July 21, 2023

It began, as crises tend to, with the promise of convenience. Say you will make someone’s life easier, at no apparent cost to them, and you will win their attention. Fulfil that promise, and you will win their favour. Over time, you will win their loyalty; and before long, they will be your soldier.

Cast your eyes elsewhere and witness another phenomenon. It is to do with how we decide what to think, and it is founded on the idea that no good can come from someone we deem as bad. This sinner commands scant sympathy, no matter their plight. Whatever they say is right is actually wrong, and whatever they say is wrong is actually right. We can set our compass by them.

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Now look in a third place, where we find motives and incentives. Here, one is rewarded for coming to swift and certain judgments, no matter how flimsy the evidence. The prizes are symbols of affection and words of praise and a quantifiable increase in influence.

It may seem laughable to cast the above as context for a dispute between a man and his bank, but various currents in contemporary culture have swept us to this point. If only they would leave us here, we could view the episode as trivial, or mildly vexing or wryly amusing. But these currents are strong, and they will not leave us here, and they may destroy something.

Much discussion surrounding the matter of Nigel Farage and Coutts has been rather like a curious game of ping-pong, one played without a net or even a table. One says this, one says that, and back and forth it all goes. But one has been able to say pretty much anything, because the known facts have been so scarce. Hit the ball wherever you like and your opponent will return it; it can never be called out.

Farage has at least now provided some documentation to support his claims. Minutes from the bank’s “wealth reputational risk committee” stated it “did not think continuing to bank NF [Nigel Farage] was compatible with Coutts given his publicly-stated views that were at odds with our position as an inclusive organisation.” It added: “This was not a political decision but one centred around inclusivity and purpose.”

Later, faced with the resulting ire, it responded by clarifying: “It is not Coutts’s policy to close customer accounts solely on the basis of legally held political and personal views. Decisions to close an account are not taken lightly and involve a number of factors including commercial viability, reputational considerations, and legal and regulatory requirements.” Complicating the issue is an apparent offer from Coutts for Farage to bank with its parent company NatWest. So Farage’s claims may not have been entirely debunked, but neither has he been entirely debanked.

Yet there is surely a question over those minutes, and what they mean in a broader sense. Despite everything, it seems our trust in banks has never been greater. We are only a few years on from the Great Crash and resulting bailouts, and yet the way we pay is becoming vastly more dependent upon them. The drift towards a cashless society and an enormous increase in online transactions have left us at their mercy. Stashes of cash, privately held, are of diminishing use. Living without a bank account is becoming impossible.

We may well think it fine for certain companies and institutions to proclaim certain ethical principles; we may even find it admirable, and give them our custom. And we would expect them to conduct business in accordance with these principles: if their actions told a different story, we might then call them hypocrites. But the more essential the service, the more concerning this becomes.

Coutts may not be an essential service, but normal high-street banks are. And it is easy to imagine such a business boasting of being “inclusive” and driven by “purpose”, a term used in boardrooms today meaning, according to one definition, a desire to be a force for “positive change” in society. In denying its services to someone who failed to comply with its “values”, it could justify itself not only commercially, but morally.

This principle extends into a form of investing known as ESG (Environmental, social, and corporate governance), which, like “purpose”, looks beyond the financial: it encourages the direction of money towards enterprises that the investor believes are moral, and away from those the investor believes are immoral. This may be laudable, and is doubtless well-intentioned. And yet.

The problem is that these are ideologies that fail to realise they are ideologies. To many of their proponents, it is just a matter of being kind, doing good, keeping on the right side of history, and making life better for more people. Their virtue is self-evident, so anyone who opposes them is a creature of vice and must be resisted. And thus we find ourselves in a strange place, where the nice people are coercing us into becoming more like them.

I should be happy about this. I am a Guardian-reading, Remain-voting, lockdown-supporting, double-Covid-vax-boosted Anglican who defends the BBC and wore masks more often than was strictly required during the pandemic. But it is hard to ignore the stirrings of a certain polite and cuddly totalitarianism (it would obviously laugh at the word and create mocking memes, rather than reflect upon itself meaningfully). There are other noxious forces in the world, too — not least a kind of nihilism that seems to be emanating from Russia — and these may be equally destructive, but these tend to be easier for us to identify and thus resist. The evil that wears our own clothes is more able to do its work unhindered.

And here is where it affects us all, because our economy and way of life more generally will struggle to survive if these currents continue on their path. At its best, the free market is democratic: the free market is obviously ideological and flawed in itself, but in principle it treats everyone the same, regardless of their political views. A financial system that favours certain views over others is obviously a threat to this. And who is to say whether those views currently in fashion will be viewed so favourably in years to come? The progressive Left once advocated for eugenics, after all; which of today’s right-on beliefs will be damned by tomorrow?

Farage versus Coutts, then, is a diverting tale that has added to the gaiety of at least some of the nation. Cashlessness, philosophical shallowness and the warping effect of social media have played their part. But this story feels like a staging post on the way to somewhere else. Sometimes, revolutions come in the strangest ways. A bank for the super-rich may have just accelerated the demise of capitalism.