Blaming the right bankers is too tricky: let's just pick one

Andrew Bailey thinks it "more than odd" that CEOs have avoided blame.

So far, those at the very top of failing banks - chairmen and chief executives -  have for the most part avoided going down with the ship, and today the Prudential Regulation Authority's Andrew Bailey has called them out. It is "more than odd", he said, speaking at a conference in London, that people at the very top of the chain have avoided formal charges while those beneath them shoulder the blame.

It is to my mind a very striking observation and difficulty with the crisis that no formal action has been taken against any chief executive or any chairmen of a failed institution. Not because I have a personal vendetta against them but it is more than odd that action has been taken against people lower down institutions but not at the top.

The explanation he'd been given, Bailey said, was that there was a “problem with the trail of evidence”, which allowed bosses to “delegate responsibility as well as tasks”. This was evidence, he said, of a “flaw in the system” peculiar to banking.

Blaming your juniors is hardly a custom specific to a single industry - but in this case, over misdemeanors that seem to spring directly from company culture,  it seems particularly logical to blame those at the top. (This recently did happen at HBOS - and today Bailey said he "welcomed" Vince Cable's investigatation of a boardroom ban for the "HBOS three" at the top, Lord Stevenson, Sir James Crosby and Andy Hornby.) Follow this logic any further, however, and things start looking a little less clear cut. Here's the FT on some further causes of the collapse of HBOS:

Three accessories after the fact not named in the report are Westminster, the City and the financial press. HBOS’s board were buccaneering heroes to many in the Noughties. Sir James’s New Labour chums secured his knighthood in 2006. Gung ho investors pushed HBOS shares higher between June 2004 and 2007 than any bank stock, Standard Chartered excepted. Business journalists mostly bought the bank’s bullish story, including Lombards past and present.

But if the blame is to be so broadly spread, it becomes meaningless. Blame too few, though, and it becomes scapegoating. Here's Robert Peston:

Here's the thing: if the HBOS troika are to be blacklisted from the City, why not ban those who ran the other failed banks, RBS, Bradford & Bingley and Northern Rock?

The important thing, as Peston points out, is to mete out the cathartic punishment so necessary to the public without damaging banks too much. As the potential for blame stretches to an entire industry and beyond, there will be an element of scapegoating here, and it would be moral to place this scapegoating at the top. But we must be careful not to set off a domino effect - if we blame x - why not blame y? - and risk harming too many powerful players in too many institutions. Perhaps the solution is just to pick one banker and drive them into the wasteland outside the city (hackney marshes/Essex?), and then have done. Suggestions on a post-card.

Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.