In a radio interview on Friday 11th March Nick Clegg sought to channel the mounting frustration and anger of the electorate. Asked about the bonuses that bankers were awarding themselves, Clegg said:
It’s like a red rag to my bull … I am like anybody else: you want to wring the neck of these wretched people who behaved so irresponsibly and then we are now having to bail them out.
Clegg’s language is relentlessly inappropriate. He concentrates on the behaviour of individuals and avoids the need to discuss the structure of banking and the system of incentives that it creates. More than that, he focuses on how he feels – what it feels like being bullish, take-no-prisoners Nick. The Financial Times tells us that his language was a ‘signal’ that Clegg will demand ‘sweeping structural reforms and increased competition’ in the financial sector later this year. Well, perhaps he will. But Clegg is doing no more than sharing his feelings at this point. In the Financial Times‘s own words he was raising the banker-bashing rhetoric.
The defense of the City and its prerogatives is conducted on much the same terms. When Bob Diamond spoke to the Treasury Select Committee in January he told them that there had been ‘a period of remorse and apology for banks – that period needs to be over’. Individuals have made mistakes, lessons have been learned. The banking community has felt bad for long enough. It is time to move on.
So this is the choice we are offered. We can either be angry with bankers or we can be grown and accept that we need them more than they need us. Indignation or resignation, according to taste. It is hard to avoid the sense that the corralling of the population into these two parties of feeling is intended to substitute for a serious public debate about the role of finance in the British economy and the nature of the reforms that are necessary if we are to avoid steepening inequality, debt peonage and the restoration of Edwardian social forms. In Clegg’s case the intention seems to be, in Tony Blair’s words, to ‘appear to empathize with public concern and then channel it into the correct course’ – the correct course being to keep things much as they are.
Perhaps Clegg’s outburst is a signal of his commitment to structural reform. But the question is – what kind of structural reform? On what basis? To what end? I don’t care what he feels about bankers. I want to know what he thinks we should do about the banking sector. This requires a different kind of language – a public language that is transparent about the aims of policy and the nature of the controversies we face. It further requires a true reckoning of the costs and benefits of our hosting a vast financial sector.
We have surely had enough of empathy. A political culture presided over by full-time performers of the public mood (‘I am like anybody else’) has brought us to the current crisis. Together commentators, politicians and opinion-formers have articulated and sought to shape the private world of sentiment. Faced with an unprecedented collapse in the financial sector we have been offered the consolation and complicity of outrage. The inexhaustible novelty of how we feel serves to protect the old order from what we think.
We need now the clarity of knowing. For that we must look elsewhere, to the operations of a public culture marked by reason and the patient accumulation of fact.
It is, after all, dispassion that most unnerves the monster.