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Is there a case to promote a salutary level of unemployment in the incompetent managerial sector?

“The British Disease is now rank ineptitude”
“Whatever the trade or profession it seems to be considered bad form to root out the stupid and the incompetent”
Headlines above a column by Matthew Parris,
The Times, December 3, 2016

Peevish sacked minister to the then Prime Minister, Mr Attlee.
“Why have I been dismissed?”
Mr Attlee, the laconic PM replied – “Because you are not up to the job.”

“The owner of a hair dressing salon who punched one of his staff in the face, dragged him across the salon floor, and kneed him in the groin, said at an industrial tribunal in Birmingham that he had not dismissed him. But the tribunal accepted a claim that such treatment was tantamount to unfair dismissal.”
Extract from a Bernard Levin piece in The Times headed ”How to know when you’re not wanted”

The Parris article was triggered by an earlier Times piece in which  his colleague Melanie Phillips had taken a forensic look at seemingly gross incompetence by the Metropolitan Police. Parris wanted to go further. “From top to bottom in Britain we appear to tolerate major blunders and minor incompetence with a tut tut….”

What followed was a wide ranging review of cock ups in our time covering IT projects, procurement failures by the MOD, and the failure by the BBC over its Digital Media initiative.

Parris went on to “identify three different forces, combining to encourage our fatal tolerance of incompetence. Class hierarchy and educational privilege; trade unionism and employment protection; and the English law of libel.”

He ended his spirited piece by asserting that “Sheer ineptitude is the most important yet the most anonymous, the most damaging yet the least noticed, the most insidious yet the least confronted pf our besetting national sins.”

Sadly Parris allow his anger to cloud his judgement. I will return later to his main points but for now I will content myself with suggesting that he takes time out from producing his own prolific output of written and spoken journalism and read what his own paper, The Times, has to say on ineptitude, and also what The Daily Mail has to say about ineptitude in the public sector and what the Guardian has to say about ineptitude in the private sector.

The papers meet in the middle to excoriate ineptitude in Quangoland.

Let us take the Times to begin with. On December 5, 2016, four letters appeared under the headline: “ Gross incompetency in the British System.” In one of the four letters Mr Werren from Cornwall, a retired civil servant, put his jaundiced view about his former colleagues.

“I came to the conclusion, shared by many colleagues, that the top 20 per cent is on a par with the best in the private sector, 50 per cent  are adequate and the remaining 30 per cent are incompetents.”  

The question arose in my mind: on the basis of what evidence was Mr Werren able to form his views about the private sector?

Another readers’ letter, published on the same day, was from a Mr Richard Duncan, a peevish critic of “banks and utility companies, none of which appears to be able to do anything without making a mess of it”.

As it happens I share his view of these businesses but he rather spoils his case by expressing his disappointment about the way that his complaint to the bank had been dealt with.

“I asked him whether the bank tracked right first time performance as manufacturing companies do (using Six Sigma techniques) and he replied that he had never heard of such a measure. It is hardly surprising that our productivity is so low.”

Might the manufacturing companies that he refers to include the global car makers now engaged in colossal global damage limitation exercise over dodgy performance figures?

 Four more letters, this time under the headline: “Rank ineptitude and the loss of common sense” were published the following day.

Sadly the poor quality of argument expressed in the Monday letters declined still further on the Tuesday.

A Mr Gilmour took Parris to task for describing incompetence as British characteristics and cites examples of cocks ups in Europe. Cock ups in  Europe and indeed across the world doubtless occur but that does not invalidate the central Parris arguments.  

In another letter a Mr Bean – appropriately named – noted that “ Given that 50 per cent of the population have less than average IQ and presumably need gainful employment, I would be interested to hear his opinion as what the nations should do with “thick” people. Matthew Parris can of course speak for himself but I doubt if he would argue that the unfortunately, if accurately, described thick people should be given top jobs in any sector. That would be taking the attempt at levelling the playing field of life  too far.”

So: has anything changed in the intervening 10 months?

In a word – no. The  bunglers are still bungling and being left in their  jobs  to keep up the bad work.  

 I take it that no one – apart, obviously, from the bunglers, believes that bunglers should be left in post.

The media are replete with stories of ineptitude – hence the pieces by Mel Phillips and Matthew Parris.

This raises the point – what SHOULD be done to tackle the perceived widespread problem of managerial ineptitude?

What about a few basic principles to get our improvement plan on the road.

Firstly, the problems are caused by the employment of the managerially challenged in senior positions.  Solve that problem by replacing them with people who are up to the job and one welcome consequence would be that this would not so much trickle down as gush down throughout the organisation.

So – start the purge at or near the top because competent managers will deal as a matter of course with problems posed by the poor performers lower down the organisational pyramid.

A typical exhortation to be – shape up or ship out – clear and crisp.

I do not suggest as robust an approach as that adopted by the hair dresser in the quote from the Bernard Levin article. Good progress can be made without resorting to violence.

I do suggest that those seeking to solve these problems should avoid the approach adopted by Sir John Chilcot in his inquiry into matters arising  from the invasion of Iraq in 2003. No one could accuse Sir John Chilcot of being superficial but any concerted campaign to fire the top tier failures would need a rather more brisk approach.

It is important to stress that we are not talking here of shady managerial practices which verge on the criminal. We are talking about how to tackle woefully inadequate managerial performance.

Nor are we talking about the managerial jobs that are grossly overpaid. It is thought in some quarters that the £40 million or so paid annually to Sir Martin Sorrell verges on the generous but I have not seen anywhere comment that Sir Martin  is not up to the job – merely that he is overpaid.

I am NOT talking about politicians, even though bungling politicians are possibly the most accomplished bunglers of all. This group has to answer to the voters and the voters are often the most unforgiving of all – just ask Mrs May.

A fictitious but not entirely far fetched case study

  • Wayne Rooney obtains possession of the ball in the middle of the pitch during an important match – and to the crowd that has paid good money to be present, all matches are important.
  • He quickly assesses the possibilities of the situation.
  • He then speeds off down the field with the ball under control.
  • Unfortunately he has sped off in the wrong direction towards his own goal.
  • His colleagues are too bemused and aghast to grasp what is going on and do not move to tackle him.
  • At exactly the right spot he steadies himself and fires a perfect shot into the corner of the net.
  • A goal, possibly a nice goal, but sadly against his own side.

Might this incident be sufficient to justify and to trigger the instant awarding of a P45 to  Mr Rooney?

I think so but doubtless there are those who argue for a period of reflection to allow Wayne to rehabilitate himself.

What do you think?

In what follows we are looking at not dissimilar situations in which senior managers display startling ineptitude that ought to be followed by the award of a P45.

The bunglers should be sacked – not in Chilcotian painfully protracted fashion but as soon as possible within the terms of the appropriate disciplinary procedures.

Why the haste? In no special order of importance:-

  • To stop the widespread practice in some sectors of a stitch up in which the bungler leaves with the full retirement package including redundancy and pension  benefits
  • To stop the equally pervasive practice of moving the bungler sideways – and free to cock things up all over again.
  • This approach would benefit the employing organisation in that the other senior managers would – hopefully – get the message that the sack is just that and not an agreeable alternative.

I suggest that there is case to appoint a National P45 Czar tasked with calling in those selected for the treatment. Not a languid Czar after the fashion of Mr -now Sir Eric – Pickles who was notably inactive in his role as anti- corruption Czar – but an experienced and suitably insensitive candidate – why not Lord Sugar who would, I am sure, relish the role?

 A word on procedure

The bungler is called in and informed that his/her gross misconduct and / or gross incompetence  and / or gross negligence has triggered his/her departure.

Keep the session brief in the manner of Clem Attlee to his subordinate after the latter was found wanting.

Proceedings to be as per the relevant sections from the disciplinary  handbook. We have had cases where the sacking drama was not carried out as per script thus adding farce to fiasco.

I recall that Mr Ed Balls mishandled the dismissal of the official in charge of social services in the area where Baby P was killed and his failure allowed the official to avoid what should have been the full consequences of her failure.

The minimum amount of time of time to be allowed for the relevant appeals to be presented.

It is important that the dismissed bunglers are required to contest the outcome in their own time.

The relevant P45, correctly made out, to be handed over to the reluctant recipient.

The sacked bungler is given a few minutes to collect his personal belongings and to be then escorted from the premises.

Here is my starter list of 5 candidates who in my view were all suitable candidates to be shown the door. There is no shortage of suitable candidates and I have no doubt that readers could come up with equally well qualified names.

Readers especially interested in these matters should be sure to read Private Eye – the magazine is a splendid source of information and those selected for treatment by Lord Gnome are frequently rewarded with a P45.

 1. Mr Andrew Marr  – BBC Journalist.

“And a rogue is talking to a bore”
Amended version of the line from Rudyard Kipling – to cover the recent interview between Andrew Marr and Theresa May. 

A few years ago, it emerged that Mr Marr had taken out a comprehensive injunction to prohibit any mention of his not especially interesting extra marital activities. His media colleagues, who were of course, well acquainted with the root cause of the injunction, acquiesced in and obeyed the injunction presumably for a variety of reasons – there but for the grace of God go I, respect for the law, apprehensive about the consequences of violating the law, and so on.

It was left to the dogged persistence of Mr Ian Hislop, Private Eye Editor, to flush out what was common knowledge in social media.

Andrew Marr ought to have been sacked for this squalid breach of the practices of the trade of journalism, but here, as so often elsewhere in the BBC, his lapse was forgiven and he remained in the BBC to interrogate on the Andrew Marr show.

A good example of the  British capacity for selective indignation.

 2. The Vice Chancellor of Bolton University, Mr George Holmes.

Readers will recall that University Vice Chancellors came under fire recently for their propensity to improve their reward packages, this at a time when the higher education sector was pleading for increased funding.

Mr Holmes came out fighting when questioned about his reward package.

“Pity all us poor university chiefs. We are not paid enough” says Bentley driving boss on £220,000″
Daily Mail, August 2, 2017

“I’m worth every penny, says £220k university chief”
The Times, August 2, 2017

Mr Holmes went well beyond the simple asseveration made by Dame Breakwell that she was worth her salary. Holmes said that “we – The Vice Chancellors – are not paid enough,” and a little later “they (Vice Chancellors) should be paid more or they could leave the country”.

His view is that he is worth his huge pay because he is a success.

Private Eye mischievously delved into the claim of the Bolton boy to be a success, and came up with the following.

“Eye readers will recall his failed Doncaster Education City scheme which left Doncaster College with a £1.8m deficit in 2005.”
“An Ofsted report in April found Bolton UTC inadequate in all areas, including governance, and placed it into special measures.”

One has to concede that Mr Holmes is clearly a very successful confidence trickster, the Arthur Daley of the Daubhill and Deane Road areas of Bolton.

Mr Holmes is also a strong candidate to be handed a prompt P45 for misconduct and deceit guaranteed to bring his profession into disrepute and Bolton University into ridicule. 

I suspect that Lord Sugar would relish this particular leave taking.

3. The Senior Police Officer who authorised the search of the home of  Sir Cliff Richard.

 “But now I’ll ask you a question. Do you know, or do you not know, that the law of England supposes every man to be innocent, until he is proved – proved – to be guilty?”
Mr Jaggers to a deferential group of topers in the Three Jolly Bargemen,
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

To summarise: in August 2014, after a complaint to the Met’s Operation Yewtree, Sir Cliff Richard’s house was searched. The search was shown live on the BBC news, the BBC clearly having been tipped off that something was afoot. In the event, there were no arrests (Richards had voluntarily met and was interviewed by members of the constabulary) and subsequently an independent report into the sorry business concluded that South Yorkshire Police had “interfered with [Richard’s] privacy” by the tip off.

 

My contention here is that the conduct of the Senior Policeman who authorised the dramatic search and was responsible for tipping off the BBC amounted to gross misconduct and should have been followed, after appropriate but brisk investigation by the responsible authorities by the award of a P45.

4. Lin Homer — HMRC and Immigration Service Mandarin.

“Colonel Cargill was so awful a marketing executive that his services were much sought after by firms eager to establish losses for tax purposes. Throughout the civilised world …. he was known as a dependable man  for a fast tax write off.”
Joseph Heller, Catch 22

Lin Homer was the civil service equivalent of Colonel Cargill in Catch 22 but whereas the Colonel was always employed with the specific remit to cock things up, Ms Homer was employed – why? You tell me. Just how inept does a manager have to be to receive the black spot?

This particular Homer’s odyssey was a narrative laced with incompetence, as she sailed joyously from a post as Chief Executive of Birmingham Council (where she was criticised for her role of returning officer in a vote-rigging scandal) to Director-General/Chief Executive of the Immigration Agency (criticised for “catastrophic leadership failure”) to Permanent Secretary at the Department of Transport (alleged to have ignored concerns around West Count franchise, resulting in a bill of £100 million) to CEO at HMRC (forgot to collect taxes from big business, “unambitious and woefully inadequate” response to concerns over public service, etc etc).

The action required is clear cut – convene the firing squad – follow the procedure and out she goes.

What could be simpler?

5. The Senior Management of the UK Rail Sector

A bit of background here.

In September 2016, Nick Brown was appointed as the COO of Govia Thameslink Railway, which runs, inter alia, the Southern Rail franchise.

Commenting on Brown’s appointment, Charles Horton, Chief Executive of GTR, said:

“We’re delighted that Nick is joining GTR. He has a first class pedigree in the transport industry, a wealth of experience and a strong track record of leading businesses in the rail and bus sectors. Nick’s broad experience and intimate knowledge of the sector makes him ideally placed to help us achieve our business goals and deliver a better railway and EXCELLENT SERVICE – [my capitals]- for our customers going forward. I’m looking forward to him coming on board and I know he’ll add real value to the business.”

I suspect that many frequent travellers by rail will be dubious about excellent service and would gladly settle for a service that provided trains that run to time untroubled by faulty points and faulty signals and inadequate numbers of staff.

I suspect also that many people will be dubious about making huge funds available for HS2 to managers incapable of maintaining points and signals and adequate staff levels.

The managers campaigning for the funding for HS2 will of course be relaxed about the challenge given the extent to which they are insulated from the normal pressures of their profession.

Suffice it say that the rapid departure of a few senior managers heads would do more to convince those remaining of the need to get it right than would any amount of self calculated performance based bonuses.

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Academies: Progress or Regress?

Academy Chiefs in “fat cat” pay and perks row.
Sunday Times headline – August 27, 2017

A report in the Sunday Times by its Education Editor, Sian Griffiths, got this story off to a lively start by noting that “ministers face calls today to curb the ‘fat cat’ salaries of academy school chiefs” after it emerged that more than 100 people in this group earn more than the Prime Minister – with some enjoying lucrative perks such a company BMWs.

The story did not spell out precisely how the news about the reward packages collected by this latest addition to the league of fat cats emerged. It is unlikely that the 100+ bosses in question sent off a round robin to the Sunday Times Editor to put him in the picture. I rather suspect that this particular group, like their equally well rewarded colleagues in our starved of funds higher education system – the University Vice Chancellors – would prefer to do good by stealth and blush to find it fame.

Sian Griffiths unkindly pointed out that “last year the Academies Enterprise Trust which runs 63 schools was identified as one of seven poorly performing trusts …..Its chief executive Ian Comfort was reported to be on a salary of £200k last year”

Academy chiefs should be taught a lesson about greed
Sunday Times main editorial, August 27, 2017

The Sunday Times got nicely warmed up as it outlined its concerns. In its editorial it initially adopted a softer tone taking care to adopt the time-honoured approach of stressing that “the expansion of academies has been one of the successes of recent education policy” and it went on to note specific areas where the introduction of academies has been followed by significant improvements in performance. However it then observes, more in sorrow than in anger, that “ the primary purpose of academies must be promotion of excellence, not the inflation of salaries and the granting of perks.”

In the final paragraph of the editorial the rhetoric sank into bathos: “ Academy chains cannot jeopardise the public’s trust by wasting the public money they are given. Otherwise the greedy behaviour of their senior administrators will discredit the whole policy of replacing L.E.A comprehensives with independent academies.”

100 academy school bosses earn more than the Prime Minister
Daily Mail headline – August 28, 2017

The article under this headline covered the same ground as the items in the Sunday Times on the previous day. The Mail article contained a delightfully bland quote from Sir Michael Wilshaw: “Salary levels for the chief executives of some of these multi academy trusts do not appear to be commensurate with the level of performance of their trusts or constituent academies.”

A masterpiece of understatement.

This story struck a chord with me because some 18 months ago I wrote an article on the topic and sent it to Tribune magazine. Sadly – from my point of view – Tribune was unable to find space for the piece and it languished in my rejected file. The re-emergence of the topic as a newsworthy item persuaded me to revisit my rejected piece and to add it to my blog.

My motive for doing so is to be able to claim that I saw coming what has in fact come to pass.

I leave it to Holden Forth readers – please God let there be more than one – to judge if am right.

Here goes.

Academies – The Way Forward
Article sent to Tribune on April 29, 2016

The Education Secretary Nicky Morgan has created something of a storm by announcing that she plans to convert all state schools into academies by the end of the current parliament.

Ought this clear statement of intent trigger huzzahs all round as being a giant leap forward or ought we to be wary? What does the plan signify and what are its implications?

I have to confess to being a little out of touch with regard to education. It is now getting on for sixty years since I walked out of school for the last time and those in the know tell me that there have been a few changes in the intervening years.
Have these changes yielded the only outcome that really matters, namely a better educated population? Opinion here is divided with some pointing to the steadily improving year on year results in measurable terms such as school leaving qualifications and the ever increasing number of college graduates. However others of a cynical turn of mind point to the simple expedient of achieving better results by lowering the bar. Which group is right?

“Education Education Education”
Tony Blair’s election exhortation in 1997 that sets the scene nicely

“The vilest abortionist is he who attempts to mould a child’s character”
George Bernard Shaw, Maxim for Revolutions: appendix to Man and Superman, 1903

Don’t teachers have enough problems without being equated with abortionists, and not just bog standard abortionists but the vilest!

“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet:”
Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

To put the point more prosaically – how exactly does reclassifying a typical secondary school as an academy change anything? The teachers are the same teachers, the buildings and locations are the same, and the curriculum is the same.

“At Mr Wackford Squeers’s Academy, Dotheboys Hall …….Youth are …. instructed in all languages living and dead, mathematics, orthography, geometry, astronomy, trigonometry” …… and so on and so on and much more besides – a curriculum wide enough to assuage the concerns of the most discerning parent.
Advert for Dotheboys Hall in Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens

“B-o-t, bot, t-i-n, tin, n-e-y , ney, bottinney, noun substantive, a knowledge of plants.”
Nickolas Nickleby, Charles Dickens

An early example of a possible mismatch between the theory and practice of academies.

A stroll down memory lane

“On October 5, 2005 we published a new schools White Paper…. We made it clear that, in time, all schools could and should become self governing trusts, either foundation schools or academies, with far greater flexibility in staffing and pay …the end is quality services irrespective of wealth .. The end is utterly progressive in its values. But the only progressive means are those that deliver the progressive ends.”
Tony Blair, A Journey, 2010

It would seem from the above and from much more in similar vein from the same book that the father of the academies plan is Tony Blair, ably assisted by Andew Adonis and, sadly, impeded in this, as in other areas, by Gordon Brown and his associates. Not surprisingly, confusion reigned.

In 2010 the Labour Years gave way to the Coalition Years. In the main, these were five years of frustration as Tory attempts to usher in a new golden age were thwarted by their Lib Dem coalition partners as soon as any perceived lurches to the right were detected.

In these years one firm voice made itself heard above the raucous clamour, namely that of Michael “Aggro” Gove, as he amended the words of Mrs Thatcher taken from the prayer of St Francis of Assisi – “where there is harmony let there be confrontation” – and there was confrontation.

One issue which caught my eye at the time was the Gove advocacy of Performance Related Pay. Under this system the better the performance of the teacher, the higher the PRP element: this was to be one of the main drivers of the policy to improve standards.

This idea, unlike some of his ideas, is not even sound in theory and a recipe for disaster in practice. It causes far more problems than it solves, and these problems include the obvious one of performance measurement.

Many teachers will tell you that the task of measuring the performance of teachers is far from being a straightforward task, that a whole host of variables such as catchment area, the performance of other teachers, and, a key point, the performance of the head teacher and his senior colleagues, have a crucial impact on pupil performance.

It is alleged that the very act of trying to measure teacher performance is fraught with difficulty, and that arbitrary and inept attempts to do so trigger far more problems than they solve.

The second practical objection to a PRP system for teachers is that it tends to create antagonism and frustration rather than harmony, and that the outcome is not better quality teaching leading in turn to improved pupil performance. Instead, teachers spend too much time and energy focusing on those elements of the job likely to maximise their PRP rather than focusing on the job of getting the best out of their pupils.

Any attempt to keep the PRP element of remuneration confidential will be doomed to failure and its publication inevitably creates bad feeling among the have nots and a furtive sense of embarrassment among the recipients. However, and once again apocryphally, it is alleged that opposition to PRP has come from a dubious alliance between incompetent and/or indolent teachers and those thinkers who argue that performance measurement is intrinsically unsound, because it highlights failure.

The anti-PRP lobby found itself opposed by a formidable alliance of parents wanting to know which schools are getting the best results and of politicians wanting to get the most votes. There are many more parents than teachers, we live in a democratic society and so PRP became a sought after remedy for the academic shortcomings of the young.

I have a better alternative approach – let us call it Plan B.

  • Apply basic systems of performance appraisal on all teachers on say an annual basis and then act on the outcomes so as to weed out those who either can’t or won’t do the job for which they are paid. Any poor report to result in the issue of a formal warning to the pedagogical back sliders to get their act together or else.
  • Inadequate teachers turning in consistently poor performances to be shipped out to pastures where they can safely graze in jobs where the damage created will be greatly reduced.

On the plus side and for the good performers – the reward element is that you get to keep your job  (Aggro Gove was eventually winkled out of his education brief and replaced by the supposedly emollient Nicky Morgan.)

Let us return to Mr Blair and his journey.

Mr Blair clearly favoured the phasing out of comprehensives and their replacement by academies. His pages on this topic (as on all the other pages) were peppered with his favourite political words – modernise, progressive, radical and reform. Sadly he was long on slogans and short on detail.

I shall now examine what I see as just two of the weaknesses of the academy model, namely the confusion of core managerial responsibilities coupled with the propensity of some – not all – “academy” leaders to focus more on maximising their terms and conditions rather than on the core objective and task of ensuring that ALL the pupils are educated to the full extent of their capabilities.

The gist of the case for academy schools was and remains that the transition from a school controlled by its local authority to a school controlled by Head Teachers and a range of unspecified advisers, supporters and associates and hangers on arranged into a Trust WILL raise standards. The thrust is long on slogans and dubious statistics, but short on solid evidence.

I have argued elsewhere that the very word Trust should send out alarm bells and those anxious about Trusts should instead use the word dubieties so as to flush out the ambiguities at the heart of Trusts.

The academy advocates argue that the act of removing the dread dead hand of an alliance of political opportunists and their satellite and servile bureaucrats, and their replacement by a new breed of super heads will usher in a era of – of what?

Swift impressive demonstrable transition to the sunny uplands characterised by radical modern progressive improvements – that’s what.

I am not convinced by this vision.

Let me briefly digress with a few words about what has happened at the very pinnacle of education in the UK. I have commented elsewhere on the unseemly behaviour of the Vice Chancellors of our institutions of higher education in recent years.
Our Vice Chancellors are working tirelessly to loot the system, but one unfortunate consequence of their zeal for personal enrichment may well have been a decline in academic standards – there are only so many hours in the day, and looting can be tiring and time consuming.

Time was when such competition as existed between Universities was limited to purely academic matters such as which University was the most highly rated for electrical engineering, which for medicine and rather more muted, which for sociology.
Sadly that is not so today, and academic competition has been replaced by unseemly competition between Vice Chancellors as to who can secure the most agreeable arrangements in terms of pay and perks, with academic considerations out of the picture.

Again, sadly the absence of any effective constraints other than self regulation as to the size of the reward packages for vice chancellors resulted inevitably in packages that have grown fatter and fatter, whilst often coinciding with a simultaneous fall in performance.

The Daily Mail led the charge in its assaults on the acquisitive propensities of our Varsity Vice Chancellors but the predictable response of this grasping group has been to lie low until the Mail selects another greedy group to belabour.

So – beware of leaving any group with unfettered access to public funds because some of them will take full advantage of the fragility of the system and, confident in the knowledge that by the time the public latches on to the looting they will be over the hills and far away, with their riches judiciously located away from and outside any possible claw back.

Does this melancholy story of the decline and fall of our former centres of educational excellence have any lessons for us in terms of the Tory plan to convert all schools into academies.? Very much so.

“Parachuting a ‘super head’ into a school causes havoc in the long term and is only a quick fix for exam results, academics warn in a report seen by the Times…….. Millions are spent on super heads salaries and on consultants hired to repair the damage after the heads leave, researchers (at the Centre for High Performance at Oxford and Kingston Universities) said”.
The Times, March 29, 2016

“Academy head defends £360k pay”
The Times, January 27, 2015.

Sir Greg Martin earned £161,000 from managing a Sports Centre on the site of the school that he served as head teacher in addition to his head teacher’s salary of £201,000. MPs expressed anger at the scale of his earnings and accused him of failing to understand the concept of public service.

The MPs could not have been more wrong. Sir Greg understood only too well the concept as outlined by George Washington Plunkitt of Tammany Hall fame: “I seen my opportunities and I took em”.

Education Secretary Nicky Morgan’s plan to turn all schools into academies continues to unravel as another multi academy trust falls foul of Ofsted. The Education Fellowship Trust runs – is “runs” the mot juste? – four secondary schools and eight primary schools … last month it received six pre termination notices from the Department of Education threatening to take two secondary and four primary schools away from it due to unacceptably low performance….. The Education Fellowship Trust responded by attacking Ofsted….”
Private Eye April 29, 2016

The above cautionary tales indicate that all is not going well in the drive to transform all our ugly duckling state schools into beautiful academy swans – but these may be just teething problems and in due course all will be well.

The declared aim of the academy propagandists is, as noted, to transfer control of schools from LEAs to a new breed of Super heads. These stars will be required to combine the existing onerous responsibilities of the job with additional heavy managerial responsibilities over staff pay, staff terms and conditions, and, crucially, powers to arrange school mergers and acquisitions which could benefit the various players in the new game.

It is that last feature that should trigger loud alarm bells. Imagine a modern version of Thomas Arnold of Rugby, a venerable head master of the old school and one dedicated to achieving the noblest aims of his profession. The ardent apostles of the academy solution would have us divert our latter day Arnold from his previous beloved objectives and priorities and, instead, to examine the scope to merge with Winchester, or to acquire Harrow or to take over Eton, or, if all else fails, to share some facilities with Neasden High School. His additional responsibilities hold in prospect an agreeable combination of riches beyond any attainable via the old honoured practices and, a key factor, escape from the disagreeable and tiresome features of being a head teacher.

Let me speculate about the probable consequences of a mass transfer of schools from Local Authority control to management by super heads. I predict that the teaching profession will be invaded by a Tsunami of Arthur Daleys masquerading as pedagogues, but in reality in hot pursuit of a quick buck, the sort of quick buck easily acquired by those familiar with the no man’s land of the public-private sector, a world where the public funds the business and the private operators scoop up the profits, if any. We are looking at an educational version of the City of London populated and run by spivs for spivs, all avid for frenetic activity in the business of mergers and acquisitions.

More prosaically, my concerns about this switch to academies centre on the following points.

  • Arrangements have been in place for many years whereby the control of schools rests with democratically elected local authorities. My contention is that to the extent that these bodies are failing to discharge their responsibilities then the public has the means to take effective actions.
  • My main concern is that this transition to academies will divert the attention of Head Teachers away from the core task of providing the best possible education for all pupils to one of casting about for ways of maximising their own reward packages. In short I see a replay of the squalid farce that has been enacted in Higher Education with the shameless looting by Vice Chancellors of the unguarded public funds.
    I see a significant number of Academy CEOs plunging into wholly unnecessary restructuring in order to line their pockets at the expense of pupils and of the public.
  • I would go further and predict that if the dash to academies wins out, in a few years time the standard of education will suffer a further decline, a decline that is wholly avoidable.

So: should primary and secondary education remain primarily in the public sector with management and control remaining with local authorities or should they be privatised via academies? As usual there is some confusion with regard to the location of battle lines with some Tory Councils anxious to repel the invaders from their territory whilst there are some Labour supporters ready to go along with academies where there is evidence of local support.

I am suspicious as to the motives of the latter group but that may be due to my innate scepticism.

As I see it the main questions and suggested answers as the debate moves on are:

If the preponderant feeling is to stay as we are – so be it. Let the teachers teach and let the head teachers focus on the time honoured priority of setting and maintaining high and improving performance standards. Let the democratically elected Local Education Authorities do the rest as per the existing arrangements.

If the outcome is an unstoppable momentum to academies – what then?

  • Who will foot the bill for all the changes? You, the public.
  • Who will call the shots? The academy CEOs who make it to the top.
  • Who will benefit? The academy CEOs with their massively enhanced reward packages.
  • Who will suffer – the school children as those responsible for their education concentrate on the agreeable activities of looting the system.

Conclusion

A concluding prediction (made back in April, 2016)

Let me suggest a plausible media item in the event of a victory for the academy cause:

A beaming CEO welcomed the arrival of the new era, an era in the course of which he managed to quadruple his reward package. On the debit side he regretted that unforeseen difficulties had resulted in many pupils leaving school unable to read and write, but he stressed that lessons will have been learned – by the senior management, if not by the pupils.

It was and remains a pity that the strong case against academies was unable to compete with the academy spivs masquerading as modernising progressive radical reformers.

Image: Thomas Arnold courtesy of Rugby School

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Brexit and Mexit

Brexit – common term to denote the scheduled departure from European Institutions by the UK.
Mexit – author’s term for the possible departure of Mrs May from number 10 Downing Street within the next few months.

Mrs May is as adamant that the UK will leave Europe as she is that she will remain in No 10 until well into the 2020s. In the following notes I will discuss the current states of play of and the prospects for these two key prime ministerial objectives.

Parliament broke up for its summer holidays back in July, and since then, Brexit and Mexit  have occupied and pre-occupied the UK media.

There is clearly a degree of overlap between the two issues – the state of play in the Brexit talks between the UK and the EU, and  the survival prospects of Mrs May as Prime Minister.

“It’s no use to start talking unless you’ve made up your mind what you’ll do if the other fellow says no.”
Ernest Bevin

Those now leading the Brexit discussions for the UK should note the wise words of Ernie Bevin, one of the most accomplished UK negotiators of the last 100 years.

Mr Davis appear to labour under the misapprehension that a few crisp insults will be a more than adequate substitute for a closely reasoned case.

“Belay that talk, John Silver…This crew has tipped you the black spot in full council, as in dooty bound; just you turn it over as in dooty bound, and see what’s wrote there.” “Thanky, George,” replied the sea cook. “You always was brisk for business, and has the rules by heart, George. Well, what was it anyway?  Ah – Deposed- that’s it, is it?”
Dramatic scene from Stevenson‘s Treasure Island describing a coup – which failed – among the mutinous pirates.

A similar scenario cannot be ruled out as we enter that most worrying and unpredictable of seasons – the party conference season. Those Tory MPs who are worried about their prospects under the shaky flaky leadership of Mrs May – maybe the great majority of them bearing in mind the unforeseen cull of a significant number of former Tory MPs on June 8 – will have been busily conspiring in recent months about the timing of the handing of the black spot to Mrs May

Mrs May addressed the following remarks to the Tory Party conference back in October, 2002.

So the direction of policy will be clear. And our plans will be in place for next year’s elections. Yes we’ve made progress. But let’s not kid ourselves. There’s a way to go before we can return to government. There’s a lot we need to do in this party of ours. Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us – the nasty party.

“I know that’s unfair. You know that’s unfair but it’s the people out there we need to convince – and we can only do that by avoiding behaviour and attitudes that play into the hands of our opponents. No more glib moralising, no more hypocritical finger-wagging. We need to reach out to all areas of our society.”

I suspect that Mrs May is about to find out at first hand just how nasty the Conservative party can be when it sets its collective mind to the task.  

What are the odds on the black spot being passed to Mrs May before the end of October? My informants tell me that you can get 11/2 on that outcome – not a racing certainty by any means, but still a cause of concern for Mrs May. 

Before I get down to detail let me set out my own views – after all this is my blog.

I hope that even now it is not to late for the UK voters to grasp the enormity of the folly of their collective decision on June 23rd , 2016 – Black Thursday – and somehow or other get that decision reversed.

I have no qualms about supporting an all party grouping convened and organised solely to achieve this critical political outcome.

I remain an unrepentant Remainer.

 A snapshot of the state of play on Brexit

Just as Mrs May fears the presentation of the black spot by her Tory party colleagues – so Britain should fear receiving the black spot from and by Brussels.

What would you do if you were in power in Brussels?

I can only speak for myself, but my exasperated response would be to attach a large EU hand to the seat of our British trousers and an equally large EU hand to our British coat collar and apply the old heave ho – Get out and stay out.

Let the British try for once – just once – to see ourselves as the Europeans see us.

Might it not be the case that we are perceived as a collective pain in the backside – a combination of party poopers, disruptive pupils,  soccer hooligans, and (by some at least)as the running dogs of Rupert Murdoch and Paul Dacre?

My sympathies here are largely with the Brussels boys but I need to be careful to avoid being labelled as being of the Quisling tendency. I don’t need that sort of obloquy at my time of life.

Where are we on Mexit?

“Depend on it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”
Dr Sam Johnson

Well it would, wouldn’t it?

“If it were done when ‘tis done then ‘twere well it were done quickly.”
Macbeth reassuring himself that in murder speed is of the essence.

 Points to note on the Mexit issue include, firstly, that supporters of Mrs May – there are still a few about – are using their media influence to press the  case for TINA (There Is No Alternative). TINA was made popular by Mrs Thatcher at a time when the alternatives on offer were similarly bleak. However I suspect that the instinct for sheer political survival – always a powerful motive – will persuade significant numbers of Tory MPs to call time on Mrs May.   To put the matter into terms that would have been clear to our seafaring ancestors – a Black Spot faction will emerge to press the dreaded verdict into the sweaty palm of our Prime Minister. 

 Sceondly, will Mexit, if and when it happens, be a hard Mexit or a soft Mexit?

“Now, Grimes, you’ve got to behave like a gentleman…. Were going to leave you alone for half an hour. There’s your revolver. You know what to do.” Luckily they left a decanter of whisky in there with me..”
Decline and Fall. Evelyn Waugh

 I have opined elsewhere that a soft Mexit would entail supplying Mrs May with a loaded revolver and a bottle of Scotch, and relying on her to do the decent thing.  Under the terms of a hard Mexit the Scotch would be removed from the table.

“Subs – please check that I’m still here at the time of going to press.” Mrs T. May ( Headmistress)
Anxious request from Mrs May at the end of the spoof Private Eye column  — Sept 8- just before the start of the conference season. 

Brexit – what next ?

The news coming out of the Brexit talks grows more and more grim with each negotiating session. David Davis has mastered the art of presenting bad news with a smile, a smile that grows more and more forced as the discussions proceed.

His opponents across the table – for that is what they are – become more and more aware that they hold far stronger cards, and that they – his opponents – are quite relaxed about the excoriating comments about them in the Daily Mail with strong support from the Murdoch press. It is doubtful if  denunciation by Paul Dacre carries the same threat in Brussels as it does throughout the UK.

I am unsure about the significance of the latest Brexit policy statements coming from the Labour Party – and I am sure that my uncertainty is shared by Mr Corbyn – but what of that?

In terms of political strength, Mr Corbyn’s position ahead of and during the Labour Party conference is  much more powerful than that of Mrs May the following week in that all he has to do is to say nothing in a suitably vague key way and leave the making of mistakes to Mrs May.

The position of Mrs May ahead of and especially during the Tory party conference the following week is much more precarious and her very survival as Prime Minister is at risk because of her performance across a wide range of issues.

Theresa May actions sure to trigger a growl when mentioned in Tory circles include:

  • Her decision to call the June 8 election after stating that she would not do so.
  • Her abysmal management of the Tory election campaign.
  • Her belated recognition that there are a lot of old timers on the voting register and many of these were not impressed by her cavalier policy announcements about state support for dementia sufferers.
  • Her elevation to key election strategy roles for Nick (Rasputin) Timothy and Fiona Hill.
  • Her interminable reference to the strength and stability of her leadership.

Most telling of all was her miscalculation in calling the election.

Her predecessor, Mr Cameron, got it badly wrong when he agreed to hold the in/out referendum and he duly walked the plank.

Equality between the sexes is all the rage so why not a plank for Mrs May – low heels recommended for the trek down the plank.

 A word about the divorce settlement

It has become normal practice to describe the financial settlement that is expected to be a feature of Brexit as a divorce settlement with a disconcertingly wide range of possible amounts being bandied about.

BOJO was less than helpful here when he said that those in EU seeking amounts at the top end of the scale could go and whistle for the requested sums.

I have no idea how this matter might be progressed and under whose jurisdiction? Might the incumbent in No 10 at the time of the settlement be required to sign a cheque for say £50 billion or maybe the EU would allow us to settle the agreed amount on the basis of a Hire Purchase arrangement. 

Another word about the divorce discussions

I gather that some influential people are putting the case for the UK to remain in some key EU institutions – say within the Customs’ Union. In other words they argue that the EU could be persuaded to allow the UK to cherry pick which parts they would accept and which parts they would relinquish.

To develop  the divorce metaphor  – this is rather like a partner in divorce proceedings seeking agreement with the other half of the failed marriage if he/she could see his/her way clear to allowing a business as usual arrangement on bedroom activities to continue whilst other matters were being resolved.

In short to allow the terms of the contract covered by the  “with this body I thee wed” clause to carry on into the future.

Yet another wonderful prospect opening up for  the legal profession.

 Some Blue Sky thinking

Mr Blair was wont to talk about the need for blue sky thinking – new, out-of-the-box thinking. If ever there was a time for blue sky thinking that time is now.

The word is that an overwhelming majority of MPs would vote to reverse Brexit if that option was available to them.

How can those of us who wish to remain bring about a means of securing  that outcome?

On the subject of Blair – he and the other three living ex – Prime Ministers all argued strongly in support of remaining, and all have stuck firmly to that view. However there is no consensus about how that agreeable choice might be made available.

I gather that Dr Cable is attempting to develop a plan under which there would be a FIRST referendum to endorse or reject the terms that are finally arrived at. That seems to me to be a most promising approach, one to be supported and nourished. An approach which will grow in appeal as the reality of Brexit becomes clearer and gloomier.

So – let’s hear it for Major, Blair, Brown and Cameron – their country needs them.

A plausible political modus operandi – procrastinate and procrastinate and procrastinate again until we as a nation get the message and reluctantly accept that Brexit was a bad idea endorsed by a bewildered and battered electorate.

The happy ending might be that we get one more chance to redeem ourselves – can we please stay if we promise to be good?

One last point – The hostile exchanges between Mr Davis and his EU opponents can be compared in rancour with the robust exchanges of  views between Mr Trump and Mr Kim Jong-UN.

Is that really what we want?

Surely this great nation of ours can do better than that.

Image courtesy of Daily Star

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Donald J Trump – A Presidential Progress Report

“We here highly resolve that the dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Gettysberg Address; Abraham Lincoln 1863

A total of 154 years – or, if you prefer, seven score years and fourteen – have elapsed since Lincoln delivered his memorable words.

In the following notes I shall look at the possibility that, under President Donald J. Trump, the Gettysburg soldiers may prove to have died in vain, and that the prospects for government of the American people by the American people for the American people might be looking shaky.

“Every nation gets the government it deserves”
AND 
“In a democracy people get the leaders they deserve “

Both quotes have been attributed to Joseph De Maistre, a political philosopher who advocated not dissimilar policies to those of Mr Trump, that is, autocratic and abrasive.

I take the view that the former quote is unfair – it can hardly be argued that the long suffering people of North Korea deserve the various members of the Kim Jong family that have elbowed their way to power.

It can and indeed is being argued that the people of the USA voted Mr Trump into office and that they should suffer the consequences of their democratic choice.

“I need not point out what happens invariably in democratic states when the national safety is menaced. All the great tribunes of democracy, on such occasions, convert themselves  into despots of an almost fabulous ferocity. Lincoln, Roosevelt (T) and Wilson come instantly to mind.”
HL Mencken – Notes on Democracy 

What might Mencken have had to say about the present incumbent of the White House? I suspect that Mr Trump would be thoroughly excoriated mainly on the grounds that some of the worrying problems and tensions inside the great republic and around the world are largely the creation of Donald “Quick Draw” Trump.

Not that any amount of excoriation is likely to puncture Mr Trump’s famously thick skin.  One of his detractors – no shortage of those – has averred  that the only sensitive part of DJT is the tip of his organ of generation.

“Trumpery” – showy and worthless stuff: rubbish: ritual foolery.
Chambers English Dictionary

Thus far Mr Trump appears to be living up to his name.

Some matters arising  during the first few months of the Trump regime

The administration of Donlald Trump has been nothing if not fascinating  thus far. I am sure I am one of many in the USA and in Europe who wake up every morning eager to pick up the latest Trump news story, and anxious to grasp its significance.

His presidency has one consistent feature: excitement.  What will the fellow say next?

Rather more worrying – what will the fellow do next?

Examples from the brief Trump reign include:

  • The tetchy Trump phone call to Mr Malcom Turnbull, the Prime Minister of Australia. It appears that Mr Trump wished to renege on a commitment made by Mr Obama to accept a small number of asylum seekers from Australia.  Not a promising start in the search for peace and stability in the Pacific region.
  • The ill thought out ban on travellers from a handful of mainly Muslim countries.
  • The declared intention to proceed with the building of a wall to keep out illegal migrants from Mexico. (Whatever happened to welcoming the huddled masses yearning to breathe free?)
  • The raucous assertion that the USA had been short changed in some key international trade deals and that allegedly poor agreements would be either renegotiated or cancelled.
  • The confusion in the White House over who said what to whom in the Kremlin. At least one aspect of the confusion has been clarified and Mr Mike  Flynn has walked the plank. It is doubtful if White House policy towards those who let down the regime has got to the point where Mike  Flynn faces the prospect of the same fate as that meted out to Mr Kim Jong-nam, the erring half brother of the mighty Kim Jong -un.  Mr Jong-nam was despatched from Kuala Lumpur onto a rather longer journey than he had originally planned.

The relationship between Mr Trump and Mr Putin is said to remain civilised and the two men did exchange a brusque handshake at the recent meeting of world leaders.  I for one rejoice that this is so. I cannot  think of any other duo on the planet that I would prefer to see on speaking terms than Messrs Trump and Putin, given what might, just might,  happen were Mr Trump to add Mr Putin to his ever lengthening black list.

What about the matters at the heart of the furore in the USA about which Americans said what and met whom from the Kremlin?  It is interesting to compare the Russian approach with the American approach. Senior Kremlin officials have long argued that discretion is all in espionage matters, whereas the American preference, or at least the Trump preference, appears to be for transparency. We did nothing wrong and if we did – so what!

The word is that various electronic cloak and dagger men from both sides have been making mischief with each others’ computers.  I had always understood that this was the raison d’etre of the espionage community. If not – just what do the Cheltenham boys and girls get up to?

Anyway, a couple more examples of interest:

  • Mr Trump and Mr Kim, he of the odd haircut from North Korea – a rum duo at work here. Their widely publicised exchanges of views rather resemble playground exchanges between small boys from yesteryear – “Just you cross that line and see what happens.” It is a sign of the precarious times that Mr Kim manages to project himself as the more irresponsible of the two raucous disputants.
  • The Virginia disturbances over the Robert E Lee statue in Charlottesville. On the one side – those who wish the statue to be removed because Lee had led the confederate army against the union army in a war fought by the south to retain slavery. On the other side – those on the far right who wish the Lee statue to remain in situ. DJT got himself into difficulties by allocating equal responsibility to each of the warring factions. A more reflective and prudent president would simply have said that if the retention or removal of statues were to be resolved by today’s standards, there would be very few statues left in place.  Where would it all end? Good for the global sculpting sector but disruptive across public squares around the world.

The qualifications of Mr Trump to become President

As a politician

“Whatever one may think about democratic government, it is  just as well to have practical experience of its rough and slatternly foundations. No part of the education of a politician is more indispensable than the fighting of elections….. Dignity may suffer, the superfine gloss is soon worn away.”
Winston Churchill, Great Contemporaries, 1937.

Winston Churchill writing about Lord Rosebery  who, like Mr Trump, had  no previous experience of democracy in action. However and in addition Lord Rosebery had no enthusiasm for democracy in action whereas Mr Trump is as combative and as confrontational when wearing his political hat as he was when wearing his CEO hat.

Donald Trump had had no experience of public office nor of the democratic process before he contested, first the primaries to decide who would be the Republican candidate, and then the greatest election of all for the presidency of the United States.

There may be some overlap and some similarities between the work of the President of the United States and the work of running one of the largest companies in the world. Sadly Mr Trump is learning, not very quickly, some of the differences.

Trump as a businessman

“Bankers who are owed millions of dollars by Donald Trump .. Agreed yesterday to keep him out of the bankruptcy courts … all but one bank signed an agreement .. to provide a $20Million bridging loan enabling Mr Trump to pay interest on the bonds ….over the next 30 days the banks will complete the paperwork for the balance of a $65 million rescue package …
Bernard Levin in The Times, 1990.

The thrust of the Levin article was to praise the only bank that could not see its way clear to help Mr Trump to surmount his liquidity problems.

Mr Trump had form even then.

No American voter could say that he/she had not been aware that Mr Trump was just the latest in the long line of American business leaders who had earned the doubtful collective soubriquet of The Robber Barons, a term used back in the 19th century for entrepreneurs  specialising in the robbing of the poor – the group included but was by no means confined to Messrs Carnegie, JP Morgan, Rockefeller and Vanderbilt.

Mr T has never been one to hide his light under a bushel – it would take an outsize bushel to hide the bright light permanently emanating from DT.

I recall suffering a strained neck when, on a visit to New York, I gazed up and up and up at the Trump tower building – the building bearing the Trump name had to be the biggest and brashest in town.

And yet Donald Trump – a complete outsider in political terms – has succeeded not only in business  but now to the highest position in the land, indeed in the world, by a combination of bluster, bullying and bribery.

Reactions to the human firecracker that is President Trump

These range across the political spectrum from horror and consternation on the liberal left to uneasy and uncertain support within the  Republican party.

I quoted HL Mencken earlier and repeat the quote now – “All the great tribunes of democracy, on such occasions , convert themselves …. Into despots of an almost fabulous ferocity.”

What obstacles might DJT encounter as he seeks to tighten his grip on the American people and on their long cherished institutions?

One encouraging development – at least from the Liberal Left standpoint – has been the readiness – indeed the eagerness – of some members of the American legal profession to confront Mr Trump. Lawyers have been noted since the human race began to make rudimentary social arrangements, so to arrange matters that one outcome of all legal proceedings will be their own enrichment.

“It is likewise to be observed that this society (lawyers) hath a peculiar cant and jargon of their own, that no other mortal can understand, and wherein all their laws are written, which they take special care to multiply; whereby they have wholly confounded the very essence of truth and falsehood, of right and wrong, so that it will take thirty years to decide whether the field left me by my ancestors for six generations belongs to me or to a stranger three hundred miles off”
Jonathan Swift:- A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms

American lawyers have brought to the very pinnacle of perfection the time honoured practice of confounding the very essence of truth and falsehood, of right and wrong.

As noted there is well founded anxiety across the USA about what might happen and about what might not happen under Trump.

Across the USA, opinions are divided, but on one point all agree – the American legal profession will prosper as never before as the combination of Trump’s reckless and  ill thought out executive orders on the one hand and the rapacious lawyers on the other hand prepare for and engage in legal battles within the Byzantine complexity of the American legal systems.

Thank God for lawyers, upholders of, if not freedom, then of procrastination.

I predict that the four years of Trump presidency – please God the ONLY four years – will be over before some of the legal battles that he has spawned have got to the second legal base – and we then will be back to Business as Usual.

Is there a parallel between the Trump success and subsequent turmoil in the USA and the Brexit success and the subsequent turmoil in the UK?

Some commentators have argued that there are similarities and that in the main the similarities are based on the rejection of the established / familiar electoral options and the acceptance of alternative options that oppose the elite professional class.

In the UK this resulted in the Brexit vote. In the USA this resulted in the election of Mr Trump.

In both cases the electoral outcome has already triggered massive change and turmoil, with the prospect of much more of the same to come.

In The USA, Mr Trump shrewdly perceived the potential for change that had opened up as the result of the decline in the manufacturing sector, with the transfer of the work abroad, always to countries with a lower wage economy. Like the shrewd businessman he is, he spotted the electoral gap in the American rust belt and exploited it ruthlessly – it was possibly THE major factor in his narrow victory.

In the USA, enough voters disillusioned by and with their traditional parties opted for the candidate that promised to restore their jobs and living standards.

The issues in the EU referendum were rather more confused, and I for one got the result wrong.

I failed to spot that Mr Cameron had made a catastrophic error in calling the referendum and that some senior figures in the Tory Party would take advantage of the confusion to further their careers regardless of the economic and social consequences for the UK.

However, many of the same promises about restoring well-paid jobs and improving living standards were made to the British voters during the referendum campaign.  And these arguments may in part at least explain the Leave vote in parts of the UK that had the most to gain from staying in the EU.

Mr Trump and the social media

“The Trump world was more like – let’s say a lot of different things, they don’t even need to be coherent, and observe through the wonderful new platforms that allow you to observe how people respond and observe what works —” 

“That the  Republicans didn’t lose the can  be attributed in large measure  to their expert manipulation of social media– Donald Trump is our first Facebook president”

“What our Facebook president has discovered is that it actually pays only to please some of the people some of the time. The rest simply don’t count.”

The above quotes were taken from “How he used Facebook to win”  by Sue Halpern in the New York Review of Books, June 8, 2017 .

The addiction of Mr Trump to social media in general and to Twitter in particular had long been noted, and this aspect of his communications preferences became more and more pronounced as the USA presidential campaign proceeded.

Veteran pundits predicted that his addiction to the unusual – indeed unprecedented communications approach via social media would decline in the unlikely event that he were to win the election.

He did win but his preference for communication via Twitter has, if anything, increased. His terse pronouncements add daily to the delight of his followers and to the dismay of his opponents – numerically roughly equal.

A word about charisma

As I understand it many of the internal differences in the UK Labour Party centre on the alleged inadequacy of Mr Corbyn for the task in hand. It is said by some that he lacks charisma.

You can’t say that about Mr Trump or Mr Farage or Mr Blair or, to go back a few years, Mr Leon Trotsky.

Is charisma  really – is it really – what is required in these delicate and fractious times?

The Donald J Trump show

On February 16 of this year Trump convened a meeting in the White House, ostensibly to announce to the press the latest addition to his cabinet.

The meeting was conducted along unusual lines. In essence it was a  memorable confrontation between the media on the one side and Mr Trump on the other. Trump wanted to get his detestation of the press off his chest and he proceeded to do so.

Some president – some chest.

Having announced the name of the newcomer Mr Trump spent the next hour and a quarter engaged in a boisterous confrontation with his media opponents.

It was all good knock about stuff with Trump on the front foot throughout as he portrayed his critics as being a bunch of Un-American lying bastards – or words to that effect. To his chagrin the BBC’s Jon Sopel caught both barrels.

“Not truthful at all: liars every one of them to the very backbone of their souls”
Thus Don Juan to The Devil in Man and Superman by Bernard Shaw

The views of Don Juan about the friends of the Devil are along the same lines as those of Mr Trump about the media – verging on the critical.

I suspect that the  USA and elsewhere – right across the world-  is about  to experience a great deal more abuse from Trump as he gets into his stride.

For my part I will continue to hope for the best and prepare – but how? – for the worst.

Unorthodox human resources arrangements in the Trump inner circle

Trump has not yet grasped that political appointments need rather more careful thought than was the case for his business appointments. Poor judgements by Trump in the latter category could and were  resolved by the speedy issue of the American equivalent of a P45.

He has carried his sharp decisive approach into The White House to the consternation of his supporters and the huge delight of his adversaries.

In the space of a few months he has appointed a succession of  people to key roles within his administration with each appointment being accompanied by a warm endorsement of the commendable virtues and suitability of  each of the newcomers.

I am not sure as to the shortest time lapse between the announcement of the appointment and the more muted announcement of the departure – suffice it to say that some of the newcomers on arrival may have met themselves on the way out.

The revolving door metaphor hardly does justice to this series of White House comings and goings; a more appropriate analogy would be the scene in The Godfather when opponents of Michael Corleone were machine gunned in a revolving door.

Stop Press

I was thinking of a few suitable concluding words when DTJ did the job for me as he strode to a podium to announce a policy change by the USA about Afghanistan.

The gist of his announcement was as follows:

  • His manifesto pledge to pull the USA out of Afghanistan was to be replaced by an equally clear pledge to send additional forces with the crystal clear remit to kill terrorists.
  • The task of rebuilding Afghanistan would be the responsibility of the Afghan government.
  • The Government of Pakistan must stop harbouring terrorists – or else.

Er – that’s about it.

Short and not particularly sweet, but current and aspiring terrorists in the area would be well advised to take note.

Image courtesy of CNN

 

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A Nice Little Earner – Living it up in Higher Education’s Arthur Daleyland

“It’s the same the ‘ole world over
Its the poor what gets the blame
It’s the rich what ‘as the pleasure
Ain’t it all a blooming shame”
Popular Victorian Song, especially amongst the poor. 

I wrote the following words about senior academics back in 2001

It would be appropriate here to put in a word about the management methods employed by University and College administrators. This group saw what was going on in the privatised utilities sector and they saw that it was good. They followed suit by pushing up staff productivity by the simple expedient of pushing up student numbers whilst holding staff numbers constant. They directed significant fractions of the cost per head savings into their own reward packages. The academic admin boys have hit the jackpot. Their jobs are much less demanding than those of the staff they employ, and their reward packages much better.

Well done, Vice Chancellors.

Are you, like me, a little nervous about the longer term prospects in this sector? Can we go on like this with the numbers expanding remorselessly and the academic standards going who knows where and the top brass getting richer, much richer, between the sporadic episodes of exposure in the media? A difficult question to answer. Are standards in tertiary education rising inexorably like those in secondary education? Or are they in decline?

Sadly I suspect that the latter is the case and, in gloomy mode, I see the prospect at some not-too-distant time of a decision being taken at the highest level – say the European Court of Human Rights – to award every UK citizen a starred first from Oxbridge in the subject of his or her choice from the college of his or her choice. The contest for most popular college and subject would make for splendid television and would give useful and gainful employment to the usual media personalities. At the end of the exercise all our Universities and Colleges of Further Education could then be shut down, and, at a later date, a modest percentage of them re-opened, possibly after fumigation, under more time honoured disciplines and arrangements.

I added the following words in 2015

A letter appeared in today’s Times (Feb 2, 2015) written collectively by the English members of the Universities UK Board. The admin boys were worried that any move to reduce university tuition fees would “affect the quality of students’ education”. This commendable altruism did not appear to have been a consideration back in March, 2014 when a number of reports appeared in The Times deploring the acquisitiveness of this group. Headlines at the time included “Stop university fat cats lining their pockets,” (March 12), and “Salaries still soaring for university chiefs “ (April 4).

There was a sad development a few months later – a few senior admin boys, deeply wounded by their portrayal as greedy parasites – opted for the safety and tranquillity of early retirement on their enhanced pensions.

Small wonder that a sense of disillusion may have been discerned in the lower ranks.

Have things changed since?

Let us see what The Daily Mail and The Times have had to say in the last week or so about the penury being endured by University Vice Chancellors.

“University Chiefs are riding the gravy train“, says Oxford Bursar
The Times – August 4

David Palfreyman, the bursar in question – from New College – was quoted as saying that the salaries at the university were now grossly excessive.

He went on to say – and I admire his courage in doing so – “Despite the Vice Chancellor now being paid far more than in the past and being assisted by a cadre of costly helpers, few in Oxford would be able to detect any improvement in our governance and management”

“University pressure cooker is about to blow”
A war against steep tuition fees and overpaid vice chancellors will break out this autumn unless ministers act now
Iain Martin – The Times – August 3.

Mr Martin – like Dr Slammer in The Pickwick Papers – is furious, but not wholly convincing. Vice Chancellors, being sharp cookies, will have grasped that new stories will sooner or later take over – indeed have already done so – and that all that they need to need to do is to lie low until the fuss dies down, and then they will be able to return to their normal opulent leisurely lives.

But note – as Mr Martin notes – “Despite a public sector pay freeze lower down the chain, at least 1254 vice-chancellors and senior staff earn more than £150,000, i.e. more than does the Prime Minister”.

Mrs May would be delighted to remain in post on her current reward package, but that is another topic for another day.

So how does highest paid Vice Chancellor defend her £451,000 salary? I’m worth it
Daily Mail July 15

A photo of a beaming Dame Glynis Breakwell is shown alongside a report about her life and opulent times in her capacity as the Vice Chancellor of Bath University. The report is replete with details certain to infuriate the poor and the envious – more or less the same people.

Dame Glynis – motto, “There is nothing like a Dame” – found time to claim £2 on biscuits presumably on the basis that every little helps.

The last three words in the headline set out the heart of the matter. The wealthy dame, in response to requests to justify her reward package, simply asserts that she is worth it.
I have no doubt that the Dame speaks from the heart as well as the wallet when she makes her position clear.

But – is she right? By what reasoning did she arrive at that conclusion.

We can’t leave the matter resembling a boisterous scene in a pantomime:
DAME GYNIS: ”I’m worth it.“
GREAT BRITISG PUBLIC: “Oh no, you’re not.”
DAME GLYNIS: “Oh yes I am.”

And so on and so on.

We shall – indeed we must – return – to this crucial point.

Vice Chancellor who says £227,000 isn’t enough – because he didn’t get a free house – My job involves a lot of entertaining
Daily Mail July 28

Craig Mahoney, the VC of the University of West Scotland, “complained that his lack of a grace and favour property means he has nowhere to entertain guests and hampers his work”.

I had not previously understood that entertaining guests played such a prominent part in the work of your typical Vice Chancellor. Evidently standards are much higher in West Scotland and it may be the case that even now Her Majesty The Queen is under pressure to vacate Balmoral in order to placate the picky clientele favoured by the University of West Scotland.

I could go on and on and on. There’s plenty more where the above quotes came from, but – you get the point .

Let me close with a few choice items concerning the Vice Chancellor of Bolton University, Mr George Holmes, who came out fighting when questioned about his reward package.

“Pity all us poor university chiefs. We are not paid enough” says Bentley driving boss on £220,000″
Daily Mail, August 2

“I’m worth every penny, says £220k university chief”
The Times — August 2

Mr Holmes went well beyond the simple asseveration made by Dame Breakwell that she was worth her salary. Holmes said that “we – The Vice Chancellors – are not paid enough,” and a little later “they (Vice Chancellors) should be paid more or they could leave the country”.

His view is that he is worth his huge pay because he is a success.

Private Eye mischievously delved into the claim of the Brilliant Bolton boy to be a success, and came up with the following.

“Eye readers will recall his failed Doncaster Education City scheme which left Doncaster College with a £1.8m deficit in 2005.”
“An Ofsted report in April found Bolton UTC inadequate in all areas, including governance, and placed it into special measures.”

One has to concede that Mr Holmes is clearly a very successful confidence trickster, the Arthur Daley of the Daubhill and Deane Road areas of Bolton.

A status report on the current situation

The affluent academics flushed out by Messrs Dacre and Murdoch will doubtless feel badly bruised  but, as I learned many years ago in the hard knocks school of Industrial Relations, cash has a wonderfully healing effect on even the most severe bruising.

What about the rest of us – those outside the magic circle of light fingered academics.
How do we feel?

I would guess that most of us – inured to a steady diet of corruption at the top in the UK, will shrug our shoulders and carry on as best we can.

Let us – you and I – attempt to explore the questions arising from the revelations about the vice-chancellors.

  • What is the market price of a Vice Chancellor? On no account put this question to a Vice – Chancellor.
  • How did you, the neutral outsider, arrive at your valuation?
  • Are the VCs overpaid and, if yes, by how much?
  • Or, are their rewards about right?
  • Or, are they being short changed, and, if yes, by how much?

We will return to this all important issue, but first – a brief digression.

Let us take a quick look at the problems faced by the BBC in recent weeks. In these weeks Messrs Paul Dacre and Rupert Murdoch have relished the publication by the BBC of the reward packages of its stars and senior managers – a mutually exclusive group.

“To discuss my salary and how I’m worth every penny -I’m joined by my mother
“And now my male colleague will read the autocue more expensively”

The above two gems were the words used to accompany two Matt cartoons in the Daily Telegraph during the BBC reward revelations period.

The furore which followed the revelations provided an enjoyable phase of schadenfreude as those at the top at the BBC – senior managers and (for want of a better word) stars – sought to evade the searchlight which was used to illuminate their affairs. Those cornered did their best to justify their reward packages.

Unfortunately confusion arose because the issue of the largesse being paid out from the public purse got mixed up with the gender issue – why were females overpaid by a much smaller amount than males, a moral question to tax the sharpest of brains of either sex.

But as per the BBC, so too University Vice Chancellors. Indeed, it provokes a further question: how pervasive is the problem of senior managers in the public sector and in the no mans’ land that straddles the public and private sectors – quangoland – overpaying themselves?

I suspect that:

  • The problem is widespread,  and,
  • There will be variations between and within the various organisations

Contrary to the time honoured traditions of UK law we should assume that all are guilty and that the presumption of innocence be reversed.

Cleansing the Stables

Augeus was the king of Elis in ancient Greece and he had a problem. His problem was that he owned 3000 oxen whose stalls had not been cleansed for 30 years. If you do the calculation you will see that Augeus had on his hands, metaphorically, and, arguably, literally, a lot of bullshit.  He, King Augeus, arranged with Hercules that if he could clean the said stalls in a single day, he would receive 300 oxen in return, ie a straight 10% cut. Hercules succeeded by resorting to a highly imaginative irrigation technique, and went on to claim the rewards from the contract.  King Augeus, like many of his fellow monarchs at the time and since, was not averse to a spot of sharp practice and queried the terms of the deal (were they in writing? – the text does not make this clear) and the upshot was that Hercules remained oxenless.

The term Augean has come to mean filthy, difficult and bereft of reward, the perfect contrast to the cushy number. Hercules had landed a job which combined high demand, zero reward and, another common feature, a lot of bullshit to clear away. None of the labours of Hercules was a cushy number, but his arrangement with Augeus was the one most apposite to my requirements.

British Augean stables ready to be cleansed include:-

  • The NHS
  • Local authorities
  • Quango land
  • Whitehall

Etc and so on and so on

Is the Private sector, by way of contrast, a model of sound governance, with an all pervasive sense of old fashioned probity throughout?

Err:  Not quite.

Back in 2004 I wrote about remuneration committees that operate in the private sector as follows:

“A word about the systems used to monitor or more realistically keep a sleepy eye on executive reward packages. Most big companies have remuneration committees which determine the reward packages of the bosses. Given the incestuous and overlapping membership of these committees it is scarcely surprising that their recommendations err on the generous side and the outcome is an avalanche of cash into executive pockets. This whole operation brings to mind the unseemly expression about “them” all using the same chamber pot or words to that effect.

Furthermore, the salaries (and expense accounts) of those appointed to quangos – non-departmental government bodies – are almost invariably eye-wateringly high, while at the same time rarely obliging the fortunate individuals appointed to them to perform any meaningful or worthwhile activities.

Nice work if you can get it, if ‘work’ is really the correct term.

Now for the tricky bit – What might be, could be, should be done to curb the acquisitive propensities of our senior managers?

Dear Reader(s?) – have you noticed that many of our top brass, when asked if they are motivated by money, respond with vehement denials.

They insist that they are – to a man /woman motivated by a desire to serve the public, and they are at the service of the public. They are all – to coin a phrase – pro bono publico.

If that is the case – we, the public, can remove the cause of their anxiety and sharply cut back their reward packages to allow them much more time to devote to their commendable devotion to serving the public.

If we, the public, proceed along these lines, some malcontents may vacate these shores and take up residence elsewhere where their talents will be appreciated.

If that were to happen then it would indeed be a welcome if unanticipated consequence.

Actions this day – I will imitate the practice of Winston Churchill when he wanted not a Chilcot solution to be completed in or around a decade or so but one to be completed this very day.

  • Bring in a modern day Savonarola tasked with replacing the existing generous arrangements with arrangements more suited to the all pervasive austerity stoically experienced and endured by the rest of us.
  • HMG to tackle the problem – we need to be clear that only HMG can put in hand the required measures. Fulminating press campaigns will help, but a sympathetic government is a sine qua non to overcome the inevitable resistance of and by the well heeled.
  • HMG to appoint an effective latter day Hercules to cleanse the UK Augean stables. The key point to make about the job of our new Tsar is that it is a fairly straightforward task to hand out P45s to those at the top deemed surplus to requirements and memos to those allowed to remain to be informed of the sharp cuts to their reward packages.  (Note to No 10 – NOT someone like Eric Pickles who appeared to be – indeed who was – altogether too lethargic in his tenure as anti-corruption Tsar.)

Other measures to include:-

  • A ruthless reduction in the reward packages currently collected – note – NOT earned – in the public sector and in quangos.
  • A steep increase in the taxes levied upon high pensions – previous generations of Arthur Daleys must not be allowed to make their way to their respective boot hills in golden coaches.
  • Making it clear that the people who constitute the theme of these notes, unlike judges, ARE the enemies of the people – they are helping themselves from the public purse on a daily basis.

    Image courtesy of University Business

 

Featured

A Parrisian Emotional Spasm

“The Conservatives are criminally incompetent”
“Even in the bad times I felt proud of my party but this scarcely believable Brexit shambles has left me deeply ashamed”
Heading and Sub Heading from The Times July 29 – Matthew Parris

“And you call that statesmanship. I call it an emotional spasm.”
Nye Bevan responding roughly to hecklers at the Labour Party conference in 1957.

My text for today is the Parris column which appeared under the dramatic headlines referred to above.

It is one thing for – let us say Mr John McDonnell, Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, – to talk airily about the criminally incompetent Tories. It is rather more worrying for Mrs May and her cabinet colleagues to see themselves described as criminally incompetent by the thoughtful Mr Parris, a lifelong Tory and former MP, albeit one of the Tory left persuasion.

What has happened to trigger this Parrisian emotional spasm?

Parris makes it clear at the start of his column that the target of his ire is “not the government’s incompetence, Whitehall’s ill preparedness, the Prime Minister’s inadequacy, Labours disunity or even Europe’s aggressiveness ….. Do the voters even begin to understand how this mess is entirely of the Conservative Party’s creation – The fingerprints for this crime of mismanagement are Tory fingerprints- ”

Thus the Parris opening statement for the prosecution.

A couple of observations.

Polonius – My Lord I will use them according to their desert–
Hamlet – God’s bodykins, man, much better.
Use every man after his desert, and who should ‘scape whipping”

Hamlet shrewdly points out to Polonius the consequences of applying too rigorously the adage of each according to his deserts.  The whippers would need to operate a 24/7 system to ensure that the those performing below par got the treatment.

I have only the shakiest grasp of the criminal law but I would surprised if mismanagement is defined anywhere as being a crime. Let us be charitable and assume that Mr Parris got carried away at this point.

After a couple of paragraphs of fairly feeble criticism of Messrs Johnson, Fox, Davis and Tory MPs, Parris returns to splenetic mode.

“I call this criminal; irresponsible to the point of culpable recklessness towards their country’s future….. Do we yet understand, has it yet been born in on us, that it is we and we alone who have led the whole country into the predicament it now finds itself – I return to England ashamed to be a Conservative.”

Well – there you have it.

Let me go further than I did a couple of paragraphs ago.

  • There is no such crime as mismanagement – just as well as the already malfunctioning prisons would struggle to cope with the hundreds of thousands of new inmates from HMG, from Whitehall, from the Town Halls, from our Universities – but note that the behaviour of some Vice Chancellors may well be verging on the criminal as they loot the funds placed under their control placed there to fund higher education.
  • The hysteria that is such a prominent feature of this particular Parris column obscures rather than clarifies what went wrong and why, and, crucially, Mr Parris fails to spell out or even to suggest the possible steps that are available to retrieve the situation.  The former MP generates heat where light would be more appropriate. In all the matters discussed in his column Mr Parris shirks the challenge of fleshing out his generalisations – which are mostly sound; he uses a metaphorical shot gun to back up his assertions, when a precision rifle is called for.

“All animals are equal”: the 7th commandment in the first list issued by the animals following their takeover of Manor Farm in Orwell’s Animal Farm. As the revolution turned full circle the commandment was later amended to read- “All Animals are equal – But some Animals are more equal than others”.

I would like to borrow the amended version and further amend it to read – “All Conservatives are guilty – but some are more guilty than others.” Mr Parris clearly wishes it to be understood that he personally is not guilty as charged – by himself – but he is not quite as understanding of and as forgiving of the great majority of his fellow Tories.

Let me offer a version that combines a good deal more charity towards the silent majority of Tories with a rather more damning but also plausible indictment of the guilty Tory brexiteers.

The silent majority of Tories – caught up in a bitter conflict that was not of their own making – used the plausible excuse that the people had spoken and that the verdict arrived at by the people in the June 23, 2016 in out referendum must be not only respected but implemented.

The key point is that some Tories are more guilty than others.

A glance back at what happened before the May 2015 General Election

Prime Minister David Cameron, fearful that he and his party might be outmanoeuvred by UKIP on the delicate issue of EU membership, rashly committed his party to an In / Out referendum should he be in a position to do so after the election.

Cameron was obviously confident that he would win any referendum and his main concern was to secure a result that not only kept Labour out but would also enable him to shake off the encumbrance of his Lib Dem coalition partners.

To the surprise of many he succeeded in achieving a narrow but perfectly workable Tory majority over all the other parties in the May 2015 election – so – a prompt goodbye to the Lib Dem Mr Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister in the pre-election government, who was soon to be followed into the wilderness by the leader of the Labour opposition, Mr Ed Miliband.

More joy was to follow for Cameron – in September 2015 Ed Miliband was succeeded as Labour leader by Mr Jeremy Corbyn – widely and understandably regarded as a no-hoper by the commentariat.

May 2015 to June 2016

The main political feature of this period was the contest between the Ins and the Outs in the referendum campaign.

The various prominent figures on both sides on both sides of the argument were in the main clear as to their respective positions from the start.

Most MPs from the main parties were in favour of remaining in the EU. The prominent Outs were Mr Nigel Farage – the referendum was largely for his benefit – together with long time anti-Europeans such as Bill Cash.

Mr Paul Dacre of Daily Mail fame/notoriety could be relied on to support the out campaign and he duly did so. Mr Rupert Murdoch, proprietor of The Sun and The Times, could be relied upon to make mischief and he duly did so.

It was said that significant numbers of voters voted to leave because they were alarmed by reports of large scale uncontrolled immigration, but immigration was always likely to be an important issue in the referendum campaign and one must presume that Mr Cameron factored this into his calculations.

In the early stages the debate was not about the outcome but rather about the scale of the In majority. Mr Cameron knew or thought he knew which Tories would support the Remain cause and which would not. He failed to foresee that Michael Gove and Boris Johnson were men of deeply held principles and that they would stick to their principles by supporting whichever outcome would best further their own career prospects.

As the debate proceeded and the referendum date drew near a new issue emerged with the appearance of two hitherto unknown elements – the respective consciences of Messrs Johnson and Gove. Their damascene conversions followed by their admittedly effective campaigning were significant factors in swinging the balance away from Remain and towards Leave.

Cameron paid a heavy price for his inability to spot this pair of charlatans despite his supposed in-depth knowledge of their respective characters.

He resigned as PM on June 24 – the day after the referendum – as soon as it became clear that the in case had been defeated.

(A request to Mr Parris – please note that the behaviour of Johnson and Gove was despicable but NOT criminal. Please note also that Mr Cameron got the whole affair badly wrong, unfortunate for him – and for the UK – and for the EU – but not criminally so.)

The circumstances of Cameron’s resignation recalled to my mind a story that appeared in the autobiography of Bobby Windsor, the third and most boisterous member of the Pontypool Front Row. The other two members of this illustrious trio were Graham Price and Charlie Faulkner. Windsor wrote about payments made at the time to players at Cross Keys RFC. “Charlie was getting £3.50 and I was on £5. Before my first season as captain I was invited into the committee meeting to discuss plans. Charlie says to me, Tell them I want a fiver same as you. If they don’t agree to that, I’m f****** off. When I came out of the meeting, he said – What’s happening? I said – You’re f****** off.

What happened after DC resigned in June 2016

  • There was an intriguing and entertaing campaign as to who would become the one to replace DC as leader of the Tory party and, rather more importantly, as our new Prime Minister.
  • The two main Tory turncoats – from In men to Out men – excelled themselves, with Gove edging ahead in terms of sheer treachery.  BOJO withdrew from the race when Mr Gove announced his decision to stand.
  • The latter defection proved too much for Tory MPS and Mr Gove came a poor third to Mrs Andrea Leadsom – mother of 3 – and Mrs Theresa May – childless. Mr Gove then also withdrew from the race.
  • The contest then became a walkover after Mrs Leadsom made some ill considered comments about the advantages of having a mother as Prime Minister.
  • Mrs May entered Number 10 but not before making a speech from the front door, a speech carefully designed to be all things to all people. Her subsequent cabinet appointments were a source of qualified delight to BOJO, who had clearly not expected any favours. He did appear slightly uneasy, though, about having to job share at the Foreign Office with Messrs Liam Fox and David Davis, but beggars can’t be choosers
  • Mr Gove was awarded the consolation prize of becoming a messenger boy for Mr Murdoch.
  • Mrs May quickly decided to respect the verdict of the voters by arranging for the UK to leave the EU. She also stated that she would not call an election until 2020, ie 5 years after the 2015 election won by the DC government.

July 2016 to May 2017

The main points to note by way of explanation about what happened next are:-

  • In the referendum campaign Mrs May had been a clear but muted advocate for the In cause.  This track record did not prevent her from asserting that the will of the people would prevail, and that she would make all necessary arrangements for Brexit.
  • Progress towards the implementation of Brexit proceeded at a leisurely pace for the rest of 2016 and for the first few months of this year
  • Mrs May then announced in early May to a startled country that she would call an election to be held on June 8th in order to strengthen her position at the forthcoming discussions to finalise exactly how and under what conditions, the UK would sever its links with the EU.

Main features of the June 8 Campaign

  • The Tory campaign was all about Mrs May – said by Mrs May to be strong and stable – as opposed to Mr Corbyn who possessed neither of these attributes.
  • The commentariat debated the range of possible outcomes – given the widely perceived – by the commentariat – unelectability of Jeremy Corbyn – say from a Tory majority of 50 at the bottom end to 150 at the top end.
  • As the campaign proceeded Mrs May was seen to be making what we old manager johnnies would call a bollox of it – remember the fiasco of the dementia tax.
  • Finally and sadly the voters – showing all the reliability and consistency of BOJO and Gove – reduced her parliamentary majority to vanishing point. Effectively the outcome was a clear indication of the falling support for Brexit and the bum’s rush for Mrs May. As I write she is dependent for her very political existence on a shaky platform built on shit and quicksand – an arrangement with the Democratic Unionist Party.

Features of the current situation

  • Most of the main movers and shakers are basking in the baking heat of Southern Europe. It may well be the case that the political tempers of the movers and shakers will be mirroring the ambient temperatures.
  • I suggested in a recent blog post that Mrs May will not be in No 10 by the end of Sept – the instinctive desire of her Tory-party colleagues for political self preservation will see to that.
  • A lot of professional politicians with faultless records of suitably docile service to their respective parties are said to be looking anxiously at the ease with which the new French President sacked a whole generation of party hacks and replaced them with… who? You tell me.

“Then – why the hell this defeatism?”
Nye Bevan deploring the feeble response to election defeat by the Labour Party in 1959.

A few closing points to convert Mr Parris from being a moaner-Remainer in a plaintive muted minor key to a fortissimo Remainer.

In recent months there have been some faint hopes stirring among we dogged Remainers that all may not be lost

In no special order:

  • The outcome of the June 8 General Election was a clear sign that electoral support for Brexit was and is waning.
  • Dr Vince Cable,  a passionate Remain advocate,  has secured the leadership of the Lib Dems.
  • There are encouraging signs that Mr Corbyn may decide to spend more of his time on matters of UK importance and rather less to the distressing but remote problems that are exciting people in Venezuela. We should recall that Mr Corbyn was a tireless advocate for the Remain cause on many platforms prior to the referendum.
  •  Mr Tony Blair has cautiously raised his head above the parapet to suggest that all is not lost and that ways can be found to build a new coalition to campaign for a second opinion.
  • Tory government ministers Davis, Fox and Hammond are on occasions taking time off from denigrating their colleagues and each other to hint that the task of securing brexit may well turn out to be rather more protracted than originally predicted.

So speaking only for myself but hoping that Matthew Parris may be listening:
What do we Remainers want?
A- A reversal of the decision arrived at by the In/Out referendum of June 23, 2016.
When do we want it?
A- Now.
What is our policy?
A- To initiate an energetic campaign to reverse the decision to leave the EU; to demand that the government put country before party; to apologise to the EU and get back to Business as Usual within the European Union.
What advice do we have for the whining Remainers as typified by Matthew Parris – he of the emotional spasms?
A- Shape up and follow the advice of that great Tory Winston Churchill and cut out the flinching, the wearying and the despairing.
What about the threat posed by Paul Dacre?
Follow the instruction of Rupert Murdoch back in 1983 – namely, F*** Dacre.
(On this last point honesty compels me to acknowledge that Murdoch was referring to a different Dacre but the instruction remains valid and free of ambiguity in the context of the Remain / Leave debate.)

 

 

Featured

How to Solve a Problem Like the BBC

“The British Broadcasting Corporation, as everyone must know, is a very great organisation. In the world of responsible television there are the BBC and some others. Its genius lies in the quality of the people it attracts…..”
The Age of Uncertainty,  John Kenneth Galbraith, 1977

“Up to a point, Lord Copper”
Scoop, Evelyn Waugh, 1936

The praise lavished by Galbraith on the BBC was, of course, wholly divorced from the fact that the BBC had asked him to “do a TV series on some unspecified aspect of the history of economic or social ideas” and that the lavish praise appeared in the forward to the book of the series. Like many before and after him, Galbraith was not one to bite the hand that fed him.

In the years that have elapsed since The Age of Uncertainty was first shown the BBC has demonstrated a remarkably consistent performance in one area, namely its ability to lavish praise upon itself. A National Treasure is just one of the terms widely deployed by the BBC to describe the BBC.

But – does today’s BBC really merit the self serving opinions of the BBC about the BBC?

Let me use the recent furore that followed the release of the rewards paid out to BBC stars and BBC senior managers as a test case.

I wrote the following letter to The Times on July 20 – it was not published despite my paying close attention to the publication rules of that august organ, the first rule being the need to lavish praise on The Times.

“Sir,
The Times is to be commended for its coverage of the revelations about the high earnings of substantial numbers of BBC employees – The Times July 20. The Times is also to be commended for widening the scope of its coverage to include the bloated bureaucracies that flourish within the BBC.
Mr John Humphreys is quoted as saying that we operate in a market economy and in my view this comment points the way towards an obvious solution to the various problems discussed in your columns.
The privatisation of the BBC would solve all the problems highlighted both by the revelations and by your catalogue of its institutional failings at a stroke – so why not do it?”

The gist of the revelations

“ To discuss my salary and how I’m worth every penny, I’m joined by my mother…”
“ And now my male colleague will read the autocue more expensively”
“ And could you please send the Brexit bill to Gary Lineker, c/o the BBC…”

The above 3 quotes were taken from Matt cartoons in The Daily Telegraph during revelation week and they sum up beautifully how the original story – a searchlight on which stars get what at the top of the BBC – altered rapidly to become yet another story of gender inequality.

“The female of the species is more deadly than the male”
Rudyard Kipling

By the end of the week the BBC was teeming with stars and celebrities of the male persuasion ruefully acknowledging the insight revealed in Kipling’s poem. Forty or so fiery, fuming, fairly well-paid feminists banded together to lodge a protest against the perceived – by them – injustice of the BBC system used to reward its top people.

In truth, there were no great surprises in the revelations despite the shock horror banner headlines. There may have been a few raised eyebrows at some of the more obscure names on the list and equally a few raised eyebrows at some of the reward packages – possibly the latter eyebrows may not have been identical to the former eyebrows.

Some of the names at the very top of the list chose to tough out the storm of adverse publicity – a response that they may live to regret. Mr Lineker was prominent in this micro list.

One not entirely predictable outcome was the peevish response of the fearless forty who used the revelations to voice their perennial gripe that once again women were seen to be on the wrong end of a raw deal. It did not occur to them that to those outside the gilded cage that is the BBC there would be many license payers – of both sexes – who thought that just about all the reward packages paid to all on the list were excessive.

Press and broadcast comment varied from a perception that this was yet another instance of the females of the species anxious to get their dainty little noses into the trough – greed masquerading as concern for the oppressed – to a perception that the time was up for all the excesses that are built into the very fabric of the BBC.

As noted earlier, The Times took the opportunity to wade into the senior management of the BBC across a wide front and not just on the reward packages of the stars, taking aim in an editorial at senior managers with mysterious job titles. “Identity architects,” analytics architects and service architects were listed in this category.

I have to confess that I would be nonplussed if asked to outline the tasks of these latter day Stakhanovites working tirelessly at the media equivalent of the coal face.

Did Mr Kelvin McKenzie, veteran media man and long-time errand boy for Mr Rupert Murdoch, have a point when, in a discussion with a colleague concerning the earnings of the design team at L!ve TV, he observed, ”F—in’ ’ell. Did you hear that, Nick? Forty f—in’ grand for farting about with a comma. We’re in the wrong game, mate”. An unseemly but incisive view on hot air doubling up as creative talent, and one which manages to steer clear of gender matters.

In the following notes I will focus on the managerial problems at the BBC and leave the delicate matter of gender inequality to other, hardier writers. The wife of my bosom these past 51 years supports the feminist cause and I am anxious not to trigger marital disharmony at my time of life.

A stroll down memory lane

“In the beginning the building was without staff and empty.
And Sir John Reith said let there be staff – and there was staff.”
John Holden, with thanks to Frank Dickens and his creation Bristow.

I don’t want to be drawn into comparing today’s BBC with the BBC’s golden age under the management of John Reith. In his day the BBC stuck firmly to its core objectives to inform, to educate and to entertain. The objectives of senior BBC people today might be described as to enrich themselves and their families and friends at the expense of the suckers who pay the licence fee.

Before I bring my story up to today, a brief word about Dr Charles Hill, later Lord Hill who was the Chairman of the BBC from 1967 to 1972. In an earlier era, Dr Hill served the nation in general and listeners to the old BBC Home Service in particular when he gave his weekly talk in his capacity as the Radio Doctor. I can still – just – recall his plummy tones as he exhorted his listeners to take care of their bowels and provided details of the various diets that would promote this commendable objective – an early example of public service broadcasting at its best.

It would be difficult to pinpoint the precise point at which Reithism degenerated into today’s BBC.

Was the takeover of the BBC by the latter day incarnations of Arthur Daley – the light fingered businessman who entertained the nation with his imaginative schemes to persuade the gullible to part with their money – a sudden coup or a slow but steady decline? I incline to the latter explanation.

Q- Why does a dog lick its balls?
A- Because it can!

This old adage about the opportunities available only to the male line of the canine species goes a long way to explain the acquisitive propensities of the senior managers in the BBC.

“I seen my opportunities and I took ‘em”
George Washington Plunkitt, a veteran politician of the Tammany Hall era, explaining the difference between honest graft and dishonest graft.

Thus Plunkitt, and thus the senior management of the BBC.

A few BBC case studies in no special order now follow.

The contribution of John Birt

Birt was the Director General of The BBC throughout most of the 1990s. His time at the top was perceived by some as bringing in the much-needed reform of an institution that has ossified in previous years.

Others took the view that he was responsible for the introduction of a tsunami of authentic managerial gibberish.

I suggest that the two views were not and indeed are not mutually exclusive in that there possibly did exist scope to bring the objectives and practices of the BBC up to date and the legacy of Mr Birt was not the way to do it. It was no accident that Birt was close to Tony Blair and that Mr Blair was fond of advocating radical progressive modernist reform but also that he was notably reticent about putting flesh onto the bones of his slogans.

Back to Birt. It was unfortunate that the time of Mr Birt at the BBC was marred when it emerged that his employment arrangements did not include his being employed by the BBC. This was done by an early ingenious agreement that the reward package paid to him was not via the conventional method familiar to you and to me but instead paid to a consultancy owned by Mr Birt.

Not exactly transparent and when made public the arrangement was changed to the one which applied to all the other BBC employees.

This shady innovation has been refined to keep the curious and HMRC at bay and it continues to be popular with the top brass at the BBC.

Speaking of being Marred

A few years ago there was speculation in the media as to the identity of the eminent person who had secured a super injunction to forbid any mention of his alleged playing away from the matrimonial home.

The injuncter was eventually revealed as being Mr Andrew Marr and it turned out that his sexual activities had not been particularly exciting by the exacting standards of today.

What startled some on the outside of the BBC was not the extra marital activities – no big deal there – but rather that the BBC continued to employ in a senior capacity a man who had secured the most despised of sanctions by journalists – a super injunction.

Marr continues to front a Sunday morning programme – The Andrew Marr Show – the very name underlines the descent of the BBC; there’s no business like show business.

A word about Mr Yentob

This gentleman deserves a special mention in the group under discussion. I suspect – and hope – that when normal service is resumed at No 10 Downing Street, that time and resources will be made available to look into the shady past of Alan Yentob. Never in the history of human sharp practice has one man got away with so much from the BBC.  There would be stiff competition to be awarded this coveted accolade but I can see no serious challenger to Yentob.

His chequered BBC career was covered in some media outlets and the following tips of the Yentob iceberg surfaced:

  • It emerged that that was considerable doubt as to what he had been doing, if anything, at the BBC. There had been a time when he had been busy, sufficiently so to build up a pension pot of £6.3 million, an amount that was a record for the public sector and no mean feat of planning to secure an old age that would be adequately cushioned from poverty.
  • Mr Yentob also hit the headlines for the wrong reasons on account of his shaky stewardship of the Kids’ Company charity where it was hinted that he had been less than competent in overseeing the financial affairs of the charity – a far cry from his unmatched competence in the management of his own financial affairs.

The Dimbleby dynasty

The founding father of the Dimbleby dynasty was Richard, a broadcaster whose approach to the job was rooted mostly, but not wholly, in the principles of John Reith. Dimbleby Senior was shrewd enough to recognise a cushy number when he saw one and he duly guided his sons, David and Jonathan, into the BBC using the time honoured methods of nepotism.

I was surprised to see that neither of the Dimbleby brothers featured in the list of revelations but then some alert observer noted that the financial relationship between them and the BBC was fashioned after the approach adopted by John Birt, that is some sort of arms-length relationship to make the task of HMRC that much more difficult.
Doubtless there will be developments here as tireless investigators, not especially in love with the Dimblebys, attempt to unravel the exact rewards of this group.

At one point in the recent general election campaign David Dimbleby looked straight at the camera and spoke of the BBC as being “Your BBC”. Would this assertion have applied before or after the sizeable convoluted payments to the Dimbebys and to those employing similar complex management of their employment terms and conditions?

You tell me.

Jenny Abramsky

I have included my next case study solely to bring comfort and joy to the oppressed forty fiery feminists whose poverty has been in the recent headlines.

On July 13, 2008, William Langley wrote an article in the Sunday Telegraph in which he drew attention to the splendid reward package paid to Jenny Abramsky. He noted that JB had “secured a pension worth £4 million, believed to be the largest ever for a public employee in Britain.”

Girls – follow the example of JB and you won’t go far wrong.

A disconcerting point arising from the Langley piece is that little if anything has changed in the past 9 years at the BBC, and that far too much pay continues to be doled out to far too many for doing… what?

James Purnell – Politician turned BBC senior manager

Mr Purnell is an intriguing figure – his Oxford First Class degree and his employment by the BCG consulting group – a group of sharp cookies if ever there was one – mark him out as a man of considerable talent.

He resigned as an MP in 2010 and, after a few years of networking, joined the BBC as a senior manger in an ill-defined but well rewarded capacity.

It may be that Mr Purnell, having endured a rough time following the emergence of some alleged sharp practices at the time of the MP expense scandal, opted to pursue a career where there was still ample opportunity for modest nest-feathering and duly made his way to the BBC.

He will not be happy, not only having to explain his own enviable terms and conditions, but also at having to explain to a suspicious public the enviable terms and conditions paid out by the BBC to the stars and to the senior management.

The Future

So: what are the chances of a real change within the BBC under its present management – let us say a true reversion to the standards applied by John Reith?

The odds in favour are about the same that you and I have of being struck by lightning.

The case against the top management of the BBC is so pervasive and so compelling – it has become a refuge, a safe sanctuary for the Arthur Daleys of our time. Its managers combine the arrogance of a Goering with the hypocrisy of Mr Pecksniff.

A dubious collection of Narcissi continually assuring themselves and the public that they preside over an organisation that is the envy of the world.Actually, there may well some truth embedded in the assertion in the second half of the previous sentence – there may well be many media people across the world full of envy for the cushiness that goes with the job of being a senior BBC manager.

Suggested Remedies
“Why everyone’s pay should be made public”
Libby Purves, The Times, July 24, 2017 
Libby – shall we do one job at a time?

“They are so full of themselves that it is hard to imagine how such a corrupted institution could ever be brought sensibly back onto the rails.”
Christopher Booker, Sunday Telegraph, July 23, 2017 
A policy of despair from Booker. He should follow the splendid advice of Sir Winston Churchill: Never flinch, never weary, never despair. Be a man, CB – shape up.

“The answer to the BBC gender gap is simple: cut the wages of the men”
Dominic Lawson, Daily Mail, July 24, 2017 
His approach won’t even begin to tackle the perceived gender gap.

What approach is likely to bring about the cleansing of the Augean stables that are currently filling up the BBC and who might emerge as Hercules to carry out the job and when?

Q – What do we – the public – want?
A – We want the Augean stables located within the BBC to be thoroughly cleansed .
Q – When do we – the public – want it?
A – We want it now!
Q – Who should be given the job?
A – Well – as someone on the run from John Humphreys in a tricky interview might say – that is a very good question.

A few pointers:
The BBC is in the media business.
It demands a commercial framework when it suits it as a lever to push rewards ever upwards.
It pleads for a national treasure framework when it suits it – surely everyone loves the BBC?

Why not opt for the blindingly obvious solution which is to put it up for sale and then sell it to the highest bidder? Its new owners could then get on the job of managing a new entrant into a competitive global media market.

An eBay ad might read:-
For sale – slightly shop-soiled broadcasting organisation. Some strengths but desperately needs new owners who would have to start with a clear out of the current failing but affluent top brass.

The scope is there to build a sound honest company.

Possible purchasers – Who might be interested?

On the home front – Mr Desmond? Mr Branson?

A foreign buyer – Surely after decades of indoctrination about the benefits of globalisation – now is not the time to baulk at the BBC being sold to an overseas buyer?
USA media moguls? Their equivalents in China? Russia? India? The Middle East?

I beg HMG to start to think outside the box, to think the unthinkable, to undertake genuine blue sky thinking – or even just plain Sky thinking as undertaken by Mr Rupert Murdoch.

Image courtesy of telegraph.com

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The Theresa May Soap Opera

In the recent general election, held on June 8, there was a widespread assumption across the country immediately prior to the declaration of the result that the worst outcome – for Mrs May – would be a significant increase in the Tory majority of 17 to around 50, and the best outcome – for Mrs May – an increased majority well into 3 figures.

The outcome – among other things – caused the prophetic talents of most of the commentariat to be called into question.

I gather that there are now debates of sorts going on regarding the following linked but separate issues:

  • The administration of Mrs May is widely perceived as standing on the shakiest of foundations.
  • A leadership election would solve nothing.  Says who? Says Mrs M.

It would appear that a substantial slice of the Tory parliamentary pie would beg to differ. Malcontents are said to be murmuring sentiments along the lines of:  We are going nowhere fast – let’s get it over with – who knows  – with a different leader and with a spot of emollience here and there –  we might even win. 

  • Who therefore is likely to replace Mrs May as Tory leader and hence as our next Prime Minister when she leaves Number 10 sometime in the next few months? 
  • Which of the two main parties is most likely to emerge as the winner in the General Election which would be likely to follow?
  • What are the prospects of the Brexit vote in the June 2016 referendum being reversed and if yes, under what circumstances?

One tricky factor is the unreliably of the Tory – DUP coalition (a tiny pugnacious tail wagging a worn out dog). (I almost used the female of dog but feared that it might be politically incorrect and certainly ungentlemanly.)

 Please understand that I know no more than you do about the debates within debates that occupy the time of the main players: I read the newspapers and watch the TV news.

I have not had and do not expect to receive calls from BOJO and Mr Corbyn and other key players in the inner ring giving me the inside story.

Is Mrs May about to walk the plank?

In theory, Mrs May could cling on in No 10 right up to June 2022, showing the tenacity of Mr Assange holed up in the Uruguayan embassy. This is an unlikely but not impossible scenario.

Paddy Power will supply the odds for this outcome but is it really plausible? Not really. 

Who is the most likely replacement?

Again, Paddy Power will supply the odds but it is at this point that the matter becomes really interesting, because the drawing up of the short list is a matter for the (thinned out) Tory members of Parliament. Voting on the short-listed candidates is then extended to the membership of the Tory party, and this group is rather more concerned to secure the interests of the Tory party in the country.

So, the voting MPs in the drawing up of the short list will be concerned to ensure that their chosen candidate has the best chance of securing a Tory win in the highly probable ensuing election.

A few points to make by way of an interim report

  • Most of the main players have packed buckets and spades and headed for the seaside. They will not be around for the next six weeks or so.
  • Mr Dominic Grieve (who he?) will be minding the HMG shop in the absence of Mrs May. 
  • The main players will not be limiting their activities to shovelling sand into buckets. They will of course use the tranquility of the silly season to further their respective aims and policies via time-honoured plots and conspiracies.

The lessons of recent history – a look at which regime changes at / in Number 10 were civilised and which were not

Wilson replaced by Heath, 1970 – a regime change as per the text book, that is as per the verdict of the electorate.

Heath by Wilson, 1974 –  an own goal by Heath who absurdly asked the voters, Who governs Britain?  The gist of the response of the voters was that it was you, Mr Heath, but not any more.

Callaghan by Thatcher, 1979 – another text book democratic regime change.

Thatcher by Major, 1990 – Thatcher was given the old heave-ho by her parliamentary colleagues, mainly because she had opened fire on the Town Halls and with that move had increased the prospect of yet more confrontation. Tory MPs took the view that after a decade of Mrs T they were entitled to a  peaceful era,  and who, apart from Mrs T, could blame them? Anything for a quiet life.    

Major by Blair, 1997 – a landslide win by the most accomplished harvester of votes in the modern age.

Blair by Brown, 2007 – the years of plotting by Brown against Blair finally paid off. Blairites were ousted from key positions and replaced by Brownites, and Blair walked the plank, albeit with the plaudits of most of the House Of Commons ringing in his ears. 

Brown by Cameron, 2010 – a penalty shoot-out: the outcome was that Mr Clegg decided (how and on what basis?) that a deal with Mr Cameron was a slightly lesser evil than a deal with Mr Brown.

Cameron by Mrs May, 2016 – after Mr Cameron foolishly asked the British people, Yes or no to the EU? The response from the voters was to the effect that we don’t keep  a dog and then do our own barking. 

Mrs May by ?, 2017 – keep reading. 

As I write, Mrs May still resides in No 10, but the bailiffs are poised to hand out an eviction notice. She rashly asked the UK voters to strengthen her position vis a vis the EU in the forthcoming Brexit discussions and the skittish voters handed her the electoral equivalent of the black spot.

I suspect that she will be seeking – rather against her own wishes – new accommodation within the next few months and in the following notes I assume that this will happen.

The Tory party campaign during the recent general election (lost by Mrs May but not really won by Mr Corbyn) was all about Mrs May and sadly she wilted and withered under the relentless media scrutiny. 

As I write she is suffering from the effing syndrome – she is faltering, floundering, foundering, failing, flailing, frustrated, fulminating, furious & fractious. 

A few other adjectival candidates suggested themselves, all wholly appropriate, but this is a family blog and the decencies must be observed. 

A proposed timing plan to cover the next few months

  • Mid September  – The hour of the men in suits arrives and Mrs May is ousted via a leadership challenge.
  • End of September  – after a boisterous phase in which the usual mendacious pleasantries will be exchanged,  a short list comprising Messrs BOJO, Gove, Davis and Hammond will be chosen by Tory MPs and then presented to the electorate which is made up of members of the Tory party.  The four masochists will duly receive the most searching examination of their real and imagined qualities, and the cup of national schadenfreude will overflow as hitherto unsuspected frailties are flushed out and highlighted to the delight of the multitude. 
  • Mr Davis will be elected as leader of the Tory party, and, on the shaky assumption that the coalition with the DUP is still in place, will become our new prime minister.
  • This outcome will be determined on the basis that he is the least objectionable of the candidates on offer, not just to members of the Tory party, but much more importantly, to UK voters as a whole.

 The first decision of DD – to call an election or to soldier on?

I suspect that DD will go the country immediately given that he is on a hiding to nothing if he soldiers on.

If he secures a Tory majority – well done David Davis.

If Mr Corbyn secures a Labour majority, Davis remains as Tory leader and watches calmly from the sidelines as Corbyn grapples with problems of a somewhat greater order of magnitude than those that he had previously encountered.

Points to note regarding the next general election

  • Tory HQ should be able to organise an effective campaign based on Mr Davis, the Steady Eddie candidate, capable of steering the ship of state through the stormy waters (doncha just love these nautical metaphors) that lie ahead.
  • The Tory approach next time round will surely replace the bungling amateurism of Mr Nick (Rasputin) Timothy and Ms Fiona Hill – both quickly and rightly given the bum’s rush after the June 8 debacle – with a rather more competent and professional approach.
  • Messrs Murdoch and Dacre will carefully target the perceived weak links in the Labour Party chain. Both of these gentlemen will still be smarting from the June 8 outcome: next  time the Murdoch gloves and the Dacre gloves will be off; no more Mr Nice Guy from these champions of both the Tory cause and the Brexit cause. 

How might Mr Corbyn cope as he attempts to present himself not as the voice of one crying in the wilderness but rather as one fully capable of leading his country into the sunlit uplands?

On the last occasion, his campaign plan appeared from the point of view of this outsider to have been based on the time-honoured tactic of damage limitation and I understand that he was as startled as were most of the rest of us at the outcome – but also considerably more elated.

He will find it a little more difficult next time round, but equally I am sure that he learned a great deal and will arrange for his various spokespersons to distinguish between firm electoral commitments and commendable but longer-term dreams of a better world.

In the aftermath of the June 8 election, Mr Owen Smith was quoted as saying that if he and not Mr Corbyn had been elected as the leader of the Labour Party then the Labour Party might have been able to form a Government. Mr Corbyn might remind Mr Smith and a few others that a man who was rejected as the official Labour candidate by the voters in Blaenau Gwent was ill advised to raise the issue of who is and who is not electable.

(Coincidentally Owen Smith lost in Blaenau Gwent to a Mr David Davies, an independent local candidate.)

 With regard to the Liberal Democrats, I note and welcome the fact that Sir Vince Cable has succeeded Mr Farron as leader.

I warmly welcome his early comments as leader about the need to stay in the single market and in the customs union.

A promising start.

 A brief status report on Brexit

 Mr Davis and Mr Michel, the main EU negotiator, have appeared together at a joint press conference to talk about progress or lack of it in the first week of talks.  Watch this space.

The Blair factor.  Mr Blair has recently made some muted but well-publicised comments about the undesirability of proceeding with the Brexit plan, and as I share his views on the matter, I hope that his re-entry into the fray will strengthen the Remain cause.

Some of those cavilling at his comments refer with good cause to his espousal of the US-led invasion of Iraq, but it is worth reminding ourselves that in his time in Number 10 Blair got most things right most of the time both on the home front and abroad.

I take the view that he got two things badly wrong – he treated Gordon Brown with the deference that he should have reserved for Saddam Hussein and he treated Saddam Hussein with the hostility that he should have reserved for Gordon Brown.

BOJO & GoveThe attitudes of BOJO and Mr Gove with regard to Brexit are wholly predictable. Both will take whatever action is most likely to advance their respective careers – this is what is known in the politics’ business as shabby opportunism.

Closing notes

Those interested in these matters should not assume that there will now be a protracted interval to allow frayed nerves to settle and eventually to allow for a return to business as usual in early September.

The various permutations and combinations, the endless possibilities, each with their associated betrayals and denunciations, will be analysed, conspiratorial strategies will be devised, albeit in some agreeable preferably scrutiny free surroundings.

The show must go on.

 

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Social Media – An Aged Blogger Writes

 “It (Russia) is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”
Winston Churchill in 1939

 My views on social media closely resemble the views of Churchill on Russia. Indeed, I would go further and say that my inability to grasp even the basics of social media can be extended to most aspects of the Internet.

However – for the purposes of the following notes – I will limit myself to considering why I have decided to look at the possibility of securing a precarious foothold on the lower slopes of the social media.

For most of my 77 years, I have acquired my information about what is going on the world from traditional sources, the time honoured print and broadcast media.  I grew up on a diet of the Daily Express, the Bolton Evening News, and the Home Service with occasional input from British Pathe news.

For the greater part of the following half century my sources were The Times, the BBC – a mixture of TV and Radio 4 – together with magazines that broadly supported my thinking at the time.

My input to these sources was very limited – a few of my letters were published in The Times, but rather more failed to make the cut.  

I learned, possibly incorrectly, that the selection criteria employed by The Times to determine which letters made the cut were that the letter should contain a fulsome endorsement of some or other aspect of The Times, be very brief and should make just one point. There were no problems in satisfying the third criterion given the constraints imposed by the second criterion.

My luck changed in the summer of 2015  – a time when I had something to say and time to write it, but  no outlet for my views.

Tribune magazine published a piece that I had sent in more in hope of publication than in expectation. My luck held in that Tribune published every article that I submitted for the next 12 months or so.

Around the middle of 2016 my fortunes changed for the worse – Tribune published just three articles by me out of 20 or so submitted from the middle of 2016.  I had and still have no idea why Tribune decided to hand me the black spot, but then I was never clear as to the publication criteria employed by the magazine.

I did notice that my fall from grace coincided with the publication of a great deal of material under the name of Ian Hernon, the magazine’s deputy editor. I also noticed that most of the Hernon items were simply warmed up items from other sources but I got the message from Ian (little Sir Echo) Hernon and sought alternative outlets.

A couple of other Tribune points  before moving on.

In the two years of my association with the magazine I noted that the number of letters from readers that were included in the 50 or so editions that appeared  could have been counted on the fingers of one hand – not much evidence of engagement with the readers of the magazine – or was it that there were not many readers to engage with?

It has to be said in favour of Tribune, that it managed to find space for the contributions of former black sheep, including Dennis McShane, until recently confined in one of our penal institutions (some minor difficulties with regard to his parliamentary expenses)  and Joe Haines.

The latter remains an intriguing figure. There is a letter from Mr Haines in the latest New Statesman – July 7 –  in which he asserts that Mr Corbyn is not up to the job. We must respect the view of a man who worked tirelessly to advance the career of the portly pilferer, Mr Robert Maxwell.

The biography of Mr Maxwell by Mr Haines is a book which merits a prominent place is any collection of hagiography. Sadly his biography only takes us up to 1988 – the last three words are -“To be continued”.

Mr Maxwell walked the plank in November, 1991 leaving an unfortunate legacy of large scale sharp practice.

What to do to bring my views to the attention of a wider audience?

I suspected that the prospects of Mr Richard Littlejohn at the Mail or of Lord Finkelstein at The Times being given the old heave-ho to make way for me were remote. Paul Dacre was not likely to dispense with the services of Richard Littlejohn, or those of Sarah Vine, although I suspect that the services of Sarah Vine would be rather more dispensable than those of Richard Littlejohn. Similarly, Mr Murdoch was and is unlikely to dispose of the services of Lord Finkelstein or those of Philip Collins, although I suspect that the services of Mr Collins are rather more dispensable than those of Danny Finkelstein. I take it that we all agree that the contributions of Deborah Ross for The Times justifies breaking the golden rule – she is indispensable.

A word about columnists.  This sub group within the wider profession of journalism is one which has long fascinated me.

 My conclusion about this group, after many years of reflection, is that columnists can be divided into two categories, There are those who, once upon a time, had something worthwhile or interesting to say. Having said their bit, they continue to cling to their respective columns saying nothing much to anyone in particular. The other category consists of those who never had anything to say in the first place – this group largely owe their jobs to nepotism.

Over the years there have been a few admirable exceptions to this general bleak rule. Pride of place must go to the late great Bernard Levin, and, in more recent times, Matthew Parris, who fills his columns in The Times with an endless stream of pieces which combine a lively imagination with a tangible sense of engagement with the matters under discussion. We admire the work of Richard Littlejohn, but we sense his frustration as he confronts his sworn enemies, the Guardianistas. Like Dr Slammer, the fiery surgeon from The Pickwick Papers, at times his indignation chokes him.

 A brief digression on magazines aimed at the movers and shakers

I noted earlier the ebb and flow, and especially the decline and fall of my fortunes as a Tribune columnist.

I had no luck at all in my overtures to New Statesman, Spectator, and Prospect. As an occasional subscriber to these magazines I found myself from time to time receiving pleas that I renew my subscription and I noted the zeal with which each organ proclaimed its unique blend of inspiring content supplied by our most gifted writers. These qualities were not always readily discernible, but advertisers will be advertisers.

At one stage, I replied to these eloquent appeals to renew my subscription by offering to do so in return for an agreement by the magazine to publish one of my submissions. This imaginative approach on my part did not trigger anything by way of a response.

I was reminded of these ineffective attempts when I read a piece by Jason Crowley, the editor of New Statesman in this week’s edition of his organ.  The piece was headed “The guilty men of Brexit, Churchill, Boris Johnson and the bullseye of disaster” – it dealt with the subject of who might be deemed to be responsible for the Brexit fiasco.

Given that I had submitted a piece headed “The Guilty Brexiteers” to Tribune on July 2, 2016, that is, just a week after the referendum result had been announced, I was slightly disconcerted to discover one or two similarities between the content of the Cowley piece and the content of my own piece.

These similarities included references to the pamphlet “Guilty Men” written in just 4 days by Michael Foot and two other journalists about who should be made responsible for the defeat of the UK forces in France.

Obviously – purely a coincidence. 

The great game changer

At just after 10pm on Thursday, June 8, Mr David Dimbleby announced the results of a series of exit polls on the General Election called by Mrs May in order to improve her negotiating position ahead of the difficulty discussions to arrange the details of the Brexit process that lay ahead.

Sadly, the outcome was not quite what Mrs May had wished for and instead she got the thumbs down from the voters.

Mrs May was not the only major player in the game to be disappointed. In no special order, Mr Rupert Murdoch, Mr Paul Dacre and most professional pundits got the outcome wrong. So did I – but what did I know?

It was not a case of joy unbounded in many powerful circles both in the UK and globally, but it was said that Mr Jean-Claude Juncker and Mr Donald Tusk were not unduly distressed by the Brexit election outcome.

Questions were asked on June 9th and are still being asked by Mr Dacre and Mr Murdoch.

  • Who saw it coming?
  • Who are these bolshie voters? Who the hell do they think are?

We (that is, Mr Dacre and Mr Murdoch) went to a great deal of trouble of trouble and incurred considerable costs to inform the masses on how to vote and what do the ungrateful bastards go and do – vote the other way in sufficient numbers to pull the rug from under us.  

Did the unexpected outcome hint at a swing away from the influence from traditional print and broadcasting media, and, if yes, what communications systems had moved in to fill the void?

The social media

The timing of the great game changing election coincided purely fortuitously with the end of my gloomy search for an outlet for my opinions. This search had brought me to the last chance saloon – The Social Media.

I had made arrangements just prior to the general election to publish my views via a Blog – Holdenforth.

I was assured by those in the know – that is just about everyone apart from me – that social media were the future, that the days of Murdoch and his fellow conventional media moguls were numbered. I was also informed that even the BBC was not immune to these sea changes, that its influence was waning and that its days of dominance were over.

It was said that young voters, hitherto supine in the national political arena, had warmed to and opted for Mr Corbyn. And these striplings were said to comprise by far the greater part of the social media users.

So – on the basis that if you can’t beat them then join them – I got my show on the road.

I was not troubled by the arcane complexities of setting up a blog – that was all done for me by my son. The Holdenforth blog operates via a system whereby I send material by e mail for inclusion in the Blog and my son does the rest, including checking to remove errors and solecisms. (The editor would like to point out at this stage that this is done on a best efforts basis and apologises profusely for any errors and solecisms that slip through the net.)

For me, the great advantage of a blog as opposed to conventional publication is that I can say exactly what I like – a great relief who one who has been inhibited throughout his life by a succession of constraints imposed by those set in authority over me.

A wonderful feeling of liberation!

Mr Trump and the social media

The Trump world was more like – let’s say a lot of different things, they don’t even need to be coherent, and observe through the wonderful new platforms that allow you to observe how people respond and observe what works —”

“That the Republicans didn’t lose the can be attributed in large measure  to their expert manipulation of social media– Donald Trump is our first Face book president”

“What our Facebook president has discovered is that it actually pays only to please some of the people some of the time. The rest simply don’t count.”

The above quotes were taken from “How he used Facebook to win”  by Sue Halpern in the New York Review of Books, June 8, 2017. 

The addiction of Mr Trump to social media in general and to Twitter in particular had long been noted, and this aspect of his communications preferences became more and more pronounced as the USA presidential campaign proceeded.

Veteran pundits predicted that his addiction for the unusual – indeed unprecedented -communications approach via social media would decline in the unlikely event that he were to win the election.

He did win, but his preference for communication via Twitter has, if anything, increased. His terse pronouncements add daily to the delight of his followers and to the dismay of his opponents – numerically roughly equal.

For my part I took and take the view that if social media are good enough for Mr Trump then they are good enough for me.

I am still treading warily through the tangled complexities of the social media. I began by consulting the internet and was soon drowning in the tsunami of information available on the various branches of social media.

I toyed with the idea of abbreviating Social Media to the acronym SM but I vaguely recall that SM has a pre-existing and somewhat unseemly significance. I shall stay with Social Media.

Blogging is said to be relatively straightforward – you simply add your latest thoughts to your blog – or someone does so on your behalf and hey presto – it’s there for the world to read.

I was slightly disconcerted to read – on the internet, where else – that personal blogs are read overwhelmingly by relatives and friends of the blogger and by no one else. On reflection, I was consoled by the thought that in my case the readership might well match or even exceed the readership that I may have acquired at Tribune.

What about Facebook, the brain child of Mark Zuckerberg and his colleagues?

I was pleased to note that “Facebook has more than 2 billion active users as of June, 2017.” This impressive figure indicates that the art of conversation is alive and well. For the moment I will put the task of joining these electronic chattering classes onto the back burner.

I gather that the YouTube branch of social media enables users to place videos onto the net and that these videos can be viewed free of charge. Again – one for the back burner for the time being.

Linked in – I have been aware of the existence of this service for some time because I have been advised via e mail that suitable career opportunities are available to me should I so wish. Thus far I have declined these invitations but I may well explore them in the near future. The adverse economic consequences of Brexit grow daily more ominous, my British Steel pension is thought to be at risk and I should hate to think that my meeting with the Grim Reaper would be followed by interment in a pauper’s grave.

Twitter – the branch of Social Media favoured by Mr Trump.

I have not yet sought to access Twitter – its very brevity daunts me – I am a prolix man and need rather more than 140 characters just to say hello.

Hash tags – the details of this facility might as well have been written in Chinese as far as I was concerned. Or maybe they were written in Chinese?

 Right now I find myself unable to access either Facebook or YouTube – I have no idea why, but I am confident that help is at hand and that the mysterious obstacles will be identified and removed.

Closing notes

This – to me – new technology is a splendid mental challenge for an old timer whose motto is – always look on the bright side of life.

The Social Media are a sure-fire recipe for warding off dementia and Alzheimer’s as we elders of the tribe toil tirelessly at the digital face in so doing keep our little grey cells at full stretch.

As far as I can see my central task going forward is to come up with a plan to boost the circulation of Holdenforth – suggestions on an e mail or via Holdenforth please.

Image courtesy of ITV.com

   

 

 

 

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JAMs today, Mexit tomorrow

For reasons that are not wholly clear, some Tory MPs have lately added their somewhat muted whispers to the rather more raucous calls from Labour ranks for an end to austerity.

These muted calls may be attributable for some to a Damascene conversion from support for belt-tightening to an endorsement of an approach that will yield land flowing with milk and honey.

Some of the muted calls may be triggered rather more by a prudent perception that the public mood has changed in favour of an approach based on the maxim of “enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think”

In recent years, political leaders across the spectrum in the UK have argued the case for improving the rewards earned by hard working people. Following her promotion to the coveted role of Prime Minister, Mrs May identified an additional economic category deemed to be worthy of support. This group was labelled as the JAMs, an unfortunate acronym for those deemed to be  Just About Managing.

As might be expected these statements of intent secured widespread support among the voters and understandably so since most of us regard ourselves as belonging clearly to both the categories delineated above. The difficulties arise as soon as we attempt to decide how to put some flesh onto the bones of the slogans.

  • Who  are the Hard Workers?  
  • Who  are the JAMs?

 Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the Garden of Eden to till the ground from whence he was takenGenesis 3, 23.

Genesis 3 described the very first cushy numbers arranged by the Lord God for Adam and Eve. They were not required to work, and the only limitation placed upon them in terms of consumption was to give a miss to the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Sadly, Eve was unable to resist the wiles of the serpent and she, and, a little later, Adam, sampled the forbidden fruit.

The Lord God took a very dim view of their offence, and immediately put into effect the relevant disciplinary procedures. By the end of Genesis 3, their cushy number in the Garden of Eden had been brought to an abrupt end, and our illustrious ancestors became reluctant founder members of the working class.

So who – in these confusing times – are the hard working?

We have only to pose the question to in order to grasp the formidable difficulties that we face in coming up with definitions. 

Let me make a tentative start with a couple of possibly controversial assertions.

Throughout my working life, which stretched from 1962 to 2014,  I was fully persuaded that the demands made upon me by my jobs down the years were such as to make the job of Alexei Stakhanov in the Siberian coal mines seem languid by comparison. Equally,  I was convinced that the jobs of those around me could be compared with those of  the Lilies of the Field in that “they toiled not neither did they spin as Jesus almost put it in his sermon on the Mount.

Those around me would doubtless have disagreed. 

How therefore are we to decide and on what basis who are the hard working and who, by contrast,  are the Lilies of the Field, the semi detached members of the working class,  the ones with the enviable capacity to simulate but not to carry out high intensity toil? I will return later to this tricky question.

Who are the JAMs?

To take just 3 examples which might be thought to verge on the extreme.

A year or so ago Tribune magazine published a piece by me in which I argued the case for the state to bring pressure to bear on Sir Phillip Green, Sir Martin Sorrell and Mr Bob Dudley in order to discourage their cupidity. 

It never occurred to me that Sir Phillip Green (the 2016 version of the portly pilferer Robert Maxwell), Sir Martin Sorrell (who has to scrape by on a measly £50 million per annum), and Bob Dudley (the CEO of BP – said to be sinking below the poverty line on no more than £14 million a year) might see themselves as JAMs and that all three would argue, indeed did argue, that they were just about managing.

If this acquisitive trio see themselves as JAMs – where does that leave you and me?

You see the problem?

The PMQ factor

It was unfortunate that much of the raucous public political activity surrounding the Hard Working and The JAMs took place during Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQ), an arena more notable for heat than light. It was doubly unfortunate that Mrs May proved adept at combining a combination of meaningless slogans with the interminable recitation of the gargantuan contributions, usually quoted in billions or, on a good day, trillions, to this or that socially popular cause. Mr Corbyn, faced with this formidable combination, wilted as he struggled to query the tsunami of figures.

For my part I rather suspect that the Prime Minister might be said to have added an extra term to the catalogue of lies, damned lies and statistics – namely the Maybe – a term to describe the implausibility of the figures shrilly quoted by Mrs May and which may and then again which may not be accurate, quite possibly a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

What can be asserted with confidence is that the theatrical arena that is PMQs did little to clarify who were/are the hard workers and who were/are the JAMs.

Back to the hard working JAMs. In my book A Cushy Number, I define a cushy number as a well rewarded sinecure. The word sinecure is defined as an office of profit with no duties. Cushy number seekers are looking for a lot more than an office of profit, although they are quite happy with the absence of duties. They demand a job which combines the minimum of effort with the maximum of reward. It must be stressed that cushy number seekers are a determined, clear-thinking group and they insist on having both criteria satisfied. They don’t want a demanding well rewarded job although they accept that this would be a step in the right direction. Equally they don’t just want a sinecure. They demand a well rewarded sinecure.

Got that?

A cushy number has been the dream of those who combine indolence and cupidity from the earliest days of social organisation. In our times and with the breakdown of social and class barriers, the desire is stronger and more widespread than ever before.  Most of us – let’s admit it – yearn for a job which combines the minimum of effort for the maximum of reward, and this aspiration is likely to intensify in the years to come. We want a cushy number, we fume whenever we hear that one of our friends has got what we believe to be one, but that’s about as far as the analysis goes.  Given this widespread demand for a cushy number, it is astonishing how little work or even thought has gone into this crucial issue. We need to think through what we mean in order to get what we want.  How on earth can we get a cushy number if we don’t know what we are looking for?  How exactly will we know one when we see one? What are the defining features of the cushy number, the features that separate it from your job and from all the jobs I ever had?

Pay rise for hard-working Britons is priority, says May
The Times. Aug 2, 2016

In the run up to the general election in May 2015, politicians from all parties proclaimed their love of and support for the hard working people in British society. This view is commendable as far as it goes – which is not very far at all.

To repeat: who are the hard workers, what jobs do they do and why might they deserve the favoured support of HMG in the austere times which are said to lie ahead? A little probing is called for.

As noted earlier I have given careful thought to the matter and a few years ago I published on the internet a book in which I explored the demands made on and rewards collected by a selection of professional jobs. Sales of the book soared quickly into double figures but then levelled off as the supply of relatives and friends ran out.

Those parts of the book which dealt with job demands are of relevance in the search for hard working people and I propose to re-examine them in the context of the present debate.

A few examples: Politicians, Doctors and the Police

No one would dispute that many – maybe most – of the senior executives that work in the square mile that constitutes the city of London work very hard, by just about any measure. So far so good. But does this group, dedicated as it is to working tirelessly to stealing from the rest of us, really merit the support of HMG, especially given the perceived reluctance of the group to pay taxes?

Politicians will assure us that whilst there are and will continue to be profound differences of opinion as the causes of and cures for the myriad of social and economic problems that plague our society, the factor which unites the profession of politicians is the hard work performed by politicians across the political spectrum.

And yet I recall a sting carried out not long ago which lured two ex-foreign secretaries, Jack Straw and Malcom Rifkind, to say on (hidden) cameras that, freed from the burdens of office, they had ample spare time at their disposal. For fees thought by some to verge on the exorbitant they would be happy to place their undoubted skills and experience at the service of whoever.

It was difficult to reconcile the languid life as outlined by two former leading politicians with the typical assertions of a hectic, high pressure working life.

What about our doctors, grafting away in the GP section of the beleaguered NHS? Time was when this group really was under pressure and not especially well paid, but things changed when a senior Labour politician, possibly doubling up as Santa Claus, awarded the GPs a most welcome combination of a huge pay rise and the removal of the requirement to provide a service outside normal office hours on Monday to Friday.

Since winning the professional equivalent of the National Lottery – indeed despite winning the professional equivalent of the National Lottery – the GPs have continued to plead that the appalling combination of poverty and overwork is persuading them to abandon the profession. It would be impolite to point out that this exodus arises at least in point because they can afford to do so.

What about our police? This is the group that is happiest trying to decide who committed criminal acts of a sexual nature years ago – even decades ago. In some cases the alleged offenders were in no position to defend themselves, having been called to the courtroom in the sky.

All good stuff but not quite as demanding as chasing current criminals.

I could on – and elsewhere I have gone on –  but you get the picture.

You and I and the editor of the Times Lit Supp, and the Nancy poets, and the Archbishop of Canterbury and Comrade X, author of Marxism for Infants- all of us really owe the comparative decency of our lives to poor drudges underground, blackened to the eyes, with their throats full of coal dust, driving their shovels forward with arms and belly muscles of steel
The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell

I have brought in the Orwell quote to illustrate the extent to which times have changed since The Road to Wigan Pier was published back in 1936. In those days, those in the economic comfort zones were relaxed that coal miners endured appalling working conditions on rock bottom wages in order to secure “the comparative decency of our lives.”

Subsequently, the mining communities experienced a few decades of  relative prosperity – a prosperity which was to end in the harsh confrontation of the miners’ strike and the closure of almost all the deep mines in the UK.

The chanting of Tory slogans about rewarding the hard working would not trigger favourable responses amongst the JAMs abandoned in what remains of the mining communities.

Stop press: The JAMs in Number 10

Any article which looks at the contribution of Mrs May to the national debate about the hard working JAMs must acknowledge that Mrs May herself is exceptionally hard working and, slightly more controversially, is barely managing. Indeed this latter quality has got to the point that the issue is not if but when she will receive her marching orders. I gather that William Hill do not rate her chances of still residing in No 10 by the end of the conference season very highly.

 “We’re going to leave you alone for half an hour. There’s your revolver. You know what to do ……………luckily they had left a decanter of whisky in there with me”
Captain Grimes describing his ordeal after getting into the soup in Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall.

Mexit – the exit of Mrs May from Number 10 – can be described in terms of a soft Mexit or a hard Mexit.

Under the terms of a soft Mexit, Mrs May will be left in solitary confinement with a loaded revolver and a bottle of whisky

Under the terms of a hard Mexit, Mrs May will be left in solitary confinement with just a loaded revolver.

Image courtesy of @UKDemockery on Twitter

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Mrs Theresa May – a Mournful Tale of Decline and Impending Fall

We now know the outcome of the June 8 election.

What were the factors that determined the unexpected outcome, unexpected not only by Mrs May, by the experienced bookmaker Paddy Power, and by me?

I write what follows with some diffidence because my prediction of the result was an echo of that of Paddy Power – an overall Tory majority of around 80.

(Note –  I accept that, like Mrs May, I got the result badly wrong but that, unlike Mrs May, I was delighted by it.)

The factors quoted by the commentariat to explain the downfall of Mrs May included the following:

  •  The abysmal campaigning performance of Mrs May.
  • The unfortunate cock ups over the various arrangements to be made for the elderly infirm.
  • The alleged preference of young voters for the policies tabled by the Labour Party in its manifesto.
  • The evaporation of the UKIP vote coupled with the return of UKIP voters to Labour rather than to the Tories. 
  • The much better than expected campaigning performance of Mr Corbyn.

A notable campaign issue for Mrs May – the Dementia Tax

Grotesque “Dementia Tax label that led to U-Turn
Headline in The Daily Mail, May 23rd, 2017 

Mrs May was subjected to some fairly robust criticism for her handing of what came to be known as the “Dementia Tax affair. What made matters worse – for her – was that some of the criticism came from two of her warmest admirers in the Brexit General Election campaign, namely The Times and The Daily Mail.

The saga went through the following phases.

(i) The Tory manifesto was published. It contained a clear commitment by a future Tory Government to financial support for old timers as they make their way towards a rendezvous at some uncertain date with the Grim Reaper.

So far, so very good with enthusiastic endorsement by those likely to gain.

(ii) A brief interval as the small print of the manifesto was read carefully by the usual suspects.

(iii)  An outbreak of peevishness from those old timers who grasped with admirable clarity just what the manifesto policy might mean for them. 

(iv) The Tory leadership team – prop Mrs T May – sensed that they had goofed and beat a hasty retreat first into vagueness and then into vacuity.

(v)  Sadly for the Tory leadership, this about turn triggered significant opposition in the ranks. There was a raucous rejection from the usually reliable aged Tory voters as they did the sums, and assessed their prospects in their particular circumstances.

(vi) There followed recriminations all round, with hints, tinged with schadenfreude in some circles, that this volte face was the fall for which their leader had been heading. 

(vii) It has since been reported that the two cabinet ministers most closely involved in the policies covered by the dementia tax, Mr Hunt and Mr Javid, received only 24 hours’ notice about the commitments to be made in the Tory manifesto. The new policy was said to be the work of Mr Ben Gummer, son of John Selwyn Gummer. BG has evidently inherited the sure political touch for which his father, the burger king, was noted.

The departure of Ben Gummer from Westminster on June 8 would not have been universally mourned by his colleagues.  

 A Little Flesh on the Bones of the “Dementia Tax

And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe,
And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot,
And thereby hangs a tale.”
Shakespeare – “As You Like It.

 Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness, and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”
More gloom from “As You Like It

There, we found, sitting by a fire, a very old man in a flannel coat: clean, cheerful, comfortable, and well cared for, but intensely deaf.
Well, aged parent, said Wemick  shaking hands with him in a cordial and jocose way, how are you?
Charles Dickens- Great Expectations

Humans wear out with age, some more rapidly than others. This aging process has a wholly predictable consequence: maintenance costs rise with the passing years followed by a funeral, expensive or economical according to taste.

Inevitably these maintenance costs vary with minimal costs at the healthy end to the very expensive costs incurred by those requiring intensive care over protracted periods.

This poses the question which is of steadily rising significance as our average longevity steadily rises. Who should foot the bill for these steadily rising costs?

There has been a raucous thumbs-down from the usually reliable aged Tory voters as they did the sums, and assessed their prospects. 

Sadly, there was also a raucous raspberry from those senior citizens who want to pass on their estates to the next generation rather than to HMG. This group want HMG to foot the bill and, given that HMG has no money of its own, they want the tax payer to foot the bills.

On a personal note – at the age of 77 – the dementia tax issue was and remains of considerable interest to me, and I was frustrated by my inability to grasp the details of the policy as per the manifesto and as per the various subsequent clarifications to the policy.

The position is now much clearer: if Messrs Hunt and Javid were confused – what chance did I and do I have?

The May U-turn or rethink or retreat – delete according to taste – triggered a most useful debate on the key question of who pays for the care of the fragile old folk, and we owe Mrs M our thanks for raising this contentious issue.

The roots of the issue go back many years and the difficulty is to strike a socially fair balance between those who argue that they have striven all their lives in order to be able to give their heirs a start in the struggles to come, and those, at the other extreme who argue that each generation should fight its own battles and do its own striving with no haves and have nots lining up on the starting blocks in the great race of life.

Is there a sensible felt fair balance between the two extremes? The debate will doubtless continue.

On Leadership

In the thirties he ( Ernest Bevin) thought of Atlee as a second rate leader. But that was what he wanted. He had had enough of those who thought they were first rate with MacDonald
Roy Jenkins on Ernest Bevin

It would appear that not all UK voters were impressed by the Theresa May slogan of “strong and stable leadership repeated ad nauseam during the interminably protracted campaign. Effective leadership is not easy to define in good times and we are not living in good times. The appeal of strong leadership is not universal – not all of us wish to be ordered about.

Mrs May was convinced that Mrs May was a first-rate leader, but there are times when we should try to see ourselves as others see us. Had she done this Mrs May might have noticed that not everyone shared her opinion of Mrs May.

A shaky slogan and a shaky call, Mrs M.

Campaigning Style

He (Lord Roseberry) knew what was wise and fair and true. He would not go through the laborious, vexatious and at times humiliating processes necessary under modern conditions to bring about these great ends.
Winston Churchill on Lord Roseberry

Mrs May incurred a lot of criticism on account of her reluctance to mingle with – how shall we put it – the great unwashed. By contrast Mr Corbyn displayed an unexpected talent in this area and his readiness to engage with the electorate at close quarters was by no means the least of his political gifts.

Mrs M also displayed an unfortunate lack of judgement when she boycotted a televised gathering of the other party leaders, a gathering where each leader had to respond to questions from the floor.

Mr Corbyn showed sound judgement in accepting the challenge and performed well under pressure.

Hostages to Fortune, and U-Turns:-

Problems encountered by Mrs May during the campaign because of her alleged propensity to duck and weave included:

  • Her perceived readiness not only to abandon her pro remain stance before June 23, 2016 but, even more damaging, her eagerness to lead the Brexit team.
  • Her decision to opt for an election despite her previous repeated assertions that this would not happen. The lure of the prospect of an easy victory proved too strong.
  • Her retreat first into confusion and then into chaos over the dementia issue.
  • Her lapses into the tedious repetition of slogans when under pressure rather than engaging with the issues under discussion.

A Word on Political Advisors

Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill – to me, very shadowy figures – were said to have acquired significant influence with and over Mrs M. Sadly in the fierce in fighting within Tory ranks that followed the announcement of the result this pair quickly acquired the notoriety that is associated with the names of Alastair Campbell, Grigori Rasputin and Harry Bennett.

(For those not familiar with the last name – Harry Bennett provided the same sort of support for Henry Ford that Campbell provided for Tony Blair – muscular, aggressive and intimidating.)

Both Timothy – the advisor who bore more than a passing resemblance to Rasputin – and Hill were speedily jettisoned once their role in the debacle became apparent. It is not clear whether the plank-walking was voluntary or was at the insistence of Tory managers – were they handed P45s or did they resign? It depends which newspaper you read.

What Might the Future Hold?

As I write behind the scenes discussions are taking place as to the scale of bribes required by the DUP in order to prop up Mrs May.

Sadly not much strength and zero stability are in prospect to those of us on the outside.

Mrs M argued that – given that she was fully responsible for the debacle (we can all agree on that) – she should be allowed to stay in post in order to solve the formidable catalogue of problems in the in-tray of HMG. I cannot understand her logic on this latter point.

BOJO remains as Foreign Secretary in this wounded administration. How much time and energy will he be devoting to tackling the problems of the UK and how much time and energy will he be devoting to the far more serious problem of securing pole position for himself in the coming struggle for power?

For Mr Gove – read the entry for BOJO.  Mr Gove has returned to the inner circle in order, so it has been reported, to shore up its credibility – a very dubious piece of logic.

Might Mrs May still be in post in 5 years’ time? I doubt it.

How soon will the men in suits – the Tory managers – utter the dreaded words – Come in Number 1 – Your time is up?

My guess is that she will be leaving No 10 in 2017 – probably sometime around the annual party conference – a favoured time to speed the journeys of Tory politicians deemed to have outstayed their welcomes.

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The Outcome of the June 8 Brexit Election – A Jeremy Corbyn Perspective

Is that tantamount, sir, to acceptance or rejection or consideration?”
Mr Guppy to Mr Jarndyce – Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Mr Guppy was anxious to clarify the answer to his proposal of marriage to Esther Summerson via her guardian, Mr Jarndyce. In a rather different context I am anxious to be very clear – in the style of Mrs May – about the outcome of the Brexit General Election on June 8.

I am writing these notes a few days after the outcome of the June 8 election was announced. It has not been easy to draw conclusions about the outcome given the raucous 24/7 babble masquerading as comment put out by the print, broadcast and Internet media.

A few tentative comments to get started:

  • The outcome of the election is being widely perceived as a major setback for Mrs May – those seeking a somewhat jaundiced view of her performance should consult Richard Littlejohn in the Daily Mail on June 10: his verdict was – nil points.
  • Some Tory apologists are still trying loyally but implausibly to portray the outcome as satisfactory for the Tory cause.
  • Most commentators are acknowledging that the outcome was a minor triumph for Mr Corbyn.
  • Substantial numbers of previously hostile Corbyn critics from within the Labour movement are shrewdly doing a 180 degree turn so as to re-position themselves for the rapidly changing political scene.

I thought that it might be instructive to comment on the factors that contributed to the improved fortunes of Mr Corbyn, and to those factors that prevented his triumph from being even more impressive, maybe even a move to No 10 with a working majority.

So: who were the friends of Corbyn and who were his opponents?

A brief stroll down memory lane

In September 2015, Jeremy Corbyn convincingly won the election held to decide who should replace Ed Miliband as the leader of the Labour Party. No one could dispute that his victory was overwhelming, although there were many in the Labour Party who rather regretted the outcome.

How did it come about that a candidate widely perceived as a no-hoper before the first leadership election was elected by a huge majority over the other three ostensibly more plausible candidates – Mr Burnham, Ms Cooper and Ms Kendall?

Like you, I can only guess at the reason or reasons for the unexpected outcome, but I suspect that by far the most significant reason in the minds of those voting in the contest was that the election of any one of the plausible trio would simply represent more of the same, and that the electors in their collective wisdom comprehensively rejected that option.

This raises the question: how does a party deal with a situation in which a huge gap opens up between the views and aspirations of the leaders and the led?

Just as the great majority of Labour MPs asserted their lack of confidence in JC, so, or so it would appear, the great majority of Labour Party members had lost confidence in their elected representatives in the House of Commons.

It would not have been easy to find high calibre replacements for the vast majority of the current crop of Labour Party MPs, but equally it would not have been easy to discard the current crop of around half a million seemingly truculent party members and replace them with the same number of pliable tranquil members.

After an all too brief apprenticeship in his new role, the great majority of Mr Corbyn’s parliamentary colleagues decided that he was simply not up to the job of leading the Party to electoral victory and that accordingly he must be replaced.

This phase came to a head in the confusion that followed the outcome of the in-out referendum, the resignation of Mr Cameron and his replacement by Mrs May.

There was a mass exodus from the Corbyn shadow cabinet and this was followed by an unseemly phase in which various contenders considered their respective prospects. The outcome here was the emergence of Owen Smith as the only challenger.

I noted that Owen Smith at one point in the leadership campaign was critical about the electability of Mr Corbyn. He accepted that Mr Corbyn was a decent enough chap in his way, but also that the job of leading the Labour Party requires qualities over and above mere decency. He may have had a point, but I m not sure that he was wise to raise to raise this issue given that his own record as a vote winner has verged on the shaky.

Let me explain. In the general election of 2005 the official Labour candidate in Blaenau Gwent was beaten into second place by an independent candidate, Peter Law. The loss of one the safest Labour seats in the UK parliament followed the possibly unwise decision by Labour Party HQ to impose a women-only short list on the local party. The women-only list may have made sense in London but it was not so seen in Blaenau Gwent, hence the loss of the seat.

Sadly, Mr Law died within a year or so of the General Election, thus triggering a by-election in 2006. It was confidently expected that there would be a speedy return to business as usual and that the newly selected Labour candidate, Owen Smith, would be duly elected. However, the obstinate Blaenau Gwent voters once again rejected the official party candidate and elected another local independent candidate, Mr Dai Davies.

I cite this example only to point out that the Owen Smith CV indicates substantial if unfortunate personal experience about who is and who is not electable.

It is not an easy political feat for a Labour candidate to fail to win Blaenau Gwent – the seat of Tribune stalwarts Michael Foot and Nye Bevan for Labour over many years.

As with the first leadership election, I am not sure about precisely what factors determined the outcome of the second leadership election. In the event Mr Corbyn secured a second substantial win to retain the leadership.

Despite his two substantial victories, there were still those in the Labour camp who continued to do whatever they could to undermine his position and he had to endure a steady stream of carping criticism – which he endured stoically – of his performance and this factor made his position very difficult in the weekly PMQ sessions as Mrs May repeated quoted hostile comments from his own colleagues to wrong-foot him.

Campaign notes on the June 8 General Election campaign

Corbyn allies
• Mr McDonnell – a most commendable performance – convincing and plausible throughout the gruelling 7 weeks.
• Mr Starmer – a reliable steady Eddie who provided no ammunition to the Tories, avoided getting involved in any internal party squabbling and generally proved himself competent when being interviewed by the relentless broadcast media.
• Mrs May – a reliable supplier of ammunition to the Labour cause from day 1. This was not in the Tory plan and supplied an unexpected massive boost to her opponents: she was as one forsaken by the Gods of Politics

The enemies from within – The Labour Party critics of Corbyn
There is no shortage of contenders clamouring for inclusion in this section – check the records and make your own selections.

Here are three of my contenders:

• Owen Smith – I mentioned earlier the contribution of comrade Smith to the Corbyn cause. It was gratifying to note that he was one of the first to talk to the media about his Damascene conversion to the Corbyn cause as soon as he grasped that the political wind had changed direction.
• Hilary Benn – The son of a rather more substantial parent – it was he who won plaudits in parliament for arguing the case for the UK to join in the bombing of Syria. I was not persuaded of the validity of his arguments then or since, given the undeniable contribution of the UK to the chaos and confusion of the situation in the Middle East since the misguided invasion of Iraq in 2003.
• Tom Watson – I was unable to discern any effective signs of support by Mr Watson. Rather the opposite – his contributions seemed designed throughout to maximise his chances of securing the top job when JC was ousted. Another reservation about Mr Watson – I was and remain unhappy about his behaviour in naming politicians from yesteryear as paedophile’s from the safe stance of parliamentary privilege. Child abuse, when proven in a court of law, is rightly deemed one of the most odious of crimes. What are we to make of the actions of Mr Watson in assuming and asserting the guilt of people whose alleged offences had never been tested in court?

Those whose silence would have strengthened the Corbyn position
• Len McCluskey – LM had established himself as the arbiter of whether or not Mr JC should be allowed to remain in post on the dubious basis that his union was and remains the largest provider of funds for the Labour Party. His stance rather resembled that of the Chairman of a major football club scanning the results of his club for evidence that the days of his manager were numbered.
• Ms Dianne Abbott – I will be charitable to Ms Abbott and note that her evident desire to assist had precisely the opposite effect. Her contribution could be described as similar to that of Mrs May but sadly it was also much more transparently inadequate. She has since cited medical problems as triggering her erratic performances, but some would argue – indeed have argued – that her erratic form goes back a long way.

The print media

The contributions of the newspapers to the election debates were wholly predictable. The Daily Mail and The Times stayed loyal to the May cause to the bitter end.

“F*** Dacre” replied Murdoch
The response of Rupert Murdoch after being informed that Lord Dacre – formerly Hugh Trevor Roper – had changed his mind as to the authenticity of the Hitler diaries back in 1983

Doubtless these stern if unseemly words were repeated over and over again during the 2017 general election campaign by some – not all – Labour supporters in response to their treatment at the hands of the combative editor of the Daily Mail, Paul Dacre.

Political magazines

Being a pensioner I can – just about – afford to subscribe to the New Statesman and to Tribune.

Looking back, I recall that the New Statesman was lukewarm about the Corbyn campaign – a far cry from the aggressive views filling the Daily Mail.

Tribune was even more disappointing: muted and seemingly anxious to remain remote from the fray. It was not easy to discern quite what was going on at Tribune. In the 50 or so issues published between the summer of 2015 and the 2017 General Election, I estimate that the number of readers’ letters that were published was scarcely into double figures, a feature which does not suggest it was engaging with its readers.

The broadcast media – The BBC

If there was an anti-Tory stance from the BBC, I was unable to detect it.

The Daily Mail was very critical about the BBC, something which confirmed my judgement that the BBC maintained a broadly neutral stance throughout.

The social media

You tell me, because I have no idea if the social media influenced the election and if so how and in what direction.

The social media are to me what Russia was to Winston Churchill in 1939 – “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

A few words on the issues

I wrote the following letter to The Times on June 13, 2017 (sadly not published):

Sir,
“Labour’s Delusions- A jubilant party remains in thrall to discredited and dangerous ideas.”
In your second leader in today’s Times you chide the Labour leaders for their commitment “to discredited and dangerous ideas,” and you remind your readers of the admiration of some of them for Lenin and Trotsky.
Their discredited and dangerous ideas presumably include the policy to return privatised utilities to public ownership.
At the end of his autobiography – “A Life at the Centre” published in 1991 – Roy Jenkins wrote:- “ I think that the privatisation of near monopolies is about as irrelevant as (and sometimes worse than ) were the Labour Party’s proposals for further nationalisation in the 1970s and early 1980s.
Might Roy Jenkins have been a clandestine admirer of Lenin and Trotsky?

Yours – John Holden

Labour plans to increase tax rates for those at the top end of the earnings scale
Some critics complained about plans in this area on the grounds that any increase in the taxes paid by the rich would reduce their commitment to the cause of increasing the wealth of the nation and might even lead some of them to relocate to where their talents would be more appreciated.

The Labour proposals startled me only by their timidity. It has long been apparent that a significant number of senior business managers devote far too much of their time and energy maximising the take that they can squeeze from their companies, and far too little of their time and energy to ensuring that their businesses are effectively and efficiently managed.

Scarcely a day passes without The Times, in its business section, reporting on the greed of this or that senior manager and of the reluctance of the shareholders to acquiesce in the acquisitiveness of the said managers.

I would be more than happy to endorse the taxing of the reward packages of people like Sir Martin Sorrell close to or even at 100%. Sir Martin would doubtless dissent but, like Mandy Rice-Davies in a different context – he would say that, wouldn’t he?

But – my suggestion, if implemented, would free up more of the time of Sir Martin to further the interests of WPP rather than racking his brains about deciding on the largest possible figure that he could get away without triggering a shareholder revolt and a public excoriation. (A confession – in my first effort on this paragraph I wrote that Sir Martin was employed by WRP, the abhorrent Workers Revolutionary Party, rather than by the much more prosaic company WPP, originally Wire and Plastic Products.)

In my view one Labour Party failure – and it was a significant failure – was quite simply that it did not in some key areas explain just how moderate and reasonable and socially desirable its plans were, given the extent to which the Tories had allowed the top people to rip off the rest of us.

In praise of Mr Corbyn

Quite simply the period from the announcement by TM on April 18, that she was calling an election for June 8 to day of the election was a wonderful phase for JC.

He won well-deserved plaudits for his unfailing courtesy, for his consistent support of the claims of the JAMS and of the Hard Working majority as against the understandable but not widely shared wish of those at the top to be allowed to enjoy the fruits of their sharp practices into the future.

He clearly struck a chord in the hearts and minds of the young, a most encouraging feature of the outcome.

I am confident that if the more evident weaknesses in the performance of his party are put right, then the tensions and fragility that are now built into the Tory Government – a Government erected on shit and quicksand – then Labour is capable of forming a government that will work for the many as opposed to the few.

John Holden

PS – A slightly longer stroll down memory lane

I gather from some press reports that the thinking of Mr Corbyn is said to be close to the thinking of Mr Leon Trotsky, born Lev Davidovich Bronstein, and it is darkly alleged that some of the current difficulties within the Labour Party can be traced to the disruptive influence of Trotskyists. This may well be so – what do I know?

I do recall that back in October, 1963 I attended the Labour Party Conference as a Young Socialist delegate for Ebbw Vale. The conference was in Scarborough – it was the Harold Wilson white heat of technology conference.

Whilst there I vaguely recall being introduced to a Mr Gerry Healy. Labour Party members with very long memories may recall that Mr Healy was an influential member of the Socialist Labour League, a Trotskyist organisation and at the time a thorn in the flesh of Labour party managers because of what were described as disruptive tactics. I had gone to the conference with Ron Evans, one time parliamentary agent for Nye Bevan and later for Michael Foot and it was he who introduced me to Mr Healy. Ron had previously been a member of the Communist Party and had retained a measure of admiration for the strategy and tactics of Stalin. For reasons that will be evident to those interested in the obscure quarrels among far-left activists Ron was dismissive of Trotsky and his followers and managed just a surly greeting to Mr Healy.

I was startled to read many years later that Mr Healy had not confined his interests to the politics of permanent revolution. It was alleged by the gutter press that he taken a keen interest in the more attractive of the female recruits and that he had taken advantage of his position to pursue the time honoured exploitation of enjoying rather more than his fair share of the available talent. Some comrades from the Healy era were traced and expressed dissatisfaction at the state of affairs – affairs here used in both senses – exposed by the running dogs of the Fleet Street Press Lords…

Featured image courtesy of Business Insider

 

 

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Reasons to vote against the Tories

Back in August 2015 Tribune published an article by me in which I suggested a few policy options that might sensibly be included in any future Labour Party manifesto. I was pleased to see that most of my suggestions found their way into the latest iteration, including the case to renationalise the privatised monopolies, and the case to impose significantly higher income tax levels on high earners.

The most important issue to be resolved in the Brexit Election (BrexEl) to be held on June 8 is that announced with unusual clarity by Mrs May, namely her plea for an enhanced majority to strengthen her negotiating position in the discussions to establish the terms of our exit with the 27 remain countries.

For my part, I believe strongly that the case to reverse Brexit is as powerful today as it was on June 23rd, 2016 and I hope that the outcome to be announced at around 10pm on June 8 will be a significantly weakened Tory party.

Remember: for Mrs May this election is a rerun of June 23rd, 2016 with the expectation of an increased majority.

While we are here: how about a few good reasons to vote against the Tories on June 8, reasons over and above the core aim of eroding rather than strengthening the position of and prospects for Mrs May?

To save space and time, I accept that most of the content of the Labour Party manifesto is fine as written. My main reservation is that Mr McDonnell has been altogether too timid in his plans for taxing the looters masquerading as wealth creators that infest the square mile of the city.

  1. Return the privatised utilities to public ownership  

In 2002 I wrote a book which I called A Cushy Number. In the book, I examined the demands imposed on and the rewards collected by a selection of white collar professional workers including teachers, doctors and politicians.

I decided that the cushiest number of all was that of senior managers in the privatised utilities.

Why so?

The following is an extract from the book.

“The newly privatised industries continued to be managed by the same people who had managed them in their previous publicly owned life.  What happened next is crucial in any study of the cushy number. Quite simply one consequence of the sell offs was that the new managers (ie the old managers) became enormously rich merely by restyling themselves Chief Executives or whatever and applying the most favourable comparisons available to them from the private sector.

“It will rightly be argued that things did get better and performance did improve, and, most significantly, the requirement for huge annual subsidies from the taxpayer to bridge the gap between income and expenditure ended, at least in most cases. Every circus has its clowns and the Railways, then, as now, required special treatment. Things did get better by means of just one highly effective expedient. The biggest cost item for most of the privatised industries was the wage bill. The managers solved the massive over-manning problems which they themselves had created, and then, in gratitude to themselves, transferred significant amounts of the employment costs thus saved to their own reward packages.

“What a thing of beauty, what a joy, if not forever as ordained by Keats, then at least for many years. This is the stuff that we cushy number seekers can only dream of. This happy breed, managerial mediocrities all, cock things up on an Olympian scale, and then, given intestinal fortitude by the Iron Lady, partially correct their own failures by dint of a one-off productivity improvement, and become rich beyond the dreams of avarice.”

Predictably the privatised utilities operated as cartels with competition largely restricted to the billing arrangements. Given these enviable arrangements the managers – I use the term managers loosely and with reluctance – took every opportunity to push up prices knowing that the consumer had no effective choice.

Understandably those benefiting from the present arrangements, the Senior managers of the Big Six –  are the most vocal in seeking to maintain the status quo. For its part The Daily Mail talks of a return to the over-manning of the previous nationalised set ups and it needs to be said that a return to public ownership should not be seen as the creation of a series of vast new leisure centres. On this point, the arrangements for the appointment of new managers should ensure that those selected are equipped with strong backbones with matching intestines.

I note that the Labour manifesto includes a commitment to return water to public ownership, and rightly so.  In 2002 I wrote of  the water industry “that it is so cushy that it is the envy of the rest of the privatised utilities sector, and that is saying something. Does water deserve the title of an industry? It rains, and the rain is collected and distributed. What could be simpler?”

  1. Curb the rich via steeply regressive taxation on incomes and wealth 

The Labour manifesto is aggressive in tone, but feeble where it matters in this all important area of our national financial life.

The over-paid in our society and especially those that flourish in the square mile of the city are adept at proclaiming that they will forsake the UK should any attempt be made to curb their acquisitive propensities and that they would look with similarly jaundiced eyes on any attempt to increase the taxes that they pay, or don’t pay  (the choice seems to be theirs).

This group is also not slow to dwell on the hazards of their jobs and one of these hazards is said to be the agony of the AGM.

Another quote from A Cushy Number:

“One aspect of the job of senior executives as reported by the financial press never ceases to amaze me. This is the much recycled myth that shareholders can in some mysterious unexplained way bring pressure to bear upon failing and erring executives. The myth reaches its pinnacle in the theatre of the Annual General Meeting.  Conventional wisdom has it that Senior Executives dread the impending AGM if the Company is deemed to have under-performed. The expectation is that the Directors will be roughly handled by impoverished, and hence irate shareholders.

“This is nonsense. In the first place, shareholder revolts rarely happen because Annual General Meetings are so carefully stage-managed. Secondly, if the stage management arrangements did break down and the aforesaid irate shareholders had a big heckle, so what?  If you were a fat cat, would it worry you?  Would you not be prepared to face a howling mob of drunken Bernard Mannings – BM was very much alive at the time – and sober Jeremy Paxmans (or vice versa) in return for the typical tycoon reward packages?”

The Tory press – ie the greater part of our press – is urging those charged with the job of grilling our would be political leaders to focus on the consequences of increasing tax levels for high earners.

So: a tip for senior Labour Party figures facing this ordeal.

Get onto the front foot and ask the overpaid and pampered broadcasters from the BBC to justify the high pay levels doled out by the BBC from its protected position as a public service broadcaster. Ask: why are special arrangements in place to enable broadcasters to reduce their tax liabilities?

And, when things get really nasty – and they will – someone might query the deployment of a comprehensive injunction to suppress media comment on the wholly uninteresting extra marital activities by Mr Andrew Marr- not commendable conduct by a journalist.

By any standards, the case to impose significantly higher taxes on high earners is the low hanging fruit for Labour in the coming days and they should not baulk at the picking thereof.

  1. All pensioners are equal – but some are more equal than others

The hazards facing the aged have been much to the fore as the competing parties have sought to placate the old timers and to assuage their anxieties.

In many of the analyses of the problem that I have seen and read we old timers – I believe that at the age of 76 I just qualify – are portrayed as impoverished, peckish, and chilled out in the old fashioned and disagreeable sense.

There is of course a huge variation in the incomes of pensioners, ranging from the basic pension at the bottom end to those who have managed to secure retirement incomes vastly in excess of these levels at the other end.

Another extract from A Cushy Number:

“Pension arrangements are at least as important as salary. Readers must remember that we have defined – for we read me – the cushiness of a job as being assessed from job start date to job holder death.  Not from start date to retirement!  From start date to death! The significance of pension arrangements will grow, partly because of the combination of early retirements and increasing longevity, but also because the disadvantages of private as compared with public sector pensions are becoming more and more apparent.

“The fact is that the pension arrangements in the UK are now so favourable to one large group at the expense of another large group that the pension issue is possibly the most important single factor in the determination of what are and what are not cushy numbers. This disparity is so crucial that a brief word of explanation is essential. Readers who skip the following explanation will pay for their avoidable ignorance in their twilight years of senile poverty.

“Pension arrangements can be split into two main types, final salary schemes and annuities. With the first type pensioners receive a pension based upon two elements, their final salary and their years of service. These pensions are mostly index linked, and will rise in line with the annual rise in the cost of living. The key point to note is that the pension of this group is typically fixed for life at around 60% of final salary. Those on these schemes will never again experience financial worries, barring some senile attraction to fast young ladies or slow horses or both.”

The Labour Party should get after affluent pensioners with the same resolve as that which they plan to deploy against high earners using the same logic and broadly the same arithmetic.

They must avoid treating pensioners as one heterogeneous group: they should treat those at the bottom end with every care and consideration whilst turning a deaf ear to the poverty pleas of the plutocrat pensioners.

  1. The case for the return of the Czar 

In recent decades, it has been the fashion to appoint all powerful Czars to examine alleged abuses of this or that element of our national life.

One of the most recent examples was the appointment of Mr – now Sir – Eric Pickles to tackle corruption wherever he found it. It may be that Mr Pickles was unlucky or it may be that the corrupt, noting his slow pace about the field, had time to cover their tracks prior to his arrival.

Whatever the explanation, I did not pick up any stories claiming that the portly Mr Pickles had been successful in stemming the tidal wave of corruption that was and remains a prominent feature of our national life.

It has to be said that Mr Paul Dacre (with no Czar title to assist his activities), has been notably successful in flagging up and where appropriate verbally flogging some shady sectors of our society.

A suggestion for Mr Corbyn: appoint a senior figure (the Anti Corruption Czar, or ACC) to do the job with zeal and competence, features sadly lacking whilst Mr Pickles was in post.

While we are at it, how about these suggested additions to the duties and responsibilities of the ACC?

  • The ACC to arrange for the prompt removal from post of senior managers in the public sector and across quango land who are clearly making a balls of the job. ((This last point to be phrased with more delicacy in the actual job description but we old manager johnies know what we mean.) As Macbeth observed, “If it were done when ‘tis done, then  ‘twere well it were done quickly”. There is something to be said for the approach adopted by Mr Trump as he fired Mr Comey from the FBI. The traditional British approach (relocate the failures elsewhere in the system) is a recipe for more failure. So adopt the Trump practice and issue a P45 coupled with an instruction to security to escort the sackee from the building.
  • Give him/her the authority to specify tight completion dates for public enquiries as part of the enquiry remit. The languid Chilcot approach to be relegated to the dustbin of history along with the Maxwellisation factor.

 

  1. Police priorities

Labour must ensure that the police spend a lot less time reviewing the alleged crimes of years ago, in some cases the alleged crimes of the departed, and rather more time focusing on the crimes of today and those being planned for tomorrow.  Numbers do not come cushier than the investigation of yesterday’s crimes.

When there are grounds to investigate the alleged crimes of by gone years the investigators might take a closer look at those doing the alleging: check out their plausibility at the outset.

  1. Higher Education, Not Higher VC Salaries

The entire education system is said by some to be in a bad way, with lack of funding as always a key factor in the parlous state of affairs.

Labour might profitably suggest that University Vice Chancellors spend rather more of their time working to get better performances from the existing facilities and rather less time to working tirelessly to push up their reward packages at every opportunity.

This point applies equally if not more so to the Arthur Daley types that have mysteriously managed to acquire control of groups of schools.

Summing Up

I could go on and on and on, but the June 8 BrexEl is almost upon us, so:

  • The economic framework of the UK is sufficiently strong to allow for a significantly higher average standard of living.
  • Labour should adopt policies that will ensure that the aim of a better country for all rather than for the privileged few is achieved – by better management of our national affairs.
  • Please cast your vote against Mrs May on June 8

 

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Further notes on Brexel, the Brexit General Election

The Brexit General Election campaign is now under way and even at this early stage, a few observations are in order.

In no special order:

  • Most parties, including the Tories, were wrongfooted about the calling of the election, with manifestos being improvised rather than carefully crafted.
  • The spokespersons for the various parties became increasingly irritated as the media interrogators sought to flush out inconsistencies rather than allow the party thinkers to refine and polish the manifestos and policies to be put to the voters. 
  • Sadly the all too evident divisions within Labour prior to April 18 have been exacerbated as some of the comrades anxiously deliberated about how they might position themselves in the time remaining so as to optimise their personal prospects. A few have decided that their prospects are so bleak that they have abandoned ship.
  • There was a slight hiccup in the Lib Dem campaign as Mr Farron foolishly allowed theological and sexual matters briefly to surface and then  to impede the development of a plausible set of policies.
  • For the only other significant party in terms of seats in Westminster, Ms Sturgeon quickly established an effective plan based on business as usual: what is good enough for Mrs May at the UK level is good enough for Ms Sturgeon her at the level of Scotland. A sound and stable approach.
  • UKIP provided us with an abundant helping of farce as they struggled to decide how to defend their hard won victory of a year ago.  The faulty memory of Mr – or is it Dr?- Nuttall is proving something of a handicap.
  • It appears to this outsider that the Tory campaign is gathering momentum with every passing day. Firm evidence for this observation was provided by the outcomes of the local and mayoral elections across most of the UK.

So – Mrs May is striding away from the field and seems set to achieve her goal of moving from the hazards of a narrow majority in Westminster to a significantly stronger position. This stronger position will, in her view at least, enable her to deal with the far more difficult problems that await her in Europe, specifically the exacting and wearying negotiations with the exasperated leaders of the other 27 EU states that wish to remain within the EU.

The UK Brexit of 1940

The last significant Brexit from Europe ended on June 4, 1940, the last day of the miracle of Dunkirk.  I was born at the end of June 1940 and so have no personal recollections of that event, although one of my earliest recollections is of the street party held to celebrate VE day in May 1945.

The current version of Brexit will inevitably generate considerable rancour and mistrust on both sides of the channel as the UK and its former EU partners grapple with the plethora of issues to be resolved in the next few years. On the plus side it is most unlikely that these fraught negotiations will generate anything remotely approaching the impact of World War II and the circumstances surrounding the recovery of Britain from near defeat in 1940 to the unconditional surrender of Germany in 1945. 

A cordial start

 It often happens, however, that when a certain amount of conversation is going on between gentlemen, everyone present does not derive the same impression from it. Especially is this so when some are naturally preoccupied about their own positions.Winston Churchill writing about the very different impressions formed by Free Traders and by those in favour of protection during a Balfour Cabinet Meeting in 1903  

A mere 114 years later, Mrs May and Mr Jean-Claude Juncker arrived at very different views about the atmosphere that had prevailed during a Downing Street dinner on April 26th.   Mrs May thought all had gone swimmingly and constructively, whereas JCJ thought otherwise and, as soon as he was free to do so, he poured out his concerns to Mrs Merkel. In addition and by some mysterious process the JCJ version was quickly and prominently reported in the German media. It would seem that JCJ thought that Mrs May was living in a different galaxy, a slightly implausible suggestion even in these days of strained nerves and sensibilities.  

A terse phase – probably the first of many in the coming months and years

In a dramatic move the PM accused senior EU politicians and officials of issuing threats and leaks deliberately timed to affect the result of the June 8 pollJames Groves, Daily Mail, May 4, 2017

The confusion surrounding the Downing Street dinner was quickly clarified, and in quite brutal fashion. On May 3rd Mrs May convened a gathering of the media pack to have her say. She was in splendid combative form as she took careful aim at her opponents. Her view on this occasion was roughly to say that if that is the way they want then that is the way that they can have it – all good stuff at the level of playground altercations.

The Daily Mail predictably applauded her aggressive stance, but I was less than convinced as to its wisdom. It was wholly unrealistic on her part to call an election solely to strengthen her negotiating position vis a vis the rest of the EU and then to expect her EU opponents to remain aloof from Brexel. The unnamed EU officials and politicians (we know who you are) promptly got their act together and fired off a few preliminary salvos, precisely what you and I would have done were we in their shoes.

It can be confidently asserted that in recent days we have seen a snapshot of what the next few years will be like – a painfully protracted drama/farce in which mendacity, unofficial briefings and misrepresentations will be the order of the day.

In short a replay of the Brexit campaign itself but this time with the active involvement of our former EU partners, now transposed in Mrs May’s rhetoric, into our opponents.                                                                                                           

The view from Brussels

The UK is rightly perceived as the equivalent of a disruptive pupil in an otherwise orderly classroom or, to vary the metaphor, as a drunken raucous guest at an otherwise dignified wedding.

The 27 remainers have more than enough problems without being distracted by the tiresome fractious disruptive Brits.

I suspect that one outcome of the forthcoming Brexel will be that it will have become clear that Mrs M has badly miscalculated in her Vicar of Bray act both as regards abandoning her previous remain stance and as regards changing her previous no election stance. Neither of the above U- turns come across as evidence of strong and stable leadership but rather as clear evidence of shabby opportunism.

 Matters arising during the campaign

 I think the privatisation of near monopolies is about as irrelevant as – and sometimes worse than- were the Labour Partys  proposals for further nationalisation in the 1970s and early 1980s” Roy Jenkins in his autobiography – A Life at the Centre.

The Labour Party has come in for a great deal of criticism for its proposal to return some of the privatised near monopolies to public ownership. This proposal has been cited as evidence of a return to the run up to 1983 general election with its manifesto memorably dubbed as the longest suicide note in history under the shaky if benign leadership of Michael Foot. For my part I am unaware of any Trotskyite sympathies that Mr Roy Jenkins may have harboured and his point about the absurdity of privatising near monopolies is as valid today as it was then.

The Labour Party should go onto the attack in this area and highlight the farce of the cartels that masquerade as competitive businesses: they could add the endorsement of Adam Smith rather than of Karl Marx on this point.

In addition I suspect that there might be significant numbers of Southern Rail passengers who would be relaxed about the axing of the mediocrities who have successfully exploited their monopoly opportunities to cash in.

Campaign invective

Lord Rothermere in accusing Mr Baldwin of having lost a fortune, Mr Baldwin in in accusing Lord Rothermere of being a professing Liberal, had exhausted their armoury of abuse. Each had said the worst thing he knew about the other.” Malcom Muggeridge, The Thirties.

A few critics, notably Lord Finkelstein, have dwelt on the Trotskyite past of some of the senior supporters of Mr Corbyn, with dire warnings about what might happen were Mr Corbyn to emerge stronger from Brexel. Finkelsteins piece in The Times was the metaphorical equivalent of the ice pick used by one of Stalins henchmen to curtail the activities of Leon Trotsky in 1940. 

Might there be some scope for Labour partisans to point out that Lord Finkelstein was, in an earlier epoch, an ardent Social Democrat?

The emergence of  Mr Blair as a factor in Brexel

Mr Blair has cautiously argued the case for those voters unhappy with the whole idea of Brexit to combine in some as yet unspecified way in order to oppose Brexit. There are still several weeks to go to Brexel and it might well be the case that the most accomplished harvester of votes in modern times could make a significant contribution.

His detractors (no shortage of those across the UK political spectrum) argue that Mr Blair is well past his sell date but I am not so sure. When I am told that Mr Boris Johnson, the principle guilty Brexiteer, is expected to play a key role in the coming fractious discussions, then I am more than happy to contemplate the rehabilitation and return of Mr Blair.

Who are the rich?

One tricky issue that has arisen is the need to establish who are the rich in the context of a debate on the pros and cons of funding various Labour proposals by the agreeable process of soaking the rich.

Does an annual income of £70,000 put you into the McDonnell rich list? How about £700,000? How about £7 million? The answer becomes more clear cut as you add the noughts.

Mr McDonnell was understandably reluctant to be pinned down as he awaited a figure from those in his party busily compiling the party manifesto. Why not simply announce a steadily rising tax rate above the current 45% to a level of say 90% for those earning above £1 million per annum.

In the good old days when I was still a member of the hard working class a small amount of my income was taxed at the top rate. I was never persuaded of the fairness of an income tax system that applied the same arithmetic to my modest income as it did to the earnings of – let us say – Sir Martin Sorrell.

The imposition of a steeply-rising tax rate for soaring incomes would help to focus the minds of the super rich on serving the interests of the companies that employ them instead of working tirelessly to loot the system. This point applies with equal validity to those on high retirement pensions. (This latter category that cannot plausibly assert that they will take their talents elsewhere.)

Other Issues

Labour should develop a policy to deal with underperforming managers in the public sector and in the no mans’ land that comprises territory controlled neither by the public sector nor by the private sector but by the Quangoland –  managed in the main by the descendants of Mr Arthur Daley.

Replace the present policy of retaining and/or rewarding the failures by a system which entails the prompt clearing of desks, and being escorted off the premises.  (As Private Eye might put it: prompt P45s to replace trebles all round.)

Conclusion

There are many persuasive arguments other than the Brexit argument to vote Labour on June 8.

However let me end by appealing to readers to ascertain the views of all the candidates seeking election to the new parliament and then to cast their votes for the candidate most favourably inclined to abandon Brexit and seek to retain our membership of the EU.

Mrs May might well prevail on the on the home front, she might well increase her majority, and that outcome would improve the chances of the UK leaving the Europe: if that is what you want then vote accordingly.

However, if you wish to take advantage of this May-sent opportunity to put the Brexit process into reverse and remain in the EU – then you know what to do.

If the outcome on June 8 does not bring comfort to Mrs May, then our many friends in the EU, not to mention the 48% in the UK that voted to remain, will heave a collective sigh of relief and discuss how best to plan for a speedy return to the status quo ante.

Image courtesy of Daily Express

 

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BrexEl – The Theresa May Brexit Election

“ I have been very clear —– I have been very clear ——- I have been very clear —-” repeated ad nauseam  by Mrs May, and especially since her re-location to No 10

“ Oh FFS. Not this shitshow again”  – Deborah Ross-The Times – April 20, 2017. (An unseemly but understandable optional response to BrexEl. I can only guess at the detail of the FFS acronym.)

Just after 11 am on Tuesday April 18 Theresa May emerged from No 10 Downing Street to announce to the waiting and bemused media throng that she had decided to call a General Election on June the 8th.

She went on to outline her reasons for taking this decision, and, given that she was making a 180 degree turn from her previously stated position, it is worth noting these reasons.

She quickly stressed her ongoing commitment to implement the will of the people as embodied in the June 23, 2016 referendum, and then proceeded to outline her concerns going forward.

“The country is coming together but Westminster is not..   In recent weeks Labour has threatened  to vote against the deal we reach with the EU. The Lib Dems have said that they want to grind the business of government to a standstill.  The SNP say they will vote against the legislation that formally repeals Britain’s membership of the EU . Unelected members of the House of Lords have vowed to fight us every step of the way.

“Our opponents believe that because the government’s majority is so small , our resolve will weaken and that they can force us to change course. They are wrong.”

“The House of Lords is not the watch dog of the constitution – it is Mr Balfour‘s poodle  — Lloyd George 1908″

For some of us the resolve of the House of Lords to “fight us every inch of the way” marks a refreshing change from its position not so much that of a poodle but rather that of a bulldog in its fierce support of conservative administrations down the  centuries.

Now Mrs May will know how Mr Asquith and later Mr Attlee felt about the House of Lords.

The Welsh connection 

Like Mrs May I recently walked in the Welsh hills. Unlike Mrs May I did not use my foray to reflect on grave national and global matters. For my part as I struggled during the long ascent from Talybont to the top of Waun Rydd  I was preoccupied with the thought that I would be pleased when I got to the top.

I saw  a lot of sheep during my walk and I suspect that Mrs May also saw a lot of sheep during her walks. It might – just might – have crossed her mind to draw comparisons between the behaviour of the docile grazing sheep and the attitude of the great majority of MPs from across the political spectrum – anything for a quiet life.

So – why not shake them up now in order to acquire a greater degree of control post June 8 over the flock – show them who is the Shepherd  and who are the sheep.

The opening Theresa May speech deconstructed / translated according to taste. 

In The Times (April 19) Philip Collins translated her speech from Downing Street speech into language that you and I can understand.   Others have rushed into print and onto the airwaves and into social media to create a tsunami of interpretation.

You pays your money and you takes your choice – one of the many benefits of living in a free enterprise economy.

“Well, now they’ve got the second referendum they wanted – dressed up as General Election” Richard Littlejohn — Daily Mail April 19

In his article Littlejohn argued that we are facing not a General Election as rationally understood but simply a re-play of June 23rd 2016, and that  “they” are the remainers who have been individually and collectively hoping, like Mr Micawber, that something would turn up.

Well it has now.

In the last 18 months or so Tribune has published 2 pieces by me in which I argued the case for the UK to remain in the EU. My views have not changed and in the following notes  I suggest how the opposition parties and Tory remainers might react to and confront the shabby opportunism of Mrs May.

The one fact to emerge from her announcement – the point which fully justifies her claim to consistent clarity – is that she has called the election to allow herself to move into a political comfort zone, a zone which gives her much more scope to deal with dissenters.

The dissenters vary from those who want her to speed up the Brexit process to those who would like to reverse the Brexit process.

This election is a single issue election and that issue is how most effectively to implement our departure. I believe that the most effective response by her opponents will be to take her at her word – on this occasion – and to take the opportunity afforded during the next few weeks to restate the case to reverse the outcome of June 2016.

A  stroll down memory lane

Nothing has happened in the past 10 months to persuade me that the June 23 referendum was not a poor advertisement for the UK brand of democracy – an unseemly amalgam of mendacity and squalid opportunism, with both elements prominently on show with  BOJO and Michael Gove.  BOJO was duly rewarded for his treachery by acquiring some – not all – of the Foreign Office whilst Gove was awarded the consolation prize of honorary poodle for Mr Murdoch.

Mr Paul Dacre continues to hurl insults at those who refuse to accept that the outcome of the referendum was good for Britain.

So – how should the remainers approach the June 8 election?

More to the point – what should their objectives be, how should they campaign most effectively to achieve these objectives and how and on what basis should they cast their votes?

In practical terms –  I suggest that they  treat the June 2017 General Election in exactly the same way that Mrs M has been and is treating it, namely as an opportunity to replay the June 2016 referendum.

Mrs May is seeking to strengthen her position as she prepares to engage with the 27 countries wishing to remain.

In so doing she has put into the hands of the remainers a weapon of considerable potential strength – they should use it!

In short – as Mr Micawber would say  – Mrs May sees the June 8 General Election as a single issue election. She is asking the British people to facilitate her task in the coming months and years AND years.

I see June 8 in the same terms but with a diametrically opposing objective – to use this replay of the 2016 referendum as a golden opportunity to rip up article 50, to apologise to the other 27 and to return to business as usual with our EU friends.

What might this approach mean in voting terms?

This could not be more simple – it would require that every candidate in every constituency would be asked to state their position with regard to Brexit  with – to coin a phrase – great clarity.

Views expressed would range from:-

  • At the one extreme  –  The UK to leave the EU as quickly as possible – speed of departure to be a crucial aim, even at the expense of  waiting a little to secure better terms .
  • At the other extreme –  The June 2016 referendum result to be put into reverse and the UK to return to the status quo ante

The tricky bit – with the views of the candidates having been secured – voters to be urged to support the candidates most committed to the remain camp. This support to take precedence over all traditional party loyalties with the overriding aim of securing the future of the UK within the European Union.

In short  – all those seeking to reverse the June 2016  result  should treat the June 8, 2017  election as a second referendum on remain or leave and to vote accordingly.

United we stand – Divided we fall (Well – up to point, Lord Copper)

*  UK referendum about our EU membership in June, 2016- stay or leave

Stay – 48%

Leave – 52%

* USA Presidential election

% for Trump – 46

% for Clinton – 48

* Turkey – Erdogan referendum to retain the status quo or to cede extra powers to the President

% for no change – 49

% to accept the Erdogan plans – 51

Poll of outside experts questioned about the likely outcome of any referendum held in North Korea about the popularity of the leader Mr Kim Jong-Un

% who believe that he is the man for the job – 100

It would appear that Mrs May is uneasy about her membership of the very low 50s club and would like to edge up the league table towards the enviable position of Mr Kim Jong-Un.

A word about unintended consequences

A number of issues have surfaced since June 24, 2016, some more serious than others, but all to some degree falling into the category of unintended consequences.

They include :-

Difficulties over the out status of Ulster and the in status of The Republic of Ireland.

  • A perceived readiness by Spain to lay claim to Gibraltar. On this matter the readiness of those old sea dogs Michael Howard and Michael Fallon to growl at would be trespassers did little to foster international good will
  • The possibility – to put it no stronger- that key personnel required by various sectors of the UK economy would not be allowed to come here.
  • Another even more unfortunate possibility is that some key people already here and holding down important jobs might not be allowed to remain. The status of this group of unfortunates is that of hostages caught up in a conflict not of their choice.
  • Nicola Sturgeon, wholly predictably, is proving immune to appeals to “Be British” and is working tirelessly in pursuit of her goal of an independent Scotland – and who shall blame her for doing on a small stage exactly what Mrs May is doing on the larger stage.

Immigration

Some commentators argued before and after the June 2016 referendum that Immigration was the main issue that determined the outcome, and that the no vote was in large measure the outcome of decades of ignoring the concerns of those who were uneasy about large scale immigration  and saw the referendum as a one off opportunity to express their concerns in the only way open to them.

There is clearly some truth in this assertion and the remainers can and must do better than simply label this group as racists.

The fact is that there is scope to reach a compromise between the Free Movement of people of people within the EU on the one hand and closed borders on the other.

Some sections of the Labour Party and especially within the Trade Unions recognise that in practice the free movement policy has been used to erode employee terms and conditions in the UK,  and that the sort of generous relocation expenses available to those at the top are simply not there for those at the bottom.

The weaknesses of the EU – with or without UK membership

Remainers should recognise the valid concerns of many in the UK – and throughout the EU – about the democratic shortcomings of  aspects  of some EU institutions.

Sadly some critics tend to lump their concerns together under the general heading of “Bloated Bureaucracy – a valid but vague criticism. Why not take the extra step of spelling out what ought to change and why in order to bring about greater accountability and a leaner institution.

I suggest that remainers should examine the strong case for:-

  • A European Union where power is devolved to local level to the maximum possible extent.
  • This point to apply even to legal matters, indeed especially to legal matters.
  • Work to end the system of MEPS being elected on a party basis. Electors to vote for named individuals rather than for parties.
  • Remainers to ensure that the MEPS elected to EU parliament are constantly reminded of the need to tackle – not address!- the  corruption in EU institutions

Closing points

  • I urge the electorate to take the opportunity generously afforded them by Mrs May to reverse the June 2016 result.
  • I  urge them to grasp that the case to remain in the EU  is more important than the fortunes of any political party, however strong the traditional loyalties and ties.
  • If Mrs May can change her mind with such breath taking insouciance – why should the rest of us not follow her lead?
  • The UK would recover more quickly from a spell under Mr Corbyn and/or Mr Farron and/or Ms Sturgeon than it would in the post Brexit chaos under the collective thumbs of Mrs May and BOJO and Mr Murdoch and Mr Paul Dacre.
  • I hope that the British electorate will take this heaven sent opportunity to bring about a return to stability and relative domestic tranquillity.

An abbreviated version of this article first appeared in Tribune in May, 2017

 

 

 

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A tragedy on an industrial scale

The whole future of the British steel industry hangs in the balance. Belatedly, the flooding of global markets with Chinese steel has been recognised as a development that has been especially significant for Tata Steel in the United Kingdom.

The Conservative Government has struggled to keep up with the rapidly deteriorating situation. The phrase “ headless chickens “ comes to mind. And now chickens –headless and otherwise – are coming home to roost.

The global financial crisis of 2008 triggered enormous damage to the global economy in general and to the European steel sector in particular. The national steel outputs of most major European Union producers fell by around 40 per cent in the following 12 months and the damage to the stability of the sector was lasting and serious.

In October 2014, I was working as a consultant to the Steel Committee, a body made of full time officials of unions with members employed in the UK steel sector. I was uneasy to hear that Tata Steel wished to sell its UK Long Products business to Gary Klesch, an American billionaire with a dubious CV in these disreputable markets.

Discussions fell through but now Marc and Nathaniel Meyohas, two brothers behind Greybull, an investment firm with a similar approach to business matters as that of the Klesch Group, are to buy the Scunthorpe steelworks from Tata.  It is an indictment of Tata senior management that steel workers in Scunthorpe have so lost patience that they are prepared, if not to support, then at least to go along with this.

In my report to the Steel Committee in 2014, I noted that Long Products lost money in the five-month period April to August 2013. The Tata board had understandably expressed concern at the scale of the losses and insisted that Long Products must break even that year or there would be unpalatable consequences.  Tata outlined various initiatives to ensure that the business would be profitable. These were endorsed by the Steel Committee and local trade union officials, and some of the targets set were achieved.

But the Long Products business continued to be aversely affected by confusion over head count requirements – the exact number of employees required to produce the forecast order book.

In my report to the Steel Committee, based on extensive discussions with Scunthorpe managers and local officials I said that I had seen no evidence that the head count review was being conducted in a way that might put at risk the future operation of the business. There were opportunities for further reductions that would not put at risk the future operation of the business. If these were not taken, Long Products would be storing up problems that would sooner or later trigger another crisis.

For at least 10 years, first Corus and latterly Tata argued that the UK steel sector was treated unfairly by competitors in the European Union. Contributing to an uneven playing field were energy costs, arrangements for the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, alleged preferential treatment in Europe of local steel suppliers when placing steel orders for public sector projects in breach of EU rules and the significantly large levels of local taxation in the UK as compared with local taxes in Europe.

Now, if UK steel is to survive, all tenders for UK construction projects will be required to seek to source steel from UK plants.

Tata Steel appointed Kirby Adams as chief executive of its European operations in 2009. His performance was poor in some key areas, especially in his maladroit handling of the closure of the Redcar site. And his brief reign was marked by the precipitate departure of three highly regarded senior managers.

He was succeeded by Karl-Ulrich Köhler, who showed commendable energy, enthusiasm and unfailing courtesy as he struggled to get on top of a formidable catalogue of problems and put the business on a sound financial footing. Unfortunately, these qualities did not deliver the planned improvements and, as failure followed failure, he was increasingly perceived to be unsure as to the root causes of the problems and accordingly prone to adopt inappropriate solutions.

Adams and Kohler were appointed by the main board of Tata Steel and accordingly the board of Tata Steel has to acknowledge its collective responsibility for their respective shortcomings.

Tata should be commended for by investing heavily in Port Talbot and especially in iron-making facilities. So it is all the more regrettable that this commitment was accompanied by some dire outcomes in terms of the management of the investment project. Actual iron outputs were way below planned levels with significant adverse consequences for sales and profits.

Now Tata intends to pull out of the UK and will either sell or close all its British operations. It beggars belief that the commitment shown so recently in Port Talbot should be jettisoned so abruptly. Is Tata really saying that it had no contingency plans to deal with a switch by China to export markets? If yes, what does that say about Tata’s ability to cope with future major changes and shifts?

Ratan Tata recently described the UK steel industry as “overmanned and underinvested”. His comments may be unwise, given that he was chairman of the Tata Group from 1991-2012. It is the responsibility of management to establish the number of employees required to produce the planned order book. Ratan Tata spoke as if all these serious business problems are nothing to do with him. If the top man can make so detached a criticism of his own company, then it is small wonder that this attitude permeates down the management chain. Presumably, Tata Steel did not expect Roy Rickhuss, the chairman of the Steel Committee and general secretary of Community, the union which represents steel workers, to submit a list of job cuts to be implemented by the company.

Sanjeev Gupta has emerged as a possible saviour of UK steel. He has acquired and is now operating the old Alpha Steel Hot Strip Mill in Newport and has said that in the event that matters proceed further, he would see the Port Talbot mills being sourced from arc furnaces rather than via the blast furnace route.

However, the two Port Talbot blast furnaces have just been rebuilt at a very significant cost, and now rank among the most productive (and cleanest) in Europe.

Any issues arising over the Port Talbot head count could be resolved if it were to take the approach adopted in Llanwern whereby the head count is the minimum required to produce and sell the forecast order book.

The level of imports from China has clearly been a major factor in the declining fortunes of UK steel. However, all steel producers in the EU have been adversely affected but only the British sector appears to face the prospect of extinction.

Actions to consider include strong British Government for support EU-wide measures to curb dumping and unions backing a “Remain” vote in the forthcoming EU referendum. Better together than alone in any tariff discussions. to match those levied in Europe.

The closure of one of the best blast furnaces in Europe in Redcar and the very real threat of closure of two others, taken together, represent the most appalling example of irresponsible business vandalism in UK industrial history.

We need to plan on the basis that sooner rather than later the China dumping problem will be solved. Accordingly, everything possible should be done to rebuild a lean UK steel sector capable of competing in global markets. The Government must take action on energy costs, emissions trading costs, local business rates and ensure that UK steel used for UK construction projects. In some ways, restructuring is the trickiest area of all. Tata has, in recent years, used the term as a euphemism for job cutting rather than as an attempt to build business organisations geared to the needs of customers and markets.

Any attempt to repair the wreckage left by Tata should pay special attention to recapturing some of the good features of the previous structure operated by Corus and initially by Tata, such as arrangements for purchasing raw materials and sharing technical expertise.  Governments (of whatever persuasion) do not have a good track record in this area, and nor do regional and local authorities. They failed to detect what was about to happen and prepare effective measures to protect the industry. Efforts to secure the best possible terms for redundant steel workers and efforts to find a buyer for the Redcar plant are not mutually exclusive.

In 1936, King Edward VII visited South Wales and opined that “something must be done” to alleviate the distressed areas. Now is the time for effective, realistic and prompt measures to avoid the creation of a similar barren landscape.

This article was first published in Tribune on April 15, 2016