FIRST, an apology.
In writing on Saturday about the conspiracy to rig the London interbank rate, and to fiddle interest rates generally, I said that taxpayer support to Britain's banks "now tops £1 trillion". This was factually true, but a bit vague.
Having since been prodded towards an IMF estimate of our affairs, I realise that the accurate figure, the useful figure, is actually £1.2 trillion in straight cash, guarantees, electronic subsidy, and other forms of "support", all of it underwritten by working people. As bankers never say, you don't want to be wrong about £200 billion.
There are several ways to make an unthinkable sum a thing you can grasp. One way is to compare all the rhetoric on the fundamental importance of the City of London to the British economy – taxes, jobs, national self-esteem, big bungs to political parties – with the sums actually exchanged.
On that reckoning, every penny wrung from the tax-avoiding financial sector in the boom years before the crash wouldn't cover our invoice. All of the money, and a little more, "earned for Britain" over half a dozen years went in the space of months to stave off the self-induced collapse of banking. Several billions went – for someone has a sense of humour – on bonuses to bankers.
Another way to understand what banking has cost us is domestic and parochial. Divvy up that £1.2 trillion between each and every household in Britain – high and low, rich and poor – and you arrive at a figure just shy of £48,000, or two years on the average wage. You can speak for yourself, but I could have done with some of that.
A third way to cure yourself of the banking delusion is to compare support to the sector with personal debt. That's all the money owed privately by all of us, whether in mortgages, loans, credit cards and the rest. In the early years of the Coalition David Cameron and his friends did a nice line in lectures on our "addiction" to this kind of money, despite the fact that Britons were not defaulting in significant numbers.
So here's how it works. At the end of April of this year the banks that had received £1.2 trillion on our behalf were pursuing us, in a more or less polite way, for £1.45 trillion in personal debt. Average personal debt in Britain, including mortgages, is £55,483; we pay interest of £63 billion each year on that debt. So how would the world have seemed had we set our £1.2 trillion against our £1.45 trillion? At what point would the sky have fallen in?
Back in reality, Bob Diamond, chief executive of Barclays, has resigned at last, but not for his own sake. Of course not. Diamond Bob has gone, finally, out of sheer love for – his word – the "franchise". He still has no knowledge of what was going on at Barclays Capital when he was in charge and questions were being asked about movements in the interbank rate. He still does not appear to associate his rewards – £22 million in shares, a £17.5 million annual package – with what his fellow Americans would call his "fiduciary duties".
Wool is being pulled. Mr Cameron would have us believe that truth and justice will be served by a droning noise in a Commons committee room. Ed Miliband insists that only the public droning of a judge will do. Yet both Labour and the Tories gave explicit licence, with enthusiasm, to those who crashed the economy and fiddled the markets. Now not one of the many lawyers on the parliamentary benches seems able to summon a memory of English common law.
"Conspiracy to defraud" is not an arcane concept. It is not vitiated, time-barred or otherwise derailed just because the Financial Services Authority struck a deal in exchange for a piddling fine. Mr Cameron or any MP could call in the cops. But they don't.
Some officer of the law could even ask RBS chief executive Stephen Hester why four of his traders could be sacked, reportedly, in October and November last year without any legal authority being informed of prima facie cases of wrong-doing. RBS is supposed to be facing a fine of £150 million, or thereabouts, for its part in rate-fixing. RBS is 84% taxpayer-owned. This means, fantastically, that we will be paying a fine to ourselves. So it's true: you can never find a cop when you need one.
The next move from the financial-political complex will be to say that Mr Diamond's enforced departure has "drawn a line". Then we will be enjoined to worry over the welfare of institutions essential, supposedly, to the health of the country as one bank or another is dragged into the light. Soon enough, someone will refresh Mr Diamond's rhetoric and tell us that "banker-bashing" has gone too far.
The word "culture" has been abused royally over the last week. No-one bothers to talk seriously about morality now. If the BBC's Robert Peston is to be believed, Mr Diamond feels he has been "hounded out" because he failed to pay attention to "the culture" that somehow arose among his staff. The language is designed to put a safe distance between actions and responsibility. What's worse, it works.
We can peer through the wool before our eyes, however. We can even rise above simple indignation at all the scams and spin. Banking, patently, is a public utility. Patently, the private sector, its irreplaceable master of the universe, its endlessly ingenious designer of profit machines, is no longer to be trusted with managing money in the public interest. We were taken for £1.2 trillion and still they went on cheating.
You would call that a reason for reform. You could then say that banking is too important to be left in the hands of Bob Diamond, or anyone else liable to pursue a private interest and call it a public good. You could risk an old joke and wonder why it was ever bizarre to demand the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy. Or you could go on enriching these creeps.
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