I used to have a lot of respect for the Co-op Bank. During the last few years since the banking system went into meltdown, followed by the Libor rigging and other troublesome scandals, the Co-op has come up mostly smelling of roses, or so we thought. Many of us including myself saw its commitment to ethical policies and sustainability as a signpost to where the banking system should be heading; where morality and the greater good stood above profit. In 2010 it won the prestigious Financial Times Sustainable Bank of the Year award. Commenting on this achievement Co-operative Financial Services Chief Executive Neville Richardson said:
“This outstanding achievement takes us a step closer in achieving our vision of becoming the UK’s most admired financial services business. We have shown that the co-operative business model is as relevant now as it has ever been and that our business is now stronger as a result of the merger with Britannia. At a time when consumers are rightly looking for a fresh banking alternative, our embedded approach to sustainability will continue to drive us forwards.”
How hollow those words now sound. Since the discovery of a £1.5 billion black hole in its finances earlier in the year, collapse and subsequent takeover by hedge funds, there is no guarantee that the Co-op’s ethical stance will remain and Business secretary Vince Cable has warned that he has the power to stop the bank from using the word “co-operative” if he feels it is no longer appropriate. The future looks very uncertain for this once respected institution.
In the same way that setting out to be ethical doesn’t guarantee that a bank will actually be run responsibly or be successful, being a church minister doesn’t guarantee that you will act in a respectably and obey the law. Usually when we hear of lurid humiliations involving high-profile church leaders, drugs and rent boys we tend to link them to US televangelists or controversial megachurch pastors. Now we have our own tale of a most dramatic downfall.
The Reverend Paul Flowers has brought the Methodist Church, the Co-op, the Labour Party and most of all himself into disrepute leaving a trail of devastation in his wake that will take plenty of time, money and effort to clear up. He might not be entirely to blame for the Co-op bank imploding and it was others who appointed him as chairman in 2010, but he has left a stain on the Co-op from which it may never fully recover.
At one level he is a walking disaster having made a whole series of incredible misjudgments, most of which have no excuse. How he ended up in the position that he did given his history is unfathomable to most of us observing from the outside with the benefit of hindsight. And there are plenty more questions arising from this sorry episode that need some genuine answers.
Following this distasteful series of events, we now have the opportunity to enter a period of reflection looking to learn lessons that can bring some good out of a very bad situation. These are some thoughts that come to mind:
- To be truly ethical, a business needs to be as virtuous on the inside as on the outside. It’s not good enough to have ethical policies that look attractive to those who want to invest their money with a conscience if at the core you are rotten. Claiming the moral high ground means it is even more imperative that high standards run throughout your organisation. Pharisaical righteousness is no substitute for professionalism. Complacency and poor business practice ultimately ruined the Co-op bank. Their ethical fervour won them many admirers but it also clouded the judgement of many, including, most likely those at the top of the bank too. An Ethical business is not inherently the same as one that behaves ethically and it is the later that ultimately counts.
- It is right and proper that an investigation into the Co-op Bank’s collapse is now going ahead. The timing though, is more than curious. One wonders why George Osborne only announced it yesterday. Why did it take newspaper revelations about Paul Flowers’ drug habit to provoke a response when his appearance at the Treasury Select Committee on November 6 proved he was most definitely not up to the job. Now that the Government are using the coverage to highlight the Co-op’s link to Labour, it does rather give the impression that the inquiry is more about finding opportunities to damage Labour’s reputation than focusing on the real issue of how the Co-op Bank got away with so much without the financial authorities noticing or intervening. The real scandal is not one man’s sorry lifestyle being exposed, or his links to a political party. When politicians put point scoring above the important matters at hand, they do both themselves and us all a disservice. Sadly this is all too common.
- As the integrity of the Co-op bank is now being put to the test, it is by no means surprising that the integrity of Paul Flowers’ character is being picked over in minute detail too. Whether we like it or not, it is impossible to entirely separate public and private lives. The actions of one will inevitably have a bearing on the other. Flowers had a record that was far from clean when he was appointed to chair of the Co-op bank. Being fined for committing an act of gross indecency in a public toilet and having to resign from your job after downloading porn on a work computer may not directly impact your ability to run a financial institution, but it does say something about your character. Even if you work on the principle of forgiving past misdemeanours it’s no defence for not thinking carefully about whether someone is an appropriate person for a prominent role given their past. Flowers’ claims that the pressures of his Co-op role and a family bereavement had driven him to do things that were ‘stupid and wrong’ comes across as little more than a school boy excuse from a very guilty fool who has finally been caught out. It would seem quite reasonable to say that Flowers is an utter disaster who has burnt the fingers of all who have touched him.
What we have witnessed over the last few days and weeks is a story full of human failure. Deception, incompetence, recklessness, debauchery, irresponsibility, criminality have all played their part. To use an unpopular term, there have been sins committed all over the place and right at the top of the pile of sinners sits the Reverend Paul Flowers. It’s far too easy to stand in judgement and condemn a man who has ignored so much of what his theological training will have taught him about how to live in an upright way.
We would do well to remember though, that all of us are sinners – we all have our secrets and weaknesses. It’s just that for the vast majority of us, they will never get splashed over the front pages of the papers. Sure, many of us would not ever consider doing the sort of things Flowers has been up to, but that doesn’t make us perfect or give us the right to demonise him. If he is an utter disaster, does that not make us all disasters in our own ways too?
Without some chance of restoration we would have to leave things there, for us all to be condemned, but Paul Flowers will know, if he hasn’t forgotten, that there is a way back for him and the rest of us too. If he turns to his Bible he will see that God’s forgiveness is there waiting to be given out in response to repentance. And those who God is willing to forgive and restore cannot be utter disasters. There is hope for us all, but alongside that, it still makes sense to try to get things right in the first place. So many of these failings by all involved have come about because Biblical principles have been disregarded. When we ignore them, there is usually a price to pay. In the case of Paul Flowers and the Co-op bank, it’s been a very expensive one. It’s a painful lesson we all need to be reminded of.