When is a Scottish Bank not a Scottish Bank?

In 2008, Alex Salmond hailed RBS as the pride of the "Celtic Lion" economy that he envisaged for an

Is the Royal Bank of Scotland a Scottish bank? The answer, you might think, is in the question.

Technically, of course, RBS is a British bank, majority-owned by UK taxpayers, although the shareholding is kindly managed on our behalf by something called UK Financial Investments Ltd, which is, according to its founding mandate, run "at arm's length" from the Treasury.

In more buoyant economic times, however, when RBS was a private sector champion, it was a potential source of pride and financial clout for Scotland, should it decide to dissolve its union with England. (This was back when Scottish Nationalists looked westward to the dynamic performance of Ireland and considered whether there wasn't a "Celtic Lion" economy ready to be unleashed in imitation of the big cat over the sea. People don't talk so much about the Irish "Celtic Tiger" model these days.)

Channel 4's Faisal Islam published an interesting document on his blog last night showing how Alex Salmond cheered Fred Goodwin on in his takeover bid for ABN Amro - the a deal that ultimately broke the bank. As late as March 2008, Salmond was still selling Edinburgh's financial services buccaneers as evidence that Scotland could stand on its own as part of an "arc of prosperity" alongside Ireland, Iceland and the Nordic countries. The SNP leader told an audience in Harvard:

With RBS and HBOS - two of the world's largest banks - Scotland has global leaders today, tomorrow and for the long-term.

Or not, as it turned out. When RBS needed bailing out by the UK government, its balance sheet assets were equivalent to 2,500% of Scottish GDP. So the question naturally arises, how would an independent Scotland have coped? The SNP answer is to blame Westminster (naturally) and the Labour government for the regulatory failure that allowed the crisis to build in the first place. In that respect, I supposed he agrees with David Cameron.

Alistair Darling, the Chancellor who oversaw the bail out (and a Scot who will be playing a lead role in Labour's anti-independence campaign) has attacked Salmond today for being "slippery" on the issue of RBS exposure. Why should the SNP claim Scotland's oil revenues, Darling asks, but not its share of debt incurred to keep his former financial champion afloat? It is a decent question.

Meanwhile, RBS has announced 3,500 job losses as part of plans to shrink its investment banking operations. That is partly because the bits being scaled down weren't making enough money and partly in anticipation of restructuring to be enforced by the government over the next five years. Under proposals set out by the Vickers Commission on banking reform, high street and retail functions (the bits ordinary people use and trust) must be separated from investment functions (the dodgy casino bits everyone blames for impoverishing us all).

The Treasury had initially resisted the idea of enforcing separation too rigorously on the grounds that it would be a complex, time-consuming procedure that would necessarily delay the process of re-privatising UKFI's banking shares. George Osborne would have liked to sell a few tranches of RBS ahead of the next election to build up a war chest for a populist pre-polling day budget. That doesn't look too likely now. A source inside RBS tells me that this time last year, the bank was fully expecting to see some of its government shares floated in 2012, but the downturn in the economic outlook in the second half of 2011 killed that idea. Now everyone is resigned to the fact that HM Government is the boss for a long time to come.

Eventually, the reformed and restructured banks will be sold off. Then a whole new question arises. How much of the proceeds of that sale belongs to Scotland?

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.