Like many, I am no apologist for Fred Goodwin. Alistair Darling has been particularly trenchant on the issue. He is the author of his own misfortune but the removal of his knighthood has been vindictive and tawdry. It has left Darling, many others and indeed, me feeling unclean.
Not because I think he should have kept it – I don’t believe in the honours system full stop. And while the Lords are to be commended for their scrutiny of the welfare reform bill and attempts to iron out its worst excesses, a revising chamber should have some level of accountability to the people, and not just the political parties whose pockets nominees fill.
And of course, Goodwin still has his rather generous pension pot to fall back on, paid for by the taxpayers, natch.
But why stop at him? As the First Minister says, there are convicted criminals in the Lords who have been allowed to keep their honours. There are many others in there who were rewarded for services to banking who are also culpable here. The appointment that I think should be reversed belongs to Sir Robert Smith. He was involved at the Weir Group while its senior management (and board one supposes) made a calculated decision to circumvent the UN oil for food programme, preferring instead to win oil contracts in Iraq by bribing Saddam and his family. The Weir Group was fined £14million for its illegal and immoral behaviour. Smith’s punishment for his involvement in the wheeze? A seat on the Scottish Government’s economic advisory council and the opportunity to front the Glasgow Commonwealth Games efforts.
Fred Goodwin may be guilty in the court of public opinion of many crimes, but he does not have the stain of the starvation of innocent children on his conscience, at least not directly.
It is the issue of the court of public opinion that bothers me. We are living under the charge of a UK Government utterly lacking in backbone, and worse, without any shred of moral fibre. One that thinks that if it throws a gladiator to the lions, the populace will be satisfied.
It is aided and abetted by the media in all this, who love the chase and the scent of blood. If some papers could have depicted Goodwin with his head on a stake, they would have.
What does it say of the quality of our political leadership or indeed, the state of society when this kind of behaviour is seen not only as acceptable, but is applauded. Goodwin was simply the most obvious victim to pick on; an easy target for the Tories. And I cannot help suspecting – perhaps portraying my own paranoia – that the fact that he was a Scottish working class boy made good (sic) made him all the more delectable for a political class that thrives on its establishment mores. Had he been an Eton old boy would the Tories have done more to protect him? I’m sure they would have.
Worse, much worse, is the demonisation of some of the most vulnerable in our society. Labour started this. When it was attempting to start reform of the benefits system – for which read cut the budget – it embarked on a cynical exercise of getting public opinion on side through the worst media mouthpieces. The numbers on incapacity benefit were inflated by talking only of the number of claimants rather than recipients (which is much lower); the fact that incapacity benefit was a contribution-led payment ie you had to have earned at some point in your life and made national insurance payments to qualify for it was ignored; recipients were depicted as scroungers and workshy, folk with sore backs and weak heads rather than individuals with complex conditions, some of which were not very visible.
It worked, and allowed the Labour UK Government to set the train in motion which reached its final destination last night. The demonisation of disabled people, lone parents, large families, poor older people and the long term unemployed is complete. Everywhere you go, every red top rag you read has another tale of the excess of the vulnerable poor, those of us who give a damn are met with uncomprehending stares and titters. Establishing the narrative of the feckless, undeserving poor allowed the Tories – helped by their little Lib Dem partners of course – to push through vicious cuts to the safety net that keeps many afloat. It has done me at various points in my life – and many more besides.
But no more. In order for bankers like Goodwin to keep their gold-plated pensions (and there’s an irony) and the likes of Ed Lester to lead a public sector agency, (no doubt soon to be a lord now there’s one going spare) be paid from the public purse but be allowed to avoid paying his fair share of tax, the UK Government has deemed those on the lowest rungs as the ones to help cut our deficit and get us out of this mess. All the while nodded on by an unforgiving media and public. Because if the pain falls on them, less of it hits us.
It all amounts to little more than mob rule. We have gone full circle and our mores resemble those in a more primitive culture, where the need to survive requires that the weakest be outcast and where difference is barely tolerated. Yet, we do not have such basic survival requirements: we have a much more sophisticated economy that should allow for more than survival of the fittest. Indeed, there are some supposedly primitive societies which would be horrified at what is going on on these shores.
John F Kennedy – no stranger to privilege himself – once said that “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.” Yesterday was a less than edifying example of that in action.
And if this is the kind of society successive UK Governments think it appropriate to lead and to foster, it is one I no longer wish to be part of. Selfish that might be, but I’d rather have some chance of success of creating a different place that lives by different rules – of living somewhere that can be, that dreams at least of being “a beacon of progressive opinion” – than none at all.