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Bonus brouhaha masks an awful truth

There are so many things to say about the Hester bonus row that it’s hard to know where to begin.

First, there’s a Chief Executive whose failure to meet his targets deserves not only a multi-million pay package but a near million pound bonus to boot.  According to the Independent on Sunday, he’s to get more. much more.

There’s the small matter of the bank being mainly state-owned and such an eye-watering remuneration package being considered appropriate for the head of what is effectively a public sector body.  The unions, in particular, have been frothing on this.

And then there’s the political response.  The Chancellor is outraged that he did not meet said targets which include a level of job cuts and service scything that make Fred the Shred look like an amateur.  Reward for putting people out of work:  nice.

Vince Cable, meanwhile, is reported to have insisted that Hester should not get the bonus.  Such private ire is touching.  The Lib Dems may be powerless – despite their oft-repeated promises on conference platforms to tackle the bloated executive pay culture – but we can be reassured they care.

Labour is treading a predictable line, trying to appeal to Mr Hester’s better side:  such rewards are unacceptable when other public sector workers have been subject to a pay freeze. Oh, and the Prime Minister should do something.

The Prime Minister tries to lay the blame at Labour’s door.  They appointed him, he insists, they put together the original package, and we’re stuck with it, because replacing this team would be too expensive.  The Scottish Government is silent, as it has been throughout the financial crisis.

(UPDATE:  just to thole me the First Minister broke his cover 30 minutes after this was published.  On the BBC Marr show, he blamed Labour and Conservatives for not taking more action to curb bonuses and apply discipline on public sector pay “at all levels”. Hmm.)

Helpless and hapless, not a single politician on these shores has come up with a solution to the problem.  A lot of hot air has been expended, some mealy-mouthed pledges have been made to tinker at the fringes of this culture, but they amount to nought.

No wonder the lieges are silently – and not so, if you’ve listened to any of the radio phone-ins in recent days – seething.

People are furious because nothing has changed.  Hester’s bonus is just one more in a long line of insults from the political and economic establishment.  People know that the brouhaha masks an awful truth: we still have the same system in place which caused this mess in the first place.  While all around, people are hurting – from frozen and fallen pay, from rising prices on everything from groceries to nursery fees to heating bills, from reduced pension pay-outs, from cuts in local services, from proposed and actual benefit changes – it’s business as usual.  We are paying the price, they are not.

Politicians are either wilfully or disingenuously covering this up with their pointless hand wringing.   They are being aided and abetted by the economic establishment: if we are to have the “best” (sic) people leading our financial institutions, runs the consensus, there is a small pool to choose from and these men (and they largely are) can command their price.  “Bashing bankers profits no one in the long run” sums their attitude up concisely.

The awful truth is that the world of high finance is still predicated on high risk, high reward.  There has been no tightening of regulation, there has been no global response, there has been no change.  (In fact, David Cameron took time out on Friday to have a pop at the proposed European financial tax).  It is still acceptable to gamble away people’s life savings, their homes and their pensions to make money.  If anything, it’s worse:  the game has shifted focus, moving on to toying with whole countries’ liquidity and leverage, with a handful of pumped up investors managing not only to calibrate whole economies and currencies, but also political frameworks.  Out with democratically elected politicians not up to the job and in with pals of theirs.

Oh, and they get to reward themselves, and those who play the game by their rules, handsomely.

No attempt to reform the rules, no thought on how to change the game.  We still accept the convergent neo-liberal and neo-conservative economic consensus that these institutions and activities are acceptable and actually, desirable.  This is how the money world operates and the only way to clean up our mess is to slash and burn our way out of our indebtedness, ignoring the pain caused to ordinary innocents along the way.

Yet, there is a real appetite for change.  The desire for a different offering is what lies behind people’s frustration.  But our political and economic classes (stoked by and stroked by a compliant media) are conspiring to keep it all the way it was.  A handful of people rule the universe:  same as it ever was.

What I find most curious is the SNP’s silence on it all and its lack of an alternative offering.  So much of the positive case for independence is predicated on not losing the trappings and comforts we currently enjoy.  Independence is an opportunity, not a threat: hence, the rather muddied message on lender of last resort.  It might make sense economically but really does not add up politically.  Yes, there is a balance – and it is a fine one – to be struck between enough change to persuade people to vote yes and not so much that it scares everyone into accepting the status quo.

But if ever there was a case for change, it is to the fundamental building blocks of our economy.  Scotland can be different.  We do not have to allow people to get rich on the misery of others.  We can have a successful financial sector but it could be calibrated differently.  Creating a fiscally and socially responsible fiscal culture that is based on key principles of fairness, moderation and justice might not find favour with the current masters of the universe, but it would open new opportunities.

Scotland as a global leader in fashioning a new and different way of doing business:  there are plenty who will scoff, but plenty more who will listen.   Such concepts may discomfit the SNP leadership and campaign team but these are the kind of discussions we need to have in the next two years.

Do I want to live in a Scotland post independence which has its own Hester bonus brouhahas, because some people are allowed to get filthy rich for making very little contribution to our economic or social common weal?  No.

And neither does anyone else I know.

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