commentary • 01.03.09
I started a piece way back with “I fucking hate banks”. I targeted my bile toward George Mathewson the then head of RBS. I had seen a picture of him with one of his colleagues looking all smug in an article about RBS’s take-over of NatWest. They were still cooing about it years later and were so pleased with themselves. Mathewson’s equally smug colleague was Fred Goodwin. I extended my hatred to him and everything he stood for. It was a disgusting article. Even the journalist played their game by peppering his piece with military metaphors. I had been having a few tussles with NatWest myself and was full of contempt for the stupidity of it all.
When Mathewson handed over the hot-seat to Goodwin he escaped the wrath that would eventually come to shower down on his hapless friend. Sad person that he is, Goodwin happened to be in an unfortunate place when the music stopped. It’s not fair to scapegoat him as everyone seems to be doing but he is such a perfect candidate. With his arrogance and insensitivity he comes across as the meanest of Scots almost basking in his lavish wealth at the expense of those of us who don’t share it. Had we just worked a bit harder and been better capitalists then we too could have been like him.
It was always a charade of course and I knew it then. When HBOS and NatWest put the boot into me back in 2000 it was people like Fred Goodwin I had in my vengeful mind’s eye. They were responsible for making my life so much more difficult than it need have been. It wasn’t just the business difficulties which were hard enough. It was tough from a philosophical point of view too. To me it was the people who ran these institutions who were increasingly dominating the zeitgeist. And let’s be smart about this: the banks were really only the idiot tip of the iceberg here. The much bigger problem was corporate culture with its army of men (increasingly women too) hidden from sight in boardrooms and offices running the institutions that effect people’s lives. They did this at a faceless and remote distance accountable only to themselves and to greedy shareholders. As long as they didn’t fall foul of the law and continued to produce an embarrassment of profits they were waved through.
Over the past twenty years these meat-and-potato corporatists have turned our society into one characterised by greed and acquisition. They are only interested in what they can sell a million of. They are obsessed by economies of scale and transaction costs. They sought mergers and take-overs everywhere establishing bigger and bigger corporate structures which allowed the leaders to be locked away, buried deeply in the inner sanctum of the organisation impossible to get to, virtually untouchable. Their bleak contribution to the culture was the concept of out-sourcing particularly the odious call centre, an entity which wilfully distances a business from its customers.
These types aren’t particularly creative or entrepreneurial. In certain respects some of them, like Goodwin, are not even very capitalist in that they live in the abstract concerned mainly with numbers. Big numbers are always preferable. Like Goodwin they are arch-conservatives, safe-players at heart who hide behind the organisation pretending to be thrusting and dynamic. With one or two twists of fate Goodwin could just have been another accountant never taking a risk or a radical step, never acting from the imagination. But circumstance and good fortune took him to great heights, to lead the company he was salaried by. He got there by adhering to convention. He was better at it than most, and luckier. This is why he shows no contrition. He is a follower with no true instinct for leadership. It is for these reasons that he didn't know when his bank was making an investment too far, didn't know when the game was up, couldn’t summon any genuine remorse. This is why when in front of the committee he so quickly took an attitude of “okay, just blame me for everything” as if to say “it wasn’t only me, sir, it was them too”. He came over twitchy and defensive like the weedy individual he is, one who should never have been allowed to be in such a position of power.
There are some who think Goodwin should probably be in jail by now. There are many doing time for far less. He probably hasn't done anything illegal although maybe that is arguable. At the very least there is a feeling he should be bankrupt like the company he ruined. But the principles enshrined in contract and limited liability will see him remain a free man and a very wealthy one at that. The instinct to have him and his ilk hung, drawn and quartered is understandable but not one to be encouraged. Yet at the same time that these types should be so massively rewarded for such catastrophic failures is highly inappropriate. The stoning of Goodwin before sending him to the tower would not bother too many of us but it is a mark of sophistication that such things are not done. But to reward crimes against any decent morality is equally stupid. More intelligence on how to deal with such a situation is beyond our government, the complex institution that it is, unable to respond nimbly and swiftly with precision. Maybe the next time a similar calamity comes round things will be different but by the next time most will have forgotten and there will be another Sir Fred at another helm somewhere.
In a sense Goodwin is right enough. There are many more than him responsible for the current debacle. I say it is all the corporate players who are to blame. And those who worked for them, who took their shilling. And not forgetting the rest of the herd too who went with the sway of the broader culture in service to their own selfish interest. They did so at the expense of any finer values that might have prevailed. My generation, the baby-boomers, are a shameful lot. They have reaped the benefits of centuries of past struggle and squandered such a fantastic opportunity. For the first time in human history the greater majority of society is free from the terrible burdens of want and war. Instead of taking the initiative and helping shape a better morality in the wider interests of humanity they have thrown it away by retreating into themselves and their petty family lives investing in their own little bricks and mortar fortresses turning the essential need for a roof into a stock market. In this world the worst thing that could happen is the innocuous prospect of negative equity, as feared as being stricken by plague would have been to an earlier age.
These great opportunities missed might not return for a long time as much more potentially serious issues step up in the form of energy depletion and global warming. There is also the future pay-back of debts foisted on coming generations to be dealt with. It may be unfair to scapegoat Fred Goodwin but he so perfectly typifies in every regard the very archetype which is my target here. I really do hope that we see him and his likes diminished in time and more substantial figures come to the fore. Given the spectres that loom on the horizon, god knows we will need them.
Long after writing this piece I learned from Iain Martin’s book on the demise of RBS that I used to know Goodwin’s wife before they were married. We did business and were friendly for a bit. She was a really nice person Joyce, warm and attractive. It feels a bit weird now having dissed an old friend’s partner, albeit unknowingly, and I might even consider that if Sir Fred had such good judgement in the choosing of a wife he can’t be all bad.
written 2009 in the aftermath of the bank collapses