The Meltdown of Morals in Merry
«The jolly proceedings of the last week are English to an E, full of the language of responsibility, culpability and doing things properly.»
"It’s a huge game of chess that’s being played— all over the world — if this is the world at all, you know. Oh, what fun it is! How I wish I was one of them! I wouldn’t mind being a Pawn, if only I might join — though of course I should like to be a Queen best." Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
The Bob Diamond hoopla is a sideshow. It is a very entertaining sideshow, with all the thrilling elements of good guignol: greed, violence (to our purses and some reputations), mayhem, multiple plot lines, tragedy of a sort. It is a pleasure to watch, as it always is when the scrim is ripped away and the players backstage are revealed.
The main show on the main stage remains the survival of the Euro and whether the European Union is dependent on the mercy of the markets or the markets serve the Union, as it would be in a sane world. We obviously do not live in a sane world but inside a carnival tent lined with weird mirrors where cause and effect are bent beyond recognition and the organ grinder is a monkey playing gruesome melodies to which a man dances.
Allow me, if you will, a few minutes and a few observations of this out of kilter world, Koyaanisqatsi on a bender. I should add that I spent – more correctly, misspent – many years working for the major investment banks in New York, as well as one of the Big Three rating agencies, so I know whereof I speak.
England is different, they like to say. Indeed it is. London, along with New York, is the very laboratory of the financial supremacy, a dictatorship even, of the investment banks.
The jolly proceedings of the last week are English to an E, full of the language of responsibility, culpability and doing things properly. Here is but a small sample: George Osborne, who pressured the CEO of Barclays to quit, heralds «the new age of responsibility.» Diamond, in his resignation statement, bemoans «The impression created by the events about what Barclays and its people stand for.»
As always, the British – more precisely, their leaders – confuse morality with morale and finally, with ethics. In the absence of a working ethics, in a society where all is fair game, there must be constant appeals to morality, meaning the private decisions of isolated individuals. They fob bad choices off onto lesser figures and cross their fingers that the slate has been wiped clean. But there is no slate; it’s a fiction that people desperately cling to. Language remains impregnated with the ghost of personal responsibility, of order and the right thing to do. A few more choice examples:
«Earliest possible opportunity» (the crimes took place in the previous decade), followed by «Lady Vadera has no recollection of speaking… about the price-setting of Libor," followed by "a whiff of mudslinging," (a strong whiff? A slight one? Incrementally repeating ones?) followed by nameless «Senior officials,» and thence to «I’d find it astonishing that bank or Treasury would ever suggest this» (Alastair Darling), and from there to "symptom of a much wider cancer in the UK’s financial services industry," and from there to the classic «Lack of knowledge by anyone in the bank above desk supervisor level.» Ah, those devious desk managers, always on call when a crime has been committed. Buried under piles of paper, way behind on due diligence, a scene out of Balzac’s Colonel Chabert. Always to blame, dreamed the whole thing up on the spot. The directors were off somewhere or other…
We meanwhile are left to graze on what a friend recently characterized as «the scorched earth left behind by the bankers’ stampede to Mammogeddon.»
How will the bankers explain the emails on the order of «This one’s for you, big boy» replete with references to cases of Bollinger champagne? According to the fines assessed last week, Barclays traders were attempting to manipulate LIBOR, to help boost the bank’s profits, even prior to the 2008 crisis.
But England, there’ll always be an England. The latest news informs us that at Ladbrokes, the betting agency – and what a great name it has! – Gary Hoffman, the former CEO of Northern Rock, is now the favorite to become Barclay’s chief executive. The 2/1 favourite, with 97% of all bets on him. Ah those Brits. Always keen on finding a new way to be taken to the cleaners. Their reputation for financial probity is completely unearned.
But make no mistake about it: this is a very calculated performance. Diamond thought he could keep his job; he was so accustomed to living in a parallel reality, he thought he was untouchable. The 280 pound million fine meant little to him.He may even have celebrated for a few hours but it was an impossible charade and everyone knew except him. Diamond a reformer? Insoportable. No one could swallow it. The newspapers and other media were howling.
So Cameron – no Thatcher he, but rather a desperate pol, a former marketing whizz who cannot win reëlection because his government is unpopular precisely on account of its close ties to the City and, formerly, Murdoch – was forced to come up with Plan B. And so he did. And a jolly good one it is.
Diamond will spill the beans to the inquiry, attempting to implicate the previous Labour government and rightly so. This allows him to save his reputation, do significant damage to the opposition and finally, allow the propagation of the idea that banking reform is unnecessary. It was all the previous government’s fault plus those rotten desk supervisors. You know him, Henderson on the second floor. The one no one ever spoke to.
And what does Diamond get for this magnanimous act? He will walk away scot-free from the possibility of criminal charges, Labour will take it on the chin and besides a few minor players being relieved of their current employment, there will be no changes. Cameron et Co. will desperately cling to power, and most importantly from the English perspective, a strong moral message will be sent to all. Act properly!
As I seem to be going hoarse from shouting the obvious, I leave you with the calm summation of the Guardian’s Seumas Milne, «Political and business powerbrokers insist it’s all a problem of leadership, bad apples and a culture that has gone awry. But such cultures are generated by structures and systems – and in the case of the City, deregulated short-term profit maximisation has as good as required them.»
J Iddhis Bing is the author of The Apartment Thief, a novel, lives in Paris and was never ever a desk supervisor anywhere.