Andrew Lansley emerged last week to declare that he wanted tobacco companies to have "no business" in the UK. In recent years we've seen similar Government-led interventions in the corporate world. From the Kremlin-led incursions into Yukos to the US Government's halt on CNOOC's takeover of Unocal. Currently the banking sector is dealing with proposed EU legislation to effectively cap pay at privately owned companies.
The context and nuances of each case are specific but they share a common thread; namely the willingness of a Government or a general public who are happy to let them operate. The financial crisis, which is still playing out, is a prime example of this. We haven't yet dealt with its offspring; the deficit crisis, the Eurozone crisis, the growth crisis etc. However, it seems we have moved on from the 'fear crisis' - that idea that the Government, or rather the taxpayer, had to, absolutely had to bail out the bankers. From the left and from the right the banking industry is under the microscope - criticism of the -1.44% undershoot of Merlin targets in the last quarter merely stoked the commonly held idea that "the banks" aren't doing enough.This was despite having lent tens of billions to businesses around the country.
The argument isn't just about aggregate numbers. Frankly the numbers are meaningless to most of us. Politicians of all hues, blue, yellow, red (purple and green?), can shoot statistics into their soundbites but it's jobs, houses, food and prospects that matter to us.
So the question has become less about what we need to do for business and far more about what business needs to do for us. Ultimately it's about the willingness of politicans and the public to grant businesses a license to operate. If you want a case study talk to the people at Wonga. This firm deploys a new and highly automated system that is disrupting the unsecured personal loan market in the UK. Yet the perception that they're no different to seedy high street pawnbrokers isn't just a PR problem it's a material business risk. And later this year we will learn more about the UK Government's intention to take forward the recommendations of John Kay's review on long-termism and equity structures. This promises real change for the way that businesses and their stakeholders interact.
Fundamentally the real solutions are long-term and require global agreement and co-ordination. In the short-to-medium term thought leaders, politicians, academics and businesses need to relocate the public debate. They need to take immediate actions to deliver for their constituents whether voters or customers. The insurance industry's recent campaign to stamp out the conveyor belt of dodgy claims for personal injury, which the Prime Minister championed at a recent No 10 summit, is one example of this. The financial sector also needs to better demonstrate its role in society, from funding businesses both large and small to setting the pace on how employees and customers are treated.
It's not all doom and gloom though, Barclays' recent ad for their new Pingit service, which went viral, shows that financial services can make us smile. But the industry can't take off it's post-crisis L-plates just yet.
Follow Cameron Penny on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@cameronpenny