Commuting between London and Liverpool to make the series
The Bishop and the Bankers for Radio 4 was like
travelling between two universes.
I'm not talking about the usual north/south divide; for there is
wealth in the north and poverty in the south - although the scale
of it is different in each region. I'm referring to the mood
Walking the streets of the City of London, and the piazzas of
Canary Wharf, there was little sense of a financial crisis. An air
of prosperity swirls around the cranes that peck at the London
skyline. Some bankers have lost their jobs, and others have seen
their bonuses attacked, feeling the hand of public opinion reaching
for the scruff of their necks.
But, listening to people from the banking world, it feels as if
things have just been shaken up and are now settling down,
admittedly amid a lot of questioning.
Meanwhile, in other cities such as Liverpool, we are struggling
with drastic reductions in public spending, with food banks
abounding. And here's the irony: food banks!
Public money was used extra-vagantly to bail out the banks, with
the result that there's little left in the pot to help the poor.
But, of course, it's not as simple as that. If the banks had gone
bust, then even more people would have been plunged into poverty.
The banks have become too big to fail, and some feel that the
bankers are too powerful to jail.
The world of finance is complex and, like the rest of society,
made up of the good, the bad, and the greedy, and all shades in
between. Banking is, of course, all about people.
One encounter I had during the recording of the series really
stood out for me. A former worker on the Goldman Sachs mortgage
desk told me that I was asking the wrong question when I wanted to
know how traders could make sure they didn't lose sight of the
personal stories behind their decisions.
He suggested that it was only by removing the human
story that you could achieve the efficiencies of scale needed to
allocate capital quickly, and meet the need for loans
THERE has been a great deal of talk about immoral and greedy
bankers since the financial crisis: people who were in it for
themselves with little thought for others. But I am forced to ask
whether the banking crisis was the moral failure of individuals or
the fault of "the system".
The former head of RBS investment bank, Johnny Cameron, took me
through a catalogue of failures that contributed to the crisis.
Some of the failures were clearly the result of individual
behaviour; others were less clear cut.
Where there were blatant cases of personal immorality and greed,
there was also an environment that allowed people to get away with
I am interested in what makes some people prey to those
temptations, and others able to resist them. The Archbishop of
Canterbury, a former oil executive, spoke of not allowing himself
to be shaped by a culture whose power he had found "rather
frightening". But how long can "good people" remain good in such a
People I spoke to said that they had received some training in
regulation - but none in ethics. Questions have to be asked about
why those two areas seemed so far removed from one another. The
truth is that we need banks to create and distribute wealth, and
not just to make money out of money for those working in the
THERE is talk in the City today of how to create a new banking
One of those involved is Antony Jenkins, the new chief executive
of Barclays. But Andre Spicer from Cass Business School says that
it will be the bottom-up initiatives that bring about real change -
both external pressure from the outside world and from bankers
themselves at lower levels of the organisation. Even the Deputy
Governor of the Bank of England has said that the Occupy movement
has had a big impact.
It seems to me that the banking crisis held up a mirror to the
rest of society, and raised fundamental questions about our values.
But a crisis usually brings about change. The degree to which the
world of finance changes will, in the end, reveal the severity of
the crisis we have endured - until the next time.
The Rt Revd James Jones is the former Bishop of
Liverpool. The Bishop and the Bankers is broadcast at 8
p.m. on BBC Radio 4 on 22 and 29 July and 5 August.