Why we still need a public inquiry into the banks

A Leveson-style inquiry would expose the web of patronage and lobbying.

Listening to the Commons exchanges yesterday on the Chancellor’s proposal for a Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry into the LIBOR scandal was depressing.  It was the Commons at its worst: blame shifting; moralising; and, above all, opportunistic point scoring across the floor.  It’s not just the bankers who don’t get it; lots of MPs also do not realise the scale of the disaster that is the UK financial system.  A Parliamentary inquiry is a quite inadequate response to the scale of the problem. Some Parliamentary inquiries, notably those by the Treasury Select Committee, have done good work.  But even when not beset by party divisions they simply have not measured up to the job.  As in the notorious case of Fred Goodwin, they end up largely scapegoating individuals. Now Bob Diamond has followed his chairman in falling on his sword. It’s just as well he doesn’t have a knighthood; he could kiss it goodbye. 

Andrew Tyrie is an honourable man and will do his level best with the inquiry – if it happens.  But we can already see how inadequately he conceives the task: the inquiry will be "ring-fenced" (his words) to examine what the LIBOR tells us about the culture of the City. The LIBOR scandal is being trailed by the financial establishment as precisely that: a scandal.  In other words, a single disgraceful event, and in the manner of all scandals in Britain it is taking a predictable course: moralistic fulminations, and the sacrifice of a few prominent scapegoats.  Morals are important;  the amorality revealed in the Barclays’ e mails is shocking to normal people.  And  it is certainly the case that wrongdoers need to be pursued and punished.  But here at CRESC, where we have been tracking the financial crisis since 2007, we have been  arguing for some time that there are fundamental defects in our financial system, and that these won’t be solved by short term hunting down of scapegoats.  Faced with the  LIBOR scandal, politicians, bankers and regulators have responded  with the traditional Claude Rains defence: like Captain Renault, the character played by Rains in Casablanca, they are shocked, truly shocked, to discover that illicit gambling has been going on in the casino of the City of London.  But  the problems won’t be solved by firing a few top bankers, prosecuting a few white collar criminals, or even by conducting an inquiry into the workings of LIBOR – necessary though all these are.  We need to dispense with the illusion that a casino is the best way to organise the financial system for a modern economy – a truth that Keynes famously expressed many decades ago.

Our research reports show that the claimed economic benefits of the City for the "real" economy are an illusion, the product of effective PR over the years by the City elite.  Boring old manufacturing contributes about twice as much as glitzy financial services to the nation’s tax coffers.  And the City is doing nothing to solve our unemployment problems: throughout the great financial boom up to 2007 employment in finance was flat.  The  PR offensive has been effective because the City has enjoyed unique privileges in the government of finance, and unique access to top policy makers: both the Labour and Conservative parties have, in office, relied on paymasters from the financial elite.  And in turn they have, disgracefully, inserted financiers into key decision making positions.

The result is that the City is a web of markets proliferating increasingly complex and risky financial instruments that do little or nothing to promote welfare or efficiency in the wider economy.  The "other" scandal last week – the outrageous rip off at the expense of small business – is no single accident; it reflects the fact that finance is now in the business of creating and selling financial instruments regardless of the social harm they create.  Adair Turner’s condemnation of "useless" financial innovations is an understatement; the City has moved beyond the creation of the useless to the manufacture of the positively malign.

We need a full Leveson-style inquiry to examine how the casino is working, and to examine the web of patronage and lobbying that has allowed the City casino to trade with impunity.  An inquiry will be uncomfortable for many who were prominent in the New Labour years, and it is to the credit of Ed Miliband and Ed Balls that they have, nevertheless, recognised that full transparency is needed. We need an inquiry on the scale of Leveson, with the power to uncover the cultures and institutions that persuaded City operators that they could operate with impunity.  And we might yet get it if Labour refuses to play ball with Osborne’s proposal. But more important even than an inquiry, we need  a fundamental redefinition of the social and economic roles of finance. Banks must become public utilities with the duty to serve the wider economy, not players in casinos.  A Leveson-style inquiry would help provide the catharsis to  bring us to that point.

To read the full CRESC evidence and argument, download our report.

The claimed economic benefits of the City for the "real" economy are an illusion. Photograph: Getty Images.

Michael Moran is adjunct Professor of Government and Business in the University of Manchester Business School.

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage