Portrait of Margaret Thatcher

April 29, 2013, by ICCSR

Margaret Thatcher, CSR and me…

Margaret Thatcher’s death prompted many appraisals of her impact on politics and on people’s lives.  I offer my, seemingly unlikely, tale of her impact on CSR and me.

Thatcher’s government introduced me to corporate social responsibility (CSR).  Whilst researching public policy responses to mass unemployment, we were, first, perplexed, and then intrigued, by the business involvement in responses to the problem.  These included: delivering government work-experience and youth training schemes; membership of, and secondments to, local employment partnerships; and the creation of enterprise incubators to support former employees develop their own businesses. 

But what is the Thatcher connection? I distinguish the perverse and the paradoxical.

The Thatcher connection could be described as perverse given her association with the conditions which encouraged CSR: the rapid decline of mining and manufacturing and concomitant rises in unemployment.  Although these reflect long-term structural factors, Thatcher’s ideological embrace of change – ‘there is no alternative’ – led believers and critics to attribute them to her purpose.  It also created a sense of urgency for action on the part of business both to protect their own legitimacy and to invest in social and political conditions for economic recovery.  

So I discovered CSR and learned that it is not just a feature of the ‘good times’ but can be about the business response to ‘hard times’.  I witnessed this again in the early 1990s in Australia.  Again this entailed government help, this time under the leadership of Australian Labor Party Prime Minister, Paul Keating. 

Thatcher’s government went to considerable lengths to encourage CSR.  It worked with business leaders to create the CSR association, Business in the Community.  Minister Michael Heseltine led business leader tours of deprived and riot-damaged parts of UK cities.  Subsidies were awarded to organisations which encouraged CSR. I am told that Thatcher herself phoned business leaders urging them to get involved.

This is paradoxical, firstly, because Thatcher identified with economist Milton Friedman, who famously criticised CSR for being unaccountable (in corporate governance and political terms) and undermining of markets.  

Secondly, this was paradoxical because orthodoxy assumed CSR to be, definitionally, a business discretionary activity quite apart from the influence of law or government.  Now governments of left and right, in such diverse places as Australia, India, Sweden and China, make policies for CSR.

So, thanks to Thatcher I began my three decade research interest in CSR, and particularly in CSR and government!  I have found the topic intellectually and practically stimulating and it has shaped my career.  I will leave it for others to judge on whether it was all worth it!

By Professor Jeremy Moon, Director of the ICCSR, Nottingham University Business School .

P.S. Thatcher also featured prominently in other of my research about the impact of leaders and parties on public policies, as against the logics of institutional structures and inheritance in explaining what governments do.  A short version of my book appears as ‘Margaret Thatcher as an Innovative Leader’ Governance 8: 1-25 1995.

 Image: Margaret Thatcher  provided by Chris Collins of the Margaret Thatcher Foundation, reproduced under commercial commons license CC BY-NC 3.0.  Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Margaret_Thatcher.png

Posted in THEMES in Better Business