Benny Higgins on planning Scotland’s economic recovery

William Arsn

When Benny Higgins, ex-CEO of Tesco Bank and a former head of retail banking at HBOS, was asked by the First Minister, in the middle of the lockdown, to come up with a plan for Scotland’s economic recovery, he didn’t look too far from home to find his inspiration.

With six children from four marriages ranging in ages from 30 years to ten, plus two teenage stepdaughters aged 16 and 14 with his fifth wife, Higgins only needed to think about their futures, their hopes and dreams, to find his focus and the impetus to act.

And with the urgency that the crisis demanded, he delivered his report as chair of the Advisory Group on Economic Recovery earlier this summer, ahead of deadline and with 25 recommendations focused on investment, training and education, including a headline call for young people to be guaranteed a job paid at the real living wage for two years. This, he said, was a plan to prevent a chasm of inequality that could last for decades.

“I’ve got a 23-year-old who works in marketing but has been at home with me shielding and so I’m acutely conscious of how this is all affecting her age group. Two people close to her, her boyfriend and her best pal, both very clever, had been given graduate jobs in a management scheme and a few weeks ago both were told that the scheme was now not taking anybody on.  And you know, you’re watching this group of people that have just gone into the labour market starting to feel very insecure and disillusioned.

“Then you’ve got the ones that are coming up behind them and I’ve got a 20-year-old at St Andrews doing maths and while she’s got another couple of years before she’ll be on the job market, what do we want that job market to look like by then?

“And then actually, if we’re not careful, this goes way back into the teenage years, that learning loss, then the follow-on into the job market impact…they don’t deserve it, and in these transitions, they are the group of people who are most vulnerable.

“There are no easy choices, but I think the choice we’ve got to make is to make sure that we don’t go for austerity again, that we invest wisely and that we accept that we’re going to have to carry debt forward in the world for a very long time.

“We can’t let this pandemic scar this group of young people for the long term. We can’t afford to lose a generation because, while it may be a cliché, they are the future.

“We’ve got to be focused on what matters most. You know, we’ve got to be clear that education is an important part of what’s going to make them get to the other side. Education is an important part of what Scotland will stand for. It’s always been important but becomes more important, and everything that we could have said before this crisis about education has become even more important.

“And no matter how futile it might feel right now, we’ve also got to make sure that our young people don’t lose ambition, that they realise that getting an education, getting training, does matter, and that by having ambition, real ambition, they will serve their own wellbeing well.

“But we’ve also got to do the things, Mandy, that makes sure that we don’t say ‘be ambitious’ and then we don’t give them an opportunity to be so, because it’s hard to be ambitious if there are no jobs, it’s hard to be ambitious if there isn’t enough investment in education, and the university sector is facing an existential threat from foreign students not being here and so we need to deliver on that too.

“But let’s not pretend, not even for a moment, that realising any of this is going to be easy for any of us. Every choice we make right now is going to be a hard choice.”

At first glance, Higgins appears a strange choice for the left-leaning Nicola Sturgeon to appoint as the architect of a new economic model for Scotland. As a career banker, he might have been more used to the idea of SNP supporters jeering him than cheering him, but while Higgins may have spent his career in the upper echelons of the corporate world, he grew up in the infamous tower blocks of Prospecthill Circus in Toryglen in Glasgow during the 1970s and ‘80s and understands deeply what long-term harm can be done by a lack of education, employment and ambition.

“It’s funny,” he says. “I knew you were going to talk to me about, you know, my early life and my background, and who I am, I suppose, and it did make me reflect a bit on it, think about what it was that gave me a chance to not go down the path that so many of my school pals did, and in a way it’s about luck.

“I think there are two types of luck. There’s the luck that just lands on your lap, you had nothing to do with it, and then there’s the luck that actually if you think about it, it was lucky and lucky is good, but you made your luck work for you, you took advantage of what was happening, but it wasn’t luck that landed in your lap.

“And the first thing about anybody, and I speak for me, but it’s true of anybody, is that the first luck that lands in your lap is having loving parents that care about you. Now, that doesn’t propel you in any particular direction, but it takes away a lot of the risk that people who don’t get that are exposed to. I had that.

“My father went to the same school as me and I always remember when I went for an interview as a young actuary down in London, just around the corner from the Ritz, and somebody was talking to me about how he and his father had gone to the same school, which was Eton or Winchester or something, and  I said, well, I went to the same school as my father too, but it just turned out to be the local school – Holyrood Secondary. It was the largest Catholic secondary school in Europe at the time, which turned out to be lucky for me because he was expelled from the school for hitting a teacher when he was 14 and the year I went to the school it was that same teacher’s last year at the school and he was the assistant head, so I was just paranoid every day for that first year that he would recognise me because I looked the spitting image of my father, but it was such a big school that he had probably had a few people with the name Higgins passing through, so luckily he didn’t realise.

“It was rough and at that time glue sniffing was a big thing and there were all these kids running about with bags of glue and acting weirdly. And obviously there was a lot of drink and violence. There were gangs and you would have stabbings and all that, but the question is, what kept me out of all that?

“Essentially, I had loving parents. We weren’t without our problems, my father had a pretty significant drink problem, so we lived with that, but what’s quite interesting is that in that kind of community, the drink problem without violence seems like you were doing okay. So my mother would actually say to people ‘oh, no, I mean he’s never hit me’, in a way that makes it sound like it’s a good thing. Well, it is a good thing obviously, but actually to even think that you’re living in a world where one of the strengths of your family unit is there’s no violence, albeit there was alcohol and the twistedness that comes with alcohol, but there was no violence in the household, so that was seen as a positive.

“It was a difficult environment and I watched a lot of my friends get into trouble, but aside from having the luck of a good, loving family, the next piece of luck that landed in my lap was going to Holyrood, because it was an amazing school.

“Holyrood was a school that had high standards of education and also high standards of behaviour and values. It was also a big football school and football was a big part of my life.

“I spent my years from 13 to 17 or 18 actually enjoying school, being proud to be part of a big school that attracted a lot of teachers’ kids and just a good mix. And actually, interestingly enough, between me going to the school and my brother, who is three years younger, getting to the point of where he was to go, they had carved Toryglen out of the school, they were steadily getting rid of the areas that were troublesome, and so he went somewhere else and that had its effect on him.

“But, here’s a thing, when I was 13, in my first year at Holyrood, I had a guidance teacher, who was probably just in her 20s, and I remember going to see her and she asked me where I lived and when I said, ‘Prospecthill Circus, in the big double block,’ she asked me why my parents didn’t move. I remember feeling mortally wounded and offended by the thought that she thought my parents were there because they had made a choice.And I’m not blaming the teacher because she might have just been a kid herself – for all I know she could of been 50 because, you know, when you’re a wee boy, everyone’s an adult – but you know, this notion that my parents had a choice, when they actually didn’t, really struck me.

“So, going back to your question about what made a difference, having parents that cared about you and getting a school that gives you a chance to be educated are, I think, part of the answer about all these folks that go astray. Now, you could have good parents that are loving and you could go to a good school, and still go off the rails, that probably happened to some of my peers, and at some point you’ve got to take responsibility for yourself, but if you don’t have the starting points of the family or the education environment, then the odds are really stacked up against you.”

It’s been some journey for Higgins from his childhood in a Glasgow tower block to the first one in his family to go to university, through the corporate world of RBS, HBOS and Tesco to now being at the heart of government with the ear of the First Minister of Scotland on all matters economic, having already advised her on the setting up of the Scottish National Investment Bank.

I ask him what’s his secret.

“I’ve never yielded to pressure to be anything other than I am and I think it’s helped me travel in a way. Oh, don’t get me wrong, it’s been a positive and I wouldn’t change a thing, but it’s resented by some people. It’s resented that I don’t yield to being a typical corporate animal, because I’ve never been that, all that psychobabble crap that people speak, and I’ve worked for a lot of big organisations, and there are so many people in them that it becomes like the Moonies and I can’t be that person.

“But look, I’ve learned a lot and, God, I’ve done so many stupid things, and I’ve done things badly and I’ve hopefully learned by my mistakes as I’ve gone through, but I would be wary of saying to a young person watching me and then saying they want to do it like I have, because don’t underestimate the danger involved. It’s much easier to fall into line.

“You know, I left HBOS just before the financial crash and when I went to see the [executive] search consultants in London, all of these posh people in the West End of London, and when  I was explaining why it [the banking sector] was in such a mess and why I’d fallen out with them and why I’d had to leave, they all said to a person, ‘I think you’ve got to think a bit about your role in this and maybe you’re the problem.’ Now, they all said it in different ways, but they were all telling me I was the problem. Six months later, the financial crash happened…

“So, I was right at the time, but nobody believed me, but then when it happened, they had no choice. If it hadn’t happened, then maybe I would just have drifted along as the person they saw as someone that didn’t fit in. The problem.

 “You know what’s interesting is that every job I’ve had in my life, not once has the search world been involved, I’ve always been picked by people who see something in me that they want. George Mathewson at Royal Bank, Terry Leahy at Tesco, the Duke of Buccleuch at Buccleuch Estates.”

You could now add Nicola Sturgeon to that list. But what is that they see?

“I think they see somebody who is prepared to be themselves and who will try and do the best for them. Someone who has got good values. I value people. I try and do my best by people. I’ll try and do what I’ll say I’ll do, and I’ll try my very, very best. And I’ve got personal pride in achieving it, because that’s what it’s about in the end, personal pride. It’s about getting done what you say you’ll do.

“But for the formal search world, I don’t fall naturally or easily into a category, and so they just find me a bit of a puzzle. I always remember going to a cocktail do in London and somebody was walking down the stairs, and this director of Tesco’s said to the person walking down the stairs, ‘I would like to introduce you to the difficult Mr Higgins.’ I looked at him and he said ‘nah, it’s a joke’ and told me how before he was interviewed by me – I was the then chief executive – to join the board, the search guy had warned him that he would find me very difficult. And the guy didn’t think I was difficult. I don’t think people who are actually able, good people, decent people, find me difficult at all, but in the world I’ve lived in, there’s a lot of people who would say they’ve loved every minute of working with me and there’s other people who think me difficult. But that’s perfectly okay by me.

“It’s interesting, because a few people who grew up near me or in similar circumstances have asked me over the years about what made me who I am, because one of the things that I have always taken personal pride in is trying to succeed.

“And I think one of the things about my dad and I is that I was kind of his blue-eyed boy as I was growing up. I was one of these kids, I did well at school, I was doing well at football, and actually in a working class environment in Glasgow to be pretty good at school and pretty good at football, you’ve kind of cornered the market a wee bit.

“But my dad had a slightly strange approach to it, and I think he lived a little bit vicariously through me and he sort of assumed I would do well. There was an assumption, so therefore the thought of ever going in and telling him I’d failed at something would have been a pretty bad day, but there was never a sense of him ever telling me that. Even the day I walked in after my finals at university, he was reading the paper and he didn’t really even move the paper and he said, ‘How did you get on?’ and I said ‘I got a first’ and he said, ‘Did anybody else?’ and I said I was the only one in my year in maths and he went ‘Aw, that’s good,’ and the paper never moved from his face. I know he was proud, but he just didn’t say it.

“As I started to make my way in the business world, our relationship changed a bit and it was a combination of almost a wee bit jealousy from him but also feeling as though I’d become a wee bit of a traitor. I remember I once I did a business TV programme for Royal Bank and my mum said that dad watched it and said, ‘Aw he’s become management now. He’s not one of us.’ And that’s funny because in the last few weeks I’ve obviously had a bit of publicity about working for the Scottish Government, so there’s loads of people who criticise me for being on Nicola’s team, on the left, but I’m also the executive chairman of Buccleuch Estates and we sold some land recently and we’re trying to sell some more, and I’ve been attacked by people for being establishment. And it’s like, I definitely can’t be both, but I’m actually neither. I’m just me.”

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