If Liz Truss believes wholeheartedly in one thing, it’s that nobody likes being told what to do. People don’t want to be nagged about their weight, or nudged to eat less and move more. They don’t want to be told what they can say on social media. And above all, businesses want to be free to make piles and piles of money, unhindered by regulation and red tape and what David Cameron famously called “green crap”. But when she said she didn’t mind making herself unpopular in the process of unleashing all that growth, she didn’t mean with the people doing the growing.
What to make, then, of the fact that this week more than 100 big corporate names from Ikea to Amazon, Coco-Cola and Sky signed an open letter urging the government not to backtrack on net zero, following hints that Truss might be considering doing exactly that? This wasn’t in the script, either for the deregulatory right or arguably that part of the left convinced that capitalism loves nothing more than warming its rapacious hands over a bonfire of crackling red tape, while watching the planet burn. What, exactly, is going on?
CEOs aren’t monsters, obviously. They see the same fires and floods and droughts on the news as everyone else, and presumably have the same teenage children berating them at breakfast. They know that being seen to go green matters both to younger customers and employees, with generation Z increasingly squeamish about working for brands their friends consider toxic.
For some, like a water industry enduring its driest summer in 30 years, the climate crisis already represents a direct threat to their operations; others, like renewable energy providers, have built their businesses around decarbonisation. But what has really changed, following the conflict in Ukraine, is that big business is now significantly more worried about rocketing fossil fuel prices. Cheap, secure, renewable energy looks increasingly key to their ability to keep turning a profit.
That said, it would be naive to imagine that big polluters aren’t already lobbying this new government to water down some net zero policies, or that plenty of companies didn’t have tweaks they’d like to make. But there is a surprisingly big swathe of business that would be rattled by a sudden change of direction now.
The letter was organised by the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL), whose recent poll of 700 senior business leaders found nearly 70% already had their own company net zero plans (some doubtless more convincing than others, but that’s another column) and 80% had earmarked funding. Telling them at this late stage that actually they needn’t have bothered spending the money seems more exasperating than liberating.
The same is true of scrapping the sugar tax now, after companies have already been through the pain barrier of reformulating snacks and fizzy drinks to avoid the tax. Sometimes red tape isn’t just about protecting the public but creating stable and predictable conditions in which to make money, plus a level playing field of obligations where well-run companies aren’t undercut by bad ones or made to feel like suckers. Almost three-quarters of respondents to the CISL poll, tellingly, said that far from being a drag, regulation mattered to their company’s business model.
True, it often shifts costs from the state on to business, which business naturally resents. But the logical, if unpopular, corollary is that scrapping it just shunts those costs back on to taxpayers, something the government seems rather less keen to discuss. As Polly Mackenzie, the former chief executive of the thinktank Demos, tweeted recently, you can scrap the rules that stop businesses fuelling things such as obesity or workplace stress or air pollution but “your health costs are going to be massive”, quite apart from the human suffering caused. Someone still has to pay: it’s just a question of who.
Mackenzie knows this territory well, having been a Liberal Democrat special adviser in the 2010 coalition government, whose own much-hyped bonfire of red tape fizzled out when it emerged that most rules actually exist for a reason, and the reason is often that people like them. One early candidate for scrapping was apparently rules governing the flammability of children’s nightwear, on the grounds that most families now have radiators not riskier open fires. But still, is anyone crying out for kids’ pyjamas that go up in flames more readily? Is that really what progress means?
Even rules that were fiercely resented at first tend to settle in over time, becoming part of the wallpaper. The working time directive, which protects employees from being forced to work more than 48 hours a week, was controversial back in 1998 when it was first introduced. But binning it – as Jacob Rees-Mogg is reportedly considering – feels curiously last century now, in a world where companies anxious to boost productivity are instead experimenting with four-day weeks.
The idea of freedom, or getting the government the hell out of your life, remains a heady one and for many leavers was part of the itch to Brexit. But if it still thrills a certain kind of Tory voter, it feels increasingly retro. We’ve come a long way from the days when greed was good, lunch for wimps and caring about the planet strictly for hippies. If you want to drag Britain back to the 1980s, don’t expect us to come quietly.