Lucy Mangan

"Hester should have taken his RBS bonus"

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Who wants to be a millionaire? Umm… I do.

I’d especially like to be one of those millionaires who can make her money as a bonus for halving a company’s share price, even if that company is a bank 82% owned by the taxpayer making me effectively a public sector employee. Easy money. And I could tell myself it’s the same as being a nurse.

I can’t tell you how much opprobrium you’d have to heap on my head before I gave it back. You’d probably have to pry it from my cold, dead fingers. I’d have no truck with old adages. I’d be intent on taking it with me. But I do actually respect Stephen Hester – the chief executive officer of RBS, to whom I was incredibly subtly alluding above – for giving it back.

I can see the arguments for giving Hester his bonus (and the rest of a package that is estimated to provide him with a total remuneration of around £7.5m). Or at least, I’ve heard them repeatedly from the right-wing, committed capitalist and freemarketeer to whom I unaccountably remain married. A problem (“Oh, OK,” he concedes testily when he sees my mouth open in protest, “massive and ongoing crisis”) caused by bankers requires, however superficially objectionable it seems, bankers to solve it. And bankers expect certain levels of reward and therefore even the public sector has to stump up to the best of its ability; lest it do the whole peanuts-monkey thing.

Toryboy usually throws in at this point that Hester’s pay is still nowhere near what he could be earning in the private sector – meaning, I think, that he is part saint, not part monkey. The best thing for taxpayers, therefore, is to pay a competent man decently who can return the bank to profitability as soon as possible so that it becomes an asset instead of a liability on the state’s books and can be sold off to replenish the coffers.

I didn’t even know there were so many rich people. I though it was just Madonna and the Queen

Which is all fine as far as it goes. But it doesn’t answer any of the deeper questions. Like how all the other bankers – the ones who collectively undoubtedly did cause this crisis which, in keeping with another old adage, ‘shit rolls downhill’, is having such terrible effects on people lower down the economic scale while leaving them and their lifestyles virtually unscathed – get away with so much for so long? If capitalism is, in essence, all about how to pay employees as little as you can get away with, how was this utter disconnect between ability (or profitability) and reward allowed to develop in a sector in which the system should find its purest expression? Were there simply enough people in the trough and near to power – or in power and near the trough – to scratch the necessary backs and see it done?

Perhaps enough of us have been granted enough Neo-like awareness of how the system and society is really constructed that the current situation is now genuinely untenable and unsustainable. Until this all started, I didn’t even know there were so many rich people in the world, let alone so close to home. I thought it was just Madonna, Michael Jackson, the Queen and Paul McCartney. Now I find out it’s people I went to university with, who blagged their way into merchant banks knowing nothing more than I did except that they were the place to be.

Despite that, it’s not (just) envy talking when I say that it has also become clear that nobody needs such sums as we now know were (and are still) habitually bandied about in this hitherto semi-secret world. Beyond a certain point – your basic needs being met plus a nice, plump fiscal cushion against the vagaries of life – the amount doesn’t matter financially. It becomes simply a signifier of worth. A bigger pay packet means that somebody, somewhere thought you were better than everybody else at that particular place and time. It’s about rank, not money per se. When you think about it, we could institute a system of banking medals – (not-real) gold, silver and bronze – that would, with the proper marketing, have almost the same effect. There you go, government. When you come to making all the promised reforms, you can have that idea for nowt. Which, I suppose, is how I know I would never have made it in the banking world. Ah well. It’s a good job my pleasures are simple. At least Gossip Girl’s free.

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Picture credit: Rex Features

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