It started and ended with a financial catastrophe. The Darien disaster of 1700 drove Scotland into union with England, but spawned the institutions which transformed Edinburgh into a global financial centre. The crash of 2008 wrecked the city’s two largest and oldest banks – and its reputation.
Fact can be as dramatic as fiction, as I discovered during my research for a new book on Edinburgh’s turbulent financial history. The archives revealed a fascinating story of the unscrupulous side of Scotland’s great novelist. And how he would redeem himself.
Then he said something which seized my attention: ‘I withdrew £20 million today from Bank of Scotland to put it in a safe place.
In the autumn of 2008 I attended a black tie business dinner. I forget the occasion or the organisation responsible, they are all very similar and after a while the memories of each merge into one.
‘Let the jury consider their verdict,’ the King said, for about the twentieth time that day. ‘No, no!’ said the Queen. ‘Sentence first—verdict afterwards.’ (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland).
Politicians have often followed the Red Queen’s approach: policy first, evidence later.
Four banks — Lloyds, RBS, Barclays and HSBC — have over 70% of the personal current accounts in the UK between them and over 80% of the current accounts of small businesses. This is not a new situation, it was identified 15 years ago in an official inquiry.
Unlike Lloyds, where the Government has been steadily selling shares it acquired when the bank had to be rescued in 2008, RBS remains 80% owned by the public. Despite a drastic pruning of its balance sheet and the sale of non-core businesses, its stock price is still substantially below the level at which taxpayers, who funded the £45 billion recapitalisation of the bank, would get their money back.
According to the television executive Michael Grade non-executive directors are like bidets – no-one is sure what exactly they are for, but they add a touch of class.