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Ian Hislop: When Bankers Were Good, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

Ian Hislop: When Bankers Were Good, BBC Two

Ian Hislop: When Bankers Were Good, BBC Two

In the great age of Victorian philanthropy, bankers weren't all greedy ne'er-do-wells

Ian Hislop is no fan of the modern banker

There were those who laughed and those who spat outrage when Lloyd Blankfein, chairman of Goldman Sachs, said in a press interview that he was simply “doing God’s work”.

Although Blankfein did have the insight to add that if he slit his wrists everyone would cheer, post-crash we would much rather our rich bankers expressed their religiosity by donning hairshirts and crawling on knees through broken glass - or at the very least stopped rewarding themselves so generously for the mess they got us in.

Ian Hislop is no fan of the modern banker and last night he turned his chipper nostalgic gaze to the days when bankers were England’s most generous philanthropists – housing the labouring poor, building schools, hospitals and libraries, reforming prisons and even providing goat shelters. Many of them were from Quaker families – the Barclays, the Lloyds, and the Gurneys from Norwich who didn’t survive the financial crash of the 1860s but from whence sprang Elizabeth Fry (née Gurney), the great prison reformer.  

They learned to tread the fine line between speculative financial investment (good for business) and gambling (the devil’s work)

As non-Anglicans they were barred from the professions and had to square their consciences with money-making. This they did by giving much of it away. They also learned to tread the fine line between speculative financial investment (good for business) and gambling (the devil’s work). Intent on doing God’s work, many probably considered their charitable deeds a necessary tithe, as did the Jewish Natty Rothschild, the first non-Christian to sit in the House of Lords.

There were many, of course, who weren’t particularly religious. That list included George Peabody, whose legacy lives on in the thousands of properties for the working poor that were built from the 1860s. And Angela Burdett-Coutts who, while not actually a banker herself, inherited phenomenal wealth as a member of the Coutts family. Both for the sheer vastness of her riches and for the staggering number of causes she aligned herself to (it was she who was the first patron of the British Goat Society) Burdett-Coutts was utterly peerless. Her good name, however, was sullied in her late sixties when she decided to marry a man who was not only 40 years her junior but, as an American, a foreigner, thereby not only causing a national scandal, but breaking the terms of her inheritance. 

Of course, as Hislop acknowledged, philanthropy on its own is never enough to alleviate poverty. For that we need taxes, an active state and regulation, things that bankers, then and now, have some unaccountable difficulty with. And as for Hislop’s line-up of good’uns, only Burdett-Coutts appeared vaguely interesting as a character. None of them were a patch on the Do-Gooders, Hislop’s previous set of Victorian worthies. This might lead one to ask, not “Are bankers greedy?”, but “Are bankers inherently dull?"


I don't think there is anything at all dull about giving away what you have to give, instead or hoarding it or spending it on more things that you don't need.

The author has very little idea about economics as evidenced by the claim "that we need taxes, an active state and regulation" in order to alleviate poverty. Explain Communist China, Communist Russia, Post-War Europe in that case, where the state has flourished in a size unthinkable even 100 years earlier. There is ever more poverty despite the massive intrusions into our lives and the enormous amount of red-tape. How can the author explain away these inconvenient facts?

I've watch this documentary a few times and it is very enjoyable. @ Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 23/11/2011 - 20:42. I think you'll find that if there was no taxes, an active state or regulations it would be totally disasterous. You say that Ian Hislop has no idea about economics, but you refer to some kind of utopia that, when tried in Cambodia, failed horribly. Also referring to communist Russia and China is idiotic. Poverty in both countries is dramatically different from anything you will see in the UK. Would you prefer to pay no taxes and have no state pension, no benefits, whereby you will need to go to the work house if you do not have a job? Or possibly no regulation, whereby people could do as they see fit. Would you like to have no protection on your savings and allow an 'investment banker' to blow it on a burger van outside a nightclub because he thinks it a good investment? I would suggest thinking before you comment

the problem is my friends, that your taxes are not going where they should be going...and the clear fact is that the current western fraudulant banking system only benefits the very very few, whilst crumbs are dropped from the dinner tables of elites whom bat around trillions of dollars, the very amounts of money that would end poverty, and enough to turn the sahara green with hydroponic grow stations..i am very happy to see the progress that Russia and china have made, and the ideas of a sound meritocracy, being pushed, before the europeans and americans ignite ww3, in-order to is a fear based system which makes me feel very unpatriotic towards my very own country and the west in general, it is operated by satanists, who have created and funded many wars of the last hundred years, including WW1 and its "sequel" (true history is an amazing thing, don't be suckered by mainstream media) soon we shall be free from these tyrannical cabal and live a life of learning based on learning for learning sake's, time to penetrate the fog of lies, and flip the power triangle :).. PS. my fondest respect and love goes out to Lord Blackheaths family, it will not be in vain....from UK

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