The food bank of Threadneedle Street

Andrew Bailey and the art of apocalypse banking


“Sorry for being apocalyptic.” Andrew Bailey, Governor of the Bank of England, was taking Parliament’s Treasury Committee through the things we have to worry about, now we’re not supposed to be worrying about dying from a highly infectious respiratory disease. He sucked in his breath, in the manner of a mechanic preparing to explain that your exhaust is in such a terrible state he’s going to charge you three grand just for the trauma of having looked at it. 

The problem, he said, was food. That sounded like quite a big problem. What with there being a war in Ukraine, there’s a shortage. “It is a major worry for the developing world.” The committee took that in. 

He went on. The other issue was energy, of course. People talk about choosing between heating and eating, but Bailey seemed to be suggesting that increasingly the answer would be neither. 

“It’s very, very … more than uncomfortable,” Bailey said. “I’m trying to think of a word that’s more severe than that.” More severe than “uncomfortable”, eh? The Bank’s officials may need to invest in a thesaurus, or even two, if they can do that without creating inflationary demand. 

The rest of us just really like eating food

It all felt oddly familiar: balding middle-aged men — Bailey had been joined by three colleagues, all described in my notes as “serious man in glasses” — explaining that disaster was on the way, and there wasn’t really anything they could do about it. All that was missing was a series of slides in very small type showing Gross Domestic Product plunging and the Consumer Price Index projected to go through the ceiling. 

What had the government done to help? Squirming somewhat, in the manner of a man aware that he was talking about things that ministers would rather not discuss, Bailey conceded to Tory Kevin Hollinrake that the Bank still thought Brexit was going to have a “negative impact” on the economy. “My predecessor was unpopular for saying this,” he said. “We haven’t changed our view.” 

So, it was going to be down to the rest of us. Should we plant vegetable patches? Huddle together for warmth? Is someone, somewhere working on a slogan: “Stay Cold, Protect the CPI, Save Pounds”. 

As it turned out, there is a way we can help! “I do think people, particularly people who are on higher earnings, should think and reflect carefully on asking for high wage increases,” Bailey said. “It’s a societal issue.” 

This seems a fairly helpless appeal. For a start, definitions vary on what counts as a high wage. In politics it’s often said to be anyone paid more than the prime minister. But one recent case study of an actual prime minister — to protect his identity, we’ll not name him — found that even with free housing and a £160,000 salary, he was struggling to cover the costs of child maintenance, and had been forced to seek help from friendly millionaires simply to buy wallpaper.

Bailey earns rather more than this — £575,000 a year, in fact — but he said he’d foregone a rise this year. Perhaps he was getting his excuse ready for the inevitable call from Number 10 asking if he could see his way clear to lending the First Lord of the Treasury a few grand, just until the next book advance comes in. 

The governor was anxious to tell us he wasn’t trying to tell people what to do. Instead, he seems to be hoping that high earners will simply join him in opting against getting more money. Obviously there are all sorts of reasons why people choose to do jobs that pay extremely well, but Bailey may be about to discover that a big part of it is really liking money. The rest of us just really like eating food.

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