x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Being above means never having to say you're sorry

No guilt? No shame? You must be on top.

Whatever happened to shame? Why is it that nobody seems at all embarrassed or remotely ashamed when the company they are running turns out to be worthless and they are caught with their hands in the till? I blame the Greeks. Classicists will recall that it was the Greeks, while toga-clad and surrounded by their slaves and helots, who prompted the move from a shame culture to a guilt culture. As the late Oxford professor E R Dodds so brilliantly articulated in his The Greeks and the Irrational, and elsewhere, the crafty Greeks moved away from the importance of what other people thought, to what you thought yourself.

Shame is the downcast eyes of a little boy in a classroom caught cheating; guilt is supposed to be what prevents you from cheating. It is supposed to be a more mature emotion, more suited to the modern world. But clearly guilt is no longer working, so maybe it is time for shame to make a comeback. Institutions that once were a byword for probity, caution and restraint, have now been caught up in the nonsense. It has just been disclosed that Linklaters, the stuffiest and grandest of all the City law firms, helped Lehman Brothers via a stunt called "Repo 105" to cordon liabilities off its balance sheet.

Lehman's books were then audited by Ernst and Young, a gang once staffed with people so dull they make lawyers appear like stand-up comedians. You might say Linklaters was just doing its job. If they hadn't, then other members of the magic circle might have pulled rabbits from their own hats on Lehman's behalf, or sawn its debt in half to cries of awe from the crowd. The firm itself thinks it has behaved impeccably. "We have reviewed the opinions and are not aware of any facts or circumstances which would justify any criticism," said a spokesman for Linklaters.

I can think of plenty of criticism, including the obvious insult to common sense. But these lawyers acted without guilt, or shame. Guilt is now thought to be something for the courts to decide and for most white-collar workers, something that rarely touches them. They think these unearned riches are their birthright. This mood has filtered down. Look around any office and you will see people who are out of their depth. They have been promoted above their competence. When they talk, others yawn. They send snotty memos and e-mails, wander around holding clipboards or with mobile phones clamped to their ears, bully subordinates and suck up to their seniors. Do they feel guilty? Absolutely not. Nor do they feel any shame.