St Paul's Institute

To Find a Common Good, We Need a Common Language

by Robert Gordon

Posted: 05 Jul 2013

Five years on from a catastrophic failure in our global financial system, we find ourselves towards the tail end of a transitional period. A period marked by reviews, protests, parliamentary commissions, and a great deal of corporate restructuring and regulatory enforcement. Now it seems we have to wait and see where all of this work might take us. We're told it will take time, but the results will be worth it.

What is worrying is that even at this quite advanced stage there remains a consistent voice of scepticism - one that does not believe the desire for true change is felt strongly enough, particularly amongst those whom it will affect the most. The parting words from Mervyn King were amongst his strongest yet, pointing towards a source of "tremendous pressure" working to dilute what are seen as necessary and prudent measures meant to ensure we don't find ourselves in another crisis before overcoming the current one. 

His words were intended to highlight a widespread, disingenuous approach to the conversation on banking reform. A conversation that - given the £133 billion of UK public finances spent alone - really should occur within the public sphere. We have seen time and again a callous disregard for due process exemplified by the Libor and PPI scandals, and a closed-door mentality that brazenly mocks publicly-funded bail outs. The dialogue on the role of the financial sector in our democratic society is too important a debate to occur via private channels of influence. Society as a whole bailed out the financial sector, and as such deserves nothing less than the most transparent and inclusive process for reform that we can muster. We need to be part of the same conversation or nothing substantial will change.

The argument that the public cannot engage appropriately on technical matters - often succumbing to the whims of popular sentiment without understanding the consequences - should certainly be taken into consideration. It is very important that we do not mistake inspiring rhetoric for tangible and effective paths of action. However, we must remember that in this instance it is the regulators themselves who are being circumvented and calling foul. The public has appointed our technical experts, through the appropriate representative channels, and for them to be sidelined so readily is a very strong argument that the call for lasting and significant change is not being heeded by many within the financial sector. Allister Heath, the avidly pro-business editor of City A.M., added to the strong words of the outgoing governor in a recent editorial:

"UK Plc's obsession with negotiating in private is bad for its own reputation, as well as short-sighted, ineffective and ultimately detrimental to shareholders and the national interest."

The issue we face is not primarily one of resolve - there are many passionate people both within and without the financial sector who are acting positively - but rather it is one of division. We have lost the capacity to talk to one another. We've lost the capacity across class divides and levels of education; we've lost the capacity across political and religious affiliations; we've lost the capacity across private, public and civil sectors. It is impossible to come to any conclusive path of action without first finding a common reference point. To find a common good we need a common language.

This begins within a commercial context, with consumers being clear on the products they become involved with and entering into conversations with their banks that are accessible and supportive. Finding a common language at the 'point of sale' is vital to restoring a trust-based relationship which has been violently severed by mismanagement and predatory obfuscation. "A bank has a responsibility to ensure that customers have had a reasonable opportunity to understand a transaction, having regard to their knowledge and personal circumstances. The FCA now has a mandate under its consumer protection objective to enforce this responsibility" - just one of many statements of this kind in the Banking Standards report.

Of course, this responsibility runs both ways. If the ongoing crisis has highlighted how influential the world of finance is to our social well-being, then there is an urgent need to develop more effective and comprehensive avenues for education and community support in this area. The onus cannot solely rest on for-profit corporations who have a legitimate responsibility to shareholders, and so a great deal of effort must also be put forth by organisations, charities and public bodies to close the knowledge gap and facilitate a more equal conversation. We must not shirk responsibility onto others, but instead be forthright as organisations and individuals of the role we may have played in encouraging the crisis to occur and what we can do to alleviate it. We are all complicit in this crisis (although by no means equally so) and, to broaden a turn of phrase used by the Archbishop of Canterbury at our Good Banks event, we all need to 'pop the bubble of inward-looking self-regard' in order to form the foundation of our way out of it.

At a more basic level we need to recognise that the words and phrases we use to discuss personal and societal strength have been underpinned almost entirely by a single point of reference: that often intangible, always domineering utility called 'money'. Our headlines and attention are constantly drawn towards analysis of 'productivity' that depends on monetary expenditure and gain. Our concept of 'wealth' is dominated by golden handcuff indices that overlook the underpinnings of social utility and happiness the term might otherwise espouse. Our notion of 'success' has been skewed to refer more to the size of one's pay packet then social contribution (and, indeed, we have the paradox that the more socially useful roles are generally amongst the lowest paid). We've even corrupted entirely a word whose basic root means nothing more than a 'good thing': bonus.

It is amongst this backdrop of language creep - one that divorces us from the daily practicality, personal effort and communal identity of words such as 'value', 'investment', 'growth' - that we witness remarkable examples of incongruent thinking. Stock markets falling rapidly because the economy is improving (and therefore quantitative easing programmes can/might subside); commentators calling out in alarm because China's economy is 'collapsing' to a mere 7.7% increase per annum; 'straight talking money' from payday lenders having enough hidden terms, fees and conditions to confuse most and ruin the lives of many.

We have lost our ability to communicate with one another honestly, instead relying on sensational rhetoric that belies self-centred agendas and hijacks our language through an obsession with the current era's monetary overlord. This might sound like a common language for those of us who are relatively comfortable within such a framework, but by allowing monetary concerns to direct our thoughts and actions we are condemning an increasing section of society to generational hardship and shutting them out of the conversation on what it means to forge a good society.

Having said all this, I don't count myself entirely in the camp of the sceptics. The Banking Standards report is accessible and forward thinking, bringing together a broad range of opinions and perspectives into its findings and providing a very strong platform for systemic reform. Sentiment has shifted across the board palpably in just the last six months, and resolve from regulators looks to continue unabated. There is a clear and widespread understanding that change is required to a degree not previously envisaged - and not merely from the corporations and public bodies that make up the financial sector, but from many of us in our personal lives and spending habits. Not just how we 'spend' our money either, but how we spend our time, energy and emotion in coming together to formulate a more positive and vibrant way of being.

The spectre of individualism runs deep throughout this conversation, but we are becoming better at calling it out and recognising the influence that it has on the way we live our lives. One of the final hurdles to overcome is to reconnect our personal and professional lives into one cohesive vision for what it means to be a good person, a good employee, a good citizen. Discovering this in ourselves allows us to see it more clearly in others and recognise similarities rather than emphasise differences. From here we can stimulate a conversation that embraces a universal sense of duties based upon a new and more inclusive frame of reference. A common language across all parts of our own lives allows for a genuinely common conversation to occur in the public sphere.

It is clear that a growing majority want to find a positive path forward based upon a notion of the common good. In order for this process to flourish and not become stifled by divisive structures and old-era siege mentalities we must rediscover a common language. With this we can join a common conversation - built upon openly defined agendas and accessible meaning - that enables us to forge a future that flourishes with value and wealth of all kinds, promotes productivity and creative success, and encourages investment in ourselves and each other.

About this author

Robert Gordon was the Manager of St Paul's Institute from 2009 - 2017.

Anthony Sperryn - Posted: 09 Jul 2013

The problem, as I see it, is that we are entrenched in a legal and commercial system where unlimited freedom to make contracts, of whatever sort, is a paramount objective and "caveat emptor" rules.

In this context, the Common Good is, ultimately, irrelevant.

In the recent events at the Cathedral, it was Tarek El Diwany who showed a possible way forward. Much tougher product regulation may help, but it needs a change of mindset.

Last night, I saw the BBC Parliament TV, debating reform. The Government spokesman rejected the idea of a duty of care being imposed, so there is a long way to go yet.

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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of St Paul's Institute or St Paul's Cathedral.