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The New Few: Or a Very British Oligarchy by Ferdinand Mount – review

Category : Business

How Ferdinand Mount’s mild views on banks and bonuses these days count as a radical position

Do you remember the great economic crash of 2008? You know, the one that has left this nation and many others in catastrophic debt and rendered the future jobless and hopeless for countless millions of young people across Europe? Of course you do because we’re all still living through its effects and are likely to for years to come.

Yet in a strange way it’s as if it never happened. For while we may be all too familiar with the symptoms of the infamous “credit crunch”, a kind of official amnesia appears to operate regarding its causes. In those first few weeks and months after the banking system froze, there was much talk about the urgent need for reform. In the years that have followed, however, scarcely anything has changed in the City.

The greed and venality that ran riot in investment banking remain largely unfettered. The bonus system that rewarded short-term and illusory profit is still in operation. And the corporate governance, based on nonexecutive directorial oversight, continues to be a highly lucrative society of mutual backscratching.

About the only clear-cut and tangible sanction to be imposed was the stripping of former Royal Bank of Scotland chief executive Fred Goodwin’s knighthood. A personal humiliation, perhaps, but nothing that his £16m pension pot, courtesy of the taxpayer, can’t ameliorate. And hardly a move to stop irresponsible speculators in their tracks.

The wretched Goodwin is among the cast of villains who appear in Ferdinand Mount’s spirited new book The New Few: Or a Very British Oligarchy, which surveys the self-serving culture from which the banker and his fellow high-risk high-flyers sprang. With characteristically sharp but unmalicious wit, Mount describes Goodwin as “the roi soleil of Gogarburn [RSB's Edinburgh HQ]” before concluding that he is “the model of a modern oligarch”.

Mount’s use of oligarchy is to some extent a provocative conceit, designed to make us look again at how unaccountable the business elite have become. He doesn’t seriously argue that a tight circle of unelected figures run the country, rather that the chief executives of major companies, particularly in the financial industry, have been allowed free rein to shape corporate policies with profound social and economic implications. Perhaps plutocracy would

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