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This impotence over Stephen Hester and the bankers looks like a suicide strategy | Marina Hyde

The political elite who claim to be powerless on the RBS chief’s bonus can no longer assume their hierarchy will remain intact

There’s a typically Wildean saying on Wall Street that there are only two appropriate responses to being given your bonus: “Fuck you”, or “Fuck you, I quit”. No doubt RBS chief Stephen Hester is far too refined a character to slip into such coarse vernacular, but news that he is to be awarded a £963,000 bonus – in a year when the share price of his taxpayer-owned bank halved – is being glossed in fist-gnawingly familiar terms. As the BBC’s Robert Peston had it on Thursday night when the news broke: “I am reliably told that they feared Mr Hester and much of the board would have quit if the payment had been vetoed by the government as the majority shareholder.”

Ah, the old Financial Services Flounce – a move perhaps as mythical as the Ninja Death Touch, and one that never seems to be met with the single appropriate response to it: namely, an offer to pay the bus fare. Just once it would be intriguing to see someone take a punt and test whether the bankers who would accept just the million quid a year would fail to hit their targets in a significantly worse way than the likes of Mr Hester have failed to hit theirs.

Then again, as a public sector worker, Hester has other options available to him if he is dissatisfied with his remuneration. The most obvious would be to join the next protest strike with his brethren and sistren from the teaching and caring professions and so on – know your rights, Stephen! – and I must say that were he to be photographed marching huffily next to a nurse I think I would develop Stendhal syndrome and faint with intoxication at the beauty of it all. I already imagine he has got rid of his Newton’s Cradle executive toy, and spent the last week with a mini chrome brazier burning on his desk.

And yet, and yet … The remarkable thing about the Hester bonus announcement – which had all the unpredictability of Norman Wisdom approaching a banana skin next to a swimming pool – is that it still retains the power to shock.

Of course, we are reminded that Hester was only brought in after RBS’s spectacular collapse, so perhaps he should be given a cookie and a few million quid just for that. And I know we only own about 80% of his company, so we should probably know our place and pipe down. Nevertheless, to the untrained eye it doesn’t feel the cleanest of breaks with the après moi le déluge spirit of disgraced former boss Sir Fred Goodwin. In fact, it feels a bit, “No, après MOI le déluge“.

In the meantime, you might as well just accept that “bonus” has officially become an auto-antonym – one of those words that can also mean the opposite of itself. “Cleave”, for instance, can mean both to put asunder and to stick together. And so with “bonus”, which is defined as “something given or paid in addition to what is usual or expected”, but appears to be quite the most usual or expected thing about a banker’s remuneration. The very idea is due a linguistic rebranding, and should henceforth be swaddled in the sort of meaningless marketing terms that blight everything from gyms to water bottles. A bonus should become known as a “corporate wellness gift” or ”farmhouse-style holistic remuneration”.

By far and away the most significant aspect of the Hester payout and what it symbolises, however, is that politicians could act to stop it but don’t. Theirs is the same pose that has been adopted by western lawmakers for the last three years, and which historians may come to regard as a mass-suicidal strategy of the political elite. Time and again since the collapse of Lehman, every aspect of the way the financial crisis has unfolded has been presented by those in charge as ineluctable. This may have deflected some heat from governments in the short term. But, as demonstrated by the reaction to Hester’s bonus, the public unfortunately still believe it doesn’t have to be this way.

The public are right. There’s a passage in the journalist Ron Suskind’s book, Confidence Men, which details the emergency 2008 treasury meeting to which the major Wall Street firms were summoned to be informed how much money the US government was giving them to save the system they’d almost collapsed. No sooner was the offer on the table than the Merrill Lynch chief executive, John Thain, is said to have demanded: “What kind of protections can you give us on changes in compensation policy?” Yet Bank of America’s Ken Lewis was incredulous. “If we spend another second talking about compensation issues,” he countered, “we’ve lost our minds!”

Clearly, even within the absolute senior echelons of banking there are different schools of thought on how to act. But in choosing to appear mere spectators to some deterministic algorithm that is playing out the only way it can, politicians have underscored a growing perception about themselves – which is that they are impotent. Two years ago, this was a pose they could still just afford. But after a 2011 in which all manner of hierarchies were shaken, and in some cases destroyed, can they really be intensely relaxed about the uncharted places it could lead? © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds