Bring me the head of Fred Goodwin
Commentators called for Goodwin’s head to be put on a spike. Now, courtesy of an EU-funded arts festival, it very nearly has been.
Rarely have the wages - or indeed pensions - of sin been the subject of quite as much vengeful, virtuous posturing as those dished out to former Royal Bank of Scotland chief executive Fred Goodwin. His pension now stands at £342,500 a year, after he voluntarily reduced it from £555,000.
At the height of Fred-shredding back in February, politicians were falling over themselves to peck away at the banking carrion. Former Labour minister John Prescott was quick to stick his beak in: ‘[Goodwin’s] greed and reckless nature got us into this mess and necessitated us bailing out the bank to the tune of £20billion to try and keep people in their homes and jobs.’ Then came leader of the House of Commons Harriet Harman who squawked: ‘[This pension contract] might be enforceable in a court of law, but it is not enforceable in the court of public opinion, and that is where the government steps in.’ Gordon Brown simply saw an opportunity to be angry: ‘The anger that the public have is anger that I have as well’, he thundered, before calling Goodwin’s pension plan ‘unjustifiable’ and ‘unacceptable’.
Commentators also lambasted Goodwin’s greed. Observer columnist Andrew Rawnsley gave vent to a hitherto hidden bloodlust: ‘Assuming it is out of the question to hang, draw and quarter Sir Fred Goodwin, pluck out his intestines while they are still warm and wriggling, stuff them into his greedy mouth and then display his severed head on a spike at the Tower of London, could we settle for shooting him instead?’ Historian David Starkey was quick to follow Rawnsley’s punitive lead: ‘All the arguments about reward for risk are spurious when there is no penalty for failure. In Tudor Times, Fred Goodwin’s head would have been chopped off, parboiled and placed on a spike.’
Although banker revenge fantasies have done little for British political culture, leaving the prospect of an honest discussion of the economic crisis as distant as ever, they have at least provided the script for radical protest. For example, at the G20 protests outside the Bank of England in April, effigies of Fred Goodwin were, if not drawn or quartered, certainly hung.
David Fryer’s artwork
And then last week, artist David Fryer actually impaled a clay-and-sheep’s-flesh version of Goodwin’s head - alongside other bankers - on a spike by the side of London Bridge. So the banker’s head, or at least a realistic representation of it, has now actually been put on a spike in central London, as part of an environmentalist arts festival titled Two Degrees, sponsored by the European Union Culture Programme and the Arts Council of England.
Of course, no one but his wife and children could have much sympathy for Goodwin; for the rest of us, it is galling to see a banker effectively being rewarded for failure. However, while the recurrent public execution of Goodwin and his banking friends might be cathartic for the political classes, the media and radicals, it does nothing to illuminate the current economic crisis. New RBS chairman Sir Philip Hampton called it a ‘distraction’ from the problems at the de facto state-owned bank. Hampton is half right: the elite-stoked baying for Goodwin’s pension, not to mention his head and innards, is a spectacularly gory distraction - but a distraction not only from RBS’s problems, but from a serious political debate about the economy in general.
Sanctimonious posturing will do nothing to re-politicise the economic realm, long sequestered as a purely managerial concern, and turn it into a site of contesting social visions. In this sense, blaming bankers, and chasing bad-man Goodwin to his £4million villa in the French Riviera, as the News of the World did recently, is not just a diversion; it derives from the predominance of a moral rather than a political-economic response to the current crisis.
article continues after advertisement
Instead of seeing the massive growth of the financial sector since the 1980s as a symptom of the broader stagnation of the productive, value-creating part of the economy; instead of grasping successive governments’ subservience to the financial sector in terms of its disproportionate contribution to national wealth; instead, ultimately, of grasping the economic crisis in terms of the long-term state of the economy, the moral response grasps it in terms of a sub-Hobbesian notion of human nature. If given free rein, man will serve himself - a war of all against all.
In this narrative, the massive growth of the financial sector, and the pursuit of short-term gains rather than long-term investment, is seen as a product of human greed, and its collapse as the bonfire of the vanities. The individuals involved were guilty of pursuing unalloyed self-interest. It wasn’t just that Goodwin made the mistake of pushing through the purchase of debt-riddled Dutch bank ABN Amro, just as the largely ignored John Varley at Barclays was trying to; it was that in doing so, in enriching himself in the process, he pursued his self-interest. That Goodwin seeks to preserve his pension, while thousands recently laid off from RBS suffer, simply provides further testament of his unrestrained avarice.
Yet the moralisation of the economic crisis, and the problematisation of self-interest, does not do those on the sharp end of job losses and pay-cuts any favours, either. It is profoundly socially regressive. For anyone to want more than is deemed necessary - by God knows what extra-political regulatory body - is to overstep the line into the realm of the immoral and the selfish. And as we saw from the ‘greedy’ label that was hurled at striking Tube workers a couple of weeks ago, that applies to underpaid, overworked employees just as much as to the fattest of the capitalist elite.
It’s telling that David Fryer’s impaled bankers art-wheeze occurred as part of an environmentalist arts festival. For what the environmental movement and the war on greed share in common is the demonisation of human self-interest. Both sides urge us to act against ourselves, our self-interest as humans, or, if that’s not possible, to get somebody to act for us. For the human-haters and banker-baiters, for people to aspire beyond limits, be they natural or economic, violates the moral order.
Goodwin stands right now as an eternal symbol of human weakness, of self-interest unchecked. And it’s not just bankers who have to be reined in and subjected to strict rules of behaviour; it is all of us. The demonisation of Fred Goodwin, indulged in by everyone from national political leaders to edgy environmentalist artists, contains within it a judgement upon self-interest itself, including that of bankers, of rail workers, and of the entire human species.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.