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Icarus, rewritten for our time,
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This review is from: Shredded: Inside RBS, the Bank That Broke Britain (Hardcover)
Ian Fraser has done us a tremendous service. His 500 page examination of The Royal Bank of Scotland is a master-class of journalistic endeavour. He combines painstaking research, an indefatigable appetite to track down and interview the protagonists and the hacks gift of a well turned phrase to keep the reader engaged. This could have been an academic, desiccated dissection of finance and governance, a tome that might be found in ten years time in the banking and finance section of a City bookshop. It deserves no such fate; it should be presented in the biography section for that is what Fraser has delivered: nothing less than the biography of a bank, charting its rise and spectacular fall. This is the tale of Icarus rewritten for the acolytes of Mammon.
Fraser is a financial journalist of considerable experience and starts with the advantage of knowing his subject better than most having covered finance and RBS for years. Based in the relatively small and tightly knit community that is Edinburgh Fraser has absorbed the story of RBS steadily from the first flickering on the seismograph when HSBC considered buying the tiny UK bank to the needle-shaking purchase of NatWest that catapulted the bank into our collective consciousness.
I was in Hong Kong at the time of that bid and we saw it as nothing more than one Scottish bank seeking out another Scottish bank as part of a growing, global expansion. I was at NatWest too when RBS bought and effectively buried the old school of banking that had been on notice since Big Bang and the fundamental realignment of the financial sector. From that moment I became aware of, at times was a witness to, the many episodes that Fraser documents in this ultimately tragic tale.
Fred Goodwin was a pain to work for, he did scare the bejesus out of people, he didn't understand investment banking and the private jet was, as described in the book, a source of much inter-executive angst. Fraser catalogues all these points and dozens more with the authority of 120 or so interviews with staff, past and present.
This is more than a book about Goodwin - once dubbed the palest CEO in the Footsie 100, not quite Humanitarian of the Year but certainly more accurate - it is a book that reaches out and considers with equal rigour the role of politicians and regulators, all of whom as Fraser says in his concluding chapter were culpable. They should all hang their heads in shame; they sought an easy life by accepting too much at face value and forgetting their duty of critical thinking. As Fraser tells it the fall of RBS is as much a reflection of the qualities and values of our society as it is the failure of a tall, thin Paisley-born accountant.