Tuesday 30 October 2007

A candle in the wind

I apologise for my absence last week. Oh, you didn’t notice? While not being under the delusion that you care one way or the other, I was unwell. I had one of those bugs that give you, in random order, a sore throat, hacking cough, streaming nose, aching joints and an overpowering feeling of lassitude. I didn’t bother the doctor. Just went to the post office and obtained assurance that there was a lot of it about.

It’s been going on for a fortnight now, and I still wouldn’t put any money on myself in an arm-wrestling contest with a week-old kitten.

It’s been really lousy timing for two reasons. First, I’m one of those people who is programmed to become depressed anyway as the days grow shorter. Add a bout of physical illness, and I quickly slip over the line from miserable to suicidal.

Secondly, there was something I really wanted to write about last Tuesday, namely the Wandylaw wind farm planning application. Thank goodness I didn’t. A few cynical barbs from me might just have prompted Berwick’s brave councillors to back their planning officers and approve the thing.

I pulled out all the stops for Wandylaw Moor 20 years ago, trying to stop it being dug up for opencast coal. It did precisely no good. In an admittedly sparsely populated area, the majority of locals seemed to be firmly on the side of the developers. Then it was all about “jobs”, which were few and far between, as I recall, and mainly filled by immigrants. Though in those days they only came from County Durham, not Poland.

Of course, I had a personal interest. At the time I was living in a small cottage that looked out onto Wandylaw Moor, writing the definitive comic novel about “Big Bang” in the City. (It’s still waiting for a publisher, 20 years later.) My family had rented the place as a holiday home for most of the 20th century. My mother even claimed to have been born there. It was certainly the place where I’d spent my happiest holidays. I loved it with a passion. Unfortunately I was in a pathetically small minority.

So it was with great delight that I read that this unjustly neglected stretch of moorland between the coast and the Cheviots had finally gathered a respectable fan club, and that the doomed councillors of Berwick-upon-Tweed had decided to go down in style, with flags flying proudly and nearly all guns blazing. Grey men in Whitehall will have reflected how wise they are to eliminate these nuisances and concentrate decision-making power in the hands of reliable Labour stooges from the urbanised parts of the county.

Those who wish to despoil the open, rolling uplands of Northumberland with wind farms have precisely the same mindset as those who burst into the great mediaeval cathedrals intent on smashing their stained glass, whitewashing over their wall paintings and decapitating their icons. Both are motivated by the same spirit of self-righteous do-goodery: then to get back to the true word of the Bible, now in the name of the new religion called “Saving The Planet”.

Behind these well-intentioned vandals lurk exactly the same sort of cynical fat cats. Indeed some of the landowners who have allied with developers to cash in on the ludicrous subsidies for “renewables” are physical as well as spiritual descendants of those who profited so hugely from the stripping of the altars.

Like the Terminator, they will undoubtedly be back. And heaven knows there is enough bad news on other fronts to make me sure that the last thing I want is a long life. But still, for a few minutes last week, the cloud of depression lifted enough to justify cracking open a bottle of champagne and raising a glass to the planning committee of Berwick-upon-Tweed Borough Council. As I believe they say in Australia, “Good on yer, mates!”

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 16 October 2007

The thin and worthless red line

There is apparently no truth in the rumour that a couple in Connaught Square have been threatened with an ASBO by Westminster City Council. This allegedly followed complaints that their neighbours had been kept awake all night by uproarious laughter, as the Blairs repeatedly watched a recording of Gordon Brown’s humiliation at Prime Minister’s Questions last week. Still, it must have been a dream come true, particularly for Cherie.

Who would have predicted that the man with the Big Clunking Fist would land it so unerringly on his own chin? It took Tony Blair years and a hugely unpopular war to destroy his credibility; Gordon Brown has accomplished it in little more than two weeks. The longest courtship in British political history has been followed by the shortest honeymoon.

The divorce, however, could prove a longer-running saga than the current Mills-McCartney bust-up. Mr Brown has a secure majority in Parliament, and no-one can force him to hold a General Election before 2010. So let’s turn our attention to another vote he is determined not to give us – no, please don’t turn over. This may make your eyes feel heavy, but it’s really important.

However much we may dislike Gordon Brown or David Cameron, can’t we at least agree that we’d prefer to be governed by a British politician we stand a chance of removing, rather than some unelected and faceless bureaucrat in Brussels? (There is another issue, about whether a Scot should be Prime Minister of the United Kingdom under the present constitutional settlement, which is hugely unfair to the English, but that is a subject for another day.)

We must all hope that Mr Brown is on rather better form this week, as he defends Britain’s “red lines” at the summit with other European leaders in Lisbon, than he was against Mr Cameron last Wednesday. But we also have the word of the Labour MP who chairs the Commons’ European Scrutiny Committee that these “red lines” are worthless because they will “leak like a sieve”. The same Committee last week confirmed what every other European leader has been saying all along, namely that the Reform Treaty is indeed the rejected Constitution under another name.

Now, since British supporters of the European project are not exactly renowned for telling the plain, unvarnished truth, it is only fair to acknowledge that they are right on one point. This new treaty does not cede as much power to Brussels as the Single European Act, passed with comparatively little fuss in the 1980s, or the Maastricht Treaty of 1992. The latter, shamefully rammed through Parliament by a nominally Conservative government, made us all citizens, without our consent, of the newly created entity called the European Union.

The significance of the new Reform Treaty is that it will complete the transformation of the EU into a state. Once that is done, it will be possible to go on tightening the ratchet of “ever closer union” without ever again seeking the approval of national governments through treaties, let alone consulting their occasionally troublesome electorates.

That is not just the view of some maverick right-wing columnist, going quietly insane on a Northumberland hilltop, but of Gisela Stuart: the German-born (so presumably not naturally Europhobic) Labour MP who was one of Britain’s two official representatives on the Convention that drew up the Constitution.

So, just for once, that cliché about “drinking in the last-chance saloon” is absolutely accurate. No-one under 50 has ever been offered a chance to vote directly on this most important of political issues. And most of us who did vote “yes” in 1975 were conned into believing that we were signing up to a free trade area, not giving away our right to self-government.

We the people must be given the final say that we were explicitly promised at the last General Election. Lobby your MP and sign up now at iwantareferendum.com.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 9 October 2007

With a flap and a cluck, his fate was sealed

I shall refrain from the obvious comparison because it is so unfair to the poor old chicken. It has its good name dragged through umpteen unflattering clichés; yet, even when confined under conditions of unimaginable cruelty, it is one of the world’s most efficient generators of protein. It has thereby contributed vastly more to humanity than Gordon Brown has done, or is now ever likely to achieve.

For this was the day when he was scheduled to see the Queen to request a dissolution of Parliament, and make a national broadcast explaining why he needed a fresh mandate for his “age of change”. When a friend asked for my predictions last week, I said that the election would definitely go ahead as the campaign had already gathered so much momentum. In the event of a U-turn, Mr Brown’s credibility would plummet and was unlikely ever to recover.

I was wrong on the first point, but this serves only to reinforce the remainder of my forecast. I do not have space here to run through the complete Blairite charge sheet on why G. Brown was unfit to be Prime Minister, but indecisiveness and political cowardice were high on the list. (They were, after all, the reasons he ended up playing second fiddle to Mr Blair in the first place.) Both accusations have now been proven beyond any reasonable doubt.

For the last few weeks, the Prime Minister had taken his eye off running the country in order to indulge in a series of political stunts. The most egregious of these was his visit to Iraq for the sole purpose of trying to upstage the Tory conference. This was surely the most cynical and odious such manoeuvre since Jo Moore pronounced that 9/11 was “a very good day” to bury bad news. It will go down in history as the moment that the man who came to office promising an end to spin fatally over-reached himself. I look forward to the footage being replayed 30 years’ hence, like Jim Callaghan serenading the TUC with that music hall song back in 1978.

Because although a November election would have been nail-bitingly close, Douglas Alexander and the other “teenagers” in Mr Brown’s team were right; it was the best chance he was ever likely to get. By 2009 the wheels will have come off the remarkable British economic bandwagon that has miraculously kept on rolling since the mid-1990s, and it is hard to see how even Macavity Brown is going to shake off the blame for that.

He has been prodigiously lucky so far, winning approval for his crisis management skills even when behind the Northern Rock drama lay an ineffective system of banking regulation introduced by one G. Brown in 1997. The problems at the Institute of Animal Health, from which the foot and mouth virus escaped, were rooted in budget cuts imposed by G. Brown. Even expenditure on flood defences had been hacked back by … well, you get the picture.

Indeed, almost the only bad news stories of the summer that did not have his fingerprints all over them were the never-ending Diana saga and the abduction of Madeleine McCann. But watch this space: investigations in both cases are continuing.

Although Tony Blair was allowed to strut the world stage for a decade, cosying up to George W. Bush and getting involved in ill-judged overseas adventures, domestic policy was always firmly under the big clunking fist of G. Brown (within the tight limits allowed by our real masters in Brussels). He was also well-known to be the principal roadblock to radical action, particularly in the NHS.

Against this background, how can he now rebuild any credibility as a principled statesman or the agent of much-needed change? I do believe that those distant clucking and flapping noises are the sound of a worn-out metaphor heading home to roost.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 3 October 2007

It just isn't fair

In aviation, it is considered that the best way of aligning a pilot’s interests with those of his passengers is to have him sitting right at the front of the plane without a parachute, ensuring that he will be the first to perish if he flies carelessly into a mountain.

I don’t think even the pilots’ union has ever suggested that it would be better to equip him with an ejector seat that would shower him with banknotes as he floated serenely to earth, admiring the vivid colours as his craft exploded.

Yet those are precisely the rules that apply in business, where a failed chief executive can usually anticipate a well-cushioned retirement as his shareholders’ savings and employees’ job prospects crash in flames.

I know several rich and apparently respected individuals whose only claim to fame is that they have brought a public company to its knees. Sometimes, amazingly, they have been given the chance to prove their ineptitude more than once.

Of course, their independent non-executive directors ticked all the right corporate governance boxes as they authorised the compensation package they needed to attract and retain the very best person for the job.

But then they would, wouldn’t they? Given that they almost certainly hold an equivalent executive position elsewhere. Unless they are one of those people whose own career ascent stalled some way short of the summit, prompting them to “go plural” instead.

Theoretically, boards take collective responsibility for failure. Though when it looked like the non-executive directors of Equitable Life might be sued into bankruptcy a few years ago, their squeals of protest were probably picked up by alien spacecraft on the outer fringes of the galaxy.

It amazes me to find myself well to the left of that old socialist Gordon Brown on the issue of executive pay.

In my book, entrepreneurs who have original ideas and risk their own money deserve every penny they get. Those who genuinely transform the performance of an established plc (rather than manipulating financial smoke and mirrors) should also be properly rewarded for the wealth and opportunities they create. But why shouldn’t the price of abject failure be personal ruin and shame?

You don’t need to be a schoolboy to know that anything else just isn’t fair.

Keith Hann is a PR consultant who doesn’t court easy popularity. www.keithhann.com

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 2 October 2007

No jokes about rocks

Why does anyone ever complain about anything in the media? A few may sense the distant jangle of a sure-fire, jackpot libel payout, but there are plenty of bankrupts and convicted perjurers to attest that this is a strategy fraught with risk.

Like all PR practitioners, I spent a fair chunk of my career trying to persuade angry clients to rise above it. “Hardly anyone will have read it. It’s tomorrow’s chip wrapper.” (It’s not any more, thanks to the Elfin Safety fanatics, but it still sounds more poetic than “already in the recycling bin”.) “They’ll end up reprinting the story to correct it, and it will get far more attention that way. Papers hate admitting they got it wrong. Much better if I have a quiet word with them and they make a note on the file so it never gets repeated. That way, they’ll end up thinking they owe us a favour.”

Most times, it worked. Sometimes it didn’t, and you’d see a note buried away in a corner of page 74. “In our profile of Sir Richard Buggins, chief executive of Gubbins plc, on pages 42-43 on September 26th, we did not intend to imply that he was in the habit of beating his wife. We regret that some readers may have misinterpreted the article in this way, and are happy to confirm that Sir Richard has never laid a finger on Lady Buggins except for approved matrimonial purposes, duly sanctioned by both Church and State.”

And for the rest of his life, whenever two people are gathered together and the name of Buggins crops up, one will wink at the other and lean forward confidentially to say, “Ah, you mean the wife-beater.”

These reflections were inspired by last week’s furore about Ant and Dec. I realised that I was eminently qualified to become a High Court judge when my first reaction to reading about them was to ask “Who are Ant and Dec?” I have never knowingly seen them on the box, and am amazed to learn that they are among the medium’s highest-paid stars. I can’t even begin to imagine why, but I’ll take the showbiz columnists’ word for it that they are “much-loved”.

Or at any rate they were, until they cracked their very lame “joke” about Northern Rock. Which would have passed me by completely if some people had not complained about it, leading it be re-shown on the local news and described frame-by-frame in every national newspaper.

If they turned up on Tyneside tomorrow, one suspects that they might be greeted by a lynch mob rather than a crowd of autograph hunters. It’s all a bit like the McCanns. One minute they’re a tragic (if possibly ever so slightly careless) couple which the nation had taken to its collective heart. The next minute we knew all along that they were a pair of wrong uns and were swamping phone-ins and websites with vitriol. Until we learned that the alleged DNA evidence was actually wafer thin, and began to suspect that the Portuguese police probably just named them as suspects in the hope that they would clear off and stop their media circus blighting what was left of the local tourist trade.

I daren’t take a view in this column whether Ant and Dec or the McCanns are heroes or villains. Not because I’m worried about complaints, but because I have to file this the day before publication, and who knows where public opinion might have shifted in the space of 24 hours. I hope that Gordon Brown bears this fickleness in mind when he is contemplating his massive opinion poll advantage and gnawing down what is left of his nails as he ponders whether to call an election. His lead may look rock solid now, but we all know … No, no jokes about rocks. Just look where they can get you.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.