This article was published whilst I was the Member of Parliament for West Dunbartonshire. As I did not stand in the 2010 general election, I am no longer a Member of Parliament. Today, I am a member of the House of Lords. You can read more about me here.
An article about John McFall by Anne Simpson in the Sunday Herald, April 2010, before he stood down as MP and took his seat in the House of Lords. See the original here.
A funny thing happened on the way to meet John McFall.
On that very morning the BBC had broadcast a survey commissioned from the Institute of Credit Management, which revealed that 93% of people were happy with their banks. Some mistake surely. Can our fury with those who propelled us to near ruin have been so quickly turned on its head?
Time to consult the witchfinder general of the banking sector: is the chairman of the Treasury select committee surprised by that result? “Not really because the banks’ frontline staff do a great job,” says Mr McFall. “They haven’t been tarnished by what’s gone on at the top and most customers realise that.”
However, Mr McFall, who steps down from his Westminster career today, is under no illusion about the seething anger those very bank employees share with the rest of us.
Last year, at the height of the financial crisis, he decided that his committee should hit the road to discover what the rank and file were thinking.
“We went to Belfast, Edinburgh, Halifax and Leeds, and in Halifax, a company town, people felt especially raw and betrayed. In fact, things got quite raucous, like an old-fashioned public meeting with an assault on the speakers. But at the end, the most vociferous came up and said: ‘Thanks for being here; thanks for listening.’”
It is a curious thing about political life. A Member of Parliament can hold that job for years and never be known outside his constituency. Then a national calamity impacts on his area of specialism and he turns into a familiar figure everywhere.
Mr McFall, a Labour MP since 1987, resigns from his West Dunbartonshire constituency at the election.
Yet since September 15, 2008, the day when for 48 hours the money meltdown threatened to bring capitalism to its knees, he, via television, has hardly been out of our living rooms, his message to the self-proclaimed masters of the universe often carrying the robust tone of an old-style preacher: “Reflect on the damage you have done to society.” Mr McFall remembers returning to Scotland after grilling the RBS and HBOS senior executives – Sir Fred Goodwin, Sir Tom McKillop, Andy Hornby and Lord Stevenson – and everybody on the plane wanted to talk to him.
“That kind of recognition can be a temptation to get a bit above yourself, but Joan, my wife, is rooted in reality and doesn’t stand for any of that nonsense.”
This intolerance of pretension springs partly from the fact the McFalls, both former teachers, have known one another since adolescence. If their marriage is one of the strongest in politics, some credit lies in their establishing demarcation lines in the early days of raising four children.
Shortly after being elected in 1987, Mr McFall, at home one weekend, was overheard by Joan as he corrected his kids about what to do and not to do.
“And at the end she said: ‘Listen, John, you’ve a choice here. You can continue with your career at Westminster and when you come home, engage with the rest of us, but accept that I’m the boss. Or else you can leave Parliament and be up here all the time in which case you can be the boss’.
“No matter what people say, politics makes big demands on home life and someone has to keep that family show on the road. Joan has done that.”
Our conversation takes place at the McFalls’ home in Dumbarton with its views of Long Crags in the distance. Good luck cards line the sitting room mantelpiece and flowers addressed to Joan from constituents arrive at the door. The couple purchased this house after the birth of their youngest child, Kevin, more than 30 years ago. Mr McFall thinks the price was around £40,000 and says it’s probably worth £220,000 today.
He also has a small flat in Victoria, near to the Commons, and to allow voters to come to their own conclusions about his expenses, he published details of his £164,814 claims for 2008-9 on his website. He has not been ordered to make repayments.
In the process of clearing his Westminster desk, Mr McFall has brought home a special piece of art that has been hanging in his office overlooking Parliament Square: an impressive life drawing by Kevin, who is an artist.
The drawing depicts an abundant female nude, which must have been a terrific ice-breaker at his many crisis meetings. “Well, I wanted people to feel there was a presence when they walked into my office.”
“Aye, there’s certainly a big presence in that frame,” quips Joan. “And it’s definitely not me, by the way. It could be, right enough –everything going south. But it’s definitely not.”
John McFall’s authoritative straight-talking has been notable for cutting through the rigmarole of banking obfuscation. It’s a directness that marked his years as deputy head at Bellarmine Secondary School in Glasgow, and, later, as visiting economics professor at Strathclyde University Business School, a position he now holds at Glasgow University.
The banking community, he says, has been amazingly inept in its messages.
“Instead of saying: ‘We are the authors of the crisis and we are moving forward to solve it’, they protest: ‘Watch what you do with us, or else we’ll fly off to Zug’. Come on guys. Wake up and smell the coffee.”
That hasn’t been Mr McFall’s only colourful retort. He accused the former Northern Rock chief, Adam Applegarth, of “being asleep at the wheel”. And he told Sir John Gieve, former Bank of England deputy governor, that at the height of the crisis he must have been “off the case in the back shop while there was a mugging out front”. But in the public’s mind the most culpable bankers still don’t seem to get it that the days of gorging on bonuses are over.
So, does Mr McFall now think the bail-out of £37 billion of our money was a mistake? There wasn’t an alternative, he says, and that’s the theme of his parting select committee report, Too Big to Fail, Too Important to Ignore, which he hopes will be a legacy document. “I felt those senior RBS executives were sorry for what had happened but not sorry for their part in it, and that’s where they fell down.” To build mutual trust back into the system, Mr McFall has established the Future of Banking commission with Vince Cable, of the Liberal Democrats and Tory David Davis.
“We need structural reform and the bankers, instead of saying: ‘No, no, no’, must start engaging in public debate. If they don’t, and there’s a stand-off, the result will be heavy regulation and inappropriate legislation.”
As for his own future, John McFall, aged 65, is relishing a return to private life. But he would also like to do something in education. It was Mervyn King, though, who suggested he shouldn’t rush into anything. Cautious, amicable advice from the Bank of England governor to that witchfinder of an unloved world.
HIGHS AND LOWS…
Career high: Being chairman of the Treasury select committee since 2001.
Career low: In 1997 I found myself without a ministerial job after helping to forge the development of devolution in Scotland. The then political establishment had passed me over; that was that.
Favourite meal: Spaghetti bolognese cooked by Joan and accompanied by French bread and a bottle of Barolo. The meal of a good European.
Holiday location: We love Italy, Tuscany especially.
Favourite movie: A Beautiful Mind, with Russell Crowe, left. I felt he was done out of the Oscar that year.
Favourite music: Haydn’s string quartet in C major, the Emperor Suite; Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana and Ennio Morricone’s movie scores, including the haunting theme from Once Upon a Time in America.
Last books read: Lords of Finance by Liaquat Ahamed – I’m going back in history to understand today’s crisis; Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice, which is terrific; Robert Harris’s Lustrum and John Le Carre’s A Most Wanted Man.
Best personality trait: Tenacity and intense curiosity about everything.
Worst personality trait: My mind running ahead and giving the impression that I’m not focused.
Best advice received: Woody Allen’s quote that 95% of success is “just turning up”.
Biggest influence: Joan. She’s an excellent weathervane.
Perfect dinner guests: Amartya Sen, Nobel laureate, philosopher and economist; Paul Volcker, former chairman of the US Federal Reserve and now, aged 82, the architect of President Obama’s latest assault on Wall Street; South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Billy Connolly, who’d bring us down to earth. The Archbishop would say grace and, at the end of the meal, we’d let Connolly rip when we got the malt whiskies out.