7 Jun 2021

When money and virtue share a bed, strange and disturbing things tend to happen. 

I have written before (in 2014) about the ethical contradictions concerning the destination of the UK’s Oversea Development Aid budget. Seventy three percent of it went to countries where homosexuality was illegal but if there was ever any debate about that I never heard it. Like a Christmas sweater, the giving is more important than the receiving. Once the donation box has been ticked we can pat ourselves on the back and tell ourselves that to enquire about how the money is spent would be colonial and racist.

Seven years later, the shadow of virtue casts a much longer and no less contradictory shadow. Here is a brief case study.


I have found the current season of the English Premier League quite hard to watch. The team with the biggest financial backing won easily. Three brave and impoverished strugglers were relegated long before the end of the season. In stadiums empty of fans (who might well have reacted with displeasure) the clubs and officials all participated in “taking the knee”, originally a show of disrespect for the US national anthem, despite it seeming obvious that the anti-capitalist vibe of Black Lives Matter could hardly be further from the realities of club ownership. 

These realities came to a head when some of the owners, acting as if they thought the clubs belonged to them, tried to create a breakaway super league. The result was a mob of multi-millionaires, who, unlike the owners, owed their personal wealth to football itself, rushing to denounce the idea that money should be allowed to ruin the game, as they saw it. Many people, unless they happen to support the clubs funded by wealthy foreigners, would say that that ship sailed a long time ago. 

While UK football constantly pledges to “kick out racism” and to take women’s soccer seriously there is not a whisper on the subject of sexual orientation. In the past, fans have been notoriously homophobic. They may not be now but we have no way of knowing because, as luck would have it, not one of the UK’s 4000 or so professional male footballers is gay. There used to be one, a German, Thomas Hitzlsperger, who came out after he had retired in 2014.

If you think that sounds dodgy, wait until the World Cup to be held in Qatar next year. It goes without saying that homosexuality is illegal there but how do we feel about the fact that the football stadiums have been built mostly by foreign workers with minimal employment rights? Are we OK with the law of male guardianship? How about the fact that journalists can be sentenced to three years imprisonment for spreading “fake news” as defined ad hoc by the state?

If silence equals assent I think we will find that our football establishment is absolutely fine with all that. Because top level football is corporate in nature and business corporations are highly selective in their adoption of moral causes. 


A great deal of money, time and righteous energy is being directed towards Environmental, Social and Governance investment (ESG). This is a catch-all category for which all corporations can and do declare themselves in favour, though the individual elements can have some profound implications.


The easiest one to describe is Governance. Nobody should wish to invest in a business that behaves illegally, irresponsibly or foolishly. This is why senior managers are well paid and why other directors are charged with overseeing them. Of course it will often be tempting and sometimes defensible to cut corners. Executives are there to take decisions not to decide everything by committee. 

Governance is in practice sometimes harder than it looks and companies certainly rely on finding the right people. Warren Buffet famously said that he wants to own businesses that any fool could run but that is also much easier said than done. 

I have written before about how there is a shortage of talented women in executive positions – this is not a judgement about the qualities particular to the female sex but the overwhelming probability that if only one executive in nineteen is female there is a vast amount of unused talent.  


The green or ecology movement has been captured by a cult known as Net Zero. This grab is primarily motivated by the prospect of getting rich through massive public subsidy. Its cheerleaders borrow the language of climate change radicals – emergency, crisis etc – in order to derail debate about the practical implications of their demands.

I partly covered this topic in this story about innovation:

The green or net zero project is ostensibly aiming to save the planet and, by implication, lives but more shockingly its intention is to curb productivity and to make consumption more expensive.

And I wrote more generally about the implications of denouncing the twentieth century here

The high costs of net zero will be borne by everyone, but a tiny minority will become rich. It is not surprising that the advocates of electric vehicles and renewable energy attempt to control debate. 

Makers of electric vehicles are happy to talk about battery life, range and the availability of charging points but never address the much more pressing issues of power generation and distribution.

Likewise, advocates of rival forms of renewable energy are each other’s strongest critics because to argue jointly in favour of renewable energy would highlight a question that they do not wish to hear. Namely, how many nuclear power stations are we going to need once we have shut down all the efficient energy sources of which we disapprove? 

You might ask why large energy companies whose responsible executives must understand all of the above are often active participants in this conspiracy of subterfuge. The answer lies in the third leg of ESG.


There is a pandemic of public gestures tracking a showy brand of self-proclaimed virtue that seems as arbitrary as it is ethical. The first obstacle to doing the right thing is discovering what the right thing is – and what it will be next.

Social responsibility is a subjective minefield that especially terrifies people who live in multi-racial bubble countries like the USA, Canada and the UK. 

Black Lives Matter describes itself, apparently without embarrassment, as “a global organization in the US, UK, and Canada”. 

In these three nations the promotion of non-whites, though not necessarily all non-whites, is publicly encouraged, sometimes by law. 

Countries with small racial minorities by and large do not bother about such things. In Germany corporate diversity seems to refer exclusively to female representation on Supervisory Boards. Norway, where 44% of directors are female (there is a 40% quota by law) leads the way in Europe. But there is no sign that I can see of racial targets.

The same principle is probably true around the world. It may be the case that Chinese and Indian companies would benefit from the presence of a white Westerner on their board but if that has ever been argued for, I have not seen it. 

Living in the UK or North America, it is quite difficult to understand that the public excoriation of “white privilege” is, in global terms, a local issue. 

One might ask why corporations and other British institutions (the BBC, the FA, the Church of England, the National Trust etc) are apparently so eager to throw themselves at its mercy.

The answer is the same as before, though with a negative twist. Whereas following the green agenda is seen as a key to accessing public subsidy and, increasingly, private investment, the defiance of social correctness threatens financial isolation. 

As governments borrow and spend feverishly on our behalf, a process accelerated by the response to the pandemic, we cede a degree of responsibility for ourselves and may be obliged to conform to all kinds of new rules. On a personal level we might feel the loss of liberty or rights. For corporations of many kinds, it is not going too far to say that their viability could depend on following an approved line. 

Institutional investors are encouraged to demand that the companies they own follow ESG guidelines. The shares of companies in sinful sectors – such as oil and tobacco – are invariably disparaged, while investors forlornly encourage the businesses to reform themselves. Rather like unfortunates with a guilty Tweeting history, they must apologise for what they are and pledge to do better. 

I note that some of these companies (e.g. “bp”, Imperial Brands) have stonking dividend yields and are generating bundles of excess cash. The ESB investors would probably love to buy their shares if only, if only, they would repent their wickedness. 

Some banks offer better lending terms to companies that pledge to hit certain ESG targets. The Bank of England has said it will start to shift its £20 billion portfolio of corporate bond holdings away from businesses which are not considered to be on a path to reduce carbon emissions. 

Insurance companies will similarly use ESG compliance to assess a client’s chances of being subject to expensive lawsuits. 

To maintain that the adoption of ESG is not motivated by money or to deny that the financial winners will be heavily outnumbered by the losers would, in my opinion, be either delusional or hypocritical. 

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