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The heroism of No

30 April 2013

Several articles attracted my attention in the press last week. One (The Times, 24 April) quoted Lord Lamont of Lerwick. “Mrs Thatcher always liked a good cut,” he said. “Once she stood up at a party conference and said: ‘Some of the best speeches haven’t been made from the platform this week but from Norman Lamont in his hotel room. He can condense everything into one word – No.’ ” Of course, once adopted as a motto for Tory austerity (with George Osborne as the prime exponent today), this becomes a rallying cry – the exact opposite of the audacious negative that stands against the prevailing tide and marks out the user as a social misfit.

The second story was in many ways more significant, even if it sounds trivial: the teacher who was banned from marking pupils’ work in red ink. Full marks to Elizabeth Truss, the Education Minister, who spotted a looming own goal, and denied that such rules had been imposed by her department; but whatever the source, it is all too credible that the Beckmessers of our schools have been silenced – I doubt if green ink will have long to survive either in our all-must-have-prizes culture.

And yet there remain some pockets of resistance. As I write I am listening to an exciting young pianist who is practising the Liszt sonata on my piano, and I am reminded of the extraordinary discipline which even the most prodigiously talented musician must devote to making a piece ready to perform in public (as one of my teachers once told me, an amateur practises till he gets a piece right, a professional until he cannot get it wrong). Where does that discipline come from? Certainly not from uncritical praise. It comes rather from streams of red ink, both from teachers and from oneself. It is a self-imposed, self-denying submission to a greater ideal of some kind: aesthetic, moral, religious. From its constraints springs, as Hegel understood, the liberation of true professional mastery. I’ve chosen music but the same principle arises in areas as disparate as ballet to scientific research. Even cookery is now the subject of endless television programmes, the paradigm of which is essentially the mediaeval knight’s journey through a succession of almost insuperable challenges in pursuit of an unachievable goal.

In the third story we learn that the Archbishop of Canterbury wants to see bankers take professional examinations. It’s an interesting idea, but fundamentally mistaken. And not just because of the irrelevance of memorising the opening hours of the Johannesburg stock exchange (which I seem to recall younger colleagues bemoaning when what was then the Securities Association first introduced compulsory tests). The ABC’s fallacy is to imagine that banking should be a profession in which trainees could demonstrate adherence to some kind of overarching purpose – perhaps the moral compass the loss of which some of the ABC’s fellow Banking Standards commissioners have deplored.

What he misses is that the pianist, the scientist and the cook all pursue an ideal whose nobility derives in great measure from self-denial. No such ethos arises, or could survive, in banking, where the single objective is to make as much money as possible. The very point of “alignment” of bonuses with the firm’s profits removes any possible confusion in the banker’s mind that he is there for any other motive than self-interest in the most banal sense of increasing his personal wealth. (That shareholders sanctioned this development confirms that they knew, in any conflict between the firm’s and the individual’s interests, which would win.) The ABC was right to ask (as he did in February) why bankers need to have “skin in the game” and could not be like other professionals working for a fixed salary. But it is not just too late: there is no ideal that banking pursues which could ever throw up a situation where the right answer is the one that produces less money (after provisions for possible penalties etc.). So the examinations won’t work.

There is another point which is central to my argument. Banking, like all commercial activity, is an essentially gregarious activity, depending on people working together. A visionary or mystic will have limited success since he has to convince clients to undertake the deal: a leader (quite a different thing, although the vocabulary is often confused) may be at the head of the pack, but cannot be completely isolated from it. But what the banking crisis has demonstrated is the lack of people sufficiently removed from collective thinking to exercise any really independent judgment. Negative voices were silenced after Big Bang, the job flux that followed ensuring that their skills were lost to the industry. Nor were they welcomed by the regulators: I recall one conversation with a head-hunter who explained that the FSA would pass on my services since they were looking for “team players”.

The commercial equivalent of the true professional – the person who places some abstract principle above his relationship with colleagues – is of course the whistleblower. Nowadays it is fashionable for politicians and journalists to be seen to support and approve their actions, and even to introduce legislation which looks as though it might protect them. But this apparent support is purely for appearances: no one likes a whistleblower, and no legislation can ever be drafted that protects them fully (although one could do a good deal better than the present provisions). Whistleblowers are essentially subversive: anyone who leaves the pack is no longer “one of us”. They are as close as one can legally get to being traitors or even terrorists.

I wonder what my pianist has in her bag. Although on reflection I need not worry: there is nothing more explosive than those sotto voce octaves at the start of the Liszt.

  1. Actually I think your words regarding whistleblowers do show one viable direction ahead. Anyone over the age of (say) 20 was taught to think of “telling” as somehow dishonourable – indeed, traitorous. Discouraged from standing out from the pack from a very young age. But suggest it’s “subversive” instead and whistle-blowing will become the new cool. Add to that the fact that children in school are being encouraged to blow the whistle on their schoolmates more than ever before, without becoming the pariahs they would have been thirty years earlier, and I do see some hope for the future.

    But as for the point of banking being to make money, with no great ideal beyond it – that’s a tricky one.

  2. But I’m not sure they’ll get or retain jobs in the corporate world if that’s how their taught. And if it’s “the new cool” it ceases to be heroic in my sense!

  3. You’re quite right on professionalism. Banking is a business, not a profession – but calling for credentialisation is the first resort for a lot of commentators who haven’t thought very deeply about the problems they’re trying to address. George Bernard Shaw said professions were conspiracies of the clerisy against the laity, and he was right. Raising the bar to entry is a way of protecting the salaries of incumbents by making it artificially difficult for new entrants to compete.

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