My Triumph over the Bankers

Jenny Diski

In July, Santander wrote to tell me that there were going to be changes to the online account for small businesses I have had with them for around eight years. They began:

Our aim is to build the bank we know our customers want. A bank that takes the time to listen...

Then it went on to tell me what it was that I wanted. Things like 'simple value-for-money banking', 'rewards for customer loyalty' and 'access to local business contacts'. The next paragraph was headed: 'What does it mean for you?' What it meant was that my account was going to be transferred to their 'award-winning £7.50 fixed monthly fee account, which has been selected based on the amount of cash you currently deposit each month.' Other, livelier accounts would be charged up to £40 a month. In return, I would get what I was already getting, plus interest of 0.25 per cent AER (variable), a competitive arranged overdraft at 5.5 per cent EAR (variable) and 'extra support'. They also sent a leaflet about the new account which said: 'Simple, straightforward and no hidden charges'.

Here's the thing. I chose the account (then owned by the Alliance & Leicester) because it was advertised as 'Free Forever', promising:

We guarantee that unless there are any changes to the law or banking regulations, or any new taxes relating to bank charges, you will benefit from free day-to-day business banking forever.'

I wrote and pointed this out to them, that forever had never meant 'for a while', and that I had no need or desire for the new services. They replied that I would greatly appreciate the new services, that the free account was indeed going to be closed and that I ought to be begging to pay them more than the measly £7.50 they were going to charge me. (OK, I made that last bit up.) There was no mention of the words 'Free' or 'forever'.

I wrote to the Financial Ombudsman who took up my case with Santander. It appears I wasn't alone. This week I got a letter from Santander:

Following feedback from some of our customers, we understand that the benefits of our new current account may not be appropriate for some of our customers at this point in time and therefore you may wish to stay on your current fee free banking product... Our new Business Current Account is still available to you... if you would like to take advantage of the new account, please do not hesitate to contact us.

I don't know how many of the 230,000 free account holders wrote to the Ombudsman, but each case would have cost Santander £500 in administration fees, amounting to £115 million if everyone had done so. Some people were preparing to take them to the FSA and the Small Claims Court for breach of contract and mis-selling a product as free forever which turned out not to be; others planned to claim back their time and expenses in complaining to Santander and the Ombudsman.

This is a simple case of a bank treating its customers as if they were incredibly stupid or suffering from chronic memory loss, in order to make more money. Santander tried to trick us, and did it stupidly, assuming they wouldn't be found out or called on a clearly illegal move. It's just the same kind of behaviour, deceit, contempt and stupidity, that banks have been displaying on a bigger scale, but mostly getting away with. So there is a tiny sense of triumph about the fatuously phrased turnaround by Santander.

But it strikes me that I shouldn't take too much pleasure in it. One reason the system, mad though it is, carries on regardless, is that every now and then, the power trips itself up by overdoing itself, underestimating its mugs, getting found out and appearing to cringe a little. Perhaps that tiny triumph we feel, each in our own individual corners, takes the edge off our mugs' rage, and so it all goes on, the permanent non-revolution.


  • 19 September 2012 at 2:57pm
    Phil Edwards says:
    I think you're running together two separate oppositions - between changing things collectively and doing so individually, and between changing things collectively and being collectively passive. (I have now used the word 'collectively' too many times and made it look weird. Damn.) When there's an opportunity to change things coll... as part of a large group or movement, and you (we) don't take it, that's collective passivity and a bad thing. When that opportunity isn't there - and at the moment, by and large, it isn't - and you make a change individually, that's just you making a change individually; I don't think it has any bearing on what happens when the time for joint action comes round.

    • 20 September 2012 at 11:02am
      outofdate says: @ Phil Edwards
      Well it does, because if the system is seen to favour the unwashed in a few concrete instances, then publicising them teaches us, in the words of Erich Muehsam, wie man revoluzzt/Und dabei doch Lampen putzt (which as I understand you people is the wrong kind of lesson). Is that not precisely why films like Erin Brockovitch and that four-hour epic about the tobacco snitch are such a well-funded, integral part of the propaganda machine?

  • 20 September 2012 at 1:53am
    outofdate says:
    When Midland was taken over by HSBC, they wrote off unprompted an 8,000-quid graduate loan I'd taken out from them plus an overdraft of about 1,500. I'm tempted to say I've been dining out on it ever since, but I haven't: I dined out on it twice, with drinks, and that was that gone.

    I wonder whether the lending officer hid it somehow amid the chaos -- Midland was notorious among my year for throwing money at people like Phil here doing 18-year DPhils (fnarr) in Permanent Revolutionology -- or whether they just decided they couldn't be bothered with it. The odd thing is that I'd kept up the interest payments for a few months and might have carried on.

    All I'm saying is: deceit, contempt and stupidity, these three; but the greatest of these is stupidity.

    • 21 September 2012 at 10:17pm
      Phil Edwards says: @ outofdate
      people like Phil here doing 18-year DPhils (fnarr) in Permanent Revolutionology

      I don't expect an apology, but I think you owe me an explanation for why my name's been dropped into this me-so-radical fantasy of yours.

      As for your other comment,

      Is that not precisely why films like Erin Brockovitch and that four-hour epic about the tobacco snitch are such a well-funded, integral part of the propaganda machine?

      I've no idea what you mean by "well-funded, integral part of the propaganda machine". Erin Brockovich was a reasonably popular film; not as popular as Notting Hill, though, and both of them were left in the dust by Avatar. And?

    • 22 September 2012 at 3:31am
      outofdate says: @ Phil Edwards
      The joke wasn't really at your expense but at Midland's and their odd policy of funding research in not very, er, market-oriented subjects, with a low completion rate. You seem to know a lot about situationism, for example, and your comment was the only one that was there, otherwise I'd have happily traduced someone else.

      Needless to say I've no idea whether you've really got a PhD, or in what, or how long it took. I certainly haven't got one, and did benefit from Midland's erratic way with a graduate loan.

      What's Notting Hill got to do with anything?

    • 22 September 2012 at 9:24pm
      Phil Edwards says: @ outofdate
      PhD, six years, no bank loans, worked right through it.

      Your comment about Erin Brockovich just struck me as unprovable & undisprovable. Does "integral part of the propaganda machine" mean any more than "popular film"?

    • 23 September 2012 at 12:54pm
      outofdate says: @ Phil Edwards
      Oh well done. I never did have any follow-through.

      It's entirely disprovable, sadly. I meant well-funded in the sense of attracting sufficient (presumably) corporate money to be made quite lavishly, despite being ostensibly anti-corporate and pro- the little people, but in fact a kind of bromide showing that the system works.

  • 20 September 2012 at 2:09am
    kannan srinivasan says:
    Golly what a good article by Diski, demonstrating both the right sort of action as well as modesty and surely the first thing any letter writer should do is point this out.

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