Joyce McMillan: Shamed nation dying of greed

A memorial gallery of some of the patients who died at Stafford General Hospital. Picture: Getty Images
A memorial gallery of some of the patients who died at Stafford General Hospital. Picture: Getty Images
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The NHS and banking scandals reflect the corruption and moral vacuum threatening the heart of the UK, writes Joyce McMillan

IT’S A strange experience, to open the newspapers and see the word “shame” blazoned across the headlines on both of the leading stories of the day; shame in the National Health Service, and shame in the world of finance, as the twin scandals at Mid Staffordshire hospitals, and in those upper echelons of the banking industry where the Libor borrowing rate was fixed and corrupted, are finally exposed to public gaze.

Those responsible, of course, still seem largely shameless, in the manner perfected by the 21st century British boss class. In the aftermath of the Mid Staffordshire scandal – in which up to 1,200 patients are thought to have died unnecessarily, in conditions of thirst, hunger, filth, isolation and misery which almost defy description – no-one has been prosecuted; and almost incredibly, the man who was then in overall charge of the West Midlands Hospital Trust, Sir David Nicholson, is now head of the entire English NHS, with no intention of resigning.

As for the bankers – well, despite their egregious role in almost bringing the entire global economy to its knees in 2008, no banker has yet been imprisoned in the UK for his role in this orgy of irresponsible and fradulent trading.

In both cases, there is neither punishment for the individuals responsible, nor a significant dismantling of the systems which spawned them; and to say that this situation is morally and socially unsustainable is barely to hint the depths of public anger and disillusion that these abuses have brought in their wake.

So what is it, we have to ask, that underpins this growing culture of impunity, among Britain’s business leaders and top public managers? In essence, they all seem to have entered a world where, despite recognising the existence of concepts like decency, honesty, compassion and legality – and perhaps even trying to express them in their private lives – they have felt permitted and even encouraged, in their professional environment, to ignore, or even directly challenge those values, in pursuit of a set of goals defined entirely in financial terms.

The report into the Staffordshire scandal should make fascinating reading for anyone interested in the importing of inappropriate sub-business language into British public services over the last generation; apparently managers “put corporate self-interest and cost control ahead of patients and their safety”.

Yet even in the private sector, it seems, a bottom-line approach ungoverned by any sense of legality, or ethics leads rapidly to chaos. A major bank may not have the same overwhelming duty of care and compassion as a hospital trust, but it still has an obligation to operate within the law, and to avoid fraudulent dealings; and it needs to have this kind of decent and lawful behaviour written into its organisational DNA, from top to bottom, if those at lower levels are to feel empowered to do their jobs properly – just as a hospital trust management needs to send out signals that patient care comes first, if nurses and ward managers are to feel empowered to deliver that care.

And it’s because the cultural shift involved in this collapse of ethical behaviour has been so profound – starting at the top of our society, and filtering down to the lowest levels, in the form of casual workplace cynicism, and the taking out of violent and abusive feelings on the very weakest – that all the measures proposed to counter it seem so pathetic, and in some cases so laughably misconceived.

Faced with an English NHS corrupted over decades by the risible idea that it is a “business”, for example, David Cameron’s best proposal for restoring some heart and compassion to the service is apparently to make good treatment of patients the subject of performance-related pay; thereby reifying the very notion – that nothing matters or motivates people, except money – that is causing the rot.

Faced with a banking sector in which almost every senior player seems implicated, at some level, in condoning or failing to prevent corrupt and irresponsible behaviour, it seems the best the government can do is to whimper from the sidelines about ­ring-fencing some aspects of banking activity.

Well, enough; and under these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that ever-larger numbers of thinking Scots are tempted by the idea of a fresh start in a fresh nation. Yet in truth, there is no mainstream party, at either UK or Scottish level, that will finally call this corrupt and self-serving elite for what it has become, or will name the frightening process of splitting and denial which sets in, when modern bosses convince themselves – like so many apparatchiks of some old Stalinist state – that in order to do their jobs properly, they have to suppress their own natural moral sentiments, and trample over everyone else’s, in the service of the prevailing business ideology.

For you can split the human psyche for a while of course; long enough to pocket the thick end of a billion quid as personal wealth, if you are a lucky player in the banking sector. But when it comes to constructing a society with the strength and resilience to survive shocks, to maintain its institutions, to look towards a credible future – well then, you need to put the psyche together again, to balance freedom and ambition with security and justice, individual opportunity with the need for a strong and decent convivial life.

To trade honestly, to care for the sick, to meet crime with justice, to do as we would be done by; these are the cornerstones of any civilisation. And it is therefore difficult to feel anything but contempt for the market-dazzled generation of politicians who decreed that we could afford to put these values on the back-burner, while a bunch of blank-eyed business school graduates, taught to pride themselves on their emotional and civic dysfunction, told us how to run our lives and our institutions.

For in their seduction by a creed so obviously wrong-headed, and their sheer lack of practical political wisdom, those politicians have gradually conspired to bring almost every institution in British life into increasing disrepute; and the nation itself – given another year or two of shame and impunity on this scale – to what may be the brink of dissolution.