Benny Higgins


As the former CEO of Tesco Bank, from 2008-2017, would you say capitalism is fit for purpose?
I have no party political affiliation, but in essence I am a social democrat. Capitalism, unconstrained, would not serve our broad society fairly.

When you were a banker, you were famed for your colourful life. Is it possible to be a big character in finance anymore?
Today one of my roles is Group Chairman of Markerstudy, the second largest personal insurer in the UK. The CEO, Kevin Spencer, is one of the most interesting, extraordinary chaps I’ve ever met. So it is possible – humanity cannot be supressed. But you need more courage now!

What’s your view on cryptocurrencies?
It is inevitable that cryptocurrencies will have a significant role, but there will need to be more regulation. For now, it is a very speculative investment.

You advised caution when you were Head of Retail Business at HBOS, just before the 2007 crash. What makes you feel cautious now?
Where do you start? Trump, Biden, China, Russia, UK politics, an ill-thought-through energy transition. In the UK: weak productivity progression.

You grew up working class in Glasgow and you currently manage the Duke of Buccleuch’s extensive property portfolio. What would you tell the government about “levelling up”?
People say you make your own luck. Well, that’s not true at the start. To be blessed with loving parents is a crucial foundation. After that, education is paramount. It saved me. Government should be ambitious in delivering a good education for all.

What was your take on Trussonomics?

Sunak or Starmer?
Even some of the dyed-in-the-wool Tories I know believe we need to give the other team a chance, and allow their own team to regroup.

If Labour win the next election, what single thing should they do to boost the economy?
Focus on education and training as a means of getting the UK to the right place on skills and productivity.

Who’s the best Chancellor of the Exchequer we never had?
The best executive I’ve ever worked with is Terry Leahy of Tesco. He would have been a brilliant prime minister – so he could also have excelled as the Chancellor en route.

And the worst we did have?
Kwasi Kwarteng – so little time, so much havoc.

What’s your view on Scottish independence?
In the same way that am a father, a son, and a husband, I think of myself as Scottish, British and European. I was a devoted remainer and I would be on this, too.

What are the three greatest things about Scotland?
Our cultural heritage, our natural capital, and – generally – a level of decency.

You captained Glasgow Celtic’s youth team in the 1970s, how did football prepare you for finance?
I learned what it meant to lead – to trust – to be open, and to depend on each other. Business Strategy is about winning – I learned much about winning as a kid.

You’ve been married five times and have eight children; what have you learnt about love?
You fall in love with what you like, but you stay in love tolerating what you don’t like. The best platform is shared values, enjoying similar things, and laughing as often as possible.

In your banking days you were known for reciting poetry in the boardroom. Who’s your favourite poet?
I have so many. Burns for sure for his perspicacity and wisdom. Neruda for his beguiling language. And Maya Angelou, who I met and fell in love with. The list is endless.

You are Chair of the National Galleries of Scotland. What masterpiece should we all go and see?
The Storm by William McTaggart. It’s a wonderful illustration of what Aristotle meant when describing the beautiful in art: “the shining of the idea through a sensuous medium”.

Which five people would you invite to a lunch party?
Sir Alex Ferguson, Maya Angelou, Edmund White, Monica Bellucci, and my maternal grandfather – Big Tony.

What’s the best advice anyone has ever given you?
Always strive to do the right thing, especially when it is difficult, and when the alternative choices are easier.

How would you like to be remembered?
That I always stood by people I loved.

Benny Higgins is a former CEO of Tesco Bank, Executive Chairman of the Buccleuch Group, Chair of the National Galleries of Scotland and Chair of the Edinburgh Fringe

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October 2023, Q&A

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