The sun shines warmly in south-west France, and rabbit bouillabaisse is the pièce de résistance of a New Year lunch at which Nigel Lawson is a fellow guest. The former chancellor and Spectator editor divides his time between his home in the Gers, the Global Warming Policy Foundation which he chairs, and the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards on which he has been sitting alongside the new Archbishop, Justin Welby — who he calls ‘my new friend, an excellent man’.
We agree that the argument on banking reform is moving Lawson’s way. As banks continue to rack up huge fines — £2.5 billion between RBS and UBS for Libor-rigging and HSBC for money-laundering — the Lawson view that retail banking should be completely separated from the dangers and temptations of investment banking is gaining momentum. The commission’s first findings before Christmas proposed ‘electrifying the ring-fence’: that is, giving regulators power to demand full separation in any bank that tries to sneak under the rather weak barrier erected by George Osborne in response to the 2011 Vickers Report. And if abuse of the new rules is pervasive, says the commission, periodic independent reviews should advise on the need for ‘a move to full separation’ across the sector.
There’s still a theoretical argument in favour of the well-managed and ethically robust universal bank that offers every service corporate and personal clients require — but it’s now impossible to cite an example of one which has not committed a range of shameful misdemeanours that might not have occurred within a more protective structure. So I’d wager full separation is the way our recidivist bankers will be forced to go by the end of this -decade.
And speaking of wagers, I put it to Lawson that in contrast to the banking debate, the argument on climate change, in which he is Westminster’s leading sceptic, has been moving away from him — not because there’s anything new in the fiercely disputed science of global warming, but because the phrase ‘climate change’ has been inserted into every BBC report of the winter’s rain and floods, subliminally reinforcing alarmism in the public mind.
Not at all, says Lawson, and what’s more, he has just won £100 that proves the continuing strength of his position. In July 2008, in the columns of Standpoint magazine, he bet Oliver Letwin — now David Cameron’s policy co-ordinator — that the Kyoto Protocol on carbon reduction would reach its expiry date on 31 December 2012 without a substantial successor treaty being signed to enforce binding cutbacks in emissions. ‘There has been no new agreement, let alone a “substantial” one,’ declares Lawson, brandishing an email from Letwin that concludes: ‘Shall I send a cheque to the House of Lords?’
Finally, we agree this has been a most convivial lunch. And since Lord Lawson and I have converged from starting-places 120 miles apart, I point out, it has been a lunch with an unusually large carbon footprint. ‘Even better,’ he chuckles, ‘even better.’
Ah, the French, how tenaciously they defend their special interests. Back in the summer, the otherwise derided President Hollande won praise for sticking up for foie gras exporters ‘face aux lobbys anglosaxons’, as Le Monde put it. Now there’s a rearguard action against attempts by Brussels to enforce VAT rules on the French yachting industry, which refused to apply the tax to private charters in defiance of a European Court ruling two years ago. Not only is pleasure-boating a nice little earner for the French economy, evidently, but it happens to be enjoyed by many of the governing elite.
A friend of mine recently found himself in the showroom of a French yacht builder, but balked at the price-tag on the model that caught his eye. Wait a moment, monsieur, said the salesman; our finance company, linked to a state-backed bank, can offer you a long lease at a negative interest rate, which means the total of your lease payments will actually be less than the full upfront price — and you won’t own the boat until you’ve made the last payment, by which time it will be worth much less, so they’ll never nab you for wealth tax on it. Plus, we’ll only charge half the full rate of VAT, because of course the boat will spend half its life outside EU waters. Oh no it won’t, said my friend. But you might occasionally find yourself more than 12 miles offshore? Well, yes, I suppose I might. That’ll do nicely, monsieur, and here’s the contract to sign — but don’t ever sail into a British harbour, because your Revenue & Customs are not so sympathique…
In the wrong place
If and when banks do find themselves forced to break up, perhaps their refocused retail arms will take the opportunity to get a grip on all those computers, apparently unconnected to each other, that generate so much bizarre, confusing and misphrased correspondence. In the Christmas post comes a statement from a branch in Jersey — with which, to the best of my knowledge, I have no relationship of any sort. It states: ‘Opening balance: zero. Total transactions: zero. Closing balance: zero. The outstanding balance must be paid in full. Dispute resolution: if you have a problem with your agreement, please try to resolve it with us in the first place.’ But I don’t have an agreement with you in the first place with which I might have a problem that I could try to resolve in any other place — and I suppose the trick is just not to care, so long as the computer hasn’t turned a substantial credit balance into a zero by mistake.
Much more irritating in its way is an email conveying ‘Best Wishes for the Holiday Season’ with a warning attached that any opinion expressed herein is not endorsed by the bank — and to which a sad human hand, trapped somewhere in a mad, dehumanised system, had added: ‘I think what they meant was to wish you a Merry Christmas and a prosperous New Year’.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 5 January 2013