Scapegoats and reality

It’s difficult to feel too much sympathy for Stephen Hester and Fred Goodwin but I have to admit to some. The notion that Goodwin was single handedly responsible for the banking crisis and its aftermath, as reported in some news reports over the last few days is frankly ludicrous. He wasn’t even single handedly responsible for the problems at RBS – those around him share the responsibility if only for not arguing enough. And has everyone forgotten about Lehmanns? And Northern Rock?

Similarly, Hester was not the only banker in line for a large bonus. And the fact that he’s not taking it has no real impact on anybody else. I have a problem with ‘rewards for failure’ as these bonuses are being called but it’s not clear that he has failed – many argue he’s doing a good job. And the way to prevent large bonuses is to stop promising them, not to promise them and then either renege on the deal or shame the recipient into waiving them. The truth of the matter seems to be that actually doing something practical and constructive, like changing the rules of the game for the future, is too difficult so we’re left with knee jerk scapegoating. The press and politicians should be ashamed of themselves.

Going back to Mr Goodwin, now reduced to the normal honorific, he is far from the only knight of the realm who has been found to have feet of clay. Neither is it a new thing. In Mallory’s ‘Morte dArthur’ knights who blotted their copybooks were not stripped of their knighthoods but given quests to fulfil. Damsels were rescued, grails sought, dragons slain. Maybe the forfeiture committee could have been more inventive and sent Sir Fred off to redeem his name by some noble deed. Or maybe we should not award knighthoods to people who have amassed large fortunes but focus instead on people who have shown themselves capable of noble deeds in the first place. And poets, playwrights and jazz musicians obviously.

Tony Earnshaw

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