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The Accidental Shareholder

by James Graham 

Posted: 18 September 2004
Word Count: 640

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I have a confession to make. For several years I've lived with a secret, something that has troubled my conscience. Now I feel the time has come to make a clean breast of things and deal with my shame as honourably as possible.

I'm a shareholder in the Abbey. It's not, I hasten to add, the fact that it happens to be the Abbey. It would be all the same if it were npower or GlaxoSmithKlineBeecham. What troubles me is the fact that I'm a shareholder in anything.

Let me offer a plea in mitigation. I used to have an account with the Abbey. On the day I opened this account I had already tried to open an account with the TSB, which at that time was 'the Bank that Likes to Say Yes'. The manager - one of the old Calvinist school of Scottish bankers - had given a quite categorical, even brutal, No to all my proposals, which for the most part had been concerned with getting money out of the TSB rather than paying into it. So I crossed the road to the Abbey, modifying my expectations as I went, and they said Yes.

Then soon afterwards came a turning-point in history. As a 'valued customer', I was to take part in a momentous vote which would decide the future of the Abbey - and who knows? the future of the free world. Two groups of candidates were running for election to the Board: one party was out to float the Abbey, like a great East Indiaman, on the Stock Exchange; the other was for keeping it mutual. It's worth noting in passing that there was more blue water between these parties than there has been between Labour and Tory for many a moon. I voted for the Mutualists. The result was no surprise, and fully consistent with a lifetime's exercise of my democratic right: I had voted for the losing party. The Floaters had won by a landslide.

The Mutualists would have preserved at least a shadowy remnant of that noble tradition which was withering even when I was young, half a century ago, and whose values I ineradicably absorbed at my mother's knee. The mutual society, the old Co-op with its choirs that sang the Red Flag, the old Labour Party before its survival-of-the-fittest Darwinian mutations. But the Floaters won.

But surprise, surprise! Even though I had voted for the dissenters, and voted too against the Special Resolution to launch the great clipper, I received 100 free shares! If I had immediately sold them and donated the proceeds to the Zapatistas, my conscience would be clear. But alas, to my lasting shame I kept them, and to this very day have continued to accept the twice-yearly dividends.

Now, however, the winds of change are blowing again. The other day I received a thing the size of a phone book, a proposal for the acquisition of the Abbey by Banco Santander. It contains about two hundred pages of money sums. Maybe I should read it as a penance. No, what I will do instead is use this opportunity to redeem myself even after so long. After the acquisition there will be a six-month period in which very small shareholders may sell their minuscule portfolios. This I have resolved to do. And I shall donate the proceeds to a deserving cause. Subcomandante Marcos, you are due for a windfall.

And if I add to that an annual donation to Amnesty International of roughly the sum of the twice-yearly dividends, I feel I shall have done my best to make amends. Maybe in the fullness of time I shall be accepted again into the ranks of the faithful - such as Richard Hoggart, that great man, who (it is said) could not pronounce the word 'executive' without disdain.

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Comments by other Members

Account Closed at 15:20 on 18 September 2004  Report this post
James, I'm sure you feel better now you've got that off your chest!
I enjoyed the guilty feelling running throughout this piece (I'm sure you haven't become a multi-millionaire on a few Abbey shares) and the willingness to put things right.

When I arrived in Paris, I wanted to open an account with the Banque Nationale de Paris (BNP) because I thought the name sounded grand. They wouldn't have me because I had a cheque but my working papers hadn't come through. They asked me "Where has your husband got an account?" I said "At the post office." They said "Why don't you open an account at the post office." Chapeau for their great marketing techniques!


Al T at 16:57 on 18 September 2004  Report this post
Hey James, I'm sure you can get counselling for this type of trauma. Richard Hoggart and I grew up in the same town (although, not at the same time) and went to schools that were almost equally bad. Like him, I was once a chippy and miserable Northerner. But then I learnt from a Tory that Capitalists have more fun.

Why not have a party with your ill-gotten gains? (And yes, I am trying to corrupt you :))


James Graham at 12:56 on 20 September 2004  Report this post
Yes, Adele, what a miserable non-capitalist - indeed, anti-capitalist - I am. Did you really fall for that Tory propaganda about capitalists having more fun? No doubt they do their best to have fun like the rest of us, but they know they're doing wrong. I reckon I've known three capitalists at various times in my life, and your description of Richard Hoggart - 'chippy and miserable' - fits all three of them. It might help them to be happier in the long term if we could have a kind of social contract - as they used to have in Sweden, I don't know if it still survives - whereby capitalists would have to be socially responsible and turn much more of the wealth they so skilfully create over to the state, so the government can build low-cost housing and up benefits and restore NHS dentistry. Then even more of us could have fun. They'd be spreading it around.

Elspeth, my guilt is minuscule but real. If I were ever to become suddenly wealthy (Why did I throw away that letter telling me I was in line for a £200,000 prize?) I think it really would - though it may be hard to believe - be a mixed blessing. I don't think I'd buy shares with it any more than I'd blow it all on a horse.


Al T at 13:25 on 20 September 2004  Report this post
Hi James, I don't want to get into a protracted debate here, but the Swedes discovered long ago that their system of punitive taxation caused a major brain drain - hardly ideal. Some people are saintly and highly altruistic, but most entrepreneurs need a financial incentive to work long hours and take financial risks, which may seem them go bankrupt, in order to create new businesses that keep others in employment.

Back to the Swedes, though. Because their government also has a history of treating them like little kids and restricting the sale of alcohol, and then only making it available at phenomenally high prices, when they come over here they give some legendary parties. I still remember the mid-summer party held by one of my former colleagues that had songs with words like "I like the schnapps, and the schnapps likes me, forget the orange juice and tea," - great people, crap government.

Back to slaving on my novel,



should read "may see them"

roger at 15:22 on 20 September 2004  Report this post
Hi James, I'm totally at odds with your philosophy, I actually believe that the Capitalist system is the best option we've got, and for many years I earned my living in the investment world. But, having got that off my chest, I thought 'The Accidental Shareholder' was a brilliantly good piece of writing. A bit tongue in cheek, I think (hope?), but that's its charm.

Al T at 08:44 on 21 September 2004  Report this post
Hello again, James. It's sixty years since Friedrich Hayek wrote The Road to Serfdom, and there's a very good article in today's FT by the Nobel economics laureate Amartya Sen on why, to quote Hayek, "socialism can be put into practice only by methods of which most socialists disapprove". I hope you find it as interesting as I did.


James Graham at 21:42 on 22 September 2004  Report this post
Roger, I'm glad you enjoyed the article, even though you're at odds with where it's coming from. That's my reaction when I read some good right-wing journalists, Peregrine Worsthorne for example. (That's a few years ago.) I could never agree with him, but always thought he produced good journalism.

Adele, I haven't read Hayek but by all accounts he's a real heavyweight and ought to be taken seriously. If socialism can't be put into practice in an acceptable way, then we have to accept the world as it is. That's to say, we have to accept that poverty is part of the natural order of things. We can't lay all the blame for the existence of poverty at the feet of capitalism, because poverty existed long before any system existed that we can call capitalist. But capitalism, both the 19th-century industrial variety and the current market system, has never been able to function without gross disparities between rich and poor. I would seriously argue, and so would many other people, that the market economy - especially as it affects the so-called Third World, but in the rich world too - sharpens these disparities and deepens poverty. I can't really see why a properly constituted, democratic government - ideally a world organisation with more status than the present UN - shouldn't take steps to redistribute wealth. It's a civilised idea, and ought to be an accepted role that government has. One of our (left) heavyweights, Pierre Bourdieu, pitches it a little higher when he writes that such public redistribution as has so far been achieved - and other socialist things like employees' rights - are 'among the highest achievements of civilisation'. But if Hayek is right, and socialism can't be realised without loss of freedom, gulags etc, then we'll just have to think of something else. If we don't, and if we go along with the market economy, we have to come to terms with perennial poverty, wasted lives reproduced over generations. Many poor people manage to live their lives resourcefully; for very many others, the odds are too great. I'm just stuck in this lefty groove, and can't come to terms.


roger at 08:33 on 23 September 2004  Report this post
Hi again, James, I’m not at all sure I can let you get away with that without at least trying to fight back LOL!

Many years ago, I too read the political philosophers, and I too was drawn to Socialism, even the more extreme version, Communism. Who wouldn’t be? The concept makes perfect sense…except that it takes no account of human nature. Every attempt at Socialism that I’ve ever looked at has failed. The USSR is the obvious example where, once human nature was added to the equation, the wealthy and powerful became more so, and the poor and powerless also became more so. In such a system, unless you are lucky enough to be born to the rich, you will remain poor, REALLY poor, and isn’t the continuation of poverty your main argument against Capitalism?

So let’s look at that. Poverty can be defined in many ways, but if we mean REAL poverty – no roof, no food - how much of that d’you see in the UK, USA or Western Europe? In fact, the well off in our society ensure that even the lazy, constantly breeding, heavy smoking, heavy drinking wastes of space, get given all that they need. In a Capitalist system like ours, anyone with gumption can better themselves. What other system offers that?

Maybe the argument is that we thrive off the back of Third World poverty. Well okay, maybe there are those who make our shoes for $5 a week, but without that, they’d starve. And from that beginning, if they’re sensible, they’ll progress, as did the Asian countries that were in the same position fifty years ago, also making our shoes for (the then equivalent of) $5 a week. Is the argument that we should give our billions to those who wouldn’t know what to do with it? Surely not. The way to help is to offer them a market and let them expand it by their own efforts. And isn’t that what we do?

I could go on forever, but a) you won’t accept a word of it (LOL) and b) I’ll receive a reprimand for blocking up the comment section. So I’ll stop.

For all that, I still loved the ‘The Reluctant Shareholder’ for its quality and clarity.

Richard Brown at 22:40 on 23 September 2004  Report this post
Belatedly (sorry) - a lovely, light but chord-striking piece. Completely by chance I had my meagre savings with Nationwide which, by a miracle, has remained mutual. I claim no credit whatsoever for this (other than that, like you, I voted)but, since you have set the confessional tone, I will admit that I was JEALOUS when the Abbey-folk, the Halifaxers and all the other lucky ones got their backhanders.

James Graham at 20:27 on 24 September 2004  Report this post
You're right, Roger, I don't accept a word of it, and I'm sure there's enough space on this comment thread to let me not let you get away with it. There's material for a book in each of your main paragraphs - refuting what you say, of course. The only point you make about the Soviet Union that I can agree with is that it was a failed attempt at socialism. (Some people try to sidestep this by arguing that it wasn't socialism at all, but I don't agree. It was, and it failed.) But I don't see Soviet history as an object lesson demonstrating the fallacy of socialism. Soviet history is a tragedy. I've no doubt that the Russian Revolution is made comprehensible by history. After World War I there were three attempted revolutions in Germany too, and they're equally comprehensible. The kind of political order presided over by the Kaiser and the Tsar deserved to be overthrown. They ruled in the interests of a tiny elite and with breathtaking contempt for the vast majority of their subjects - a contempt which was demonstrated, rather more amply than was strictly necessary, by the way they consigned a generation to four years in the trenches. So there was revolution.

But it went wrong from the start - maybe to some extent because of Lenin's notion of the vanguard party, substituting a new elite for the old one. But I think that's heavily outweighed by the fact that the Soviet Union was under attack from the moment of its foundation. There were economic sanctions that make the UN sanctions against Iraq look like a free-gift scheme. There was the Civil War: Russian peasants and working people, sick to death of the Tsar's war, had to endure three more years of conflict. There were British, American, German, Czech, Turkish and other foreign troops on Soviet soil. For Russians the First World War lasted until 1920 and its aftermath well beyond that. Then there was the Nazi invasion: the whole western part of the Soviet Union, which could have contributed to the economic progress of the whole country, was devastated. Is it any wonder the Bolsheviks became more and more entrenched and authoritarian?

Even so, in the post-war era they managed, astonishingly, to develop some flawed but real elements of a modern society. In teacher training I was taught quite extensively about the Soviet education system (along with the American, French and others) and I'm in no doubt that it had great strengths by any standards. Their health and welfare systems functioned even if they were rather ramshackle. What little they achieved was achieved at terrible cost - but if we are in the business of assigning blame for that, we have to look to the West as well as to Stalin. As for poverty, of course there were disparities between rich and poor in Soviet society, but in the years following the end of the Soviet Union poverty in Russia and surrounding countries has worsened to such an extent it hardly bears thinking about.

If I go on much longer, this will become a book. I realise it's already a bit of a lecture. But I can't resist nipping your head, as we say in Scotland, on poverty. Well yes, in the rich countries it's poverty lite. But when you look at the global picture it's pretty damn heavy. I don't think it's as easy as you seem to suggest, even in Western Europe or America, for 'anyone with gumption' to break out of poverty. As for the Third World, I think it was Tom Friedman of the New York Times who wrote about a Vietnamese woman he'd come across, who was making a living with a pair of bathroom scales, charging two cents or whatever for people to weigh themselves. Friedman became quite ecstatic about this inspiring example of Third World entrepreneurship. Bullshit, Tom. All this poor woman has to do is save up her cents for a hundred years, then she can buy a laptop and join the global market! She had gumption, to be sure; but I doubt it would serve her for much more than survival.

Now I'd better stop. You'll be seriously relieved - that is, if you've read this far! This is straying a long way from the original article - speaking of which, thank you again for your complimentary remarks about it. And even for your comments on socialism, juicy bait to which I've risen.



James Graham at 20:30 on 24 September 2004  Report this post
Richard, thank you for your positive comment. I nearly missed it - too busy arguing with these unreconstructed capitalists!




Absolve yourself of all guilt, Richard. You were supposed to feel jealous! All part of the strategy. Long live mutual.

sue n at 22:01 on 28 September 2004  Report this post
I feel a deep empathy with David as I too bought some shares when a company I had a tiny AVC with was taken over. Greed triumphed over shame.
My self-loathing was short lived however as a month later the twin towers crashed to the ground bringing a much deeper misery.
The value of my shares shrunk to a level where guilt was pointless.
Even now, 3 years later, they are only worth half what I paid. Twice a year I treat myself to a bag of chips with my dividend.
I rejoice that I was punished for my momentary lapse of principles - I revel in the fact that my first venture into capitalism failed.
I am richer for the experience as it has restored and strengthened my belief that life isn't f***ing fair.
Sue n


Sorry - JAMES not David

James Graham at 13:20 on 01 October 2004  Report this post
Sue, I seem to be more of a capitalist than you - my dividend was enough to buy a hardback book! Thank you for your comment.


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