As he anticipates the traditional seasonal rerun of Frank Capra’s classic, “It’s A Wonderful Life”, Michael Reardon FRSA wonders whether the story of George Bailey can inspire a model of ethical banking for our troubled times.
One of the things I look forward to most at this time of the year is the opportunity to get reacquainted with the folks of Bedford Falls. George Bailey and his brother Frank, old man Potter and the not so heavenly angel Clarence.
Perhaps Jimmy Stewart’s finest moment aside from “Harvey”, “It’s a Wonderful Life”, was not a hit when it was originally realized; post-war audiences preferred grittier fare. It has since become a fixture in the Christmas TV schedules. An indication of how deeply buried it is on the public psyche, was the fact that the ground-breaking early ‘90s series ‘Thirtysomething’ was made by the Bedford Falls production company and each episode played out with the last few bars of the song ‘Buffalo Girls’; a motif that runs through the film.
It has traditionally been thought of as a movie that shows the contribution that each of us has to make in our lifetime. Its life affirming character derives from the fact that the angel Clarence shows our hero, George Bailey, when he is at his lowest ebb, just how much poorer the lives of his family and neighbours would have been if he had not been lived. This bleaker, parallel life that George is shown is most poignantly summed up by the death of his brother Frank in an accident because George is not there to save him.
But there is another theme running through the film that provides something of a parable for these difficult times. Because in the end, George Baily represents the triumph of ‘good capitalism’ over the ‘predatory’ capitalism of old man Potter.
Bailey Savings and Loan - which of course does exactly what it says on the tin and no more - is being forced into bankruptcy by the asset striping, land grabbing exploits of the unscrupulous Potter who espouses the philosophy of the rampant free market at its most unattractive. He actively seeks to destroy the somewhat hokey small town capitalism represented by Bailey. Its unquestioned commitment to the town of Bedford Falls, old fashioned working practices and ‘squeezed middle’ customers that aren’t going to suddenly transform the bank into a global player.
And Potter almost succeeds. There is a disastrous run on the bank as Bailey’s customers are tempted to take their money elsewhere. George sees no future for himself or the bank. And his despair takes him to that encounter with Clarence on the bridge in the midst of a ferocious snowstorm.
But in the end George wins out. His customers recognise that his loyalty to them and their families and the community of Bedford Falls means more than the ‘get rich quick at any cost’ philosophy of Potter. In the most memorable closing scenes they flock back to the bank with their deposits, Frank returns the decorated war hero, the Christmas tree bell tinkles and we know that Clarence has his wings.
So here’s my proposition to Nick Clegg. If you want your party to become more like Oxfam, I suggest you initiate the ‘George Bailey’ awards for responsible business. Think of it as Fairtrade for Britain. Customers would then know which companies were prepared to subscribe to the ethical behaviour that we want and need if we are to move beyond the exhausted neo-liberal economics of the past. Make it easier for us to know who is prepared to work in and for the community, forsaking the Potter-like fast buck for a strong, long-term stake in the life of the nation.
Banks would need to work hard for recognition. The criteria would have to include employment practices, trading policies, sustainable sourcing, transparency with regard to pay and rewards and the ratio of pay between top and bottom. They might be extended to consider lending policies to small firms and start-ups, especially local businesses. Meeting these criteria might even mean firms turning down opportunities to maximise the profits that could be made from less ethical behaviour.
For customers – you and me – there is a challenge. Quite simply we have to behave like the residents of Bedford Falls who put their faith and therefore their money in Baily Savings and Loan. We have to actively seek out and support the businesses that receive the award .If necessary, and where we can, we will have to pay the price for keeping them in business. They may be online, they may be foreign owned or they may be a small start up. But if we give them our hard earned cash, rather than the get rich quick old man Potters of this world, then we will in a small way begin to use our spending power to take back control of the way in which our society goes about its business.
Unlike George Bailey, we live in the real world. Whatever our beliefs, we know that Clarence is not coming down to save us. But many of us stand poised on that bridge wondering what lies ahead for our troubled world, blinded as we are by the economic blizzard that surrounds us. Fairtrade has shown what can be at an international level. So who wants to join me in designing the George Bailey award? Working title of course!
Mike is an RSA fellow living in the North West. Until July of this year he was Director of the Greater Manchester Environment Commission. He is now a freelance public policy and environment consultant. Visit Michael Reardon's website.