A few days after David Cameron’s pledge to hold a referendum on the UK’s European Union membership, Roger Gifford, Lord Mayor of London, says the prime minister has his “full support”. “I wouldn’t want to make a political statement about it one way or the other,” he says candidly. “Uncertainty about the relationship of course makes the UK less attractive as a financial centre, but what Cameron actually said was that there was a desire to stay in the EU but that we also need to have a closer look at the nature of the alliance.”
It isn’t a surprising response when you consider that the role of Lord Mayor of London is apolitical – one that differs from London’s other mayor, Boris Johnson, in that its jurisdiction covers only the City of London, the capital’s smallest and oldest borough and one synonymous with the financial services sector. But weeks earlier, Gifford was in a more bullish mood. “Let’s just say that any knocking of the single market would be bad news for the City, and bad news for Britain,” he concedes during our interview. More on that later.
The 57-year-old is the first banker to hold the position of Lord Mayor since the markets crashed. Having a job that requires him to promote the City of London to the rest of the world, at a time when public attitudes to the banking industry are at rock bottom, puts him in an unenviable position.
His first day in office didn’t get off to a good start. In November, pomp and pageantry turned to embarrassment at his inauguration parade, an event that dates to 1215, and, this time around, featured 6,000 participants, 150 horses, scores of City pikemen, 25 marching bands, 18 vintage cars and a tank. First, in a bid to save money, the City of London Corporation cancelled the traditional after-show fireworks display. Then there was a problem with the wooden wheels of the 18th-century horse-drawn carriage Gifford was travelling in, causing it to halt unexpectedly.
Wearing an ermine-trimmed robe and feathered tricorne, Gifford, the 685th Lord Mayor, had to complete the ceremonial parade in an open-top Land Rover as the gold coach was towed away. “Not ideal,” he says, “but I’ve used it to raise smiles in almost every speech since. It was worth every bit of breaking down!”
Gifford’s voice, with plumy stutter, is orotund, and not too dissimilar from London’s other mayor. The comparison with Johnson is one he seems familiar with. “I actually thought of Boris when the carriage broke down!” he says, before revealing that Johnson wrote him a “charming letter” of congratulations when he took office.
Until he passes on the baton next November, Mansion House, a Georgian town palace opposite the Bank of England in central London, will be home to Gifford and his wife Clare, a doctor specialising in blood conditions, along with two of the six children they share from past marriages. Some are away at university, some live down the road, “they come in and out as they please,” says Gifford. “They’re still in awe of this place.”
Even empty, on an overcast winter’s morning, the Egyptian Hall inside Mansion House presents a formidable sight: the gold leaf, the marble statues, the giant Corinthian columns, the stained glass windows. Built in 1758 and large enough to seat 350, the Queen entertained guests here as part of her diamond jubilee celebrations.
“It was built to impress, but it does take a bit of getting used to,” Gifford says, before explaining that things weren’t very hierarchical at SEB, one of Sweden’s largest banks, where he has worked for the past 30 years – until last year – as the head of its UK branch. “At Scandinavian banks, there’s a flat pyramid. At Mansion House, working relationships are more structured.”
To ease the animosity felt by the public toward the financial sector, Gifford explains the theme for his year in office: “The City in Society”.
“Britain is very good at banking. Recently there have been some ghastly mistakes – yes, we buggered up – but the percentage of bankers who have misbehaved is tiny. The City is moving towards a healthier capitalism,” he says, citing that bonus structures at some banks have been replaced by a more balanced mix of fixed and variable pay. “We’re now prepared to criticise ourselves and are becoming more open about the fallacies in our system.”
Warming to his theme, he continues: “We need a more moral approach to capitalism. A healthier capitalism – not tighter regulation, which hinders banks’ ability to lend and support society in the way it is meant to. A strict legal approach – essentially box-ticking – is not the best way to regulate a bank. We need to find a commonsense approach, a way of introducing the moral over the legal.”
Gifford, a trustee on the St Paul’s Cathedral Foundation, concedes that the Occupy movement in 2011 “struck a chord” within the Square Mile. “They were not a well-organised bunch, and I objected to the camp outside St Paul’s – it was a complete mess. But they captured a certain mood at that time, and made me think more about the purpose of money, the economy and capitalism.”
We are speaking in Gifford’s office, where a cabinet holds a card emblazoned with the message “Keep Calm I’m a Banker”. More prominent is the mini-display of all things Scottish: a flag, bottle of whisky and book entitled Scotland: The Autobiography. Born in St Andrews on the east coast of Fife, Gifford went on to study at Trinity College, Oxford. His parents were educators: his father a professor of Spanish at St Andrews University, his mother a teacher at the local girls’ school.
Despite living abroad or in England for more than three decades, Gifford still keeps a house outside Perth. “Scotland is my home,” he says. “The property is very old and is in need of repair. In fact, it’s a dilapidated wreck. But it’s lovely and is surrounded by beautiful woodland, which is important because Clare and I love walking.” Over the past five years, the couple completed the Camino de Santiago route, starting in Le Puy en Velay, south-central France, and ending in Santiago de Compostela, northwestern Spain.
Conversation returns to the likelihood of a British exit from the EU. “The City feels strongly about Europe and the single market – that it is terribly important for the financial services.”
He continues: “We are seeing enormous growth in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore and other Asian economies – and we want to work with them rather than pretending London is going to take business away from them. The City of London is a fantastic place for supporting businesses from all over the world. And London is increasingly becoming Europe’s financial capital – everybody would say that, even the French and the Germans.”
Outside Gifford’s office in the Salon, which provides a large reception area under very expensive looking crystal chandeliers, workers busily prepare a buffet. The Argentine ambassador is expected for lunch. There is a grand piano in one corner of the room, and next to it a four-sided music stand, a present from the Worshipful Company of Musicians, the only City of London livery company devoted to the performing arts. A keen amateur musician, Gifford is chairman of the English Chamber Orchestra, and met Clare while singing in the choir.
At the other end of the Salon, Gifford stops at one of the 17th-century Dutch and Flemish paintings on display. There are 84 in total, each gifted to Mansion House in 1987 by Lord Samuel of Wych Cross, a wealthy property developer. Gifford’s favourite is Gerard ter Borch’s “Portrait of a Man in his Study”. “The man has a recorder and is wearing a lovely pair of bright red knickers! Isn’t it wonderful?”
When his term as Lord Mayor of London comes to an end, will he miss the pomp and the pageantry, the tradition, the paintings and the splendour of Mansion House? “Of course,” he says, “but I have a lot to be getting on with until then.”
“It has to be these!” says Gifford, picking up one of his wooden recorders and giving it a blow. “This is a baroque recorder with a very wide bore. It makes a lot of noise but you need to give it some oomph. There’s so much lovely baroque music that I enjoy playing, especially Bach and Telemann. I took up the recorder when I was a kid and have kept going ever since.”
Gifford will be using some of his time in office to promote the City Music Foundation, a new charity he has founded to support young musicians. “The Foundation will support young musicians early in their professional careers through mentoring, financial support and performance opportunities. I want to draw attention to the fact that London has some of the best music schools in the world.”