Whatever happened to common decency? On Sunday night the US electorate watched as its presidential candidates sunk to new lows in the arena of public political debate, with Hillary expressing dismay at Trump’s grotesque comments about women and the Donald taking a pop at Clinton over allegations of abusive conduct by husband Bill. A few days earlier, Ukip MEPs had seemingly decided to “take their differences outside”, with Mike Hookem and Steven Woolfe “scuffling” at the European Parliament building in Brussels. The details of that incident – and Woolfe’s subsequent hospitalisation – remain, appropriately enough, hotly disputed.
Meanwhile, the Labour Party’s squabbling has turned ever more vicious and the Tories appear to be doing all they can to make Britain as unwelcoming to foreign workers as possible. Move beyond politics and you find Royal Bank of Scotland, the beneficiary of a taxpayer bailout at the height of the financial crash, on the ropes for allegedly squeezing small businesses in order to boost profits and ensure RBS staff got their bonuses.
The allegations against RBS date back three years, when they were first made by Lawrence Tomlinson, who at the time was “entrepreneur in residence” at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. He claimed struggling (and sometimes not so struggling) business clients of RBS were put into its Global Restructuring Group (GRG), where they were often hit with rising interest rates and fees. Instead of being turned around, many businesses went to the wall, with RBS able in some cases to buy their property or assets on the cheap.
Now a whistle-blower has passed documents to the BBC which appear to back up the original claims. They include an email in which an RBS executive refers to “Project Dash for Cash” and appears to encourage staff to find companies which might be engineered into the GRG. The division made vast sums for RBS – including a profit of £1.2bn in 2011 alone.
RBS has previously acknowledged that it let down some of its business customers during the relevant period but says it never caused any business to fail deliberately. It has also told the BBC there have been significant changes to the bank in the last few years so that it now operates a very different culture. Yet whatever reassurances RBS – or any bank for that matter – gives about the lessons learned from the past the public’s trust in the sector is probably shot, such has been the litany of scandals to have emanated from the banking sector since the financial crash in 2008.
Indeed, such has been the state of the global economy in recent years, it is hardly surprising that intense anger has been directed not only at banks, but also at traditional political parties, the “mainstream” media and broadly speaking anything that is perceived to be part of an out of touch establishment. And true enough, all of those groups have been guilty of ethical failings – MPs’ expenses, phone-hacking, PPI, Libor rigging – the list goes on.
Frequently mixed up with that anger is a longing for a return to times gone by, a past which was apparently simpler, less conniving, more equal and – typically – less “globalised”. In the UK, there is a real or manufactured nostalgia for an age when people knew their neighbours, had a credit account at the local butcher and all tuned into the same TV programme on a Saturday night – oh, and had a blue passport. Children were better disciplined, political leaders were genuine titans and town folk greeted each other in the street.
It’s a chimera, of course. But when public dissatisfaction with the status quo is sufficiently high, there are always opportunists happy to remember a better past and hold out hope for a better future. Nigel Farage and Donald Trump are two among several who have fit the bill. For the most part such individuals rail against the moral failures of the establishment in a way that shows up their own lack of respectability. They play on a vague idea that mainstream elites are to a greater or lesser degree evil, and yet display all the common decency and decorum of a couple of pub bores who want to leer at women, abuse foreigners and try to stay one step ahead of the taxman.
Athletes are condemning Donald Trump's "locker room talk" excuse
Yet paradoxically, their rhetoric is lapped up. They are seen by supporters as normal; real people “just like us”. It doesn’t say much for those who laud them. And maybe this is the worst truth of all: that the idea of a politician – or indeed any establishment figure – as a role model is less appealing to many than a politician who by their own unpleasantness effectively justifies a range of nasty and immoral behaviours in their followers. How else to explain the outbreak of post-referendum racism in this country, or the defence of Trump’s comment about “grabbing women by the pussy” as “locker room talk”?
A few years ago a friend in his sixties sent me a postcard from a holiday in Dorset. He had found, he said, an “England I thought no longer existed – decent, dull and kind”. It was, I think, meant positively. And it is perhaps that kind of ‘simple’ England which many Faragists seem to hanker for. The irony is that the means they might regard as permissible in achieving that end are neither kind nor decent.