Over the last couple of years, conversations with friends have no doubt echoed those of groups of friends across the globe: just why has no action been taken against the bankers who have not only ruined our economies but destroyed the prospects of our children? Prompted by an artilce by Madeleine Bunting in today’s edition of The Guardian about the banking crisis, the continuing economic instability and the liability of the banks, I thought I’d ask the question: when are we going to see charges of treason levelled against the likes of Fred Goodwin?
Madeleine’s article discusses the release on DVD in the UK of a new film by , ‘Inside Job’ which does a great job of explaining just how culpable many of the senior bankers are for adding to our woes, if not ruining our lives but damaging our national security.
I have a question: How many people reading this article know the true definition of treason in legal terms here in the UK (by which I mean both Scotland and England, on signing the Treason Act 1708, Queen Anne harmonised the laws of both former kingdoms)? Here’s another question: if some of the banks involved in the economic debacle were based in the UK at the time that certain decisions about strategy and governance were made, does that mean that the senior managers of those banks are subject to the exercise of law in the UK (and if they’re living abroad now, can be extradited)?
The answer to the second question is ‘yes’. No defence team can get around that.
As for the answer to the first question, I was reminded by a friend that many of us are brought up to believe that here in good ol’ Blighty, treason is any act that harms the State or affects its security. Now that foreign governments and corporations own so many of the bonds that governments in the West have issued to service the debts run-up by the banks, we can pose the question: who owns our stuff? Democratically-elected and therefore, accountable folk in London/ New York/ Berlin or a dictatorship in Abu Dhabi/ Beijing with an appalling record on human rights? While we can do nothing about general historical trends, we can still hold our democratic governments to account for selling us out to the unashamedly uncivilised.
The argument begins that in monarchical states (including monarchical democracies), the Crown owns everything including what you think of as ‘yours’ because here in the UK, even visitors from abroad are bound by the same laws – which is why even Presidents of the US are expected to bow to Elizabeth II. Here in the UK, people are called ‘subjects’ and not ‘citizens’ and you can forget about being in favour of the establishment of a republic because here in the UK your pledge of allegiance is inferred from the moment of birth rather than uttered aloud (daily; as in American schools) even if you engage in such acts of resistance as not standing for the British/ English national anthem.
With the sole exception being the trial of Charles I, charged by Oliver Cromwell after the Civil War with treason against the people, ‘High Treason’ was originally intended to protect only the sovereign monarch but historically, it’s remit has been broadened to include such crimes as the counterfeiting of money, presumably because it devalues the monarch’s wealth (because in monarchical states, every ‘citizen’ is a mere subject, a possession of The Crown as is everything the subject owns… hint: this last bit is important which is why it’s being repeated).
At the end of WWII, parliament rushed through The Treason Act of 1945 so that William Joyce could be rushed to the gallows for simply making radio broadcasts. This Act of Parliament, abolished the special rules of evidence and procedure formerly used in treason trials, and replaced them with the rules applicable to murder trials, to simplify the law. William Joyce is more usually referred to by his name ‘Lord Haw Haw’ and he was born in the US (it’s almost like the War for Independence never happened, eh?).
The death penalty was repealed in the UK. On being convicted, the greatest sentence that any banker would face is life imprisonment. It still seems a bit harsh when their legal team would argue that no-one knew what was going on… but is that actually the case? Several economists warned against the effects of not only deregulation but the property boom and at this point, I’d like to give a big shout-out to my dad who even before Gordon Brown (in 1997, the Chancellor) had finished his speech which announced the relaxing of rules that separated ‘High Street’ from investment banking, was tutting ‘The f*cking idiot!’ at the television…
So, yes, we all knew what was fuelling the ‘growth’ in our economy and after governments stopped being at the helm of their respective economies, we were trusting the rules of governance of private companies (or, at the least, shareholding voting at AGMs) to reign-in the psychopathic tendencies of the world’s top CEOs… and that worked so well, didn’t it?
What our governments did or did not do in the wake of the initial tremors through the world’s stock markets was also interesting: they paid off the bank’s debt with our money. What most people here in the UK seem to have overlooked is that their savings were absolutely safe. A UK taxpayer’s savings (but curiously, not their pension) are guaranteed by the government: if the bank fails, you get all the cash youv’e deposited (you lose your pension though because that is an investment. It’s not capital.) What this means is that in real day-to-day terms, we did not have to bail out the banks. Stock markets are intended to be evolutionary mechanisms, that is, the weak organisms are supposed to fail.
The arguments that various governments in the West made at the time included: there isn’t time to sort out the mess; action must be taken now; the rate of damage will accelerate as liquidity of cash is stalled and this will affect non-banking sectors… but who was providing this information if it was not the banks themselves? It seems as though the defence of mere bungling was negated once the possibility of bail-outs began being discussed. This, surely, puts us on the trail of wilful intent (and firmly in the realm of criminal action).
Given the international nature of money, it’s interesting to note just who can be ‘nabbed’ by treason laws in the UK:
- An alien resident in the United Kingdom owes allegiance to the Crown, and may be prosecuted for high treason. The only exception is an enemy lawful combatant in wartime, e.g. a uniformed enemy soldier on British territory.
- A British subject resident abroad also continues to owe allegiance to the Crown.
- Insane individuals are not punished for their crimes.
So what’s stopping the Coalition Government at least making a show of an attempt to prosecute? Didn’t the two parties forming the UK government promise to fix the economy? Well, they did but they never promised to bring anyone to account for their greed (and neither did the previous Labour government). Meanwhile, we’re still waiting for the greater accountability which was promised.
Given that after a presumably tortuous length of time to bring even the more junior miscreants to justice for delivering our Western economies into the hands of an unelected, foreign, communist regime which, according to one representative of that country, believes we are the enemy, isn’t it just easier to move on and forget about it?
Presumably, the reason that governments are reluctant to press charges, is that the banks are now so large that a simple fluctuation in share price can wreck even the most well-considered economic plans for growth. In failing to move against the banks, we are perhaps seeing an instance of governments having to act against the wishes of the people to protect the people in a manner that is not too dissimilar to that moment in the movie when the good guy is holding a pistol to the bad guy’s head but not pulling the trigger because the bad guy’s also got a gun to the would-be hero’s head.
Do we have to set aside hopes of charging these greedy fat cats? What if, for the sake of argument, there was a way around all the obstacles and in effect, to target the senior managers of the banks (many of whom have now moved on from their previous positions on the boards of the banks) without targetting the banks themselves?
There is a precedent. Actually, there are several. I’m understating things, of course, there are several historically recent examples of the UK government actually changing the law to reflect the wishes of the people. They did it for William Joyce…
…but then bringing the bankers to justice wasn’t in the election manifestos of any of the main UK political parties. The parliamentary precedent is that on forming government, ruling parties cannot then legislate on something the electorate didn’t vote for even ifi t’s pretty clear what would be very popular with the tax-paying public (anf given that the Coalition is creating legislation that was in neither of their manifestoes, the rule of precendent appears to have been dispensed with anyway – at least for the lifetime of this parliament).
Here’s the thing: even if the Coalition government was unwilling to hold the banks – or the then senior managers to account – the Opposition can still man up and do the job (because let’s face it, there will be more than a few LibDem MPs willing to gain some points ahead of the next General Election). How?
Ed Milliband, Ed Balls et al can introduce a Bill of Attainder. This is what a goverment does when it gets really p*ssed off and can’t legitimately get at someone any other way. It’s like a trial in abstentia but without the awkward, unnecessarily complicated trial bit. A Bill of Attainder also requires no evidence. The beauty of this is that you don’t need to put someone in a dock, you don’t need to arrest them, you don’t even need to formally charge them. Under English common law (but not Scots), parliament, acting in the name of The Crown, aka the State, can simply strip you and – crucially, given the likely tax-dodging bits of deed-swapping by these greedy fat cats – your family of all your accumulated wealth and property.
Obviously, a Bill of Attainder would be in breach of the accused banker’s human rights but (and this is the really fantastic bit for anyone who has lost job/ business/home since the whole economic shambles began)… being ‘attainted’ means that your civil rights are nullified. How long would it take these bankers to sue the government to get back the property and wealth seized by The Crown? Long enough, I should imagine, to serve as a warning to the next bunch of merchant bankers that thinks a bail-out should be granted automatically.
The question is now: does Ed have the Balls?