Leading article: Wanted: model capitalists for the Blair era

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The Independent Online
It must be a bit hard for the average senior executive, adjusting to the New Era. At first sight there seems a rather thin line between ritual humiliation on the steps of the National Heritage Department and being appointed to a plum government job. Why are some business leaders held up as models of dynamism, while others are denounced as fat cats? Corporate Britain could be forgiven for being bemused as it tries to come to grips with what makes a model Blairite capitalist.

It is obviously not just a matter of being "one of us". Of course it helps if you endorsed Tony Blair before the election: you might have featured with Sir Terence Conran and Anita Roddick in a Labour election broadcast. But Sir David Simon and Richard Branson, for example, withheld their explicit approval. And the BP boss became the first Labour minister not actually to be a member of the party, while the Virgin balloonist is one of the driving forces behind the Government's policy on the National Lottery, seeking not-for-profit revenge for failing to win the franchise in the first place.

It is not, on the other side of the coin, just a matter of being caught in possession of a monopoly or a privatised company. It did not help the Camelot directors that they are running a state-licensed franchise with the word National in its name. Nor does it help the water and rail bosses that their businesses were in the public sector and Labour still theoretically thinks that is where they belong. But other monopolists and privateers have basked in the new government's approval. Rupert Murdoch may not yet be plenipotentiary ambassador for world affairs, but his anti-competitive practices have not landed him on Chris Smith's doorstep with a requirement to explain his failure to pay UK taxes. Sir Iain Vallance may be engaged in a minor run-in with the Chancellor over BT's enthusiastic desire not to assist him in taking 250,000 names off the unemployment register, but when Mr Blair wants to sound like a Net-capable future-monger he is on the phone.

What is closer to the truth is that some business leaders are popular and others are not. New Labour is well-attuned to the finer nuances of public opinion. In the case of Mr Murdoch, it shows an unsentimental grasp of the mechanics of public relations. There is a paradox here in that public opprobrium is reserved particularly for the people who run the services that affect the populace most - the Lottery, electricity, gas, water and transport - whereas there is respectful curiosity about six- or seven-figure earnings for people who are Something in the City. However, there is a logic to the Government's attitude, although it is perhaps not well-articulated. Mr Blair says he offers a new deal: he wants you to be successful, but you must give something back to society. He is not against profit, he is against selfishness. How well the Camelot directors played their role in their little morality tale! By threatening to resign rather than give up a penny of their bonuses, they lost the moral argument. They may have pulled a fast one yesterday, and hung on to their money, but they have slithered off the moral high ground.

The what? The high moral ground is unfamiliar territory for many businesses. For the past 18 years, the ethics of economics have tended towards profit maximisation within the law, keeping the do-gooding for your private life. It is in this moral universe that Tim Holley, David Rigg and Peter Murphy insist that their bonuses are good because they derive from their contracts.

We have now entered a different universe. Efficiency is not enough: you will be judged on your whole contribution to society. The remoralisation of public and corporate life is not quite consistent, as the Murdoch case illustrates, but the attempt is welcome and overdue. Since the Frys and the Cadburys, the business-philanthropic tradition in this country has been weak. These were not simply rich men who privately gave to charity. They ran successful businesses imbued with communitarian values.

The neo-liberal doctrine of profit maximisation is not only morally coarse, but also economically simplistic. Business reputation is an important source of value: making customers and employees feel good helps the bottom line in the long run. Camelot may run a successful and efficient lottery, and its directors may have protected their own pockets, but they have failed to build a popular brand name and have no chance of renewing the franchise.

Good works are all too easily dismissed as "just public relations". But it is not only the new government which needs to understand how to use public relations as it tries to shift public values and change the way we feel about ourselves as a society. Even in America, there is more of an expectation that business leaders will fund good works to give back to their community.

The business leaders who have taken jobs with Mr Blair's administration are not motivated by money; they feel flattered, no doubt, but they are also inspired by a desire to serve the public interest. So, confused British executives who want to take up Mr Blair on his offer of partnership need to read up on the Prime Minister's Christian Socialist thoughts on rights and duties. It is not a question of what he can do for them, but what they can do for the rest of us.

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