If something looks too good to be true, it is. If someone tells you they can conjure money from thin air, they're lying. The City of London has been both too good to be true and seemingly magically producing money for several decades, and following the latest round of revelations about bankers' slavering greed, the game, I hope, is about to be up.
Politicians of all stripes have bowed and scraped to the pin-striped spivs because, they insist on reminding us, their wretched, soulless square mile accounts for 15% of GDP. That fact alone should have set alarm bells ringing. Where was this 'wealth' coming from, and what does its concentration in the hands of such a tiny number of individuals say about the rest of our economy?
The 'wealth', of course, is illusory. The banks' balance sheets are fantastical things based on the notional value of assets against which they have lent money around the world. The 'value' of things - a Spanish villa against which a bank has offered a mortgage, for example - is based on 'confidence', a concept as substantial as smoke on the breeze. A villa worth 500,000 euros in 2007 might struggle to fetch 150,000 today, yet the true market value - you can bet your life - won't be the one that appears on the bank's balance sheet. When it comes to measuring a bank's wealth, it's all about who can fool whom for longest.
The concentration of this artificial lucre in the hands of a few, simply means they have been lucky enough to play the role of 'house' in the global finance casino. As long as the world's big gamblers come to the City casino and not to Frankfurt, Paris or New York, our bankers get to skim off the cream. Easy money, so long as there are sufficient punters with something to punt. The City, to use the crudest analogy I can think of, is like a giant Foxtons. It plays estate agents in a host of massive international transactions, takes its commission and drives off in a shiny new Beamer delusionally believing it has performed a peerless service that's cheap at the price.
So mesmerised have we become by this grubby, amoral decadent 'engine' of our economy, that everything that doesn't make money as quickly and effortlessly is viewed as second or third rate at best. How utterly boring to have to manufacture and sell machine tools or bakery equipment, or computer chips when you could make a mint anticipating the spikes on a commodities graph. How pedestrian to build a medium sized company - one manufacturing commercial washing machines, say - when a few well-timed futures deals could land you a few mil. With the unqualified blessing of both major political parties, the City has successfully demeaned the efforts of all the people whose real - yes, I do mean REAL in the sense of useful and tangible - businesses form many of the assets against which the bankers purchase their gambling chips.
If an atom bomb were to liquidate the entire City (and Canary Wharf for good measure), we would, I'm sure, very soon be better off as a nation. I don't say this out of any socialist conviction (in many ways I'm a bit of a provincial small 'c' conservative, certainly not a metropolitan lefty ), but because we would have to think of other ways of making money which were honest, decent and dependent on doing things which were useful, employed people, and conducted for the long term.
Real people like those I mix with every day where I live here in Monmouthshire, know the true value of things. Real people are surprisingly lacking in avarice, preferring a sense of predictability and community to the prospect of a fast fuck-'em-and-run buck. And real people have sensed that the City is a giant con job whose success, like a big fat tick on a sheep's rump, has sucked the blood out of the rest of the British economy. They are beginning to realise that if politicians were denied the bankers' taxes, they would have to start developing policies which earned them tax revenues from real jobs in manufacturing, engineering, agriculture and science; jobs that would become careers on the back of which ordinary people could found and provide for their families.
New Labour believed that the City was going to be Britain's saviour. Its actual long-term contribution has been to create a total paralysis in ideas for rebuilding the rest of the British economy. Before them, Thatcher believed that by liberating the financial markets capital would flow into the hands of hundreds of thousands of prudent small businessmen like her father, a Methodist shopkeeper in Grantham. She didn't anticipate that the frenzy of greed unleashed at the centre would spread outwards to create an entire popular culture based on mindless, short-term consumption. The suits in the City, it turned out, were not like her father: they did not conduct their business in accordance with Biblical principles but in a moral vacuum.
An acquaintance of mine - a man who earns only a modest amount himself - is married to a woman who manages an investment fund for the super-rich. They live in one of those £4m plus London houses in an area that before the 80s was bedsit land for the poorest immigrants. A few years ago in the midst of the boom years, he said to me, "Working with money is a bit like running a fruit and veg stall. If you run a stall you get to take lots of apples and oranges home. If you work with money, you get to take a lot of it home." There's the rub. The bloated financiers have proved themselves to be nothing but alcoholic publicans: morally weak.
For years I've wondered, what would it take for my part of the world, South Wales, actually to re-generate, for capital to invest in the communities that were tough enough to send generations of men miles underground with nothing but a pick-axe, but which for more than 25 years have been left to rot? The answer is fast becoming clear: we have to make the banks into servants again.
We have to make them invest for the long term future, not concentrate their efforts on the computerised roulette which has brought Western nations to the brink of ruin. Politicians have to find the moral centre which their friends in finance so evidently lack. We have to bite down hard on that simple, unassailable truth that easy money is too good to be true; like the 500,000 euro Spanish villa built for peanuts, its inflated value exists for only a fleeting moment. Building real value, real wealth, is a long, hard slog which improves us far more than quick money ever could, and anyone who tells you different is a fool and a charlatan.
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