See also: NatWest boycott – an explanation.
With all the focus on the effects of the RBS-NatWest boycott on campus, it is easy to forget its broader objectives, yet it serves a real purpose in redefining what is considered acceptable in the banking sector.
RBS has invested more in dirty energy than any other UK bank, providing £40bn in loans for fossil fuels over only a six-month period, and is the biggest UK investor in the Canadian tar sands, which are notorious for indigenous treaty rights violations; the destruction of ancient boreal forests; and as the most carbon-intensive project in the world.
The continued support of RBS is enabling plans to triple capacity by 2020, threatening our ability to avert dangerous climate change.
RBS is not being targeted in isolation, but as part of a concerted civil society campaign, and has already been forced to defend itself publicly. Other boycotts are in place at other universities, including Manchester and St. Andrews. Simultaneously, NGOs including Platform, World Development Movement and People & Planet have all been pressuring RBS over their investment policies.
The Union of UEA Students claims to value ethical investment as a priority campaign, and they believe that this is an oportunity to keep up the pressure.
Of course other banks are also at fault, and if changes could be made to all their practices they would be made, but unfortunately it isn’t possible. RBS was selected because it was previously the Union’s bank, although following the boycott they have since changed banks to the Co-operative, who have an explicit policy of ethical banking. Also, it is important to remember that a boycott was not the first option. The Union gave RBS a 16-month period to respond to requests for improvements against ethical criteria, but RBS failed to do so.
Maintaining a principled objection to RBS remains necessary, but a blanket boycott is problematic. Banning sports screenings was never the intention, and this was an unforseen consequence of the policy’s wording that can be amended at Union Council. Whereas banning broadcasting Six Nations rugby matches is unlikely to capture RBS’s attention or make a noticeable difference.
However, with the ESSA scheme there is a clear link with RBS’s financial activities. Participation provides RBS with greater legitimacy amongst students, and a principled rejection sends a clear message. The frustration amongst societies to lose out on much needed financial support is greatly felt, and an abrupt withdrawal from the scheme was regrettable, but comprising our values to thrive as students isn’t the way forward.
As RBS is over 80% owned by the taxpayer, it is sensitive to public opinion and as RBS is financing these activities with public money, demands for divestment from fossil fuels are more legitimate. Students are a particularly important constituency for RBS – university is when many people open accounts that they keep for life, so student activism can be particularly influential.
We need to be vocal in resisting the practices of banks and other institutions holding us back from the future we want, and as students we have a unique opportunity to make change. Let’s not waste it.