Thirty-five years ago, the Royal Bank of Scotland sat me down and demanded to know: “What are your prospects?” It was quite a grilling I underwent that day and, shellshocked by the end, I didn’t think to ask: “And what exactly are your prospects?”
I was buying my first flat, needed a mortgage and thought I was doing the Royal a favour. It had just become open season for home loans and banks were looking to snatch business from the building societies. It was a loanee’s market, I reckoned.
“Did I really expect to make a career out of journalism?” asked the stern man. What if I couldn’t – how would I be able to continue with the repayments? It was like I was being re-interviewed for my job and the static from the sizeable portion of my C&A suit which was man-made fibre was beginning to crackle.
Was I intending to live alone in the flat? Crikey, should I admit to having a girlfriend and that occasionally she might stay over? Did my interrogator suspect that was the real reason I was trying to get my own pad? Financially, morally and in every sense, I was clearly a very bad person indeed.
The amount I was hoping to borrow was the full cost of the flat – did I appreciate the seriousness of the transaction? I was looking for a 100 per cent mortgage in 70 per cent polyester and was posing a definite fire risk. But, remarkably, I got my loan. I had to sign over completely to Royal, closing down the account with the Clydesdale which my mother had opened for me on my 16th birthday – but by the end of the meeting would have been quite willing to confirm in my own blood that I’d be a diligent saver and not fritter money on fixtures and fittings such as dimmer switches, Barry White CDs and aphrodisiac cookbooks. And of course a single bed would be quite sufficient.
Okay, I exaggerate for comic effect but only slightly. And I was soon grateful for the Royal’s rigour. I quickly came to the conclusion that this was exactly how banks should behave – responsibly, prudently, thriftily. Who wanted their bank to be flash and throw their – your – money around? Who indeed.
And now? Well, I’ve just about managed to make a career out of scribbling and the Royal is still my bank. But they don’t look like the same bank anymore and they don’t act like it either.
On the latter question, they’ll argue that the way people use banks has changed and closures are inevitable. If more and more of us bank online then fewer branches are needed. But the 62 closures announced for Scotland will bite hardest in rural communities, removing the only bank or building society from some towns and villages and leaving customers to grapple with poor wifi, if indeed they have any at all.
Now, “rationalisation” on this scale was always going to provoke anger and resentment, but this is the Royal we’re talking about. The bank of Sir Fred Goodwin. The bank that tried to take over the world. The bank that forced bankers, when asked during small talk what they did for a living, to be economical with the truth. The bank that has only now ceased to be the butt of panto jokes, though maybe not yet in small towns slightly less in thrall to absolute topicality and, in any case, these places could be on the new hit-list. And the bank that likes to boast they’re benignly watching over this land, keeping it working, keeping it alive.
Remember how the Royal Bank portrayed themselves right after the financial crash, and right after they were saved from oblivion by the taxpayer? An advertising campaign showed them functioning far and wide. I seem to remember shots of white-walled cottages and sparkling seas. Every transaction was completed with happy smiles on both sides of the till and I strongly suspected the too-cute hand of Richard “Love Actually” Curtis had been involved. The first time I was present when the commercial screened in a cinema it prompted mass sniggering.
This is how the Royal Bank wants us to think of ot now. “We no longer have global aspirations, we have local aspirations,” declared chief executive Ross McEwan last year. Well, could there be a less local strategy than axing 62 branches from Campbell to Huntly and from Melrose to Barra? I can’t think of one but then, as that encounter 35 years ago proved, I know very little about banking. One thing, though: we own 72 per cent of the Royal. Shouldn’t that give us a stake in the strategy? Surely we’d value the social service of banks in rural areas more highly than the bosses at Gogarburn seem to do.
Ah, Gogarburn. This is what I mean by the Royal not looking the same anymore. From the effortless Georgian splendour of Edinburgh’s New Town, the headquarters has shifted to an anxious-to-impress complex on the capital’s western outskirts that you might call Fred’s Town. The place has its own tram-stop and multifarious food outlets and is almost as big as some of the communities set to lose their branches.
Who knows, maybe Goodwin envisaged it expanding and eventually usurping Scotland’s capital with the Royal at the centre of everything. Things didn’t quite work out like that for him and the place stands as a monument to his ego and excess. It doesn’t figure in promos for the Royal and in the current climate is probably viewed as something of an embarrassment. Just think: RBS HQ probably has half-a-dozen coffee outlets while some towns and villages soon won’t have a bank. That simply doesn’t add up.