Osborne should nationalise RBS, but he won't

Cabinet ministers are reportedly pushing for the full nationalisation of RBS.

Back in the halcyon days of May 2010, George Osborne probably hoped to use the government's RBS shares as the basis for a pre-election giveaway. Now, he'd be lucky not to make a loss. Based on current trading conditions, the Treasury has already conceded that the chances of a sale of taxpayers’ shares before 2015 are "virtually nil". Indeed, so much has changed that the government is now considering the reverse: buying more shares in RBS.

Today's FT reports that senior government figures are discussing the possibility of "fully nationalising" the bank amid frustration at the paucity of lending to British businesses. Acquiring the 18 per cent of RBS that it does not already own would allow the government to direct the bank to increase its lending to companies without fear of legal challenge from the remaining private shareholders. One official tells the paper: "This is a conversation that takes place all the time."

Though he is not named in the report, it's safe to assume that Vince Cable is one of those leading the charge. It was the Business Secretary who recently accused the banks of "throttling the recovery" by failing to lend to small businesses and who called for part of RBS to be converted into a National Investment Bank. But Osborne, the man who voted against the nationalisation of Northern Rock, is unsurprisingly opposed. In a statement, the Treasury said:

We are committed to repairing and returning RBS to full health so that it is able to support the UK economy in the future, and the current strategy is working to achieve that. The government’s policy has always been to return RBS to the private sector, but only when it delivers value for money for the taxpayer.

With the economy now in a deep recession, the nationalisation of RBS is exactly the sort of game-changer the government should pursue. But Osborne's ideological preference for the private sector will, one suspects, again prevent a necessary step towards recovery.

Update: My colleague Rafael Behr suggests another reason why Osborne is opposed to nationalisation: "Nowhere to hide in bonus season when it is 'state bank' paying out."

Cabinet ministers are discussing the possibility of taking full control of RBS. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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