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The crucial significance of culture

This week a number of reports, statements and speeches have highlighted the crucial significance of culture. Too often proposed reforms have focused on changing structures and policies but a failure to take into account the culture in which they will operate often renders them ineffective if not irrelevant.

The Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards recognised this in its final report, pointing to a lack of personal responsibility, senior figures “sheltering behind an accountability firewall”, with risks and rewards mismatched. Structural changes to separate High Street banking from speculative banking will not be enough without real changes in the culture within which the banks serve their clients. 

The G8 conference took a similar line in a global perspective, calling for greater transparency in taxation and trade to prevent companies moving their profits across borders to avoid taxes. Greater openness will only be achieved if business people stop looking for ways to get around the rules and actively seek to serve their customers and their countries. 

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt stressed the need for cultural change in Wednesday’s statement on the failures of the Morecambe Bay hospital and the Care Quality Commission. The CQC had covered up a report on failures in the hospital’s care of mothers and babies. Mr Hunt described this as embodying “everything that is wrong with the culture of the NHS” and called for that culture to change so that patient safety is a first priority. 

Last Monday was World Elder Abuse Awareness Day and party leaders called for an end to elder abuse. Every year more than 500,000 older peoples in Britain suffer physical, mental and financial abuse, often by friends or relatives. The number of people over 80 is expected to double by 2050 making this a significant issue for public policy but also for inter-personal relationships. 

This provokes questions about what is shaping our national and local cultures.  Britain has become more individualistic and less communitarian. We have dumped traditional absolutes and become increasingly relativist, so that everyone becomes the judge of right and wrong for themselves. That has meant fewer people believing and practising the Christian faith and the moral absolutes it teaches. The Girl Guides decision to remove a ‘duty to God’ from their Promise is a symptom of this. 

What needs changing in our culture and how can change be achieved? The examples above suggest that recovering a commitment to public service should be a priority but this will not happen if our personal priorities are invariably self-orientated. The Capital Vision 2020 includes compassionate community service as one of its themes but genuine culture change needs everyone to be involved. Those engaged in food banks, street pastoring, neighbourhood watch, and the like are setting an example. Schools have a role in shaping young minds and local councils could do more to encourage active citizenship. Christians and churches have a contribution to make, being ‘salt and light’ wherever God has placed us, seeking the common good before self-interest.