Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Business and politics: Berlusconi and BAE back in the news

This week sees Crane and Matten travelling to Europe. At the moment we are in Milan in Italy, being hosted by the CSR Unit at Bocconi University. Later in the week, we will be off to the UK for meetings, research interviews, and a general catch up in London and Nottingham.

It's an interesting time to be here in Italy, with the Alitalia sale in the news every day, and the national election having taken place over the weekend. As expected, Silvio Berlusconi has come out on top, and is now set to lead the country for an incredible third time. As a renowned media tycoon, it just goes to show how ingrained business is with politics here, a point that we have been discussing a lot in our work on the political roles of corporations over the last few years. In fact, when we gave a seminar on Corporations and Citizenship at Bocconi yesterday, it struck us just how comfortable our Italian colleagues were with the idea that corporations have political roles and identities - an issue that often arouses controversy elsewhere, where the idea that corporations have solely economic roles in society often prevails. It made a change to get such a warm reception.

Of course, the intersections of business and politics will also be on the agenda when we touch down in the UK later in the week. One of the most popular cases in our Business Ethics book deals with the BAE corruption scandal, and it seems that this whole issue is very much back on the agenda again in the UK. Last week saw the high court in London rule that the Blair government's decision to quash the inquiry into the alleged corruption on the grounds of national security was unlawful, yet the new PM, Gordon Brown looks set to continue on the path of his predecessor in attempting to block any further investigation - despite what appears to be considerable international pressure from the OECD, the US and elsewhere to do otherwise.

The upshot of all this is that it is clear that the untangling of business and politics is getting increasingly difficult, whether here in Italy, the UK, or pretty much anywhere else. The cosy world of distinct sectors with clear responsibilities looks to be increasingly a feature of the past (if it ever was much more than a myth). The resulting challenge of working out what roles and responsibilities this poses for corporations will test the imagination of all of us. We have a new book, Corporations and Citizenship, coming out later in the year with Cambridge University Press, which attempts to make a start on this question. But even we have to admit that we end up asking more questions than we answer. But, hey, you've got to start somewhere.

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