Magazine article The Spectator

A Parable of Human Weakness

Magazine article The Spectator

A Parable of Human Weakness

Article excerpt

Making It Happen by Iain Martin Simon & Schuster, £20, pp. 344, ISBN 9781471113543

Fred Goodwin's descent from golden boy of British banking to 'pariah of the decade' would be the stuff of tragedy if the former Royal Bank of Scotland chief were not such a rebarbative personality. A bully to his subordinates, obsessed with the wrong kind of detail, driven by an egoistic urge to trample his enemies, he sounds a lot like another once-prominent Scot who has recently disappeared from public view. Indeed the pair used to enjoy regular 'cosy chats' before it all went horribly wrong. As someone told Iain Martin: 'Gordon and Fred are actually quite similar. Both are quite introverted individuals and that expresses itself in sometimes extremely awkward dealings with others.'

This insight into the character of Fred and the political climate of the mid-2000s is one of many that make Martin's account of the RBS crash a must-read for students of financial folly. A sharp-pencilled accountant rather than a career banker, 'Fred the Shred' was given the helm of RBS in 2000 by his mentor George Mathewson, and drove the integration of what was then still at heart a Scottish retail bank with the larger NatWest, which Mathewson (a more attractive leading player in this story) had just acquired.

The success of that integration gave Goodwin an iron-clad belief in his own ability and destiny. A knighthood followed, and then terrible hubris in 2007 when he outbid Barclays to buy the Dutch group ABN Amro shortly before the great storm broke.

RBS, though he did not acknowledge it, was already stuffed with 'subprime' assets of one sort and another. At ABN Amro, having dispensed with in-depth 'due diligence', he casually acquired a toxic load more.

This was a textbook case of the wrong deal at the wrong time for the wrong reason, at a price RBS shareholders could not afford. But when the bank collapsed a year later, at gigantic cost to the taxpayer, Goodwin fought hard to keep his £700,000-a-year pension entitlement, eventually conceding half of it. His friends in high places said nothing in his defence, he was caught in adultery to add colour to the charge sheet, the knighthood was taken away and the tabloids declared him a public enemy.

Yet what Martin proves conclusively in Making It Happen is that not only did no one try to stop Goodwin from closing the ABN deal, but many people who mattered cheered him to the finish line. …

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