Jun 272012

Bob Diamond, the top boss at Barclays, has this to say on the circumstances that led to a £290 million fine being slapped on the bank for apparently manipulating – in contravention of its own rules and to its own benefit – interbank interest rates over a sustained period of time (the bold is mine):

“The events which gave rise to today’s resolutions relate to past actions which fell well short of the standards to which Barclays aspires in the conduct of its business. When we identified those issues, we took prompt action to fix them and co-operated extensively and proactively with the authorities,” Diamond said.

“Nothing is more important to me than having a strong culture at Barclays; I am sorry that some people acted in a manner not consistent with our culture and values.”

The Guardian report which lays out these pretty repulsive facts starts out by telling us (again, the bold is mine):

The £59.5m fine from the Financial Services Authority is the largest penalty ever levied by the City regulator, which found that Barclays contravened its rules for a number of years and involved “a significant number of employees”.

Both these passages lead me to wonder if my previous piece on prejudice in politics isn’t being replicated in other areas of life.  And perhaps when I said “prejudice”, I should have really said “values”.  And when I say values, perhaps I should make the distinction between overt and covert values.  For when Mr Diamond says “Nothing is more important to me than having a strong culture at Barclays [...]” and we learn that what happened took place over “a number of years and involved a ‘significant number of employees'”, what then do we have if not an organisation with two separate sets of cultures?  The overt one, the one supposedly promoted by HR and communications departments various, the one – in fact – which Mr Diamond argues did not prevail; and the covert one, the one many people operated under for many years, the one which concentrated great wealth in the already deep pockets of its shareholders and managerial class – and which, presumably, went undetected by absolutely everyone at the top.

And so it is that I am minded to come back to politics.  When politicians, think tanks, supporters and tacticians all slaver on about the importance of values in political action, are they actually following the same line Barclays Bank apparently followed?  Overt values for the working classes and covert values for those who wish to get to power on the back of the former’s votes.

And if such a circumstance wasn’t sufficiently bad in itself, when they talk about values as if they were an intellectual breath of fresh air – and when they refuse to recognise the existence of any equivalent cousins of a covert nature – are they actually talking not about a distinct concept of political weight but, rather, about rank-and-file prejudices very similar to the most primitive which any of us out here are inclined to hold?

Just dressed up in fancy language …

In short, are political values nothing more nor less than tiresomely cobbled-together belief systems – as lacking in scientific rigour or, indeed, any basis in real and useful evidence as any mumbo jumbo we might be required to stumble across?

And if so, what does that mean for our most beloved political parties?  Mine, for example – which, in Tony Blair’s massive reign, was rebuilt through the clever sleight-of-hand that was this game of remaining true to our values – even as we arguably changed our political colours.

All of which leads to me to want to add one final thought, before we shut up shop for tonight: if Labour has been a party of mumbo jumbo, it’s not the only political party which has played what is clearly a long-standing game of overt values versus covert values; nor the only one which has been selling the idea that values are far more resilient and acceptable than prejudices.

They are all, in fact, I would suggest, to a greater or lesser degree, tempted by this euphemism that the word “values” has become ; and, just as similarly, tempted to create a two-tier relationship – as per the Barclays example we started out with today – between the values they aspire to in public and the values they practise when at work behind the scenes.

Business and politics were never so mirroring as today.  When it could be so good, it turns out so foul.

What have we done to our societies?

Really, what have we allowed to take place under our stupid noses?

Jun 272012

Chris concludes his post today in the following damning and depressing way:

[...] Miliband says, correctly, that Labour became “disconnected from the concerns of working people.” This is not just a political problem but an individual one for those of use who jumped through the Govean hoops of “rigour”: we become socially isolated, geeks, weirdos and nerds. Academic success has big drawbacks.

It could, then, be that the costs of rigour outweigh the benefits.

If I understand the implications correctly of his conclusion, academia and politics simply don’t mix.  Academia is for a world where evidence is valued.  But the problem politics has with such an approach – quite at the margin of whether we should trust our current leaders and give them the benefit of the doubt in what they do – is that most ordinary people don’t seem to value evidence at all.  In much the same way, in fact, as most political actors in charge – who don’t seem to either these days.

I’ve recently had occasion to criticise politicians for being medieval (more on the greasy-pole theorem here), but Chris’s piece today makes me wonder if I’m being unfair.  What if politicians are right to use prejudice to move the mountains of voters?  What if nations cannot be usefully moved in any other way?  What if we are condemned to a society and civilisation where “the concerns of working people” unhappily equal attitudes constructed on the sands of prejudice instead of solid opinions based on the realities of careful study?

If – as members of political movements, as promoters of evidence-based social and mainstream media and as thoughtful people in general – we are foolishly swimming against an ultimately unstoppable tide, perhaps it is time we admitted that voters are on the whole not scientists, researchers nor PhD students – and prejudice-based politicians who intuitively press our buttons know far more about the business of politics than we, in our white plastic towers of iPads and connected gadgets various, will ever know.

It’s a saddening thought though, isn’t it?  A saddening thought.


Further reading: a couple of websites which have come my way recently and which attempt to inject evidence and objective information into the hackneyed debates of politics.  First, Political Innovation‘s new project Who Funds You?: a sharp attempt to make absolutely clear which political and business ideologues are funding which allegedly – and in some cases superficially – even-handed think tanks.  Second, a new blog from Andrew which looks at how an overarching superstructure of attitudes, behaviours and hows might inform any British government, whatever the political inclination.