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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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How the Conservatives lost the argument over austerity

After repeatedly missing their deficit targets, the Tories can no longer present spending cuts as essential.

“The age of irresponsibility is giving way to the age of austerity,” declared David Cameron at the Conservatives' 2009 spring conference. Fear of spending cuts helped deny his party a majority a year later, but by 2015 the Tories claimed vindication. By framing austerity as unavoidable, they had trapped Labour in a political no man's land. Though voters did not relish cuts, polling consistently showed that they regarded them as necessary.

But only two years later, it is the Conservatives who appear trapped. An austerity-weary electorate has deprived them of their majority and the argument for fiscal restraint is growing weaker by the day. If cuts are the supposed rule, then the £1bn gifted to the Democratic Unionist Party is the most glaring exception. Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, sought to justify this largesse as "investment" into "the infrastructure of Northern Ireland" from "which everybody will benefit" – a classic Keynesian argument. But this did not, he hastened to add, mean the end of austerity: "Austerity is never over until we clear the deficit."

Britain's deficit (which peaked at £153bn in 2009-10) was the original and pre-eminent justification for cuts. Unless borrowing was largely eliminated by 2015, George Osborne warned, Britain's public finances would become unsustainable. But as time has passed, this argument has become progressively weaker. The UK has cumulatively borrowed £200bn more than promised by Osborne, yet apocalypse has been averted. With its low borrowing costs, an independent currency and a lender of last resort (the Bank of England), the UK is able to tolerate consistent deficits (borrowing stood at £46.6bn in 2016-17).

In defiance of all this, Osborne vowed to achieve a budget surplus by 2019-20 (a goal achieved by the UK in just 12 years since 1948). The Tories made the target in the knowledge that promised tax cuts and spending increases would make it almost impossible to attain – but it was a political weapon with which to wound Labour.

Brexit, however, forced the Conservatives to disarm. Mindful of the economic instability to come, Philip Hammond postponed the surplus target to 2025 (15 years after Osborne's original goal). Britain's past and future borrowing levels mean the deficit has lost its political potency.

In these circumstances, it is unsurprising that voters are increasingly inclined to look for full-scale alternatives. Labour has remade itself as an unambiguously anti-austerity party and Britain's public realm is frayed from seven years of cuts: overburdened schools and hospitals, dilapidated infrastructure, potholed roads, uncollected bins.

Through a shift in rhetoric, Theresa May acknowledged voters' weariness with austerity but her policies did not match. Though the pace of cuts was slowed, signature measures such as the public sector pay cap and the freeze in working-age benefits endured. May's cold insistence to an underpaid nurse that there was no "magic money tree" exemplified the Tories' predicament.

In his recent Mansion House speech, Philip Hammond conceded that voters were impatient "after seven years of hard slog” but vowed to "make anew the case" for austerity. But other Tories believe they need to stop fighting a losing battle. The Conservatives' historic strength has been their adaptability. Depending on circumstance, they have been Europhile and Eurosceptic, statist and laissez-faire, isolationist and interventionist. If the Tories are to retain power, yet another metamorphosis may be needed: from austerity to stimulus.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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