Robin Kingsdown Memorial Service Eulogy
Deliverd by PAUL TUCKER
Robin Kingsdown, Robin Leigh-Pemberton or Mr. Governor, as many of us here today thought and still think of him…..
As a man, some qualities come to mind immediately: integrity, dignity, resilience, tough, decent, good judgment, a leader.
As a central banker what stands out are: a deep commitment to stability; a strategic cast of mind, which I shall say more about as it is too often overlooked; an extraordinary team builder; an internationalist.
There’s no doubt about Robin’s international credentials. On his retirement, rich tributes were paid by his peers, and I know that Jacques Larosiere, former governor of the Banque de France and head of the International Monetary Fund would have been here today if he could. Robin’s ten years as Governor were followed by almost as many as non-executive Deputy Chairman of the Bank for International Settlements, ensuring the organization was well run. The annual meeting of Commonwealth Governors in London was a highlight, maintaining and forging relations across those parts of the developing world with which the UK has close historical ties.
But that was by no means the limit of it. No sooner had the Berlin Wall come down than he was off to East Germany and Poland to meet the new leaders. That last trip provided an example of Robin’s unfailing courtesy. Peter Petrie and I were rather bored and slightly fractious about an interminable drive to a distant dacha available to the Polish central bank. Spotting this, the Governor simply observed as we finally arrived at our destination, “You know it’s very good of them to go such trouble”. We pulled ourselves together.
Europe, its history and future were special for him. During a trip to meet European Parliamentarians in Strasbourg, he recalled how he and, I think, John Swire had travelled (?cycled) around that area sometime after the War. The devastation had weighed with him. Judging by passing observations about the distinguished war records of various visitors to see him at the Bank, I would say, if I may, that Robin was conscious of, although not burdened by, having been too young to fight. He believed the bravery of those who had fought was to be honoured, wherever they pitched up in civilian life.
In those years Europe was a pressing concern amongst central bankers. Robin served on the Delors Committee setting out a possible route to Monetary Union. That he signed it — an act of some independence — is still remembered by many on the Continent. There followed a set-back. His peers wanted him to succeed Karl Otto Pohl, President of the Bundesbank, as chair of the Group of Ten Governors, the highest accolade within central banking. Sadly, the UK government preferred him to decline given the sensitivities around Monetary Union. He accepted but didn’t welcome that.
He was a strong supporter, indeed advocate, of the UK’s entry into the ERM. Rather than rake over all that, it is more important to recall his reason: stability. In a private talk at his Oxford college, Trinity, in early 1991 he said “[being within the ERM] might constrain politicians’ ability to operate policy for electoral considerations rather than to defeat inflation. It therefore brings some of the benefits of central bank independence”.
In those final words, we can see the man and the central banker. Strategically, Robin definitely saw independence as a goal; one that would serve the country well. He and his Deputy, George Blunden, spent hours and hours on it. But they didn’t want independence unless and until the Bank was competent to take on the task and, crucially, there was widespread support in country. Many speeches and talks were quietly given around the country extolling the virtues of stability.
He didn’t want an overt campaign, which surprised some strong supporters. One morning he took a call from Michael Heseltine, at the time widely seen as a leader in waiting. Heseltine: “Robin, I’m planning to call for Bank independence in a speech later today, but thought I should just let you know first.” Governor: “Thank you so much Michael. I’d much rather you didn’t if you don’t mind. Time not ripe”.
Heseltine : “Very well”…. Time Not Ripe…
Within the Bank, Robin was to my knowledge the first person to raise the question of whether the UK should follow New Zealand in adopting inflation-targeting. The response of his most senior colleagues was that it wouldn’t work: “We would miss the target all the time”.
Of course, it is part of this country’s economic history that when, in 1992, the UK fell out of the ERM, we did adopt inflation-targeting. In just a few frenetic weeks the foundations of everything that has followed were laid by a remarkable Bank team working closely with their Treasury counterparts. I should pay tribute to Lord Lamont, here today, as I know Robin would have wished it, for the courageous decisions he took as Chancellor of the Exchequer during those crucial weeks to restore credibility to UK monetary policy.
Not everything turned out so well, especially in banking supervision, with two high-profile failures. JMB , so early in Robin’s first term that he simply had to stand accountable for an institution he had only recently joined. And later, BCCI, which I shall come back to.
But even in this field there were successes. The first international Basel Accord on bank capital was agreed, an initiative kicked off by Robin with Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker. Whatever happened in recent years, that measure halted an earlier global slide in bank soundness, and took the enormous step of recognizing that no country could go it alone in preserving stability.
At home, in the early-90s the Bank prevented a crisis amongst small banks getting out of control and jeopardising the stability of the entire system. Next door, Eddie George provided a master class in crisis management. In the Governor’s office itself, Robin personally and in a very hands-on way led the efforts to contain an incipient crisis at Midland. This, perhaps the Bank of England’s most important episode of crisis prevention in many decades, required reserves of determination and considerate toughness I do not expect to encounter again. Perhaps for obvious reasons, it has remained an unheralded achievement.
Robin didn’t hide from the failures. In the aftermath of BCCI, and unknown to anybody else, he and Eddie chewed over the arguments bearing on why central banks should or should not be involved in bank supervision, concluding that things would be worse if the Bank wasn’t the supervisor but that we needed to do a better job.
He was glad, therefore, that today supervision is back in the Bank, a point he made every time I saw him in recent years. As a former clearing banker himself, his door was open to bankers but, make no mistake, he could be tough with them. Robin didn’t let sentiment affect his decisions, however hard that was personally, as notably in the case of Midland.
I am moving on from Robin as officeholder to the man in the office…
If Gordon Richardson reestablished the authority of the office of Governor during the 1970s, Robin Leigh-Pemberton used that authority to build the foundations of the Bank that Eddie, Mervyn and others erected. As Eddie said in a farewell piece in the Bank staff magazine on Robin’s retirement in 1993: “He leaves at a time when there is a growing tide of opinion in favour of more operational autonomy for the Bank and he leaves us well equipped to take on that responsibility.” Those were precisely the two tests set privately by Governor Leigh-Pemberton and Deputy Governor Blunden a few years earlier.
How did he do it?
I have already touched on his strategic focus and capacity.
As a team builder he was quite extraordinary. He inherited one terrific team: MacMahon, Fforde, Loenhis, Walker, George. He built perhaps the best team the Bank has ever had. Just three names will underline that: George, Crockett, King. All three could have been Governor, and two were. The third, Andrew Crockett, went on to reinvent the BIS, the central bankers’ bank. Robin had to fight to get Eddie promoted to Deputy. He had to fight Prime Minister Thatcher to get Andrew back into the Bank as international director. When it came to deciding who should succeed John Flemming as chief economist, Robin simply asked around who was the best British economist: Mervyn.
But the real magic lay in giving them space to grow as men and professionals while reining them in, just occasionally very sharply, when they were badly out of line. Robin listened, decided. These men would not have become the giants they did without those years of careful nurturing. It was quite something to watch.
Robin strove for good, professional relations with the Treasury. He was open and honest with Ministers — sometimes robust if he judged that right. In the later years of his Governorship, against a background of economic and financial turmoil, Robin and Norman Lamont worked together exceptionally well. One small story, about one of their regular lunches, might capture this.
They had been primed to fight over some no doubt great but now forgotten issue that divided the two institutions. Each had piles of aggressive and defensive briefing, pulled together by Jeremy Heywood and I. Norman opened the contest… “Robin, we’re meant to joust on X. Rather than doing that, why don’t I just hand you my brief.” Delighted, the Governor did the same. I remember thinking: Wow, grown ups!
Robin Leigh-Pemberton proved himself as resilient as can be, in every way.
Perhaps first, a little story of physical endurance. A dinner with Peter Lilley, Secretary of State for Trade, the occasion for another one of those battles with government. Peter led off, setting out the government’s position in some detail and at some length. Exhausted after various long journeys, the Governor is visibly asleep. I contemplate falling off my chair to create a clatter, and pray that one of the Bank directors will be sufficiently alert to step into the breach. Peter reaches his conclusion, and as he does so…. Robin opens his eyes and says “We don’t see it quite like that Peter. Let me explain”.
Whereupon the Bank’s analysis was set out clearly and without embellishment. Perhaps that evening we saw the young Leigh-Pemberton who was called to the Bar.
But of course it is his mental and emotional resilience that stands out, never more so than during the BCCI affair. The pressure was quite enormous, with demonstrations outside the Bank and the most heavily attended and aggressive Select Committee hearing the Bank has been through in the past forty or fifty years. Throughout, he took the pressure onto himself, shielding his colleagues, senior and junior, rather than transmitting to them. The day-to-day life of the Bank had to go on, was his unexpressed view. And it did. It was leadership of the first order. I recognize more now than I did then just how hard that is. It was perhaps the quality Eddie most admired when he took up the burden
Robin wasn’t just resilient, he was brave and tough. Some of his decisions, including one or two I have mentioned, took his colleagues’ breath away. When he felt he had to, he would stand up to the government at his own cost. He was tougher as he got closer to the wire.
Where were the sources, the roots of this resilience and steeliness?
I believe he felt that the world, his world, wouldn’t end if and when he had to go home. He had outside interests: the Lord Lieutenantcy, cricket, clocks… sometimes to the puzzlement of his office, an active correspondence was maintained with various people on clocks, with hand-written diagrams and all.
Books…there was a period when he reread Gibbon on plane journeys. But above all…
Family. If I might say so, it was obvious to those of us who worked closely with Robin that he felt secure in the love of and love for his family. That was the key: love.
He was, as so many here today will know, unusually modest. I never heard him say anything about his skills as a leader, let alone as a team builder, an expression I can’t quite imagine his using. Very privately, he would occasionally mention that others of his generation had been more technically equipped to be
Governor, so I’m not even sure that he fully understood the strategic capabilities which he brought to the office.
Indeed, I worry that he didn’t have a sense of his great achievements. In public life, building institutions is of first-order importance. As I have said, it is impossible to imagine today’s Bank without his foundations.
Finally, I hope I may be permitted a few completely personal reflections.
He was wonderful to work for. On my first day as his Private Secretary, as I entered his room the distance to his desk seemed unimaginably long. With a touch so light I barely noticed it, he taught me how to be a private secretary.
He was kind but demanding. Buried underneath, there was a streak of impatience. Indeed, in some ways Robin was an exercise in keeping impatience in check. I saw that perhaps just once. Ahead of an important select committee hearing, I was rewriting a brief that really would not do the trick. I took too long. “I don’t need a Chippendale man, a simple chair will do.” He was absolutely right.
He was fun to work for, supportive and grateful. Late one evening I delivered to the Bank flat the usual bag of papers, which he would go through before coming in each morning. Rose asked whether I’d like a tea or coffee. The Governor roared from the back, “No! He needs a proper drink!”
He inspired loyalty and affection. It was my greatest privilege to serve him , as Governor and man.
On his retirement, the private office arranged for a colleague to paint a picture of how each day concluded . We presented it to him. My copy went with me to whichever room of the Bank I occupied in the years that followed, and I have it still. It captures our relationship with him, and in particular his unfailing grace with us. However busy, successful, or terrible the day had been, however tired, however preoccupied he was with an engagement that evening or the following day, before leaving he would come into our room : “Thank you very much everyone. Good night.” And we would all stand, as we did for Governors in those days: “Goodnight Mr Governor.”
Well, Goodnight Mr. Governor.