Will John Vickers listen to Mervyn King?

Bank of England governor says it's time to separate retail and investment banking.

In his City and Finance column in this week's magazine, Alex Preston examines the annual results recently announced by two of the banks part-owned by the British taxpayer, Lloyds and Royal Bank of Scotland. Of RBS's announcement of an operating profit of £2bn in 2010, Alex says this:

The bank's chairman, Philip Hampton, described this as a "step change", a claim validated by the £7.4bn operating profit in the "core" businesses - the day-to-day retail, corporate and investment banking units. The drop in investment banking income (down 30 per cent from 2009) and rise in corporate and retail profits (up 65 per cent) are a sign that RBS is returning to what made it great in the first place - old-fashioned high-street and business banking.

Alex ends his column by looking forward to the recommendations of the Vickers commission on banking, which is due to report to George Osborne in the autumn, and wonders what impact a possible break-up of the banks or the separation of retail from investment banking would have on RBS's share price - this at a time when staff of UK Financial Investments are racking up the air miles canvassing possible buyers for the bank.

A fascinating interview by Charles Moore with Mervyn King in today's Daily Telegraph suggests that the governor of the Bank of England is hoping that Vickers will recommend far-reaching structural reform of the banking industry:

I quote to him the recent remarks of Stephen Hester, the chief executive of the largely publicly owned RBS, in which he seemed simultaneously to say that RBS should pay little tax because it had made little profit, but also that it should pay big bonuses because its investment arm had made big profits. Wasn't there some sort of contradiction? Mr King nods. The remark illustrates, he says, the clash between the needs of high-street banking and the ambitions of investment banking. The key question, in his view, is not why an individual bank says it needs to pay bonuses (the reason cited is always the need to keep talent), but: "Why do banks in general want to pay bonuses? It's because they live in a 'too big to fail' world in which the state will bail them out on the downside." They are tempted to excessive risk and excessive payments: "It is very unproductive to single out individuals. Bankers were given incentives to behave the way they did. That's what needs to change. We must resolve this problem." He has high hopes that the independent banking commission will do so. In the Governor's mind, this is not ultimately a technical but a moral question. It goes to the heart of whether people are ready to accept life in a free economy.

Will Vickers listen?

 

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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Winning Scottish independence will be even harder than before - but it may be the only choice

Independence campaigners will have to find answers on borders, currency and more. 

The Brexit mutiny has taken not just the UK economy and its relationship with Europe into uncharted waters. it has also imperilled the union between Scotland and England. From Sir John Major to the First Minister, both Unionists and Nationalists had warned of it. The outcome, though, has made this certain. The Leave vote in England and Wales contrasted with an overwhelming Remain vote north of the border.

That every region in Scotland voted to stay In was quite remarkable. Historically, fishing and industrial communities have blamed the European Union for their woes. That antagonism was probably reflected in lower turnout - an abstention rather than a rejection. 

The talk now is of a second referendum on independence. This is understandable given the current mood. Opinion polls in the Sunday Times and Sunday Post showed a Yes vote now at 52 per cent and 59 per cent respectively. Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggests even arch No vote campaigners, from JK Rowling to the Daily Record, are considering the option.

The First Minister was therefore correct to say that a second referendum is now “back on the table”. Her core supporters expects no less. However, as with the economy and Europe, the constitutional relationship between Scotland and England is now in uncharted seas. Potential support for independence may be higher, but the challenges are arguably bigger than before. The difficulties are practical, political and geographic.

Of course the Little Englanders likely to take the helm may choose a velvet divorce. However, given their desire for the return of the Glories of Britannia that’s improbable. They’re as likely to wish to see Caledonia depart, as cede Gibraltar to Spain, even though that territory voted even more overwhelmingly In.

Ticking the legal boxes

Practically, there’s the obstacle of obtaining a legal and binding referendum. The past vote was based on the Edinburgh Agreement and legislation in Westminster and Holyrood. The First Minister has indicated the democratic arguments of the rights of the Scots. However, that’s unlikely to hold much sway. A right-wing centralist Spanish government has been willing to face down demands for autonomy in Catalonia. Would the newly-emboldened Great Britain be any different?

There are no doubt ways in which democratic public support can be sought. The Scottish Government may win backing in Holyrood from the Greens. However, consent for such action would need to be obtained from the Presiding Officer and the Lord Advocate, both of whom have a key role in legislation. These office holders have changed since the first referendum, where they were both more sympathetic and the legal basis clearer. 

Getting the EU on side

The political hurdles are, also, greater this time than before. Previously the arguments were over how and when Scotland could join the EU, although all accepted ultimately she could remain or become a member. This time the demand is that Scotland should remain and the rest of the UK can depart. But will that be possible? The political earthquake that erupted south of the Border has set tectonic plates shifting, not just in the British isles but across the European continent. The fear that a Brexit would empower dark forces in the EU may come to pass. Will the EU that the UK is about to leave be there for an independent Scotland to join? We cannot know, whatever European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker may be saying at the moment. The First Minister is right to start engaging with Europe directly. But events such as elections in France and the Netherlands are outwith her control. 

Moreover, currency was the Achilles heel in the last referendum, and hasn’t yet been addressed. George Osborne was adamant in his rejection of a currency union. The options this time round, whether a separate Scottish currency or joining the euro, have yet to be properly explored. A worsened financial situation in the 27 remaining EU members hampers the latter and the former remains politically problematic. 

The problem of borders

Geography is also an obstacle  that will be even harder to address now than before. Scotland can change its constitution, but it cannot alter its location on a shared island. In 2014, the independence argument was simply about changing the political union. Other unions, whether monarchy or social, would remain untouched. The island would remain seamless, without border posts. An independent Scotland, whether in or out of the EU, would almost certainly have to face these issues. That is a significant change from before, and the effect on public opinion unknown.

The risk that's worth it

Ultimately, the bar for a Yes vote may be higher, but the Scots may still be prepared to jump it. As with Ireland in 1920, facing any risk may be better than remaining in the British realm. Boris Johnson as Prime Minister would certainly encourage that. 

David Cameron's lack of sensitivity after the independence referendum fuelled the Scottish National Party surge. But perhaps this time, the new Government will be magnanimous towards Scotland and move to federalism. The Nordic Union offers an example to be explored. Left-wing commentators have called for a progressive alliance to remove the Tories and offer a multi-option referendum on Scotland’s constitution. But that is dependent on SNP and Labour being prepared to work together, and win the debate in England and Wales.

So, Indy Ref The Sequel is on the table. It won’t be the same as the first, and it will be more challenging. But, if there is no plausible alternative, Scots may consider it the only option.

Kenny MacAskill served as a Scottish National MSP between 2007 and 2016, and as Cabinet Secretary for Justice between 2007 and 2014.