This was a terribly British crisis. If there is one thing more frightening than a run on a bank, it must be a queue on one.
But we do love a queue. As Northern Rock crumbled, the quiet men and women of Britain strode purposefully to their branch, quietly bellowing their fearsome cry of “I’m awfully sorry to trouble you, but would you mind giving me my money”. They queued on Friday; they queued on Saturday. They didn’t queue on Sunday because they’d promised to put up those shelves and Brian’s mum was coming to tea and anyway who ever heard of a bank opening then. But they were jolly well back there on Monday morning.
A million people may march on Whitehall to defend fox-hunting or Iraqi dictators and it makes no difference, but give us an orderly queue outside a bank and the whole edifice of government indifference crumbles. The more that faceless ministers and bankers assured them everything was all right, the more they smelt a rat. And of course they were right. If everything had really been OK the government would have put up Des Lynam to speak. But there was no Des. There was no one they really trusted. Richard and Judy; Michael Parkinson; they had gone to ground. The government’s communications strategy was a disaster. Voters did not want some grey bloke they have never heard of telling them not to panic. “Who the hell do you think you are, sir? This is England. We’ll damn well panic if we want to. If you’ve anything more to say we’ll be in a queue.”
This is the lesson for the future. If you want the public to trust you there is no point putting up experts. Mervyn King, Callum McCarthy, Alistair Darling – these people have never been on Strictly Come Dancing. We have never seen pictures of their new bathroom suite in Hello – why should we listen to them? Gordon Brown, the architect of the entire regulatory system, was quite right to go into hiding. He knew his comments would make no difference, so why be filmed with a bunch of losers, when he could wait until he could be photographed with Winston Churchill.
If we could not have reassuring faces, then at least some real figures of authority. Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver, Trinny and Susannah – none of them was out telling people to stick with the Rock. There was no one you ever see in Grazia, like that nice Billie Piper. She knows a bit about liquidity crises – she was married to Chris Evans. There was Sir Bobby Robson, but what does he know? He never even got us to the final.
A message from Northern Rock
May I begin by offering our customers my sincere apologies for the anxiety and inconvenience we have caused you – although obviously when I say we, I clearly do not mean us, since this whole business was patently not our fault. Under the extraordinary circumstances it could have happened to anyone even though it actually happened only to us.
I know how worried many of you must have been. I had most of last year’s bonus in a Rock account. You were the lucky ones – I mean, it is not as if I could queue up, could I? Today I want to make it clear to all Northern Rock customers that we are open for business as usual. We remain a well-managed company – which just happened through no fault of its own to run out of cash. We continue to be a safe place for your savings and mortgages, as well as a great place to hang around in the early hours of the morning. The overnight queues you saw on the TV were not just about money; they were also evidence of the community spirit a Rock branch brings to our towns.
The simple fact is that the chancellor has made clear that all existing deposits in Northern Rock are backed by the Bank of England and are totally secure. Bloody hurrah, I wondered when the government would get off its backside and help our well-run company. We are now working day and night to provide you with the service you expect. In Kingston our staff have been buying coffee for those queuing outside. That is the kind of people we are. So why not pop down today and have a drink on Alistair Darling? I must also express my appreciation of our staff, many of whom will be leaving us once the takeover is completed.
Above all I would like to thank all our customers. If you had not shown up in numbers to get your cash we would probably be right in it now. These have been hard times for all of us. But it could be worse – you could have been with Equitable. So stick with us; we still rock and even if we don’t, you’ve still got the taxpayer.
Adam Applegarth, chief executive
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