Shaping debate on religion in public life.

Port Talbot: Values Beyond Value

28 Apr 2016

When the news of Tata Steel’s decision to close its British plants broke, Business Secretary Sajid Javid indicated that he was unaware of either the detail or the time scale. Many MPs and commentators asserted that the steel plants should be allowed to fail, enabling the exercise of the ‘creative destruction’ of market forces. This process has been interwoven with community protests, pressures exerted by the Community Union, concerns around the Government’s reluctance to agree to tariff parity with the Chinese and arguments around strategic importance of assuring core industries. Whilst possibilities of an alternative buyer seemed remote, the Government posed this as ‘the best option’. In recent days the government’s view has shifted, suggesting that it may assume the role of an economic partner, an option first intimated as an undesirable, ‘last resort’. Important questions around both logic and values are implicated in this series of developments.

There are many reasons why the Tata scenario has unfolded in this form. However, a key part of the explanation, lies in the government’s propensity to prioritise the value of the unimpeded exercise of markets, in particular corporates, their interests and values. Corporates and markets have effectively been afforded the status of ‘the new public’, their interests and values elided with ‘the public interest’ and thus the notion of social value is effectively conflated with the acquisition, control and disbursing of property and money.  However, there are alternative views which embrace a much broader conception of values. William Temple argued that economies which centred solely or largely upon the valorisation of the interests of ownership and profit were unacceptable, and that production should be socially useful. This is by no means an outdated view. There has recently been renewed interest in the German Mittelstand and Nordic stakeholder models, for example, John Studzinski of the Blackstone Investment Group endorsed models which embody the ethos that business should be socially useful and principles such as representation, trust and social value accorded significant weight.  Trust and representation are of course relational values, which invites my next point.

As in many other contexts such as local planning decisions and soon, local education, the identities of local people, communities and representative organisations such as Community Union in Port Talbot have had to fight hard for recognition, voice and influence. In many respects their experience forms the corollary of the points made above. That is, the UK operates on the basis of a model of the social, public interest and social value in which the personhood and values of corporations and markets predominate and those of other stakeholders and values such as co-operation and community, figure as ephemeral or remain invisible. Again, there are alternative views which embrace much broader, inclusive and coherent values. Temple argued for a broader ‘stakeholder’ model, in which communities, workers and unions were affirmed as legitimate and valued economic partners. The Mittelstand model also affirms the value of a notion of economic community and co-operation between employers and employees through mechanisms such as works councils. Further, the report of the Ownership Commission in 2013, which included Roger Carr (President of the CBI and chairperson of Centrica) and Ruth Sunderland (Associate Editor at the Daily Mail), argued there was a need for ownership policies which incorporated a broader value base, reflected in practices such as wider representation, engagement and shared stewardship. Each of these views embraces a broadening of values to achieve common well-being. The state also can be productively viewed as an expression of community and as such, a key stakeholder. So why is state intervention perceived as highly problematic?

As noted above, the government view state involvement as a ‘last resort’. This devaluation of the state may be argued to be highly ideological, lacking in weight and fast assuming the status of an idealist secular theology.  Dr. Barry Morgan Archbishop of Wales posed an illuminating challenge “if you can save the banks, then you can save the steel industry”; they are both strategic industries and the people situated in both matter. Professor Mazucatto digs deeper, and argues that whilst we are currently being sold the narrative that the state is a ‘meddler’, simply a spender and acts as a drag on the vitality of markets, this is simply not the case.  The state can be and indeed repeatedly has been both entrepreneurial and creative. Indeed, the viability and successes of many businesses vitally depend upon its activities, not just in terms of research and investment – think of the enormous scale and beneficiaries of QE! Temple did and would certainly continue to concur with the position that the state can and indeed does play a vital and valued role in assuring both the wellbeing of both business and communities. But today the state is being reconfigured and rooted in different values.

Why has the potential closure of Tata Steel struck such fear into steel work communities? Temple underlined that people, communities and civil associations should be both recognised and valued. However, arguably, the only sense in which such forms of personality are currently afforded significance is in the dubiously ring-fenced and increasingly controlled arena of civil society. State activities as expressions of our association such as the provision of security in the face of say unemployment or disability, are portrayed as sapping both economic and moral vitality. Reflecting these sentiments, welfare has become increasingly discriminatory, punitive, impoverishing and exclusory, as reflected in the devalued and arguably demonised figure of ‘the scrounger’, viewed as located in a twilight zone outside of society. Temple vigorously refuted such ethics and values implicated in the context in which he was writing. People and communities thus understandably fear not only the physical degradations of increased levels of privation associated with unemployment, but also social devaluation too. The memorable observation from ‘Men without Work’ which Temple coordinated captures something of this fear:

The unemployed ‘are not simply units of employability who can, through the medium of the dole, be put into cold storage and taken out again immediately they are needed. While they are in cold storage, things are liable to happen to them’.

The rationale for the government’s position is that its views and associated values are anchored in what is claimed to be a value neutral ‘hidden hand’ of the market, which creates both vigorous economies and moral actors. Our reflections suggest that in terms of values this is a highly limited, ideological view, and that there is a need to recover and reinstate a broader value set as embedded in the Mittelstand and Nordic models and Mazacatto’s points around the centrality of value creation. Further, given the broader values which communities and organisations have illuminated in the struggles around Tata, arguably local communities have articulated a more insightful and intelligent vision of values than our political class. Temple’s argument that there is a need to embrace a value base in both the economy and beyond which affirms the integrity of all personalities, both the politically powerful and visible and those who are not so, continues to ring true today.

Tina Hearn is an Associate Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation.

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