Why Stephen Hester's £963,000 bonus is a distraction

Quibbling over the bonus paid to the RBS boss is simply gesture politics.

Stephen Hester, the head of the Royal Bank of Scotland, is to receive a bonus of £963,000. Predictably, this has triggered outrage among the commentariat, and harsh condemnations from politicians.

Liberal Democrat Foreign Minister, Jeremy Browne, told Question Time that Hester should decline the bonus as "a question of honour", while the shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna told the Today programme that Hester's salary of more than £1m should be sufficient reward for doing a good job.

Outrage around bonus season is becoming something of an annual tradition. But what purpose does it really serve? In the last few hours alone, I've heard three radio discussions of the ins and outs of Hester's package. It's half what he received last year; it will all be paid in shares; he could have been earning much more in another job; he wasn't even a banker at the time of the crash.

There is no disputing that the sums of money involved are grotesque. The fundamental injustice that bankers continue to receive ludicrous sums of money while jobs are being lost across the country prompts a visceral anger in many people. This very real, very widespread rage is what politicians are attempting to tap into when they indulge in a spot of banker-bashing.

One point that comes up repeatedly is that of fairness: why should these people earn more than doctors, nurses, civil servants, or engineers? It's a valid question, but it is not answered by removing one banker's bonus. Scoring political points by forcing one individual to refuse their reward package does not solve the wider problem of sky-high financial remuneration.

In this summary of the arguments for and against banker's bonuses, Dr Ruth Bender of the Cranfield School of Management explains that change to pay packages must be consistent:

We cannot change pay for just some bankers -- just in the UK, or only in certain banks -- any more than we can change the traffic rules so that blue or red cars have to drive on the right! A few years ago I did research into executive pay, interviewing the great and the good to determine why they got paid what they did. One City CEO explained it very simply. He said that if "they" were to halve the pay of all the CEOs in the City, then no-one would bat an eyelid. But it would have to be all the CEOs. If even one individual retained his high compensation, then the others would demand parity.

RBS is a taxpayer-owned bank, and it is fair that it is subject to extreme scrutiny. But this forensic focus on the remuneration package of Hester, who is, at the end of the day, just one person, risks acting as a distraction from deep systemic, structural problems. Both EU and UK regulation have so far failed to addressed these deeper issues, preferring to focus on the symptoms rather than the causes.

This Economist blog summarises what some of these problems are:

Taxpayers' underwriting of bankers' operations -- socialised risk and privatised reward -- is one clear reason for excessive returns. The cartel-like structure of high-end banking, driven by both regulatory barriers to entry and economies of scale, also enables the sector to generate rents.

But in investment banking, the biggest cause of high pay could be clients' principle-agent problem and the "natural" inefficiency of big deals. When a management team chooses an investment bank, they likely to be more concerned about protecting their reputation ("no one got fired for hiring Goldman Sachs") than saving money. And in a multibillion dollar deal, shareholders are unlikely to kick up a fuss over a few million dollars wasted on expensive bankers. As a banker interviewed by the New Yorker put it, "[if] you are going to do a five-billion-dollar deal...Are you really going to fight about whether a certain fee is 2.5 per cent or 3.3 per cent?"

So, no, objectively Hester shouldn't be receiving such a high bonus. But it is the system which makes this compensation expected -- necessary, even -- that should be looked at, not the details of the payment received by one man, in one year. Such gesture politics do nothing to solve the underlying problem. We should be more worried about that fact that no-one appears willing to undertake the fundamental restructuring of the financial sector that would ensure fairness and prevent another financial crash.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser