Angela Knight: 'We're natural hate figures. but that really isn't fair'
The boss of the British Bankers' Association tells James Moore why she is right to defend an unpopular cause
Monday 11 October 2010
Angela Knight has a talent for defending horribly unpopular causes. The chief executive of the British Bankers Association (BBA) has become a media-fixture as a rare advocate for an industry that sometimes seems indefensible. She was at it again last week, rounding on EU plans to crack down on bonuses, and she makes no apology for doing so.
"A solution agreed at the EU is not an international solution unless it is also agreed with the other G20 members," she says. "We need to look across the Atlantic to the US, and east towards Asia, to ensure changes are imposed sensibly everywhere. If they are not, then the result will be significant difficulties for businesses in Europe and for the many hundreds of thousands of jobs that depend on the financial services industry."
Unpopular causes, it seems, are Knight's thing: for the final two years of her political career she was a Treasury minister in John Major's despised government. And before she entered Parliament, she was a Tory councillor in what was known as the socialist republic of Sheffield.
"Politics does assist you in difficult situations. You get used to hostility," she says when I ask if this was useful preparation for where she is now.
"When I got elected to Parliament, I found it difficult to be speaking in a situation where people actually listened to you. I'd come from one where their whole objective when you were making a speech was to find ways to shut you up, from pulling away your microphone to simply shouting over you. So moving to an environment where people were prepared to listen was extraordinary. I suppose I'm taking a long time to say that the blooding of my younger years has helped in the difficult scenario we have found ourselves in."
We meet in her office on a Friday lunchtime between two of the many meetings that make up a hectic scheduled in which a 12-hour day is considered "a short one for me". It's an appealingly untidy space, with papers strewn here and there, humanised by a large, bright-yellow, cuddly duck she calls Quackers. "Oh dear, we should have got rid of that before this," she says to her PR man, when I point it out. "I won him in a raffle," she says. "Stroking him is as good as having a worry ball."
Perhaps it isn't surprising that Knight needs a worry ball. She took over at the BBA on 1 April 2007, just a few months before all hell broke loose. She's been running at breakneck speed just to keep up ever since.
So how's it going now? "There are so many things to keep up with, such as the Independent Banking Commission [which may break them up], regulatory changes, bank lending, things like that. Then we have the big international piste and what Europe decides to do."
Not that this is a complaint: "I have a tremendously engaging job. The banking industry has to say: 'Look this is the way forward. We accept our responsibilities but let's see how we can put things back together.' "
I'm interested in how she views her old party now: While many of the slings and arrows fired at bankers have come from the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives haven't exactly been shy. It was their leader, David Cameron, who said financiers should face "a day of reckoning" for the disasters of the past three years, though that was while he was in opposition.
Some would argue the Tories have been tougher than Labour. The previous government imposed a one-off tax on bankers' bonuses but never contemplated a banking commission or a permanent levy. The usually Euro-sceptic Tories were hardly falling over themselves to attack Friday's EU plans for a bonus crackdown either. "We have got hard rhetoric, it's true," says Knight. "But in some respects, the past government had a position to defend. If you're defending the actions you take it's different to if you're the newcomers saying we're going to review what's been done and look at our own measures.
"If the choice was to have a banking commission or not to have a banking commission, obviously we would prefer not to have one. But if we are going to question the whole way in which banking operates in the UK, it is better done in a dispassionate, independent way that will not be subject to the 'oh yes they should', 'oh no they shouldn't' rhetoric which is what has been running and running."
Knight believes that bankers should be defended. And it's usually she who has to do it. Plenty of multi-millionaire executives, in offices far better appointed than her's, are happy to let her take the flack.
She disagrees: "No that's not fair. I actually think that, you know, maybe when it was very hot.... But they have businesses to run, frankly. Now you do see the bank CEOs and their chairmen out discussing and explaining. They're on public platforms they take part in sessions, they appear in the media. Sometimes there are things, though, which I have to do. I have no criticism."
Much of what she says is unwelcome, she admits, "But that doesn't make it wrong. The banking industry may be responsible for banking, but it didn't run the country. It didn't spend huge amounts of taxpayers money on the assumption it would carry on coming in forever. We weren't in charge of the regulator. We didn't make monetary policy. If you try to park it all on the banks, it might be good in terms of blame, we are natural hate figures. But you're not going to make good policy. Someone has to say that.
"I just want to ensure that this country does not lose something so valuable to it simply because some of its members have got into difficulty, some but by no means all."
So synonymous has Knight become with the bankers' cause, it seems that she's been in post for a lot longer than three years. When I try to tease her into talking about the future, though, she refuses. Speculation linking her to a return to Government, perhaps from the House of Lords, draws no response.
"I want to see the banks through a difficult period. I want to see them into clear water," she says. That might take quite a while. "Oh I prefer to be an optimist. I think things are getting better. I don't pretend that things are easy. The recession is very difficult. There's the eurozone debt problems. That does not meant that we haven't actually managed to get through some of the tricky spaces. We [UK banks] have recapitalised well. There's a lot of that which doesn't show above the waterline, which is standing in a good state."
Angela Knight is a formidable operator, and it strikes me that life wouldn't be all that pleasant on the the wrong side of her. On the other hand, she is at least a fully paid up member of the human race, in contrast to the way some of her members appear. She's a good conversationalist. She laughs a lot. She doesn't take herself too seriously. When she talks about her children – one of whom is 24 and "trying to work out what to do" the other 22 and running a diving company for young people on gap years called "Dive the Gap" – she beams.
"I always wonder," she says in an aside, "when they were smaller whether I should have done it a different way. Life always happens around you, though. We do manage, the three of us [she is divorced], to have a proper holiday every year. We go skiing together. They're much better than me, but I'm quite fast, I just go straight down the run and find that when I've arrived I'm 30 seconds behind them."
Skiing at 60? This is a woman who seems to live her life at 100mph, with twice as much energy as many people half her age. Does she ever, though, get up in the morning and think, "I just don't want to do this"?
"Everyone feels that every now and again. But I put my make up on, I put my perfume on, and I say: 'Bugger the lot of them; I'm doing to do this.' Oh dear, don't say I said that.
"I certainly don't feel that I've run out of steam yet," she adds. Not by a long shot. The banking industry, at least, should be thankful.
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