The state we’re still in – can anything be done?

Thoughtful business leaders will not get much airtime in the coming UK general election.

The countdown is underway. With fewer than 60 days to go until voting, the next few weeks in Britain will be dominated by an increasingly febrile debate from which the voice of business risks being largely absent. That contrasts with the closing stages of the Scottish referendum last year, when companies made a telling and arguably decisive intervention, spelling out the damaging consequences of independence.

At the start of March, one thoughtful business leader – Nigel Wilson, chief executive of Legal & General – gave it a go in a woefully unreported speech to a City audience. His themes were simple: the need to think long term, for business to consider its social usefulness, and for “constructive collaboration across central and local government, regulators and the investment industry to deliver long-term investment, growth and jobs in the new economy”.

With ultra-low interest rates, the time to invest is now, he said. Contrasting “very grandiose schemes”, like the HS2 railway, ‘Boris Island’ airport and the Hinkley nuclear power station, he highlighted ‘slow money’ investments with immediate practical benefit that Legal & General is making, in the likes of private rented housing, student accommodation and retirement villages – very much against the grain of conventional City and government thinking.

References to the social usefulness of business resonate with remarks by Adair Turner back in 2009 about the big banks, and by ex-FT editor Richard Lambert more recently. And those with longer memories will recall what Will Hutton was saying in the run up to the 1997 general election, in his book, The State We’re In. Picked up by Tony Blair in a speech in Singapore, the notion of a ‘stakeholder economy’ briefly offered the prospect of a socially useful model of reformed capitalism.

But New Labour was not about fundamental change, and on getting into government the idea was kicked into the long grass of the company law review. By 2005, in a deregulatory gesture to a business audience, Gordon Brown killed off even the limited idea of an operating and financial review (although in fairness some elements have crept back in subsequently).

Now Will Hutton is back with a new book, How Good We Can Be, reviewed here by Vince Cable’s former special adviser, who brings a world-weary reality check to the diagnosis of the problem as well as the prescribed cure.

Still, Hutton sets out a vision which I for one find compelling, certainly when compared to the thin gruel we’ll be offered in the major parties’ manifestos over the next couple of weeks.  “With technological possibilities multiplying, a wholesale makeover of the state, business and the financial system is needed to seize the opportunities by being both fairer and more innovative”, he argues. “The aim must be to create an economy, society and democracy in which the mass of citizens flourish.”

The question is – will any other CEOs follow Nigel Wilson’s lead with a vision of what could be? Or will they simply line up with the politicians in the yah-boo disputatiousness that passes today for political discourse?

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