Listen to Melanie Phillips and Jesse Norman discuss Paul Flowers:
Yet again, one particular question has formed on lips up and down the land. How in heaven’s name could so many people have failed to spot such a spectacular abuse of a public position?
We heard it first in the Jimmy Savile scandal, when the posthumous discovery of half a century of predation left people incredulous that so many had known about but done nothing to stop his serial depravities. Now a similar question needs to be asked about the Revd Paul Flowers, the disgraced Methodist minister and former chairman of the Co-op Bank who was filmed apparently handing over £300 to buy a stash of cocaine and crystal meth and also boasted of using ketamine, cannabis and a club drug, GHB.
The real scandal, though, is not just that he was a staggeringly incompetent bank chief who knew next to nothing about banking and presided over a bank that somehow fell into a £1.5 billion black hole. It is not even his predilection for cocaine, crystal meth and the occasional ‘two-day, drug-fuelled gay orgy’ (to use his words). The scandal is that no one spotted that he was spectacularly unsuited to the jobs he was given — or if they did, they chose to do nothing about it. Yet again, a public figure with his ethics pinned to his sleeve somehow existed beyond proper scrutiny.
In the frame alongside the deeply un-fragrant Flowers are various institutions which now have questions to answer. The Co-op Bank, which elected him chairman. The Labour party, which banked his donations. Ed Miliband, who dined with him and appointed him to Labour’s financial and industrial advisory board. And the Methodist Church, which appointed him a ‘superintendent’ minister and designated him a trustee for its investment funds and property — even though he had next to no expertise in business.
Oh — and he has also been a member of the Advertising Standards Authority, vice-chairman of the National Association of Citizens’ Advice Bureaux and chairman of Manchester Camerata, the city’s chamber orchestra, not to mention chairman of the drug abuse charity Lifeline and the Terrence Higgins Trust. He is an icon of our time.
So how come none of these bodies ever spotted his spectacular unsuitability to be a member of the Great and the Good?
His striking unfitness to advise anyone on economic matters was demonstrated at the Treasury select committee earlier this month. Asked to state the Co-op Bank’s total assets, he guessed £3 billion; it was actually £47 billion. His performance may well have caused onlookers to scratch their heads and ask themselves: just what exotic substances is he on?
It turns out that he was indeed on drugs, even if not on that precise occasion. But it has become increasingly clear that the rise of the Revd Paul Flowers was not due to any banking expertise — which comprised a mere four years’ employment at NatWest, which he had joined at the tender age of 19.
No, his rise was due to his political connections. He was appointed chairman by the Co-op Bank’s Remuneration and Appointments Committee, which is composed largely of former Labour politicians and Co-op veterans. Jobs for the boys, in other words — or, as Flowers put it, the Co-op ‘had a practice of appointing a democrat from within its own numbers as the chair of that board’. From which we may infer that fitness for office was a synonym for mutual political back-scratching.
Indeed the Co-op Group, of which Flowers was a director, has underwritten the Labour party by some £34 million over the past two decades. The last £1.2 million loan was agreed in April, a month after Miliband met Flowers in the Commons. Even now, about 30 Labour MPs describe themselves as ‘Labour and Co-operative’ — including Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor.
The Co-op was hymned by Eds Miliband and Balls for its qualities of stewardship and responsibility, and proclaimed an ‘ethical’ bank — as opposed to all those other supposedly predatory casino banks. This seemed to give rise to the belief that the sole criteria for management was being holier-than-thou about money. But piety is no substitute for financial competence — as was demonstrated during the Co-op’s calamitous acquisition of the Britannia Building Society.
We knew that deal was a disaster which was to force the Co-op to seek a bailout. What we did not know, until Flowers admitted it to the Treasury select committee this month, was that the bank was egged on to do the deal by Ed Balls when he was part of Gordon Brown’s government, and that he was ‘very supportive of the whole process’. That support turned out to be mutual: Flowers later oversaw a £50,000 donation of Co-op Group money to Balls’s private office in March last year. ‘We believe in supporting political friends,’ he said later.
It’s amazing how far such friendships can take you in certain circles. The Labour party stayed friendly with Flowers even after his abrupt departure from Bradford Council (‘inappropriate but not illegal adult content’ had been found on his computer). Friendships seem to have elevated the laughably unqualified Flowers to the chairmanship of the Co-op Bank. The Financial Services Authority was supposed to watch out for all this mutual back-scratching — but instead it joined in. Graeme Hardie, one of the FSA’s ‘grey panthers’ who assessed Flowers’s fitness to chair the Co-op Bank, went on become a director at that bank.
The full extent of this seems to be beginning to dawn even on the Co-operative Group. Len Wardle, its chairman who oversaw Flowers’s recruitment, this week apologised and resigned — recognising the true nature of the scandal which, he said, ‘raised a number of serious questions for both the bank and the group’.
Now, surely, we are getting closer to the deeper reason why Flowers got away with it. If people knew or suspected his inadequacies when promoting him, they didn’t care because he ticked all the right boxes of what has become the Unchallengeable Consensus of Virtue — even one that turns out to be rotten to the core. Competence and rigour come a poor second to being mates in a cosy cartel devoted to the cause. It’s all about striking an attitude which proclaims your goodness through a series of fashionable shibboleths. This makes you all but invulnerable, because anyone who challenges that attitude is inescapably portrayed as wicked, stupid or bonkers.
An article written by Flowers about the Co-op, entitled ‘Capturing the Ethical Opportunity’, read as if he had simply ticked off every such shibboleth he could think of. The Co-op ran ‘the UK’s most radical ethical operating plan’. Tick! It was against ‘ corporate greed and speculation’, promoting instead ‘sustainability’ based on an ‘inclusive and socially responsible approach to business’. Tick! Tick! ‘Green Schools’! ‘Healthy food’! ‘Fairtrade’! Tick! Tick! Tick! Thus Flowers created his own mythology, modestly describing himself on the Methodist Church’s website as ‘known for an objective rigour and for asking the questions others might avoid’.
So what about all those drugs and orgies? The behaviour which even his former rent boy described as ‘debauched’? How could a man with such predilections have got away with being a Methodist minister for 40 years? Flowers claims the pressures of his Co-op role and a family bereavement drove him to do things that were ‘stupid and wrong’. But it emerges that, back in 1981, he was fined for committing an act of gross indecency in a public toilet. The Methodist Church decided he could continue as a minister because he was ‘very contrite’.
In other words, it’s not that no one knew what he was up to. Some did indeed know — but chose to ignore it. That’s why a Labour MP who passed Flowers in the corridor apparently joked, ‘Have you got a touch of the old Colombian flu?’ It would seem that his drug-taking was a laughing matter amongst his ‘friends’. As for the Lifeline drugs charity he chaired, this takes such a liberal position that its literature effectively normalises drug use through manuals on how to use drugs ‘safely’.
And now people are shocked that the former chairman of Lifeline turns out to be a rampant drug abuser. Then the Methodists get all judgmental and suspend him for three weeks. Tough, huh? Especially when you consider what they say on their website about drug abusers, that ‘judgmental attitudes are wholly inappropriate’. Even the Methodists are in hock to liberal pieties.
Incompetence, recklessness, irresponsibility, criminality, decadence — these are all faults found in others, never in you and your cronies. Because you are inclusive, diverse, green, ethical, compassionate, progressive, devoted to equality and above all non-judgmental — except of course when it comes to the Tories, or anyone who wants to enforce the law against illegal drugs.
And so you are invulnerable. As long as you tick all the right ‘progressive’ boxes, you can get away with anything until someone comes along with a secret camera. And so we got the Revd Paul Flowers, Britain’s first crystal Methodist.
Melanie Phillips recently published an autobiography, Guardian Angel, through her new publishing venture, emBooks.