George Osborne during a visit to the Royal Mint on March 25, 2014 in Llantrisant, Wales. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Osborne's U-turn on RBS bonuses has undermined his credibility

After voting against a cap as recently as January, the Chancellor has taken fright. 

For months, George Osborne has been battling in the European court to prevent the introduction of an EU cap on bank bonuses. But today at least, he's done the reverse. Under the new rules, banks are required to limit bonuses to 100 per cent of basic salaries unless they win shareholder approval for a cap of 200 per cent. It was a loophole that RBS intended to exploit in its pay-outs to executives. But rather than allowing the bank to do so (as its opposition to the cap would suggest), the government, as RBS's majority shareholder, has vetoed the plan. 

Abandoning the pretence that UK Financial Investments, which controls the state's 81 per cent share, acts independently of ministers, a Treasury spokesman said: "Under the new strategy set out by RBS's chief executive, Ross McEwan, RBS is heading in the right direction, but it has not yet completed its restructuring and remains a majority publicly owned bank. So an increase to the bonus cap cannot be justified and the government made clear it would not have supported such a proposal. The government therefore agrees that retaining the cap at the default ratio of 1:1 and RBS's proposed pay policy is appropriate."

In other words, far from opposing the EU cap, Osborne has acted entirely in accordance with its principles. It is a double standard that Labour has been quick to pounce on, noting that ministers voted against the party's motion to impose a minimum cap on RBS just a few months ago. Shadow Treasury minister Cathy Jamieson said:  

George Osborne is in a terrible muddle over bankers' bonuses. He is spending taxpayer's money on a legal fight in Brussels against the bonus cap and yet imposing the minimum cap at RBS.

The Government has bowed to pressure on RBS and finally admitted that bonuses of two times salary would be unacceptable at what remains a Bank in Government ownership. They voted against Labour's motion to impose the minimum cap at RBS in January, but have now been forced to reverse their position.

But confusingly at the same time the Chancellor is supporting higher bonuses in Lloyds Bank and elsewhere.

People who are facing a cost-of-living crisis are rightly angry about excessive rewards for failure in banking over recent years. The Chancellor should accept the logic of today's announcement and drop his legal action to block the bonus cap.

The Treasury has sought to justify the inconsistency by arguing that the large taxpayer stake in RBS means bonuses must be restrained. A Treasury spokesman said of the differing treatment of Lloyds and RBS: "It [Lloyds] is majority private-sector owned and the government's shareholding in the bank is now down to less than a quarter. Reflecting these different circumstances, the government will use its shareholder stake to support setting the bonus cap at the maximum allowable ratio of 2:1, in line with all other majority privately owned banks." 

But as so often in the case of Osborne, this decision has more to do with politics than policy. Ministers oppose a bonus cap on the grounds that, as Andrew Bailey, the head of the Prudential Regulation Authority, has said, any limit will "just increase base pay, reduce claw back and undermine financial stability". But all of these objections apply in the case of RBS. The bank responded to the government's veto by announcing that its new CEO Ross McEwan would receive an extra £1m a year in "allowances", doubling his salary. 

The reality is that the political cost of allowing the 81 per cent-taxpayer owned RBS to pay full bonuses was simply too high for Osborne to bear. Labour would have leapt on the move as further evidence of the Tories "standing up for the wrong people" and defending the super-rich. But by choosing political opportunism over intellectual consistency, Osborne has undermined his credibility with the free-market right. 

P.S. Then again, the Chancellor has never been one for consistency. Back in 2009, he declared: "It is totally unacceptable for bank bonuses to be paid on the back of taxpayer guarantees. It must stop." 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.