In his new book, Them and Us. Changing Britain – Why We Need a Fair Society, Will Hutton describes bankers as “exceptionally greedy with over-inflated opinions of their talents linked to an exaggerated sense of their own importance in the economic scheme of things”.
My question is: Why have we allowed this to happen? Surely any notion of new politics should confront this level of payout to the self-serving and the undeserving.
There are serious doubts about our commitment to fairness as a fundamental issue at the heart of our politics and our democracy. Since ancient times – when philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle and Socrates sought to understand society, exploring ideas of governance and politics and giving meaning to the lives of individuals – political debate has rightly been preoccupied with the values, ethics, virtues and principles which should drive any form of progressive politics.
Towering above everything else has been the idea of fairness in the context of justice. The ongoing bankers’ bonus fiasco provides a powerful reminder of how fairness and equality have slipped down the political agenda of both Britain and Scotland.
After a period of consultation, the banks have now rejected the Coalition Government’s overtures to reform their bonus regime and to impose some restraint on the size of the salary increases now being enjoyed by senior bankers. This was hardly surprising.
But in an arrogant and audacious manner, the banks have said instead that they will increase lending to small business as a sweetener to paying themselves billions of pounds in bonuses. Senior bankers, investment managers and the banks themselves are so removed from reality that they can not understand the anger of the public who are now caught up in a new era of austerity and anxiety, through no fault of their own, and who see the spectacle of a self-anointed elite rewarding themselves whilst the financial screw tightens on everyone else.
This is not a debate about the redistribution of wealth or financial envy or punitive taxation for the few or punishment for their reckless and selfish behaviour. Nor is it about the fact that some of these banks, at least in the short term, are owned by the taxpayers who are the very people being treated with contempt. This is a debate about fairness and the role it should play in the way we conduct our national affairs. This is why the issue has such significance and resonance well beyond the world of banking.
The behaviour of banks and banking raises some fundamental questions about the operation of modern capitalism. Big finance is losing all sense of proportion, fair dealing and due desert – and, along with all that, respect.
Fairness is wired into the public’s DNA but we now seem at a loss as a society and a political class to be able to impose this virtue on the market-place. Instead, we are captivated by the power of money and seem obsessed with financial services and banking, often to the exclusion of other economic issues such as making things which are crucial for our long-term economic benefit.
We need to put the banking system into some sense of perspective and provide a more measured view of its role in our future. This distorted view of finance is reinforced by the Conservative Party, the media and a powerful set of establishment bureaucrats and opinion formers who create a false aura of infallibility around finance and banking that permeates our national life and dominates our mindset.
This has to change.
The founder of John Lewis in a BBC broadcast in 1957 said: “Capitalism has done enormous good and suits human nature far too well to be given up as long as human nature remains the same. But the perversion has given us too unstable a society. Differences of reward must be large enough to induce people to do their best but the present differences are too great. If we do not find some way of correcting that perversion of capitalism our society will break down.” People accept that effort deserves reward and usually they discriminate between different types of effort. Throughout history, the philosophical debate has been about important principles: due proportion; just desert and fair reward; and justice. Our society, though, has got it dangerously wrong. Without a rethink of the enormous excesses and staggering differences of income and wealth in Britain, we will undermine solidarity, destroy trust and mutual respect, undermine the motivation of the many and continue to undervalue certain important aspects of our economic and social wellbeing.
The Coalition Government has talked about ‘progressive politics’ but there seems little evidence that either the Conservative Party or the Lib Dems are seriously interested in elevating justice and fairness above inequality, injustice and unfairness. The challenge now lies with Labour.
Despite their acceptance of the virtues of our banking system and the light regulatory regime adopted by previous Labour governments, Ed Miliband is now trying to embrace a new approach to politics which will re-establish fairness as the key driver of social and economic change.
There has to be a better way of doing our politics and a more enriching way of living our lives. We need a political philosophy which accepts that the worth of the ends we pursue, the meaning of the lives we lead, and the quality of the common life we share are inextricably linked to fairness and justice.
A just society can’t be achieved simply by maximising utility or by securing freedom of choice.
Michael Sandel, in his most recent book, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?, says: “Justice is not only about the right way to distribute things. It is also about the right way to value things. Justice involves more than the size and distribution of the national product … it is about higher moral purposes.” We have to understand the moral limit of markets. Our unfair world must become fairer.