It didn’t take long, did it?

Despite the financial disaster of the last two years, and against the wishes of their European partners (particularly the Germans and the French), the Labour Government has refused to get tough with bankers over bonuses and irrationally high pay. The argument seems to be that if you disincentivise high earners, they will all scoot off to the USA and earn their fat salaries there instead. Whereas the argument advanced this week by the Tories is that if you squeeze the poorest or most disabled people, this will incentivise them to ‘get out and work’.

Boris JohnsonBrazen Boris Johnson (great character – but which pre-election promises has he actually delivered on in London?) stoutly and admirably defended the bankers at the Tory Party Conference in Manchester the other day, guaranteeing favour by claiming that to do so would turn everyone against him. What great rhetoric! Everybody loves Boris and David Cameron probably (a) fears him or (b) wishes he would go away.

But, am I alone in hearing the defence of bankers set against a squeeze on the poor or disabled and wondering where these priorities derive from?

I’d like to believe that the Tories could offer something radically new that would offer a clear alternative to Labour and bring some dignity back into politics – especially into the values that underlie economic policy-making. But, I don’t see it. All we get is the same old stuff dressed up in new language. ‘Let’s help the poorest (or most vulnerable)  in our society – by making them poorer if they don’t play our way. And let’s not disturb the richest in our society – by making them invulnerable to the consequences of their decisions.’

It doesn’t look great, does it?

Let’s get this straight. Some of my friends are bankers. I don’t have a problem with bankers getting paid for the work they do. Some bankers should get paid more than others. Big bankers should get paid big salaries. But bonuses should be rationalised and spread about the people who work at all levels of the business. How do you justify a single individual getting a one-off (almost guaranteed each year) payment amounting to many multiples of what the ordinary bank staff earn in  several years? And whose money is it that they are playing with anyway?

My problem with this is that this nettle still appears not to have been grasped. We are afraid to impose limits – even when ‘we’ own the banks by virtue of having bailed them out of the mire of their own making.

goodwinAnd when we hear about the ‘poor’ or the ‘disabled’, we are not talking about ‘shirkers’, ‘blaggers’ and ‘spongers’. But, even if we were, couldn’t we describe the failure of the banks and their subsequent cap-in-hand rescue by the taxpayers as ‘sponging’ (claiming money that isn’t theirs), ‘shirking’ (responsibilities to those they damaged) and ‘blagging’ (claiming special rights and threatening government against squeezing with arguments about ‘incentives’ that only apply to them and not those at the bottom of society who don’t have the voice or the power to claim the same)?

It’s the values underlying the policies that need questioning, not just the apparent policies. And the double-standards need to be exposed wherever they seek to hide.

Any chance we’ll hear something useful this week from Manchester other than the blindingly obvious or the obviously blind?

I wonder what is going through the mind of Fred the Shred these days. Having led a bank into meltdown at great personal reward, he has walked away with his knighthood intact and a pension of around £650,000 per year every year until he dies.

I think I need to sit down and reflect on what that amount buys each year. I guess Fred thinks it will buy him security as he probably won’t work again. It has also bought him a poor reputation. And, yet, I feel a certain sympathy for him – suprisingly.

goodwin1Fred played the banking system according to the rules of the day and nobody stopped him. If he should hand back his pension, then so also should other bankers, the entire leadership of the FSA and everybody who colluded in the fantasy that if a lot of money is being made, it must all be going OK – don’t rock the boat. Fred has negotiated a settlement for early departure from the bank and is only getting what was agreed.

But this is where we see a fundamental difference between justice and grace. Justice is about getting what is deserved; grace goes beyond justice and is, in one sense, scandalous. The similarity here is that Fred has got his just desserts (justice), but ought to recognise the consequences of his leadership (and personal responsibility for those he was highly paid to employ, etc) and go beyond justice – and hand back a considerable part of the pension package.

After all, if he gave back 75% of it, he would still be far wealthier than most of his former employees put together. And, he would look generous – which he won’t if it gets legally extracted from him.

He has declined to return it so far (and he is right to say that justice has been done), but would be wise to do so now (so that mercy can be shown). He is still a human being who could not have done what he did without the massive collusion of the rest of the business and the unbelievable negligence of the FSA who only had one job to do and failed comprehensively.

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