Changing the moral climate

Author of This Bleeding City Alex Preston discusses the relationship between faith and filthy lucre

During the darkest days of the 2008 financial crash, I used to leave my desk at the Mayfair investment firm I worked for and wander the streets, trying to understand how a world that had seemed so full of rich promise had crumbled, almost overnight. I often found myself sitting in the pews of St George’s Hanover Square, a beautiful, busty Queen Anne church whose tranquil interior seemed a world removed from the clanging bustle of the office. I thought back to that church when protestors from the Occupy movement took over a patch of ground outside of St Paul’s Cathedral. It seemed strange, at first, that these protestors – a rag-tag gaggle of anarchists and anti-capitalists – should choose for their target the steps of the cathedral, rather than, say, the Royal Exchange or the offices of RBS.

But the scene of the encampment, like the rainswept modern incarnation of some Gallilean village, makes sense if we think about the often uncomfortable relationship between faith and finance: Christ turning the moneylenders out of the temple, the parable of the rich fool, the camel and the eye of the needle. Who was the financier amongst the disciples? Judas Iscariot. What did he receive for betraying Jesus? An early form of the banker’s bonus. The church has always relied on money from dubious sources – the Queen Anne churches were partly funded by a tax on the City’s commodity dealers – but in its pomp was able to maintain a dignified, if often hypocritical, line that its followers should aspire to the Christian virtue of poverty.

With the once-voluble Lib Dems neutered by their banker-loving coalition bedfellows and the Labour Party forever tarnished by its chumminess with the City during the mad boom years, the Church had an extraordinary chance to take moral leadership during the banking crisis. Here, surely, was a situation where there was a group of horribly greedy ne’er-do-wells (I should know, I was one of them) screwing over the virtuous masses. A clear case of right versus wrong. But the Church dithered, and lost its moment. And so perhaps the protestors’ choice of camp makes sense: the bulk of St Paul’s behind them gives their message a distinct moral weight. Whether the bankers see or care is another matter.

There has been some rather tentative engagement with the issue by the clergy. Rowan Williams, bless him, came out with some awkwardly hedged comments that seemed to endorse Marx in – of all places – The Spectator (as well as quoting Trollope, still the greatest chronicler of the City). He has also backed calls for a financial transactions levy – the so-called Robin Hood Tax. The resignations of Giles Fraser and Graeme Knowles, who stood down from their roles at St Paul’s rather than be complicit in the forced eviction of the protestors, have shown principle, if rather belatedly. Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London, said that the protestors’ voices chimed with “alarm bells ringing around the world about the connection between finance and ethics and human flourishing”. But there is a sense of too little, too late.

More typical of the modern Church is Ken Costa, the former Chairman of Lazard Investment Bank who has been engaged by the Chapter of St Paul’s to mediate with the protestors. Costa is also Chairman and chief financial backer of the Alpha Course, the evangelical movement whose global reach and celebrity members have made the more traditional arms of the Church of England green with a very un-Christian envy.

In an article in the Financial Times, Costa echoes Chartres in speaking of “an undirected expression of anger and deep frustration that financial markets have drifted from [their] ethical foundations”. With rather Panglossian optimism he says we need a “moral spirit” to enter the market rather than greater legislation or regulation. Costa’s vision is laudable, but I can hear the braying laughs echoing across the trading floors already.

The financial crash and the deepening sense of public outrage at the bankers’ excesses have merely served to heighten the belief amongst City workers that they are somehow a breed apart. I had a colleague who used – I believe without irony – to refer to those outside the financial sector as “civilians”. The Cityboys simply don’t care about the real world inhabited by nurses and teachers and cleaners. It takes monomaniacal focus and near-psychopathic drive to make it in the City, particularly in the current climate, and the long hours and international existence - where home sometimes feels like the nearest BA lounge - lead to further alienation. The often-invoked threat of moving the City to Geneva or Dubai whenever a tax rise is mooted merely serves to underline the essential rootlessness of the City life.

I’m not here suggesting that we all adopt a banker, or deliver home-cooked meals to the Goldman Sachs canteen. But rather that the protests, and indeed the laudable suggestions from Williams, Chartres and Costa, are simply phrased in a language that the Cityboys will not understand. In order for there to be a change in the moral climate within the Square Mile, the mythology by which all traders self-identify needs to be deconstructed: Wall Street, the Flaming Ferraris, the Pantheon of heroes from Nick Leeson to Bernie Madoff whose only sin was getting caught. The City worships one god: money. Trying to change that will take more than a few tents.

Alex Preston is the author of This Bleeding City, published by Faber. His new novel, The Revelations, will be published in February 2012.

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