Julian Sheather on Mandelson’s distemper

Reader I am sick, sick if not quite unto death then very nearly unto despair. There is a gnawing within that will not let me rest. I have searched in vain for what to call my malediction. I have been sacking my shelves, rifling my dictionaries and encyclopedias, consulting with the most eminent physicians, but it hovers elusive just beyond the reach of diagnosis. The symptoms are daily growing stronger: an indignant tightening in the chest; bouts of impotent rage; a hopeless bewildered clamouring after social justice. Finally, reluctantly, after months of fruitless searching I have decided to take the matter into my own hands, to become my own diagnostician. All good maladies require a name and to mine I have given the moniker Mandelson’s Distemper, in honour of the most vexatious of its symptoms. For reader I am not relaxed, not at all relaxed – and so very much not “intensely” relaxed – about people getting filthy rich.

Let me qualify that slightly. To you who got rich in the old way – glimpsing opportunities, taking risks, working all hours – I take off my hat. I admire your drive, your nerve, your chutzpah. If we are to have a market in goods and services, and efficiency dictates that we must, then let us not condemn those who prosper in its service. It may not be the highest calling – wealth might just not be the greatest human good – but an honest fortune lawfully acquired is surely not to be sniffed at. No reader, this is not the politics of envy. The source of this canker runs deeper. For what is killing me are the sums paid to those who, only a year ago, were saved from the abyss by taxpayers’ money. It is the wealth of those immunised against the risks they take. It is bankers’ bonuses that are laying me low.

First time around I was – mostly – a believer. I toed the line. Although I sensed that vast wealth differentials do not a peaceful culture make, the great cash cow in the city would surely put cream in all our tea. There was trickle-down. There was tax revenue. There was New Labour’s public-service spending. Hell, there was even Tony Blair. Admittedly there might already have been a slight price-value disturbance. Markets fix prices – willingness to pay – but it is a strange index that says a banker is fifty times more valuable than a nurse, or a fireman, or a young soldier dying in the desert wastes of Helmand. But now the veil has been rent.  The apologists have grown shrill or put on sackcloth and ashes. They see their image in a glass and grow faint. For now we know them. Because they cannot be allowed to fail, banks privatise profit and socialise risk. The enormous rewards are taken by the bankers, the enormous risks are shouldered by taxpayers. When we were disciples we were told that city fortunes were necessary for us all to live better. It was a lie. Banking is negative redistribution. It takes from the poor and gives to the rich. And it is an egregious injustice.

Julian Sheather is ethics manager, BMA. The views he expresses in his blog posts are entirely his own.