Julian Sheather on shredding Sir Fred

What is the definition of a saint? Someone who doesn’t enjoy the downfall of a banker. I know it’s not a new joke – in the original it is the downfall of a best friend, which cuts a little nearer to home – but it seems to survive the retelling. Of late I have had an occasion or two to take the temperature of my own soul in this respect, and, at best, it’s luke warm. I know that greed doesn’t respect professional boundaries, and the weightiest suffering will not fall on Fulham, but on the developing world. I also know that the regulators must take some blame and that New Labour was loathe to bite the hand that fed it, but I have to admit to the faintest touch of schadenfreude. The sound of the one time masters of the universe crashing to earth has not given me sleepless nights. When the wife of an RBS (Royal bank of Scotland) strategist complained to me recently about the drubbing bankers were being given in the press my springs of pity released but a feeble and slightly meretricious trickle.

It is a dangerous game though this introspection, this poking around in the vast cellarage of the soul. When it comes to the inner life, I’m with Saul Bellow, the great American novelist, who was always finding pockets of bitterness alongside his finer feelings. If you’re going to make the journey within, and it’s a journey we all have to make some time or other, better go prepared for the worst. Having said that, I have learnt over the years that there is no time for soul searching quite like a public hanging – that on such occasions it shouldn’t be an option so much as a public duty.

In 1982 the French anthropologist and literary critic René Girard published Le bouc émissaire, translated into English as The Scapegoat. According to Girard human beings are driven by a desire not so much for objects in themselves, as for objects that others have or desire, what he calls ‘mimetic’ desire. Inevitably, this pursuit for objects desired by others leads us into competition and conflict. Over time the pursuit becomes ever more frenzied and violence builds up in the social body. According to Girard, at the point at which this violence becomes intolerable, threatening the stability of society itself, a victim will be chosen, a victim upon whom can be heaped all the rage and guilt and frustration stemming from the years of competitive strife. What will be chosen is a scapegoat.

Now I have absolutely no idea – nor any desire to know – whether Sir Fred Goodwin (former chief executive of RBS) was or is a fair man or foul, whether he was a good neighbour, a loving father, a doting son or a loyal friend. Admittedly voices raised in defence of his virtue have been slightly muted, but in the end this is a matter for Sir Goodwin and his Gods. Two things are clear though: for a while he was a much admired, and much envied, businessman; now he is a scapegoat.

Given how far I fall short of my opening criterion for sainthood, I have clearly enjoyed some of the recent whiff of molten wax and burnt feathers, but Girard sounds a little bell of warning. The furies – and the dark desires –  we thrust on the scapegoat are in fact collective: we all partake of them. I work where I work not because of virtue, but because of a mix of accident and predilection. I love what I do, but I would be richer if I could – probably much richer – though not to the point where the pursuit of riches brought me unhappiness. And this is crucial. Identifying the tipping point is not easy: for most of us it entails a lot of trial and error, of learning to trade one desire against another, purchasing one good at the cost of another, part of the slow accretive process of learning how to live a reasonable life. But is it really any surprise, given our public culture, that our young head off, initially at least, in desperate pursuit of wealth and fame, of the gratification of all the soul’s desires, irrespective of the worth of their objects?

In a recent article in the BMJ, Iona Heath argues that enormous disparities of wealth undermine the nation’s health. ‘The steeper the gradient of income inequality’, she writes, ‘the higher the level of infant mortality, the lower the levels of educational attainment, and the higher the rates of mental illness, illlegal drug use, child and adult obesity…’ the list of woes is a long one. Certainly it is easy to see how Girard’s ‘mimetic’ desire would be inflamed by such gross inequalities. The one difficulty with Heath’s argument is that we are at the tail end of the most redistributive administration we are likely to see for some time. If recent press coverage of MPs expenses is anything to go by, Brown’s years will end with the same Augean stink as John Major’s. Talk of public virtue seems to be just that: talk. We live in a culture that increasingly values money above all things. The shredding of Sir Fred is as the rage of Caliban seeing his face in a mirror.

Julian Sheather is ethics manager, BMA. The views he expresses in his blog posts are entirely his own.