Steve Richards: We are in a new era, but bankers haven't noticed

At no point did Hester consider that he already had enough money and so would forgo his bonus
  • @steverichards14

Imagine the thoughts that whirled around the mind of Stephen Hester in recent days. At first, as the bonus season moved into view, I suspect that very few did. He seems a man untroubled by doubt, at ease with himself and his vocation. Perhaps the odd reflection came: "There will be a bit of bother with the bonuses. Always is. It will pass."

When the bother came, maybe he suffered the occasional whirling thought. "These damned politicians are trying to interfere. My peer group will be getting a bonus. I should, too... and as for the media, they don't understand." It was not until Sunday when Hester was faced with both humiliation and a practical obstacle in the form of a Commons vote against his bonus that his thoughts turned towards action.

Note that we can only imagine what Hester thought. The banker earns incomparably more than any politician and has power that most politicians would die for. Yet he has not felt obliged to explain during the furore why he felt he deserved a bonus along with his multi-million pound deal. So far he has not appeared on the Today programme or written an article in an attempt to address the rising tide of anger. A minor politician in the midst of genuine or contrived outrage is forced to appear everywhere to put his or her case. In contrast, these powerful, rich, non-elected figures still operate in the dark, taken aback by scrutiny from beyond their own pampered, equally sheltered peer group. This must change.

In spite of Hester's convenient anonymity, we can with certainty make an assessment of what did not form part of his internal reflections. At no point, even when facing the heat of national vilification, did Hester consider that perhaps he already possessed more money than he needs and that therefore he would forgo his bonus, a tiny amount of his package, and become a minor hero. Instead, he wanted more and was willing to put up with national opprobrium to get it. Nor did he step outside his closeted world, where he mixes with others earning millions, to consider how this hunger for even more money looks from the outside. If he had, he would have given up the bonus when the row erupted, or before.

In spite of his silence, or perhaps because of it, we can draw an important lesson. Contrary to current political fashion, exhortation and cultural pressures are not enough to bring about change. Greed and distorted market values trump the fear of vilification every time. As a result, the relationship between politics and markets is bound to become more complex rather than less now that Hester has relented. Exhortation is the simplest solution, allowing politicians and their voters to remain at arm's length, but it does not work.

And yet political leaders cannot turn away now that the public mood is set. Ed Miliband reflected, and to some extent anticipated, the new moral awareness in his conference speech last September. David Cameron also knew over the past week he could not be on the wrong side of the mood, even if ideologically opposed to interfering in the activities of a bank. Cameron's awkward touch does not arise because he has become politically clumsy. The issue is genuinely awkward. There is a global market in banking that is out of control. Hester's rivals are getting big bonuses. Unilateral action against a single banker solves little.

The situation is not neat, but a mess. All political leaders, here and abroad, are feeling their way to a new era after the previous one closed with the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008. In the meantime, we are in a state of flux. Symptoms of transitional change are everywhere. They include the election of a coalition here in 2010, President Sarkozy's announcement of a financial transaction tax in France as his socialist rival establishes a commanding lead in the presidential contest, the failure of the Republicans to hit upon a convincing candidate and the disappointment of the Obama presidency. The bonus row is another indication. Not so long ago Labour ministers yearned to be associated with top bankers. Now a Tory Prime Minister feels the need to show distance. Cameron and others are navigating uncertainly as we move through the period from before the Lehmans collapse to whatever comes next.

For Britain, the sequence has a familiar air. In the 1970s, Edward Heath's government knew it had to deal with the unions, but did not know how to and was partly terrified of what would happen when it tried. The same fearful calculations paralysed the Labour government that followed. In relation to the banks, Gordon Brown did not want to appear prescriptive when he took over RBS and nor does Cameron now. Yet Brown knew, and Cameron senses, that nothing will be quite the same again. Miliband has a clearer ideological grip, as Thatcher had in the late 1970s.

The saga of the Hester bonus is not the end of the tumultuous phase that began in the autumn of 2008. Instead, his climbdown marks the first historic sign of weakness from those with a suddenly outdated sense of what they are worth. /