Happy Hanukkah

Forget "Winterval". Let religious festivals proudly speak their names

Tonight, at sundown, begins the Jewish festival of lights, Hanukkah, which celebrates the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem in the 2nd century BC after the Maccabees successfully rebelled against their Syrian-Greek rulers.

Given its proximity to Christmas -- and Hanukkah goes on for eight nights -- it is a bit of a shame that more is not made of it publicly (although London's mayor, Boris Johnson, will be lighting a giant menorah in Trafalgar Square this evening).

As Mehdi Hasan writes in this week's cover story, Jesus is a revered prophet for Muslims -- which really ought to be obvious and well known, but too often what religions have in common is overlooked in favour of what divides them. This doesn't have to be the way, and given that Hanukkah precedes both Christianity and Islam, it could be something in which all Abrahamic faiths participate. In fact, the Simon Wiesenthal Centre organised just such an event two years ago when it flew a group of Indonesian Muslim clerics to Israel where, among other things, they lit candles with yeshiva students.

In America, of course, things are different. The conjunction of Christmas with Hanukkah has given rise to the idea of "Chrismukkah", popularised particularly by the US television series The OC, and leading to books and greeting cards with messages such as this:

"Deck the halls
with lots of tchotchkes,
Fa la la la la la la la la la.
Tis the season to eat latkes,
Fa la la la la la la la L'Chaim!"

Some suggest that Chrismukkah is just a commercial confection but, even though they're obviously not theologically profound, or even sound, I think such joint festivities can only be for the good. In Malaysia and Singapore, for instance, when the Hindu Deepavali (or Diwali) is proximate to Eid ul-Fitr, which Malays call Hari Raya, all sorts of schools and organisations celebrate these together as "Deepa-Raya". This does not replace separate Muslim and Hindu ceremonies, but its importance is not to be underestimated in a region where racial and religious divisions are, unfortunately, increasingly being emphasised.

Surely the point is that all these festivals, whether they be Eid, Diwali, Christmas, or the Winter Solstice, should be positive occasions that dare speak their name. No one really likes "Winterval", do they? President Obama has already got himself into a little trouble by inviting guests to "a holiday occasion" next week -- when in fact the event is the annual White House Hanukkah party.

On a happier note, I'll end by leaving you this link to some charming Hanukkah stories by Yoni Brenner in the New Yorker. I particularly liked the first two.

 

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Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation