Friday 22 March 2013

Why I have donated 82p to Barclays this year

The Great Fire of London in 1666 turned the matchwood, half-timbered houses of London’s Lombard Street into ashes, where the medieval goldsmiths from Lombardy had first set up their tables. A new street of brick and stone sprung up over the decade or so, and the bankers were back. Among them in the 1680s, under the sign of the Bolt and Tun, was a prosperous banker called Job Bolton.

Bolton, like so many of his profession, was an outsider from the establishment: he was a Quaker. He could hold no public office. He was barred from the army, navy and universities. His fellow Quakers were a persecuted minority, especially in Gloucestershire, where a number of them were languishing in prison and where Bolton, as a senior Quaker, was particularly concerned about them. 

He therefore made has way out of London to the west to Rickmansworth, now a London suburb, then a wealthy village within reach of the metropolis, and also the country seat of the bishop of Gloucester, to plead for some of those who had been imprisoned for their beliefs.

This is why the upright, moral Quakers so irritated the establishment with their rigid Puritanism, and also why that rigidity gave them such an advantage as bankers. Because Quakers remove their hats for no man, Bolton immediately torpedoed his cause by refusing to take off his broad-brimmed Quaker hat. The bishop was so furious at this slight that he stormed across, grabbed it from Bolton’s head and flung it across the room. You did not have to be a Quaker to want a man so principled and so rigid to manage your financial affairs.  If you had financial affairs in the 1680s, you did need somebody with a cool head, even if it was covered with a wide-brimmed hat.  

It was Bolton’s apprentice, a 21-year-old son of a textile merchant from Cirencester, another Quaker called John Freame, who set up shop himself as a goldsmith in Lombard Street in 1690 - and founded the bank that became Barclays.

You can find out more about the bizarre history of Barclays in my book Eminent Corporations.  But the question is how a bank begun in such high morality should have ended up quite where it has.

I still have my business account with Barclays, but after the last round of bonuses - £39.5 million to senior staff - I think it is time to go.

They have 48 million customers worldwide.  We have all donated approximately 82p to the bonus pot this year.  It doesn't sound much compared to their bank charges but we have to do it every year, and I am fed up with it.

There seems no understanding among those who run the bank that these kind of bonuses corrode our lives as well.  We pay it out, and we pay all over again as the price of houses goes up and the price of many other things too.  We pay out a third time because they are being paid for activities that are corroding the real economy of the UK, economically and morally.

Added to which, I had a call from my Barclays business account manager yesterday afternoon who asked me if I had time to talk and then asked me to confirm my date of birth.  I said I don't reveal personal data over the phone - they had phoned me after all - and they sounded surprised.

It may have been a scam, of course, but I suspect it was a version of the same corporate bone-headedness that shells out £39.5 million to the richest and least useful people in the nation.

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