The banker, his bonus, and why I couldn’t care less

Stephen Hester, the boss of The Royal Bank of Scotland, our famously publicly-owned bank, has been paid a bonus of £963,000 in shares. Shares that immediately fell, so they are presumably now worth a little bit less. In case you haven’t been paying close attention, and are assuming from the universal condemnation and frothing outrage that has been spilling out across the airwaves all day that this man is some kind of arch-criminal, I should remind you that this handsome payout is actually rather less than his contractual entitlement. An entitlement that was contracted under the Labour government as it happens, although this appears to have escaped Ed Miliband’s notice. Having said that, Mr Miliband seems almost as exercised by cut price chocolate oranges as he is about Mr Hester’s bonus, so it’s hard to know just how cross he is since his crossness seems to be somewhat uncalibrated.

Although I am being invited along with every other British taxpayer to become incandescent with rage, I have to say that I’m pretty relaxed about my personal 32p contribution to the largesse of RBS towards its boss. I’d probably only have frittered it away in any case, perhaps splashing out on half a Mars Bar, plus in fact my contribution is probably even less because I’ve divided the bonus only amongst the 30,000,000 individual income tax payers in the country, ignoring payers of corporation and other taxes.

Concentrating the nation’s righteous indignation on this one individual has some rather convenient side effects. First, it neatly avoids having to wonder about massive pay in general, and not only to bankers. Second, it keeps us concerned about shenanigans of a very few people, thus distracting us from such wider issues as mass unemployment and general austerity. In the strictest sense of the expression, Mr Hester is indeed a scapegoat.

So I really can’t get worked up about it. To be honest, I get more worked up about politicians trying to pose as brave defenders of the public’s interests when in fact all they’re doing is scoring political brownie points with a public that’s not apparently very skilled at distinguishing between the wood and the trees.

The bishops and child poverty: a gentle rebuke to secularists

When the Equality Act was going through parliament last year, there was a loud chorus of condemnation for the Church of England bishops in the Lords who stood accused of attempting to undermine the Act, most particularly in its application to gay rights. The bishops by and large were trying to create some kind of privileged space for religious people in which they would be able to discriminate lawfully against gay people on the grounds of conscience. The loudest and most public of these condemnatory voices belonged to secularists, and especially atheists, who demanded to know why a group of befrocked men, who had been through no democratic process, should be permitted to intrude on public policy making on the orders of their imaginary friend. Surely such superstitious nonsense has no place in a modern democracy, and equally surely the rights of gay people in matters such as adoption or marriage should not be obstructed by middle-aged men with infantile beliefs and crudely discriminatory objectives.

Ironically, although a person of faith myself, I have more than a little sympathy with these arguments, and said so at the time. But I’m left wondering today about the dogs that haven’t barked. On this occasion the bishops are not interfering with one of the touchstones of the secularist agenda. In contrast, they are interfering in the Government’s attempts to cap benefits, and are arguing that a (presumably unintended) likely consequence of the reforms will be to push more children into poverty. But they are still marshalling their illegitimate political clout, are they not?

It is of course a crude generalisation, but the majority of the shrillest voices of secularism are on the political left. They are thus in general rather approving of the bishops’ intentions in this case, just as they were appalled and irate about those same bishops’ intentions in the case of the Equality Act. But that is neither here nor there in the dispute about Christian leaders and their supposedly privileged place in the country’s legislature.

If the argument is about secularism, and the incompatibility of democracy on the one hand and privileges for the Established Church on the other, then all episcopal interventions should be equally opposed. They are clearly not. I think that tells us quite a bit about the real issues here. My challenge to the secularists amongst my readership is this: if the bishops are to be supported when their interventions are to your taste, but vilified when those interventions are antithetical to your interests, then your argument is not one of legislative rights, but one of political judgement. By contrast, if you’re truly exercised about bishops in the House of Lords per se, then you should be as outraged today in the child poverty context as you were last year in the case of the Equality Act.

Personally, I do not object to the bishops’ role in our legislature as a matter of democratic principle. An unelected second chamber is fine by me. When I agree with the bishops, as I do now, I’m happy to support them. When I disagree with them, as I did over the Equality Act, I’ll express that, too. But I’m only entitled to this pick’n’mix approach because I don’t have a principled objection to their legislative position. If you do have such objections, then it seems to me that you are logically bound to deprecate all their interventions, regardless of your views in particular cases.

The Glitter on Twitter malarkey

An anonymous Twitterer has sparked a minor sensation of the kind that only Twitter seems to be able to generate by pretending to be the notorious paedophile and erstwhile pop star, Gary Glitter. This individual set up an account with the pseudonym @OfficialGlitter, banking on the tendency amongst real celebrities to give their Twitter handles a distinguishing mark of authenticity by incorporating the soubriquet “official” or “the real”, and thus persuading a large group of people to accept that this was in fact the actual and despised Mr Glitter. The account quickly built up a substantial following, consisting it would seem of three major categories: admirers of Mr Glitter’s pop career excited by the account’s pretence that a come-back tour was being planned; self-righteous guardians of the nation’s morality appalled that a convicted paedophile should be permitted access to a public website; and a group of professional comedians who used the event to exercise their wit.

The account’s owner has subsequently written a blog (edit: the blog has now been taken down showing, it would seem, something of a lack of confidence) in which his admission of being a hoaxer is accompanied by a diatribe attacking those who made fun of the account, damning those who thought it was the real Mr Glitter but yet gave the account their enthusiastic approbation, and lauding those who sent “hate/abuse and started the #GetGlitterOffTwitter campaign”.

The account holder’s main aim, it seems, apart from sharing with the rest of us the gold-plated nature of his moral compass, was to launch a campaign that convicted paedophiles should not be permitted to open accounts on social networking websites. His view is that such activity is obnoxious in itself, and also hazardous to young people.

He reserves his strongest criticism for the pesky “human rights” that  protect “the rights of registered sex offenders whilst also putting our children at risk”. And so we see a familiar argument which gains no power merely because it happens to have used a dramatic and innovative method of delivery. Human rights are to be dismissed because, inconveniently, they apply to all humans, even obnoxious ones. Although the blog doesn’t explicitly say this, the logical consequence is clear. Registered sex offenders don’t come within the remit of the doctrine of human rights because, well, they’re not really human, are they?

Well, distasteful though it might be, some humans are sex offenders. Human rights are not to be given or withheld on the basis of our personal moral preferences. Human rights are indivisible, and it’s a dangerous argument that would have it any other way.

I shouldn’t have to say this, but I know I do. I am not defending the behaviour of Mr Glitter, or of paedophiles in general, or indeed of any other group of sex offenders. I am not proposing that it is acceptable for criminals of any description to use social networking sites to commit further crimes. If Mr Glitter truly created a social network persona, and used that opportunity to groom children for his sexual pleasure, that would be wrong. It also happens already to be illegal. It is not necessary to create yet another illiberal law to try and prevent citizens, even reprehensible ones, from using the internet in ways that any other person may use it.

And in particular, it is not acceptable, in my judgement, to encourage the transmission of hateful and abusive communication as this Twitterer has done, and then to praise the senders as examples of moral rectitude. He may find it “very satisfying to know that a majority of Britain still has their morals intact” on the evidence of their willingness to send “hate/abuse”. On the contrary I do not, nor do I have any sympathy with his criterion for judging who, and who does not, have their morals intact.

Whole life tariff: the death penalty by a drawn-out method?

UPDATE

On 9th July 2013, the upper chamber of the European Court of Human Rights found in favour of the appellants, much to renewed consternation on the part of the Prime Minister, the Justice Secretary, and sundry parts of the populist press. For my part, I am pleased that the ECHR has come down on the side of humanity, and in recognition of the possibility of change and redemption.

This is not, and never was, about deciding that these individuals, or other “whole-lifers” should imminently, or indeed ever, be released. It is about whether or not their cases should always be open to review. The judges have agreed that not allowing review at all, as a matter of policy and principle, amounts to “degrading and inhuman treatment.” In reaching that conclusion, they are absolutely correct.

Three of Britain’s “most dangerous criminals” have lost their application to the European Court of Human Rights to outlaw whole life tariffs on the grounds that they constitute “inhuman or degrading treatment”. When one looks at the nature of their convictions, it’s perhaps tempting to mutter, “Thank God for that”. And if you were one of those most affected by their victims’ deaths (since they are all convicted murderers) I imagine that the temptation would be almost irresistible. Certainly it wouldn’t be for those of us unconnected with the events to point the finger of disapprobation if indeed the temptation were not resisted.

But for all that, I am against the death penalty – as I’ve had cause to affirm before in these posts. I was therefore particularly struck by one of the appellants’ comments: “If the state wishes to have a death penalty, then they should be honest and re-introduce hanging. Instead, this political decision that I must die in jail is the death penalty using old age or infirmity as the method.” This, it seems to me, is a powerful and disturbing argument.

The key issue in all this is not in my judgement the fact that a whole life sentence might indeed be served, and that someone might die in jail. The issue here is the idea of a whole life tariff – which means that a decision is being made at a particular point in time that an individual shall indeed die in prison, no matter how long in the future that might be. More than that, it’s the reasoning behind the decision that disturbs me, and which I think is mistaken. In responding to the European Court’s decision, a Ministry of Justice spokesman said that “we argued vigorously that there are certain prisoners whose crimes are so appalling that they should never become eligible for parole.” In other words, it’s the nature of the crime, not the future state of mind or soul of the prisoner, which is determining. By never allowing even eligibility for parole, society is indeed condemning a person for good, without any hope of change or redemption.

I have no problem with a system that might, in a given case, constantly refuse parole because the necessary conditions of change in the prisoner, or safety for the public, are repeatedly judged not to have been met. However, to make that decision years in advance, and to deliberately ignore change, or remorse, or Damascene transformation, or successful treatment of mental illness, but rather to incarcerate until death regardless – how exactly is that different from the death penalty? Of course, it’s different in the narrow sense that there is at least time for a miscarriage of justice to be corrected, whilst hanging would not allow that to happen as we’ve repeatedly discovered to our collective shame. But the death penalty is not only wrong because it denies the possibility of correcting mistakes in conviction. It’s also wrong when there is no doubt about the conviction.

It’s always popular when society re-affirms its determination to “lock ’em up and throw away the key”, but popularity is never a very good guide to morality in general, and the criminal justice system in particular. I hold no brief for these particular murderers, and I’m not arguing for their immediate, or even eventual, release. But I am arguing that, in opposition to the court’s decision, these prisoners should also be eligible for parole. That doesn’t, after all, mean that they’ll necessarily ever get it.

Condemnation or sympathy? How to respond to the Anthony Worrall Thompsons of this world

The man in the title has been publicly humiliated, and in some quarters ridiculed, on account of his caution for shoplifting. In that he treads a well-worn path. Although we generally only get to hear about the celebrity offenders – and there seems to be an abundant supply of same – they are apparently only the tip of an immensely larger iceberg of well-off retail thieves.

It seems there is a whole branch of psychiatry devoted to the understanding of such counter-intuitive behaviour. Its practitioners invite us to view these wealthy offenders with sympathy; to strain to understand and appreciate the pressures and stresses which have precipitated their wrong-doing. These include a wide gamut of misfortune, from bereavement or illness in a loved one, to a sense of psychic injustice stemming from unemployment or even plummeting TV ratings. The one thing that all these light-fingered victims of life’s outrageous fortune have in common is the utter opaqueness to themselves of the reasons for, or the mechanisms of, their pilfering. “I’ve been racking my brains to think why on earth did I do it and what was going through my mind at the time”, opines the Anthony Worrall Thompson whose recent divergence from the strait and narrow has inspired this post. It appears that his police caution was administered only at the end of a whole series of similar exploits, we’re reliably informed by BBC News, and the initial misdemeanours were not proceeded with.

And that is the crunch of the matter. I am in general sympathetic to trying to understand why people misbehave. That applies as much to the rich as to the poor. It’s easy to be dismissive, as if in some way having wealth insulates a person from all the other slings and arrows that life might throw at them. Obviously it does not.

On the other hand, life’s slings and arrows puncture the life chances of many, many other people who don’t even have the consolation of fame or financial strength to fall back on. And I suspect that the unemployed mother caught shoplifting would not be allowed to do it a further four times before the police finally became involved. And again, when they did become involved, would they have done no more than rap the offender’s knuckles? Somehow, I doubt it.

It is entirely right that we should listen to, and try to empathise with, the difficulties faced by celebrities or wealthy people no less than those of any other citizen. But no more, either. The criminal justice system is a place where money should never talk.

Plus ça change: what the Lawrence convictions mean, and what they don’t mean

A happy New Year to all my readers, of course – but I’d caution against supposing that 2012 comes in with particularly happy associations because two of Stephen Lawrence’s killers have finally been convicted. Justice delayed 18 years, and then only partial justice at that, is not the cause for celebration that many seem to feel that it is. More of Stephen’s murderers remain free than have now been jailed; and the prolonged delay has not been accompanied by the wholesale reconstruction of the Metropolitan Police, and the sloughing off of Britain’s racist culture, that I am already tiring of hearing commentator after commentator glibly assert.

It may be better that some of those responsible have had their comeuppance rather than none of them, but that is like saying that a man who’s had one leg amputated is at an advantage compared with one who’s lost both. Whilst as an exemplar of justice served the Lawrence case fails abysmally, is there any more truth in the claims being made for the case’s significance for race relations in Britain generally?

The temptation to over-egg this latter is great indeed. It appears to provide some kind of sense that Stephen did not lose his life entirely in vain. It, more insidiously, also allows Britain to feel better about itself, to believe that it has turned some kind of corner. It especially enables the Met to wax eloquent about the hard lessons it’s learnt, and how nothing like this could ever happen again. If you’re tempted to believe that, then I suggest you do no more than keep an informal tally of the racial identity of every car driver in the capital that you’ve seen stopped by the police at the roadside. And then compare that percentage with the percentage of London’s black citizens.

Macpherson’s report into the killing is famously credited with the radical conclusion that the Metropolitan Police were “institutionally racist”, as if this were some concept invented specially for this case. Many of us had been talking about institutionalised racism for years before Macpherson lighted upon the term. But no matter: this official acceptance that racism is more about how institutions operate and less about individuals saying or even doing the wrong thing is the best and most significant outcome of this tragic case.

And yet there is still confusion about what institutionalised racism is really about. It is not simply the cumulative effect of individual acts or omissions. We remain fixated on the wrong things when we talk about race. We get all hot under the collar about “inappropriate language” whilst happily ignoring the routine, constant operation of prejudicial assumptions, mistaken ideas about cause and effect, or the embedded disadvantages that black citizens face. White policemen who would never dream of using the n word will still pull over black drivers more frequently than white; will still react to clothing and style as erroneous indicators of criminal intent; and deny the living experience of racism that every black citizen endures every day.

When one of our older tenants inadvertently talks about “coloured folk” we need to get out the smelling salts and waft them under the noses of our hyper-sensitised white anti-racism crusaders. But these are the same white staff who seem incapable of understanding that many black people communicate in different and unfamiliar ways, and who instead talk about chips on shoulders; or who get unnerved and start to imagine conspiracy and a refusal to integrate when 5 or 6 black staff talk together.

So the Lawrence convictions are good news up to a point. But they do not mean that British society has in some decisive way thrown off the scourge of racism. They do not indicate that when the current public sector cuts have run their course, black staff will not have been disproportionately displaced. They do not mean that in a shrinking job market, black workers will not find their applications less successful than those of their white peers. They do not mean that as a young black male driver you will suddenly no longer have to fear being pulled over.

I hope profoundly that perhaps they do mean that the next time a young black man is knifed to death on the streets of London, his family will not need to wait 18 years for justice. But in truth, I’m not even very sure of that.