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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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At Labour conference, activists and politicians can't avoid each other – but try their best to "unsee"

My week, from havoc in the Labour family to a sublime act of real-life trolling – via a shopping centre.

I like to take a favourite novel with me to party conference for when it all gets too much, and this year I took China Miéville’s The City & the City. It takes place in the fictional cities of Besžel and Ul Qoma, two metropolises that exist in the same geographic space but must dutifully “unsee” one another or risk the sanction of Breach, the secret police force. It turned out to be a better allegory for what was going on outside my hotel than I had expected.

Labour, as I don’t need to tell you, is badly split on almost everything. Now that the acrid leadership race has reached its inevitable conclusion, activists and politicians on both sides are operating as if they had a standing duty to “unsee” each other. The atmosphere feels a bit like a family dinner after a blazing row: everyone is aware that things have been said that will take years to be forgiven, if they ever will be, so the conversation is largely banal and superficial.

The exception is the conference floor, the only place where Corbynites and Corbynsceptics cannot unsee each other, which was therefore the scene of several acrimonious confrontations after tricky votes. It’s difficult to predict where Labour goes from here. The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) is largely against a split, but its members surely can’t spend the next four years dutifully pretending not to see one another,or their activists?

 

Chaos and confusion

Would it have been better for Jeremy Corbyn if his defeated challenger, Owen Smith, had done a little bit better against him – not just in the final vote but throughout the contest? All summer, Smith distinguished himself only through his frequent gaffes, to the point where it felt more appropriate to describe him as a participant in the leadership race rather than a combatant.

The difficulty for both Corbyn and his critics is that his opponents in the PLP have no clear leader. As a result, their dissatisfaction is amorphous, rather than being productively channelled into a set of specific demands or criticisms, which Corbyn could then reject or accept. The overwhelming feeling about his leadership among the PLP is that “something must be done”. So whenever an MP embarks on a freelance assault – Margaret Hodge’s no-confidence motion, say, or Clive Betts’s attempt to bring back elections to the shadow cabinet – the majority leaps on the scheme. Corbyn’s critics reason that at least it’s something.

Although fractious Labour MPs might not see it that way, the decision not to restore shadow cabinet elections helps their cause. Taking away the leader’s ability to choose his ministerial team was a recipe for chaos – chaos that would, rightly, have been blamed on them.

 

Custody rights

If the Labour family would be, as I suspect, better off seeking a divorce, there is an irony that one of the things that they all agree on is the fate of the kids. The party is entirely united behind its leader in his opposition to grammar schools – as is almost every serious thinker on education policy, from Policy Exchange on the right through to Melissa Benn on the left.

Still, Labour will encounter a visceral type of resistance to its stance from the alumni of grammars, who, regardless of what the studies show, attribute their success to their attendance at selective schools. I can understand that. Although I went to a comprehensive, the emotional pull of one’s upbringing is hard to escape. I can, for example, read all the studies that show that children in single-parent families do worse – but I find it hard to experience it as anything other than an awful attack on my mother, to whom I owe everything.

Winning the argument over schooling will require a sensitive ear to those for whom the argument against the schools seems like an attack on their parents.

 

Pudding and pie

One of the nice things about being from a single-parent family is that I don’t have to admit to flaws – merely to unresolved kinks that would have been ironed out had my absent father stuck around. One such kink is my capacity for procrastination, which
results in my making decisions too often at the last minute.

This always comes back to bite me at party conference. At dinner events, I frequently put off picking my meal options to the point that I have to eat whatever the kitchen has left. At one meal this year, I was lucky enough to have three courses of pudding, but at another, my hastily cobbled-together starter seemed to consist entirely of pesto, taramasalata and rocket.

 

Too late

The best thing about party conference is sharing a panel with a politician you don’t know very much about who turns out to be highly impressive. It’s particularly cheering now, when my optimism about politics is at a low ebb. I try to meet them properly for coffee afterwards, although because of my capacity for putting things off, that doesn’t always happen.

Last year, I was chairing a particularly testy fringe on the Israel-Palestine conflict. The then shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn, was running late and an MP from the 2015 intake had to field all the questions on her own. She did this with immense poise and knowledge, while clearly having a sense of how unhelpful some of the louder, angrier voices were – during one lengthy monologue from the floor, she turned and rolled her eyes at me. Her name was Jo Cox.

I kept meaning to get to know her, but I never got around to ringing her office, and now I never will.

 

Banter and bargains

A colleague alerts me to a sublime act of real-life trolling. When Everton opened a second branch of its team store in Liverpool’s shopping centre, it picked an innocuous name: Everton Two. Innocuous, that is, until you realise that the shopping centre is called Liverpool One. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories