The fact that Barclays Bank has been fined a tremendous sum for manipulating the market may be welcome news on one level, but no less important is to reflect on what has caused the conduct in the first place. And who is going to be held accountable? Op-ed piece from The Independent putting it all into some context.
High testosterone, class privilege and a lack of morals are a dangerous combination indeed. Reading through emails sent by Barclays traders to each other bragging about manipulating the Libor rate made me cringe, because there was something deeply familiar about the macho language. "Done… for you big boy," wrote one. "Dude. I owe you big time! Come over one day after work and I'm opening a bottle of Bollinger,'" boasted another.
It was deeply familiar because I knew these people: or, rather, people like them. The homoerotic lingo, the Americanisms, the champagne; all that was missing was describing each other as "legends". Going to Oxford University was a culture shock, not because I'm a working-class hero (I'm not), but there was nonetheless a big gap between being educated at a Northern comp and having middle-class public sector worker parents, and fellow students with some of the most privileged backgrounds in Britain. Not that I should generalise about those ex-public school kids who ended up as bankers, management consultants and corporate lawyers: people vary wildly, whatever their upbringings. Others were aware of the odds that had been stacked in their favour since birth, and ended up working for charities, community organisations or state education, for example. But when I saw braying Old Harrovians and Old Paulines spraying each other with champagne in college quads, it was difficult not to be aware that I was staring at some of the country's future rulers.
Some of the antics boiled down to anti-social behaviour of the kind usually associated by the media with so-called "sink estates". I made the mistake once of leaving my room door unlocked when the rowing team was having one of its raucous dinners. One team member – who I had never even spoken to – had climbed into my bed and wet himself. As well as hedonistic, these types could engage in grotesque snobbery towards people they had never mixed with because our education system segregates people by the bank balances of their parents. I first heard the word "chav" bandied around in crisp public school accents, but as a catch-all term for those lower down the social ladder. For some, any perceived challenge to their hyper-privileged upbringings could be seen as beyond insulting. In my first few weeks at university, I suggested abolishing private education. Big mistake: it was as though I had called for the parents of the posh to be publicly executed as enemies of the revolution.
A large chunk of them ended up in the City, not all that long before the whole system came crashing down until the taxpayer was forced to rescue it, at incalculable cost. Big finance appealed to a number of qualities: an attraction to cut-throat competition; a love of risk and thrills; an unashamed view that wealth should be relished as an end in itself; and a lack of interest in the consequences of the individual's pursuit of money for the rest of society (a term most would probably sneer at). And it is exactly this that emerges in the Libor scandal.