Joyce McMillan wrote with her usual acuity and passion on something which has troubled me also. Effectively, she was expressing her concern that while Scotland fiddles, the world burns. Scotland is too busy picking fluff from its constitutional navel – and the UK is about to join us – to notice that the rest of the world has caught a nasty cold which may or may not turn out to be the plague.
She’s right. And there is evidence aplenty of this in operation.
This week, there has been more bankers-behaving-badly stuff. Just like Groundhog Day, condemning bankers’ bonuses has become an annual event to look forward to. With Antony Jenkins, the Barclays’ boss, announcing that he will waive his bonus, they have largely spoiled our sport. And as we rush to tug our forelocks in gratitude, we can ignore the very nasty, possibly illegal allegations circulating about the nature of Barclays’ relationship with Qatar at the height of the financial crisis.
Now there is one. All the big banks’ bosses have waived their entitlement except for Antonio Horta-Osorio, CEO of Lloyds banking group. Give it up gracefully, pal: the longer you hold out, the louder the calls will be. And frankly, your bank doesn’t need any more bad publicity, what with it being investigated in the Libor scandal and its shares being downgraded to “sell” in the last few days.
We’ve become rather inured to the banks’ excesses: how else to explain the low-key reaction to the big financial story of the week, that of the FSA deciding to limit liabilities for the interest swap scandal. I won’t bore you with the details, largely because I’m not sure I understand them. But it goes something like this: yet another cunning wheeze dreamed up by boys and girls far too bright for their own good to make money out of thin air goes wrong and costs lots of people a lot of money and ultimately for some, their businesses and their livelihoods.
Having been found out – again – efforts are now underway to protect the banks from the full-scale of their misdemeanours. Everyone is a wee bit feart of the scale of this one – the FSA investigated 173 out of a possible 40,000 products sold and concluded 90% had been mis-sold – and trying to contain the fall-out.
Clearly, the banks are still viewed as too big to fail, even when they continue to play fast and loose with theirs and everyone else’s money.
This isn’t the first and it won’t be the last financial scandal. Until we get someone – anyone – prepared to make reining in the worst excesses of the banks a top political priority and relentlessly beat the drum on behalf of the little people – consumers, taxpayers, pensioners and benefit recipients – every year, will see another calumny visited upon our economy.
And even though there is little chance of that happening anytime soon, why don’t we do something ourselves? When, exactly, do we reach the point when as citizens, we say enough. When do we allow ourselves to get angry? Individually, we can all lob a verbal grenade or two in their direction but why no proper displays of collective anger?
We are well capable at manufacturing outrage when it suits us – and it suits some of us very well. This weekend’s commentary reflects on the reactions generated by two controversial political cartoons and the internet is a cacophony of anger and rancour from both sides (and even within the same sides) of the constitutional debate. And in the day-to-day of the big stuff in people’s everyday lives, none of it matters a jot.
Part of the problem is a lack of political leadership on this matter – and as Joyce McMillan points out, on the really big issues of climate change and resource challenge. Our politicians are in full-on avoidance mode. The UK Government thinks it is playing a clever game, alternately wagging the finger, issuing idle threats and simpering gratitude, as the Chancellor did in response to Jenkins foregoing his annual bonus. But we all see through it for what it is – the politics of pretending to be on our side when really being on theirs and their own.
The Scottish Government is strangely silent on a matter which would allow it to play its London grievance card legitimately and potentially to some effect. Here are the big, nasty banks – global entities one and all – aided and abetted by a supine UK government which would rather protect their interests, than those of the tens of thousands of small and medium-sized Scottish businesses which are the backbone of our economy. Another reason to vote yes, no?
UK Labour is at that stage of the electoral cycle where the objective is to offend no-one, so therefore avoids saying anything much about anything at all. Meanwhile, Scottish Labour appears so incapable of coherent thought that it manages on the front page of the Sunday Herald to condemn the sums involved in public sector redundancy packages while on the next page object to the loss of a quango which paid its members for attendance.
Yet, its behaviour is symptomatic of the wider malaise. Why get worked up about the big stuff that is costing public sector jobs, service cuts and savage welfare changes when there is a spat de jour to be pinned on the SNP about the consequences of austerity? Frothing at the mouth over nothing very much for narrow political gain was never so easy nor pointless. No vote on something as big as constitutional change is going to be won on the back of a tally of party political points scored.
The constitution matters, of course it does. But so do other things and these other things make us all feel angry, impotent and bewildered. Manufacturing outrage on the meaningless is a trite and dangerous political game. Particularly when your country and her people need you – now, not after the referendum.
After all, we share more on common causes and values in relation to these bigger threats and maybe it’s time our politicians reflected that. Maybe it’s time for them to lead us better on what unites rather than divides us. Enable us to channel our anger at the appropriate targets collectively and it might even result in a more edifying and substantive constitutional debate all round.