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Coutts and Consequences

28 July, 2023

The Nigel Farage vs NatWest onslaught continues. But setting aside the rights and wrongs of this particular case, how have we got to a situation where ESG – a firm’s performance on environmental, social and governance issues – and corporate efforts to improve diversity and inclusion outcomes, are being condemned as jiggery wokery’  (by a leader column in the Times, no less).

A short recap if you managed to miss it: Coutts, the private bank owned by NatWest Group, closed the former Ukip leader’s bank account. Farage claimed this was because his views did not align with those of the bank, and criticised NatWest’s diversity and inclusion approach as ‘very divisive’ and ‘pretty poisonous stuff.’ Alison Rose, CEO of NatWest Group, resigned after discussing his affairs with the BBC which breached Farage’s right to privacy and confidentiality.

Farage is right to be angry but he’s a master at turning a skirmish into a much wider battle in the ongoing culture wars. And it’s that that we have been reflecting on this week, as we see – yet again – how business’s best efforts to make progress risk being derailed by forces that seek to undermine them. Just as US investment firms are slowly stepping back from their flagship commitments to ESG driven investing in the face of pressure from politicians on the right tackling “woke capitalism”, so here we see a specific and complicated single story being used to call into question the entire sustainability agenda by certain voices in the media. The story quickly goes from analysis of the specific details of this case to much broader condemnation of “woke washing” and calls for businesses to get back to…doing business.

One mistake doesn’t – or should not – undermine the enormous progress that NatWest Group (a Good Business client, in the interests of transparency) and other banks and businesses have made to think deeply and carefully about their impacts on the world and to turn this into meaningful action on social and environmental impacts. A cleaner, greener, fairer society can only be achieved if organisations hold their nerve in the face of such challenges and are willing to remain focused on the end goal. This is not the first time, and certainly won’t be the last, that a business finds its entire purpose agenda under fire after a misstep. The key is to remain focused on the goal, not the bumps in the road.

By Alice Railton

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