Co-ops, cocaine and Christianity

As chairman of the Co-operative Bank, Paul Flowers shared responsibility for the decisions that led to a situation in which most of the bank is to be bought up by hedge funds. Last week, Paul Flowers was filmed buying cocaine.

Bafflingly, many people seem to regard the second offence as worse than the first one.

We can debate how much blame should be attached to Flowers for the effective destruction of the Co-op Bank (to be fair, many of the mistakes were made before he was appointed). But the massive changes at the Co-op will affect thousands if not millions of people – among them the employees facing job losses, the customers who will lose their ownership of the bank and potentially many more who will suffer if the bank weakens its ethical standards for investments.    

While I do not condone the use of cocaine, and I condemn the cocaine trade, Flowers’ drug purchase will hurt far fewer people (mainly himself) than the decisions he and his colleagues took about the Co-operative Bank.

The Mail on Sunday published the cocaine story two days ago. Later that day, the Methodist Church put out a press release saying that Flowers had been suspended from his role as a Methodist minister pending investigation. No such action was taken when the Co-op Bank went down the pan. Indeed, I don’t think there was even an official comment from the Methodist Church (I’m happy to be corrected if I’m wrong). But a drugs story in a far-right tabloid seems to mean that the denomination’s authorities can set to work in a matter of hours – on a Sunday – to suspend someone.

I have been hugely impressed recently by the work done by the Methodist Church to tackle economic injustice. At a national level, they have spoken out strongly against austerity policies and the demonisation of people in poverty. At local level, many Methodist churches are helping out people hit by the economic crisis. Their distorted priorities regarding Flowers and the Co-op Bank have undermined their own standing.

Today, Len Wardle, chairman of the entire Co-operative Group (which also owns the Co-op supermarket and Co-op Funeral Care) has resigned. He has said that he thinks this is right because he led the board that appointed Paul Flowers. His action was honourable, though I doubt it was necessary. He may be more concerned about Flowers’ leadership of the bank than about his drug taking. However, the timing gives the impression that he is responding to the cocaine story.

I have no interest in demonising Paul Flowers or in making assumptions about the circumstances that led him to buy drugs. I deplore his attitude to banking and co-operative business, but I a more concerned with addressing structural problems. The Co-op Bank workers losing their jobs deserve better than this.

It’s no surprise that much of the media will find a story about illegal drugs more interesting than one about the ethics of banking and business. It’s more alarming to see churches and co-operators dancing to the Mail on Sunday’s tune.

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