Give bankers a break?

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This may surprise you but I like bankers. Not just for the obvious reason that they lend me money for my businesses, but also because they enjoy spending their cash.

Almost 30 years ago, a mini-social revolution occurred which the upper-middle classes abhorred – the rise of the ‘barrow boy’. Largely young working- class men from London’s East End and Essex who were instinctively numerate and quick-thinking swapped street market trading for stockmarket trading. Barrow boys disrupted conventional thinking that a career in the City was for toffs.

Not only were they largely better traders than their public schoolboy counterparts, they rode that economic boom so well they amassed mini-fortunes. And they did it large. They bought expensive suits, flashy cars and big houses. They also, bless them, spent huge amounts on champagne and expensive meals. I loved watching at the time the incandescence that greeted them from the sneery rich and the sneery poor, strangely bonded in their abhorrence of the vulgarity they saw.

This thinly guised class-protectionism disrupted the convenience of an us-and-them approach to social barriers. What the naysayers failed to appreciate was the huge impact on the economy these new high rollers were having.

Previous banking booms had seen the banking elite, the aristocratic owners, scoop up piles of money they didn’t really have that much need of, given their inherited fortunes. This time round, the social revolution of working-class youth living the dream meant that their earnings got ploughed back into the economy.

They were too busy living it up to care that they were resented from all sides. Compare television’s The Only Way is Essex with Made in Chelsea: the self-made man likes to spend his money. The trustafarian knows how to lose it by creating invariably doomed boutique businesses.

I celebrated the rise of the new rich then – and more challengingly, praised the bonuses that bankers received during the scandals. In fact, I salute them even more so now we’re recovering from the recession. Partly, the welcome remains the same in terms of its redistributive effect on the economy.

The boys – and now girls too, finally – continue to buy big houses, take expensive holidays and run up large restaurant bills, although they are slightly less ostentatious in how they go about it. But there’s one key difference between the self-made banking millionaires of 2015 and their 1980s counterparts. Today’s bonus beneficiaries are more socially aware than their predecessors.

Barrow boys upheld the view that whatever they made was for them and their family only. I have known many from that early group and they didn’t feel obliged to help those who hadn’t been so lucky. They worked hard, they were smart, and therefore it was only right that they should be rewarded with part of the bounty they made for employers.

Today’s high-earning banker is different. I know many from this group too; not as investors in my businesses or even as customers in my restaurant but as fellow trustees on the boards of charities, as volunteers on social projects, as massive donors to the many projects that the public purse is no longer capable of paying for.

The people whose pictures you see spread across the papers to elicit your condemnation (or more likely your envy) when they receive multi-million-pound bonuses – like we saw for the partners of Goldman Sachs – won’t tell you this; largely, because they are modest about it. But they are hugely philanthropic.

I know a number of people from the finance world who literally give millions of their fortune to charity. They have set up family foundations (OK it’s tax effective – so what?) and they support one another’s private projects, as well as those like the Mayor’s Fund for London.

A famous banker who sat on that board when I was on it once told me he was committing £1m of his personal money to the programme. I asked him why, when he had such a terrible media reputation, did he not tell the world he did things like that? He said it would be counter-productive because the press and politicians would ask why he was being paid so much in the first place.

This time round the rich bankers from humble beginnings know that they are lucky and they privately, quietly, keep to the fore of their minds where they’ve come from. So let’s not judge them so harshly. Iqbal Wahhab OBE is the founder of Roast www.roast-restaurant.com

About author

Iqbal Wahhab

Iqbal Wahhab

Iqbal Wahhab is a restaurateur who drives social impacts to the core of his businesses. The founder of The Cinnamon Club and Roast is chair or patron of a variety of social projects and is planning more restaurants this year.

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