Techno in Barcelona, the Indie’s founding fathers, and my advice to Australia’s cricket team

Amol Rajan's Diary.

Techno, I recently concluded, is the devil’s music. Even in its wilder and more varied forms, it has the kind of painful monotony that only a satanic imagination could conjure. In mid-June, I was at Sónar, a music festival in Barcelona, where my best-man duties had taken me. With unflinching fortitude, we listened to hour upon hour of this horrible noise, the only occasional glimmers of hope coming when a distant DJ dropped a beat and turned the volume up simultaneously. How on earth people can devote whole evenings, never mind careers, to this remorseless tyranny I shall never know.

Inky dreams

For all that, it was one of the best holidays I’ve ever had – not least because the Catalan sun readied me for my new job as editor of the Independent. It had been some time in the planning. On the flight home, with the techno finally draining from my ears, I took down my suitcase and extracted a battered old copy of Stephen Glover’s Paper Dreams, which documents the birth of the great British institution that I now lead. I bought a second-hand edition for 16p in Exeter shortly after joining the paper and, together with Andrew Neil’s Full Disclosure, Piers Morgan’s The Insider and Max Hastings’s Editor, it convinced me that being a journalist was one of the great privileges available to man. And to be editor? The stuff of dreams.

In the name of the fathers

Glover’s prose captured the zeitgeist beautifully, as indeed did the glorious early editions of the Independent. In preparation for my new assignment, I have buried myself in the archives and, reading those issues, I feel a deep sense of honour. For years, I’ve spoken to some of the great characters who made the paper so brilliant early on, including Glover, Francis Wheen –whose biography of Marx is simply the best book I’ve ever read – and Sebastian Faulks, a team-mate of mine in the Authors Cricket Club.

I think of these men as our founding fathers. The part of George Washington is played by Andreas Whittam Smith, who still writes superb columns for the paper.

Street knowledge

Last week, I asked Andreas what the founding ideals of the Independent were. First, he said, it was of no party or faction: you can’t think of it as left or right; it would always aim to surprise. Second, journalism is a street: we are on one side; the people we write about are on the other. It’s our job not to cross the street. Andreas used to think of his paper as “classic with a twist” – a lovely phrase.

In the coming months, I and the best team of writers and editors in Fleet Street will be animated by the spirit of those founding fathers. I have no intention of turning the clock back; rather, I want the paper to be true to the ideals in our DNA. After all, most of the British public think of themselves as independent-minded. Zeitgeists come and go but scepticism in Britain endures and we shall sing on its behalf.

Credit where it’s due

Two aspects of my appointment attracted most attention: the state-school heritage and skin colour. Naturally, I was thrilled to receive a warm letter from Keith Barbrook, the head teacher of Graveney School in south London, my alma mater. The brown skin business made me feel humble – but also uneasy. I didn’t smash through a glass ceiling, as one commentator put it: I just happened to be the lucky rascal who, when the moment came for an editor of minority extraction, was in the right place. Other people –my parents chief among them – deserve much more credit than me.

Second, the language around these issues is always dangerously loose. In The Meaning of Race, Kenan Malik shows that “race” is a social rather than a scientific category, concocted by (among others) French nationalists in the 19th century who wanted to justify inequality. It is also the first step on a road that ends in fascism. I am all for championing equality and indeed will fight for it, including through better and fairer representation of ethnic minorities. But race ought never to be a homologue of culture. I am an Englishman and a patriot and proud of it.

Gone Walkabout

Talking of nationhood, what on earth is happening to Australia? Our summers used to be defined by the onslaught of their cricketers through Ashes series we were bound to lose – but this lot seem utterly useless. They’re getting thumped on the cricket pitch. One of their players has been dropped after some allegedly drunken shenanigans in – of all places! – a Walkabout bar. And now they’ve dumped their coach just weeks before the biggest contest of all. I used to think that the answer to many of the world’s problems was a programme of mass migration to this beautiful, spacious and plentifully resourced nation. Now I’m not so sure.

The seamy side

So desperate are the tourists that they may fast-track legislation to allow the Pakistanborn Fawad Ahmed to play in this series. Ahmed, an asylum-seeker in a country not known for its liberal attitude to foreigners, has been left out by the selectors – but they retain the option of bringing him in for the last four Tests.

However, I must warn my Australian and, indeed, Pakistani comrades that a technical deficiency is threatening to hold back this sprightly twirlyman. Study pictures of Ah - med closely and you can see that he grips the ball tightly, with the seam running perpendicular to the base of his fingers.

Shane Warne, my hero, could tell him that this is a recipe for failure. Warne gripped the ball loosely and with the seam running perpendicular to the top, rather than bottom, of his fingers. That was what enabled the swerve into the right-hander that made Warne unplayable. Ahmed, by contrast, is a scrambled seam merchant. He may say that he is simply classic with a twist. I say he should log on to Amazon and get hold of a history of spin-bowling, quick.

Amol Rajan is the editor of the Independent

The audience at the Sónar festival in Barcelona. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts

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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