Friday, 14 January 2011

Bankers, bonuses and Camels

The Bible is not often quoted in Parliament. A Theos publication from 2007 showed that even Anglican bishops refer to Scripture only rarely in their contributions to House of Lords’ debates.
If that remains so, no-one seems to have told Labour MP John Mann. For it was he who, last Tuesday, halfway through a Treasury Select Committee grilling of Bob Diamond, chief executive of Barclays, dared to quote Jesus Christ himself. (Click here and scroll to 68 minutes in.)
“Can I ask you a philosophical question?” he began ominously. “Why is it easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven?” Diamond was stumped. This he had not expected. He paused, grinned, and looked around, before asking: “Do you have another question?”

Bob Diamond earns a lot of money (about £75m in the past five years). It is estimated that he is on track for an £8m bonus for 2010. He employs many people who earn similar figures. His bank, like many others, was bailed out by the taxpayer in 2008-09, the long-term effect of which is likely to be financial insecurity, joblessness, debt, and hardship for millions. Yet when the Conservative MP David Ruffley asked him whether he was grateful to the British public, gratitude was not exactly forthcoming. Mr Diamond may yet replace Sir Fred Goodwin as the public face of financial self-satisfaction and greed about which the British public rage remains white hot.

Much of the interrogation on Tuesday was technical and beyond the wit of most ordinary mortals. The fundamental argument for paying telephone-number bonuses – bonuses mind, not salaries – is that the City currently provides 20% of total national tax revenues. Government – we – cannot do without it, which means we cannot risk losing our best talent abroad, which is precisely what would happen if we capped or super-taxed bonuses.

Most of us cannot adjudicate confidently on the legitimacy of this argument (although there is surely a temptation to respond: “If this is the mess that the so-called crème de la crème of the banking world has got us into, I think we can risk losing that talent, don’t you?”). But the strength or otherwise of such arguments is not really the point. If questions of remuneration, profitability and staff retention were only ever technical issues, there would be no point in MPs (most of whom have minimal technical knowledge in this field) grilling bank execs, still less in recording and broadcasting it.

Underneath the technicalities of the issue, lies a moral landscape across which we all walk. We all of us have some idea of what is fair, what is just, “what is good”. And for most of us it looks very different to what we have seen in banking circles over recent years.

That is why Mr Mann’s question – from Jesus’ mouth – was so powerful. It cut through the fripperies of financial technicalities and exposed the raw, moral wound that lies beneath, and still hurts many people who could not hope to earn £8 million in a lifetime. Perhaps it is no surprise that that Daily Mail sketch writer Quentin Letts, who attended the session, remarked to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that Mr Mann’s question was one of the few moments of his 2½ hour ordeal during which Mr Diamond looked genuinely disconcerted.

It is quite possible, in our largely biblically illiterate age, that Bob Diamond did not get the reference in Mr Mann’s question. Even if he had, he was wise not to answer it. Because the answer surely is that great wealth acts like a powerful magnet brought close to our moral compasses; it sends us into an ethical tailspin in which we become blind to who and what really is “good”, and lose sight and hope of eternal life.
Nick Spencer - Theos, the public theology think tank

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