News

Scottish bank repents over deal with TV preacher

He said the country had lost its morals, and now a venture with Pat Robertson appears doomed

James Buxton Reports, The Financial Times
June 4, 1999 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Blogger Tumblr

Peter Burt, chief executive of Bank of Scotland, flew to the US yesterday to confront Pat Robertson, the television evangelist who has stirred fury with his insulting remarks about Scotland.

At the same time, questions were being asked about how such an august institution could have become involved with such an outspoken and eccentric personality in the first place.

It seems almost certain that the deal, to establish an operation in the US using Bank of Scotland's expertise in telephone-based working and Pat Robertson's 55m followers, will not go ahead. But the venture is exactly the kind of imaginative move the Edinburgh-based institution does well.

The bank was founded by an act of the Scottish parliament 304 years ago but it is not stuffy, despite its pride in its history. Its success in the past 20 years has been due to innovation, rather than following the herd.

Long before other UK banks it offered home banking through personal computers and built a big English retail base.

Its deal with Christian Banking Network was further recognition that the days of traditional banking are nearly over. Mr Burt and his colleagues saw Mr Robertson's far-flung congregation as a source of business. They believed his rightwing views and antagonism towards homosexuals, feminists, liberals and non-Christians – though endlessly broadcast across the US – could be separated from the venture.

It appeared taken aback by criticism the deal aroused in Scotland when it was announced in March. It brushed off the attacks, then invited critics to make their case – and to hear the bank's own – insisting its ethical position was intact. But 400-500 accounts were closed by local churches, individuals and societies, though not big customers.

So the TV programme Mr. Robertson made last month, in which he said Scotland was "a dark land" that pandered to homosexuals and had lost its morals, came as a severe shock when news of it arrived this week.

Executives see the attack as an underhand move on a business partner. It also demonstrated that Mr Robertson was a loose cannon who might embarrass the bank any time.

It then emerged that West Lothian municipal council, which has an annual budget of 250m ($402m), was contemplating moving its account. Calls from some members of the Scottish parliament, for the newly established body's account to be moved, increased the bank's alarm. This was reinforced by a 4 per cent fall in the share price.

"Contrary to what he believes, Scotland is not overly tolerant of homosexuals, less so than London," says one Scot who works in financial services. "We just happen to believe in personal freedom and we are allergic to stridency and rabble-rousing."

News that the deal was souring was greeted with elation in the US by the Log Cabin Republican group, the biggest gay Republican organisation in the US.

"This is the real Pat Robertson," it said. "It appears the Bank of Scotland has finally realised what they might be getting into."