REVEREND GEORGE PITCHER: Maybe it’s impossible for big business to put values we celebrate at Christmas at the centre of their activities – but it’s no reason to stop trying
Along with all the rest we’ve had to suffer this year, we have been treated to the spectacle of billionaires such as Amazon executive chairman Jeff Bezos and Virgin’s Sir Richard Branson bouncing weightlessly around on the edge of space in their vanity projectiles.
Bad enough any time, but worse when the rest of us on Planet Earth are trying to deal with harsher realities like Covid. But, unwittingly, these tycoons have pointed their rockets to the heart of the Christmas message.
The incomprehensible vastness of the space that they scratch – so beautifully illuminated by Professor Brian Cox in his BBC series Universe – unveils the wonder of the heart and mind of its maker, revealed in an infant born in poverty in Bethlehem.
Ghost of Christmas past: It can look as though Gordon Gekko’s creed in the 1987 Oliver Stone film Wall Street that ‘greed is good’ has triumphed over the common good
The sheer inversion of the normal laws of economics in that act is, literally, incredible.
To change the world forever by the birth of a vulnerable child is breathtaking.
As is the knowledge, as Professor Cox explained, that the light from the furthest stars which reaches us today had only just started its journey when our world was formed.
If you don’t find that humbling then you’re probably a private equity magnate of the sort, I note, this newspaper has a proud record of holding to account.
It is a commonplace, of course, for financial columnists at Christmas-time to write that businesses must be kinder. Especially for a writer like me, who is also a vicar. This year, there is an even more compelling case.
After the UN Climate Change Conference, COP26, held in Glasgow in the autumn, global heavy industry should have been left in no doubt that unabated carbon-fuel burning is the funeral pyre for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people. I almost followed that up with the words ‘post-Covid’! Now we’re facing an Omicron Christmas, though we should offer thanks for the vaccination regime and pharmaceuticals companies such as UK giant Astrazeneca.
The pandemic hasn’t just played havoc with the economy.
It has also changed the way in which many companies go about their business.
So from encouraging sustainable supply lines to a revolution in staff management – working from home acquired its own three-letter acronym, WFH – commerce should feel a kinder place to be.
Another three-letter acronym (or perhaps TLA) coming into its own is ESG or, to chew the whole mouthful: Environmental, Social and Governance.
But the business world this year looks no closer to embracing a true Christmas spirit than it ever has.
Take those private equity robber barons I mentioned: disasters include the collapse of British Steel in 2019, which cost taxpayers £600m after three years of (mis)management by Greybull Capital.
At Debenhams, which went into liquidation this time last year, staff pensions took a hammering while the private equity giants had previously walked away with £1.2bn in dividends.
The latest horror show was at the mutual insurer LV – Liverpool Victoria – whose deal with Bain Capital collapsed, though it still cost its members £43m in ‘fees’ to advisers on the misconceived deal.
It can look as though Gordon Gekko’s creed in the 1987 Oliver Stone film Wall Street that ‘greed is good’ has triumphed over the common good. At most companies, for most of the year, competition, profit margins and the sheer hard work and stress involved in a running a business are all-consuming, leaving little time to reflect.
And, naturally, the task of looking after staff and shareholders is very worthwhile.
But Christmas serves as a reminder that the greatest power in the universe is to be found in humility, service to others, vulnerability and ultimately love.
Maybe it’s impossible for big business to put the values we celebrate at this time of year at the centre of their activities.
But it’s no reason to stop trying.
George Pitcher is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and an Anglican priest
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