Banks tried to hide their bonuses, but now the game is up. What next?

Britain has always valued a sense of fair play. It is time to demand a fair banking system.

2011 was a year of constraint and contrition for the banking sector. Bonus pools were reduced, balance sheets slimmed down and high profile bankers heroically waived their bonuses.

Or so the banks' PR machines would have had us believe. Last Friday, as analysts trawled through Barclays and RBS's annual report and Lloyds' pay statement, a very different picture emerged from that painted by the banks.

Bob Diamond's pay packet for 2011 could be as much as £17.7 million. The head of state-backed RBS' investment banking division, John Hourican, was handed a package worth £7.4 million. And the Chief Executive of Lloyds netted £3.5 million. All in all Barclays, Lloyds and RBS paid out in excess of £90 million to top executives in 2011.

There is a clear injustice in a sector which is implicitly and explicitly subsidised by the taxpayer awarding itself bloated rewards at a time when the public are enduring austerity cuts, a squeeze on real incomes, and rising unemployment.

But the public outrage taps into something deeper. After all, the British sense of fair play has always been premised on there being haves and have-nots.

Public anger taps into the stark fact that the banking system is failing to fulfil some of its basic functions because the industry is grotesquely skewed towards socially unproductive activities that allow a small elite to extract vast wealth to the detriment of the many.

Despite a financial crisis, a £1.2 trillion bailout and ongoing public outcry, it can still seem like there is no viable alternative to business as usual. But it is worth reminding ourselves that this is not universal: the British banking system stands out from its US and European counterparts.

Firstly, the UK banking sector is one of the most concentrated in the world. In the retail sector six large national banks account for 92 per cent of personal current accounts, 85 per cent of mortgages, and 88 per cent of small business accounts .

Secondly, it is one of the least diverse in terms of the types and functions of financial providers. Whereas in the UK, the big four dominate the high street, in Germany a wide range of local and mutually owned banks have a 70 per cent share of the market for loans and deposits.

Thirdly, it is the largest in size relative to our economy. Assets of UK banks are almost six times GDP, compared to the US where they are roughly equal.

These features enabled the City to generate huge profits in the boom years, but they are also root causes of its inability to serve the needs of households and businesses.

The financial crisis exploded the myth that profits booked in the financial sector means wealth for the UK. Figures from the IMF show that despite the fact that, in relative terms, the UK banking sector is six times the size of its US equivalent, it generates the same amount of total tax revenue -- less than a paltry 2 per cent.

Now the long-term effects this British exceptionalism are clear for all to see. We have a banking system unable to allocate credit to viable businesses, provide bank accounts to low-income households, or even keep our money safe.

According to the New Economics Foundation, the UK lags other countries in achieving universal access to financial products and services, with 1.5m adults still lacking a current account. The branch network continues to shrink with a 44 per cent reduction since 1990 leaving more communities unbanked.

And Britain's small businesses struggle more than their European and American counterparts to access credit, with some 370,000 SMEs failing to secure loan finance from mainstream financial institutions in 2011 alone.

But what comes next?

Martin Kettle recently argued that the mood of the nation is to muddle along. The public just want to get back to normal with as little fuss as possible. Whilst it may be true that there is little appetite for a revolutionary overthrow of liberal capitalism, there is clear evidence that there is growing interest in a different way of doing things.

The alternative financial sector has flourished in the aftermath of the financial crisis -- filling the gaps where the big banks are simply unable to provide.

Households and businesses are becoming increasingly dependent on these alternatives. Unfortunately their rise is paralleled -- in fact dwarfed by the increase in doorstop and payday lenders which only goes to demonstrate the size of the unmet market demand.

These alternative institutions are still a tiny part of the financial ecosystem. But the sector is at a tipping point. It now needs to work together to create a narrative which takes it beyond a niche industry. It needs to the let the public know that there is alternative out there, and why its better for them.

That's why we have launched Move Your Money UK, a campaign encouraging people to move their money to ethical, local or mutual financial providers. There is appetite for change. We may not be in a revolutionary moment, but the public are no longer willing to accept business as usual from our banking sector and are looking for something better.

Louis Brooke is a co-founder of Move Your Money UK. Follow the campaign on Twitter @moveyourmoneyuk and Facebook.

Louis Brooke is a spokesperson for Move Your Money UK, a not for profit campaign group, promoting alternatives to the big banks. He is also communications manager for London Rebuilding Society, and co-founder and chairman of educational resource company now>press>play.

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What’s it like to be a human rights activist in post-Pussy Riot Russia?

It is five years since the feminist punk collective crashed Moscow’s Cathedral in a performance that got some of them jailed.

On 21 February 2012, five brightly-dressed members of Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot took to the alter of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to protest links between the Russian Orthodox Church and its “chief saint” Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!” they shouted from beneath now-iconic balaclavas.

The “Punk Prayer” was both a political statement and a powerful feminist message. Six months later, a judge sentenced three of the girls to two years in prison (one was rapidly released) on a conspicuously apolitical conviction of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.

These past five years, Russia’s involvement in crises in Syria and Ukraine has cast a dark shadow over relations with an increasingly cleaved-off West. The year 2015 saw opposition politician Boris Nemtsov murdered some 500 metres from the Kremlin walls.

Domestically, society has constricted people challenging the political status quo. However, low-key initiatives retain traction.

“Artists are simply silent,” says Russian curator and gallerist Marat Guelman, who left for Montenegro in early 2015. “It is better not to say anything about politics, it is better to bypass these issues.”

This is a major difference from five years ago. “Despite persecution against Pussy Riot, people were not afraid to defend them,” he says. “It was a better time.”

There are three topics artists and curators now avoid, says artist and feminist activist Mikaela. One is “homosexuality . . . especially if it involves adolescents”, she says, citing a 2015 exhibit about LGBT teens called “Be Yourself”. Authorities closed it and interrogated the galley owner. “Then the war in Ukraine,” she says. “Russian Orthodoxy is the third topic you cannot tackle.”

Marianna Muravyeva, a law professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that aside from the government completely discarding human rights rhetoric, the most significant legal change is the “gay propaganda” law and “legislation against those who insult the feelings of believers”.

The latter came into force in July 2013. Since then, the Orthodox Church has made deeper societal incursions. Muravyeva says that the secular nature of the Soviet Union led to residual feelings of guilt towards the Church – and now it uses that “capital”.

Mikaela observes a “cultural expansion”, citing a new TV channel, radio station and three new churches in her neighbourhood alone.

Orthodox activist attacks on exhibits have increased. In August 2015, they targeted an exhibit at one of Moscow’s most prominent art galleries. Its perpetrators were found guilty of “petty hooliganism” and handed a 1,000 rouble fine (£14 by today’s rates).

“Any word written in Old Slavonic lettering is spirituality,” says Guelman. “Any work of art by a modern artist . . . depravity, sin, the impact of the West.”

Similar groups are active across Russia, and galleries err on the side of caution. Perpetrators, while self-organised, believe their actions to be state-sanctioned, says Muravyeva. They are influenced by “the kinds of messages” conveyed by the government. 

Nowadays, self-organisation is integral to artistic expression. Mikaela witnessed educational institutions and foreign foundations telling artists “we are with you”, “we know you are smart” but they cannot host political works for fear of closure. Not knowing where the “invisible line” lies foments uncertainty. “It’s self-censorship,” she says.

Dissident artist Petr Pavlensky, notorious for nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in late 2013 (“Fixation”) and setting fire to the doors of the FSB in 2015, advocates personal agency.

“Fixation” was about a sense of helplessness in Russia that must be overcome; he tried to convey the amount of power the castrated have. “Pavlensky says, ‘Look, I have even less than you’,” says Guelman. The artist and his partner Oksana Shalygina are now in France intending to seek asylum after sexual assault accusations.

Some rise to the opportunity, such as Daria Serenko. She rides the Moscow Metro carrying political posters as part of Tikhy Piket or “Silent Protest”. Her 12 February sign depicted a girl with her head in her arms inundated by the comments received if a women alleges rape (“she was probably drunk”, “what was she wearing?”).

However, as a lone individual in a public space, she experienced hostility. “Men, as always, laughed,” she posted on Facebook afterwards. Earlier this month an anonymous group pasted painted plants accompanied by anti-domestic violence messages around Omsk, southwestern Siberia.

Their appearance corresponded with Putin signing legislation on 7 February decriminalising domestic abuse that causes “minor harm”. While it doesn’t specifically mention women, Muravyeva says that the message “women can manage on their own” is a “disaster”.

On 27 January, after Russia’s parliament passed the final draft, pro-Kremlin tabloid Life released a video (“He Beats You Because He Loves You”) showing how to inflict pain without leaving a mark.

Heightened social awareness is aided by online networks. Since “Punk Prayer”, the proportion of people using the internet in Russia has exploded. In 2011, it was 33 per cent, while in 2016 it was 73 per cent, according annual Freedom House reports. Authorities have concurrently exerted stronger controls over it, eg. targeting individual social media users through broadly-worded laws against “extremism”.

Last July, the hashtag #ЯНеБоюсьСказать (“#IamNotAfraidtoSay”) went viral. Women documented experiences of sexual violence. Russian organisation Сёстры (“Sisters”), which helps survivors receive psychological support, receives “250-350” crisis calls annually.

“Over the past year, the number of applications increased,” because of the hashtag, it says. New media platforms Meduza and Wonderzine also emerged as more “socially aware” outlets. Previously “all we had was LiveJournal communities,” Mikaela says.

Bottom-up challenges are partially due to a generational shift. “Nobody bothered before,” says Muravyeva. “Those children who were born after ‘95 . . . they were already born in a very free society – they don’t know what it is to be afraid, they don’t know what it is to be self-censoring, what it is to be really scared of the state.”

Aliide Naylor is a British journalist and former Arts and Ideas Editor of The Moscow Times.

> Now read Anoosh Chakelian’s interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot