The plight of the Rev Paul Flowers, former chairman of the Co-operative Bank, prompts tears and laughter in almost equal measure. The headlines – combining the Methodist minister, his bank and hard drugs – have provided some of the most entertaining and improbable copy since the first revelations of David Blunkett’s affair. The comedy, though, should not be allowed to obscure the tragedy and the disgrace, which go far beyond the personal.
That someone at once so unqualified, so well connected and – for want of a better word – so flawed could rise to head a respected bank, despite so many slips along the way, should be treated as the national scandal it is, a blistering commentary on the recruitment and calibre of our top management. For the rise and rise of Rev Flowers is not, however much it suits certain people and interest groups to make it such, a matter either of party politics or of banking.
However mightily Flowers seems to have benefited from his Labour Party connections, whatever indulgences might have been shown to him as a Methodist minister, and whatever chance led to his having a senior position in British banking thrust upon him, his career is no more than a distillation of the considerations that speed so many to senior positions in this country today. Alas, this applies even now, in the 21st century, when qualifications and merit are what supposedly counts.
How much longer do we have to listen to clipped accents promoting the Rolls-Royce machine that is supposedly our top Civil Service as a model for public administration the world over? Remember the botched franchising of the West Coast mainline? Think, too, of the outsourcing of tagging and Olympic security that was so poorly managed that it cost far more than it should have done and still did not deliver the goods. Think of those ever more expensive aircraft carriers.
How do we still have the brass neck to sell the NHS as a global paradigm, when an elementary exercise in mass computerisation failed; the whole system creaks out of nine-to-five office hours, and there are elderly patients, not just at Mid Staffs, who cannot get even a drink of water? How much trust can our top police command, when Hillsborough records appear to have been tampered with and an investigation into the treatment of a cabinet minister has called into question the probity of senior officers and is still lumbering on after more than a year?
And how can we revere the City of London as the last word in efficiency and probity, when it has allowed itself – among so many other excesses – to be stung by the vanity listings of dubious companies and failed to prevent the rigging of Libor?
One welcome by-product of the rise to prominence of parliamentary committees has been the glimpse their proceedings have afforded of the truly lamentable standards of management in almost every branch of national life, public and private. We have watched leading bankers admit that they have not a banking qualification between them. We have watched well-intentioned BBC executives, past and present, evince barely an inkling of the ethical and financial responsibility that should attend their rather solid salaries. We are currently watching erstwhile luminaries of the press having to defend their conduct at the Central Criminal Court.
In a report out this week, which deserves much more attention than its modest title – “Depending on the Right People” – may attract, James de Waal, an associate of the London think tank Chatham House, casts a profoundly troubling spotlight on relations between top politicians and the military between 2001 and 2010 (the age, of course, of the Afghanistan and Iraq debacles; the age, also, of Tony Blair).
De Waal’s study debunks what might be the last of our national illusions: that the top brass always, and necessarily, have the national interest front and centre; or that government ministers and top civil servants are as competent as we might expect them to be. Drawing on, among other things, testimony given to the Iraq inquiry – which report has still not been published – de Waal identifies the lack of any reliable system for policy-making, even when that entails the waging of war.
The advantages of the British way of doing things, de Waal argues, might be flexibility and speed. But it also brings “incoherence, inconsistency and opacity”. Too much, he suggests, depends on personal relationships – or cronyism, as we might call it in other people’s countries. What we need, he insists, is a formal legal framework, more open debate, and records that show “who gave what advice, when and why”. And so, if we want to be a truly modern state, we do.
From now on, anyone tempted to extol the British way of doing things and recommend it as a model for others should first have to chronicle the charmed life of the Rev Paul Flowers and explain how this train wreck could have been avoided.
An Arctic cell is not the worst result
All but one of the Arctic 30, as the captured Greenpeace protesters are known, have been granted bail. Whether or not they will be able to leave Russia, against the substantial surety supplied, their transfer to St Petersburg – Vladimir Putin’s home city – should be seen as the point at which the Kremlin realised that 30 articulate, committed and photogenic people from many different countries were fast become a diplomatic liability.
The trouble is that no country, least of all one with a rather prickly sense of its national dignity, is likely to stand by when something it regards as a vital interest is threatened, however admirable the cause. The American skipper, above all, had reason to know this. Peter Willcox was captain of the Rainbow Warrior when it was blown up by French agents in New Zealand in 1985, with the loss of a photographer’s life. An Arctic prison in November is no picnic, but it is worth remembering there is worse.
Timeless? Then I'm a lumberjack
I couldn’t help but cheer the Holland Park Comprehensive pupils who questioned the timeless universality of Python, when canvassed by the BBC this week.
The Pythons are not just of their age (a good four decades ago), but of their country, and a rather juvenile section of it to boot. It is a national failing that when something enjoys success here, we tend to assume our enthusiasm will be shared by the whole world.
I found some of Monty Python funny at the time (my brothers appreciated it far more), and zany scenarios travel further than clever wordplay. But you would have thought, from all the recent lionisation, the Pythons are the be-all and end-all of global humour. May I (humbly) submit that they are not.