Published on 1 Feb 2012

Feeling sorry for Fred Goodwin?

We have all had a lot fun at the expense of Fred Goodwin. And it’s been a very nasty experience. In two previous Snowblogs  I have raised the question of whether the titled bankers who were responsible for trashing the British economy and the UK’s financial integrity should lose their honours:

Snowblog: Is it time to feel the bankers’ ermine collars?
Snowblog: Should our bankers keep their titles?

But there is the stench of a witch-hunt and of scapegoating, in this politically led and motivated instance of knighthood stripping.

There appears to be little process, and certainly no wholesale review of who did what when and at what point such “punishment” kicks in.  Indeed, a QC to whom I spoke last night advised that Mr Goodwin might well win a judicial review of the handling of his case by the Honours Forfeiture committee, on the issue of due process.

In the widely different cases of Stephen Hester and now of his predecessor there is the whiff of cant and hypocrisy in the air.

What started as anger over the mismanagement of a bank has now deteriorated to the Ruritanian absurdities of our continuing devotion to name-changing honours. The Honours system at the high end has long been seen to be in disrepute. Foreigners are perplexed by it, and those at home regularly suspect that something has gone on in the woodshed in the journey to the sword on the shoulder in Buckingham Palace.

The public is bemused that the criminal law has proved incapable of jailing a single banker for mismanagement of billions of pounds of their money. All the system is capable of is the removal of one greedy individual’s knighthood.

There is no transparency in all this and even less evidence of “due process”. When Knighthood stripping extends beyond odious dictators, the citizen deserves to be allowed to see what is going on, and why, and how. But then doesn’t the citizenry also deserves the right to know how such honours are arrived at in the first place?

A decade ago I made a Channel 4 documentary entitled Secrets of the Honours System. Nothing has changed since.

On the basis of what has happened to Fred Goodwin, there are many others who should be in the waiting room for similar action. But the playing field is now neither level, nor clean. The law is looking an ass.

The British deserve an honours system that does not change people’s names, but does respect exceptional activity that benefits wider society. In an age of cuts, the Honours Forfeiture Committee would seem to be one quick cut. The ‘Honours system’ itself, could be another candidate. A far more modest, believable, and transparent system could be put in its place. The money saved could go towards increasing the capacity of the Serious Fraud Office, and the Financial Services Authority finally to bring errant bankers to book.

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31 reader comments

  1. Chris Squire says:

    Re: ‘the whiff of kant and hypocrisy in the air.’

    ‘Cant’ is the mot juste here:

    ‘Cant n. Etym: . .Latin cant-us singing
    . .6. As a kind of phraseology:
    . . a. Phraseology taken up and used for fashion’s sake, without being a genuine expression of sentiment; canting language.
    . . 1791 J. Boswell Life Johnson anno 1783 II. 455 Johnson: My dear friend, clear your mind of cant‥. You may talk in this manner; it is a mode of talking in Society; but don’t think foolishly.

    b. esp. Affected or unreal use of religious or pietistic phraseology; language (or action) implying the pretended assumption of goodness or piety.
    . . 1789 H. L. Thrale Observ. Journey France I. 256 Hypocritical manners, or what we so emphatically call cant.‘ [OED]

  2. Tim says:

    Hear hear Jon, I very much agree with what you’re saying about Goodwin and also Hester, yesterday. There’s a real lack of due process, and more than a whiff of hypocrisy and double-dealing.

    In Goodwin’s case, I think the dangerous thing is that if it becomes easy to strip an honour, then it’s also easier to give an honour (it becomes “just for Christmas, not for life” I suppose), and it devalues the whole system. An honour like a knighthood ought to be the crown of one’s achievements in life. Goodwin himself was a hugely successful banker and due to him RBS employed and enriched thousands and contributed vast sums in tax (and I’m sure it will do again!)

    And where do we stop? Perhaps we could take back Sir Francis Drake’s knighthood, because we now disapprove of his very lucrative involvement with the slave trade?

  3. Philip Edwards says:


    Witch hunt?…..You must be joking, and a very bad joke at that.

    If our criminal “justice” system cannot search out and identify those who have lied and thieved their way to riches at the expense of our most vulnerable citizens then anger is bound to spill over. And there’s nothing wrong with genuine outrage – in fact the only reason the chalk stripe suit brigade have got away with it for so long is because there wasn’t ENOUGH outrage. You media people share a good deal (if not most) of the blame for this.

    From the beginning you were responsible for ignoring the transnational banker crooks as they looted our national wealth over thirty years. You only became interested when the system or legalised robbery collapsed on itself. For you people now to talk of “hypocrisy” is more than a bit rich…it is hypocrisy incarnate.

    Yes, Goodwin has become a scapegoat. But so what? What did you expect from the public school boys? Mass confession and a social conscience? Do me a favour….next time you’re cycling through our rat hole of a corrupt capital remember the organised hypocrisy you are surrounded by, media included.

    As for Goodwin and his ilk, I couldn’t care less.

  4. margaret brandreth-jones says:

    “The Law is looking an ass” that is an understatement. The last 20 years have compounded my theory that the people who present and represent law are all donkeys, is justly underlined.

    Almsost every day in one context or another I hear firms, organisations people in general , comment that it is not right information , the ethics are not right , the protocols , proformas , papers legal formats are not right .BUT that is the law.

    The biggest problem around is ‘switching evidence’ ‘sharing a blame when innocent, and so on and so forth.

    In exasperation I will say no more.

  5. Britt_W says:

    Yes, this foreigner definitely counts herself amongst the perplexed crowd. She also strongly urges Channel 4 to show a repeat of your excellent Dispatches programme “Secrets of the Honours system”, as she finds it extremely topic and, as you hinted, still valid. Please forward this thought to Dorothy Byrne, Jon! I’m sure I’m not alone in this.

    Like you, I don’t like the witch-hunting either. I don’t mind at all seeing Hester dropping a few millions, to set an example of the supposedly new order he is there to create. (It’s not like he doesn’t have other millions to lean on in later years.) I was equally delighted to hear Goodwin was stripped of his knighthood.

    However, if we want things to be fairer, better and more open – the odd honours strip-tease is not enough. It is the underlying, moth-infested ‘ermine-alised’ system which needs to be changed. We need to open up the windows and let some fresh air in. We need to be able to see through the windows, too! After all, we own most of these banks!

    1. 57Netty says:

      Quite right Britt_W! Let’s get his pension off him then! That might lessen the uncomfortable “Ruritanian” element.
      He’s let the side down, brought shame and embarrassment to Scotland who used to have banks other countries admired. Not now!
      I now have to pass “Fred’s Folly” as they call the HQ at Gogarburn on a regular basis! All very, very galling.

  6. Bradc says:

    Jon, a few years ago, I emailed in to your very News channel to complain about the amount of air time you were giving to the “celebrities” and the honours they were receiving rather than the disasters in Burma and North Korea at the time.

    The honours system has often discredited itself in the past and will continue to do so until it is reformed in a way that restricts the trappings that come with an award.

    Give out certificates and medals, meet the Queen or a Prince….fine. But that should be it.

    No places in any chamber should be given away, for they should be an elected privilege. No Payment or payment in kind. No special access afterwards, just a simple certificate and ceremony.

    All that on top of a MAJOR re-think of who we actually think deserves these things. A banker earning over a £Million or a Scientist on a fraction of that, a nurse earning a good wage/pension or a carer living on £55 per week.

    Anyway, I hold no grudges over your previous awards coverage, although if you do have to use broadcast time over it please just say it as quick as possible.

  7. Harry Crozier says:

    I don’t know all the details but it appears that the knighthood was awarded when things were going well with RBS.
    Is it right and proper that when things went bad (to say the least!) to remove an honour previously given on the recommendation of a prior Labour Government.
    I believe that wrongdoing should not be rewarded but I must say that this action does not fit well with the British sense of fair play and appropriate justice.
    After all how far do you go?
    Do you backtrack and recover all bonuses paid to all RBS staff during the bad times?
    If Fred Goodwin had been tried and convicted of a criminal offence relating to the banking scandal it would have then been appropriate to remove his knighthood.
    In the absence of such a conviction the removal of his knighthood raises many questions which may cause us individually to question the correctness of the treatment meted out to Fred Goodwin.

  8. e says:

    “stench of a witch-hunt and of scapegoating” you say. You only just noticed? That would be because as a rule UK government target only ordinary folk – the poorer the better…..

  9. Mark5000910 says:

    Fred the Shred loses knighthood, Hester rejects £1m bonus. Phew, says City, diversion worked, business as usual, no regulation please.

  10. Saltaire Sam says:

    I have not sympathy for Fred Goodwin. By all accounts he was a bully, who thought nothing of aacking people if it made his figures look better and although he was one of the causes of the financial crisis, he walked away with a fortune. I’d have been happier if he’d kept his knighthood and been stripped of his pension.

    However, I also believe the way it was done was just a blatant PR stunt by a PM who for all his talk, wouldn’t dream of making a really hard decision about out of control capitalism.

    All his hard decisions, like many of Goodwin’s, are saved for the ordinary people, throwing them out of work and cutting their benefits and pensions, and privatising their NHS.

    It turns out the Big Society is shorthand for the Big-Earners Society i.e. there is still no such thing as society for the rest of us.

  11. John Sawkins says:

    Perhaps Fred Goodwin did get his come-uppance, but, playing devil’s advocate for a minute, isn’t it rather sad that this wee boy grew up in Paisley’s notoriously run-down Ferguslie Park, to be rescued from the slums via that much-discredited vehicle of social mobility: the grammar school (Paisley). A useful scapegoat. “Not one of us”, as those from public schools would probably agree. It seems so convenient that his dis-honouring should come hot on the heels of Hester’s reluctant decision to forgo £1million in shares. Could he be just that necessary scapegoat to deter the plebs from challenging the superrich and allow them to go back to blaming those on incomes closer in amount to their own for all their hardships?

  12. londonlass says:

    Can’t help but notice that the ONE miscreant stripped of his title happens, unusually for an industry still dominated by old school ties, to have risen from the working class in the first place – it’s not like the ruling class are tossing one of their own to the lions is it?

  13. Peter Bagnall says:

    John Sawkins makes an excellent point. Is Goodwin’s scalp enough to get the public off the back of the rest of the bankers and from reforming the system. I sincerely hope not. I feel Goodwin deserved to lose his knighthood, but I’m quite certain many others deserve the same at the very least. There is a certain schadenfreude to all this, but what really matters is the system should be reformed to prevent it happening again, and those guilty of criminal excess should be charged, tried, convicted and punished as appropriate.

  14. Mudplugger says:

    At one level, Fred Goodwin was just unfortunate to be in the hot seat when the stuff hit the fan – OK, his bank made it worse and he may have been an office bully and a tyrant, but he wasn’t acting alone. He has certainly taken the public bullet for many others involved in all parts of the process.
    I don’t have a problem with Goodwin’s knighthood being cancelled, but I do have a big problem with proven crooked peers, of any party label, being allowed to continue to participate in the legislative process.
    A knighthood is a mere bauble, a trinket, a lapel-badge, it carries no power more than that which other people choose to append to it – a peerage, on the other hand, adorns the recipient with permanent and recompensed power over me, and for that power to be held by a known crook, with no current approach for cancellation, I find completely offensive.
    Reform the Lords by all means, but first clear out the ones we all know to be untrustworthy crooks. I don’t need to name them here – we all know who they are – but if Parliament is intent on regaining any public respect, if they remain in ‘power’, that cause will never be achieved.

    1. Moonbeach says:

      Well said, Mudplugger.

      Allowing Goodwin to retain his honour for ‘Services to banking is as ridiculous as knighting Gary Glitter for services to child welfare; totally inappropriate.

      The decision by the Forfeiture Committee is clearly a correct, regardless of how ‘smart’ lawyers may argue about the process!

      The sadness is that this popular ‘justice’ will probably not extend to those criminals in both Houses (but particularly the Lords) who have laughed in our faces.

  15. Saltaire Sam says:

    Isn’t it hypocritical of David Cameron to call anyone a hypocrite?

  16. Tanya Spooner says:

    I have to agree with everything Saltaire says here. When will Cameron stop trying to manage everything for PR reasons, pandering to the blood-thirsty masses, and involve himself in some genuine political work?
    And will somebody explain to me why the removal of a knighthood would be a matter for a group of Civil Servants to decide?

    1. sue_m says:

      I think Cameron believes PR spin is genuine political work. He’s a spiv not a statesman.

  17. Y.S. says:

    If Scotland was independent 10 years ago, would the demise of RBS and HBOS make it bankrupt as Greece by now>

  18. Saltaire Sam says:

    Have you noticed how often the government’s answer to a problem – disability, being on benefits, now re-offending – is to encourage people to work?

    What they seem less clear about is where all these jobs are to come from in an economy that is on its knees.

    If they were doing something to help create jobs instead of doing their damndest to lay off as many public sector workers as possible, their ‘get yourself a job, laddie, and all your problems will be over’ policy might have more chance of being successful.

  19. Saltaire Sam says:

    If we are going to have a purge on knights who don’t live up to their social responsibilities, may I suggest this would be a good time to revert to Mr Philip Green?

  20. sue_m says:

    What about Michael Ashdown. Lordy, lordy there’s another chum of Cameron, Osborne et al who appears to get special status that the mere hard-working taxpaying mortals in the UK don’t have. Panorama last week was fascinating. When you understand where the Tories money really comes from you realise there is no hope of cleaning up political or corporate corruption while they are in charge.

  21. Ian Hunter says:

    It’s sad that it’s Goodwin that we have to defend; hard cases make bad law. But it’s cowardly and contemptuous that Cameron hasn’t used his obvious power over the Forfeiture Committee to review all such awards.

    I haven’t heard Salmond saying much on this either (how unlike him) and he was one of Goodwin’s sponsors.

  22. Saltaire Sam says:

    I was interested to note that when the head of RBS said that bankers’ rewards were too high, it was only in proportion to what shareholders take from the profits.

    No mention of perhaps lowering bank charges to customers or even giving savers a little more.

    It seems that whether we are customers or taxpayers, we are merely seen as a source of yet more cash as far as bankers are concerned.

  23. Saltaire Sam says:

    I see the bank we bailed out still has enough money to sponsor international rugby.

    And no doubt those overpaid executives will have enjoyed an all-expenses-paid lavish weekend in Edinburgh.

    Do they even realise there is an economic crisis at the moment? Probably the champagne helps them forget.

  24. Bob says:

    There’s more crime in the hack of business infrastructure, sustainability and uneven spread of investment in relation to population density throughout the UK. This should all be covered by government policy as should preventing of this situation ever happening… Add to that the diminishing policies on workers rights and increasingly expensive higher education costs to bridge the socio-economic gap. One can’t help but get the impression that we are in an era where the London riots and Occupy movement signal a new era of social & socio-economic activism that becomes even more damaging to the economy in general in terms of resources. Forget about the damned Knighthood’s. What we really need are positive and realistic measures taken by the government so that the increasing poverty gap can somehow be bridged. The perverse red carpet treatment Goodwin and others receive is a million miles away from the accounts of those who really feel the effects of ineffective government policy: The long term unemployed – let’s not forget their children either. The hell of misinformation that has effected the country will take serious action to rectify through policy change safeguarding and more.

  25. ann arky says:

    Will taking back someone’s “honour” ease the pain of those who are suffering under the austerity measures being inflicted by the politicians at the behest of the financial Mafia?

  26. Victoria II says:

    Like I’ve said, good the Levenson enquiry has reminded us all of the hypocracy of Public figures what amazes me with Knighthoods and Lordship’s is how little the Queen actually looks into the characters and reasons for her knightly behaviour, doesn’t do her homework! Just oblighes! Dilly dame!

  27. IAS says:

    Fred Goodwin, while guilty of failing the bank he was hired to strengthen and grow, has been a media ‘scapegoat.’ But, lets not be so narrow minded, the reason why the International Community has suffered financial liquidity problems is because the Banks placed at the nucleus of wealth growing and good ethics, has been FAILED!

    But, why did they fail! FRAUD!! Unless we are all to beleive that CEO bankers do not look at and analyse the banks balance sheets, how could they not have seen the that Subprime Mortgage customer were not repaying loans, and this was proving detrimental even to the bank – thus the economy would suffer the consequence. But, instead these CEO kept on lending – collecting excessive renumerations as a result of their Fraud!!

    Eric Daniel should also be mentioned for his Failings. But, no matter how you look at these failings, NO politician will ‘invetsigate’ or ‘arrest’ or discuss ‘Fraud’ and CEO bankers in the same sentence. Unfortunately, neither will the news media.

    How ‘detrimental’ do policies have to be until ‘ordinary’ folk start marching the streets asking for this debt to be written-off, and CEO bankers + Policy-makers arrested and investigate?

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