coronavirus crisis is putting the public good back at the heart of commerce

John Oxley is a Conservative commentator

Conservative chancellors are not usually known for their inspirational quotes. Rishi Sunak, however, channelled the mood of the nation when he unveiled his bold package to tackle the coronavirus crisis.

Ending his speech on a stirring note, he set out how history would judge our response, highlighting the acts of kindness and decency that would be remembered.

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It is a message which has been taken up by many businesses — and could bode well for capitalism’s renewal.

Across the country, companies have rushed to ally themselves with the effort to defeat the virus. Distillers have switched from making boutique beverages to churning out alcohol-based hand sanitiser.

Supermarkets have set aside hours for the vulnerable. Hotels have used their empty rooms to house worn-out medical workers.

Beyond this, business after business has declared a desire to absorb the economic hit instead of passing it on to their workforce. Assisted by Sunak’s unprecedented payroll stimulus, employers have rushed to say that despite indefinite closures, all staff will be retained. Thousands of workers, often in precarious and low-paid positions, have benefitted from this unexpected security.

Those who have performed kindly have been lauded, those who fell short lambasted. Sunak did not need to say it, but his words had an obvious opposite: meanness would be neither forgotten nor forgiven.

A chain of hotels which appeared to make its workers both jobless and homeless in one single-page letter has seen its reputation tarnished. Sports Direct made a rapid U-turn following a backlash regarding its decision to stay open during the coronavirus lockdown.

Vitriol too has been poured on companies which have sought government support while continuing to reward shareholders first.

These moves show the power of the consumer in a capitalist society. Capitalism as an economic system is morally neutral — but by the right incentives it can create good.

When individuals choose to reward moral good, self-interest will align with it. In recognising this we can revitalise a model which has become so derided.

The moral case for capitalism is seldom made. When it is, it is framed in the name of individual choice and liberty; the self-governing freewoman acting without the interference of government edict. That is important, but so too is the power of the consumer to use her business to demand better.

This may shock us, but would not shock our forefathers. For many Victorians, the public good was at the heart of commerce. Think of Port Sunlight, the village made by the Lever Brothers; not only did it provide their workers with high quality housing, but open spaces and entertainments too. Rountree’s, Cadbury and Fry, the three giants of English confectionary, each built their reputations around philanthropy as much as flavour.

If coronavirus ushers in a period of similar responsibility, it will be a silver lining to a very dark cloud. The decade since the last financial crisis has been marked by outrage at those who combine great wealth with dishonourable behaviour. From RBS boss Fred Goodwin to Arcadia kingpin Sir Philip Green, the public has been treated to a rogues’ gallery of business owners to boo and hiss at.

Far better, for all of us, that their visages are replaced by those who combine entrepreneurialism with philanthropy and duty.

The danger, if we only see the ugly side of capitalism, the things that strike as rankly unfair and underhand, is that we endanger a system which is and can be much better than that. The generation of wealth is good. There is a near perfect correlation between a society’s wealth and its health outcomes. The countries dealing with the crisis the best are generally the ones with the richest resources. If that is obscured by the antics of those at the top, simplistic political solutions which cut against prosperity and freedom will grow.

Instead we should relish the ability of capitalism to call people to account. The cash till is the ballot box of the marketplace. As coronavirus has shown us, good behaviour can be rewarded and bad behaviour punished. This is an important message, and one which should not be forgotten.

All across the challenges we face as a community, our collective purchasing power can and should make a difference. From climate change, to gender equality, to the rights of workers, it is easy to feel powerless in the face of vast corporations. But ultimately these corporations serve, directly or indirectly, the public.

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When the public values and rewards certain behaviours, these corporations will comply.

When we look back on this time we will remember the acts of kindness that flowed. We should do well to remember also why and how they were encouraged, so that they might be marshalled again.

John Oxley is a Conservative commentator.

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