Ethical Performance
inside intelligence for responsible business


The corporation that changed the world

November 2006

Nick Robins. Pluto Press. 218 pages. Paperback. £15.99.

Forget Union Carbide or Enron. When it comes to corporate irresponsibility, the East India Company is the granddaddy of them all. Throughout its thoroughly nasty life from 1600 to 1874, the British-owned trading company looted and murdered its way around the East, starting wars, smuggling drugs, brutally exploiting workers, torturing and killing its business rivals, and taking part in monumental corporate graft – all in the name of its shareholders, whose interests remained paramount.

In this thoughtful analysis of the company’s moral crimes, author Nick Robins, better known to most EP readers as head of socially responsible investment funds at Henderson Global Investors, draws parallels between the great ogre popularly known as ‘John’s Company’ and today’s multinationals. While he sensibly refrains from arguing that they are one and the same, Robins points out areas where it is difficult to find much difference – equating the £10million ($19m) bonus that Vodafone boss Chris Gent was paid in 2000, for instance, with the vast sums that the East India Company’s Robert Clive (‘Clive of India’) awarded himself. Both payments, he notes, were accompanied by impotent howls of public disgust.

Robins argues that a lack of legal or regulatory restraint, then as now, remains the biggest barrier to controlling corporate power. With a growing number of mergers and acquisitions restricting commerce to ever fewer and ever larger companies, he worries that we are flirting with a return to the days when a company could abuse its powers with impunity.

The answer, he says, is more laws to hold companies accountable, better rules to counter shareholder supremacy, a ‘global competition authority’ charged with breaking up concentrations of corporate power, and a halt to deregulation. Without such measures, according to Robins, we may end up breeding a latter-day version of John’s Company some time soon.


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