How we talk about business matters. As the economic historian Deirdre McCloskey says, “When in the eighteenth century the British became a polite and commercial people, the modern world began.” In other words, while economic growth needs entrepreneurial individuals and the right government policies, it also requires a culture that celebrates commercial activity. The industrial revolution was made possible by a positive shift in British attitudes to business. Today, China’s rocketing economic success is built upon the slogan, commonly associated with Deng Xiaoping, that even in communist China “to get rich is glorious”.
That makes this report essential reading. The range of its contributors, from different fields and shades of political opinion, shows a consensus as to the scale of the problem in Britain today. It is clear-eyed not only about the reputational difficulties businesses currently face, but also recognises that a slowly-improving economy will not be enough to change this in the near future.
But this report is not a counsel of despair. It offers a clear account of where we are now and thoughts on the way forward. As such it is a vital contribution to the debate.
And there are reasons for hope in the accompanying research from ComRes.
While two thirds of the public think trust in business is on the decline, only 18 per cent of the public say that businesses in their local area are too focused on making big profits. And around three quarters of people have a higher opinion of their own employer or the employers of their friends and family than of business in the abstract.
That suggests that when people engage with a business, and feel the direct benefits it brings to their lives, it regains their trust. Too often, consumer-facing businesses have squandered this goodwill with a neglect of customer service or insufficient focus on value for money. And in the end, the things that people value in business today remain pretty straightforward: 94 per cent of the public say customer service matters and 73 per cent cite value for money.
To restore trust in business, firms cannot simply wait for the national conversation to turn in their favour. They need to rebuild relationships of trust with their customers, who still want to see the traditional virtue of capitalist firms: their power to offer better goods and services for less money.
And for all the technological changes and their new challenges, the heart of business remains a very human interaction: a mutually-beneficial exchange. When firms forget the deal they must always strike, even the sleepiest of customers will eventually be roused against them.
Business has always been a moral pursuit. The words of a great Christian scholar of the twelfth century, Hugh of Saint Victor, remain true: “The pursuit of commerce reconciles nations, calms wars, strengthens peace, and commutes the private good of individuals into the common benefit of all.” For their own good, and the good of society, firms need to help us all remember that.
Marc Sidwell is Managing Editor of City A.M.