Tuesday 24 April 2007

It stands to reason

In his splendid novel, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, Douglas Adams came up with the most useful computer program ever written. Called Reason, it constructed a series of plausible-sounding steps leading inexorably to a predetermined conclusion. Its inventor was immediately able to buy himself a new Porsche “despite being completely broke and a hopeless driver. Even his bank manager was unable to find fault with his reasoning.”

The joke in the book was that he never sold a single copy of the software, since it was immediately snapped up by the Pentagon to justify Star Wars. (Had Douglas Adams lived long enough, I dare say later editions of the book would have added “and the invasion of Iraq”.) But wouldn’t it be handy if Reason actually existed?

Consider, for example, the recent quote in this paper from the deputy chief executive of the North East Assembly. (You remember: that body we nearly all voted against, but end up with anyway because the EU says we must.) “This cutting-edge study provides an objective assessment of the impact that windfarm [sic] development would have on the North and South Charlton landscape.”

While I’ve had some nasty paper cuts in my time, and know that they can sting a bit, I do wonder whether a whole report can really be “cutting-edge”? Knives and swords, yes. Razor blades, certainly. But reports?

I also don’t understand how anyone can make “an objective assessment” of this issue. You may think that having 28 415ft tall wind turbines plonked around the moors north of Alnwick is going to make a bit of a hash of their beauty and tranquillity, or you may think that they’re going to brighten the place up no end. Both viewpoints are tenable, but subjective.

Down in London, Ken Livingstone commissions similar reports, “objectively” demonstrating that chucking up ruddy great skyscrapers all over the place is not going to harm the townscape because it can “absorb” them. (The analogy is rather a useful one, because the proposed turbines at Middlemoor and Wandylaw will be about the same height as a 35-storey tower block.)

Red Ken loves skyscrapers; the Government is committed to a massive expansion of “renewable energy” to meet its “Kyoto targets”. Against that background, sceptics may wonder why any consultant would pronounce against them. It seems as likely as a Government-commissioned study concluding that the NHS IT system and National Identity Register are a massive waste of time and money. What is certain is that if the consultants said “no”, further reports would be commissioned until those in authority found one that said “yes”. It would be so much cheaper and simpler if we could just apply Reason instead.

Wind power is a scam, which will serve mainly to transfer large amounts of subsidy from the UK taxpayer to big foreign corporations and smaller, home-grown concerns which have spotted the imminent departure of the gravy train. It’s sold to the gullible as a way of “saving the planet”. And, stop fretting Mr Williams of Wallsend, it is going to happen. Because, even if we voted this discredited Government out of office, every serious opposition party is falling over itself to be even “greener” than New Labour.

It’s a colossal shame. I love those moors. I used to live on them. By commissioning reports and holding public enquiries (which will undoubtedly be overruled, just like that Assembly referendum, if they come to the “wrong” conclusion), we are racking up expense and prolonging the agony. The process resembles one of those interminable American court cases that leave convicts on death row for decades. But, although fatalistic, I’m for fighting on against the odds in the faint hope that sanity may eventually prevail. By doing so, we also buy a little time in which some of us may be fortunate enough to expire of natural causes before the executioner of what’s left of rural Britain pulls the lever.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 17 April 2007

One with Nineveh and Tyre

Two of my uncles served in the Royal Navy during the Second World War. One was on board the aircraft carrier HMS Courageous in September 1939 when Winston Churchill, the newly appointed First Lord of the Admiralty, satisfied his perennial desire for action by sending it out into the Western Approaches in search of U-Boats. Its quest was successful, though not in the way that Churchill had intended. Uncle Reg was one of the survivors, and spoke movingly of his officers standing to attention and saluting the White Ensign as they went down with their ship.

Admittedly I only heard that story at second hand from my father. This country found that it had little use for Reg once the war was over, prompting him to emigrate to Australia as a ten pound Pom.

My Uncle Eric served on Malta during the siege which won the whole island the George Cross, and was subsequently torpedoed twice. On the second occasion, heading home on the troopship Empress of Canada, he spent several hours in the Atlantic off West Africa. He had a large lump bitten out of one of his legs by a shark; he also ingested quantities of heavy fuel oil, causing him lifelong health problems. I never heard him speak of this ordeal, though it is only fair to add that this may have been because his immediate family used to react like the Trotters in Only Fools and Horses when it looked like their very own Uncle Albert might be about to embark on one of his fascinating naval reminiscences.

I can well imagine how Reg or Eric would have reacted if they had lived long enough to see their successors cashing in on such dreadful sufferings as having their i-Pods confiscated, or being forced to sleep on the floor with only a rolled-up blanket for a pillow.

I also clearly owe the people of an Iran a profound apology, for suggesting two weeks ago that their leaders were deranged, and that we should even consider retaliating against them to secure the release of our “hostages”.

In fact, I now realise that President Ahmadinejad is a public relations genius. His taste in menswear may be a little suspect, but who’s to say that he’s not telling the truth when he says that he only wants to develop a civilian nuclear power programme? What could be more natural for a country with stupendous oil and gas reserves, little uranium, and a long track record of disastrous earthquakes? Building a nuclear bomb? Wiping Israel off the map? Stuff and nonsense. The man’s definitely a humanitarian. We’ve seen the evidence in his goodie bags.

I’ve also read David Banks and others saying that Faye Turney and her colleague are not to be blamed for taking the money that was on offer. It is certainly true that they were “only obeying orders” and that their greed is not in the same league as that of the failed politicians and their advisers who pocket not-so-small fortunes for their serialised memoirs.

But recent events are horribly symbolic of a nation that has truly reached rock bottom. Watching Leading Seaman Turney whingeing to Sir Trevor McDonald last week, I finally grasped something that would doubtless have been obvious long ago if I had not carefully sheltered myself from the daily horrors of “reality TV”. The old England that I was brought up to love, a country of restraint, decency, bravery and respect, is as dead as the dodo. It is one with the vanished empires of Nineveh and Tyre, and nothing will ever bring it back.

The men who fought and died to defend our freedom in 1939-45 were betrayed by politicians who handed our independence to “Europe” in the interests of “prosperity”, and by fools like me who were conned into voting for it. Thirty years of relentless dumbing down in education and the media did the rest. And so a once great country lies rotting in an unmarked grave, while pygmies swarm over it in pursuit of unearned cash and totally undeserved celebrity.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 10 April 2007

What have we got to lose?

On Mothering Sunday last month, I was drinking champagne with some dear old friends on the terrace of their house in Sussex. All was going swimmingly until their 17-year-old son handed over his offering of a folded sheet of A4 paper bearing a cartoon, crudely drawn in crayons, accompanied by a vaguely appropriate message. You could tell at a glance that his mother was far from gruntled. Even before she pointed out that this was the sort of card she might have expected to get from a five-year-old, if indeed it wasn’t the very card that he had drawn in his first year at primary school, and had kept and recycled ever since.

“But, Mum,” the lad protested. “You told us that Mother’s Day was a load of commercialised nonsense, and that we weren’t to waste our money on expensive cards and presents.”

“Ah,” I pointed out in my role of visiting sage, “You’ve fallen into that old trap of thinking that a woman means what she says. When Mum told you not to bother, what she actually meant was that you should go out and buy her the cheesiest card, the biggest bunch of flowers and the highest-calorie box of chocolates that you could afford.”

He asked his mother to refute my ridiculous theory, but she confirmed that it was, in fact, absolutely correct.

“So, Keith.” He looked at me seriously. “What you’re saying is that when a woman says no, she really means yes?”

Oh dear. A sudden vision of the two of us standing side-by-side in a dock at the Old Bailey flashed before me, and I backtracked as hastily as I could. With special reference to the sort of situations in which a teenager with normal instincts might well find himself towards the end of a night out.

The growth of the binge-drinking culture among the young (and 50-something semi-retired PR consultants and newspaper columnists) has led to growing difficulties in remembering who agreed to what in the bedrooms of the nation. This in turn is reflected in a massive decline in the conviction rate for rape, with some 95% of complaints now resulting in no charge or a not guilty verdict.

Given that most cases involve the conflicting testimony of two people who at least vaguely know each other, and were the worse for drink at the time, the reluctance of juries to convict is not altogether surprising. But how to stop genuine perpetrators of this despicable crime walking free?

One way forward would be the introduction of a signed and witnessed consent form, to be completed before every act of sexual intercourse. Notaries could be stationed in pubs and clubs to hand out the documents, and verify that the signatories were sober enough to know what they were doing.

Alternatively, a law could be passed to prohibit the consumption of alcohol before sex. (A sensible public health measure in any case, if it is likely to result in pregnancy.) This could be enforced by making it an offence to engage in sexual relations except in State-approved bedrooms with breathalyser-activated locks. It would be easy enough to clamp down on potential renegades through a modest expansion of the current CCTV camera network to include all car parks, alleyways, bus shelters and patches of waste ground.

Now, I suspect that I and most readers of this column would not be here if it were not for the inhibition-lowering properties of alcohol. I know for a fact that I would never have slept with any woman if beer, wine or spirits had not been consumed on at least the first night of our relationship. So the perfectly reasonable initiatives I suggest could well result in the extinction of humanity (apart from devout Muslims and very old-fashioned Methodists) within 100 years. On the other hand, if the environmental fanatics have got it right, we’re doomed on roughly that timescale anyway. So what have we got to lose?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 4 April 2007

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

What do hand guns, radiator valves, lawn mowers and fondant fancies have in common? Those with long memories will recall that they were all products of the high-flying conglomerate Tomkins. Along with the likes of Hanson, Williams and BTR, it was one of the great British success stories of the 1980s and early 1990s. These were companies built on the belief that good managements could turn their hands to anything, and they made fortunes by snapping up undervalued businesses and turning them around.

Then a little over ten years ago conglomerates suddenly became horribly unfashionable. Investors wanted something called “focus”, so sell-offs and de-mergers became the order of the day. This left companies smaller, so the obvious answer was “sector consolidation” through acquisitions. It is not entirely clear whether all this corporate activity added any value for shareholders in the businesses concerned. But it certainly made a lot of money for City banks, brokers, accountants, lawyers and, yes, even financial PR consultants.

Today many of those focused and consolidated quoted companies are being circled by hungry sharks from the private equity sector, who believe that they can extract more value from their assets. Does this in any way sound curiously familiar? A cynic might even wonder exactly what the difference is between a fashionable private equity business, which believes that good management can turn its hand to anything, and a tired and discredited 1980s conglomerate.

The answer, stupid, is that key word “private”, meaning the avoidance of stock market scrutiny. But what’s this? Leading US private equity player Blackstone is looking at a flotation that will value it at $20 billion and presumably make it “the public private equity group”. Nothing like as much fun as “Tomkins, the buns to guns conglomerate”, a joke which by itself completely justified their acquisition of RHM. But nevertheless a valuable step towards enhancing the gaiety of the business pages.

If you’re tempted to invest in Blackstone, ask yourself the question you should apply in any flotation: “If the people who know this business best think its prospects are so terrific, why are they trying to sell it to me?” Then go and have a nice lie down.

Meanwhile Greg Hutchings, the genius who took Tomkins from a value of virtually nothing to £5 billion, is back on the acquisition trail with his vehicle Lupus Capital. That’s presumably Lupus as in the Latin for wolf, rather than the chronic, tubercular skin disease. Or maybe it’s another joke in the “buns to guns” mould. Either way: nice one, Greg. And the very best of British luck.

Keith Hann is a PR consultant who has always put jokes first. www.keithhann.com

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 3 April 2007

Painfully unfunny once again

You will have spotted the unwelcome revival of that always painfully unfunny drama, the Iranian hostage crisis. The one at their embassy in London in 1980 closed after a mere five days, thanks to the robust action of the SAS. The much bigger production at the US embassy in Tehran began in the previous November and ran for a record-breaking 444 days. Lousy reviews of President Carter’s failure to resolve it dished his chances of a second term in the White House and so ushered in the age of Ronald Reagan. So at least it wasn’t all bad news.

One hopes that the current disgraceful captivity of our Naval personnel will be ended much closer to the Willie Whitelaw than the Jimmy Carter timescale. The signs to date, though, are hardly encouraging. Even though their ship was in Iraqi waters acting on a UN mandate, the UN seems curiously reluctant to exert any pressure on the screwballs in Tehran. Our trusty allies in the US also remained silent for so long that I began to wonder whether we had any influence at the White House, despite all those sacrifices of blood and treasure designed to secure it.

So here we are: one of the world’s larger economies, equipped with nuclear weapons, and a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Yet a bunch of fanatics can kidnap our sailors and marines, parade them on TV and threaten them with a show trial. And, apparently, we can do nothing much about it.

I find myself longing for the days when the Royal Navy would have been despatched in force to bombard Iranian ports until the captives were handed over, along with a grovelling apology and a cheque to cover our expenses. Sadly, this is not a practical option today, with the enfeebled remains of the Navy largely mothballed to save money for more important things like the NHS database and London Olympics.

Now, is it not just possible that we are in this mess because we are perceived to be weak? Perhaps because our conventional armed forces are well known to be rundown and overstretched? Or because we have a lame duck Prime Minister who has put himself on the fast track to oblivion? Or a Foreign Secretary who is widely regarded as a joke in questionable taste? When her promotion was revealed to her, Mrs Beckett famously disclosed that her reaction was a single, four letter expletive. Appropriately enough, as that was exactly what every thinking person in Britain and the wider world said when the news broke.

This is the same woman whose abilities have been so powerfully demonstrated by her handling of the single farm payments scheme at her previous ministry, DEFRA (the Directorate for the Eradication of Farming and Related Activities). A success so stunning that even a committee dominated by Labour MPs suggested that she should have been sacked.

If I were one of those unfortunate Marines, I’d be saying, “Cheer up, lads, at least we’ve got Ma Beckett fighting our cause and oh …” Unfortunately the remainder of that sentence is not suitable for publication in a family newspaper.

It is, I am sure, too much to hope that the Iranian regime will look at the total lack of leverage Britain possesses, despite its nuclear arsenal, and wonder what is the point of having one itself. For my own part, if (God forbid) any serious harm were to come to the team from HMS Cornwall, I’d be quite happy to press the button that would convert Tehran into a smouldering, radioactive wasteland. But I can see why many people would consider that to be an unwise escalation.

Perhaps best then if I never, ever stand for public office. Not even for the parish council. It’s just a shame that certain others do not similarly recognise their limitations. No names, no pack-drill. But I’m sure you can guess who I have in mind.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.