4 Mar 2013

Beware a referendum on bankers

Be careful what you wish for. You can never be sure what a referendum will deliver you. So it is with the land of the cuckoo clock and the secret bank account.

Offered the chance to bash a banker, Swiss voters have gone most of the whole of the way.

With their guns safely in their cupboards the Swiss have responded to a referendum on curbing bankers’ powers with several regulations that British customers can only dream of. A perhaps unsurprising 68 per cent of Swiss voters have voted to give shareholders a binding right to set and regulate executive pay.

Companies will not be allowed to deploy golden “hellos” or “goodbyes” to arriving and departing executives. And the full force of the criminal law will be visited upon any company breaking the new laws.

Swiss anger

The vote is the most positive “yes” result any referendum in Switzerland (and there have been many), has ever secured. The referendum followed an attempt by the Swiss pharmaceutical company, Novatis, to give its former chairman a more than £50m pay off upon leaving the company.

The attempt was, eventually, abandoned.

Swiss anger at corporate remunerative excess comes on the heels of Europe’s moves to tie bankers’ bonuses to no more than the size of an individual’s salary.

Poor old Britain, more dependent upon banking and financial services than more or less any other developed nation, is left even further out of step. The idea that the notoriously secretive Swiss gnomes should now be more retrained than their UK counterparts is bad enough.

But add it to this the current determination of the coalition government to battle for opt-outs from EU rules tightening bankers’ bonuses and pay, and Britain is suddenly severely out of step not only with Europe but also with its own public opinion.

UK referendum?

The government, so keen to test public opinion on Europe, would never brook such a test of public attitudes to banking remuneration and working practices in the UK. The Swiss have often been ridiculed for their love of referenda. Not any more.

Britain’s planned “curbs” on the City now look weak in the face of what is happening elsewhere and do not yet appear to go as far as the Swiss in deploying the criminal law. Ministers, desperate to protect 17 per cent of UK GDP in these straightened times, find themselves battling not only the anger of their own voters over the behaviour of banks and bankers, but the EU – and now even Switzerland too.

Mind you, let’s not lose our heads. How many chairmen, CEOs, directors of western Europe’s swathe of disgraced banks are yet behind bars? Don’t hold your breath. So far, unless you can put me right, it’s a couple in Germany, a few more on the run from Ireland and that’s about it.

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