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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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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

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