written 2005 when RBS was at the height of its hubris
commentary • 20.04.05
I fucking hate banks. This is especially so in recent years with the diminished quality of service they offer. They have come to treat customers contemptuously by using technology to depersonalise contact. Some have closed down branches that were once centrally placed in communities. They have done this with no sense whatsoever of any social responsibility. One gets the feeling if they could conduct business without having to have any direct relations with customers at all then that would be best.
This situation has evolved out of the obsession with reducing transaction costs alongside a change in the very fundaments of traditional banking. Banks no longer provide services but sell ‘financial products’. Branches are now ‘retail outlets’ and staff are trained to be ‘sales people’. So goes the bullshit. Relationship value is seriously diminished here. It is so preposterous as to be almost funny watching these people pursue such a deeply flawed agenda. Now, personality types basically sober and risk-averse are turned into thrusting exemplars of capitalism and enterprise. What is essentially a bunch of conformist, salaried, beaten-track safe-players are morphed into their opposite as if born to the cause. It is about as much pretentious nonsense as you’ll find anywhere.
These remarks are a preamble to comments I want to make a0er reading an article in The Scotsman on the recent emergence of the Royal Bank of Scotland as a major force in the world of finance. In particular it focused on the company’s take-over of the NatWest and showed a picture of two of the bosses playing poker (pretending!) at a table, two of the most insipid looking men imaginable, conforming exactly to the type I identify. What is immediately apparent about the article is its extensive use of military metaphors and aggressive terms generally, coming both from the journalist as well as when he is quoting the bankers themselves. We hear of ‘battles’, ‘predatory cats’, and ‘the corporate jungle’. George Mathewson, the bank’s head, is compared to Marshall Zukov at the battle for Berlin. Mathewson is still keen apparently to wax about the NatWest take-over five years a0er the event. We learn that ‘this battle was brutal, a combination of a fist fight and a high-stakes poker game played out by Scotland’s two banking leviathans’. The Royal ‘kept its powder dry’ when The Bank made its initial move. Down south they talked of ‘the Scottish hordes attacking’ and of ‘sharks circling for the kill’. When the contest was finally won it was a ‘valentine’s day massacre’. The losers were ‘battered and bruised’ said a commentator, ‘...the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life’ he said, quoting Wellington. Yeuch! It goes on... and on. The Royal had won ‘Scottish banking’s civil war’.... etc etc.
It is astonishing to me that these men can amuse themselves in this way with such great issues at stake. It is more absurd when they are little more than trumped-up civil servants, none other than the old style bank managers with sharper suits. They have never been without a salary in their lives, never taken a real risk other than with other people’s money. As I’ve said before, it is my belief that banking should be part of the civil service, part of a social good, informed by a communal ethos. They should keep the score for everyone else and not participate in the competition. Where there is real risk involved, such as with speculative investment, then yes, I can appreciate the need for a competitive spirit. Then a dangerous position is ventured into for some future gain and broader benefit. That is legitimate enough and is at the heart of entrepreneurialism. People who do that might be commended. This is not the case with these bankers who would terrify at the prospect of being even slightly personally exposed. I say let them risk their own money, from their own pocket such that failure would be a genuine threat. That would be a truer measure of risk and valiance and entrepreneurial spirit something that these guys (and probably the corporate world generally) have little concept of.
I think the corporate world generally is something of a parasite, feeding off the wealth creation of wider society. It’s management culture is puffed up by ego, deluded into believing in its own importance, when it could probably be replaced by something more efficient and more ethical. We want a society where that world is levelled, or done away with entirely, or at least returned to the bureaucratic, analysed and organised system it needs to be. Nothing more, nothing less. Benign. To confuse all that bullshit with creativity, spark, imagination, vision, risk-taking, and worst of all in some way comparable to military manoeuvres is woefully stupid. Mathewson and his men would run a mile faced with the merest scrap. I feel embarrassed for them and angry that all the rest of us have to tolerate them. Off with their heads!