Mr Hester says he’s sorry. But what does it mean?


By Kenneth Roy

‘Hester sorry for glitch’ was the BBCs idea of a front-page lead on its news website. A glitch is a minor mishap or technical problem; a snag. This was no glitch, but a major malfunction. But the big news – the sensation of the hour – was that the chief executive of RBS was ‘sorry’ for it – sorry not for the glitch, as the BBC would have it, but for the monumental cock-up which crippled a large chunk of Britain’s banking system.

Stephen Hester being ritualistically and meaninglessly ‘sorry’ is not a story. The story would have been ‘Hester not sorry for glitch’ – that really would have been worth putting on the front page.

The psychology of the headline, variations of which appeared in most newspapers, is worth exploring. It suggests first that someone in a position of great power or responsibility being ‘sorry’ for anything these days is so remarkable that it deserves to be prominently recorded. Next it tells us that Mr Hester being sorry – a tokenistic act which barely registers on the richter scale of penitence – is somehow enough to compensate for the messed-up lives of his customers. And finally it drops a heavy hint that, if anyone’s head rolls across the banking floor, it won’t be the chief executive’s. ‘Sorry’ is code for his PR people drawing a line under the fiasco.

Can we look forward to a chastened Mr Hester apologising to these customers in person? A week-long tour of branches, listening to the aggrieved punters, would be a ‘sorry’ worth having; it would also help to restore the reputation of banking as a personal service. But somehow I doubt that we will be seeing much of Mr Hester in the high street. Too busy at meetings, I expect.

When I called on George Younger in those pre-Goodwin days almost beyond recall, the chairman of the Royal Bank of Scotland (as it was then proudly known) occupied a modest office above a branch. The symbolism had a practical result. On his way out at lunchtime, he would occasionally be accosted by formidable Edinburgh ladies giving him an earful. It was his policy to deal with these complaints personally. George believed that regular face-to-face contact with the customers helped people like him to maintain a sense of reality.

When the bank decided to hide behind an acronym – invariably a bad sign – and move to its glittering ‘village’ on the periphery of Edinburgh, a choice dictated largely by Goodwin’s need to be close to the airport, the human association was lost and the sense of reality with it. But this was merely one symptom of a wider trend in society – the growing detachment of the executive and political classes.

Listen to the tannoy announcements which assail you, the service user, as you arrive at any important railway station. They are not words of greeting or comfort or reassurance.

We saw another example of this detachment earlier this week with ScotRail’s ludicrous ban on alcohol on late-night trains, which will be extended throughout the night when all the trains are cosied up in their sidings, except the Caledonian Sleeper which – hilariously – is exempt from the nae-bevy rule.

Anyone fool enough to travel by rail in Scotland in the late evening is asking for trouble, for by that stage the train is a form of anarchy on wheels. However, many people on these late-night trains, the people that our justice secretary wants to ‘enjoy themselves’, up to a level of inebriation that he has failed to define, are protected to some extent by being in company.

The real victims of ScotRail’s disgraceful failure to police its own transport are the women travelling alone, the children, the elderly and the frail – to say nothing of the rest of us – who mistakenly assume that it is safe to be on a train in Scotland on a Saturday afternoon or early evenng and that, if trouble occurs, as it so often does, there will be staff on board prepared to deal with it. Both these assumptions are fanciful, but they are probably based on a genuine lack of knowledge on the part of the senior management. Like the bankers, they are too divorced from reality to have any grasp of how it is for the poor suckers – ‘the service users’ as we are more formally known. We are really not much liked.

Listen to the tannoy announcements which assail you, the service user, as you arrive at any important railway station. They are not words of greeting or comfort or reassurance. The first announcement will warn you that, if you leave your luggage unattended at any time, ‘it may be destroyed’. The second will alert you that ‘there are CCTV cameras in operation at this station 24 hours a day’. The third will inform you that your train has just been cancelled. The disembodied voice, often that of a woman who sounds as if she has just received news of an unexpected death in the family, will then repeat the repertoire of doom. She is employed to tell a never-ending story of institutionalised mistrust and unexplained incompetence.

No, we are not much liked. It is a pity we have to exist at all. If only there were no service users, the banks and the railways would operate perfectly: the trains would run on time, the banks would be glitch-free. That is why when someone like Mr Hester says he is sorry, it is major breaking news: it is a concession, albeit the tiniest one, to a pushed-around public.

By Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review