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The Co-op, Macbeth and going the dandelion way to the everlasting bonfire


‘It’s that moment in Macbeth when Duncan says… ‘There’s no art/To find the mind’s construction in the face”.’

So suggested Shadow Minister for Welfare Reform Chris Bryant MP  panellist on BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions last Friday over the Paul Flowers Co-op scandal (BBC Radio 4 22 November 2013). It is great to hear a politician quoting Shakespeare’s Macbeth. But is this any sort of defence for the failures of governance at the top of the Co-op? What a Co-op out, one might say! True, there isn’t a face science which allows you to read a person’s character. All that nineteenth century phrenology nonsense about the shape of individuals’ skulls and their propensity to crime has long since been debunked.

Who wants to follow the fate of King Duncan who excuses his own serious failures of judgement by claiming that it is not possible to know people? Instead we should follow his more wily son Malcolm who learns from his father’s gullibility. Malcolm asks and makes others ask questions, probe for the truth and establish a clear understanding before committing themselves to his cause. Consequently Malcolm is able to find people he can trust and act effectively against Macbeth’s tyrannical misrule.

Surely the Co-op could have conducted some standard CV assessments? After all, it’s unlikely that Paul Flowers would have been considered suitably qualified to manage one of the Co-op’s own bank branches. So why make him chairman? Instead the Co-op group looked as if it was following its own advertising hype and ‘blowin’ in the wind’ when judging whether to appointment Flowers or not.  Moreover many observers from the leftwing Guardian newspaper to the conservative Chancellor George Osborne also seemed to believe its hype and championed the Co-op as the model ethical business. So the Co-op escaped close institutional probing for a considerable period after other banking scandals had broken.

That famous 2009 Co-op advert chasing a dandelion clock now suggests how flimsy governance under Flowers.  And here a different quote from Macbeth springs to mind. Namely ‘professions that go the primrose way to the everlasting bonfire’ (II.iii). Macbeth’s Porter relished the exposure of an equivocating priest. And so neat that the man at the end of the scandal should have a floral name.

Macbeth’s economic resonances have a long history. Not least reading Adam Smith fresh from Macbeth’s ‘bloody and invisible hand’ (III.ii) induces scepticism towards the ‘invisible hand’ of the market. Indeed Smith’s awareness of Shakespearean antecedents to the phrase indicates his ambivalence towards the market. No wonder Marx who knew his Shakespeare inside out should have written a critique of the political economy. And then there is John Maynard Keynes, another economist well-versed in Shakespeare, invoking Macbeth against the Versailles peace-makers and the harsh terms imposed on Germany. If Macbeth warns us not to rely too much on the invisible hand of the market to secure prosperity and justice, Macbeth could also warn us to not take fair trade or ethical finance policies at face value. Just because something calls itself ethical and caring does not mean that it necessarily is in the interests of the poor and disadvantaged. We need to test the claims made for fair trade and ethical finance policies in international development, not just the probity of future senior appointments.

The overall long-term impact of fair trade or microfinance on living standards in producing countries is questionable as Francis Mgadawere is researching at the University of Nottingham. Consider postwar Bosnia whose economy has been rebuilt drawing on international development strategies focused on microenterprise. Fair trade handicrafts may look nice but don’t provide the levels of employment or living standards of the prewar industrially active economy. While microfinance schemes have been a disaster in Bosnia fostering debt and impoverishment. Meanwhile some more Shakespeare might help us wise up and engage a little more intelligently with oneself and the world.


Vanessa Pupavac is currently writing a book on Shakespeare and international politics. Her previous book Language Rights: From Free Speech to Linguistic Governance was published by Palgrave.


Published inArt, Fiction & PoliticsBallots & Books


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