There are resonances for those of us who are beginning to face towards Lent and Holy Week. That one should bear the sins of many is – however we understand it – part of how God deals with human sinfulness.
So Stephen Hester gives up his bonus and Sir Fred Goodwin is stripped of his knighthood. But it seems to me that these responses fail to satisfy. They feel more like unhealthy scapegoating than an atonement which resolves. There are micro and macro dimensions to this.
The micro first … When clergy find themselves in difficulties – attempting to sustain a position which is threatening to become unsustainable, I sometimes suggest that the better thing is to make a concession early on at a time of one’s own choosing and to present it as a helpful flexibility – rather than to have it wrung out of one under pressure as a grudging giving way. Stephen Hester would have been wiser to recognise that he needed to give way early on the issue of his bonus – understanding that in some respects he had become a representative/symbolic figure and that this was not entirely directed at him personally. On the stripping of Fred Goodwin’s knighthood, I can’t say that I feel strongly at all. It is not a pretty sight. It says as much about the honours system as it does about Fred Goodwin. But then churches have an affection for exotic titles which is in inverse proportion to their significance. So I’ll stay out of that one.
And for the macro .. Well we are still working through the consequences of what happened to our financial system in 2008. My sense of how things are is that people feel significantly poorer and they fear that it will get worse before it gets better. There is some element of deep-seated anger about all this – what they trusted as a reasonably stable financial system quite suddenly ceased to be so. The Occupy Protests across the world had the potential to become a significant extra-political ‘people movement’ through which those feelings could be expressed. But that seems to have been lost.
So we are left with this rather unsatisfying pursuit of bankers as a substitute for a comprehensive political and social response which would make some clear statements about the kind of society which we are now going to build. Yes I do think that the pay of people like Stephen Hester is excessive. Having been central to the failures, it is risky for bankers to suggest that they are the people best placed to sort it out – and that, if they are not rewarded as they have been before, they will take their talents elsewhere. No wonder the pressure builds.
But for me it isn’t really about that. Like any ‘man or woman at the ATM’, I have almost no ability to determine whether a banker’s pay represents reward for success or failure. What I care about is proportionality. I believe that societies in which the gap between rich and poor is smaller tend to be more contented societies. And we have lost that – lost it to the secular individualism which says that whatever is all right for me is all right.
The fact that the Stephen Hester and Fred Goodwin issues have been played out in Scotland would suggest that this is an issue for us as much as for any other society. Yet one of the things which I like about Scotland is our ability to be rather more communitarian than other places. And in the end, it isn’t just finance or politics or community. It’s spiritual – rooted in beliefs and values.