The National

The National
Kate Higgins
January 2015

 

Sometimes, I think it’s only getting mad about things that propels me out of bed in the morning, especially in the bleak mid-winter. Fortunately, these days, there’s much to be mad about.

 

Indeed, those of us on the Yes side of the debate made an art form out of frothing during the referendum, and rightly so. Some of us even tried to get even.

 

All those banks coming out and saying they would shift their registered offices out of an independent Scotland should we have the tenacity to vote Yes, prompted a full-on attempted consumer boycott.  Lots pledged to close accounts – me included – and move our money elsewhere, to institutions that could be relied upon to support Scotland, not dump us when suited. It was politics dressed up as economics and I think it actually swung a few votes to Yes. People were very tired of being telt they’d be punished for daring to exercise their democratic right to choose a different future.

 

Except it wasn’t that easy.  Because there aren’t that many places to go.  Such is the parlous state of our banking sector that it is dominated by too-big-to-fail edifices that appear to have learned nothing in the last few years. Every week, there are more fines for more bad behaviour, for breaching rules, for treating customers poorly.  Every annual accounting period brings announcements of yet more billions being set aside to cover liabilities for unknown knowns; pay and bonuses are still eye-watering; indeed, many top executives would have had cause to celebrate “Fat Cat Day” on Tuesday 6 January, so-called because it takes only 2 days in the new working year for FTSE 100 Chief Executives to earn what most workers take home in a year. 

 

When it comes to banking, we have very little choice not just in terms of the brand we bank with, but also in the type of bank we can opt for. We have a one-size fits all model that serves few of us very well. 

 

It isn’t like this elsewhere in Europe. Take Germany. It has Landesbanken, regional banks set up in the 19th Century to provide structure to even smaller savings banks.  There are co-operative banks – 1,197 of them  – and Volksbanken.  These last are similar to our credit unions but there are over 1000 of these.  Clearly, Scotland is not Germany: we have a much smaller population for a start but if Germany with just over 80 million people can support literally thousands of banks and a range of models, why does Scotland only have four full and two associate members of the Committee of Scottish bankers?  Obviously, more banks operate here but it’s probably less than 50.

 

Only one bank can claim to be wholly Scottish, independent and run for the benefit of its customers.  Step forward Airdrie Savings Bank, guided by a committee of volunteers not highly remunerated directors.  Recently, the bank has entered into an innovative partnership with the Scottish Community Re:Investment Trust (SCRT) a Scottish charity set up to meet the banking needs of our large and burgeoning third sector (charities and community groups).  The sector owns and controls the Trust, which has been formed to harness the not inconsiderable financial assets of the tens of thousands of organisations of all sizes doing vital work in our communities and use them to meet the sector’s financial needs.

 

These two bodies have introduced the Anchor Savings Account, a notice account open to all third sector organisations and crucially, their employees, trustees and volunteers.   These organisations work at the sharp end of austerity, supporting some of our most vulnerable individuals and communities, including women and children, as well as protecting our wildlife, our environment and promoting our culture and arts scene.  They play a key role in our economy and society, but are often highly dependent on finite funds, finding it hard, if not impossible, to borrow money for development and growth. 

 

The SCRT and Airdrie Savings Bank are aiming to create a virtuous, ethical circle of saving, investing and lending, with no fat cats in sight, no profits, no dividends and no bonuses. Moreover, this one wee account represents something quite radical in the Scottish fiscal landscape: an attempt to create a separate, Scottish infrastructure – or at least, a layer of it – that is not linked to global banking practices. This lack of a financial services industry that was not intertwined across the UK and therefore, impossible to parse apart (so we were told) was a reason why independence was a bad thing.

 

The Anchor Savings Account goes a small way to redressing this situation. Of course, by and of itself, it cannot compete with the UK banking oligarchy. Nor does it want to.

 

But its very existence, the fact it has been thought into being, in these fluid, florid months after the referendum, provides hope that there are people thinking differently and prepared to do differently.

 

And if nothing else, the Anchor Savings Account will fulfil a vital function for frustrated Yessers.  The next time the big banks annoy you and remind you how they intervened in the referendum to encourage us to vote No? Go find a local charity, or someone you know works for one, and encourage them to open an account.  Better still, offer your services at a community group near you as a volunteer and open one yourself.   Let’s not stop getting mad, but let’s also do more to get even.

 

Find out more about the Anchor Savings Account at https://airdriesavingsbank.com/scrt/