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The sunlit uplands of a boring homeland

UNDERNEATH the Arches, in Glasgow's Argyle Street last weekend, hundreds of people (781, to be precise) gathered to debate, create, laugh and listen to music.

There were folk of all ages at the Common Weal Festival, though it's fair to say that most were young. They were nice, pleasant, enthusiastic, unthreatening people. Bit like an Orange walk, really, only the opposite.

Microphones were passed round discussion groups, talks were given and questions asked. The atmosphere was invigorating, no more so than when Robin McAlpine, director of the Jimmy Reid Foundation, spoke. He could make the stones at the Ring of Brodgar rouse themselves and dance.

If it wasn't quite May '68 (given the polls, we're more in Maybe '14) the feeling remained that change was in the air. And, however dispirited a No vote might leave the nation after September, it's unlikely such creativity and hope will be entirely crushed. Among all the excitement, one of the creative ideas that caught my earlobe was "boring banking". Turns out it's not that new. Attempts have been made south of yon border by more conventional people to return banks to a more staid and responsible mode of operation.

We can all applaud that. But at this debate, chaired by Ric Lander of Friends of the Earth Scotland, the remit was wider and much more about empowering people and communities. Green MSP Patrick Harvie, Edinburgh University rector Peter McColl, and Newcastle University finance researcher Gemma Bone discussed ending "the tyranny of big".

They looked with envy at Germany and its local, regional banks operating in an economy where the Mittelstand of small and medium-sized enterprises accounts for 70% of the workforce and 50% of GDP. Even the United States, global HQ of capitalism, has a more enviably varied banking system than the UK's "three or four flavours", as someone put it, and its stifling centralisation.

Back in our wee world, there were warm words for the Airdrie Savings Bank, and no discussion on ethical banking could fail to mention the Co-op. Alas, it appears to have lost its way. Some, like Patrick, had given up on it but others, like Gemma, were sticking with it in the hope it could find some purpose again. Peter was likewise keen on mutuals, and everyone, even the Prime Minister of Britain, applauds credit unions for keeping folk out of the clutches of payday lenders.

But, beyond making the most of what already exists, everyone on the panel was eager for new arrangements that facilitated peer-to-peer finance, lateral business and community creativity, a system in which banks served, helped and encouraged instead of worked flankers with charges, casino investments and solely profit-maximising criteria for loans and start-up finance for projects and new enterprises.

None of which sounds boring at all. Indeed, it all sounds rather exciting, but not in the way that banks became, as their top executives gadded about in a glamorous world of helicopters, peculiar parties involving karaoke, and target-driven madness that destroyed many of the decent people who worked in such places.

Talking of decent people, none of these creative ideas is likely to be embraced by the bizarre crew of investment bankers, landowners and obscure English aristocrats revealed this week to be funding the Better No' campaign. As for their friends, the Labour Party, its name hardly came up at Common Weal. Few are interested in it any more.

Mind you, though I daresay he may have come up elsewhere, Karl Marx wasn't mentioned either at the banking discussion in this festival of the Left, a term that itself sounds inadequate for something bigger, wider and more embracing.

Patrick Harvie, indeed, quoted Adam Smith: "It is not by augmenting the capital of the country, but by rendering a greater part of that capital active and productive than would otherwise be so, that the most judicious operations of banking can increase the industry of the country."

Couldn't have put it better myself. In the meantime, I shall try to contain my excitement as I contemplate the possibility of a fabulously boring Scotland.

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