“Senior bankers, private equity moguls and hedge fund managers appear cut off from the rest of us. They often pay little or no tax, increasingly live in heavily guarded enclaves, and some have little or no real allegiance to Britain. The sources of their wealth are often mysterious, and appear unrelated to merit. These feral rich pose, in their way, every bit as much of a danger to society as the rioters who stole and pillaged London streets last August.“
So writes journalist Peter Oborne, not in a small circulation left-wing magazine but in a passionate outburst in today’s Daily Telegraph. This is not a sign that Mr Oborne or his newspaper have moved away from their conservative position on the political spectrum support but one of a number examples of the fact that some of those now most worried about the state of our economic system are those who are theoretically its strongest supporters.
Thursday saw Prime Minister, David Cameron, address the issue championing: “a vision of social responsibility, which recognises that people are not just atomised individuals, and that companies have obligations too” before adding: “I believe that out of this current adversity we can build a better economy, one that is truly fair and worthwhile” and claiming that the government would reduce barriers to setting up co-operatives.
A good time, then, for the social enterprise movement to have its say and Social Enterprise UK (SEUK) chief executive, Peter Holbrook, stepped up to the keyboard with a blog post calling for the government to actively support the development of social enterprises: “We need to shift quickly, through tax breaks and through education and reward new radical forms of fair, responsible and wealth redistributing capitalism, we must re- invigorate the connection and moral responsibility our business leaders have and insist on a better understanding of, and commitment to our society“
and concluding with a stark challenge to political leaders: “If the government and opposition are really serious about reforming market based capitalism then tipping the playing field in our collective favour is the only long term solution to our social and economic woes and offers the only hope to tackling the ever greater divisions and an ever growing gulf and detachment between rich and poor.“
On Guardian Social Enterprise Network, The Social Investment Business‘s Jonathan Jenkins claims: “This is an important moment for social investment. I’m not naïve enough for one minute to believe this is Big Society II: The Coalition Strikes Back, but the very fact that the politicians are vying for profile on this topic means that they know this is becoming of increasing interest and concern to the Great British Public“
before adding: “I have written before in The Guardian that I have a dream that everyone can become a social investor, whether their budget is £5 or a £5m bonus. This dream was anchored in my belief in the efficiency of markets, and the increasing demand from socially driven retail investors, will make it happen. It doesn’t seem such an absurd dream to chase, after all.”
There seems to be little to disagree with in any of these contributions but while Oborne asks pertinent questions about what we want from our economic system, none of the others really provide an answer. I’m a big fan and customer of co-operatives but I reckon it would be stretching it a bit to suggest that our current economic predicament is primarily down to the fact that we didn’t have enough them in the years leading up to 2008.
I entirely support tipping the playing field in favour of social enterprise but if the government formally decreed that 100% of the nation’s economic activity has to take place at Underhill, the sloping home of Barnet FC, it’s still highly unlikely to bring about a situation where social enterprises are the biggest players in the UK economy.
And social investment, so far at least, has primarily been a vehicle for promoting and supporting socially enterprising approaches to public service delivery, as opposed to increasing the size of the social portion of the mainstream economy.
This is not a counsel of despair but a recognition that if we’re going to move towards a more socially responsible economy in the UK then the key players are not social enterprises but the government and mainstream businesses. Ordinary customers, workers and citizens have limited power to influence the behaviour of the larger mainstream businesses – those who have little money and no job have virtually none – but are at the mercy of their actions.
Unfortunately, based on current evidence, it’s difficult to disagree with Peter Oborne’s conclusion:”it is right that men and women who have made a fortune through ingenuity and hard work – such as writer JK Rowling and inventor Sir James Dyson, for example – should be allowed to retain their wealth. The question is how to create a set of rules which achieves that aim while penalising the greedy and rapacious. Neither leader (David Cameron or Ed Miliband) has quite put their finger on the answer.“