If business success were judged solely by profits, Britain's major banks would be hailed as heroes by the Government. Instead, they are seen as oppressors of the poor and shameless robbers of small businesses. The industry's leaders are realising too late that they have been oblivious to public opinion and inept at handling criticism.
Gordon Brown was so angered by the Office of Fair Trading's reluctance to investigate the banks' behaviour that he set his own inspector, Don Cruickshank, to work on the case. The Chancellor would have been amazed and upset had Cruickshank, the former telecoms regulator who now chairs the London Stock Exchange, found no fault with the banks. Cruickshank did not disappoint and in March last year produced a catalogue of criticisms, topped with the allegation that individuals and small businesses were being overcharged by between pounds 3 billion and pounds 5 billion a year.
That triggered a Competition Commission investigation, the findings of which will be made clear at the end of June but whose interim utterances have been so hostile as to include mention of those dread words 'windfall tax'.
The top brass in banking boardrooms seem bemused to be under such attack, convinced they are doing a good job that should be applauded. So, as the commission probes further into the charges levied on small businesses, the Royal Bank of Scotland awards its chief executive, Fred Goodwin, a salary package of pounds 2.26 million. This includes an pounds 814,000 bonus for his role in the RBS takeover of National Westminster, a deal that could be seen as lessening competition in the industry.
Goodwin may be worth the cash, and were he working for a US bank he could expect a great deal more. But the bonus payment smacked of the crass insensitivity that has made the banks so unpopular, both in the high street and in high places.
When deputy chairman Sir George Matthewson said airily that the bonus 'wouldn't give you bragging power in a Soho wine bar', he was at fault both over the location - he meant the City, not Soho - and the tenor of his response. What is more, just when the banks need allies, he has succeeded in alienating his shareholders. Rarely do both the National Association of Pension Funds and the Association of British Insurers see fit to cause a stir, but they are fuming over what they see as the payment of a bonus just for spending their money.
Matthewson's attitude is typical of an industry led by people who are better at reading balance sheets than human responses. Their ability to trigger PR gaffes makes the oil companies look positively masterly in the art of generating friendly feelings. Matt Barrett, the Canadian running Barclays, did not endear himself to the public with an ad campaign lauding Barclays for its size just as it was closing hundreds of branches.
If it is hard to imagine how any organisation could put itself in such a ludicrous position, think back to the extraordinary battle over cash machine charges waged in 1999. Barclays had the bright idea of charging customers of other banks who used its cash machines. But the pounds 1 surcharge was on top of the 'disloyalty fee' imposed by banks on customers who used other banks' machines. Customers faced the prospect of being double-charged for making cash withdrawals.
It would not require the skills of Alastair Campbell to deduce that this would generate ill-feeling. Yet, astonishingly, some other banks could see the attraction in the Barclays plan and weeks of embarrassing haggling followed before the idea was dropped.
The essence of the problem seems to be that the bankers have little experience of other industries, know the economics of their own inside-out and do not feel easy modifying them for the sake of appearances.
At HSBC, chairman Sir John Bond has been with the bank since 1961. He appears a very modern manager, but he is not the sort to kowtow to tabloid pressure or the vote-seeking priorities of governments.
Sir Brian Pitman, the retiring chairman of Lloyds TSB, joined the bank almost 50 years ago. He has done an astonishingly good job for shareholders but concentrated on running the business rather than cosying up to government.
His Dutch successor, Maarten van den Bergh, is from Shell so should have learnt a little about the importance of public relations.
However strongly the banks resent it, they are going to have to moderate their stance. They are already being forced into funding the Universal Bank, the Government's effort to provide bank accounts for all. Had they done so with better grace, they might have earned a few good marks from their political masters and the public.
It will not be easy but the bankers have to try to make themselves lovable.