This article first appeared in City A.M., 28 January 2016
Big business is seen as “above the law”. That was the line from the former Downing Street strategy chief, Steve Hilton, as part of his intervention yesterday into the Google tax row.
Let’s be clear. Business must pay its taxes. Period. But this week’s debate should be about Google and its tax affairs and not a blank cheque for the chorus of corporate critics to cash in.
These are fragile times and careless talk can carry a very real cost for companies that matter to our economy. Tarring them all with the same brush is business bashing, obscuring more than it illuminates today’s commercial world. A classic case of not letting the truth get in the way of a good story.
In this case, Google finds itself painted as the flagbearer of a Silicon Valley raiding culture that exploits the UK market. Instead, why not make the point that the US has been less a drain and more a major contributor to the UK’s rapidly-emerging tech scene. American investors have provided almost a third of the $5.2bn raised by London’s tech firms since 2010, helping power an industry of great economic and social value.
Google also seems to be the pantomime villain of choice for the wider motives of business. Here again the popular narrative is divorced from the reality. The self-interested commercialism many point to as endemic would not be recognised by the growing group of company leaders who believe business is a force for widespread social and economic progress.
The irony is, these changing commercial headwinds should be well recognised by a figure like Steve Hilton. He played a big part in creating the conditions for the UK’s entrepreneurial revolution. In the last Parliament, I worked closely with him on the creation of the StartUp Britain campaign, which has helped to inspire record levels of business formation.
As he said himself yesterday, he believes very much “in the power of business and capitalism to do good things for society.” But the fact remains that someone with his experience would have known that the inflammatory phrase “above the law” was only going to add fuel to the fire.
And that is a pity. For those who believe that business and capitalism can be forces for good, it is important to reinforce the contribution that the best businesses make. Such attempts can all too easily be drowned out by alarmism that adds more heat than light.
For good reasons and otherwise, the current debate is one that largely focuses on what business has done wrong. And while such scrutiny is both important and often well-deserved, it calls for an equal and opposite spotlight on the many things business does for the collective good.
Ultimately, if business is to win back public trust as it undoubtedly needs to, good intentions and good deeds must be matched by a good narrative. Those with a platform to tell that story need to choose their words carefully.
Photo Credit: Getty