It would certainly be an understatement to say that the past few weeks have been tumultuous. The referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union has questioned many of the old certainties, and will undoubtedly shape our national politics for years to come.
But the vote to Leave wasn’t just a vote to leave the EU, it was also a vote to leave the old way of doing things. Westminster must hear that, and I will be doing all I can to ensure that is the case. That is why, despite being a passionate supporter of our EU membership, I will ensure that the will of my constituents is done. It’s time for politicians across all parties to roll up their sleeves and get to work on securing the best possible deal for our country.
The unprecedented coalition for Remain – Labour and Conservative, employers and unions, environmentalists and business – lost the argument; in part because we had lost the trust of the British people. That there is a trust issue in politics isn’t exactly news, something highlighted by Chilcot. But it’s not just politics that has a trust issue. The referendum campaign saw over 1,200 business leaders, together employing 1.75 million people – including 51 of the FTSE 100 – appeal to the public not to sever our 43-year relationship with Europe, not to risk the job prospects and pensions funds, but their advice was ignored by a decisive majority of the electorate.
This suggests that there is a serious lack of trust between business and society, and that this trust deficit must be addressed, as a matter of urgency. There can be little doubt that the breakdown in trust between business and society has been building for decades, but it was the 2008 financial crisis that took levels of outrage to unprecedented levels. The events leading up to the collapse of Lehman Brothers put business firmly on the wrong side of the public, and trust went off the cliff. The shorting, the exorbitant remuneration, the rewarding of failure – the deeply unethical behavior of the financial sector was a scandal in itself, but it also contaminated the public’s perception of the broader business community.
This erosion of trust has since been compounded by a litany of other scandals: the debacle at BHS, the VW Emissions scandal, horsemeat, Deepwater Horizon and the revelations of the Panama Papers, to name but a few. Given this recent history, it should come as no surprise that Michael Gove’s claim that “the people of this country have had enough of experts” resonated with the electorate to the extent that it did.
The cut-through that Gove’s words achieved should be a cause for real concern. Being an expert doesn’t mean that you necessarily have vested interests, being an expert means that you have spent your life learning, studying and developing your knowledge and skills. Of course, experts can be wrong, but the more you know about something, the more likely it is that you will be right about it. That is precisely why trust must be rebuilt, and fast: because an informed politics matters. Knowing what you are talking about matters. Facts matter. Large parts of the referendum campaign were characterised by a sort of post-truth politics, which is fertile territory for populism of the worst sort.
We must now strain every sinew to rebuild the trust that has been lost, and business has a vital role to play in this process. A big part of this will be acting to bring an end to “quarterly capitalism”. We must regulate to build a more long-term, investment-driven business culture, and FTSE 500 companies should be required to shift to “triple P” reporting: people, planet, profit.
We must also commit to fostering the burgeoning B-Corp movement, and look to supporting public benefit companies and impact investment. And we must legislate for the introduction of national public interest as a pre-condition for foreign takeovers. The best businesses get it. They understand that profit will only come if there is a long-term future, and therefore sustainability matters.
Last night, I spoke at a panel organised by the Management Consultancies Association (MCA), who are launching a blueprint for how business can build trust and promote ethical behavior. Their Consulting Excellence scheme focuses on promoting ethical behaviour through openness, transparency and knowledge. This is precisely the sort of initiative that we need more of, if we are to heal the rifts between business and society that were so starkly highlighted on 23 June.
Rebuilding trust and faith in our political and business leaders is essential if we are to come together as a nation. Just as it is important that Parliament works to rebuild trust in elected politicians, Britain’s business community must now reflect on what the Leave vote meant for them, and act to rebuild trust.
Our words and deeds over the next few weeks and months will shape the nature and destiny of our country for generations to come, so let’s heed the wake-up call that the referendum has delivered, and let’s rebuild trust, and hope, together.