Dominic Lawson: Peter Hain and the politics of envy

Not a single member of the current Cabinet forgoes a penny of his or her official salary
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For a man with a first-class degree in Economics, Mr Peter Hain displays a surprising lack of numeracy. In an interview with the Sunday Telegraph's Melissa Kite last weekend, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland produced his by now familiar attack on City bonuses - but with a twist: he declared that the recipients of the £8.8bn paid out last year should "give two thirds of that to charity."

Since the Government of which Mr Hain is a member already takes 40 per cent of that through taxation, he seems to be demanding that the likes of Goldman Sachs directors should give up more than 100 per cent of their bonus income. Well, he can always ask...

It may be that I am being unfair to Peter Hain. Perhaps he is suggesting something truly interesting: that extremely well-paid people should be offered the chance to pay no tax at all, and instead give two thirds of their income to charities of their choice. Or perhaps not; the Government derives its power through taking £450bn a year from the British people and then spending it in the way which it thinks is most likely to perpetuate its hold on office. This is sometimes referred to as democracy in action.

Although it is the Deputy Leadership of the Labour Party for which Mr Hain is campaigning, the way in which he has addressed this matter is more reminiscent of a Mafia hood attempting to persuade his local shopkeepers to pay protection money: "In the interests of the City, particularly if they don't want to invite attacks for greater regulation ... then they have to show a lead. Let's not have a big fight, because it will come to a big fight otherwise ... either it's done in a self-policing way or people will look for other solutions."

Which people, exactly, will look for "other solutions"? Not Mr Hain, oh dear me, no: "I want the City to be the most successful financial centre in the world. I'm not in favour of high taxes."

It just so happens that the City is in the process of overtaking Wall Street as "the most successful financial centre in the world" - to the consternation of the Mayor of New York, Mike Bloomberg, who wails that "London is gaining on us in area after area." Since Mr Hain brought the matter up, it is the very looseness of the financial regulation here compared to Wall Street which has led to more and more international firms raising money in London.

Leave aside the benefits this brings, not just to the stripe-shirted denizens of Canary Wharf and the remarkable number of artisans and taxi-drivers they employ: there is also the matter of the £20bn a year that the City pumps directly into the Inland Revenue - and a very large slice of it to the province which Mr Hain governs.

Mr Hain also declared that the big City bonuses "create a society where you start getting envy being promoted and a sense of real antagonism and that breeds all sorts of socially undesirable behaviour". Who, precisely, is going around promoting envy - apart, that is, from Mr Hain himself?

It may be that I am completely out of touch - I don't have the benefit of the MP for Neath's constituency surgery - but it does not seem to me that the British are becoming consumed with envy at the financial rewards accruing to the bankers and brokers of London. Neither, I suspect, do they share Mr Hain's implicit view that those who mug old ladies are actually in danger of doing so more often because they feel that City bonuses have got out of hand.

I would have more respect for Mr Hain - which still would not be a lot - if he hadn't restricted his attack to the City of London. Why did he not dare to mention the footballers of the Premiership? Unlike the employees of the big City firms, their sumptuous salaries are paid directly by the football-addicted man in the street, either through match fees, sweaters with numbers on them, or Sky Sports subscriptions.

Last year this newspaper reported that the average annual basic salary of a Premiership footballer was £676,000, "which typically rises by between 60 and 100 per cent when performance-related bonuses, including for actually playing, are added." I don't have a problem with that. Mr Hain, however, is simply sticking to the official New Labour line, which is never to do anything other than suck up to the big football clubs. Free season tickets all round, chaps?

A former Brecon sheep farmer who went on to make a lot of money in the City, Mr Richard Griffiths, touched on this point in attacking Mr Hain yesterday: "The City of London is no different from the Premiership League; we are in a global market. Our Premiership clubs play in European and global competitions - and so do our banks. If you want to retain the talent you have to pay for it. I left school on £25 a week and have been lucky enough to have been paid big salaries, but it has been through hard work and achievement. I think it is rich for someone coming from a group of serial under-performers, like this Cabinet, to make these comments."

Mr Griffiths' tone may grate a little, but he is on to something: I suspect that even Labour voters are less exercised by City bonuses than they are by the gold-plated index-linked pensions that Mr Hain and his colleagues have voted for us to pay them. Some of them might even note that, unlike Margaret Thatcher, not a single member of the current Cabinet forgoes a penny of his or her official salary.

At the bottom of Peter Hain's delightfully shameless attempt to woo the Trade Union vote in the election for the Deputy Leadership, there is something approaching a valid point. Mr Hain calls it the need for "moral corporate responsibility." I'm not sure this fashionable concept makes sense - I can't rid myself of the old-fashioned idea that morality is entirely a characteristic of individuals; but certainly a firm can be blessed by the good character of those who work within it.

Mr Hain seems to be implying that the City is devoid of such firms. So let's just examine the record of the most controversial of all such businesses, Goldman Sachs: last year the firm, its partners and former partners made charitable donations amounting to about $500m (£257m).

I had to squeeze this information out of them: unlike New Labour, which is not content unless it has announced and reannounced several times every bequest it makes to us with what was our own money, the big City firms do not have such a pathetic desire to be thought virtuous. Or perhaps they just lack sufficient cynicism - not a deficiency shared by Mr Peter Hain.