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Bread, Circuses and Stephen Hester

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The Romans called it panem et circenses, or bread and circuses. Faced with a crumbling economy, growing social divisions, urban riots, and a sharp decline in public-spiritedness, the political elites sought to distract the people by staging spectacles - above all the Games. Seneca, the Roman Stoic philosopher and statesman, warned that "Nothing is more damaging to good character than the habit of wasting time at the Games, for then it is that vice steals secretly upon you through the avenue of pleasure."

This week, the political class have been wasting time at the games and allowing vice to secretly steal upon us.

Don't get me wrong. I shed no tears for Stephen Hester, the chief executive of Royal Bank of Scotland. Yes, he was forced to give up his bonus of £963,000 (the tax charge would have been £500,760, by the way), but anybody's basic salary should be enough. The bonus was always politically toxic. RBS received a 45bn state bail-out in 2008, so the government owns 83% of the bank (though it remains a public company that is run by an independent board of directors); the same government is now freezing public sector pay and cutting benefits

But Hester's public humiliation - and, though the two individuals are very different, also that of Sir-no-more Fred Goodwin - was nothing but a modern-day version of the Roman games. By putting these men in the modern arena (24 hour news) and having them metaphorically put to the sword, the political class has created the illusion of tackling the real problems for which their names stand as proxies - a global economy that is at best out of kilter with our best values, and at worst suicidally badly engineered. In the UK, politicians can still not get the banks to lend to small firms. Net lending (what banks handed out to firms less the amount paid back to banks by firms) was minus £10.8billion in 2011. Meanwhile, consumers are facing the highest overdraft charges since records began in 1995.

Benedict Brogan has criticised the leader of the opposition and the prime minister for "flirting with the mob over Mr. Hester's bonus." He fears a populist 'anti-capitalist campaign' is under way. I have a sneaking suspicion that Ben knows the British public is not a mob and they are certainly not 'anti-capitalist'; most remain Thatcher's and Blair's aspirational children. But their good common sense tells them we need real reform to ensure risks are manageable and the system fairer. And they want their politicians to work together to deliver that reform. They know that genuine solutions that can prevent another crash of this scale require grown-up political cooperation across borders to construct a new global, not just local, economic architecture. They want heads knocked together, not cut off.

The spectacle provided by the ritual humiliation of individuals like Stephen Hester is a distraction from the agenda of one of the greatest political challenges of our generation - the small matter of the future of democracy and capitalism. The conundrum is that politics around the world, not just in the west, is going local while the answers to fixing the economy are more and more global. The public got there before us and they know we don't have the answers - the games don't fool anyone. Politicians need to earn the political trust of the people to secure the mandate to make the global economic reforms necessary; and as yet they haven't secured that trust.

We can't fix this by just getting Hester (relatively speaking one of the lowest paid bankers, given the size of RBS) to give up his bonus. We need to do many things - yes, change the bonus culture but not just at the top but also in the middle and the bottom of banks. At the top, bonuses don't really alter a CEO or chairman's productivity or performance: they are already highly motivated people. But at the middle and lower levels in the banks the bonus culture really did have law of unintended consequences for us.

How many of us took loans out or restructured our finances on the advice of a young bank employee through the boom years? We trusted that they were telling us what was in our best interests, only to discover that we should have paid more attention. They were actually selling products to us to achieve their targets and improve their performance related salaries. We all thought we could 'afford' more than we really could and we changed the country's culture from the post-war 'save first and spend later' to thinking, in the words of the Queen song, "I want it all and I want it now." Reforming the City alone will not change this culture - change is needed in both individual behaviour and global systems and practices.

And we also need a new culture of philanthropy and cooperation. To be clear, this is not my contribution to the 200th anniversary of Dickens' birth - we can't return to the days before the welfare state. Nonetheless, we can learn much about individual philanthropy from America, where millions from the hard-working family to the Carnegie's and Buffet's believe they have social responsibility and avowedly not just the state. And let's make more of our own history. I come from Rochdale, a town with rich traditions - from the birthplace of the cooperative movement to the more recent philanthropy of Sir Peter Ogden. I also work with one of the most philanthropic British communities. The Jewish community is small, as yet untypical in their giving, yet they demonstrate that philanthropy and cooperation are covenantal, joining the economic and the democratic, and helping to knit the social fabric together.

Many are desperate to get beyond the games we have been playing. For example, John Slinger, editor of Pragmatic Radicalism: Ideas from Labour's Young Generation, sounds a Seneca-like tone on Twitter when he expresses his irritation: "While ppl r dancing on grave of #Goodwin maybe they'll stop 4 a microsecond, contemplate how 2 prevent future crises, avoid this blood lust."

Let's listen to Seneca. Let's agree not to allow vice (i.e. our evasion of tough regulatory reforms and our failure to forge a new global economic covenant) to steal secretly upon us as we indulge the cheap pleasures of humiliating individuals like Stephen Hester. We have no more time to waste on games.

Around the Web

Stephen Hester - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

BBC News - Profile: RBS boss Stephen Hester

Stephen Hester, Royal Bank Of Scotland CEO, Turns Down Bonus ...

Stephen Hester: perhaps his potty training was to blame | Life and ...

RBS chief Stephen Hester waives controversial bonus of nearly £1m ...