Good Value, By Stephen Green

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The Independent Culture

Almost exactly a century ago, in 1910, EM Forster published a novel that dialectically explored one of the deepest and most damaging rifts in British life and thought. In Howards End, the artistic, value-driven Schlegel family and the thrusting, businesslike Wilcoxes spar and feud until the plot proves how much they need each other. Yet, by and large, Forster's plea for convergence – "only connect" - fell on a hundred years of deaf ears. At every level, this society promotes an endemic split between money and meaning, action and art. Alan Sugar or Stephen Fry? Richard Branson or Germaine Greer? You pick your team, and stick with it for life.

So when the chairman and former chief executive of HSBC – not just the most globally ambitious but by far the least "toxic" of the major banking groups – publishes a book about the culture and morality of the global marketplace that strides fluently between TS Eliot and Karl Marx, Goethe and Camus, Adam Smith and the Prophet Isaiah, Amartya Sen and Teilhard de Chardin, Puccini's operas in Beijing and Rajasthani paintings at the British Museum, many Forsterians will feel like raising a cheer or two. Also an ordained priest in the Church of England, Stephen Green responds more like an expert witness than a nervy defendant to the universal perception that "globalised market capitalism is in the dock as it has not been for a generation". If the verdict he returns sounds, in the end, balanced to a fault in that see-sawing Anglican style – the market can be both the most "powerful engine for development and liberation" and "a dangerous moral pollutant" – then the journey he takes us on offers stimulating intellectual scenery at every turn.

In its quest for ethical and social integrity in the "global bazaar", Good Value fuses two of this year's favourite non-fiction genres. First is the forensic scrutiny of our economic mess and its shamed makers, as practised (among others) by Gillian Tett, Vince Cable and Paul Mason. This book's middle chapters succinctly show how "casino capitalism" (a coinage by Susan Strange, one of the left-wing critics of the market that Green deftly cites) led from late 2007 to a "hurricane unprecedented in its savagery". The storm flattened guilty dealers and blameless workers and home-owners alike. Victims and villains came to agree on the need for "taming" the system after a "manifest failure of market fundamentalism".

Second, and more originally, Green pursues into the "ambiguous bazaar" of global commerce his search for a more conscientious and balanced life. That yearning runs through the recent batch of manifestoes for a renewed social morality, from Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett's The Spirit Level to Peter Singer's The Life You Can Save. The minutiae of "corporate social responsibility" bother Green less than the duty to live justly on a finite, interdependent planet transformed irreversibly – so he argues – by a new wave of globalisation that has its roots in our innate curiosity and ingenuity.

Among Green's bedrock beliefs is the conviction that capitalism, especially in its expansive, culture-hopping forms, is more than just another ideological "ism". Rather, it expresses the propensity to move, trade and discover that puts its practice firmly among the "human universals". Our present shocks and setbacks, he maintains, and the "groundswell of rage" they have unleashed, should purge its and our excesses, paving the way for a "more tempered and more sober" business climate: greener, humbler, and kinder.

Green may balk at the kind of "idealistic grand bargain of redistribution" proposed by out-and-out anti-capitalists. Yet he should recognise that his model of the marketplace can sound just as Utopian as any homespun fantasy of small-scale communism found among the protesters outside G8 or G20 summits. Globalisation, in this sunlit perspective, not only opens new cultural horizons. It even nudges humanity towards that "Omega Point" of unity foreseen in Teilhard's mystical theology. This vision rubs uneasily along with his darker insights into the human "ambiguity and imperfection" that lead to a Faust-like greed and hubris.

Of course, these philosophical musings from one of the world's most powerful bankers will trigger plenty of hollow laughs. Prudent, shrewd, and so fortunately anchored deep in the Chinese economic world where the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank began, HSBC may now smell far more of roses than its rivals. But it too had its moments of boom-time madness before Green's watch: notably, the calamitous acquisition of US sub-prime outfit Household International, which became the now-defunct lender HSBC Finance.

Sadly, Green's high-minded discursive style rarely stoops to the nitty-gritty of his professional life. When he does, he fascinates – as in a nod to the panicky high-level shuttles that secured last year's bank rescue deals, with the "pervasive stress and the sheer tiredness of those involved". Without any compromise of confidentiality, Good Value would have gained from a few more of such glimpses. The thinker and the doer need to connect as well.

If Green glosses over some of the problems of the present, he can sanitise the past as well. His lucid tour of the highlights of commercial history and ethics, from Medicis in Florence to McDonalds in Beijing, and from Aristotle to Maynard Keynes, has a besetting tendency to underplay the role of naked power in the creation of "free" markets. Warships protected the warehouses. British overseas business flourished for centuries under imperial oversight, and still – in boom or bust – marches in step with a compliant state.

Having duly indicted the state-supported Atlantic slave trade as "one of the greatest moral crimes in the whole of human history", Green later pauses to "savour" the paean to "British commerce" inscribed in 1800 on the foundation stone of the West India Dock. For the next seven years on one measure, or the next 33 on another, London's West India trade would continue to profit from the cruelty of slavery. Good Value brims with a fervent hope that open-bordered trade will help to vanquish bigotry and chauvinism. It sometimes fails to register the historical evidence that global barter and global bullying can easily coincide.

Beyond these blind spots, Green delivers through his "Christian prism" a heartfelt and humane defence of the globalising process. It has, for instance, made Britain in his eyes a "far less racist, sexist and class-ridden" nation than it was "just a generation ago". This believer in "original sin" favours liberty – with all its Faustian risks of self-harm and social damage – as the route to liberation. To accept that his chosen path will by itself overcome the communal evils of "injustice, exclusion and exploitation" needs a heroic leap of faith. It's cheering, even inspiring, to come across a prince of finance who tries so sincerely and so eloquently to heal the schism mapped in Howards End. In the end, however, Green's idea of value merits the same level of plaudit that Forster himself gave to democracy: two cheers, but not yet three.

The soul of a banker: Stephen Green

Born in 1948, Stephen Green studied at Oxford and at MIT in Boston. He worked at the Ministry of Overseas Development before joining HSBC in 1982. A board member of the banking group since 1998, he became the chief executive in 2003 and chairman in 2006. While working in Hong Kong, he studied theology and was ordained into the Church of England. He is also a trustee of the British Museum. Before 'Good Value', he had previously published one other book, 'Serving God? Serving Mammon?'