When I first visited Canary Wharf in the early 1990s, I was struck by a set of black-and-white posters in the shopping concourse advertising the Co-op Bank’s ethical banking stance: essentially, no lending to arms, tobacco, gambling or oil companies, or to regimes that disrespected human rights. A cynic might have argued that it was all about virtue signalling (before we learned that phrase) in the sense that no landmine manufacturer or brutal Third World dictator had ever been known to pop into a Co-op branch, ask for a loan and be met with a polite refusal and a copy of the policy. But it was a smart exercise in market positioning that won many new customers at the time — and a bold statement to buy poster sites beneath Canary Wharf’s burgeoning towers of finance.
It was the work of Co-op Bank’s then managing director Terry Thomas (later Lord Thomas of Macclesfield), who died this month. His and another death — that of Tessa Tennant, a passionate advocate for socially responsible investment who launched the City’s first ‘green’ unit trust in 1988 — provide food for thought on the intersection of money and moral codes. The environmentalist Tom Burke, who was Tennant’s first boss at the Green Alliance think tank, told me she was ‘the wild child of the movement’ in her early campaigning days but 30 years later the ideas she espoused have gone completely mainstream. No investment institution or pension fund is without its own ethical policy, and no shareholder-owned company operates without awareness of its wider impact on the planet.
Arguably again, there’s an awful lot of PR spin and self-righteous verbiage in this sphere. And you might think the money world has actually become more amoral, not less, over that period because so much wealth has accrued in bad hands, offshore, held through uncaring nominees, untaxed and very often stolen in the first place from citizens of undemocratic regimes. But that makes it more important, not less, that sincere campaigners should keep trying to raise moral awareness. As Tom Burke says: ‘If you want to change the way the world goes round, first you have to change the way the money goes round.’