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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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