Billy Bragg is at it again. The singer-songwriter has always had a tendency to throw his folk-rock weight behind political causes, and this time it's Britain's Royal Bank of Scotland that is feeling the pressure over banker bonuses. The 53-year-old musician, who has collaborated with R.E.M., Natalie Merchant and Wilco, has started a rabble-rousing campaign urging U.K. citizens to withhold their taxes until the government puts the kibosh on the £1.5 billion ($2.4 billion) that RBS plans to award to its bankers.To turn up the heat on the nearly 300-year-old bank, Bragg has launched a Facebook page called NoBonus4RBS, which has quickly attracted more than 20,000 members. Why is the bank in his cross-hairs? Bragg points out that after receiving £45.5 billion ($74 billion) in government bailouts, RBS is now 84% owned by the U.K. citizens, with those bonuses ultimately being paid by taxpayers.
'Darling's Not Having My Money'
"The government has the right to limit the size of RBS bonuses and until it exercises it, [Chancellor of the Exchequer] Alistair Darling's not having my money," Bragg proclaims in an entry titled, "Anarchy in the UK!" In one of the many missives he's posted, he poses the question, "What I don't understand is why, now that we taxpayers are the majority shareholders of these banks, we seem totally powerless to curb their excessive bonus culture?"
The Facebook page includes a letter from Bragg addressed to Darling, who represents shareholders in bonus negotiations. The letter states, "Before I am prepared to pay my taxes this year, I demand that you exercise our shareholders veto and limit all bonuses that RBS pays to employees to no more than £25,000 ($41,000)."
Bragg suggests that like-minded taxpayers print it out, sign it and mail it off to the Chancellor. In an interview with the Guardian, Bragg proclaimed, "Either we own 84% of the company or the entire thing is a sham. I'm fed up of no one doing anything about it."
Hit A Nerve With The Public
Bragg has certainly hit a nerve with the public. With many Brits struggling to make ends meet, unemployment at 7.9% and a record banker bonus season just around the corner, every reference to RBS payouts feels like a slap in the face. Bragg has provided links to videos like the televised address by RBS Chief Executive Stephen Hester to Treasury Select Committee, during which he admitted, "If you asked my mother and father about my pay they would say it's too high."
Hester, who is due to receive a £9.7 million package joked, "I thought I might go on holiday for a long time," when asked how he would deal with the public's wrath once he approved the bonuses -- hardly tactful at a time when many British taxpayers are too strapped to afford a vacation.
The Edinburgh-based RBS opened its doors in 1727 with a staff of eight. It established its first London office in 1874 and has acquired National Westminster Bank and ABN AMRO in the last decade. RBS has a long tradition of designing its own elaborate banknotes, and is the only U.K. bank still producing £1 notes, with the £1 coin now the norm. It will now go down in history as as the most costly bank bailout ever.
A 50% Super Tax On Banker Bonuses
In Britain, anger has prompted the government to levy a one-time 50% super tax on banker bonuses over £25,000 ($41,000), effective immediately. But the awarding of fat-cat bonuses at banks while the middle class struggles has caused outrage not just in Britain.
France is expected to introduce legislation that would also set a 50% tax on all bank bonuses over €27,000 ($38,000). In the United States, President Barack Obama has called recent bank bonuses there "obscene," but stopped short of proposing a bonus tax. Instead, he has suggested a levy on banks to help the U.S. government recoup the money it has spent bailing out troubled financial services firms.
As for Bragg, politics and grassroots organizing come naturally. In 1984, he backed the British miners' strike and later formed a leftist musicians collective called Red Wedge, whose mission included getting young people involved in politics in the hopes of ousting Maggie Thatcher's Conservative government.
Will Likely End Up Paying Taxes
His music often includes political themes: In 1985 he embarked on a tour called "Jobs for Youth," and in 1986, he released the eccentrically titled album, Talking with the Taxman about Poetry, which includes the line,"Is there more to a seat in Parliament, than sitting on your arse?"
In a recent interview on a London radio talk show, Bragg admitted that he will end up paying his taxes in the end, although that might be after British authorities seize his car and TV. He also recognized that if he continues the protest for long, he'll be paying hefty fines as well.
At the moment, Bragg is not talking, or even singing, to the taxman until RBS listens to its shareholders. But surely he'll pay up before suffering the plight he sings about in his song, Rotting on Remand: "I stood before the judge that day, as he refused me bail, and I knew that I would spend my time, awaiting trial in jail."
Folk-Rocker Billy Bragg Declares War on Banker Bonuses