Review of the best of the week
TV review: The Bank That Almost Broke Britain, BBC Two
It’s 10 years ago today since Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) found itself at the heart of a financial crisis which resulted in a publicly-funded £1 trillion bailout and, more damaging in the long run, a decade-long legacy of distrust in and anger at the financial elites whose greed and hubris paved the way for Brexit and Trump. One trillion pounds. Just read that number back and savour, if that’s the right word, its grotesque enormity.
Narrated by Blythe Duff, who brought a strange, Robert Ludlum audiobook feel to the hour-by-hour account of that dramatic day, The Bank That Almost Broke Britain told the story of RBS’s Icarus-like journey from high-flying financial institution to soggy shark bait through the eyes of some of those who were there at the time (though not thenboss Fred Goodwin, who declined the programme makers’ overtures for some reason) and those who were left to pick up the pieces.
Among the latter group was David Soanes, a financial advisor to the Labour government. “We were on the very brink of Armageddon,” he said of the fast-moving events of October 7, 2008. “It’s disaster movie type stuff. Where is the superhero?”
There wasn’t one available, of course. Instead the global financial system had to make do with the next best thing: Alistair Darling, then Chancellor of the Exchequer in Gordon Brown’s government. If he had his pants on over his trousers it was hard to see in the archive footage.
But he certainly wore a troubled look at odds with the sun-kissed visage he presented to the programme makers as he went over a tale he has no doubt told a hundred at dinner parties since.
We also heard from journalist Robert Peston, who covered the financial crisis for the BBC, Mervyn King, then Governor of the Bank of England and various other bit-part players and observers.
Adair Turner, who took over as head of the Financial Services Authority a month before RBS went into its tailspin, featured just once for some reason.
Appearances by Alex Salmond were oddly sparse too, though his wry observation that the opening of RBS’s mammoth, Silicon Valley-style HQ on the outskirts of Edinburgh was treated to a bigger RAF flypast than the opening of the Scottish Parliament had received didn’t go un-noticed. Still, as history clearly demonstrates, size isn’t everything.
Global in importance it might have been, but the crisis was met with a typically British response – Goodwin and his fellow banking fat cats were summoned to the Treasury where Superman, sorry Alistair Darling, made them an offer they couldn’t refuse and then sent out for curry. Though not enough curry as it turned out.
“It’s a sore point,” said Soanes. “By the time I got back from my meeting with the CEOs, the Balti had been completely hoovered up”.
A bit like the taxpayers’ money then, eh?
Former Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling