Wednesday, December 30, 2009


Shortly before the recent holiday season, a man was jailed for two-and-a-half years for inflicting brain damage with a cricket bat on another man in the street. The coverage of this case made much of the fact that the severity of the attack broke the bat into three pieces. On the face of it, one might be forgiven for considering the sentence to have erred on the side of leniency.

Naturally, there was more to it. The victim was one of three men who had broken into a house and held the family at knife-point, evidently threatening to kill them. The attacker and his brother, returning home to find the incident unfolding, had chased off the intruders and attacked the one whom they managed to catch. The victim’s associates escaped and have never been identified by the police. The victim, now unfit to plead, has been given a two-year supervision order.

That’s the bare bones of it. I was not present at any of the events of the case, nor was I in court, nor have I read transcripts of any of the court proceedings. It is not my policy to pronounce on the particular findings of juries or the particular sentencing by judges at such a distance. No such inhibition afflicts either the media commentariat or the politicians, of course.

Media reaction has been strong and polarised. In The Observer, Catherine Bennett roundly accounted the bat-wielders “vigilantes” and their actions “vengeance” and “retribution”. The OED defines a vigilante (not entirely helpfully) simply as a member of a vigilance committee, which itself is defined as “a self-appointed committee for the maintenance of justice and order in an imperfectly organized community”. Measured against the known facts, Bennett’s use of the word “vigilante” would seem to be, at best, somewhat loaded. So would her other terms.

The Tory Party called for a public debate on the legal position of householders in the matter of protecting themselves. I am happy to oblige. Like the Tories (and I certainly don’t like the Tories), I have a strong sense that rather a lot of emphasis has been placed in recent years on the rights and rehabilitation of offenders and rather a little on the rights and rehabilitation of victims. The recent case is of course peculiar in the savagery of its outcome. So was that of the Norfolk farmer who, ten years ago, shot and killed a teenaged burglar. The farmer was initially found guilty of murder, reduced on appeal to manslaughter, for which he served a three-year sentence, one of exactly the same length as that imposed on the 29 year-old accomplice of the dead boy. Much was made of the supposed paranoia of the farmer, the fact that he did not report the incident to local police (who, he said, had done nothing to solve a string of prior break-ins on his premises and those of his neighbours) and his recent joining of the BNP.

Well, we can all offer ourselves as amateur psychologists and pass judgment on the mental state of these householders who have been jailed for defending their property with what was deemed more than the law allows, which is “reasonable force”. The trouble with this provision is that we are not dealing with incidents in which reason is the guiding force.

I look at it this way. Finding an intruder in your home is not a circumstance for which you can lay plans. I have no idea how I would behave, nor how my partner or indeed our dogs would behave. It is all fine and dandy to be wise after the event or from a safe distance. What is predictable enough is that a wave of conflicting emotions would beset the householder in such a situation. Fear, wrath, adrenalin, bravado, horror, calm, indignation, wit – who knows what would kick in? And not all intruders are the same. One’s responses to a stoned teenager making an opportunist raid for valuables to exchange for cash might well be very different from how one would behave if confronted by a gang masked with balaclavas and wielding sawn-off shotguns.

In theory, the intruder has the advantage in that he has, to a degree, anticipated the intrusion. He may have form in the matter. He may have thought about what he would do in a variety of scenarios. On the other hand, if he is an opportunist or a thief of low intelligence or simply one who has miscalculated the chance of the premises he is entering being occupied, he may behave spontaneously, rashly, stupidly. The armed gang may seem considerably more menacing than the pathetic addict but the latter may well be more likely to do something he and his victims regret. In the sense that the armed gang consists of what are termed “professional criminals”, one might be entitled to expect them to behave “professionally”. Are they going to risk being wanted for inadvertent murder?

Simply put, I hardly think it is “reasonable” to expect someone the sanctity and security of whose home has been violated to behave “reasonably”. Thankfully for most of us, a break-in is uncharted water. And one aspect that evidently characterises both the recent and the ten year-old cases is this: part of the householder’s emotion might well have been, with some justification, an inchoate fear that the intruders, if not apprehended, would strike again. The instinct to defend one’s home would certainly extend into future possibility as well as present reality. Many people who have suffered break-ins find it difficult to feel that they can continue to live safely in their present home.

I mentioned earlier that I cannot anticipate how our dogs might react to an intruder. Though they have been professionally trained, they have an over-riding instinct to protect their pack (themselves and us) and their territory (our property). That instinct cannot be trained out of them, nor, I think, ought it to be. But I should be desolate and aggrieved, were some court to order any dog of ours to be, as they say, “put down” because it attacked an intruder. Would a court so order? Who can guess?

And here surely we come to the nub of it. Someone who breaks into someone else’s property must be deemed to do so at his own risk. No householder, no property owner has an obligation to make his place safe for uninvited guests, nor to prepare a schedule of systematic and appropriate behaviours against the possibility of various degrees of unlooked-for confrontation. This is about taking responsibility for one’s actions. The intruder who chooses to break in must be deemed to take more responsibility for his actions than the householder should be expected to take for his reactions.

There is an interesting resonance here with the case of the British citizen executed in China for drug-smuggling. I deplore the state imposing death sentences and it seems inhuman to deny any consideration of the man’s evident mental state. But then I ask: why was a mentally ill Briton alone in China, trying, so it is reported, to pursue a career there in pop music at the age of 53? The circumstances of his being there would seem to confirm his delusional state. So why did his family allow him to go? Did they not have a duty of care to protect this clearly vulnerable individual?

Our actions have consequences. We cannot simply say that those who respond to our actions should not have done so in that way. And I am afraid that it applies to the Chinese government, whose policy of executing drug-smugglers is known and clear, just as it does to the hitherto innocent citizen whose home has been invaded.

Friday, December 25, 2009


The Christmas album is almost as old as the long-playing record itself. It’s an odd sort of beast. An annual seller if you’re lucky but lousy as a gift because who’s going to be playing it after Christmas Day? So I guess most people buy these items for themselves and play them in the first three-and-a-half weeks of December.

No all-round entertainer of the 1950s and ‘60s would be caught not issuing a Christmas album. Though some few were devoted to slightly jazzed-up versions of carols and other church songs, most went the Tin Pan Alley route with a sprinkling of religion among the secular. So while Ella Fitzgerald’s Christmas (1967) dares to range through ‘We Three Kings’, ‘The First Noël’ and the American version of ‘Away in a Manger’ (hugely preferable to the saccharine British version), Dean Martin’s Christmas with Dino (1966) sticks to the perennial secular favourites like ‘Winter Wonderland’, ‘Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!’ and (of course) Berlin’s ‘White Christmas’, save for a smoochy version of ‘Silent Night’ with bells and “ooh-aah” choir.

The peerless Lena Horne – Merry from Lena (1965) – takes almost exactly the same path as Dino, setting ‘Silent Night’ among the showbiz slush, though with lush orchestral backing, harp and all and adding the ghastly, semi-religious ‘Little Drummer Boy’ (the song that creepily brought together Bing Crosby and David Bowie long ago), but otherwise playing safe. Lena is always best when she’s being humorous, even sardonic – nobody puts such a spin on “naughty” in the phrase “naughty or nice” as she does in her big-band take on ‘Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town’. As long ago as 1960, Nat King Cole could perhaps be hailed as the pioneer of the cross-over album in which a showbiz/jazz-inflected singer attempts a whole album of carols in his The Magic of Christmas. He even essayed ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ in its Latin manifestation, ‘Adeste Fideles’, which must have confused some of his fans who perhaps thought “ador-e-mousse” (sic) was something to eat.

Doris Day cleaved to commercial songs in her seasonal album, called (sadly not Christmas Day, which is what I would have called it, but) The Christmas Album (1964). As so many do, she included Mel Tormé’s ‘The Christmas Song’, also known as ‘Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire’, an imperishably undemanding number that must have been a nice little pension for Tormé, who reckoned he dashed off the music in 40 minutes.

‘The Christmas Song’ turns up, as hilariously as almost everything on the album, on Bob Dylan’s Christmas in the Heart, this year’s seasonal treat that no one saw coming. What odds could you have got in 1963 against Dylan ever recording Tormé, I wonder? Or him doing ‘Here Comes Santa Claus’. Dylan mixes religious and secular, pitching a soupy version of ‘Hark the Herald Angel Sing’ against a work-out for his ancient croak in ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’. It makes you long for the natural follow-up, his version of Rufus Wainwright’s recreation of Judy Garland’s legendary Carnegie Hall concert. What would you give to hear Dylan do ‘The Trolley Song’?

Showbiz Jews have always happily embraced “mainstream” goyim American culture – especially Christmas – so there’s nothing very unusual at that level about Robert Zimmerman/Bob Dylan doing Christmas. After all, Barbra Streisand – much more frankly Jewish than Dylan – has made two Christmas albums, both superb. Both mix in a certain amount of traditional Christian fare and each has a version of ‘Ave Maria’, Gounod’s on A Christmas Album (1967), Schubert’s on Christmas Memories (2001). The first time I heard a pop voice in the Gounod was that of Bobby Darin who made a 1960 album called The 25th Day of December; I bought an EP selection. The full album, which I did not acquire till many years later, is heavily characterised by white gospel-style singing so it was even more adventurous than the Cole album of the same year. I was a devoted fan of Darin who, single-handedly, introduced me via pop to the great songbook of standards that he recorded on his albums; but I didn’t think he quite got away with going classique. Nor really does Streisand, mostly because she is just too reverential. By contrast, her version of Stephen Sondheim’s ‘I Remember’ – not a Christmas song at all but no doubt included for the line “I remember snow” – is glorious; she doesn’t sing enough Sondheim whose acerbic music and lyrics suit her down to the ground.

This year’s most beguiling Christmas album has been Strange Communion by the excellent young English singer-songwriter Thea Gilmore. I love her Joni-Mitchell-meets-Annie Lennox-and-they-really-get-on voice and her writing, though clearly folk-based, is wide-ranging and always ambitious. A couple of the tracks are beautifully chosen covers of others, though certainly not routine ones: Elvis Costello on the one hand, Yoko Ono on the other. I’ll be playing this album a lot and not just at this time of year.

I guess my all-time favourite Christmas albums are, in chronological order, A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector (1963) and The McGarrigle Christmas Hour (2005). I bought the Spector when it first came out, being an enthusiast for his stable of singers. The Ronettes were the best, named for the lead singer Veronica whom Spector married. I saw them on tour at the Kettering Granada in 1964. They topped the bill; the first half was closed by a promising if somewhat disreputable English group called The Rolling Stones. I wonder what became of them.

The Spector album, concluded by a spoken track of consuming mawkishness by Spector himself (perhaps he recites it still in his prison cell), was the first pop album to become a serious collector’s item, changing hands for silly money in the mid-1970s. Sadly, I gave my copy away about five minutes before it suddenly became so unexpectedly desirable. This may be the story of my life.

The album by Kate and Anna McGarrigle and their circle is adorable. The choice of songs and singers is always interesting and unusual. The opening track, a version of the traditional ‘Seven Joys of Mary’ with a wonderfully wheezy backing of fiddle and organ, trumpets and pennywhistle, immediately sets out the stall and they never look back. Outstanding in a crowded field are a Jackson Browne song, 'Rebel Jesus’, strongly put over by Lily Lanken and Martha Wainwright, and Rufus Wainwright’s world-beating version of the lovely old Frank Loesser ballad ‘What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?’

The obvious requirement, I suppose, is that a modern Christmas collection be unexpected but have staying power. But then I guess that would be the formula for just about anything … sex, say …

Monday, December 21, 2009


It’s that time of year when, willy-nilly, everything seems to be coloured by its proximity to Christmas. I rather resent it. The whole thing only survives of course as a celebration of the triumph of capitalism. Were it primarily a religious occasion, as it once was, I should resent it no less. I prefer to think of this period as it was in the first place: a pagan festival called Yule, one which, as they did with all the culture they encountered that they deemed “heathen”, the Christians ruthlessly eradicated. If I didn’t find the term so studiedly ghastly, I might embrace it as “winterval”.

We still speak of Yule logs and find ourselves amusing when we wish each other “a cool Yule”, but realistically one has to accept that it’s become this amorphous mass called Christmas. Brought up in the low-church Anglican tradition and singing in my school choir, I was perforce made aware of the progression of the beginning of the Christian calendar from Michaelmas through Advent and so to Christmastide. The choral traditions that accrue at this time of year are certainly seductive – who doesn’t melt to Harold Darke’s version of ‘In the Bleak Mid-Winter’ or Boris Ord’s haunting ‘Adam Lay Ybounden’? This amounts to a cultural rather than a religious observance of the season. Many will be exercised by a similar spirit – actually attending a carol service, say, or going to Midnight Mass at the end of Christmas Eve which we, though rationalists, did as obeisance to our upbringing up until about 15 years ago.

But the infant Christ was shouldered aside long ago by a more demotic and transaction-friendly figure to embody the moment: the fat, jolly man in red with a white beard. Not that even he is entirely holding his own. It was the Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam (as they called New York) who brought to the New World the legend of Sinter Kraas. Clement Clarke Moore’s much-loved poem of 1823, ‘The Night Before Christmas’, popularized the figure of Santa Claus, which was cemented as an image by Thomas Nast’s caricature for Harper’s Weekly in 1863. Of all commercial enterprises, Coca-Cola made most of this image in its advertising. The British version of the character, Father Christmas, is now all but subsumed into the American Santa.

The style of Christmas celebration in Britain has further changed in recent years and I blame all those holidays taken in Florida by people with more money than taste. Americans want passers-by to see that they are celebrating the season. This ostentation has spread to the more modest homes of the British. The result is that street upon residential street is embellished with rippling lights, parked sleighs and abseiling Santas, a riot of ill-assorted effects that must quadruple each house’s annual electricity bill. The old carol urged us to “deck the halls with boughs of holly”. But I think that what was meant was the inside of the halls, to enhance an intimate and communal act of worship, not the outside to announce that you are competing with the Joneses next door and the Argos store in the Arndale Centre.

And of course, it is the houses that have no architectural distinction that thereby draw attention to themselves. Any dwelling of style and grace will vouchsafe no more than the glimpse through a drawing room window of lights on a tree and, what’s more, a tree not dressed until Christmas Eve (as is traditional) and dismantled promptly on the morning of Twelfth Night. Only the most vulgar householders can feel comfortable turning their homes into the festive equivalent of a lap-dancing dive in the red-light district of a down-at-heel holiday resort for two solid months.

Again, it is a sign of American commercial influence that the Yule season lasts so long. Macy’s start putting up their Christmas lights in mid-September. (Mind you – I wrote the foregoing few sentences for my book Common Sense in 2006 and this year there’s been a decided cutting-back. Instead of the lights going up in what seemed still to be early autumn, it was as if there were a pact among the self-decorating class, as a result of which nothing twinkled until last weekend. Now they’re up, though, perhaps the shameless householders will keep the lights till Easter).

A few years ago, the Radio 4 programme Saturday Review, in which a rotating group of critics debate the cultural openings of the week, turned its attention to the festive lights on Regent Street which, that year, centred on promotions for a seasonal Hollywood movie. The critics roundly deplored this development, as though earlier, less specific designs somehow betokened a less commercial philosophy. “Oh please” I shouted at the wireless. “Do you imagine the stores put up these lights in honour of the new-born Christ? They do it because they want you to come and gaze at the spectacle and come into the stores and spend money. If you want to attack lights that advertise a movie, focus on the real Satan here: attack capitalism”.

Christmas is now primarily an orgy of indulgence, even in these straitened times. Though the royal family’s trip en masse to St Mary Magdalene church at Sandringham on Christmas morning still brings the media, and television news the world over runs clips of the Pope speaking the same dreary message in dozens of languages from the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica, religious observance is marginal in the scheme of things. This Christmas Day, BBC1 has an hour of Eucharist in the morning and five minutes from the Gospel of Matthew late at night. Unless you count a 50-minute programme on BBC2 at 18.00 about Botticelli’s ‘Mystic Nativity’ – which anyway is from a series about painting, not religion – that is the sum total of religious broadcasting from British terrestrial television on the big day. I have not checked out the hundreds of satellite channels but, save for stations dedicated to evangelism, I suspect that between them they can muster no more.

It’s a tough call, deciding which has done more harm in the world: religion or capitalism. As widely anticipated, capitalism scuppered the Copenhagen summit and ensured that nothing was bound into law that would limit the freedom of capital to continue to plunder, exploit and despoil the planet. So, as I have argued here before, capitalism will surely ensure that life in the universe comes to an end. That’s quite a lot of harm.

Religion’s harm is more often on an individual basis, expressed in fear, guilt, self-loathing, cruelty, hubris, anti-rationality and all other charming qualities that prelates, priests and shamans preach. In this last week, the Bishop of Limerick, Donal Murray, has been prevailed upon by the Vatican to resign – you can just imagine the endless negotiation – over his failure to act on the abuse practised by priests in his diocese. Recently, we sent out Hanukkah ecards, including one to a friend in Israel that depicted, in a line drawing, a cantor intoning alongside a boy. The roguish legend on the card was “Here’s to you, Judaism! You’re all the tradition with none of the paedophilia”. Our friend replied, more gravely: “Would that this sentiment were true. It may not now or in the past have been as rampant as within the Catholic Church, but abuse by rabbis is definitely not unknown”.

Needless to say, wherever people have taken power over others, there is abuse. Catholicism particularly lends itself to paedophilia and pederasty because it has a culture of secrecy (the confession) overlaying the requirement that priests be unmarried and the tradition that the head of the church is “infallible”. Arguably even worse than the centuries of abuse practised by priests and nuns have been the knee-jerk denial and the instinct to protect the abusers rather than the abused. But that is religion all over. Islam honours the suicide bomber and ignores the innocent victim, dismisses the “infidel” (anyone not Moslem) and persecutes anyone who questions the absurd cruelties inflicted by fundamentalism on those too weak to fight back, especially women and children. The gruesomely misnamed “honour killing” is forgiven because men have all of the privilege and women none of the rights.

Meanwhile, in the evangelical churches of Christianity, evil is rewarded with the trappings of the secular world as though there is no possible contradiction. The unspeakable American preacher Oral Roberts died last week at 91, having led a life of fake cures and conspicuous consumption, courtesy of the backwoods idiots who flocked to his revivalist meetings. In a field where greed and fraud run rampant, Roberts was the wealthiest and the most shameless. One fact that he cannot escape: as I write, he is not resident in any version of heaven, but then nor would he be had he led an utterly blameless life.

In his most recent new year message, the pontiff Ratzinger – a man sitting on a throne, wearing a dress and protected by the Swiss Guard among whom being gay is practically compulsory – identified the main threat to the world not as capitalism or climate change or nationalism or Islam or human greed or nuclear weapons or terrorism or warfare or disease but homosexuality. In the United States, there are churches that bend their most determined efforts to denouncing homosexuals, even – what could be more sanctimoniously revolting? – barracking at the funerals of fallen service personnel on the argument that they died in the name of a country (the US) that tolerates homosexuals. The African churches that remain members of the Anglican communion are leading the movement on that continent to have homosexuality registered in law as an offence punishable by the death penalty. In nations where Sharia law obtains, homosexuals are publicly executed. Even were I not myself gay, I should denounce the world’s religions as barbarous, hypocritical and utterly irrelevant.

I am not much attracted to the post-hippie, self-sufficient, new-age life that anyway touches hands with the pastoral, simple-life version of Christianity and certainly embraces a good deal of superstition and unsustainable swooniness about what is proper. Some of these people, no doubt, will be doing Yule this coming weekend. So I guess the only alternative is to accept that capitalism has won here as everywhere else and accede to the season of conspicuous consumption. “Merry Christmas, you suckers” as the satirical songwriter Paddy Roberts sang nearly half a century ago, “It may be your last”.

Friday, December 11, 2009


As the Copenhagen summit reaches its halfway point, the verdict is inevitably “so far, so predictable”. At the end of next week, we shall be saying “too little, too late”. Chivvied by Gordon Brown, Europe has promised funds it doesn’t have to nations it doesn’t care about in a gesture towards shoring up the barriers against the rising seas. But it isn’t enough and it doesn’t begin to tackle the problem’s source. In any case, we know that funding was promised before but didn’t materialise. When the credit banks drop Britain’s credit rating in nice time for the election, Brown will have to make much more savage cuts and clearly cutting overseas aid will be rather less painful to most voters than, say, closing schools and hospitals.

The melancholy anniversary of the Bhopal disaster has forcefully reminded us that Union Carbide literally got away with murder and that the toxic gases that did the damage are polluting the Bhopal area to this day. Neither the US nor the Indian government has seriously attempted either to mitigate definitively the effects of the spill or to reimburse its victims to any more than the most piffling extent. Why should anyone imagine that, when the seas engulf the islands of the Pacific and Indian Oceans, anybody in the powerful nations will raise a finger? Only when the waters have risen sufficiently to swamp Venice and Amsterdam, Essex and Kent, Manhattan Island and the cities along the Danube will any governments go into crisis mode. And don’t bet against them deciding to write off their own low-lying areas and build barriers to keep the newly dispossessed off higher ground.

Whatever mealy-mouthed declaration has been compromised to death by the end of the summit, the climate change deniers will merely scoff. Denying the Holocaust perplexes most people with even a little brainpower because there is so much historical evidence in the face of which such absurdity flies. Denying climate change is more comfortable because ignoring scientists and researchers is second nature to those for whom so-called intelligent design and even creationism are perfectly acceptable philosophies. In any case, when such eminent thinkers as Jeremy Clarkson, Clive James and Nick Griffin pooh-pooh the science, it is clear that the argument is all but lost.

For my own part, I pooh-pooh the great scandal of the University of East Anglia emails. One pocket of ill-judged behaviour does not negate the findings of climatologists the world over for the last fifty years. We have seen for ourselves – almost daily on the news bulletins – the collapse of the snowfields, ice floes and glaciers. Do Clarkson and co propose that this footage is faked?

Consider the case that the climate change deniers are right. What’s the worst-case scenario? Well, quite a lot of money will have been spent, as they would argue, unnecessarily; though as the expenditure will have made the planet a more habitable place, saved some rain forest and a few species and so on, you could say that the downside is not unduly ghastly. And what if the climate change Cassandras are right, what then is the worst-case scenario? Oh right – we all die. Anybody find the debate finely balanced?

In fact I am sure that it is anyway too late. The collapse of the planet cannot now be arrested. Partly it is because too much damage has already been done. Partly it is that politicians do not have the political will or indeed the practical power to take the long-term decisions that might reverse the process. International capital, now far more untouchable than any government, is only concerned with short-term profit, which is why the organisers of climate change denial are all big-money interests. Any senator, congressman or radio shock-jock in the States who dismisses climate change as a pinko conspiracy is rewarded with big bucks. How can mere liberal politicians fight that?

Perhaps in our lifetimes, some of the fabulous creatures that we took for granted in our childhood will fall extinct: the tiger, the orang-utan, the rhinoceros, the blue whale, the mountain gorilla, the polar bear. Perhaps in our children’s lifetimes, human habitation will begin to be seriously eroded. Will our grandchildren indeed survive at all? If the seas don’t get them, will there not, as a swifter alternative, be some virulently uncontrollable virus, immune to any known remedy but very happy to spread through polluted water? That’s always assuming that no terrorists get their hands on nuclear capability before then, a rash assumption.

The new Nobel laureate, Barack Obama, will swing into Copenhagen for the summit’s climax, no doubt to bless – indeed, to encourage – its conclusions. I still hope for the best from this president. He seems to comprehend what is at stake – did his predecessor even know what carbon emissions are? – and he still seems to experience an instinctive feel for the plight of the whole world’s peoples, not just that of the poor, benighted oil barons. But can he deliver?

Were I a graphic artist, I should be tempted to a three-box strip cartoon. In the first box, Barack Obama is depicted standing alone, beaming and waving a sheet of paper on which may be seen a deal of writing. This piece of paper would be The Copenhagen Accord. The resonances of Chamberlain after Munich would not be inappropriate. In the second box, Obama’s face would have clouded as his enemies attack him. Being pygmies, they have to stand on each other’s shoulders as they try to wrest from his grasp the sheet of paper, on which the writing is already smeared. Meanwhile, the waters have risen, up to the armpits of the lower level of opponents, up to the thighs of the president, but nobody is looking at the waters. In the third box, Obama is alone again, looking dejected. The waters have risen to his neck. The sheet of paper, now blank, floats. Here and there a few bubbles indicate where the opponents have gone under. The legend under this strip would be: Watered Down.

Thursday, December 03, 2009


The board of directors of Royal Bank of Scotland has threatened to resign if the government, now a major shareholder in RBS, blocks its attempt to pay £1.5bn in bonuses to its investment staff. The government should give them a one-word answer: “goodbye”.

Paul Myners, the Financial Services Secretary, reckons payments of £1m or above will have been made to more than 5,000 individuals in British banking this year. As a former city man himself, Lord Myners knows of what he speaks. He managed a pension fund for some fifteen years and is reckoned to have made £30m while at it. Among his chairmanships have been Marks & Spencer and Guardian Media Group. But perhaps his most significant post was as a director of NatWest, resigning when it was taken over by Royal Bank of Scotland. It would be interesting to know what emoluments he accepted at NatWest and whether he received any sort of golden handshake from RBS. One wonders too whether he jumped or was pushed. Did he suspect the windy buccaneering of Sir Fred Goodwin and his crew would bring no good to NatWest? Or did the new owners detect that he was not going to be one of them?

But that was then and this is now. As a poacher-turned-gamekeeper, Myners should be wise to all the tricks that the banks will attempt to play, as well as having a shrewd sense of how much his crossing over must be resented. He should call their every bluff. Non-partisan commentators are saying that the government is in a cleft stick. But that is only so if Myners, Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson and Alistair Darling fail to slap down the banks.

Vince Cable, the always on-the-money treasury spokesman for the Lib Dems, says that the government mustn’t give in to what is essentially blackmail and that, with many good people in the city looking for work, replacing the RBS directors will not be difficult.

This chimes with my own scorn at the airy talk we get from the city about how you have to pay big money to get the best people. What best people? If RBS had the best people, it would not have needed bailing out by the government. And with banks all over the world shedding staff at every level, who is going to be so reckless as to march into such a discouraging jobs market?

In any case, what bank worth its salt is looking for staff whose main motivation is making money for themselves? Are the recruiting people so gullible that they fall over each other to employ wiseacres whose self-selling pitch is “I left because they couldn’t match my demand for a £2m bonus”?

It is fanciful to assume that people who elect to leave will be promptly snapped up by the likes of Goldman Sachs in New York. Why would foreign bankers be keen to have staff from a bank that has required rescue by its own government? It seems to me that the sooner RBS recruits people who are keener to lead the bank out of trouble than to line their own pockets, the sooner they will get the government off their backs.

For its part, the government has a potential election-winner here if it cares to go for it. Most people, both inside and outside the city, expect a Tory government to favour its long-term friends in the money markets, many of whom pour funds into the party’s election war-chest. By making it plain that the parasitical class will not be the ones who do well out of the recession, Labour would surely raise an approving response in the ballot box.