LONDON Feb 2 Britain this week pressured
one banker to give up his bonus and humiliated another by
stripping him of his knighthood, populist moves that may assuage
taxpayer anger over propping up failed banks, but risk long-term
damage to the City financial district.
Britons, facing bleak job prospects, rising prices and harsh
state spending cuts, are incensed at huge executive pay
packages, in particular bonus payouts to bankers many blame for
triggering Britain's worst recession since World War Two.
Billions of pounds in bonuses are expected to be lavished on
bankers this year on top of hefty salaries, underlining a
widening gap between rich and poor in a country where many
identified rising inequality as one factor behind riots that
ravaged the capital and other British cities last year.
Scrambling for a response to the public mood, the government
urged pay restraint at the Royal Bank of Scotland,
almost completely state owned after being rescued by the
taxpayer, while a committee of civil servants cancelled the
knighthood of the bank's former chief executive.
Critics say the one-off moves are no substitute for systemic
change when tackling excessive corporate pay, and create fears
of a witch hunt among bankers and other business professionals
operating in Britain's finance-driven economy.
The Conservative-led coalition wants to rebalance the
economy but financial services still account for more than 10
percent of output. Prime Minister David Cameron has gone out on
a limb to protect the industry from what he regards as punitive
European Union curbs.
The pay row threatens to escalate over this year's bonus
season as more bumper payouts are awarded, including to American
Bob Diamond, head of Barclays, who caused waves last
year by saying the time for banker remorse was over.
Diamond was awarded a 6.5 million pound bonus in 2011. The
average British household income is 26,000 pounds after tax.
A parliamentary vote next week on banker bonuses, brought
by Britain's opposition Labour party, will throw fuel on the
fire and make the government's dilemma more acute: back banks
and risk public ire, or bash banks and risk damaging business.
"What concerns me is that the government appears to be going
after individuals without first of all establishing the
principles upon which people are going to be judged," former
finance minister Alistair Darling told the BBC on Wednesday.
"We are getting into awful trouble here if we go after
people on a whim and we don't have a clear set of principles
against which we can judge people," he added.
Adding to the sense of confusion is the Conservative-led
government's apparent U-turns on two key messages on executive
pay: that failure should not be rewarded -- and by extension
success should -- and shareholders should take greater action in
blocking excessive remuneration.
The Conservatives are traditionally the party of big
business, while their smaller Liberal Democrat coalition partner
has long been critical of banking excesses.
However, all three main parties have ramped up the rhetoric
in recent weeks, trying to redefine a kinder form of capitalism
to mollify a hostile public reaction.
Under huge pressure, RBS' current boss Stephen Hester on
Sunday waived his bonus, worth almost a million pounds, a move
welcomed by the government even though it had earlier praised
him for making progress in turning the stricken bank around.
Hester was recruited to fix problems at RBS after the bank
hit trouble, and had nothing to do with a disastrous decision by
former boss Fred Goodwin, who on Tuesday lost his knighthood, to
buy a Dutch bank just as the global credit-crisis struck.
Goodwin, dubbed "Fred the Shred" by the media for extracting
savings from deals by axing staff, gained his knighthood -- an
honour bestowed by Britain's queen and which gives the holder
the right to use the title "Sir" -- for services to banking.
Now he joins a group that includes Zimbabwean President
Robert Mugabe and Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu of people
who have subsequently had that prized honour annulled.
Other finance industry figures have escaped censure despite
heavy criticism of their leadership in the credit crisis.
"Scrutiny without fairness, judgment without balance and
action without thought for the unintended consequences must be
avoided. Today, especially on the emotive issue of pay, we are
at risk of doing just that," wrote Confederation of British
Industry chief Roger Carr in Tuesday's Times newsapaper.
The government may have also undermined its drive to urge
shareholders to clamp down on bonuses, which Prime Minister
Cameron last month said was "out of control".
Last week, Business Secretary Vince Cable announced
government plans to give shareholders more powers to block pay
proposals and claw back cash from highly-paid staff who fail to
Britain owns 83 percent of RBS after taxpayers poured 45
billion pounds into the bank to rescue it from insolvency, yet
the government was hesitant to interfere in RBS bonuses, saying
that the bank was run "at arm's length" from the state.
"The government should be making the most of the shareholder
action proposal and putting it into practice. Is it doing that?
No, absolutely not," said Spyro van Leemnen, supporter of the
global Occupy movement against corporate greed, in which
campaigners have pitched tents in London's financial district.
Their chosen site, outside London's iconic St Paul's
Cathedral, has dragged the Church of England into the
increasingly fraught debate on inequality, which last year
prompted resignation of two of the cathedral's top clerics.
The row battered share prices for RBS and Lloyds,
another bank in which taxpayers hold a large stake, with falls
in the company's valuation on Monday far outweighing taxpayer
gains from Hester turning down his million pound bonus.
Commentators ascribed the fall to fears that bonus
restrictions could damage performance.
Some say bonuses are needed to reward achievement and
attract talent in a global job market. Critics say bonuses
appear to be paid regardless of performance and encourage the
kind of short-term risky deals that led to the credit crisis.
"This week we have seen what some have termed 'anti-business
hysteria' but the British public is savvy and recognises that
business is a force for good," said British Chambers of Commerce
chief John Longworth, who worried that the bonus row was
distracting the government from reviving a shrinking economy.
Both left and right-wing British newspapers on Thursday
carried opinion pieces and letters condemning the handling of
the bonus issue.
For some, the government had caved in to mob rule and
targeted two individuals unfairly. For others, the bankers'
censure was symbolic and did not go far enough.
The only certainty appears to be the issue's continued use
as a political football.
Centre-left Labour, in power when RBS was rescued, has been
among the most strident in calling for controls on excessive
pay, in particular at RBS. On Thursday it condemned the
government's handling of RBS bonuses.
"It has been disorderly, chaotic and slipshod and it sends a
terrible signal around the world about the way government deals
with business," Labour finance spokesman Ed Balls said in
Thursday's Financial Times newspaper.