The Pope and Greens can agree that banks have been bad for the common good. Photo: Getty
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The Pope of the poor and the Seven Deadly Sins of banking practice

Whether you choose the religious terminology of sin or the secular language of social harm, it is clear that banks have not been helping the poor but have focused on the wealthy few.

Pope Francis’ description of Europe as "somewhat elderly and haggard" was a gift to both UKIP and headline writers. But the Pontiff had much more to say. For example, he called for a Europe built, “not around the economy, but around the sacred nature of the human person.”

Unusually for a Pope, I didn’t once hear him mention the word sin. Equally surprisingly perhaps, this particular term of transgression was left to the Greens. That’s because on the day Pope Francis made his historic speech to the European Parliament the Greens launched an important website on the "Seven Deadly Sins of Banking". 

The Pope could no doubt write a full sermon on each of these deadly sins: addiction, megalomania, distortion, exploitation, greed, trickery and recklessness. Indeed, some of his wise pronouncements could even have been written with the banks in mind. Pope Francis has called for, “financial reform along ethical lines that would produce in its turn an economic reform to benefit everyone”, and has urged for a, “return to person-centered ethics in the world of finance and economics”.

So what might this financial reform look like? Last week, on the same day as the Pontiff spoke to the European Parliament in Strasbourg I also had a chance to address the whole Parliament. I used the opportunity to highlight the need for decisive structural reform of the banking industry.

I pointed out that the two most important causes of the financial crisis have still not been addressed. Firstly, the need for a clear-cut separation of retail from casino banking activities; secondly, the need to reduce the size of individual banks so that no single financial corporation can threaten the global financial system. Banks are still nowhere near the responsible corporations serving the real economy that we need them to be; they are still too big and too interconnected to fail.

Which brings us back to sin. Using the extensive information in the Green Group's "Seven Deadly Sins of Banking" website, we discover that UK banks are some of the greatest sinners. Or to put it another way, they rank particularly low in what we have termed a "Banking Social Harm Index".

UK banks present high levels of speculative activities; they receive high amounts of implicit subsidies and operate in a high number of offshore entities (tax havens). All of which demonstrates precisely the need for such structural reforms in the banking sector.

For each "Deadly Sin", our website offers atonement, or to put it another way, a solution. These include capping bankers’ salaries, penalising banks with operations in tax havens and limiting the percentage of bank assets financed by borrowing (imposing a leverage ratio). 

The Pope often reminds his audiences that he is a Pope for the poor; that he has a duty, “to remind the rich to help the poor, to respect them and to promote them”. Whether you choose the religious terminology of sin or the secular language of social harm it is clear to almost everyone that banks have not been helping the poor but have focused on the wealthy few.

The Pope believes that the ideologies of markets and financial speculation are denying States the ability to provide for the common good. The banking reforms that Greens are pressing for in Europe seek to ensure that finance, and therefore states, are able to work for exactly that: the common good.

Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the South West of England, elected in May 2014. She has published widely, particularly on issues related to green economics. Molly was formerly Professor of Strategy and Sustainability at the University of Roehampton

Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the southwest of England, elected in May 2014. She has published widely, particularly on issues related to green economics. Molly was formerly Professor of Strategy and Sustainability at the University of Roehampton. She is Green Party parliamentary candidate for Bristol West.

Picture: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left