UK plc must be on best behaviour

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Trust in Britain plc is at its lowest ebb but as the general election approaches there’s a chance to rekindle public support

British voters face a general election in less than six months. All the polls agree that no one knows who is going to win. The election could result in a period of profound and prolonged uncertainty. No party is likely to form a government by itself, and whichever parties cobble together a government could be dependent on the votes of their most extreme fringe elements.

This comes at a time when public trust – in politicians, in the media, and particularly in business – is at its lowest ebb. Notwithstanding the reluctance of politicians to talk about the deficit, the parties agree that austerity needs to continue.
That’s going to be hard to take for a public that’s sick and tired of austerity. The public, in this context, includes employees and customers. They don’t trust business anyway. Many of them think that it’s just part of a giant conspiracy involving politicians and commentators, and the Establishment as a whole.

It’s going to be tough for people in provincial towns who see interest rates are rising on their mortgages to quell a housing bubble in the south-east. It will be hard to justify austerity to them when energy companies raise their prices and FTSE100 businesses boost executive pay. Those customers, employees – and voters – will be outraged by clever corporate manoeuvres to eliminate tax liabilities.

The run-up to the election offers businesses an opportunity – but it also provides a threat; that poor behaviour – grotesquely excessive salaries, misleading regulators and investors ripping off customers – will encourage voters to think companies are just part of that giant conspiracy. Politicians of any party are likely to respond with ill-thought-out measures to curb those wrongs.

The opportunity is to explain what businesses do, how they work and how business activity generates all the money that pays for the NHS, for education and for public-sector jobs. Investing in future production is vital.

If the energy companies had talked more about global prices and investment in the future, if the banks had been more open in acknowledging their abusive and sometimes dishonest practices, if local enterprises had talked more about the role they play in small communities, things might be different. If the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the second best time is today. As the election nears, it’s important that Britain plc is on best behaviour.

Fear over spy powers
Every rational citizen recognises the threats that terrorism poses to our community. So there may be a natural sympathy when the home secretary asks parliament for new powers to eavesdrop on phone calls or to intercept emails. Except that last year, when former energy secretary Chris Huhne was being prosecuted for passing speeding penalty points to his then wife, the police used powers introduced to protect national security to look at a journalist’s phone records to get evidence.

The Sun’s political editor Tom Newton Dunn also had his calls to police sources inspected after he broke the ‘Plebgate’ story [former cabinet minister Andrew Mitchell, pictured, lost his libel action against the Sun’s publisher News Group Newspapers in November]. And former lord chancellor Charlie Falconer criticised the police for using anti-terror powers to spy on journalists.

I’d feel more confident about new authorities to intercept if I knew they were used only in the circumstances envisaged by law. A judge is invariably better placed to determine that than a politician.

Wealth creation is progressive
Finally, a thought for the new year – lifted, shamelessly, from Tim Montgomerie of The Times: the entrepreneur who creates a job, or finds a way to cut a product’s cost, contributes enormously to human welfare – almost certainly more than those of us who write for a living, who go into politics, or who work in the aid sector.

Lord Hailsham (pictured) got it right in 1992: “The great advances which have been made in human happiness have been just as much due to the spinning jenny, the internal combustion engine, and the generation of steam as to the moral sublimity of a Shaftesbury, a Florence Nightingale, an Elizabeth Fry or a Mother Teresa.”

About author

Simon Walker

Simon Walker

Simon Walker served as director general of the IoD from September 2011 until January 2017, having enjoyed a career spanning business, politics and public service. From 2007 to 2011 he was chief executive of the BVCA, the organisation that represents British private equity and venture capital. Walker has previously held senior roles at 10 Downing Street, Buckingham Palace, British Airways and Reuters.

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