If ever a fictional character summed up the essential qualities of a traditional bank manager, it is surely the late Arthur Lowe’s marvellous Captain Mainwaring in the BBC classic Dad’s Army.
Mainwaring had his faults. He was ridiculously self-important, prone to bullying and patronising behaviour, obsessive about rank and a clear product of the aspiring if insecure middle classes with chips on both shoulders when it came to the likes of the more flamboyant Sgt Wilson or the spiv Walker.
He enjoyed strutting around and ordering his underlings about, whether it be the pampered mummy’s boy Pike or the gentle and incontinent Godfrey. Like many self-important bullies, he was also scared to death of his own wife, and we never get to see the formidable Elizabeth, apart from a rather alarming rear view when she gets stuck in a tunnel in one episode.
Dad’s Army scriptwriters Jimmy Perry and David Croft created a work of genius when they dreamt up Mainwaring, and he lives on to this day, along with Wilson, Jones, Pike, Fraser and the rest of them.
But Mainwaring was by no means an unsympathetic character. He may have been a humourless martinet at times but he was also loyal, patriotic, brave enough to do his bit to stop Hitler, and a man of considerable principle. In other words, everything you once needed in a bank manager.
I thought of Mainwaring this week as the latest scandal to engulf the UK banking industry emerged in the shape of the £218 million fine dished out to Lloyds over the rate-rigging scandal.
For anybody who somehow missed the news, Bank of England Governor Mark Carney described Lloyds’ behaviour as ‘clearly unlawful.’ Lord Blackwell, Lloyds Banking Group chairman, admitted ‘truly shocking conduct, undertaken when the bank was on a lifeline of public support.’
The Serious Fraud Office, which is responsible for Libor-related criminal cases, is examining whether criminal charges can be brought against former and current employees of Lloyds. By contrast. there was never a whiff of scandal over Mainwaring’s branch in Walmington on Sea, although some of Private Walker’s extra-curricular activities were a bit near the knuckle.
But this is no laughing matter, however much we might enjoy comparing a fictional work of comic genius set in the Second World War with the casino-style activities of some flash-harry 21st century bankers with their eyes on the main chance à la Tom Wolfe’s Masters of the Universe in his classic New York 80s novel Bonfire of the Vanities.
The sad fact remains that the Lloyds Libor scandal is simply the latest in a roll call of corporate disgrace dating back to the discredited activities of the likes of Fred ‘The Shred’ Goodwin at RBS and Andy Hornby at HBOS which helped bring their employers to the brink of disaster before the taxpayer bailed them out with rescue packages back in 2008. It should be stressed that Goodwin, later stripped of his knighthood, and Hornby were not guilty of criminal behaviour, but they will go down as men who helped bring the UK banking sector to its knees with their get rich quick schemes.
A week before the Lloyds scandal broke, I visited the charming rural premises out near Tamworth of Thin Cats, an Internet start-up company which has loaned more than £70 million to firms in three years.
Consider the words of former engineer Kevin Caley, who founded the tiny peer to peer lender in early 2011 as a polar opposite of Goodwin or Hornby-style fat cat bankers.
“We behave like a traditional bank. We are trying to be the Captain Mainwarings of today.
“The banks are run by a new generation of managers trained to operate as committees with credit checks. The old ones would go out to lunch with their customers, play golf with them, they knew their foibles and they knew when to lend to them.
“Now there is a credit-scoring mentality. If you not pass the score, you do not get considered.”
His fellow Thin Cats founder Peter Brown said: “They have deskilled the role of the bank manager and have pushed it out to credit committees. Local knowledge on the ground has been lost.
“If you wanted to borrow money, you had to go to the banks – there was no other place other than the bank next door. Now there is all the freedom you get from the Internet. Banks will ignore this at their peril.”
The ironic thing here is that the Thin Cats business model is supported by experienced ex-bank managers who vet clients for loan suitability. The firm is tapping into some of that very knowledge which has been lost amid the frantic efforts to turn banking into a form of roulette.
It is, perhaps, slightly unfair to single out the banking profession as a paradigm of a broken economy. Breweries turned themselves into property speculators with dubious consequences, leading football clubs are now ‘global brands’ with cutthroat merchandising activities preying on gullible fans rather than theatres of dreams, the world has changed beyond recognition in many arenas.
But neither the breweries who reinvented themselves as highly leveraged pub groups with property portfolios nor the Glazers at Manchester United had to go cap in hand to the taxpayer to help them survive.
It’s not too difficult to imagine what George Mainwaring would have made of Fred Goodwin or rate-rigging. Dad’s Army’s most memorable character would have scoffed and carried on with the task of stopping Hitler. But it was a very different world back then, when we were fighting for our very freedom rather than ripping off the customers.