The other mayor

Published in Square Mile Magazine, April 2013. Original article here (p78-80).

Roger GiffordInterview with the Lord Mayor of the City of London, Roger Gifford
If the Lord Mayor is the spirit of the City, as Roger Gifford suggests, it is tempting to wonder how his particular brand of banking could stir things up in the City. As the first banker elected Lord Mayor of the City of London since the financial crisis, Roger Gifford lends credence to his motto of ‘City in Society’ by having kept loyal to the same bank for over three decades, without ever needing bonuses to keep him interested:

“Financial services is a means to an end, not an end in itself. They are means to serving society,” says Gifford, now on leave from his position as UK head for Sweden’s SEB. “You could say this is a reaction to five years of difficult times in the City, but for me it is much more a belief. You could say it is a little bit Swedish, actually.”

There is nothing Scandinavian about our surroundings though, as we meet in the Lord Mayor’s office in the Mansion House. The building was indeed designed “to amaze and impress”, confirms Gifford, who can call the grandiose building his home during his year in this unpaid position. An intense schedule of meetings, dinners, travel, receptions and up to four speeches every day means there is much demand for Gifford’s time: “You have to like the sound of your own voice to do this job, to be perfectly honest,” he laughs. We are careful not to spill our teas on the brocade, as Gifford, classically dressed in a deep blue suit and subtle-patterned tie, admits he sometimes nips off to his North London family home so he can put his feet up without fear of ruining a piece of national heritage. “But it is so exciting to be part of such a long tradition. And yet, to be doing it in a very modern world. It is that combination,” says Gifford.

While the Lord Mayor’s mandate is industry-wide, his banking background means Gifford naturally drifts more towards the City’s financial issues. While debates on regulation, as was the topic of Gifford’s breakfast meeting, is high on the agenda, this is however only part of the Lord Mayor’s concern. “The public has, and I think rightly, been confused and disappointed by what they have heard about the banking industry,” says Gifford, pointing specifically to the bank bail-outs, “But we have not been good enough at explaining what banking is all about. For instance, there are 250 foreign banks employing 150,000 people in the UK. That is a massive bit of business has no burden on the UK tax payer at all.”

While issues such as the Libor scandal has done little to reassure the public the problems are in the past, new regulation has already changed UK banking, says Gifford. But did the industry want change?

“Yes, I think they did.” Gifford pauses a moment. “As a banker, I have been really upset about some aspects of the industry. […] There are aspects around remuneration which I have not liked as an employer, and I am delighted they are changing.” But, notes Gifford, there is a tendency to blame procedures following a crisis, while a big part of the issue has been caused by socio-political trends of consumer over-borrowing: “You cannot really legislate for that, but people are changing regulations because of it. We have said in the City all along: we want the right regulation, not more regulation.”

Having been responsible for SEB’s UK operations for 12 years, the Scandinavian point of view has affected Gifford’s outlook on the current situation. The Swedish banking sector underwent a crisis during its deregulation 20 years ago, which means SEB now has a “more cautious, more conservative” attitude than many UK and European banks: “We have, like the Norwegian and Canadian and Australian banks, a very conservative policy on credit. We are very careful where, how much and how long we lend for. We are very careful about the derivative structured products, and we do very little of it. I have been very affected by working for a Swedish bank for 30 years.”

Gifford has previously stated how the Occupy movement sparked important discussions about what we want capitalism to be. He calls for an increased social awareness in capitalism: “We all prosper more if all parts of society are looked after. You can talk about benefit fraud, excessive social policy or taking away the will to work, but there have to be balances,” says Gifford, who credits Occupy with having made people stop and think. When asked whether this feels like a radical attitude, Gifford counters that it in fact feels very normal. But, I point out, we are sitting in this lavish building, after he as the Lord Mayor was sworn in during a silent ceremony with elaborate costumes and processions. Does the pomp and circumstance add something, or is it a distraction?

“The ceremony side of things is great fun. It is no more than 2% of the total amount of time,” asserts Gifford. “And it adds because it reminds people of the history and tradition that has developed over 800 years. There are reasons why we live the way we do, why we have the kind of government, the kind of Monarchy and the City institutions that we do. We have them because of history and they remind us of our principles, of behaviour, of activity, the direction we are going in, and they remind us that we should live for the long-term.”

There is no doubt Gifford feels is a great honour to be Lord Mayor, but, I press, does the role actually come with power? Gifford thinks for a moment. “I do not feel I have much power, but I maybe have a little bit of influence.” He pauses again. “The Lord Mayor is a representative of the City. He is the spokesman. The position is revered a bit, and that gives you responsibility to think, to behave, to discuss in a certain way. I do not think it is against the sort of person I am, but you feel the responsibility to try to influence in the right way.”

The charities, trusts and clubs where Gifford holds mandates of influence, many of which come with the job, also cross over into his personal interests: “I am really interested in what the City does on the music side. Certainly, I get very involved with the English Chamber Orchestra, the Tenebrae Choir and St Paul’s Cathedral Foundation. […] I am very interested in the power of music to change and affect people,” asserts Gifford, not to mention how these classical organisations nurture a need for tradition: “People want to belong.”

The Lord Mayor certainly knows where he belongs, having said at the beginning of our meeting he would go back to SEB after this year: “I have been 30 years with dear old SEB. I will go back to them.” But after the Mansion House experience, will his role there be enough? “I only said I would go back to SEB. I would quite like to do something a little bit else!” Gifford says, with a glint in his eye.

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Published by Jessica Furseth

Journalist; Londoner.