A year ago today RBS chief Stephen Hester decided not to accept £963k bonus payment due to “enormous political & media pressure”. Douglas Wilson puts the case for a People’s Bank.
In Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story, Markheim, which many have seen as a precursor to The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the eponymous character goes to a pawn shop on Christmas day, under the pretext of buying his fiancée a present, only to subsequently murder the owner of the shop and steal his money, so that he can continue to fund his gambling on the London stock market.
Don’t ask me why, but it’s a tale which reminds me of our bankers, the bankers and stock-brokers and financial experts who are allowed to live beyond the limitations and boundaries that govern the rest of us, and who continue to plunder the common store, destroying people’s lives, creating vast reservoirs of resentment and unhappiness, in this so-called age of austerity – the in vogue jargon for the systematic and calculated dismantling of the Welfare State which our fathers and grandfathers, who fought and died in two World Wars, so painstakingly built from the ruins of Europe.
How is it possible that the bankers continue to think they have a right to take enormous bonuses from state run banks? Why are the nationalised banks being run on the same lines, by and for the same clique of public school boys who dug us into this hole in the first place? Did the events of 2008 really change nothing?
The impunity bankers and the banks have enjoyed is so scandalous, so stark, the public’s disenchantment with bankers so widespread, that it is simply bewildering and bizarre that it continues to go ignored. Not only that, but we continue to hand out bonuses to them. But then again, as the German writer Thomas Bernhard once noted, ‘the terrible is also always ridiculous.’
Journalists and others alike tell us we that we are experiencing the deepest recession in living memory because of a banking crisis; that the crisis has its direct source in the fact that the banks were subject to no real, effective control. But the real banking crisis of 2013, however, is that we continue to let them get away with it. The bankers are only Masters of the Universe to the extent that we allow our politicians to let them off the hook. Stephen Hester’s decision to turn down a 963K bonus following intense media and political pressure one year ago to the day, welcome news though it was at the time, was less a victory than yet another sign of what is an endemic and acute social and political problem: we need legislation on the banks, and for that we need politicians who will deliver it.
We need a state-run bank in an independent Scotland, a bank with a social function in its charter, which supports entrepreneurs, social projects, and the vulnerable in society, that gives the customer a reasonable and fair deal: a people’s bank. A bank devoted to that old-fashioned idea of lending money to ordinary people with a project they want to carry out, as opposed to these corrupt institutions of today devoted to playing the stock market and passing on the bill to the tax payer. I would like to see a people’s bank written into the Constitution of an independent Scotland.
This recession is destroying the businesses of centre-right voting business people just as much as it is hitting left-voting public sector workers. It is Stiglitz’s 99% against the 1%. When are we going to collar the banks? When are we going to bring to book these recidivist delinquents? We need to enshrine a public bank in law, a financial instrument responsible to a sovereign Scottish parliament. Making money from money cannot just be something for private wealth and lucre. Why can’t the general public share in the biggest money-making scheme ever devised in human history?
The bankers and their cronies have been plundering British society since Margaret Thatcher came to power. They say they are creating wealth, at the same time as they plunge hundreds of thousands into abject poverty by avoiding taxes whenever they can. They lie, they steal legally or at times by other means, they rig interest rates, and in the best cases, they are simply negligent, making the kind of crass, unpardonable, idiotic mistakes to which mass greed drives people. Yet at most, they are summoned before a parliamentary commission – a daunting thought with the firebrands currently sitting in Westminster – occasionally one or two say sorry, and then we are told by the servile lackeys in the press that this a concession and sufficient penalty enough.
Those bankers who have abused the public trust – either through negligence or deceit – should be given an ASBOS and made to do community service; the damage they have inflicted on society is vastly greater to that caused by youth gone wild. Let the bankers scrub the floors of the elderly and the poor. Let them do community services, cleaning litter and dog turds from the street; let them deliver meals-on-wheels to the unfortunate house-bound whose benefit Cameron has just so callously cut.
Our bankers are the scourge of the nation, and they should be shunned by any self-respecting member of society. When are we going to see an honest banker stand out, break ranks and denounce the iniquities of the banking system? Let the good bankers stand forward, if there are any.
After committing his murder, Markheim is confronted by the devil, or double, with whom he talks about his crime. Markheim protests that he should not be judged by his acts, explaining to his double “My life is but a travesty and a slander on myself. I have lived to belie my nature.” Furthermore, he tells the devil that he will win on the stock market with the money he has just stolen, and recuperate his losses; to which the devil replies bluntly that he can only ultimately lose again.
In the same fashion, the bankers; they explain away their plunging hundreds of thousands into poverty, fixing lending rates, charging exorbitant sums for the most basic transactions, and resisting any accountability to society whatsoever. And who can really doubt that if we do not legislate against them and their depraved lust for money, they will cause another crash in just a few years time, ruining the lives of hundreds of thousands of working people?. Like Markheim, they actually think they are good men, at the same time as some of them, no doubt, flinch, like Stevenson’s anti-hero, at the sight of a looking-glass, that “hand-held conscience”.
But we, society, are the real mirror to the bankers. So far, we have done a pretty bad job at holding up a picture to them of their own greedy faces, offering back no more than a dull, clouded image to their gaze. Here is mine, to those Markheims in our midst: may your hair fall out, may your house fall down, and may a portion of that suffering you have visited on so many people over the last few years of this crisis be visited on you before the end of your days.