Bob Diamond and the ethics of greed

Published by Daily Mail

bob diamondExquisite sparkling diamonds are forged over billions of years under colossal pressure some 100 miles beneath the earth’s crust. They are only brought within mining distance to the surface by uncontrollable volcanic eruptions and the violent ebb and flow of magma.

So it has been with the Diamond known as Bob, who isn’t actually so exquisite or sparkling, and hasn’t nobly fallen upon his sword on a point of principle in the name of honour for the greater good. No, he desperately ignobly hung on until the magma had become a turbulent lava ball of irate politicians and shareholders, and the pyroclastic flow of super-heated criticism became intolerable.

But when your surname means ‘unbreakable’ (from the Greek αδάμας) while your body is of mortal flesh and blood, a degree of contradictory apprehension and illusory self-perception is perhaps inescapable. This particular carbon allotrope happened also to be earning a cool £18m a year, and has amassed a personal fortune of £105m. The instinct to cling on must have been high on the limpet scale.

To Lord Mandelson, Bob Diamond was the ‘unacceptable face of banking’, which is a bit rich coming from the unattractive face of politics. Yet when the financial institution of which you are head is fined £290m for rigging inter-bank lending rates, thereby warping trillions of pounds worth of financial transactions in order to bolster your own share price, the fraud becomes evident and the scandal manifest. Indeed, ‘unacceptable face’ isn’t the half of it: the whole body is rotting from within.

The Serious Fraud Office really ought to commence criminal proceedings. In fact, if Bob Diamond had any understanding of integrity or notion of honour, he’d have called them in himself. Instead, right up until yesterday, he firmly believed that he was the one to lead the culture change that Barclays so clearly needs.

There was a time – not so very long ago – when falling on your sword constituted a noble end to a distinguished career. Those to whom much had been given, much was expected: when they failed, they took responsibility for their shortcomings, and took the honourable course.

Yet Bob Diamond maintains that he was oblivious to Barclays’ chronic manipulation of interest rates and the inherent culture of lies, collusion, insider dealing and deception. He is resigning only under duress.

Henceforth lenders of repute will be compelled to act like car insurance companies, which invariably add a notional £30 to every policy to cover the costs of the uninsured. Barclays Bank is ultimately responsible for instilling doubt in the minds of all lenders that the LIBOR rate isn’t quite what it ought to be, and so justifying the need for an additional fraction of a percentage point to cover the potential costs of possible ‘miscalculation’. A mere fraction of a percentage point to them amounts to £millions for us, which is £1000s off our pension pots and £100s on our mortgages.

This isn’t a question of institutional regulation: the FSA has an armoury of regulatory procedures and statutory sanctions at its disposal. It is a matter of rigorous enforcement. And that ought to begin at a fundamental level with the individual: a corporation is, after all, no more than those who comprise it, nurture it and lead it.

But what has the moral philosophy of Aristotle and Aquinas to do with the corporate pursuit of profit?

We are fortunate in this age that we have been bequeathed the cumulative wisdom contained in the moral scriptures of cultures and eras long gone. The Athenian was nurtured in poetry and philosophy and knew what was due to his fellow man. His understanding of virtue provided him with standards, and those standards guided his life within family and community. His world was governed by those honourable precepts which distinguished him from the Barbarian. For Aquinas, the cardinal virtues were prudence, justice, temperance and courage. For both, the goal was the pursuit of that which is good, and that is contingent on the common good of the larger society of which one is part.

Men like Bob Diamond are in a sense disabled, not by negligent and random genetic nature but by obsessive and compulsive monetary nurture. For his like, individual passions and private wealth seem to outweigh the corporate good and public morality. The only virtue they seem to understand is that which they define and choose themselves to recognise. Their satisfaction and fulfilment are attained in the singular person alone: it is avarice and selfishness, which have unavoidable repercussions.

We shouldn’t need to wait for the next life for justice to be done: the individual must take responsibility. Bob Diamond has brought the City into disrepute: he is the epitome of its arrogance and its elite macho culture. Sin may be repented, vice may be atoned, but crimes demand social retribution. If our politics were more like those of Athens and our sense of morality more Thomist, we wouldn’t be prepared to entertain mere tardy resignation as a just penalty for allowing the systematic abandonment of legal constraint.