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I Vow My Bonus to Thee My Country

Posted: 1/02/2012 14:32

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Thus far, the political debate surrounding bankers' bonuses has been as nuanced and subtle as a fart in a lift.

The left cry foul of the inherent unfairness of executives getting a further £1m+ on top of their already astronomical wages and the right's adherence to its free market religion ensnares them into arguing top bankers derive a moral right to enjoy the fruit of their labors.

The tug of war between these competing philosophies of remuneration has most recently, and most fiercely, been fought-out over Stephen Hester's £1m bonus, which he has now rejected.

Labour says that whilst RBS is 83% state-owned, and its share price is nowhere near what the government paid, top bankers should exercise restraint - the same restraint public sector workers are demonstrating with their 1% pay cap.

David Cameron and George Osborne have countered, saying that they waived the bonus through because it's performance-related and Stephen Hester could get much more elsewhere.

To my mind, this debate is too simplistic and clichéd. It needs to derive from how we, as a country, define rumeration - a topic that has not been sufficiently discussed.

Stephen Hester has been universally lauded for his management of RBS's fortunes through its, and the country's, most devastating economic period since the Great Depression. The task, which is not yet complete, has been, and will continue to be gargantuan, but Hester has already delivered much improvement. For example, in 2009 RBS had an operating loss of £6.1bn, but in 2010, the bank had an operating profit of £2.1bn.

We all owe him thanks for this, because we are relying on a recovery in the RBS share price so we can sell our stake and pay down our national debt.

Thus, this is where I disagree with my partners on the Left. We should recognise the good public service that Stephen Hester is undertaking and show our appreciation.

But similarly to those on the Left I wholeheartedly oppose Hester's bonus. Cameron should have blocked it and the fact he did not do so speaks volumes about how he defines fairness.

Why have we, as a country, come to think of rewards as purely financial? If a mother babysits her grandchild, on her son's behalf, he does not bung her a tenner. Instead, he might cook her dinner. One would think a man of Stephen Hester's intelligence would recognise his £1.2m salary is already generous and would gather determination to return RBS to health, not from the prospect of personal reward, but as a service to his fellow countrymen, who are suffering a real fall in living standards.

What happened to the days when people were happy to serve their country without personal gain?

Recently, I made a visit to Westminster Abbey. In that most magnificent of buildings is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, within which lies the body of an unidentified serviceman. So many men were slaughtered during WW1 that millions of them had their identities erased; their humanity stripped from them. Many of these men were poor men, from inner-city slums. They were sons, brothers and fiancés who went off to fight for King and country. Did they expect a £1.2m salary plus a £1m bonus? No, they didn't.

They fought for something greater - their country.

The international financial crisis of 2008 has been described by numerous prominent economists as the economic version of war. People forget that society very almost crumbled beneath us. Just as shells exploded around the feet of servicemen, during the Battle of the Somme, explosions were taking place throughout our economy, in 2008, and continue to do so.

Therefore, just as our country relied upon the selfless character of servicemen in both Great Wars, and many more since, we now require similarly-inclined banking executives to serve our country through its present economic war.

So, to Stephen Hester, I say: yes, you may very well be entitled to a performance-related bonus, and you deserve our thanks, but in times of hardship we need to pull together as a country. That means making sacrifices. To some that will translate into downsizing house from a two bedroom semi; to you it means having to cope on £1.2m per year plus the British people's appreciation, which should be priceless.

 

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