For society to work we must have people whom we can respect and admire.
Every now and then we need a titan, and if the Nobel prize is any measure we’ve had them in disproportionate numbers. In former times, such people were to be found in the sciences, academia, the Civil Service, town halls, the Westminster village, hospitals, the military, the legal profession, the utilities – and yes, of course, the banks.
Of all of these – and there are still many more – only the military today continues to inspire our admiration. But today even our famed ‘James Bond’ Secret Service has been found seriously wanting (i.e. the spook in the bag scandal).
It is a sad state of affairs when we have come to conclude that they are all in it for themselves and are letting us down in the process. At the heart of it all is a me-me culture leading to the devil take the hindmost outlook. Is it not surprising, therefore, that there is a cynicism about such as we have not known before. The turnout at the recent by-elections does no more than reflect that.
Proposals for elected city mayors and police chiefs – which in ordinary circumstances ought to promise so much – have been greeted by a sceptical public as little more than another devious ploy to distract us and deflect our anger. We are not in a mood for more tinkering, and prefer to leave well alone rather than risk additional mayhem from people whose motives we have come to suspect.
Had these proposals come from leaders we had come to admire and trust, does anyone doubt that they would have been received differently? It would have been more a case of ‘well, if this is what they believe is for the best, then we ought at least to consider it seriously’.
Returning to the subject I covered last week – the continuing offensive behaviour of bankers – we are being forced to watch perfectly good businesses being allowed to go down the swanny because banks won’t help. Refusing to use taxpayers’ money – with which we’ve stuffed their gullets so full they are in danger of constipation – to fulfil their moral obligation to save small businesses from the recession they created, they insist on using it to recover from their gambling-induced hangover to begin another binge anew.
We have gone from the sublime to the gawd blimey. One minute they were throwing money at us as though it was of going out of fashion – we all remember the credit cards once raining down on us like confetti – and the next they are sitting on it like mother hens nursing their eggs. Such extreme gyrations were never going to be anything other than disastrous for the general public.
If business activity and growth are now in a trough of despondency, this is because people have finally wised up to reality and are now anxious to pay down the debts that the banks have profited on so greatly. But now that the party has stopped, the banks are being allowed to have their cake and eat it, too.
Having said all this about the banks, we should not forget our own shortcomings; how eagerly and irresponsibly did we succumb to their blandishments to ratchet up our own personal debt levels by taking out second mortgages and spending much more than we earned. And although many have come to realise they cannot continue living beyond their means, we can only hope and pray that once personal debts have been paid off people will not have lost the habit of spending!
But human nature being what it is – and the average chap being no match for these whizz kids of finance – it is not difficult to see who was going to win the argument of persuasion. This is where the government, and in particular the Bank of England and FSA, should have stepped in.
With personal debt levels higher as a proportion of GDP than any country in the developed world, and house prices rising at a rate much greater than wages, the signals were all on red alert.
With all the gloating over Labour’s local election successes this week, the public must not forget that the last government bears a great deal of responsibility for our present woes. How could ministers warn Joe Public against the dangers of excessive debt when they themselves were the standard bearer of borrowing to the hilt? Had they shown ‘prudence’ – Gordon Brown’s now pricelessly ironic sobriquet – then they could have warned against the dangers and taken measures to restrain it.
But as well as borrowing like there was no tomorrow, the last government increased the burden of the public sector payroll by no less than 64% during its time in office.
All we can say is that these hard times are teaching us some very hard truths. History, however, does show us one encouraging thing: there never was a recession that sooner or later did not yield to better days.
The financial crisis has all given us no end of a reality check. Let’s hope that in so doing it has taught us no end of a lesson.