Britain’s crisis of professionalism: Part I
Has Britain reached a state of permacrisis? The past five years have seen a nigh-on seamless succession of scandals and mishaps that have rocked public faith in the nation’s institutions. The financial crisis, the MPs’ expenses scandal, the riots, the phone-hacking, the double-dip and now Libor-fixing: these stand out as a series of lugubrious focal points in a dramatic half-decade. For my money, this is all about professionalism. In the following two-part piece for Shifting Grounds, I will explain why.
It was the height of the subprime boom. As investors across the world threw themselves at high-yield mortgage debt, one Swedish bank director decided to look a little closer. He travelled to Florida, investigated the content of the complex debt packages that his counterparts were buying so enthusiastically, and decided to hold back. His firm, Handelsbanken, duly sailed through the financial crisis when those same packages proved bogus.
Ed Miliband cited the example in his speech to the Fabian Society summer conference last month. He noted the distinction between the wise leadership at Handelsbanken and the failures of oversight that led to the Libor-fixing scandal. He went on to ask why those Barclays bankers responsible for the rigged interest rates were not held to the same standards as other professionals: doctors, for example, who are summarily struck off in comparable cases of misconduct.
Miliband went on to contrast the state of banking today with the bank manager of yesteryear: the solid, dependable type to whom his predecessor John Smith was approvingly compared. He who knew the name, income, liabilities and character of his fiduciary charges: the stolid Captain Mainwaring to the dodgy-dealing Private Walkers who have ruined the profession’s reputation.
Because a ‘profession’ is what banking is, or should be. The Barclays scandal, Bob Diamond’s appearance at the Treasury Select Committee, the email threads between traders: all have epitomised a total collapse of the standards implied by the term. The managerial negligence, the apparent lack of contrition, the something-for-nothing remuneration culture, the indifference to others’ interests, the sense that integrity and honesty are for the little people; backslaps, Bollinger and bonuses when things go well, but no willingness to take responsibility when they do not. The whole sorry saga has been an utter repudiation of ‘professional’ values.
But this is not an isolated example. Due standards have been absent elsewhere. The expenses crisis, the hacking scandal, the ‘climategate’ emails, the Baby P case and the recent GlaxoSmithKline anti-depressant payout have impugned MPs, journalists, environmental scientists, social workers and pharmacologists respectively. In each case a minority of malign or incompetent practitioners have brought an entire profession into disrepute. And the cumulative effect has been to diminish the very notion of ‘the professional’; the annual Trust in Professionals survey has shown a steady decline in public confidence across the board. More widely, the result is antipathy towards the establishment and an associated surge in support for conspiracy theories and extremist alternatives.
The phenomenon can be blamed on two factors. The first, present in some – if not all – of the above cases, is a culture of instant gratification, of the ‘fast buck’. The British economy sports some of the highest levels of private debt and the lowest levels of business investment in the Western world, sure signs that short-term considerations are prevailing over long-term ones. The rush for success and recognition, as the authors of The Spirit Level have shown, is the product of an unequal society in which status is disproportionately significant to an individual’s self-worth. The superficial, the immediate and the transient trump the substantive, the worthy and the enduring.
The second factor is a sensationalist media unwilling to distinguish between individual wrongdoers and the collective. From bankers to social workers, too often it is the bad apples that get the attention. This in turn erodes professional standards more widely; as one discipline is dragged into the gutter, others ask themselves: if everyone else has their fingers in the till, can I afford not to?
So what is to be done? These two problems require separate answers. The first, the ‘buy now, pay later’ economy, requires institutional change. New lines of capital, new sources of vocational training, new ways for organisations to offset risk and make long-term commitments: these are the requisites of a more moral capitalism. The second factor militates for better coordination of individual professions: vocational qualifications and membership of trade bodies as the carrot; disqualification and striking-off as the stick. The actions of the individual and the collective must be partitioned.
But this is not enough to solve Britain’s crisis of professionalism. The professions, for all of the recent scandals, and perhaps because of these, are also under external attack. The aggressors are politicians and commentators enamoured with the amateur.