Thursday, 23 June 2011

Clegg, RBS and brazen idiocy

Nick Clegg has declared that he wants shares in the bailed-out and effectively nationalised RBS group to be handed out to members of the public.

As the indefatigable Richard Murphy has pointed out in his blog, it's a really idiotic idea.  He makes the obvious point that Clegg's plan will in effect guarantee that control of the banks remains in the hands of a minority. Does nobody in Government (leaving aside the adolescents with attitude who largely staff HM Treasury) remember the public utility sales of the 1980s?

But the politics are interesting too.  Clegg is reported as saying:

"Psychologically it is immensely important that the British public feel they have not been overlooked or ignored. Their money has been used to the tune of billions and billions and billions to keep the British banking system on life support and they have absolutely no say at all in what happens when normality is restored."

It's actually a repudiation of mutualism. Clegg appears to be openly arguing that it's the illusion, not the reality that matters.  It's an admission of defeat, an expression of the belief that the only way in which a citizen can have influence is through the ownership of shares - even though that really means no influence at all.  It's particularly ironic coming from a man who tried to pitch himself as the natural successor to Keynes and Beveridge, the inheritor of the mantle of the enabling state.

Moreover, the use of the word "normality" is telling.  Is Clegg really arguing that he believes that the use of ever-more complex financial products and derivatives for speculation that led to the 2008 crash is "normality"?  Is he really arguing that after that crash, there's no need for serious insitutional change?  Even George Osborne has learned to mouth the platitudes, even if one suspects he doesn't believe a word of it.

Assuming that Clegg is reasonably on message, this whole episode seems to me to illustrate a devastating depth of self-deception at the heart of government.  As so often with the pronouncement of coalition Ministers, one finds it difficult to work out which is worse - if they are being cynical or if they really mean it.

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