I have long been convinced that a life peerage is very much akin to a pacifier. If a significant figure is retiring from public life and has the potential to command media attention, give them a nice title on which to suck and stop kvetching, plus the ability to claim £300 a day for spending a couple of hours in the House of Lords. Giving them a formal public platform has the brilliantly counterintuitive effect of diminishing their future risk index by making them one of many within the Westminster bubble.
The success, or lack thereof, in their former post seems a secondary consideration. And so it is with Sir Mervyn King. This week George Osborne announced that the outgoing Governor of the Bank of England would be taking his place within our unelected pantheon of gown and wig after his retirement at the end of the month. Sporting metaphors blinked like newly born rabbits in the lights of the annual Bankers and Merchants dinner. “You had to play on a sticky wicket,” mused the Chancellor. It was “a game of two halves”, added King.
The only problem is that many would disagree with the post-match analysis – even to the basic level of whether team GB won or lost. We are still a long way off from recovering pre-crisis economic activity levels, unlike the US or Germany, for instance. Inflation has been consistently way above the BoE’s target for many months. Solutions like Funding for Lending appear to have had little impact – lending to SMEs has actually decreased under the scheme. Too little of the river of cash being pumped into the system via Quantitative Easing appears to have trickled through to the real economy – the allegation is that banks are using such schemes and cash to shore up their own balance sheets.
Mervyn King’s involvement in the more political aspects of economic strategy has also, rightly, been contentious. Documents released in November 2010 showed an oddly keen involvement in the coalition’s personnel and policies. His blessing of the austerity programme, which has now been questioned even by the IMF, could be seen as almost co-authoring it.
There is also significant criticism of King’s running of the organisation in the “first half” – the one he would term the “nice half”. It is suggested, correctly in my view, that his obsessive focus on inflation targeting failed to take into account the downward pressure on prices created by cheap Chinese imports entering the UK market and so, in effect, allowed the economy “to run too hot during the boom years”. Coupled with very light touch banking regulation, this could be argued to have sown the seeds of the crisis which followed.
Arguably, however, the most distasteful and dishonourable part of his legacy is his attempt to absolve himself of all responsibility. His explanation last year on Radio 4 had a distinct whiff of “nothing to do with me, guv”. This was a failure of “the system”, he claimed. Isn’t that the system which he oversaw from a key position? “With the benefit of hindsight, we should have shouted from the rooftops that a system had been built in which banks were too important to fail, that banks had grown too quickly and borrowed too much.”
It was not hindsight that was lacking. It was plain old present sight. The growth of banks, the mergers, the risky ventures, the out-of-control borrowing – these were not things which happened in secret. They happened in plain sight and with state approval.
Mervyn King blames “a collective lack of imagination”. We, all of us, failed to see the iceberg. We are, apparently, collectively blameworthy. The only problem is that most of us were in the engine room shovelling coal. Mervyn King was one of the people on the bridge. More than that, since one of the BoE’s core purposes and strategic priorities is to “maintain stability and improve the resilience of the financial system”, he was specifically in charge of the looking-out-for-icebergs department.
In those circumstances, it is adding insult to injury for him to shout back from his peerage lifeboat to the rest of us, now drowning in a freezing sea of debt and austerity, “well, you didn’t see the iceberg either”. Why wouldn’t we want to keep this sort of expert, constructive and visionary input a part of our legislature for the rest of his natural life? Happy retirement, Sir Mervyn. We look forward to being blamed for future shipwrecks.