Centrica is set to report record profits this Thursday of £2bn. Brilliant. Fantastic. Stellar. These are the words you might expect to see on the report card of a company announcing first-class performance over the school year. However, in the Age of Austerity companies – and particularly utilities – are apparently not to be encouraged to do anything so vulgar as to be profitable. It is a rule of thumb that commercial success prompts condemnation and never praise.
We apparently live in an era when good profits are bad PR (‘The Goldman Sachs Effect’). As a consequence, Centrica is being sucked into a vortex that is not really its own making.The calls are already coming from certain corners and they are proclaiming “profiteering”. The choir has been practising and come Thursday they will sing from the same hymn sheet – denouncing Centrica for recently raising charges for domestic customers whilst simultaneously ignoring any previous price reductions, or the movement of wholesale prices, or the need for companies to invest hundreds of billions to modernise our energy system in the coming years. Why bother presenting a debate as nuanced and complicated? The headlines are so much better if you don’t.
What interests me most about this is the worrying and increasing move towards castigating any form of big business. Since the full force of the credit-crisis tore through the UK, there seems to be a growing desire to flagellate and reach for the hair-shirt without a second thought. Perhaps we actually live in the era of Great Depression and not the Age of Austerity – that’s depression in the sense of the psychological state rather than overwhelming economic malaise.
Do we really want companies to underperform because that fits better into our current world view? I certainly don’t. I want growth, development, investment and opportunities. Big business is never easy to like and it’s far easier to make the case for SMEs, as they are often imbued with far more personality. However, big business is, well…big, and it will always be vital to our economy.
Companies should always be held to account for all aspects of their performance.However, they should also be judged on merit and with all the facts rather than being attacked with the sticks of populism, expediency and rhetoric. It would be much better to focus on the specifics of each case rather than have every single story tainted by the mistakes of the past.