Steve Richards: We're at a true turning point. The future must be fairer

All public institutions are going to have to become much more accountable

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The oceans churn again. The collapse of the financial markets last autumn marked one historic sea change, of a kind not seen since the late 1970s. But a tidal wave is breaking that for now swamps even the economic issues that have been so dominant. The last few days will be studied for centuries to come – from the choreography of a single newspaper holding puny elected representatives in its thrall, to the revelations themselves, which show what happens when an institution functions in the dark.

Although the economic crisis and the parliamentary drama are separate, it is the darkness that connects the two. Few seemed to know what the banks were getting up to before they collapsed. Even the regulators were taken aback. Gordon Brown got the shock of his life. The highly paid risk managers working for the banks did not appreciate the risk. They and their senior colleagues are the equivalent of the MPs in the expenses' saga. Probably part of them knew they were all heading for the cliff but, for all sorts of reasons, including greed, they did not want to be the ones that stopped the journey.

Even now, it all looks very different to those that function in the darkness. I am told some senior bankers still feel sorry for themselves, unable to understand why they are being pilloried. From within their deregulated culture, they were doing what everyone else was doing and at the same time, as they saw it, making the country wealthier; the country should be grateful. We got a sense of the insiders' bewilderment when some of them appeared before the Treasury select committee with the contrived apologetic affectations failing to obscure their self-pity.

The case of Sir Fred Goodwin's pension is emblematic. Anyone who had not been in the darkness of the banking world would have returned some of the pension on selfish grounds alone. He already has more money than he will ever need, but has opted for national vilification and threats to his home and family by keeping the full pension when he could have taken a public bow by handing some of it back.

Evidently the huge amounts are what he expects. That is what happened to his colleagues when they retired. It is just what happens when the rest of us are not watching. Now we are watching – the voters, the media and more robust regulators.

The details of the MPs' story are very different. They do not get paid anything like the bankers who have derailed the economy. There is a context to the system of allowances that makes a little sense of what has happened. Still, there is no question that quite a lot of MPs tried it on because they assumed no light would be shone on what they were doing. Yesterday, there were resignations and the whip withdrawn. There will be more to come. I am writing this at Westminster and the mood is funereal.

The reaction of those caught in the storm now that light, or lightning, has struck is illuminating. Most of them know they are plunged into a new world of stringent accountability and transparency, but they have not grasped yet quite how different it will be. While it is fashionable to kick elected politicians, and it is even more so now, they are more immediately accountable than bankers and other much more highly paid public figures. Voters can remove them and no doubt will do so in some cases, but even their reaction has been more tentative than it seemed.

David Cameron's response on Tuesday was partly a public relations exercise and had not been fully thought through. Some of his Shadow Cabinet members and MPs are livid at the vague and arbitrary nature of the proposals. Gordon Brown sought party advantage early on by putting his own proposals on YouTube without seeking a wider consensus.

Even on Wednesday at Prime Minister's Questions, crude political calculations were in play behind the façade of apparent consensual outrage. Who could appear most appalled by what had happened? That was the game being played then and yesterday as individual MPs were singled out for immediate punishment while others were given more time to make their case. We are still at an early stage as leaders and MPs adapt to the scrutiny they suddenly face. Others in various high profile public jobs are adapting tentatively too. The head of Network Rail, Ian Coucher, has announced he will not be taking his bonus this year. I wonder whether he would have been so restrained if there was not a newly intense public gaze on how its money is being spent. After all, he took a huge bonus the year before, even though the management of the railways had been a shambles. We were not paying as much attention then. Coucher will be able to cope without his latest bonus as he earns £600,000 a year. Probably for such overpaid figures these tiny financial sacrifices, a lost bonus here and there, is only the beginning. In the longer term, recent events will make all public institutions much more accountable over how much they pay relatively cushioned managers in terms of salaries and bonuses.

Ironically, politicians are by no means the worst offenders. Indeed, we get good value for money from politicians compared with many other so-called public servants. Cabinet ministers earn far less than the head of Network Rail, who in turn earns less than the director-general of the BBC. This is crazy. Soon the public gaze should and will turn to the financial arrangements of institutions beyond Parliament.

Sandwiched between the collapse of the banks last autumn and the MPs' expenses drama of recent days, the Government announced a popular policy. Probably it is the only popular policy the Government has unveiled for a long time, given its ratings in the polls. The latest poll on the issue suggests that 68 per cent of voters approve of the new top rate of tax on high earners.

If, in 1997, Gordon Brown had been told his only popular policy would be a tax increase, he would have needed to lie down in a darkened room. Some cabinet ministers are surprised now. But the reaction to the tax rise is connected to the other more apocalyptic events that are taking place. There is a new appetite among voters for transparency and accountability, but also for fairness too. The debate on "tax and spend", the defining issue in British politics, has moved on from the old, crude one about high and low taxation to one about fair taxes, whether the cash raised is spent properly, and questions over how previously complacent institutions are regulated.

There has not been more than one sea change; the disparate events are part of a single storm. The immediate consequences are still being played out, as some voters decide how they will wreak their revenge on MPs. In the longer term, Britain might become a fairer place as institutions and individuals that have stumbled greedily in the darkness are subjected to a critical attentiveness that will sweep away the cosy arrangements of the past.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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