Charles Moore

Spectator’s Notes

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The Governor of the Bank of England raised his legendary eyebrow and Barclays tried to singe it. If there was any doubt about the badness of Barclays’ behaviour in the Libor-rigging scandal, it is surely removed by the way Barclays has dealt with its denouement. Bob Diamond and co claimed they had no part in rigging, and yet they released the October 2008 letter written by Mr Diamond purporting to show that Paul Tucker, the deputy governor of the Bank, was giving them permission to rig. If it does show that, they are liars. If it does not — as three official investigations have already concluded — then they are just throwing mud. It was bad enough Mr Diamond revelling for years in his role as Master of the Universe; it is worse now that he tries to paint himself as that equally unattractive figure of modern times, the whistle-blower. At the beginning of the week, Mervyn King privately told the chairman of Barclays that Mr Diamond should go. The manner of his departure proves that Sir Mervyn was right. Mr Diamond and his bank have proved their selfish disregard for the safety of the system. They thought they had got away with their behaviour yet again, and now they have found they have not, they are trying to pull the temple of Mammon down on top of everyone. In the course of the permanent crisis since 2007, there have been waves of public but mostly anonymous attacks on the Governor. No doubt some of the criticisms have been justified — his slowness over Northern Rock, for example — but, throughout, Sir Mervyn and his team have consistently tried to make sure that banks serve the interest of the public. Hence his constant protest against ‘too big to fail’ and his calls for the return to a ‘Glass-Steagall’ separation of investment and retail banks, which governments, still frightened of the banking lobby, have still not quite dared do. Behind each wave of media attacks on the Governor has been the power of big-bank interests, sometimes in league with politicians. Even now, people seem to have difficulty in seeing these attacks for what they are.

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Last week, I went to the opera on three consecutive nights. The first was La Perichole at Garsington, the second Billy Budd at the Coliseum and the third The Cunning Little Vixen at Glyndebourne. The visits gave me a perspective on the current debate on inequality: they reminded me of why I am so in favour of it. Although opera is by no means an intellectual art-form, no egalitarian society would ever create it. It involves the sort of display, including among the audience, which puritans dislike. It is chiefly intended for pleasure. It costs a lot of money to stage. And it deals in the archetypes and fairy tales for which rationalists have no time. Here is the beginning of the synopsis of La Perichole: ‘Don Pedro de Hinoyosa, governor of Lima, is lurking in the vicinity of the popular Three Cousins bar, disguised as a vegetable seller. He is attempting to ascertain whether the locals are properly enthusiastic in their support for the Viceroy of Peru.’ And here is the equivalent for The Cunning Little Vixen: ‘On a summer’s afternoon in the forest, blue dragonflies dance around the Badger’s sett. The Forester, made sleepy by the heat and his search for poachers, has a doze… The young Vixen scares the Frog, who jumps on to the Forester’s nose.’ Actually, opera usually favours the victims of inequality: La Perichole herself is poor, but honest, and her virtue triumphs over the Viceroy. Billy Budd, the press-ganged foundling killed by the law of the Royal Navy, is the embodiment of innocence. The Vixen is a lady of misrule, shot by man. But the genre is one which rightly sees inequality as a reflection, both comic and tragic, of the nature of human existence, not something that can be legislated away. 

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It is traditional for this column, at this season, to remind readers of a prophecy by the Prince of Wales. In a speech in Brazil in March 2009, he warned that the world had ‘only 100 months to avert irretrievable climate and ecosystem collapse’. So, from this month, there are only five years left before the end of civilisation. Yet most people seem fairly calm. Since the Prince delivered his jeremiad (and, indeed, for some time before), the climate has obstinately refused to warm, and green politics has become unpopular: it is only fun to save the planet if you have plenty of surplus cash to blow on the enterprise, and now we don’t. Even HRH, I suspect, is not making plans to hole up at Highgrove in 2017 and face the end with a loyal band of courtiers and eco-warriors. But we may not survive to prove his warning wrong. High finance and political incompetence are bringing about armageddon more swiftly than anything that Gaia can throw at us.

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Yitzhak Shamir, who has just died, took the name Michael as his nom de guerre when he was in the Stern Gang, in honour of Michael Collins and his opposition to the British. What is not known for certain is why, when he hebraicised his surname after arriving in Palestine in the 1930s, young Yitzhak, who was born Yezernitsky, called himself Shamir. It could be because he was a very small man, and the shamir was a very small worm, the size of a grain of barley. It is one of the ten things which, in Jewish tradition, were created on the eve of the first Sabbath at twilight. When Solomon built the first Temple, he was forbidden to hew the stones with any blade because iron was a weapon of violence. But the shamir, possibly supplied by an eagle from the Garden of Eden, had the power to split the hardest wood or stone, so it did the work. When the Temple was destroyed, the little creature vanished — until this strange reincarnation in the 20th century.  

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I have just received the following letter from a travel insurance company called GoSure: ‘To enable us to consider an improved product offering, we are suspending the offering of all new and renewal quotations for travel business. We regret therefore that we are unable to invite renewal of the above mentioned policy.’ Perhaps shops should paste notices saying ‘Considering an improved product offering’, instead of ‘Closing down’.