In The Long Run: Times of Change

Every so often I want to try to live up to the title of this blog: In the Long Run. And now seems as good a time as any. Recent revelations about the latest nasty bit of bankers’ greed have annoyed me as much as anyone. It’s the lazy arrogance of the people that infuriates me so: wouldn’t life be easy if we could all fix the odds that confronted us in daily life? It’s Barclays who were caught, but we’re assured all the big banks were at it. Meanwhile, small and medium-size businesses are finding it very difficult indeed to obtain loans – even safe, what one might term ‘routine’, ones. Surely we must now reform a system that cares more about the bankers than us, their clients and shareholders? So who’s to do it?

Everyone I’ve spoken to has said they don’t want it done by politicians. Laying aside their shattered reputations (and unlike MPs, their constituents have still not forgotten nor forgiven them the expenses scandal), everyone I have spoken to agrees that they’d manipulate any enquiry to cover their own backs. As the cover of Private Eye had our Prime Minister saying: ‘Some of my best friends aren’t bankers.’ Again, and in common with many of my friends, I share the view of the Leader of the Labour Party that the current culture in the City is essentially predatory. I’m sure there are notable exceptions and maybe it’s only a minority – albeit a large one – who do it, but these people are in it for themselves; they’re like leeches: they suck the blood of the nation’s economy. They must be stopped – and many jailed. And whose job is it to put people in prison? Juries, assisted by judges and lawyers. Not politicians.

So what about the Law? And again, I’m not exactly over-joyed at that prospect: lawyers are also grossly over-paid, but having said that, they do seem to have a sense of what is right and what is wrong. I mean, can you imagine a banker or politician doing anything pro bono (the term they use to describe work they do in office hours for charity)? They also have strong professional organisations who actively maintain professional standards. I can understand that Cameron and his chums are deeply scared by what a Levison-style enquiry into bankers and banking might reveal about their political contacts. That’s doubtless why he wants any investigation confined within the bounds of Parliament – and we all saw how quickly the shutters came down when the expenses scandal blew up. Personally, I’m not a supporter of the Labour Party (after Blair, who is?), but I think in this instance they’re right: bankers must be investigated by a disinterested third party. And that can only mean the Law.

Then, the day after that scandal broke and while taking a shower, I heard the splendid news that the U.S. Supreme Court had thrown out the latest Republican challenge to what has come to be known as Obama (Health) Care – which is simply a brave and long overdue attempt (by a President whom I think history will be very kind to) to bring the U.S.A. into the mid-20th Century. Plainly the hard-right, and to my mind well nutty, fundamentalist Tea Party extremists must now be fed-up and frustrated, but surely, there is more to it than that? Is this one of those fulcrum, those balance-tip moments, when things change for ever? I hope so. Indeed, if I were a believer, I’d pray that it were so.

More good news is breaking: Bob Diamond has left Barclays. Good riddance, but I suspect this is all about public relations and damage-limitation: strategic withdrawal rather than capitulation; certainly, he and his erstwhile employers can afford very expensive PR advisors. But again, viewed in historical perspective, these are minor events: we’re still at the stage of clearing-out the cow shed. And it’s a process that will take time. Remember Fred the Shred? Maybe in five years’ time we’ll have a banking system that genuinely supports the economy – is genuinely ‘fit for purpose’. Meanwhile we’ve got to muddle through. And who knows, in those few years we might come up with a new way of banking? Perhaps we could learn from India, where so-called micro-finance has transformed life for many small and very small businesses. Maybe we’ll see a resurgence of mutual, ethical banks, such as the Co-Operative, where Maisie and I’ve now been happily based for a couple of years.

And then, of course, there’s that vexed question of growth. Can western economies continue indefinitely to ‘grow’ their way out of recession? With Asia and the so-called BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries expanding so fast, can the world’s natural environment sustain so much expansion? These are big issues and I do believe that they’re starting to come to a head. If ever there was a moment when the future looked uncertain, it has to be now.

So, in the long run, is history being made in this rainy early July? My gut feeling is Yes. But only time will tell. Meanwhile, if you can’t become actively involved, then do at least observe it happening. It’s far too important to ignore.

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