Anthony Hilton: Bankers still live in PR-free zone

It used to be the proud boast of bankers that they did not need PR or the press because they had the Treasury in their pockets.

Anthony Hilton
Anthony Hilton

The Government would never dream of passing any legislation without running it past them first and giving them the opportunity to block it if it was likely to do them damage. Conversely, when they wanted something to make their lives easier, they only had to ask.

That, of course, was in the days when Labour was in thrall to the City and our international dominance in financial services was seen universally as a good thing. Those were the days when bankers could do no wrong.

Clearly, the financial crisis and the bailouts changed all that forever, but it is interesting, a year after Lehman's demise, that the fall from grace of the bankers has still not lost its capacity to surprise.

Last Friday's Financial Times carried a letter from the finance ministers of most of the leading nations of Western Europe that argued bankers had to be brought to heel. The politicians were outraged that, having been bailed out by public money, bankers were carrying on as if they had done nothing wrong.

I can think of no industrial sector ever that has prompted such a letter, no sector ever that has fuelled such rage. The bankers do not seem to understand that while their original excesses provoked anger, it is their reverting immediately to their bad old ways that has turned this into a fury. Or if they do understand, they are not prepared to do anything about it that might temper the public mood.

The entire banking industry seems to be a PR-free zone. They still have their in-house teams telling us about cheap mortgages and deals on credit cards. But there seems to be no strategy for engagement in this bigger debate about the bankers' role in society.

If I struggle to remember senior politicians uniting to lambast an industry, I struggle even more to remember any industry that makes no serious effort to defend itself. It is the most astonishing silence. Perhaps the bankers all feel in their hearts that their behaviour really is indefensible.

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