Whatever Happened To Shame?

by .
Originally published in Impact Investor

How’s your Panamanian bank account doing? Not that it’s any of my business – although Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs might take a bit more interest.

In a week when two of Britain’s former Foreign Secretaries – one from each of the major political parties (which is handy, in terms of balance) – have been caught on-camera offering to sell their ‘services’ for eye-watering daily rates, and the boss of Britain’s biggest bank, HSBC, revealed that he had a bank account in Panama via HSBC’s Swiss private bank, it’s only reasonable that we ask ourselves: whatever happened to shame?

When they were exposed by the media, Malcolm Rifkind, Jack Straw, and Stuart Gulliver (Conservative and Labour ex-Foreign Secs and HSBC head honcho respectively) all defended themselves vigorously, as you might expect, although sometimes bizarrely. Gulliver said of his offshore Noriega bank account: “Being in Switzerland protects me from the Hong Kong staff. Being in Panama protects me from the Swiss staff.” Work that one out if you can.

Leaving aside the question of whether or not they broke any rules, all three made a dreadful error: they failed to understand that we are living in a new era, in which money-grubbing when you are already well-off just doesn’t go down very well with a general public that has seen its own living standards shot to ribbons over the past seven years. It’s as if they are still living in the ‘greed is good’ days, when the rest of us are enduring the ‘buddy can you spare a dime?’ times.

The shamelessness with which these three – all facing a bountiful pension future – justified their actions put me in mind of the disgraced John Profumo, the Secretary of State for War in the Conservative government of the day, who resigned in July 1963. Profumo’s offence was that he lied to the House of Commons about an affair with Christine Keeler.

Profumo then did a truly remarkable thing. From treading the corridors of power he went to work as a toilet cleaner at Toynbee Hall, a charity in the East End of London. He eventually rose to be the charity’s chief fundraiser, working there until his death, all the while staying silent about his fall from grace. Profumo, in other words, quietly atoned for his deceit, a deceit that seems relatively minor by today’s standards.

Another, related, news item caught my eye this week. The Financial Times delved into 50 years’ worth of official incomes data from more than 800,000 households. It found that pensioners have done very well indeed, while the living standards of the average young adult in their 20s has been steadily pushed down. Here is concrete evidence that, as the FT put it, “the pattern of gains for the old at the expense of the young is repeated for rich and poor alike.” It quotes Angus Hanton, co-founder of the charity Intergenerational Foundation, as saying that without greater fairness across age groups, “young people may want to tear up the social contract between generations.”

Social contracts, not just between generations, are fragile things. Once ripped asunder they are hard to patch up. Whatever the truth of the cases involving Rifkind, Straw and Gulliver, the reality is that appearances matter very much during an era of austerity and the resulting social atomisation. If we are to avoid a widening gulf between our society’s ‘haves’ and its ‘have-nots’, we need forms of alternative leadership, around which individuals can cohere and form communities of like-mindedness. It’s by no means perfect but a step in the right direction was the recently published pamphlet by the Church of England’s House of Bishops, titled ‘Who Is My Neighbour?’ Tim Stevens, Bishop of Leicester, described this as a “call to resist the reduction of politics to seeking self-interest as the only clear moral imperative.”

I think there’s another aspect to be addressed. We need to reinstate shame as a positive virtue, with individuals in high places feeling shame for setting a terrible example to others. We need leaders – in all walks of life, from Westminster to Canary Wharf – to have consciences that can be pricked. Until we have reinstated shame, any hope that trust can be restored as a social force for good is likely to rest on shaky ground.

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