Be they burlesque dancers or arms dealers, a bank has no business judging the morality of its clients

Provided your business is legal, they have no right to approve or disapprove

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It was an itsy-bitsy, teeny-weenie, inappropriately fringed bikini that sank the fortunes of a circus troupe this week. In a strange fit of Victorian prudery, the Spanish bank Santander refused to let the Bristol-based Circus Uncertainty open an account with them.

The ringmaster, Joshua Morris, was questioned by the bank about his intentions and later turned down because the circus employed “burlesque and show girls”; it seems that “staff didn’t like the look of costumes worn by some acts”.

Meaning, presumably, the jewel-encrusted bikini.  Unless they were objecting to the stilts. Perhaps the bank thought that the presence of stilts in the show suggested that the circus lacked financial equilibrium (and they were getting a bit above themselves). The bank concluded that it was a “moral problem” they couldn’t be associated with. 

The disappointed acrobats were quick to point out that the contentious bikini is as titillating as their performance gets. Their show doesn’t involve strippers, nudity, erotic dance or hanky-panky with tassels (just as well with all those fire-eaters nearby).

Even if it did, even if they performed stark naked in the ring and had sex on the flying trapeze, the bank has no business handing out moral judgements about the kind of company they graciously condescend to deal with.

Provided your business is legal, they have no right to approve or disapprove of what you do to make money. Whether it’s making hideous ceramic collectibles that offend against public taste or manufacturing explosives which might be used to blow people up, it’s none of the bank’s damn business. 

The arguments about money and morality, decency and filthy lucre have been around for centuries. In his play Major Barbara, Bernard Shaw chewed over the question of whether religion, charities and society itself should be allowed to survive on money from potentially tainted sources. The titular Barbara is a saintly volunteer with the Salvation Army; her father, Andrew, is a millionaire arms manufacturer.

At a crucial juncture, he reveals that Barbara’s East End shelter for the poor is subsidised by a peer who made a fortune in cheap whisky. Does that make his support for the shelter worthless? Should they reject his money because it was made by flogging grog to sinners?

Any bank’s business is to look after your money, to not defraud the Bank of England if they can help it, and to offer good advice about investments. As regards investment, Santander have a pretty lousy track record.

Only four months ago, they were fined £12.5m by the Financial Conduct Authority for giving unsuitable advice to consumers – like, for instance, recommending that a chap of 71 should invest £30,000 in a scheme with a six-year maturity term without assessing whether he might actually be alive to see it mature.

The FCA’s judgement was interestingly worded: they found that “[the bank’s] approach to assessing people’s appetite for risk was inadequate”. That phrase turned up in another Bank vs People case this week, which you can read about in today’s News section. It’s the revelation that HSBC has written to some Muslim organisations to tell them their accounts will be closed because, they say, “The provision of banking service… now falls outside of our risk appetite.”

One organisation is the Finsbury Park Mosque, which used to be run by Abu Hamza. He could legitimately be regarded as an undesirable – he was deported, and convicted of terrorist offences in the US – but since 2005 the mosque has operated as a blameless charity which doesn’t shift money out of the UK in any way that might cause suspicion. Other organisations are charities that support Palestinians and give aid to those living in Gaza.

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The bank bosses strenuously deny that closing down the accounts has anything to do with racial or religious discrimination. But they seem to have given no prior warning that the mosque and the charities might suddenly find themselves without a bank (and with a big question mark over their chances of finding another willing to take them on). All the Muslim community got was that weaselly phrase about how they’re now “falling outside of [sic] our risk appetite”.

But what risks? In the absence of any explanation from HSBC, one can only speculate. Just as Santander are fastidiously reluctant to handle the money of swimwear-clad acrobats, do HSBC mean that it’s just too risky to deal with Muslims en masse because of current Islamophobic tendencies? Apparently not, because that would seem to be a classic case of racial discrimination – and the bank strongly denies such a suggestion.

Is the risk for which they have no appetite the prospect that Israeli-supporting businessmen may withdraw their funds in disapproval of a bank that handles money aimed at pro-Palestine charities? If that was a factor behind this infamous piece of consumer mismanagement, the HSBC bosses should be ashamed of themselves.

As one of the mosque trustees said “We are sure our community will be frustrated, and might consider closing their accounts  with HSBC if the bank doesn’t reopen our account, or at least give us an explanation.” Indeed. And Muslims joining such a boycott should write to HSBC, explaining that “banking with you now falls outside our scumbag appetite”.

Every writer needs a (listed) shed

The apotheosis of the humble shed continues. Not the potting-shed variety, with its garden implements and seed catalogues, but the creative shed whither a whole generation of authors used to retire each day, where masterpieces were created over many years, pipes were smoked and magazines of dubious content discreetly stashed.

Dylan Thomas’s shed at Laugharne has become a much-visited shrine in this, his centenary year. TE Lawrence’s shed at Clouds Hill is now a listed building, as is Bernard Shaw’s tiny writing hut at Ayot St Lawrence. Roald Dahl’s shed in Great Missenden will undoubtedly be next. And it’s just been announced that Henry Williamson’s teensy “moorland cabin” near Georgeham, Devon, has been given Grade-II listed status, possibly the smallest building to be so honoured.

It was bought with the proceeds of Tarka the Otter and was where he wrote his autobiographical 15-volume roman fleuve, A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight from 1915 to 1969. Despite Williamson’s enthusiastically fascist views (he was a big fan of Hitler and a close friend of Oswald Mosley) his writings on the natural world apparently make the hut “a historical monument of repute”.

I myself wrote three books in my old garden shed in Dulwich, but I fear it will probably never be listed. I’m thinking, however, of remaking it as a work of art, displaying the evidence of my emotional state when in the throes of composition. Art lovers in the future will flock to inspect the paraphernalia of literary genius: the knackered hi-fi, the dartboard, inkjet printer, wastepaper bin, cocktail cabinet, empty wine bottles and overflowing ashtrays.

Tracey Emin’s My Bed has just been guaranteed a ten-year installation in Tate Modern, I don’t see why “My Shed” shouldn’t be given a crack at immortality.

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