What does the word "prosper" mean to you? asked the advert projected on to the main stage of the Royal Festival Hall as part of the warm-up for Barclays' AGM.
Minutes later we were given our answer as the 15 board directors of Barclays plc took up their seats in a straight line to face their shareholders. Prosperity is 13 men and two women who would almost certainly have given up a small chunk of their salaries – £100k, say – to have been anywhere else.
The annual general meeting is the only day the Haves are obliged to meet the Have-A-Lot-Lesses. It's what passes for accountability in the boardroom but is, in reality, more of a futile gesture because all of the important issues – the reappointment of directors and their remuneration – have been stitched up well before the AGM by the proxy votes of the large financial institutions who hold most of the shares. Those who complain about trade union block votes have never been to an AGM.
Still, the chimera of democracy has to be seen to be done and even if the small shareholders don't have any actual influence they do get a couple of hours to let the directors know exactly what they think of them and the directors are obliged to suck it up. Some do it with a forced smile, others with a scowl and Mike Ashley, who was seated closest to the wings, did it by pretending to be dead. He didn't move or blink throughout.
And there was a lot of sucking to be done. If it's bad enough that Barclays is a bank and everyone hates banks, what's really intolerable to many of its investors is that it's a fairly rubbish bank: its profits are down by 32%, its share price has fallen, it's been shamed by the Libor-rigging scandal, it's been forced into a £6bn rights issue to raise capital and has paid its staff more in bonuses than it has to its shareholders in dividends.
This wasn't quite the way the chairman, Sir David Walker, saw it in his opening remarks. Mind you, I wasn't entirely clear how Sir David did see it, even when he had sat down, because he speaks so posh he makes David Cameron sound like an oik. Barclays became "Barklaze", compliance became "complants" and clients "clance". But the gist seemed to be that things were heading in the right direction' and we could all soon join him in the sunny uplands.
The chief executive adopted a rather different approach. The main quality Barclays head-hunters were looking for in their replacement for their former CEO, Bob Diamond, was dullness and in Antony Jenkins they found the perfect man. He talks in a strange hybrid monotone dialect of banker and HR that is so boring to listen to he seemed to have put even himself to sleep for a few seconds. Or maybe he just lost his place on the autocue.
The pace picked up when the shareholders were allowed their shout. And shout some of them did, mostly about the levels of bonuses. Sir David felt their pain. He really did. But what we had to understand was that these captains of industry would up sticks and work for another bunch of shysters – he might have said financiers but his language is impenetrable – if they weren't given a few more mill. So it was for the good of us all that these bonuses were awarded; the thought left hanging was how much extra Barclays would have needed to pay them if they had made a profit. And then Sir David pointed to Antony. Or Saint Antony, whose vow of poverty was a lesson to us all. Jenkins had forsaken his bonus and promised to scrape by on his salary of £1.1m.
It was Sir John Sunderland who copped the most flak. As head of the remuneration committee, Sunderland is the shareholders' Resident Evil and he looks and acts the part. Short and bearded like a grumpy Hobbit, Sunderland wasn't going down quietly. "Only the most discerning observers seem to have noticed that bonuses have actually gone down," he spat. "If we hadn't had to impose such large penalties for financial misconduct on some bankers last year their bonuses would actually have been a lot higher than this year." It's a view, I suppose.
The ping-pong between shareholders and Sir David continued for another hour, with the only light relief being a speaker who sobbed his gratitude for the brilliance of the board. Perhaps he was hoping for an overdraft extension. But by then it was almost lunchtime and the board's ordeal was over. The riff-raff headed for the free sandwiches in the lobby. The directors made for the stage door where a fleet of shiny chauffeur-driven Mercs was waiting.
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