x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

'Sorry' means less and so do the bankers who say it

There's been such a virulent outbreak of collective hand-wringing in the British banking sector these last few days that the authorities must be bracing themselves for an increase in arthritis.

The composer Elton John once wrote that "sorry seems to be the hardest word". Well not any more it isn't. There's been such a virulent outbreak of collective hand-wringing in the British banking sector these last few days that the authorities must be bracing themselves for an increase in arthritis. The setting for this feast of self-abasement was the House of Commons Treasury Select Committee, a particularly British institution designed to hold to account those individuals wielding power and influence. Last week the committee summoned four of the country's leading bankers to explain why their once-great companies were now on their knees.

In military circles such occasions are apparently referred to as "interviews without coffee", a euphemism for the fact that pleasantries are likely to be at a premium once proceedings commence. And while the select committee members are unlikely to ask questions such as, "who do you think you're looking at, you 'orrible little man?" when interviewing the financiers, such forums are the nearest thing to a dressing-down that we have in British politics.

The event promised to be an unholy row. Banking bosses are not known for their willingness to apologise or kowtow, and the principal interest was in seeing if the four individuals in question would accept even a scintilla of personal responsibility for the unholy mess we're all in. Might - and whisper it softly - might they even be persuaded to utter Elton's "S" word itself? As it turned out, this anticipated battle of verbal pyrotechnics proved to be something of a damp squib. Even before the committee chairman had cleared his throat, the poor dragooned fiscal gurus were falling over themselves to accept culpability. If there had been hair shirts or bundles of birch twigs to hand out they would surely have made use of them.

Sir Fred Goodwin, the former Chief Executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland, an institution that once bestrode the financial sector like a colossus but whose value is now akin to those Toytown bank notes - "I promise to pay the bearer a thousand smiles" - expressed his personal sorrow, going on to say how unutterably sorry he was that it was all such a sorry mess. In all he managed no fewer than six variants on the "S" word, and his sentiment that "he could not be more sorry" might even count as double.

Whatever had taken hold of him, it was catching. Sir Tom McKillop, former chairman of RBS, managed a further three (pretty impressive until you realise that his former company was announcing 2,300 job cuts even as he was taking his seat), while Andy Hornby, the former chief executive of HBOS, (and still on a $120,000 a month as a consultant to the Lloyds banking group), garnered a credible seven. Yet victory was snatched from under their noses by Lord Stevenson, the former chairman of HBOS, who weighed in with a record-breaking nine separate expressions of remorse and regret. After all that, they were allowed to slink away to luxurious anonymity with the committee members still scratching their heads. Surely it shouldn't have been that easy?

If nothing else the inquiry has blown the cover on the fug of mystique that surrounds fiscal affairs. For someone such as myself whose tax returns more resemble a comic book than a serious economic document, I've always looked up to anyone involved in high finance with a mixture of awe and admiration. My only contact with these economic Svengalis is on the odd occasion when I politely request an extension on my overdraft from my local branch manager - and I've never known him to display characteristics beyond a hollow laugh.

But now it transpires that far from requiring numeracy, intelligence and an understanding of global finance, running a major bank is just above burger flipping as a profession requiring strict qualifications. It turned out that of the four chiefs in the dock last week, not one of them had any formal experience running a banking institution. One had been a chartered accountant, the other ran a supermarket, a third was only used to chairing public bodies, while the fourth was a research chemist. In acting terms, that's like attempting to play Hamlet on the basis of being able to recite Happy Birthday To You.

Still, at least these revelations have made me more bullish in my own financial dealings. No longer will the voice of my local branch manager hold any terrors for me. In fact only this weekend I was able to put my new-found confidence into practise when he rang to warn me I was overdrawn on my account. "And what was I last week?" I asked him. "Last week you were in credit," he answered. "And did I ring you?" I replied.

Michael Simkins is a London-based actor and author