What's the point of wealth beyond utility?

Why stinking rich bankers can't imagine why there's an almighty stink when the public finds out. Plus, by-election high jinks

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Reading the remarks uttered by Sir Philip Hampton, chairman of the Royal Bank of Scotland, in defence of his chief executive's "modest" £7.8m annual pay package, I was irresistibly reminded of Martin Amis's short story "Career Move". The piece – one of Amis's very best – is a variation on the "world turned upside down" motif, in this case examining a futuristic entertainment industry where poetry commands the attention of Hollywood ("We really think Sonnet is going to work, Luke"), while screenplays are written by desperate men in bedsits and printed in obscure magazines for little or no payment.

This wholesale role-reversal prompts a fascinating question. If the really serious and important jobs, of guaranteed practical value to humanity – social work, for instance, or school teaching – attracted stratospherically high salaries, while investment banking and currency dealing were only averagely remunerated, would Sir Philip and Stephen Hester – the beneficiary of that £7.8m-worth of largesse – suddenly itch to work with disadvantaged children? In other words, do they like doing their jobs for the satisfaction that the work affords, or do they merely want to wallow in the filthy lucre that comes with them?

Clearly, this question in unanswerable. But there is a second, associated, puzzle that the disinterested observer may be able to solve. Why does Mr Hester think that he needs to be paid £7.8m a year, other than as a rather bizarre testimony to his caste and status? What is the point of having wealth beyond utility? The explanation, alas, is that Mr Hester, and perhaps Sir Philip, altogether lack what used in bygone eras to be an absolutely vital part of the nation's moral repertoire – a puritan conscience. This may be defined as having the sort of mind that impels its owner, if taken to an expensive restaurant, automatically to order the cheapest thing on the menu.

Naturally, the puritan conscience has much to be said against it. After all, it brought us Shakespeare's Malvolio, Mrs Whitehouse and the Lady Chatterley trial (and also, ironically enough, D H Lawrence himself). On the other hand, its absence means more people like Sir Philip Hampton, who not only wants to offer his chief executive £7.8m a year, but can't imagine why there should be such an almighty stink when the public finds out.

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The American comedienne Sarah Silverman's appearance at the Bloomsbury Theatre attracted mixed reviews. Although, as one critic put it, "sacred cows were lined up and shot down with the steely efficiency of an abattoir", there was a feeling that Ms S had been this way before and that, despite a 20-minute work-in-progress slot, her material could have done with freshening up. My colleague Simon Kelner subsequently offered a wider angle on this creative impasse by noting just how difficult, here in the age of Twitter, the instant response, and the mass circulation of bright remarks, the comedian's task has become. Mint some bon mot about wanting to put £20 each way on your burger, and the thing is guaranteed to go viral in a matter of moments.

Inevitably, most successful comedy has its roots in heritage. Like literature, to borrow the title of T S Eliot's famous essay, it is a matter of tradition being constantly renewed by individual talents. At the same time, the fact that hardly any joke in a hi-tech age now has the time to mature gives most stand-up routines a faintly hackneyed air, while also encouraging a return to the tried and trusted. Watching my 12-year-old's school variety evening the other night, I was taken aback to hear someone embarking on a routine about the Financial Times being read by the people who owned the country, the Express by the people who wanted the country to be run a certain way, and the Telegraph by people who thought it still was – a joke that was reckoned old hat at around the time Edward Heath left Downing Street.

Lurking behind the frantic – or not so frantic – pursuit of novelty is a second drawback. In an age where the primary aim of most entertainment is not to give offence, many of the staples of bygone comedy are off-limits to all but the most rabid hardliner. The comedian's real problem, you sometimes feel, is not Twitter but the difficulty of finding something he is allowed to make jokes about.

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The politician for whom I felt sorriest last week was John O'Farrell, Labour candidate in the forthcoming Eastleigh by-election. Mr O'Farrell, who cheerily informed party members in an email that "with your help I can win – so send me a few quid here", is clearly going to lose, and the only doubt seems to be whether he will come in fourth or shade the Ukip candidate for third.

If there is a comfort for Mr O'Farrell, it is that canvassing unfavourable territory allows politicians to shed their inhibitions and define themselves as genuine personalities. The young Anthony Crosland, electioneering in South Gloucestershire in the general election of 1950, found himself at Badminton addressing the Duke of Beaufort and his entourage. "Why is it," a county lady inquired, "that when my daughter had her gas cooker mended, it was necessary to send three fitters to do the job?" Crosland thought about this. "I can only suggest, Madam, that if your daughter's beauty resembles yours in any way, two were gazing at her in admiration while the other one was working."

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