What’s behind the case of the ‘NatWest Three’?

Even if you think they’re just merchant bankers, you should be worried about the efforts to have them extradited.

Daniel Ben-Ami

Topics Politics

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Few people can have much sympathy for highly paid financiers in the City of London. Most would regard them as investment bankers, in both the literal and cockney rhyming slang senses of the term.

But the planned extradition from Britain to Texas of three former NatWest executives, wanted on fraud charges related to Enron, should not be welcomed as a good thing. There is more to their case than the strange coalition defending them has realised.

American prosecutors allege that David Bermingham, Gary Mulgrew and Giles Darby profiteered from the collapse of Enron, a US energy company, in 2001 (1). The three men deny the allegations and demand the right to be tried by a jury in Britain.

The ‘NatWest Three’, as they have come to be known, are being defended by an odd coalition that includes the Confederation of British Industry, the conservative broadsheet the Daily Telegraph, and civil rights group Liberty (2). Their campaign focuses largely on the character of the Extradition Act 2003, for which this is a test case. Under the act it is not necessary for those seeking extradition to present even prima facie evidence (sufficient to establish a case) to a British court. The campaign has also made much of the loss of sovereignty entailed in allowing an American court to rule on a case where the defendants and alleged victims are British.

While there is some validity to these arguments against the act, they miss another important aspect of this particular case. Errant businesspeople are increasingly coming under attack as symbols of the dangers of economic growth and affluence. The implicit message is that if anyone is too ambitious – or ‘greedy’ – they are likely to get into trouble and to cause suffering to others.

The trend is clear in America, where Enron became a byword for corporate greed. Kenneth Lay, the head of Enron who died last week, was a particular target for such vilification. He was reportedly even used by Kevin Spacey as the model for Lex Luthor, the arch-villain character, in the new Superman Returns movie. More generally those accused of white-collar crimes are increasingly made to perform ‘perp walks’ – parading through a public place while wearing restraints.

Attacks on such characters have emotional appeal because those of us on normal incomes do not generally feel sympathy for the ultra-wealthy. If financiers or businesspeople are suspected of defrauding ordinary members of the public, then hostility is likely to be even greater. Not many of us will shed a tear if some super-rich businessperson incurs financial losses or gets rapped on the knuckles.

But the paradox is that it is the mass of the population that suffers as a result of these contemporary attacks on affluence. Making an example of a few rich white men might be a populist gesture of ‘egalitarian’ justice, but it makes absolutely no difference to real inequalities and wealth divisions in society.

Worse, these assaults send out the message that wanting more and loving money are the root of all evil – they implicitly tell us that we should be content with what we already have. If such arguments are accepted, then the perverse result is that the section of the population that has the least will suffer the most as a result of lowered expectations.

Daniel Ben-Ami is the author of Cowardly Capitalism: The Myth of the Global Financial Casino, John Wiley and Sons, 2001 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

(1) On the collapse of Enron see Who’s afraid of Enron?, by Sean Collins

(2) Fair Trials for Business, Daily Telegraph

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Topics Politics


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