Simon English: Hester's public outpouring proves that bankers are not of this world


Simon English
Thursday 09 February 2012 01:00

Outlook How many sticks of dynamite would have to explode between Stephen Hester's ears for the fog to clear? Hearing him talk yesterday was to again be reminded that most chief executives and nearly all bankers live on a planet far far away.

Going all TV confessional as he tried to put the row about his pay in the past, the Royal Bank of Scotland boss struck a tone that suggests he sees himself as some sort of martyr.

He was thinking of chucking in his lavishly rewarded job, but in the end decided this would be "indulgent" (no kidding) choosing instead to draw on his "reserves of strength" to carry on, as if he were a political dissident fighting for human rights, rather than a millionaire banker holding life's winning lottery ticket.

Things had been "deeply depressing", he said, the fuss about his bonus was all rather intense. After all, he's just a country boy with simple tastes.

At one point he transported himself to Oprah Winfrey's couch to note that he loves his parents very much and hopes they feel the same about him (everyone look to floor, shuffle shoes nervously).

Then he pulled a standard banker displacement trick (it's in the manual; they all get one) to note that "societal issues of what people earn in different walks of life is not something I can solve. It's a political debate. I'm not a politician."

This is disingenuous for several reasons, not least that banks lobby politicians like fury and expect to get almost whatever they seek.

Moreover, no one is really asking him to make society fairer, they just think the very large salary he receives each year should be ample motivation to do his job, especially since he works for us as the head of a bank we had to bail out.

Perhaps every other public sector worker should issue a personal press release magnanimously offering to give up the bonus they weren't going to receive in the first place, to see if Hester and his chairman, Sir Philip Hampton, find their irony bone twitching.

Hampton admitted last week that he had "under-estimated" public anger over banker bonuses, making it clear that he can't get out much and rather raising the question of what other matters of the bleedin' obvious he is entirely missing.

It's not clear what reaction Hester and his handlers were expecting to his public outpouring.

Sympathy? A national campaign to have his bonus restored?

Skirting the issue of whether, without that £1m payout, he is now working less hard, he turned instead to this: "I think that we would make a mistake as a society if we forget how wealth is generated, how successful people are motivated."

Well, we haven't forgotten. Rather, we've worked out that it isn't bankers that generate wealth. Their job is to serve people who might.

The pity of this is that, at least until yesterday, Hester had seemed an engaging, likable fellow. He isn't a robot, as he put it himself.

And no one says that he isn't very good at his job.

He should get back to it. When it's finished, in five or 10 years' time, then he can have a bonus. And a gong too, if he feels they haven't been too devalued by the quality of some other recipients.

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