IN 2008, the RBS Group counted as the world’s biggest bank by assets (ie loans), marked at $3.8 trillion. To indicate the sheer insanity of this number, it was not only bigger than the GDP of the UK ($2.7 trillion) but outclassed the size of the entire German economy ($3.7tr). In fact, RBS loans were a good $800bn more than its nearest rival in the obese banking stakes, Deutsche Bank.

Of course, sensible folk know that any fool can lend money. It’s getting repaid that counts. Sadly, this simple rule of banking eluded Fred “the Shred” Goodwin, the arrogant accountant who was chief executive of RBS. Goodwin, his myopic company board, and wildly overpaid senior managers had also made the infantile decision to fund their global lending spree by borrowing from other banks. But when the global property bubble imploded in 2008, banks not only stopped lending to each other, they demanded their money back from earlier loans. RBS was caught with its financial trousers down.

What remains of RBS is now a modest UK bank (25th in the world) and getting smaller by the day. It has just announced it is culling a quarter of what remains of its branch network, including 62 outlets in Scotland – the country in which it first saw the light of day back in 1727. In last month’s Budget — hidden in the red box small print – Chancellor Hammond admitted he was going to flog off the remaining public holdings in RBS at a loss. Even the Tories have given up on ever getting back the £45.5bn of taxpayers’ cash that was used to rescue the bank in 2008.

The point is that a whole decade after the 2008 crash, RBS is still in the red. It has made a loss every year since it was bailed out by Joe Mug, the taxpayer. This is very strange. Other banks that wobbled back in 2008 – and most did – are coining money now. Take a few examples. Barclays posted a sharp rise in pre-tax profit to £3.2bn for 2016, up from £1.1bn in 2015. Lloyds did even better, with pre-tax profits up by 158 per cent in 2016, to £4.2bn.

You might explain this discrepancy by saying that RBS had more problems to deal will. Certainly megalomaniac Fred the Shred’s original buying spree – he bought 26 other banks and financial companies in the space of just seven years – saddled RBS with debts and managerial problems galore. But other banks also caught the expansion bug during the Great Boom and survived. Bank of America, whose corporate acquisitiveness made Fred’s ambitions look parochial, had to swallow a US taxpayer bailout. But it posted a 43 per cent increase in profits in 2016, to $4.7bn.

So what’s wrong with RBS? It is an important question because if Scotland became independent anytime soon, RBS would still be the dominant player in the Scottish economy, particularly in SME lending. Under its chief executive, New Zealander Ross McEwan, RBS Group has shown little affinity with its country of origin. At the time of the 2014 indy referendum, the bank prepared contingency plans to shift its legal HQ to London. Asked recently if that remained the bank’s position, McEwan said: “We’d have to make the same moves I suspect because the Royal Bank of Scotland, being domiciled in Scotland, would just be too big for the economy, even in the shape that we’re building.”

The phraseology is interesting. Note: “even in the shape we’re building”. Translation: RBS will probably continue to shrink. McEwan’s only strategy for RBS appears to be cut, cut, cut! He has eliminated the bank’s investment arm, so there will be no aid for Scottish firms trying to expand globally unless they use a foreign bank, or are helped by the new Scottish Investment Bank being created by the SNP Government. Worse still, once the Chancellor flogs off RBS, expect it to be gobbled up by a competitor. Most likely (and ironically) one of the state-owned Chinese banks keen to get a foothold in the City of London.

WHICH brings us back to those branch closures. RBS justifies these by saying folk don’t use their local branch any longer, but conduct banking transactions through the internet. There is certainly a truth in that and other banks are also closing branches too. But if you count in NatWest, which is a part of the Group, RBS is top of the list for closing branch doors to customers. In particular, it is penalising customers in rural and central Scotland, where more people live in small towns than is the average in England.

Yet matters are different in that monument to capitalism, President Trump’s America. US banks have been much less aggressive at cutting branch networks than many other countries. US bankers say branches remain crucial for acquiring new business. “Our customers still want to visit us,” says Jonathan Velline, head of branch strategy at Wells Fargo. “They’re still coming to our stores and our ATMs at pretty consistent rates.” US banks want to cut costs but they still believe in customer service.

RBS has been running down its branch network for years. As a result, branches offer fewer services, are open less, have more limited staff (equals longer queues) and are hardly exciting places to visit. No wonder people don’t come. Name me another business that actually does not want to meet its customers in the flesh and try and flog them something.

In recent years, I have had the opportunity (misfortune?) to be invited to dinner by Mr McEwan, at Drummonds, the bank’s sumptuous neo-classical branch at the bottom of Whitehall. Here Mr McEwan entertains his corporate and political guests, served by uniformed flunkies. Strangely enough, Drummonds does not seem to be on the list of branch closures. The last time I attended one of these events, Mr McEwan became somewhat irate at me raising the issue of the ever-diminished RBS branch network. RBS could survive profitably as a retail operation, servicing private consumers and small businesses. To do so requires a shift to being genuinely customer-friendly. Equally, it could (and in my opinion should) develop an investment arm that could aid Scottish industry and inward investors.

My real worry is that around a quarter of the existing ownership is held by institutional shareholders – banks and funds. They have had no dividends in a decade. If RBS is returned to the market at knockdown price, these institutions will seek to get their money back as quickly as possible. Their best hope is if a Chinese bank is prepared to pay a premium to get at the RBS customer base. Which means Scotland loses control of the bank.

All of which makes it more vital still that an independent Scotland has its own currency, central bank and financial regulations.

We don’t want to leave our economic future in the hands of the next Fred Goodwin or Ross McEwan who happens along.