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The Fred Goodwin knighthood row: Mehi Hasan on five things to consider

Don't be distracted by Goodwin; the real issue is bonuses.

1) Let us be under no illusions: Frederick Anderson Goodwin is an awful, awful man who doesn't deserve anyone's sympathy - or pity. I say this not just because, as Alex Brummer points out in today's Mail, "he was he felt able to conduct an extramarital affair with a senior female colleague" and "then hid behind a court injunction until he was found out", but because, by all accounts, he was a terrible, terrible boss to work for. Have a read of the recent book, Masters of Nothing by Tory MPs Matthew Hancock and Nadhim Zahawi, which paints an, ahem, unflattering portrait, shall we say, of the power-crazy former RBS boss.

From the Evening Standard:

The book claims Sir Fred, 53, could not control his anger if the wrong type of biscuit was put in the boardroom, and even threatened catering staff with disciplinary action in an email titled "Rogue Biscuits" after executives were offered pink wafers.

RBS staff also "went into panic mode" after a window cleaner fell off a ladder in Sir Fred's office and broke a toy plane, the authors allege.

At dinner functions, an engineer was also kept on standby until the early hours to switch off fire alarms when executives wanted to smoke.

Peter de Vink, managing director of Edinburgh Financial & General Holdings, said bank staff "were absolutely terrified of him".

2) Having acknowledged how bad a boss Goodwin was, and how odious an individual he is, it is, however, worth noting that he has been made a bit of a convenient scapegoat since the crash in 2008. Remember: Goodwin's disastrous decision to pay a total of £71billion for debt-laden Dutch bank ABN Amro in the autumn of 2007, just as the credit crunch took hold, was backed by the RBS board and not prevented or questioned by the regulators. Few financial journalists sounded alarm bells; there was not a peep from Downing Street or the Treasury.

Also, it is often forgotten that the then Barclays boss John Varley had been involved in a bidding war with Goodwin for ABN Amro - which helped drive the price up. Had Barclays, rather than RBS, ended up buying the Dutch bank, Varley might be as reviled and ridiculed today as Fred "the Shred" Goodwin. Instead, Varley retired from his post as chief executive of Barclays in 2010 with his reputation - and his windows - intact.

3) Is it unfair and/or disproportionate to strip Goodwin of his knighthood? The government revealed yesterday that Goodwin's title had been referred to the "forfeiture committee".

Goodwin is not guilty of any crime. The Guardian points out:

Since 1995, the committee has recommended that 34 people, including the Zimbabwean president, Robert Mugabe, be stripped of their honours. Honours are normally taken away only if someone has been found guilty of a criminal offence or has been reprimanded by their professional regulator, including a professional register.

But the question is: why wasn't Goodwin investigated or prosecuted? Why weren't bankers arrested and charged with breaking the law, as they drove the economy off a cliff? Why wasn't the Serious Fraud Office brought in at the start of the financial crisis? These are questions that are starting to be posed on both sides of the Atlantic.

"Forgive me, I must start by pointing out that three years after our horrific financial crisis caused by financial fraud, not a single financial executive has gone to jail, and that's wrong," said Charles Ferguson, director of the documentary Inside Job, as he accepted his Oscar last year.

"Why have no bankers been arrested?" Jon Snow asked Treasury minister Mark Hoban on Channel 4 News in September 2011. Snow later noted on his blog:

[I]nvestigators on both sides of the Atlantic have had no doubt that criminality, subterfuge, and downright dishonesty accompanied many of the ingredients that brought about the crash. At the very least there was gross dishonesty in the representation of exposure to the sub-prime mortgage business.

...In one month, hundreds of rioters and looters have been prosecuted and punished by the English courts, often for offences with a value of under fifty pounds. Yet the threat to the wellbeing of UKplc was far greater from the bankers than from any number of more arrestable rioters.

There is a strong impression abroad that the UK doesn't want to prosecute anyone for the banking crisis, a crisis that has affected every tax payer in the Kingdom.

Soon enough the statute of limitations will kick in to ensure that no-one will ever be prosecuted for their role.

4) If Ed Miliband is looking to apologise for things Labour did wrong in its 13 years of office, in order to win back public trust, he could start by saying sorry for the party's indulgence of all the top bankers in the City, not just "Fred the Shred". According to an investigation by the Daily Mail in 2009:

Labour has given 23 bankers honours, brought three into the Government as ministers and involved 37 in commissions and advisory bodies.

In today's Independent, John Kampfner reminds us of how deferential to, and in awe of, the City, Labour's leaders were:

It is salutary at moments like these, with David Cameron opining about the miscreant behaviour of Fred Goodwin and his like, to recall a speech given by Gordon Brown. It was delivered in April 2004, as he was trying to oust Tony Blair. "I would like to pay tribute to the contribution you and your company make to the prosperity of Britain," the then Chancellor declared. He was opening the European headquarters, in London's Canary Wharf, of Lehman Brothers, the bank that later went down the Swanee, almost taking with it the entire financial system. Talking of "greatness", Brown added: "During its 150-year history, Lehman Brothers has always been an innovator, financing new ideas and inventions before many others even began to realise their potential."

5) The shadow business secretary, Chuka Umunna, among others, is right to warn that Cameron and co must not be allowed to use a story about the former RBS chief executive to distract attention from the current RBS chief executive, Stephen Hester, and reports that he is in line to receive a £1.5m bonus - despite the RBS share price having halved over the last year. This is the real test for Cameron - not whether he strips Goodwin of his title but whether he has the power and resolve to deny Hester his ludicrous bonus

Channel 4 News's Gary Gibbon asks on his blog:

Is going for Sir Fred a decoy for bonus row?

I suspect it is. The real issue is bank bonuses: despite the tough talk, the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition has so far failed to stop massive payouts. So don't be distracted by Goodwin; keep your eyes on Hester.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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What kind of Christian is Theresa May?

And why aren’t we questioning the vicar’s daughter on how her faith influences her politics?

“It is part of me. It is part of who I am and therefore how I approach things,” Theresa May told Kirsty Young when asked about her faith on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in November 2014. “I think it’s right that we don’t sort of flaunt these things here in British politics but it is a part of me, it’s there, and it obviously helps to frame my thinking.”

The daughter of a Church of England vicar, Rev. Hubert Brasier, May grew up an active Christian in Oxfordshire. She was so involved in parish life that she even taught some Sunday school classes. She goes on in the Desert Island Discs interview to choose the hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross sung by a chapel congregation, and recalls being alone in church with her parents, kneeling and singing together.

Despite her intense attachment to local CofE life, Theresa May’s role as a Christian in politics is defined more by her unwillingness to “flaunt” (in her words) her faith.

Perhaps this is partly why, as a Christian, May avoided the scrutiny directed at Lib Dem leader and evangelical Christian Tim Farron over the past week of his stance on homosexuality and abortion.

As Farron wriggled – first saying he didn’t want to make “theological pronouncements” on whether or not being gay is a sin (and then, days later, announcing that it isn’t) – May’s critics scratched their heads about why her voting record on such matters isn’t in the media spotlight.

She has a socially conservative voting record when it comes to such subjects. As the journalist and activist Owen Jones points out, she has voted against equalising the age of consent, repealing Section 28, and gay adoption (twice).

Although her more recent record on gay rights is slightly better than Farron’s – she voted in favour of same-sex marriage throughout the process, and while Farron voted against the Equality Act Sexual Orientation Regulations in 2007 (the legislation obliging bed and breakfast owners and wedding cake makers, etc, not to discriminate against gay people), May simply didn’t attend.

May has also voted for the ban on sex-selective abortions, for reducing the abortion limit to 20 weeks, abstained on three-parent babies, and against legalising assisted suicide.

“Looking at how she’s voted, it’s a slightly socially conservative position,” says Nick Spencer, Research Director of the religion and society think tank Theos. “That matches with her generally slightly more economically conservative, or non-liberal, position. But she’s not taking those views off pages of scripture or a theology textbook. What her Christianity does is orient her just slightly away from economic and social liberalism.”

Spencer has analysed how May’s faith affects her politics in his book called The Mighty and the Almighty: How Political Leaders Do God, published over Easter this year. He found that her brand of Christianity underpinned “the sense of mutual rights and responsibilities, and exercising those responsibilities through practical service”.

May’s father was an Anglo-Catholic, and Spencer points out that this tradition has roots in the Christian socialist tradition in the early 20th century. A world away from the late Victorian Methodism that fellow Christian Margaret Thatcher was raised with. “That brought with it a package of independence, hard work, probity, and economic prudence. They’re the values you’d get from a good old Gladstonian Liberal. Very different from May.”

Spencer believes May’s faith focuses her on a spirit of citizenship and communitarian values – in contrast to Thatcher proselytising the virtues of individualism during her premiership.

Cradle Christian

A big difference between May and Farron’s Christianity is that May is neither a convert nor an evangelical.

“She’s a cradle Christian, it’s deep in her bloodstream,” notes Spencer. “That means you’re very unlikely to find a command-and-control type role there, it’s not as if her faith’s going to point her in a single direction. She’s not a particularly ideological politician – it’s given her a groundwork and foundation on which her politics is built.”

This approach appears to be far more acceptable in the eyes of the public than Farron’s self-described “theological pronouncements”.  May is known to be a very private politician who keeps her personal life, including her ideas about faith, out of the headlines.

“I don’t think she has to show off, or join in, she just does it; she goes to church,” as her former cabinet colleague Cheryl Gillan put it simply to May’s biographer Rosa Prince.

The voters’ view

It’s this kind of Christianity – quiet but present, part of the fabric without imposing itself – that chimes most with British voters.

“In this country, given our history and the nature of the established Church, it's something that people recognise and understand even if they don't do it themselves,” says Katie Harrison, Director of the Faith Research Centre at polling company ComRes. “Whether or not it’s as active as it used to be, lots of people see it as a nice thing to have, and they understand a politician who talks warmly about those things. That’s probably a widely-held view.”

Although church and Sunday school attendance is falling (about 13 per cent say they regularly attend Christian religious services, aside from weddings and funerals), most current surveys of the British population find that about half still identify as Christian. And ComRes polling in January 2017 found that 52 per cent of people think it’s important that UK politicians and policy-makers have a good understanding of religion in the UK.

Perhaps this is why May, when asked by The Sunday Times last year how she makes tough decisions, felt able to mention her Christianity:  “There is something in terms of faith, I am a practising member of the Church of England and so forth, that lies behind what I do.”

“I don’t think we’re likely to react hysterically or with paranoid fear if our politicians start talking about their faith,” reflects Spencer. “What we don’t like is if they start ‘preaching’ about it.”

“Don’t do God”

So if May can speak about her personal faith, why was the nation so squeamish when Tony Blair did the same thing? Notoriously, the former Labour leader spoke so frankly about his religion when Prime Minister that his spin doctor Alastair Campbell warned: “We don’t do God.” Some of Blair’s critics accuse him of being driven to the Iraq war by his faith.

Although Blair’s faith is treated as the “watershed” of British society no longer finding public displays of religion acceptable, Spencer believes Blair’s problem was an unusual one. Like Farron, he was a convert. He famously converted to Catholicism as an adult (and by doing so after his resignation, side-stepped the question of a Catholic Prime Minister). Farron was baptised at 21. The British public is more comfortable with a leader who is culturally Christian than one who came to religion in their adulthood, who are subjected to more scrutiny.

That’s why Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May can get away with talking about their faith, according to Spencer. “Brown, a much more cultural Presbyterian, used a lot of Biblical language. Cameron talked about it all the time – but he was able to do so because he had a vague, cultural, undogmatic Anglicanism,” he tells me. “And May holds it at arm’s length and talks about being a clergyman’s daughter, in the same way Brown talked about his father’s moral compass.”

This doesn’t stop May’s hard Brexit and non-liberal domestic policy jarring with her Christian values, however. According to Harrison’s polling, Christian voters’ priorities lie in social justice, and tackling poverty at home and overseas – in contrast with the general population’s preoccupations.

Polling from 2015 (pre-Brexit, granted) found that practising Christians stated more concern about social justice (27 per cent) than immigration (14 per cent). When entering No 10, May put herself “squarely at the service of ordinary working-class people”. Perhaps it’s time for her to practise what she preaches.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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