Banker-bashers: a lynch mob with PhDs

The mad political pursuit of ‘evil’ Fred Goodwin confirms that bankers are to posh commentators what paedos are to tabloid hacks.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Politics

The mad pursuit of Fred Goodwin and his ill-gotten knighthood confirms that bankers are the new paedophiles. Bank bosses are to posh commentators what paedos were to hacks at the News of the World – wicked creatures one can rail against in order to feel puffed-up and Good. Yes, the broadsheet bruisers and opportunistic politicians calling for Fred the Shred’s scalp might not use foul phrases like ‘kiddie fiddler’ and they might pepper their output with serious-looking graphs and pie charts, but don’t be fooled – behind the erudite veneer there lurks the old tabloid desire to project society’s sins on to one moral misfit and cast him out of decent society.

You don’t have to be a fan of Goodwin’s or a denier of the fact that he and other bankers played a role in bringing about the recession (I am neither of those things) to see that the moral crusade against him has become positively medieval. The similarity between the campaign to strip Goodwin of his knighthood and old tabloid efforts to expose and harry alleged paedos is striking. Indeed, in 2009 the Sun ran a double-page feature headlined ‘WE HUNT DOWN FRED’, announcing that it had handed the former RBS boss a petition calling on him to forego his generous pension. A few weeks later the windows of Goodwin’s home in Edinburgh were smashed in by so-called anti-capitalists who demanded that ‘bank bosses should be jailed’. Later that year, taking the medieval vibe to dizzy new heights, Goodwin’s head was put on a spike on London Bridge. Don’t worry, it wasn’t the real thing! It was just a work of art funded by the EU to raise awareness about the wickedness of bankers.

Of course, the difference between the old tabloid wars against paedos and the current moralistic hounding of bankers is that the latter has been sanctioned by the influential chattering classes, giving it a reach and clout the News of the World‘s crusade against paedos never achieved. Indeed, it was fitting that Goodwin’s head metaphorically ended up on a spike, given that serious commentators had been hinting, with barely disguised bloodlust, that just such an outcome would be desirable. ‘In Tudor times, Fred Goodwin’s head would have been chopped off, parboiled and placed on a spike’, said historian David Starkey. Oh, let’s not be so backward, said Observer columnist Andrew Rawnsley, writing in 2009: ‘Assuming it is out of the question to hang, draw and quarter 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?’ Nice. Even the News of the World never went so far as to fantasise graphically about how to kill paedos.

Now, Goodwin hasn’t quite been shot; his real head hasn’t taken the place of that fake EU-funded head on any of London’s bridges. But he has had his knighthood taken away, an act gleefully described by one broadsheet paper, on its front page, in huge lettering, as ‘The final humiliation’. For all the high-faluting talk of the banker-bashers, for all their pretence of liberal concern in the face of out-of-control banker greed, the desire to humiliate Goodwin is every bit as narrowly moralistic, demented and self-serving as the older, less classy campaign against kiddie fiddlers. Both are pretty profound instances of scapegoating, in the literal meaning of that word – where an irrational community projects its sins on to a goat (or in our times a pervert or a banker) and then casts it out to wander through deserts, imagining that this puts the sins to bed and resolves all problems. One academic study describes scapegoating as ‘the ancient process of the transfer and disposal of evil’, which is an apt description of the bonkers belief that ‘HUNTING DOWN’ Goodwin, smashing his windows and de-Sirring him has helped to ‘put right a manifest wrong’, demonstrating to all the ‘dishonour of being selfishly greedy’.

But if there is one thing worse than this widespread adolescent notion that the current economic downturn was brought about by a handful of immoral bankers who must now be shamed, it is the idea that the removal of Goodwin’s knighthood was an act of ‘populism’ designed to appease ‘the mob’. Some in the media are made uncomfortable by this latest instance of Fred-bashing because it has ‘a whiff of mob rule’; it is a case of the political class giving in to ‘a mob baying for vengeance’. Mob? What mob? There were no mass public protests calling for Goodwin to be unknighted. There was no torch-wielding gathering at his home demanding his head/knighthood on a spike. It isn’t mob rule but rather self-induced hysteria amongst the elite that has motored banker-bashing. It is not on for shocked editorialists to point the finger of blame at ‘the mob’ for a climate of hysteria that was actually whipped up by tiny cliques of opportunistic politicians and media men desperate to blame the recession on one man and his massive moral failings.

It was top politicians who spearheaded the campaign against Fred Goodwin, with PM David Cameron even hinting at one stage that some bankers might be ‘sent to prison’. It was politicians who opportunistically made ‘bonus culture’ into the greatest evil of our times, as if the recession were a product of high wages for handfuls of bosses rather than of the serious structural disarray in modern capitalism. It was BBC reporters who told us that bankers’ greed ‘brought the economy to its knees and [caused] misery to millions’. It was some obscure committee which recommended removing Goodwin’s knighthood, it was the EU which gave the green light to putting a version of his head on a spike on a bridge, and it was well-to-do commentators who wondered out loud how best to bump him off. This isn’t ‘mob rule’ – it’s more like a cliquish epileptic fit, the spread of a sort of malarial moral fever amongst the chattering classes.

And it isn’t hard to work out why politicians and Brussels bureaucrats are quite happy for bankers to be turned into modern-day paedos we can all chuck stones at (literally) and decapitate (metaphorically) – it’s because they hope that this orgy of banker-bashing will distract attention from the role played by them and their states in encouraging the growth of a flimsy, now-imploding credit-fuelled economy over the past two decades. What is more difficult to work out is why so-called radicals and anti-capitalists are so willing to aid and abet the state in its cynical creation of a scapegoat for modern capitalism, dutifully hurling insults at the likes of Fred Goodwin whenever the Sun or Ed Miliband tell them to.

There’s no need to feel sorry for Fred the Shred. I’m sure life won’t be too hard for him, even if maitre d’s will now have to call him Mr Goodwin rather than Sir Fred. But we should feel bad, and also pretty shocked, about the fact that we live in a society where the intellectual classes are happier to invent and demolish ‘evil’ than they are to get to grips with serious economic, political and moral questions. As with the old tabloid war against paedos, the modern crusade against bankers reveals far more about a lack within the crusaders themselves than it does about the problems facing our society.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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