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Laurie Penny: Don't be fooled by the Fred Goodwin sideshow

Gesture politics are good for only one thing: taking the edge off public outrage.

Bang goes the knighthood. Last week, one of the men most responsible for the financial crisis in Britain was stripped of his honorary title by the queen, following public outrage around the extravagant bonus that was due to be lavished upon his successor. The former Sir Fred Goodwin was chief executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland, which had to be bailed out by the British taxpayer and is still largely publicly owned. It is somewhat of an indictment on the limp, panting capitulation of the so-called opposition in Britain today that the confiscation of this meaningless imaginary trinket by the constitutional monarch actually looks like rebellion of a sort.

Every party has joined in the scrum for empty symbolic gestures to placate creeping public fury against bankers. The unfairness is terrifically difficult to spin: as disabled people and terminally ill cancer patients are threatened with pauperisation by the state, there are those at the top to whom the much vaunted "end of the something-for-nothing culture" seems by some margin not to apply. We are supposed to applaud meekly at this point. We are supposed to clap and be quiet as one or two of the best-reported travesties of financial feudalism are rectified in a manner likely to make little practical difference to the current and former chief executives of RBS, who remain fabulously wealthy men. Removing knighthoods from bank directors, of course, is no likelier to democratise contemporary capitalism than spending the winter in a tent city - like the Occupy protests, the trend is a portent rather than an agent of change. But what change?

Many liberal critics have grudgingly conceded that the removal of Fred Goodwin's knighthood and Stephen Hester's bonus are a step in the right direction. They are absolutely no such thing. They are a vacuous, cynical sideshow designed to distract attention from the fact that not a bloody thing is being done to rein in the power of the financial sector to do precisely whatever the hell it likes and force the global poor to pick up the tab. Away from the field of the symbolism Cameron and his Bullingdon bag-carriers have been lobbying hard at Davos against the proposed EU financial transactions tax, which might actually oblige actual banks to take slightly fewer crazy risks with other people's money. It's not much. It won't do anything to combat wage repression or the exploitation of workers on the breadline in Europe, and its sub-clauses make it laughably escapable for the larger multinationals, but it's a start - and our government is determined to stop it. It's okay, though, because Fred the Shred is no longer a knight of the realm.

Goodwin's humiliation is part of a broader cultural trend: the suggestion that the worst excesses of capitalism can be reined in by authoritarianism. You see it when the Archbishop of Canterbury suggests that bankers' bonuses and urban riots are equivalent symptoms of moral decline rather than of economic chaos - although they hardly come with equivalent penalties. You see it when the MP for Tottenham suggests that we'd have had fewer riots if only black and working-class youths had been beaten more thoroughly in childhood.

Free-market feudalism adapts to survive. Capitalism has always been able to neutralise its own discontents by absorbing them, and the politics of moral gesture are fast becoming a part of that process. There is an idea slowly growing in the public consciousness that Queen, country, duty, respect, faith and family can get us out of this fix. Removing a piece of royal frippery from a man who can do no more damage to our economy is part of this new code, the idea that fiscal ethics can be played out purely in the terrain of symbolism - although the young people serving jailtime for celebrating the August riots on Facebook could be forgiven for failing to see anything symbolic about their prison walls.

Gesture politics are good for only one thing: taking the edge off public outrage. Ultimately, walloping individual city workers is no more likely to make them behave than brutalising poor children is likely to keep them quiet the next time a young man is gunned down by police in inner London. All of this showmanship is about mood management - as if the entire country had been invited to go away and punch a pillow until we feel a bit calmer.

Gesture politics can give us a dirty thrill, but that's all they can do. We could insist that a tithe of bankers be sent every year to be publicly spanked with a traditional bristle birch in Hyde Park by a cohort of unemployed, low-waged and disabled people and indignant left-wing bloggers, and I'm sure we'd all feel a bit better about things, but at the end of the day they would still walk away rich and we would walk away poor. The idea that Britain is undergoing a moral rather than financial collapse - a moral collapse that can be rectified with selective public humiliation for the super-rich and beatings and prison for the rest of us - is not just deceptive. It's dangerous.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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What Charles Windsor’s garden reveals about the future of the British monarchy

As an open-minded republican, two things struck me. 

First we are told that the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, has lost his battle for a “soft” Brexit. In a joint article, he and the International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, the hardest of the ministerial Brexiteers, seem to agree that the UK will leave the European customs union in 2019. Then we get a reverse ferret. Hammond will go for a softish Brexit, after all. A government paper states that the UK will seek a “temporary customs union” in the “transition period” that, it hopes, will follow Brexit.

All this is a taste of things to come. We shall see many more instances of hard and soft Brexiteers celebrating victory or shrieking about betrayal. We shall also see UK and EU leaders storming out of talks, only to return to negotiations a few days later. My advice is to ignore it all until Friday 29 March 2019, when UK and EU leaders will emerge from all-night talks to announce a final, impenetrable fudge.

Lessons not learned

What you should not ignore is the scandal over Learndirect, the country’s largest adult training and apprenticeships provider. An Ofsted report states that a third of its apprentices receive none of the off-the-job training required. In a random sample, it found no evidence of learning plans.

Labour started Learndirect in 2000 as a charitable trust controlled by the Department for Education. It was sold to the private equity arm of Lloyds Bank in 2011 but remains largely reliant on public money (£158m in 2016-17). Since privatisation, 84 per cent of its cash has gone on management fees, interest payments and shareholder dividends. It spent £504,000 on sponsoring the Marussia Formula One team in an attempt to reach “our core customer group… in a new and exciting way”. The apprentices’ success rate fell from 67.5 per cent before privatisation to 57.8 per cent now.

This episode tells us that, however the Brexit process is going, Britain’s problems remain unchanged. Too many services are in the hands of greedy, incompetent private firms, and we are no closer to developing a skilled workforce. We only know about Learndirect’s failure because the company’s attempt to prevent Ofsted publishing its report was, after ten weeks of legal wrangling, overthrown in the courts.

A lot of hot air

Immediately after the Paris climate change accord in 2015, I expressed doubts about how each country’s emissions could be monitored and targets enforced. Now a BBC Radio 4 investigation finds that climate-warming gases emitted into the atmosphere far exceed those declared under the agreement. For example, declarations of methane emissions from livestock in India are subject to 50 per cent uncertainty, and those in Russia to 30-40 per cent uncertainty. One region in northern Italy, according to Swiss scientists, emits at least six times more climate-warming gases than are officially admitted. Remember this when you next hear politicians proclaiming that, after long and arduous negotiations, they have achieved a great victory.

Come rain or come shine

Climate change, scientists insist, is not the same thing as changes in the weather but writing about it brings me naturally to Britain’s wet August and newspaper articles headlined “Whatever happened to the sunny Augusts of our childhood?” and so on. The Daily Mail had one in which the writer recalled not a “single rainy day” from his family holidays in Folkestone. This, as he explained, is the result of what psychologists call “fading affect bias”, which causes our brains to hold positive memories longer than negative ones.

My brain is apparently atypical. I recall constant frustration as attempts to watch or play cricket were interrupted by rain. I remember sheltering indoors on family holidays with card games and books. My life, it seems, began, along with sunshine, when I left home for university at 18. Do psychologists have a name for my condition?

High and dry

Being an open-minded republican, I bought my wife, a keen gardener, an escorted tour of the gardens at Highgrove, the private residence of the man I call Charles Windsor, for her birthday. We went there this month during a break in the Cotswolds. The gardens are in parts too fussy, rather like its owner, but they are varied, colourful and hugely enjoyable. Two things struck me. First, the gardens of the elite were once designed to showcase the owner’s wealth and status, with the eye drawn to the grandeur of the mansion. Highgrove’s garden is designed for privacy, with many features intended to protect royalty from the prying public and particularly the press photographers’ long lenses. Second, our guide, pointing out what the owner had planted and designed, referred throughout to “His Royal Highness”, never “Charles”. I am pondering what these observations mean for the monarchy and its future.

Sympathy for the devil

Before leaving for the Cotswolds, we went to the Almeida Theatre in north London to see Ink, featuring Rupert Murdoch’s relaunch of the Sun in 1969. Many accounts of Murdoch  portray him as a power-crazed monster and his tabloid hacks as amoral reptiles. Ink is far more nuanced. It shows Murdoch as a mixture of diffidence, charm and menace, in love with newspapers and determined to blow apart a complacent,
paternalistic British establishment.

You may think that he and the Sun had a permanently coarsening effect on public life and culture, and I would largely agree. But he was also, in his own way, a 1960s figure and his Sun, with its demonic energy, was as typical a product of that decade as the Beatles’ songs. The play strengthened my hunch that its author, James Graham, who also wrote This House, set in the parliamentary whips’ offices during the 1970s, will eventually be ranked as the century’s first great playwright.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear