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Bank of Scotland, Glasgow <em>Picture: James Allan</em>

Bank of Scotland, Glasgow Picture: James Allan

By Betty Kirkpatrick

Banks have recently been front-page news once again, this time thanks to the Franco–Belgian bank Dexia. Without some kind of rescue plan, it appeared that the bank was in danger of hitting the skids.

Banks in trouble are music to media ears since they know it will catch the attention of a great many people, some of whom will be scurrying to withdraw their cash and put it somewhere safer, like under the mattress.

Banks were not always so high-profile. The sense of bank as a place where money is kept came into English in the early 17th century, but linguistically bank comes from distinctly humble beginnings. The word in the sense of financial institution is generally considered to be derived from the Italian word banca, meaning a bench or shelf, or from French banque. Both of these were probably derived ultimately from an old Germanic word.

In medieval Italy, banca was used to refer to any tradesman’s bench or counter. Then a touch of specialisation crept in and banca came to mean specifically a moneylender’s bench or counter. Thus was born the word bank. It has certainly pulled itself up by its bootstraps since then.

The moneylender’s bench is also the source of the word bankrupt, a state that many people will doubtless find themselves in before the current economic troubles come to an end (if they ever do). When an Italian medieval moneylender suffered from a shortage of money and could no longer see his way open to continuing in business, his bench was broken up and he shut up shop. He was said to be bancarotta, this word being derived from banca rotta, a broken bench. The method was certainly cheaper than going through the bankruptcy courts.

The financial meaning of the word bank may not have come into play in English until the 17th century, but the concept of the bank and banker is a very old one. Priests in the temples of long, long ago Mesopotamia may have been the first forerunners of bankers. They lent out sums of money to people for a set period and charged interest on these loans, and the germ of the banking system gradually developed from there.

Early loan agreements between lender and borrower were recorded on tablets made of clay and kept by the lender. When the loan was duly paid off in full the clay tablet was smashed into pieces, being no longer relevant. Moneylending seems once to have been rather a violent activity, what with the early Italian moneylenders breaking up their benches and the Mesopotamian priests breaking up their lending records. Clearly a smashing time was had by all.

By the late 11th century the concept of the bank was becoming more sophisticated. At that time the authorities in Venice decide to impose a levy on the citizens to help pay the expenses incurred by war. The committee of people who were responsible for handling this money later turned themselves into what was more or less a bank.

Britain trailed far behind this enterprise. It was not until the early 17th century that one Lawrence Hoare, a goldsmith in London, set up a similar institution and began accepting cash deposits from customers.

Banks have brought a couple of idioms to the language, one of which harks back to the smashing theme. This idiom was formerly found mostly in the negative form, not to break the bank, meaning that something was not very expensive and so was within budget. Nowadays, this negative aspect is fading and a lot of quite ordinary things, like heating your house, are indeed breaking the bank.

Then there is laughing all the way to the bank. This activity is now enjoyed only by a few, the banks in question being mainly offshore.

Betty Kirkpatrick is the former editor of several classic reference books, including Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary and Roget’s Thesaurus. She is also the author of several smaller language reference books, including The Usual Suspects and Other Clichés published by Bloomsbury, and a series of Scots titles, including Scottish Words and Phrases, Scottish Quotations, and Great Scots, published by Crombie Jardine.

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Annabel Goldie <em>Picture: Wsdouglas</em>

Annabel Goldie Picture: Wsdouglas

Conservative ambitions in Glasgow have been on the slide for more than 50 years – so much so that they are now as low as they have ever been. But not even the most pessimistic of Tories could have envisaged the appalling start to their campaign in the city that they have already had to endure.

Even though parliament was only dissolved last week, the Conservatives have already lost two candidates. This makes three in total since October.

However, it is the resulting fallout that will trouble party strategists the most, as this could cost the party hundreds of thousands of pounds in donations as well as the vital help of dozens of activists.

The first problem was with Ivor Tiefenbrun, who had to resign last October as the candidate for Maryhill and Springburn after calling Scots “thick”.

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He was replaced by senior Edinburgh Conservative Iain Whyte. Mr Whyte is a member of NHS Lothian and he thought he could stand down from the health board for the election then join back up again if, as he expected, he failed to get elected.

Then he found he couldn’t do that and, if he left the health board, he wouldn’t be able to get back on. So, rather than stand in a hopeless seat and lose his place on the health board, he quit the constituency.

But the worst development for the party came with the sacking of Malcolm Macaskill, the top Conservative candidate on the Glasgow regional list.

Mr Macaskill was sacked by the party last week after it emerged he had been twice declared bankrupt.

However, that was only the start of the Conservative problems. Mr Macaskill has been working for the party for many years, is well liked and respected with Glasgow Conservative circles, and his sacking angered many of his friends and colleagues.

Among this number were Tom Coakley, a former footballer turned millionaire, and John McGlynn, an airport car park magnate. Both threatened to withdraw funding from the party which, in Mr Coakley’s case, was substantial.

Although he hadn’t yet started donating, Mr Coakley had promised to give the party £100,000 every year for ten years.

Many of Mr Macaskill’s friends and supporters were suspicious about the timing of the sacking. Had Mr Macaskill been sacked in January, the party might have had to run the nominations again for the regional list. But, with the sacking taking place so close to the submission date for nominations, the Conservative leadership was able to just promote Ruth Davidson, the second-placed person on the list, giving her a virtually guaranteed seat in parliament in May.

Ms Davidson is an aide to the party leader, Annabel Goldie, and some of Mr Macaskill’s friends believed he had been edged out to make sure Ms Davidson was elected.

All these problems have exaggerated the already serious issues the Conservatives have with activists in Glasgow, with some party members now saying they will refuse to go out and canvass for a party which has treated one of its own candidates so shabbily.

One senior figure in the party said: “It is imploding at a local level. It is in meltdown. Some people are not going to work for the party during the campaign because they don’t like the way Malcolm [Macaskill] was treated, others are angry because of the way it was handled and others maybe feel they would have stood on the list had they known that Malcolm wasn’t going to be a candidate.”

It is understood that the Conservative Party official nomination papers listing all the candidates fighting in Glasgow – which included Miss Davidson but not Mr Macaskill – were submitted just three hours after the news of Mr Macaskill’s sacking was made public.

The source said: “Had it been done in January, they might have had to re-run the (selection) process but, by doing it now, so close to the elections, they don’t have to do that.”

The Conservative source also stressed that the likely loss of the donations from Mr Coakley and Mr McGlynn would provoke anger from party bosses in London. “If it had just been the loss of an MSP candidate, London wouldn’t have noticed,” he said.

But he added: “The loss of someone who was prepared to donate £100,000 a year for ten years. London will sit up and take notice, and they won’t be happy.”

A Conservative spokesman insisted that the departure of Mr Whyte was straightforward and was purely the result of the rules governing NHS boards, and he refused to say anything about Mr Macaskill’s sacking.

The Labour Party, however, was quick to intervene in an attempt to exploit the Tory problems.

Patricia Ferguson, Labour’s candidate for Maryhill and Springburn, said: “I am delighted that Labour has seen off two Tory candidates for our part of Glasgow – we hope to do the same when the next comes along.”

And Stephen Curran, Labour candidate for Glasgow Southside, added: “The continuing drip-drip of bad news from the Scottish Tories shows the turmoil at the heart of their campaign. To lose three candidates in a row is a disaster for them.

“People in Glasgow remember what the Tories did to our city the last time, but the reason so few support them now is because of their policies today.”

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