It used to be the case that holders of certain public offices automatically commanded a degree of respect: for example, members of the royal family, religious leaders and high court judges could expect to be treated with deference. This is no longer the case. While the Queen is held in high esteem by most people for her years of public service, other members of the royal family are often subject to criticism for their arrogance and underdeveloped sense of duty. The leaders of many religious denominations have been exposed as more concerned to protect their institutions than to respond compassionately to the victims of sexual abuse. Moreover, those churches which show intolerance towards minorities, or people of other faiths, weaken any claims they might have to be granted automatic respect.
In the case of judges, press restraint in commenting on their rulings has gradually been abandoned. The Supreme Court judgement on Brexit led to one newspaper branding them as 'enemies of the people.' More generally, they are sometimes accused of class bias and being out of touch with ordinary citizens, perhaps because the vast majority come from privileged backgrounds.
A recent survey suggested that in Scotland few senior lawyers were interested in becoming judges. Only 6% of those surveyed expressed a willingness to apply for elevation to the bench, compared with 59% who said that they had no intention of doing so. Various explanations were offered for this. Concern was expressed about the process of appointment and the record of the Judicial Appointments Board for Scotland. Salaries for judges compared unfavourably with the income that top criminal and commercial lawyers could earn.
But perhaps the most interesting factor was a perceived decline in respect for the judiciary. Not only journalists and politicians, but also commentators on social media, are prepared to voice criticism of judgements that they consider biased, unfair or simply stupid. The robes and rituals of the court no longer serve to conceal the fact that judges suffer from the same human frailties as the rest of us.
Wealth used to be means of ensuring respect. Donald Trump and Philip Green have done serious damage to that route. Their vast fortunes may still enable them to buy whatever material goods they want and ensure a steady supply of toadies and hangers-on, but real respect is something they have long forfeited, if they ever had it in the first place. One of the revealing features of those who demand special treatment is that they generally show very little respect for others. They regard their subordinates simply as a means of consolidating their own status and power. The classic example of this is the criminal boss, who may inspire fear and imagine it represents respect.
Despite these discouraging examples, some people are still genuinely worthy of respect. They are rarely to be found in high places: parents who devote their lives to the care of a severely disabled child; victims of terrorism who survive appalling injuries and manage to retain a positive attitude to life; volunteers who devote many hours to worthwhile causes, often raising thousands of pounds for charities; activists who fight against oppression, risking imprisonment, torture and death for the sake of freedom and justice.
In an unexpected development, top UK business leaders have criticised the current state of capitalism. Their remarks should, however, carry a health warning. These are 'insiders' who are anxious to forestall political instability of a kind that might threaten their position. Nevertheless, their remarks represent an interesting qualification on Theresa May's belief that free market capitalism has been 'the greatest agent of collective human progress ever created.'
The critics are members of the FT City Network, a panel of more than 50 experts from the world of finance. They comment adversely on management greed, corporate tax evasion and investor short-termism. One member refers to capitalism as having 'lost its way.' A note of anxiety can be detected in the following comment: 'In the last two or more decades it has been possible to become seriously rich without taking any financial risks. The general public instinctively resents this and will take revenge on a system that they see as unfair.' Presumably if revenge takes the form of electing Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister that would not be welcome in the city of London.
Despite the obvious self-interest of members of the FT City Network, they do raise important questions about the capacity of governments to regulate economic policy in what one critic calls a 'borderless digital world.' It is to be hoped that a more dispassionate response will emerge from the newly created Commission on Global Economic Transformation, launched in Edinburgh on 21 October. The commission includes many high-powered figures, including Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel prize-winning economist. Among the issues it will address are: the inadequacies of the international financial system; evidence of widening income and wealth inequality; political and social polarisation, including the rise of populism; the economic and cultural consequences of increased migration.
I wish them well in their efforts but I fear it will not be easy. At the moment, gangster capitalism remains in the ascendancy, spreading its tentacles high and wide.
During a visit to a hospital rehabilitation unit for the elderly, some of whom suffer from various forms of mental impairment, I met Mary. She was being taken round by one of the nurses and introduced to other patients and their visitors as part of her therapy. All was proceeding well, with mutual exchanges of pleasantries, until she met me. She asked my name and when I told her she gave me a hard stare and said, 'You're a f***ing pest.'
I'm afraid I laughed and replied, 'You're quite right. I am a pest. But I've been called much worse things in my time.'
This response seemed to disappoint Mary. Perhaps she had hoped to upset or anger me. Her attention drifted and she wandered off. The next person she was introduced to received a kiss.
On the same visit, I had a more agreeable conversation with an elderly gentleman who was due to be discharged the next day. We got off to a good start when I discovered that his name was Walter. His mind was sharp and he looked great for 95. He was not worried about his own health but about his wife, who was at home and suffered from dementia. She was threatening to take a taxi to the hospital to collect him rather than wait for an ambulance. It was clear that he was devoted to her and was concerned that she would become anxious and perhaps get lost as she tried to negotiate the hospital buildings and corridors. I asked if there was anybody who could accompany her, but he said that they had outlived all their friends.
When we hear reports about the heavy demands on medical and social care for the elderly, it is important to remember that there are thousands of Marys and Walters up and down the country, individual cases with specific needs, not just numbers on a spreadsheet.
My serious reflections on the visit were disturbed when I reported it to a cheeky acquaintance. He said, 'That old girl Mary may be a bit confused but she sounds quite a good judge of character to me.'