The Sunday Express – 30 Jan 2011
To lose one debate arguing against banker apologists may be considered a misfortune; but to do so twice at a time when bankers are less popular than traffic wardens looks like carelessness! This was the worrying thought that rebounded around my cerebellum as I entered the venerable Oxford Union a week ago to argue against the motion ‘this house believes that bankers deserve their bonuses’. I had been heavily defeated there at a similar debate in early 2009 by the erudite Vulcan, John Redwood, and had later had the misfortune to read his boastful recollections on his website. I was determined not to have to endure such humiliation again!
I spoke third at the debating chamber that had seen memorable speeches delivered by intellectual heavyweights like Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill and, of course, The Cheeky Girls. After a couple of pro-banker diatribes I straightened my bowtie, brushed down my dinner jacket and approached the podium.
I started off by trying to blackmail the audience into voting against the motion. I told them that my last sizeable defeat had been cited as evidence that Oxford students were an inherently elitist bunch of reactionary greed-mongers. Funnily enough, that didn’t go down too well so I changed tack!
I then explained that over my twelve year City career I had earned six figure bonuses for not working particularly hard in a career that entailed pushing around bits of paper and had little or no social value. I described my days taking clients to strip joints and wondered aloud if this so-called ‘work’ merited an annual salary thirty times that of a teacher or a nurse. Having set the scene, I then debunked the frequently expressed justifications for bankers’ massive remuneration.
Firstly, I dismissed the argument that bankers deserve their bonuses because they’re ‘awfully clever’ and have a ‘terribly risky job’. Well, if they’re so clever, I asked, why had they just plunged the world into a recession? And, anyway, what is so risky about gambling with somebody else’s money? Policemen and soldiers take genuine risks and can lose their lives if they make a mistake yet they are paid less annually than the average City boy’s monthly cocaine budget!
I then attacked the oft-used economic rationale for bankers’ high pay – that the market has deemed their vast salaries to be appropriate and the market is always right. I argued that an unquestioning belief in an all-powerful market had clearly been discredited by the Credit Crunch and that ruthless office politics and criminal activities such as insider trading were often the principal determinants of a City boy’s financial success.
I went on to argue that banks only make the vast profits they do because there is a distinct lack of competition. Moreover, they benefit from an unofficial and unpaid for government insurance policy because they are too big to fail. It was these features, enjoyed by no other industry, rather than a unique efficiency, that enable them to make the super-normal returns that result in massive bonuses.
Finally, I expressed my heartfelt disgust that bankers would dare award themselves massive payouts when they wouldn’t even have jobs had the taxpayer not bailed them out and that they chose to do so at a time when over 500 Brits a day were joining the dole queue as a result of the crisis the bankers had created.
I had barely sat down before I was accused by the next speaker, former political editor of the Sun George Pascoe-Watson, of being ‘a parody of a banker’. He then argued that there would be a mass exodus of City bankers to Zurich or Dubai if there were any attempt to regulate the bonus system. I wanted to point out that this sounded more like a threat of blackmail than a justification for high bonuses but there was no time.
We filed out through the doors that signaled which we way we wished to a vote and headed to the Union bar for a much-deserved drink. As I waited nervously for the announcement of the result I met numerous highly-intelligent students – most of whom had already secured a place at an investment bank! Not only did this make me worry that they’d voted for the motion; it also made me sad that the City was still sucking up the most talented people this country produces.
Suddenly the president of the Union appeared. He tinkled a glass, cleared his throat and after an agonizingly long pause announced the result – 97 votes for the motion and 194 against. I breathed a huge sigh of relief.
It appears that ‘the leaders of tomorrow’ realize that bankers don’t deserve their massive bonuses … however, what’s tragic is that this truth is not stopping them heading off to Goldman Sachs; in fact, it’s the very reason they’re doing so.