Robin McAlpine: Me and RBS are over – Scotland needs a new bank

CommonSpace columnist and Common Weal director Robin McAlpine wants a bank fit to serve customers in the community, not corporations

IN 1990 I was about to go to university; it was time for my own bank account.

My dad took me to his branch where he'd banked for over 30 years, having made an appointment with the manager. The manager was an avuncular chap who immediately offered me a cup of tea.

He sat with me and filled in all the forms on my behalf. I was still 17 so ought to have waited another six months until being eligible for a cheque book. He winked at me - "if you're anything like your dad, I'm sure we'll be fine," he said. I walked out, feeling like a grown up.

The fact that you could play 'first person to write down a dozen RBS crimes wins' and all the players could come up with different lists is about as much as anyone needs to know.

Thus started my strange relationship with RBS, one which is nearly at an end. My branch is closing.

The word 'evil' is bandied around a lot, usually with little cause. But given the string of illegalities that RBS has been involved in, the callousness with which it has treated customers, the utter separation between human ethics and how it does its business, perhaps evil is an appropriate word.

I mean, the fact that you could play 'first person to write down a dozen RBS crimes wins' and all the players could come up with different lists is about as much as anyone needs to know.

And it's hard to judge what's worse – rigging international Libor rates, mis-selling toxic products or deliberately bankrupting and dismembering customers' businesses for personal profit.

Actually, no it's not. What's worse is that, far from pay any real price for its crimewave, RBS has been rewarded richly. By us. Through massive taxpayer-funded bailouts, which barely dented the bonus culture or illegality of the bank. Of course, no one has paid for the crimes.

It's hard to judge what's worse – rigging international Libor rates, mis-selling toxic products or deliberately bankrupting and dismembering customers' businesses for personal profit.

And yet and yet – that's not my RBS. My RBS is a local banking network which is an almost public utility in Scotland. It is a wide network of local branches. It is a cashline machine when you need one.

It is a decent digital banking service. It is reliable, has looked after my money (and debts...) perfectly adequately.

But above all, it's my local branch. It's a place I go to see faces I know who help me with problems I can't solve by myself. I was recently in because a debit card stopped working. It was a technical error at their side.

I could have been on the internet for a week and I wouldn't have been able to fix it. Tracey sorted it out on the spot. Inevitably, we discussed the weather.

And now it's about to go. My branch is one of those closing. It means we now face a 15-mile journey to the nearest bank of any description, a round-trip bus journey of well over an hour and nearly a tenner a turn if you don't have a car.

RBS wants rid of its small town banking network to maximise its sale value when it is 'privatised' by this ideological Tory government.

My fury is pretty unrestrained. There were two RBSes, the evil one and my one. Now it feels like there is only one. And it seems evil from top to toe to me.

If I hear one more eulogy to how 'Thatcher was necessary', I'll scream. I mean, in slight defence to the woman, I suspect there was a time when she herself would be horrified that 'ordinary people' living in 'ordinary towns' would have no Post Office, no bank, none of the infrastructure that sustains enterprise and community.

If I hear one more unionist lecturing on why we should 'cling to Britain', screaming won't be enough. Proper countries (among which I do not include Britain) expect things like local bank facilities, post offices and municipal services to exist where people live.

Britain expects us to give our money to whichever corporation has its hand out today, then to get down on our knees and thank them when the corporation uses the money to hurt us.

RBS wants rid of its small town banking network to maximise its sale value when it is 'privatised' by this ideological Tory government. And by 'privatise' I mean let them away with everything and don't even try to get the taxpayer's money back.

Please, Scottish Government, we know there was a time when you were besties with RBS. Those days are over now, right?

If RBS was a real business, a real bank, it would understand that its reassuring presence deep in the heart of its customer base was its single biggest piece of PR genius. But that assumes that RBS cares about its customers.

So instead it will probably spend about the same sponsoring the Six Nations this year (using its NatWest brand) as it will save by ripping the heart out of rural Scotland. Because its real 'customers' are the people it wants to buy it cheap from the government.

And they won't be stuck in Biggar trying to find a bank machine. They will be in the corporate hospitality suite, not in Murrayfield but at Twickenham.

Please, Scottish Government, we know there was a time when you were besties with RBS. You wrote fawning letters to the bank's criminals-in-chief and imagined it as the pumping heart of an independent Scotland.

Those days are over now, right? You can't possibly still see a correlation between the interests of the people of Scotland and of this toxic PLC, right?

There's something you can do about it now. A national investment bank could create a full network of proper local banking services.

And there's something you can do about it now. When Common Weal proposed the establishment of a national investment bank we very specifically did not suggest that it should be a retail bank offering basic bank account services to customers – that was not its purpose.

But we absolutely did think that the bank, once established, should create a full network of proper local banking services.

There are lots of ways this could be done, all based on standard European models (i.e., the way they do banking in proper countries). The bank could work with Scotland's local authorities to set up municipal banks.

Very basic services (such as making deposits) could be done in any local authority premises (even your local sports centre) and premises could be secured for proper branches to deliver more complex services. It's not like Scotland's high streets have a shortage of available empty shops.

Another option would be for the national investment bank to open up a retail arm and then create branches across Scotland, delivering the banking services directly itself.

There are lots of ways this could be done, all based on standard European models. The bank could work with Scotland's local authorities to set up municipal banks.

A more complicated option would be for the bank to work with regional stakeholders to build a series of mutual banks, something like a lot of (the now defunct) Airdrie Savings Banks.

Any of these options is perfectly legal, perfectly doable. The national investment bank is being set up by Benny Higgins, the man who ran the Tesco Bank. And, funnily enough, the Tesco Bank is actually considered a reasonably good bank for customers (like RBS, retail banking is a sideline for Tesco – but its main business doesn't appear to be fraud...).

I know that the idea of linking local banking services to the investment bank is something those setting it up have looked at. They would be perfectly capable of doing it efficiently and well. The Scottish Government should now mandate them to crack on and create a feasibility study.

In some ways I'll still miss the big, heavy sandstone presence of 'my' RBS across Scotland. But it's a different world now; that real estate is not what banks need any more, just a shop front, some basic equipment and some friendly staff.

Their real value – when they work – is their relationships. They are with their private customers throughout their lives. They give them cups of tea and hold their hand when they're excitable students.

A more complicated option would be for the bank to work with regional stakeholders to build a series of mutual banks, something like a lot of (the now defunct) Airdrie Savings Banks.

They lend them money to buy a car, a house, to put away savings. They are there to smile understandingly at you when you didn't realise you had to activate your new card before you use it.

And those relationships become many, many times more important with small business customers. The bank should want your business to succeed – your success should be their success. The bank and the business should expect to be together for life, growing and developing together.

Cold calling you to sell you 'products' you don't really want and barely understand is not a relationship, it is predation.

My emotional attachment to my bank might not have made sense – but it was there, nonetheless. Now it is in shreds and what I feel is much closer to rage.

Please, Scottish Government, do not stand by, shrug and then go out for lunch with the bank's lobbyists to 'discuss' how the two of you are working together to 'minimise the impact on customers'.

Please, Scottish Government, it is in your power to build a banking network, one I'd be proud to have a relationship with, one back in the heart of my community.

Please, Scottish Government, it is in your power to build a banking network, one I'd be proud (again) to have a relationship with, one back in the heart of my community, one that I will be with until my shift is over.

Please. This time I'm not lobbying. I'm begging. Be a proper government and give us a proper bank – fit for a proper country.

Picture courtesy of Documenting Yes

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