Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Vendetta against Goodwin is empty populism, not socialism

I'm glad I'm not the only person on the left who finds the government's attempt to shame Sir Fred Goodwin into giving back his pension deeply sordid. I have no great sympathy for the former RBS boss, but I think the response of ministers, and of Harriet Harman in particular, has illustrated some of the worst features of New Labour under Gordon Brown.

The government's resort to trial by media has demonstrated, yet again, the shallow populism of the Brown administration, with its resort to headline-catching gestures a meagre substitute for its loss of any real connection with its former popular base. It's also an example of its characteristic control-freakery, the belief that government has the right to intervene whenever it sees something going on that it doesn't like. (The Wilders case was, arguably, another example: we don't like this man's views, so let's ban him.) And finally it reveals the government's moralising, puritanical instincts, which lead it to be suspicious of - and seek to rein in - the pleasures of private individuals.

I may not like Sir Fred's behaviour. I may believe that he contributed directly  to the collapse of RBS and therefore to the nation's current economic woes. I may think that he acted greedily and with crass insensitivity by insisting on drawing his whole pension, and at the ridiculously early age of 50 (we should all be so lucky). But those are my private opinions.  If I were a government minister, I would have no business using the power of the state to impose those views on another private individual (Goodwin), who worked until recently for a private institution.

Yes, I know the government is bailing out Goodwin's bank with public money, and I agree that our money shouldn't be used to give excessive rewards to bank officials. But Goodwin's pension plan appears to have been approved before the bailout, and agreed by government ministers: it can't be taxed retrospectively. And in her statements about the affair, Harriet Harman has gone beyond saying that tax-payers' money shouldn't fund large pensions - she said that she thinks pensions of this size are unjustified in themselves, whoever is funding them. Thus the darker side of Labour's nonconformist roots, the side that is resentful and disapproving of the pleasures of the rich, reveals itself. 

You don't overcome inequality by conducting vendettas against individual cases of private wealth (in fact it could be argued that the current campaign is a sideshow distracting attention from Labour's failure to reduce inequality). That's not socialism, it's just empty populism.

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