Benny Higgins on planning Scotland’s financial restoration

When Benny Higgins, ex-CEO of Tesco Financial institution and a former head of retail banking at HBOS, was requested by the First Minister, in the course of the lockdown, to provide you with a plan for Scotland’s financial restoration, he didn’t look too removed from dwelling to search out his inspiration.

With six kids from 4 marriages ranging in ages from 30 years to 10, plus two teenage stepdaughters aged 16 and 14 along with his fifth spouse, Higgins solely wanted to consider their futures, their hopes and desires, to search out his focus and the impetus to behave.

And with the urgency that the disaster demanded, he delivered his report as chair of the Advisory Group on Financial Restoration earlier this summer season, forward of deadline and with 25 suggestions centered on funding, coaching and training, together with a headline name for younger individuals to be assured a job paid at the actual dwelling wage for 2 years. This, he stated, was a plan to forestall a chasm of inequality that would final for many years.

“I’ve obtained a 23-year-old who works in advertising however has been at dwelling with me shielding and so I’m acutely aware of how that is all affecting her age group. Two individuals near her, her boyfriend and her finest pal, each very intelligent, had been given graduate jobs in a administration scheme and some weeks in the past each had been instructed that the scheme was no longer taking anyone on.  And you recognize, you’re watching this group of people who have simply gone into the labour market beginning to really feel very insecure and disillusioned.

“You then’ve obtained those which can be developing behind them and I’ve obtained a 20-year-old at St Andrews doing maths and whereas she’s obtained one other couple of years earlier than she’ll be on the job market, what do we would like that job market to appear to be by then?

“After which really, if we’re not cautious, this goes means again into the teenage years, that studying loss, then the follow-on into the job market impression…they don’t deserve it, and in these transitions, they’re the group of people who find themselves most weak.

“There aren’t any straightforward selections, however I feel the selection we’ve obtained to make is to make it possible for we don’t go for austerity once more, that we make investments properly and that we settle for that we’re going to have to hold debt ahead on the earth for a really very long time.

“We are able to’t let this pandemic scar this group of younger individuals for the long run. We are able to’t afford to lose a era as a result of, whereas it could be a cliché, they’re the long run.

“We’ve obtained to be centered on what issues most. You understand, we’ve obtained to be clear that training is a crucial a part of what’s going to make them get to the opposite facet. Training is a crucial a part of what Scotland will stand for. It’s at all times been necessary however turns into extra necessary, and every little thing that we may have stated earlier than this disaster about training has change into much more necessary.

“And irrespective of how futile it would really feel proper now, we’ve additionally obtained to make it possible for our younger individuals don’t lose ambition, that they realise that getting an training, getting coaching, does matter, and that by having ambition, actual ambition, they’ll serve their very own wellbeing nicely.

“However we’ve additionally obtained to do the issues, Mandy, that makes positive that we don’t say ‘be bold’ after which we don’t give them a chance to be so, as a result of it’s laborious to be bold if there aren’t any jobs, it’s laborious to be bold if there isn’t sufficient funding in training, and the college sector is going through an existential risk from international college students not being right here and so we have to ship on that too.

“However let’s not fake, not even for a second, that realising any of that is going to be straightforward for any of us. Each selection we make proper now could be going to be a tough selection.”

At first look, Higgins seems an odd selection for the left-leaning Nicola Sturgeon to nominate because the architect of a brand new financial mannequin for Scotland. As a profession banker, he may need been extra used to the concept of SNP supporters jeering him than cheering him, however whereas Higgins might have spent his profession within the higher echelons of the company world, he grew up within the notorious tower blocks of Prospecthill Circus in Toryglen in Glasgow throughout the Nineteen Seventies and ‘80s and understands deeply what long-term hurt might be completed by a scarcity of training, employment and ambition.

“It’s humorous,” he says. “I knew you had been going to speak to me about, you recognize, my youth and my background, and who I’m, I suppose, and it did make me replicate a bit on it, take into consideration what it was that gave me an opportunity to not go down the trail that so lots of my college buddies did, and in a means it’s about luck.

“I feel there are two varieties of luck. There’s the luck that simply lands in your lap, you had nothing to do with it, after which there’s the luck that really if you consider it, it was fortunate and fortunate is nice, however you made your luck give you the results you want, you took benefit of what was taking place, however it wasn’t luck that landed in your lap.

“And the very first thing about anyone, and I converse for me, however it’s true of anyone, is that the primary luck that lands in your lap is having loving mother and father that care about you. Now, that doesn’t propel you in any explicit route, however it takes away a variety of the danger that individuals who don’t get which can be uncovered to. I had that.

“My father went to the identical college as me and I at all times keep in mind after I went for an interview as a younger actuary down in London, simply across the nook from the Ritz, and someone was speaking to me about how he and his father had gone to the identical college, which was Eton or Winchester or one thing, and  I stated, nicely, I went to the identical college as my father too, however it simply turned out to be the native college – Holyrood Secondary. It was the biggest Catholic secondary college in Europe on the time, which turned out to be fortunate for me as a result of he was expelled from the college for hitting a instructor when he was 14 and the yr I went to the college it was that very same instructor’s final yr on the college and he was the assistant head, so I used to be simply paranoid day-after-day for that first yr that he would recognise me as a result of I regarded the spitting picture of my father, however it was such a giant college that he had in all probability had a couple of individuals with the title Higgins passing by way of, so fortunately he didn’t realise.

“It was tough and at the moment glue sniffing was a giant factor and there have been all these children working about with luggage of glue and performing weirdly. And clearly there was a variety of drink and violence. There have been gangs and you’ll have stabbings and all that, however the query is, what stored me out of all that?

“Basically, I had loving mother and father. We weren’t with out our issues, my father had a reasonably vital drink downside, so we lived with that, however what’s fairly fascinating is that in that form of neighborhood, the drink downside with out violence looks like you had been doing okay. So my mom would really say to individuals ‘oh, no, I imply he’s by no means hit me’, in a means that makes it sound prefer it’s a great factor. Nicely, it’s a good factor clearly, however really to even suppose that you simply’re dwelling in a world the place one of many strengths of your loved ones unit is there’s no violence, albeit there was alcohol and the twistedness that comes with alcohol, however there was no violence within the family, in order that was seen as a optimistic.

“It was a troublesome atmosphere and I watched a variety of my mates get into hassle, however except for having the luck of a great, loving household, the subsequent piece of luck that landed in my lap was going to Holyrood, as a result of it was a tremendous college.

“Holyrood was a faculty that had excessive requirements of training and likewise excessive requirements of behaviour and values. It was additionally a giant soccer college and soccer was a giant a part of my life.

“I spent my years from 13 to 17 or 18 really having fun with college, being proud to be a part of a giant college that attracted a variety of lecturers’ children and only a good combine. And truly, curiously sufficient, between me going to the college and my brother, who’s three years youthful, attending to the purpose of the place he was to go, they’d carved Toryglen out of the college, they had been steadily eliminating the areas that had been troublesome, and so he went some other place and that had its impact on him.

“However, right here’s a factor, after I was 13, in my first yr at Holyrood, I had a steering instructor, who was in all probability simply in her 20s, and I keep in mind going to see her and he or she requested me the place I lived and after I stated, ‘Prospecthill Circus, within the massive double block,’ she requested me why my mother and father didn’t transfer. I keep in mind feeling mortally wounded and offended by the thought that she thought my mother and father had been there as a result of they’d made a selection.And I’m not blaming the instructor as a result of she may need simply been a child herself – for all I do know she may of been 50 as a result of, you recognize, whenever you’re a wee boy, everybody’s an grownup – however you recognize, this notion that my mother and father had a selection, after they really didn’t, actually struck me.

“So, going again to your query about what made a distinction, having mother and father that cared about you and getting a faculty that provides you an opportunity to be educated are, I feel, a part of the reply about all these people that go astray. Now, you would have good mother and father which can be loving and you would go to a great college, and nonetheless go off the rails, that in all probability occurred to a few of my friends, and in some unspecified time in the future you’ve obtained to take accountability for your self, however if you happen to don’t have the beginning factors of the household or the training atmosphere, then the percentages are actually stacked up in opposition to you.”

It’s been some journey for Higgins from his childhood in a Glasgow tower block to the primary one in his household to go to college, by way of the company world of RBS, HBOS and Tesco to now being on the coronary heart of presidency with the ear of the First Minister of Scotland on all issues financial, having already suggested her on the establishing of the Scottish Nationwide Funding Financial institution.

I ask him what’s his secret.

“I’ve by no means yielded to strain to be something aside from I’m and I feel it’s helped me journey in a means. Oh, don’t get me improper, it’s been a optimistic and I wouldn’t change a factor, however it’s resented by some individuals. It’s resented that I don’t yield to being a typical company animal, as a result of I’ve by no means been that, all that psychobabble crap that individuals converse, and I’ve labored for lots of huge organisations, and there are such a lot of individuals in them that it turns into just like the Moonies and I can’t be that particular person.

“However look, I’ve discovered lots and, God, I’ve completed so many silly issues, and I’ve completed issues badly and I’ve hopefully discovered by my errors as I’ve gone by way of, however I might be cautious of claiming to a teenager watching me after which saying they wish to do it like I’ve, as a result of don’t underestimate the hazard concerned. It’s a lot simpler to fall into line.

“You understand, I left HBOS simply earlier than the monetary crash and after I went to see the [executive] search consultants in London, all of those posh individuals within the West Finish of London, and when  I used to be explaining why it [the banking sector] was in such a large number and why I’d fallen out with them and why I’d needed to go away, all of them stated to an individual, ‘I feel you’ve obtained to suppose a bit about your position on this and perhaps you’re the issue.’ Now, all of them stated it in numerous methods, however they had been all telling me I used to be the issue. Six months later, the monetary crash occurred…

“So, I used to be proper on the time, however no one believed me, however then when it occurred, they’d no selection. If it hadn’t occurred, then perhaps I might simply have drifted alongside because the particular person they noticed as somebody that didn’t slot in. The issue.

 “You understand what’s fascinating is that each job I’ve had in my life, not as soon as has the search world been concerned, I’ve at all times been picked by individuals who see one thing in me that they need. George Mathewson at Royal Financial institution, Terry Leahy at Tesco, the Duke of Buccleuch at Buccleuch Estates.”

You could possibly now add Nicola Sturgeon to that checklist. However what’s that they see?

“I feel they see someone who is ready to be themselves and who will try to do the most effective for them. Somebody who has obtained good values. I worth individuals. I try to do my finest by individuals. I’ll try to do what I’ll say I’ll do, and I’ll attempt my very, highest. And I’ve obtained private pleasure in reaching it, as a result of that’s what it’s about ultimately, private pleasure. It’s about getting completed what you say you’ll do.

“However for the formal search world, I don’t fall naturally or simply right into a class, and they also simply discover me a little bit of a puzzle. I at all times keep in mind going to a cocktail do in London and someone was strolling down the steps, and this director of Tesco’s stated to the particular person strolling down the steps, ‘I wish to introduce you to the troublesome Mr Higgins.’ I checked out him and he stated ‘nah, it’s a joke’ and instructed me how earlier than he was interviewed by me – I used to be the then chief govt – to affix the board, the search man had warned him that he would discover me very troublesome. And the man didn’t suppose I used to be troublesome. I don’t suppose people who find themselves really ready, good individuals, first rate individuals, discover me troublesome in any respect, however on the earth I’ve lived in, there’s lots of people who would say they’ve liked each minute of working with me and there’s different individuals who suppose me troublesome. However that’s completely okay by me.

“It’s fascinating, as a result of a couple of individuals who grew up close to me or in comparable circumstances have requested me over time about what made me who I’m, as a result of one of many issues that I’ve at all times taken private pleasure in is attempting to succeed.

“And I feel one of many issues about my dad and I is that I used to be form of his blue-eyed boy as I used to be rising up. I used to be one among these children, I did nicely at college, I used to be doing nicely at soccer, and truly in a working class atmosphere in Glasgow to be fairly good at college and fairly good at soccer, you’ve form of cornered the market a wee bit.

“However my dad had a barely unusual method to it, and I feel he lived a bit of bit vicariously by way of me and he type of assumed I might do nicely. There was an assumption, so subsequently the considered ever getting into and telling him I’d failed at one thing would have been a reasonably unhealthy day, however there was by no means a way of him ever telling me that. Even the day I walked in after my finals at college, he was studying the paper and he didn’t actually even transfer the paper and he stated, ‘How did you get on?’ and I stated ‘I obtained a primary’ and he stated, ‘Did anyone else?’ and I stated I used to be the one one in my yr in maths and he went ‘Aw, that’s good,’ and the paper by no means moved from his face. I do know he was proud, however he simply didn’t say it.

“As I began to make my means within the enterprise world, our relationship modified a bit and it was a mix of just about a wee bit jealousy from him but additionally feeling as if I’d change into a wee little bit of a traitor. I keep in mind I as soon as I did a enterprise TV programme for Royal Financial institution and my mum stated that dad watched it and stated, ‘Aw he’s change into administration now. He’s not one among us.’ And that’s humorous as a result of in the previous few weeks I’ve clearly had a little bit of publicity about working for the Scottish Authorities, so there’s a great deal of individuals who criticise me for being on Nicola’s workforce, on the left, however I’m additionally the chief chairman of Buccleuch Estates and we bought some land just lately and we’re attempting to promote some extra, and I’ve been attacked by individuals for being institution. And it’s like, I positively can’t be each, however I’m really neither. I’m simply me.”

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