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Class A Myth-Making

17/04/2013 11:47 | Updated 16 June 2013

Claims that cocaine caused the credit crisis are being seized upon with glee by the national media, who should - but never do - know better when it comes to lazy stereotyping of the Square Mile. Discredited former drugs tsar David Nutt propagated an asinine theory in the Sunday Times this weekend, asserting that bankers' cocaine use made them 'overconfident' and led to more risk-taking, as though were it not for the drug, the global economy would be as buoyant and bullish as ever.

A bold statement to make, and an utterly backwards one at that. Not least because coke is nothing more than a symptom of the City culture of greed and excess, rather than a cause in itself. At the same time, cocaine use amongst financial sector workers pales into insignificance against, for example, alcohol consumption - but City clichés rest on pillars of white powder, and the all-traders-take-coke-at-their-desks myth is a perennial favourite for journalists desperate to sate their readers' anti-banker appetites.

Despite using cocaine every night for the final three of my six years working in the City, I only once traded high - and, after an horrific eight hours getting increasingly jumpy and disconcerted, quickly learned never to do it again. Nor did any of my fellow traders or brokers ever use the drug during working hours; partly because of the in-house stigma attached to its use (despite what outsiders believe), but mainly because of the massively detrimental effect it has on one's ability to trade in a calm and collected fashion.

"Discipline is 100 per cent vital in trading", according to a futures trader I interviewed for my book on the inside-story of life in the City. "You trade for twelve hours non-stop. Maybe taking a piss every few hours. Maybe getting lunch. although if it's busy you'll be sending out one of the work-experience guys to get it for you, and if you do go out you're fucking running because if you miss something you're going to kill yourself". In such an environment, he said, full blown, round the clock concentration is a must - and as any cocaine veteran knows, the drugs certainly don't work on that front.

Bankers, brokers and traders are influenced by a myriad of factors during their careers, but cocaine is so irrelevant in this respect as to barely merit any mention at all. Avarice, selfishness and an inflated appetite for risk were the key drivers leading up to the credit crisis; traits picked up and promoted the length and breadth of Britain in the post-Big Bang, every-man-for-himself, era of privatisation, deregulation and cheap access to credit.

The culture extended far beyond the Square Mile, with millions living beyond their means and thinking the party would never end, but in the post-credit crunch narrative still being written, bankers shoulder all the blame while the general public get off scot free. And if cocaine can be thrown into the mix as yet more rope to hang the traders with, then all the better.

But elevating the drug to the status of a prime cause of the crisis leads the public down yet another intellectual cul-de-sac, in which they are told to believe that everything could improve if only we could get the bankers to put down their rolled-up fifties, dust down their noses and upper lips, and take their jobs more seriously for once. No mention of the pension funds, public institutions, private savers and borrowers who all went along for the ride, nor any accusations hurled their way about Class A addictions or other snide digs.

Professor Nutt is no fool, but he is a man currently in need of all the cheap headlines he can get, so it's understandable that he'd dispense with dignity and scramble aboard a bandwagon such as this. But it is his willing accomplices in the media who are really to blame in this instance - they know the accusation that coke caused the crisis is utterly spurious, but they know equally well the effect of slapping such a story on their front page. And so the anti-banker myths continue to be churned out, and no one is any the wiser as to how to really change City culture for the better.