Former Barclays chief executive Bob Diamond: ‘Position and power is abused at the expense of those below’. Photograph: Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images
One thing we can say after the succession of eye-popping scandals in public life is that the British must be one of the most stoical, resilient and phlegmatic people on this planet. But how long will we continue shrugging our shoulders at the scandals in banking, politics, journalism, the police and the priesthood? Our forbearance seems inexhaustible but at some stage it’s surely going to run out.
And what happens then? Will sinister political forces emerge and march the bankers off into the fields to dig ditches, or is it more likely we will find ways to make those in power more accountable and responsive, because this is at base an institutional problem, as well as an ethical one?
Dream on, you will say. The British establishment is incapable of reforming itself. The only reason there is any kind of hand-wringing at the moment is because people got caught. There’s no sense of remorse, no understanding among the perpetrators of the impact of these scandals, as was evident watching Bob Diamond at the Treasury select committee or any of Rupert Murdoch’s clan over the past year. Nothing ever changes, goes the argument, only fundamental revolution will prevent bankers and politicians and businessmen behaving in the way that they always have.
I have sympathy with these frustrations because corruption and abuse of power is always accompanied by incompetence. Police officers who are being bribed and wined and dined by powerful interests cannot at the same time carry out their duties efficiently and for the good of the public. Bankers who preside over a system of illegal rate fixing do not run a sound and responsible bank. Politicians who are doing deals behind closed doors with media owners are bound to allow these deals to skew policy and damage the quality of government. Where there is a lapse of ethical standards, a general decline in performance is the corollary.
Some suggest that the abuse of power at the top is simply a reflection of a decline in general standards. I am not persuaded of this for the reason that I think there are heartening levels of decency still to be found across the population, together with persistent signs of understanding and tolerance. You don’t have to have an unfeasibly rosy view of British society to agree that most people behave honestly most of the time.
What is striking is that this does not seem to inform the conduct of those sitting on top of the heap. Time and again, we find that position and power is abused at the expense of those below, whether by theft, manipulation of markets, corruption of public officials, harassment and sexual abuse of vulnerable women and children, breaching of privacy or defrauding taxpayers in any number of petty scams, tax dodges and false claims. And by the way, I don’t overlook the scandals in my own trade, as laid bare by the Guardian and Lord Justice Leveson.
Something did go wrong in our society during the last decade and half â€“ maybe well before â€“ which explains these scandals. This was more than a few individuals mislaying their moral compass or being encouraged to think they could get away with something because of light-touch regulation. It has to do with the way we tolerated a vast increase in the wealth divide. A society that allows bankers to be remunerated in millions at the same time as there is widespread child poverty has lost its way. Attitudes that encouraged greater and greater inequity are the same ones that created the conditions for the abuse of power that so many of these scandals reveal. The common denominators are a disdain for the rights and welfare of ordinary people and a decline in compassion for the less fortunate.
To maintain any kind of faith in British public life over the past year or two has been tough. Disillusionment and cynicism become the default settings, if only to protect our sanity. Yet I have to admit to one satisfaction, which is this: by hook or by crook, these scandals have been made public and we have seen how things really work at the top â€“ all those deals between politicians and media magnates, politicians and bankers, journalists and the police are now public property. The stench has been appalling, but at least we do not live in Italy or, worse still, Russia, where the entire fabric of the state is corrupt and it would be unthinkable to bring such matters into the open. Exposure and scrutiny do still happen in Britain, albeit haphazardly, which is why we should be particularly wary of the government’s plans to increase the number of secret court hearings and thus the opportunities for concealment.
One of the more shocking stories to emerge in Britain this year is the level of sexual abuse in the police service, exposed by the Guardian journalist Sandra Laville, who documented 56 cases over the past four years, including rape, sexual assault and harassment of vulnerable victims by the police and involving 25 police forces and 48 officers. This is a scandal that received much less publicity than it deserved, although there will be a second chance to look at it when the Association of Chief Police Officers and Independent Police Complaints Commission publish the results of their inquiry in September.
It is already clear that there was an institutional failure. The police did not keep figures on the abuse and police authorities have been extremely lax in admitting to the problem and getting on top of it. A disturbing part of this scandal was the regular abuse of the police national computer, which allowed officers to target women and young people. There can be few graver breaches of trust, yet the response so far reminds me of the behaviour of the Catholic church when confronted with scandal of paedophile priests.
I don’t happen to think that Britain is likely to enter a revolutionary phase, even if the euro collapses and brings greater impoverishment to us all. But our passivity should not be taken for granted and politicians should not ignore the deep levels of anger and disenchantment. Humility is needed to atone for these scandals, asÂ well as recognition â€“ across the board â€“ that openness and transparency will foster a better society; that the powerful can only be reined inÂ if we upgrade our institutions to allow properÂ scrutiny.
But everything goes back to equity and the need for a sense that our society values and strives for it. I cannot think of a better overarching purpose for the remaining years of the coalition, which is light on thinking and is altogether at sea when it comes to the big themes of government.