Unions are right: United we stand, divided we fall

Anthony Browne
Follow Anthony
TRADE unions might have adopted it as their rallying cry, but that doesn’t mean it is untrue. Indeed, it is applicable to much of life: united we stand, and divided we fall.

It is the principle that underpins unions and countries and coalition governments, and failure to appreciate it drove swathes of the globe into the hands of the British Empire (we called it divide and conquer). It is the heat of battle that teases out any weakening divisions, such as a referendum campaign opening up splits in a coalition.

One of the less edifying aspects of the financial crisis is how different sectors and companies sought to pass the blame on others to insulate themselves from opprobrium.

Innocent insurers were noisily angry about being put on the financial services naughty step, protesting they were better than banks; banks that didn’t need bailing out pointed their fingers at the ones that did; private equity – yesterday’s whipping boy – struck a deliberately angelic pose.

It is all a natural reaction, but utterly pointless. It is lost on the public – and indeed politicians. To the extent they notice any of this, they just see members of a suspect gang all blaming each other – proof in their eyes of clear collective guilt (“a plague on all their houses!”).

The Alternative Investment Fund Managers (AIFM) hedge fund directive shows what a useless strategy blaming each other is. The fact that hedge funds had nothing to do with the crisis was irrelevant, and protestations of innocence went unheeded.

What mattered was that EU politicians saw the crisis in wider financial services as a chance to hit the hedgies that they always were itching to have a lunge at. Politics is like that – unfair.

The public too don’t see this as a crisis in one particular sub sector of financial services. It’s a curse on everyone who deals in money.

This isn’t just anger about a few investment bankers in the square mile that brought the economy to a halt. It is anger about pensions misselling, payment protection insurance rackets, dodgy mortgages, credit card charges, PE asset strippers, starving small business of finance, big bonuses, over paid hedge fund managers, casino capitalism, currency speculators, spivs and ….. well, you get it.

The Merlin negotiations are a case in point: retail bank lending to small and medium sized businesses had nothing to do with the crisis, but it has ended up part of the political solution to it.

And that is because the politicians understand the need for a positive narrative about wider financial services that appeals to the public.

We need a change in the public and political mood about the whole sector, not just one part of it.

You’re all in this together. Or as a union baron would advise you - united you stand and divided you fall.

Anthony Browne is a senior adviser to the Mayor of London