In 2007, just before Northern Rock crashed and Gordon Brown ‘bottled’ calling the election that could have saved his party from disaster the artist Damian Hirst unveiled one of his most controversial works. Entitled ‘For the Love of God’ it consisted of a human skull encrusted with 8,601 flawless diamonds and had a price tag of £50 million.
At the time critical opinion was divided over whether it represented a comment on mortality or the excesses of a society that seemed to be living on an inexhaustible supply of credit. I recall joking to a friend that it was only a matter of time before a Premiership footballer had a similar process carried out on his own skull pre-mortem as the ultimate statement of ‘because I’m worth it’ bling.
That joke came back to haunt me this week as I read about the ever more absurd capering of Wayne Rooney as he squabbled with his club, Manchester United, over whether or not he would sign a new contract. For a long time it looked like he wouldn’t sign on the dotted line, despite having hidden the light of his at best limited talents under a bushel of tabloid headlines for most of the past year Mr Rooney was too big for the club, football in general and his own golden boots.
Then on Friday afternoon the news came out, disaster had been averted at the last second Rooney had graciously agreed to sign a contract worth some £200,000 a week plus bonuses and endorsements. Speaking to the press he proclaimed himself to have ‘absolute faith in the management, coaching staff, board and owners’ were ‘totally committed to making sure United maintains its proud winning tradition- which is the reason I joined the club in the first place.’ And there we were thinking it was all to do with the money; shame on us eh.
Showing something close to self awareness Rooney said he recognised supporters ‘might not take too quickly’ to his newly rediscovered loyalty to the club with out which he would be stacking shelves, if he was lucky, but promised to give ‘100% on the pitch’, if only so that his ‘people’ can keep creaming off their 10% off it.
The carnival of greed, self absorption and pure tedium surrounding Wayne Rooney and his money would have been just another episode in football’s ongoing attempt to turn itself from a sport into a soap opera, if it hadn’t coincided with the comprehensive spending review we’ve all been looking forward to in the way dental patients look forward to root canal surgery.
On Wednesday the nice Mr Osborne announced that 500,000 public sector employees will soon not have to worry about the morning commute because they won’t have a job to commute to along with savage cuts to benefits and public services. The Office for Budget Responsibility, set up by the government, says the cuts are regressive and will hit the poorest people hardest; Boy George replies that if the poor can’t afford bread they’ll have to eat cake or something like that.
At the same time he claims that paying the equivalent of 0.01% of their balance sheet as a levy is a ‘fair contribution’ to dealing with the crisis that was largely created by their irresponsible lending. He has also invited them to sign up to a voluntary charter on tax avoidance, so far four out of fifteen major banks have signed up, in the interests of health and safety I wouldn’t advise anyone to hold their breath while you wait for the rest to follow suit.
What has any of this got to do with whether or not Wayne Rooney signs a new contract? Quite a lot; let me explain.
The argument used by Rooney, or his management anyway, was that Manchester united either paid what he demanded or faced the prospect of his upping sticks and moving to rivals Manchester City isn’t so dissimilar from that employed by banks, hedge funds and the like who threaten to relocate to the US, China or elsewhere if the government tries to regulate their activities. That we cave in every time says much that is unflattering about the courage of our regulators and the strength of our society.
Cuts to spending and a rebalancing of the economy away from services and the public sector in favour of manufacturing would have been inevitable whichever party won the election last May, but the speed with which this government is entering into them is ill advised and driven by ideology rather than economic good sense. Growth is being imperilled and there is a serious risk of whole communities being pitched into depths of poverty so deep as to make escape impossible.
This isn’t just a call for a return to the Punch and Judy round of politics where the left takes money away from the rich only for the right to give it back to them a few years later, what we need is a reasoned debate about the sort of society we want to live in. Do we want to inhabit a jungle where it is every man and woman for themselves and the poor and vulnerable are trampled underfoot, or do we want to create a situation where enterprise flourished but recognises the need to protect the vulnerable?
That debate can’t begin until the rich, be they footballers seeking a new contract or bankers seeking to protect their turf stop holding the rest of us to ransom.