Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 31 July 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Rev Paul Flowers is an example of system that truly stinks

Disgraced: Rev Paul Flowers

The plight of the Rev Paul Flowers, former chairman of the Co-operative Bank, prompts tears and laughter in almost equal measure. The headlines – combining the Methodist minister, his bank and hard drugs – have provided some of the most entertaining copy since the first revelations of David Blunkett's affair.

That someone at once so unqualified, so well-connected and so flawed could rise to head a respected bank should be treated as a national scandal.

However mightily Flowers seems to have benefited from his political connections, whatever indulgences might have been shown to him as a Methodist minister and whatever chance led to his having a senior position in British banking thrust upon him, his career is no more than a distillation of the considerations that speed so many to senior positions.

Alas, this applies even now, in the 21st century, when qualifications and merit are what supposedly counts.

How much longer do we have to listen to clipped accents promoting the Rolls-Royce machine that is supposedly our top civil service as a model for public administration?

How do we still have the brass neck to sell the health service as a global paradigm, when an elementary exercise in mass computerisation failed and the whole system creaks outside of office hours?

And how can we revere the City of London as the last word in efficiency and probity, when it has allowed itself to be stung by the vanity listings of dubious companies?

One welcome by-product of the rise to prominence of parliamentary committees has been the glimpse their proceedings have afforded of the lamentable standards of management in almost every branch of national life.

We have watched leading bankers admit that they have not a banking qualification between them. We have watched well-intentioned BBC executives, past and present, evince barely an inkling of the ethical and financial responsibility that should attend their rather solid salaries.

In a report last week,, James de Waal, an associate of the London think-tank Chatham House, casts a troubling spotlight on relations between politicians and military between 2001 and 2010.

De Waal's study debunks what might be the last of our national illusions: that the top brass always, and necessarily, have the national interest front and centre; or that Government ministers and top civil servants are as competent as we might expect them to be.

Drawing on, among other things, testimony given to the Iraq inquiry – which report has still not been published – de Waal identifies the lack of any reliable system for policy-making, even when that entails the waging of war.

The advantages of "our" way of doing things, de Waal argues, might be flexibility and speed. But it also brings "incoherence, inconsistency and opacity". Too much depends on personal relationships – or "cronyism", as we might call it in other countries.

What we need, he insists, is a formal legal framework, more open debate and records that show "who gave what advice, when and why". And so, if we want to be a truly modern state, we surely do.

From now on, anyone tempted to extol the British way of doing things and recommend it as a model for others should first have to chronicle the charmed life of the Rev Paul Flowers – and explain how this train wreck could have been avoided.

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