Did you hear the one about the honest, hard-working and decent banker?

No, really, did you?

Despite this being the worst week yet for an industry that’s had more than its fair share of miserable weeks in recent years, and even in spite of the fact that the accusations against the so-called “banksters” have escalated from a lack of morality to potential criminality, there remain plenty of honest, good and moral men and women working in financial services. Many of them are even in the most senior positions

Take, for example, the old story (retold to me this week) about Lord Mervyn Davies, when he was boss of Standard Chartered. As the drama of Bob Diamond’s resignation over the role of Barclays in Libor-rigging unfolded, I was offered this wonderful insight that explains why few expect Standard Chartered to be implicated in this most serious episode of financial misadventure. It also explains why Standard Chartered wasn’t quite as exposed to the financial crisis as many of its competitors.

Some time in 2006, one of Standard Chartered’s financial rocket scientists met with Davies to let the bank get involved in the sort of complex transactions that were all the rage at the time and that were making rivals (both institutions and individuals) so rich. Davies, clearly not a stupid man, asked the boffin to explain the scheme. About 20 minutes later Davies stopped him and admitted he hadn’t understood a word. A sure sign of his intelligence and honesty was that he was confidant enough to show his ignorance (not something very prevalent in banking boardrooms at the time). He gave the boffin another go, who then took half an hour to explain his ideas in plain English. Davies thanked him for his time but still didn’t follow. He is reported to have said, because he couldn’t understand the scheme, there was no way he was prepared to let the bank get into it. Two years later that already looked to be a good call; six years on it looks like the wisest possible decision.

There is danger that this sort of story makes Davies appear something of a throwback to a much-vaunted "golden age" of banking. While this week has been bad, we must resist glorifying the past or go misty eyed over an era before the Big Bang opened the City up and all those brash Americans brought their naughty ways over here. The old City was the worst kind of closed shop. Deals – rather, gentleman’s agreements – were sewn up over lunch or a round of golf, and in this age diversity meant hiring from both Oxford and Cambridge. Women, if they were in the boardroom at all, were there to make tea and take notes.

It may have its faults, but the modern financial services sector is a rare example of a UK success story. And the whole economy benefits from a thriving financial services industry. But that’s exactly why wrongdoing (especially crime) must be rooted out and acted on swiftly. Criminality must be punished as such and all financial gains must be recovered, as they would be elsewhere.

All this requires adequate regulatory oversight and proper legal protection. It’s why the government must recognise that its Financial Services Bill is not fit for purpose as it is and needs a radical overhaul.

The good news is that there is still time to get it right. But it requires politicians to stop pointing fingers over whether light-touch, tripartite regulation caused the mess and see that the proposed twin peaks regulation is equally flawed. There are myriad specialists arguing that while politicians quibble over quantity of regulation, it’s the quality of those rules that matters. Politicians must take this opportunity to learn from other people’s mistakes and create the support and regulatory structures that allow us all to be confident of hearing many more stories about decent, honest bankers in the future.

This article originally appeared in Economia

London. Photograph, Getty Images

Richard Cree is the Editor of Economia.

Picture: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left