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Sir Thomas Risk: Governer of the Bank of Sotland hailed for his integrity and rectitude


At a time when the reputation of bankers is even lower than that of politicians, it is appropriate to remember Sir Thomas Risk, Governor of the Bank of Scotland from 1981 to 1991, as a professional of impeccable integrity and an acute sense of rectitude.

When I last talked to him, in March, he was movingly heartbroken about the behaviour of those now in charge of cherished banks, and ashamed of their treatment of customers who had put their trust in them. "Part of the trouble is that in my day the bank bosses had been brought up in good traditions, many of them starting as tellers. Now, too often, the decision makers have been brought in from backgrounds far from conversant with the ethics of banking."

Professor Sir John Shaw, Governor of the Bank of Scotland from 1999 to 2001 and deputy for eight years before that, and therefore in a position to know, recalled to me: "Tom Risk epitomises the end of an era, in the sense that he carried into his business affairs in every action a sense of responsibility for the public interest."

Some surnames are uncannily appropriate to the role in life of their bearers; Risk emerged as the antithesis of his surname. He epitomised the probity and sound judgement of the Scottish financial institutions and particularly, as Chairman of the Edinburgh International Festival Endowment Fund, devoted much time, energy, and expertise to underpinning the arts. He once told me that if he had a hero, it might have been Lorenzo de' Medici.

Thomas Nielson Risk was the son of a Glasgow lawyer and an Aberdonian mother. His father Ralph had won an MC in Flanders in the First World War, and inculcated into Risk – and his brother John, with whom I worked closely as treasurer of the group against Scottish devolution in the late 1970s – that boys could best serve their country in war by using their brains.

Like so many of his generation, Risk's career was interrupted by war. Entering Glasgow University, he joined the University Air Squadron. An exceptional athlete, he represented Glasgow at the University Athletics Championships at Aberdeen in 1941. He finished a close second on the track to George Carstairs, later Professor of Psychiatry at Glasgow, but ahead of the economist Sir Alan Peacock.

Weeks later Risk volunteered for the RAF, showing such aptitude that he was chosen as a pilot to train with the US Navy at Pensacola, Florida. "The Americans' advantage was that they had good methods, but at that time most of them had little experience of war," he recalled. Pensacola gave Risk an easy rapport with the US business and banking leaders whom he was to meet later in life.

Risk was assigned to the "Big Cats", the Catalina flying boats; patrolling the North Atlantic in boats of 16-18 hours' flying time meant that men based at places like Macrihanish had a pretty arduous war. The RAF held on to Risk when many were allowed to go to university, and he served with the RAF Volunteer Reserve. He maintained a lifelong interest in the welfare of RAF personnel, and was a trustee of the RAF Museum at Hendon.

He returned to Glasgow University in 1948, graduating Bachelor of Law in 1949. He could well have been lost to the legal profession, and perhaps to Scotland, when he received a tempting offer to join the newly formed British Overseas Airways Corporation as a pilot. It must have required an iron determination for a young man of quality to forsake all the glamour and allure of the world's developing international air routes for the hard benches of the Scots law classroom at Glasgow University.

After graduation he became a partner in the highly regarded Glasgow law firm of McClay, Murray and Spens, where he remained a partner until 1981. There, he became more interested in the financial sector and was appointed a director of Standard Life in 1965, serving as chairman from 1969-77. Only once, during many occasions and much fine sport in his company, did I see Risk angry. It was when we were passing what used to be the Distillers' headquarters in Edinburgh. The Guinness affair, when a group of the company's executives attempted to manipulate share prices, still rankled: "to think that Saunders gossiped around that I was a 'patsy'!" Immensely courteous, Risk was no patsy.

He had become a director of British Linen Bank in 1968, and was one of the driving forces of the 1971 merger with the Bank of Scotland. Six years later he was appointed a Deputy-Governor and in 1981 was the unanimous choice of his senior colleagues for Governor. Under his chairmanship the Bank established itself as one of the most innovative and successful of the UK banks. Largely due to Risk's leadership and quality of judicious stubbornness, the Bank not only maintained its independence but miraculously achieved a smooth takeover of the significant Barclays shareholding.

A director of Shell from 1982-92, crucial years for North Sea exploration, Risk had an exceedingly authoritative finger in many industrial and commercial pies – director at the thriving Howden Engineering Group from 1971-87, member of the Scottish Industrial Development Board, Chairman of Scottish Financial Enterprise, director of the Bank of Wales, and of the Merchants Trust (1973-1994). For four difficult years under Mrs Thatcher (1987-1991), he was a somewhat thwarted member of the National Economic Development Council.

As honorary president of Glasgow's Citizens Theatre, and as an influence on the affairs of the Edinburgh Festival for half a century, he was strongly supported by his wife Suzanne Eiloart, a most spunky lady whom he first met as a WAAF officer senior to him in Ceylon during a posting in 1945.

Risk was a man of dry humour. He would say wryly, "What a name I have for a central banker!" But with Tom Risk there was no risk.

Thomas Neilson Risk, RAF officer, lawyer and banker: born Glasgow 13 September 1922; Governor, Bank of Scotland 1981-1991; Kt 1984; married 1949 Suzanne Eiloart (died 2011; three sons, and one son deceased); died 27 June 2012.