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The ‘Pariah’ Relents

Stephen Hester,
chief executive of Royal Bank of Scotland, may have done the
gentlemanly thing by giving up his bonus, but has he done the right thing?   He acted, he says, because he was becoming a
‘pariah’.  In what circles was he being
treated as a pariah? 

In Westminster, of course,
where politicians, regardless of party stripe or colour, are always on the
lookout for a bandwagon aboard which to jump. 
And the bankers have helpfully provided a spacious, slow-moving vehicle
for the purpose. 

Surely, though, not
in the City, that bastion of financial rectitude and moral certainty, where his
bonus might be considered among the more modest for a person of his seniority? 

Ah, in the wider
public arena then, where the mob is always baying for blood, or rather – in
these more enlightened times – abject humiliation, preferably accompanied by
the forfeit of great gobs of moolah.  In Britain in
particular, bringing down the rich and famous has become an almost religious
ritual.  We enjoy worshipping at the
altar of celebrity, but only so that we may then, puffed up with righteous
indignation, enjoy the thrill of cleansing the temple.

And while the
bankers were playing their foolish but lucrative games with our money, what were
the rest of us doing?  Taking their lead
– a flimsy excuse, I say – we all went on a spending binge of such gargantuan
proportions that we may spend a decade paying off the cumulative debt. 

Now, I happen to
be among those who believe that unscrupulously greedy bankers have brought the
kind of opprobrium that Hester fears upon themselves.  They have for too long indulged in
irresponsible market speculation for their own amusement and enrichment, bringing
the financial system close to meltdown, and having done they show not a
scintilla of remorse for it.  Far from
it: they are as anxious as everyone else that the current crisis be resolved –
but only that they may start the brink-peering process all over again.  They are, in short, shameless, mad and dangerous. 

Why, then, am I
so uncomfortable with Hester’s mortification? 
  

For a start, he
had a contract.  It may not have been the
kind of contract you and I would have approved, let alone applauded, but it is
an obligation for all that.  And are any
of us aware of the terms of that contract? 
Would we care even if we did know? 
Probably not; a sacrifice has been demanded and the mob must be
satisfied.

Second, if
Hester had turned down the job, on the ground that the remuneration was
inadequate, who of similar talents could have been found to do the job instead
at a lower level of compensation?   Who would we have then selected to run the
bank – some civil servant rewarded for services to the quango industry?   

Yes, City
salaries and bonuses are ridiculously inflated, as the newspapers and
television pundits keep telling us, as we nod in offended unison.  But the culture that has been allowed to take
root is not something that can now simply be abolished by government fiat or
Act of Parliament.  Or, by an ephemeral
groundswell of dudgeon.

Hester is not a
creation of some sinister coterie of fat-cat financiers but a reflection of a
society driven by its own collective, unthinking avarice.  

The fault, dear
Brutus …. well, you know the rest.

 

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