Leading article: St Paul's is a national problem


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The Independent Online

What an extraordinary historical accident that the London Stock Exchange should have taken space in the new Paternoster Square office block seven years ago. Thus it was that, when the Occupy movement tried to invade what it thought was the hub of capitalism two weekends ago, it found itself on the steps of the best-known church in Britain. It being a Saturday, the hub of capitalism was closed and, Paternoster Square being private property, the police prevented the protesters from putting up their tents there.

Unintentionally, therefore, a protest against the greed of the City of London also became a separate, if related, and more engaging, debate about our national morality and the role of our established church. Although the American style of evangelical teaching – "What would Jesus do?" – puts many Anglicans' teeth on edge, the echoes of the New Testament are so strong that many Christians find themselves drawn to the tent people. Indeed, in engaging the sympathies of many non-church people, too, the biblical parallel is more effective than the message of the "99 per cent" against the establishment. Had the protesters camped out by the dealers' desks in the stock exchange itself, they would have attracted much less interest and support. The dispute would have been between some people in an office and a bunch of squatters. Instead, it has become a parable.

This fortuitous story helps to clarify moral choices. Ever since the collapse of many of the world's leading banks in 2008, the world has been suffused with unease about the ethical basis of a part of capitalism that seemed to reward failure as much as, if not more than, success. When those banks were put back upright with public credit, and seemed to continue to pay their executives excessively, that unease grew. Over the past three years, the feeling has strengthened around the world that, for the financial and corporate elite, the credit crunch, the government bailouts and the recession were a minor blip, and now it is business as usual, with rewards at the very top more extravagant than ever.

The response of political and spiritual leaders has been uncertain. Barack Obama said he was going to cap the bonuses of bankers, and then didn't. David Cameron was going to limit the earnings of public-sector bosses to 20 times the lowest-paid in their organisation, and then didn't. Last week, the Prime Minister sounded concerned about the rise in pay of FTSE-100 executives, but his only suggestion for restraining it was that more women should be appointed to corporate boards – which sounded as if he were suggesting that women should continue to be lower paid than men.

Meanwhile, the leaders of the Church of England have responded with all the courage and clarity for which they are renowned. As we report today, the St Paul's Institute, associated with the cathedral, decided not to publish a report on the City that called for banks to show more responsibility, for fear that it might seem to side with the tent people. Rowan Williams, the leader of the Anglican communion, has been audible in his silence, although, as we also report today, he is believed to be sympathetic to the protesters. Before long, he too will have to admit that this is more than a local issue.

No one expects politicians, church leaders, or, indeed, the Occupy movment, to have all the answers. As many have observed, including Joan Smith in her debate with Laurie Penny today, the tent people are stronger on what is wrong than on how to put it right. But it would be a start if leaders admitted that workable policies on fair pay are difficult.

This newspaper has long argued for more rigorous taxation of pensions, capital gains and non-doms, and for calling the bluff of companies that threaten to take their business elsewhere. We do not believe they will. The Independent on Sunday would also like to see an overhaul of corporate governance, to make the process of setting executive pay more open and explicit, so that institutional shareholders are encouraged to use their voting power more often.

As the reader may detect, we are not an anti-capitalist newspaper. We believe in a capitalism that is firmly and clearly regulated to meet the objectives of green sustainability and social justice. But that requires leadership rather than gestures from our politicians and realism rather than hand-wringing from those who hold themselves our spiritual leaders.