This article was written by Ric Lander.
“Make It Happen” was an RBS slogan that meant far more than they intended. In the mid-2000s activists had spent years of fighting oil spills, pipelines and mega coal mines and the damage they cause. When they began to look deeper into how these projects came about they found that, more often than not, it was banks like RBS who played king maker.
Back in 2007 RBS boasted “Whether your oil and gas finance requirements are straightforward or complex, RBS will bring its broad and deep experience of the hydrocarbon sector to bear on them”, and “the thing that makes us different is that we are a truly oil and gas bank.” In case you missed the point, they promoted their services on the website www.TheOilAndGasBank.com.
The bank was intimately involved expanding the fossil fuel industry and a report by the group Platform found that RBS was responsible for considerably more carbon emissions than the whole of Scotland.
A campaign began and in Autumn 2007 student meddled with RBS’ freshers week promotions and a day of action was called with 36 actions taking place, including in Bristol where ‘polar bears’ were arrested blocking access to RBS’ corporate HQ and in Edinburgh where the doors of six separate RBS branches were glued shut. In the Spring of ’08 students from across the UK converged on RBS’ glitzy annual general meeting to put “RBS on trial” for their climate crimes and began getting motions passed to force their student unions to stop banking with RBS and Natwest, and to pressure their universities to follow suit, with considerable success.
As it turned out, all of this was something of a forward. The climate crisis wasn’t the only catastrophe RBS had been fuelling. Investments in sub-prime mortgages and a series of wildly foolish takeovers had left the Bank, Europe’s second largest, deeply in debt and on the brink of default. CEO Fred Goodwin made the call to the Chancellor and within weeks the UK Government had agreed to buy most of the bank for £20 billion – the first of many historically-huge handouts.
RBS had become political, and campaigners were not ones to waste a crisis.
Direct action group Climate Camp organised camps in the streets during 2009’s G20 meeting and on London’s Blackheath targeting the financial industry for fuelling climate change. In 2010 Climate Camp came to Edinburgh with hundreds of activists camping on the back lawn of RBS’ vast global headquarters. Mass invasions of the offices were rebuffed by heavy policing, but protests made trouble for RBS elsewhere, including when three were arrested for super-gluing themselves to block entry to a branch.
The Government bail-out opened the door for legal action, and campaigners alleged that in buying the distinctly oily RBS the Treasury may have broken its own rules about buying assets which align with the Government’s objectives. A Judicial Review was attempted to challenge the Government’s decision. When it passed through the initial stages the case made the front pages of the Financial Times, although the Government eventually came out unscathed, cementing their position of leaving RBS at ‘arms length’.
AGMs became something of an annual activity with meetings of the ailing bank used to draw attention to specific damaging projects which RBS funded such as the Alberta tar sands and Appalachian mountain-top removal.
Over time funding for these projects has been wound down by RBS. In 2016, alongside a global downturn in oil and coal prices and RBS’ general withdrawal from overseas investment banking, RBS announced its stake in fossil fuels had been dramatically cut and it pledged to end project finance for coal, arctic oil ad the tar sands – a major campaign victory.
But perhaps more important than policy changes at RBS was the way in which the campaign encouraged UK environmental and social justice organisations to think more critically about finance and the economy.
People & Planet launched a UK campaign for universities to go fossil free in 2013, and scored their first victory when Glasgow University pledged to divest in 2014. At time of writing almost half of the UK’s universities have now divested, a dazzling achievement. Returning to high-street banks, People & Planet called on Barclays go fossil free, pushing them to sell their shares in UK fracking companies and taking the brave step to storm the stage of their 2018 AGM.
Following in their wake Platform, 350 and Friends of the Earth launched a campaign for local council pensions to divest, with groups rising up across the UK to take on the campaign. Walthamstow in London was the first to divest in 2016.
Friends of the Earth Scotland’s “Just Banking” conference in 2012 brought speakers from trade unions to the Bank of England to offered remedies, including Move Your Money’s account switching campaign.
Scotland’s national debate on independence brought more radical proposals for reform to light, and Common Weal and Friends of the Earth Scotland both pushed the agenda calling for RBS to be broken up and reformed into a network of ‘People’s Banks’. This small alliance got backing from UK Labour and later the SNP for setting up a new national public bank, which, in the shadow of the UK Government’s privatisation of the Green Investment Bank, got Scottish Government Backing in 2017. Public control of the banks is now firmly back in the political mainstream.
There is still much to do to see UK banking become a positive force in the battle to resist the worst impacts of the climate crisis. It is also sobering to reflect that RBS – a colossal mess of a bank – which almost broke the UK economy completely – is still essentially unreformed and subject to much the same regulatory regime even after a decade in public ownership. The bailout offered climate campaigners an opportunity to reform RBS, but it required the UK Government to live up to its responsibilities as owners, and neither Brown, Cameron or May’s Governments have done so. The system remains on the brink of crisis.
In 2016 former Governor of the Bank of England Mervyn King warned: “Without reform of the financial system, another crisis is certain… Only a fundamental rethink of how we, as a society, organise our system of money and banking will prevent a repetition of the crisis that we experienced in 2008.” And that was before Brexit.
As long as UK banks remain so concentrated, so profiteering and so irresponsible campaigners will need to win reform before we can achieve all those other things we need for a healthy and fair future. And yet there is much to remain hopeful about. Occupations, theatre, research, lobbying, sabotage, solidarity, bold visions and coalition compromises: the creativity spawned within the campaign schooled a generation of activists in almost every campaigning tool in the box. It made new connections between UK campaigners and those defending their land from fossil fuels around the world. It provided a focus for activist anger about the banking crisis and the cuts. And it has spawned inspiring divestment campaigns which may prove the best hope we have of breaking the power that fossil fuels hold over our future.
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