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The Lords of Humankind (December 2009)

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This article was first published on openDemocracy.

Getting to Holyrood for an early division involves catching the Munro’s bus out of Melrose at 6.25: daunting on a cold winter morning. And nearly fruitless as the First Bus X95 to Edinburgh was just leaving Galashiels bus station (the 1986 Transport Act considers co-operation between companies, like seeing that services connect, ‘in restraint of trade’). Oblivious to this, the station shunter John Gibson ran out and stopped the Edinburgh bus, not the first service he’s rendered this commuter.

We had a short debate on the reshuffle, which sees my boss Mike Russell enter the Cabinet as Education Secretary. The SNP government’s honeymoon has been over since the failure to take Glasgow North-East, and the press has declared open season on Alex Salmond’s campaign for a referendum on independence, which is more fun than covering the proceedings of the Economy Committee’s banking inquiry in Committee Room Six. They limit themselves to the statements issued by the witnesses, and circulated by their banks’ PR departments. Yet the same witnesses admit that the questioning has been acute, not to say gruelling.

The responsible government bodies seemed the worst witnesses of the lot. The Office of Fair Trading still stuck to the business of producing ‘more perfect markets’, United Kingdom Financial Investments was flippant about alternative models of banking, such as the largely public or mutually-owned German system of savings banks. Stephen Hester, the state-appointed RBS chairman, proved painstaking in answering our questions, as did Archie Kane, the Lloyds residuary legatee of the Halifax Bank of Scotland. But the secret chambers in these big banks have stayed that way. How much, for example, did the Prime Minister know about the real state of HBOS’s finances when he expedited the merger with Lloyds back in October 2008?

The small businesses wanting funding had to wait, while Lloyds HBOS juggled with the multi-billion business of keeping the likes of Sir Tom Hunter on the road, to whom Peter Cummings as former head of Corporate Banking had loaned the cash to buy Crest Nicholson and McCarthy and Stone, at the top of the house-price bubble. Hunter himself still collects honorary degrees and lectures the Scots on the importance of being entrepreneurial. What would serve this is a local, remutualised banking system, aimed at low-carbon investment in better housing and public infrastructure. Is the City interested in this? Don’t ask.

There is our real society, held together by people like John Gibson on small incomes being clever and helpful and public-minded, and there’s a cash-driven machine of Dickensian inefficiency, private and public sector, driven by jobsworths who demand comparability with the bonus boys. As for the latter, they’re around in the Scottish Borders, ‘Pride in their port, defiance in their eye/ We see the Lords of Humankind go by’, rumbling down the roads in their four-wheel drives. In nearly four years here, I haven’t exchanged a word with any of them, but I notice that one of the advisors of the Borders Party, whose objective is to prevent us getting our railway, and so to keep Central Scotland at bay, is advertised as a merchant banker with Lazard Freres.

Anyhow, the news is now of Hester warning that his associates will walk off the job at RBS unless they got their bonuses – after the boys had plunged RBS into another billion-quid mess in commitments to Dubai. Enough of this: we in Holyrood have now understood what has been going on: that the poor are being robbed by the indecently wealthy who are also in many cases crassly incompetent and not properly civic in that they are based in tax havens. For us even to attempt to slap the villains on the wrist – remember the people who lobbed a brick through Sir Fred Goodwin’s front window, instantly called ‘mob rule’? Surely by now we know who the real Mob is, and it is time they are not rewarded, but punished. Yes, that ‘stitching mailbags’ experience!

It so happened that I turned over pages of a book I had edited for the Open University nearly forty years ago, to find William Cobbett standing up in Hampshire condemning the farmers’ mistreatment of their men, and seeing behind this the pitiless profit-drive of the City:

‘What misery is all this! What a mass of materials for producing that general and dreadful convulsion that must first or last, come and blow this funding and jobbing and enslaving and starving system to atoms!’


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