The new Chancellor of the Exchequer would appear to be one of those people – a very small minority of the population – who believes that the financial-services community should now be forgiven for all the damage they caused the last time they were off the leash.
Even before the extraordinary decision to remove the top rate of tax – for those earning £150,000 year it was in any case only 5p in the £ more than people with an income a third as much – Kwasi Kwarteng had already signalled that there should be no further “punishment” of investment bankers by leaking his intent to remove the cap on bankers’ bonuses. This cap, in case Mr Kwarteng’s own history in the investment-banking sector has escaped his memory, was put in place after the 2007-08 financial crisis.
No matter that the bonus system in the financial sector incentivised the sort of people who seem to measure success only in hard currency to take riskier and more complex gambles with other people’s cash. No matter the failure to prosecute a single senior person working in the City of London for the damage wrought on the global economy by their recklessness. No matter that the impact of their collective behaviour, multiplied by the impunity of their conduct, was the single biggest insult to fairness in most of our lifetimes.
The sackcloth and ashes worn (not at all) by the financial community have been consigned to the past. All is forgiven, even though nothing much was done to the guilty anyway.
It is comforting to think that the same people, but with more powerful computers and more ingenious schemes for packaging money and skimming off a percentage point here and a percentage point there, will have all the same incentives as they did before. Comforting if you are one of them, that is. For the rest of us, there is only discomfort that comes from the answer to the question: what have we learned?
The answer, of course, is nothing. Because the people who have been in charge most of the time since the financial crisis have not really wanted to learn lessons. They have just wanted us, the people who paid that bill and are still paying that bill for the crimes committed and unpunished, to forget what happened.
It is surely time – and maybe the last time – to remember. This should be fresh in our minds every day: fairness is our survival kit. It protects us as individuals but even more importantly it holds society together. We let it lapse at our individual and collective peril. We must not ignore those who would suggest that their conduct is fair when we – and probably they - know instinctively that it is not.
Mr Kwarteng has already let the British people know what he thinks of fairness. He thinks it is fair to redistribute wealth. So do others; indeed, under certain circumstances and in moderation, so do I. But all of the rest of us think that wealth should be redistributed from the wealthy to those with less. Mr Kwarteng’s actions suggest he thinks redistribution should go in the other direction.
If, as I hope it will be, the next election (and every one thereafter) is fought on the ground of fairness, Mr Kwarteng and his colleagues will need to hope that the British electorate is either too stupid to understand what they are doing, or that they have very short memories indeed. For myself, I think neither of those suppositions are true.
Ben Fenton is the author of To Be Fair – the Ultimate Guide to Fairness in the 21st Century (Mensch Publishing)