James Ashton: Barclays' new chief may be old but he skips a generation

  • @mrjamesashton

During a summer when we are celebrating the world's fastest, fittest and strongest, Barclays has chosen to pursue another superlative in its appointment of Sir David Walker as chairman: the oldest. At 72, few thought Sir David, a grandee whose CV drips with establishment connections, had it in him. After all, fixing Barclays — its business, culture and reputation — is not for the faint hearted.

The former chairman of Morgan Stanley and ex-deputy chairman of Lloyds TSB may tick boxes that cover requisite experience in investment and retail banking. But anyone whose career has segued into writing government reports, such as Sir David's tomes on the private-equity industry and banks' corporate governance, is sending out their own signal that their days of active boardroom service are winding down. It is hard for this appointment to look anything but a quick fix instead of a long-term solution to Barclays' woes.

But should we get so exercised about a simple number? Anti-ageism campaigners are fond of reminding us that Sir Winston Churchill was the grand old age of 77 the second time he became prime minister. Even now, the business secretary, Vince Cable, is being talked of as a future Chancellor or Liberal Democrat leader although he is in his 70th year.

They take a different view in Asia, where gravitas and grey hair is worshipped. Veteran banker Lord Jacob Rothschild, 76 and well versed in taking the long view, was mobbed by young Chinese entrepreneurs at a recent networking breakfast.

Sir David is little older than Sir Win Bischoff who steadied the ship at state-backed Lloyds when he was appointed chairman in 2009 at the age of 68. For a change, the trouble lies not with Barclays, but with the nature and complexity of the roles thrown up by a casting out of the old banking order.

There are few that haven't been tarnished by events of the past five years. It means that until the City can breed bankers that are trusted in equal measure by investors and society, this industry is being forced to skip a generation, in the other direction.

What will Thames do for trade after tourists leave?

An evening aboard the tall ship Thalassa with a gaggle of media executives cast London in a new light. Not only was there a truly traffic-stopping moment, when Tower Bridge was lifted to let the vessel sail beneath the Olympic rings, but it was an opportunity to reflect on what became of the River Thames as a trade route.

Setting off from Woolwich Arsenal, beyond the Thames Barrier, there is still plenty of evidence of the capital's industrial past. The Tate & Lyle logo still stands proud over the 134-year-old refinery at Silvertown, even though the factory has been in American ownership for a while now, and is suffering at the hands of short-sighted European Commission buying tariffs designed to tackle a worldwide sugar shortage.

The further you go upstream, it is tourism, not trade, that rules the waves. Of course, business leaders have been trying to boost both during the course of the Olympics.

The trip begged a number of questions. Who, other than the hardiest visitors will venture out to North Greenwich and the Royal Docks to take a trip on the new cable car sponsored by the Emirates airline? This could be a bigger folly than anything that has been erected in the Olympic Park this summer.

Tourists can now tramp over the top of it, but when will the O2 (or North Greenwich Arena, when shorn of its sponsored name to comply with Olympics rules) be treated to a wash and brush-up?

Appearances can be deceptive though. Further on, where Old Billingsgate has left its past as a fish market long behind it to become one of London's biggest events spaces, it looked as though the French, who have made it their base for the duration of the Games, were outpartying the Jamaicans. I know they did well in the pool, but surely not?.