Leading article: Anger at greed will only grow


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The Independent Online

There is something in the air, and it is not just the smoke from last night's fireworks. If there is such a thing as a national mood, it has changed. And about time too. The excesses of greed that were reluctantly accepted as a price well worth paying for the long period of prosperity that this country, and many others, enjoyed until 2008 are no longer acceptable.

What was surprising about the Occupy movement is that it took so long to put up its tents. This newspaper commented in 2009 that the bankers seemed to be engaged in business – and bonuses – as usual. We have repeatedly urged first Gordon Brown and then David Cameron to do more to restrain a City culture that seemed to ensure that nationalised banks continued to pay salaries that their new owners – the people of Britain – found offensive.

So far, the political response has been largely a rhetorical one. Last week, the Prime Minister, trying out in the mirror his new pose as a defender of "moral markets", a phrase borrowed from the brother of the Leader of the Opposition, implied Labour had done nothing in its 13 years. This is chutzpah on a monstrous scale. Labour did a great deal to lift children and pensioners out of poverty, to promote social mobility and, at the end, to impose a bonus tax and a top rate of income tax at 50p in the pound on earnings over £150,000 a year. The Conservative Chancellor has made no secret of his ambition to abolish the 50p tax rate and, while he has made the bonus tax a recurring annual payment, the Government's attitude as the owner of the main British banks has been to accept the usual arguments about having to pay executives lots of money because otherwise they will go elsewhere.

If there is a criticism of Labour's record to be made, it was made by yesterday's discovery – paradoxically using another piece of Labour legislation, the Freedom of Information Act – that a GP in Kent earned £770,000 in a year. The Blair-Brown public service reforms tried to do many of the right things, by pushing power from centralised bureaucracies to consumers. The incentives for some providers to innovate seem, however, to have been exploited by some "innovators", from GPs to local council officials, gaming the system to secure unjustified rewards for themselves.

David Cameron is good at sounding as if he cares deeply about fairness, and Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, is good at saying that he predicted the recession. But the Government is not so good at sustained effort to change behaviour in the boardroom – or, as it happens, the surgery. As Ed Miliband pointed out in the Commons last week, the plan to require private-sector companies merely to publish information about the ratio between pay at the top and bottom has been dropped – and yet Mr Cameron continued to use the phrase "transparency in terms of boardroom pay" as if it meant something.

No wonder confidence in political leadership is so low – and the crisis in the eurozone reinforces that. Yet other candidates for moral leadership have been slow to come forward. Hence the happy accident of the camp in St Paul's Church Yard, which has, after some hesitation, forced the Church of England to speak up.

Last week, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, urged a "Robin Hood" tax on financial transactions, as explained on pages 86-87. The Chancellor insincerely pretends to support this, but only if the Americans do it, which they will not. As we report today, the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, the second most senior bishop, calls for voluntary disclosure of tax returns and a ban on honours to "those who have already rewarded themselves most handsomely".

As the church regains its moral voice, its study of greed in the City, which as we reported last week was shelved for fear of seeming to take sides with the protesters camped on its doorstep, is even going to be published tomorrow. It includes a survey of bankers in which many of them accept that they are overpaid, but ask for the crimes of other professions, such as lawyers, to be taken into consideration.

Church leaders do not have all the answers, although they may have thought more about the problem of wealth and morality than most of the tent people. But at least they have some practical suggestions – which Mr Cameron and his Liberal Democrat partners ought to heed if they want to avoid being swept away by the revolution in the public mood.