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Ending the disconnect between politics and business

by Tony Manwaring

Britain will soon be voting for a new government.  Tony Manwaring is Chief Executive of Tomorrow’s Company. The opinions expressed are his own. -

Britain will soon be voting for a new government.  It should be time to discuss the big issues which will define the years ahead, notably how are we, as a nation, going to pay our way in the years ahead? Our confidence that financial services and Cool Britannia will replace manufacturing and heavy industries now looks sadly misplaced.

Instead, the focus is on the short to medium-term: confidence in sterling, interest rates, and levels of public spending.  The range of policy instruments being used is giving ‘business as usual’ a bad name. On the one hand, we are throwing the kitchen sink at the gaping, gnawing hole that is the fragility of recovery to stave off double-dip recession; on the other, a deep need to go back to the future, press ‘reset’, and hope for the best.

All of this is reinforced by the popular reaction to banking and finance.  The popular mood – reinforced by opinion leaders and politicians alike – appears to suggest that we would rather go back to a barter economy, and do away with money, credit and, above all, bankers.  This is not only illogical and perverse, but also seriously frustrating. Because many of the most interesting and reflective discussions we are having on what has gone wrong, and what needs to be done, can be had with, er, whisper it softly … bankers.

Stephen Green, interviewed in the Times, about his new book Good Value: Reflections on Money, Morality and an Uncertain World, reflected “there was a climate that developed where it’s as if you would say to yourself, ‘If there’s a contract, if it’s legal, if there’s a market, then I’ll do the deal, I don’t have to ask any questions, I don’t have to ask whether it’s right or suitable’. And I do think that we need to get back to that sense of what’s right and suitable and not merely, here’s something that’s a profitable transaction.”

The need to give real weight to the ‘soft’ dimensions of behaviours and culture has been reinforced by our work on governance. Time and again, in understanding what went wrong in leading financial institutions, we have to face up to repeated examples of very qualified and successful business leaders seeming to suspend critical judgement, and failing to give voice to their inner doubts – to acting on the instinct that, as Mark Moody Stuart so memorably once called it, something is “squirwly”.

Which brings us back to the approaching election campaign because isn’t this precisely the time when political, business and other leaders should be making common cause raising the great questions of our age – rather than just focusing on the instruments of economic management, important though they are.  If the credit crunch has proved anything, it is surely that value can be swept away if not rooted in values.

The problem is the ‘disconnect’ between the business of politics and the politics of business. Business leaders are supposed to be about creating value, but are increasingly talking about values.  Politicians are supposed to talk about values, but are desperate to keep a system going which is capable of distributing value. And n’er it seems shall the twain meet …

When politicians do talk about the moral limits of the economy, what they are talking about is the need to create a societal approved framework within which markets operate: values, according to this view, exist outside of the value free operations of the economic system, but determine the conditions within which we permit markets to function.

This gap in understanding is reinforced by a gap in experience.  All too often business people tend to want to get on with their job, and shun the media spotlight and attention beloved of politicians; and our political class has had scant experience of – and arguably respect for – what makes business people tick: getting things done, making things, building enduring organisations.

There is another view, which we have set out in ‘A new talent agenda for the UK’: that value is increasingly shaped by social and environmental drivers, as well as economic imperatives (we call this ‘the triple context’).  That value is being co-created across complex value chains spanning the globe, through a myriad of decisions being taken every moment of every day.

From this perspective, values are woven into the DNA of economic activity and are the best guarantor of long-term and sustainable value; and talent must be inspired and engaged, speaking to the values within. And it is this realisation that should be the starting point in answering ‘how are we going to pay our way’.

An election campaign exploring the development of the moral foundations of a successful political economy therefore makes sound political and economic sense.

Blog also published in  Reuters - The Great Debate.

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