Tuesday 29 April 2008

Use it or lose it

On Thursday, electors in Northumberland and Durham will go to the polls to choose the members of the unwanted new unitary councils, due to take over from our existing local authorities in 2009.

Except, of course, most of us won’t do any such thing. On past form, around two thirds of those eligible to vote will decide that they would much rather watch paint dry or grass grow, go to the pub, or settle down on the sofa with EastEnders and one of those “made for sharing” bags of crisps that are such a stimulating challenge to get through on your own.

In fact, I’ve probably committed journalistic suicide by mentioning this great non-event in my first line. Let’s face it, the contest has hardly set the media ablaze, has it? Despite the exciting new start represented by the fact that my new authority is apparently to be called “The Council of the County of Northumberland”, to distinguish it from the useless old Northumberland County Council that is heading for the scrap heap.

I know this because it is printed on the documentation accompanying my ballot paper. Yes, I’ve had it for more than a week. Because many elections ago, when I was going to be away on business, a politically active girlfriend arranged for me to have a postal vote. I thought it was a one-off, but they have kept turning up ever since.

The ballot paper comes in an envelope marked “Open Immediately – Do Not Delay”, encouraging the voter to get on with it. Which is a bit anti-democratic, since at the time it arrived I had only heard from one of the candidates, the Liberal Democrat. I still haven’t received the Labour manifesto. Though, if they read this column, I suppose they might have concluded that they would be wasting paper and ink.

Why are we so uninterested in elections (national and European as well as local)? The stock answers seem to be “They can’t change anything”, “They’re all the same” and “They’re just in it for what they can get”. There is certainly an element of truth in all of these. Our MPs have voted to transfer most of their powers to Brussels, yet somehow forgotten to reflect this in a commensurate reduction in their own numbers, pay and perks.

It would be hard to imagine anything more grotesque than the Labour councillors who helped to railroad through the new unitary authorities, against the clearly expressed wishes of the people, then started demanding compensation for loss of office when their own system of women-only shortlists prevented them from standing for election.

Indeed, given that the whole objective of the new structure was to entrench Labour power in the region, there is a strong temptation to urge you to go out and vote for any other party. But that’s not going to be my point. I just want you to make the effort to vote, whoever it is for.

If you ignore these elections, you will have no right to moan when they send inspectors round to demand entry to your house to assess it for a move up the council tax bands; or bombard you with yet more infuriating glossy magazines; or approve a wind farm in your back garden; or announce that your bin will in future be emptied only once a month in the name of “saving the planet”; or use laws designed to combat terrorism to undertake covert surveillance of your family to determine whether your children are eligible to attend the school of your choice.

People fought long and hard for your right to vote. And, as Churchill said, “democracy is the worst form of government except all those others that have been tried”. Value your vote and, as they used to say of rural branch lines: use it or lose it. I’ve already cast mine.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 22 April 2008

To be an Englishman

“Remember that you are an Englishman, and have consequently won first prize in the lottery of life.”

Those words have been variously attributed to Rudyard Kipling, Winston Churchill and Alfred Milner, but seem most likely to have been uttered by the great imperialist Cecil Rhodes. No doubt that is enough to discredit them in many eyes, but they provide a fair summary of my own feelings as today’s representative of the “why oh why” tendency.

I love my country dearly, despite the massive efforts made during my lifetime to change its character beyond all recognition. I most definitely do not share the apparently widespread belief that we should regard our history chiefly with shame. We have punched far beyond our weight in bringing civilisation, order and enlightenment to the planet, and even when the work of destroying England itself is complete, we will leave behind the great legacy of our language, the richest in human history.

True, its magpie nature means that it can sometimes descend into meaningless gibberish through the importation of modish phrases. In my own trade, “cutting edge” public relations firms now like to use the “iconic” words “thought leadership” to describe what they are peddling: same product, different packaging, higher price. But the true essence of good PR remains the application of common sense. Say, if you happen to be working for the British Prime Minister, pointing out that it is not a great idea to make a profile-raising trip to the United States on the same day as the Pope.

I would point out that my comments last week about Gordon Brown’s highly paid new guru were evidently nothing like acerbic enough, but for the fact that things have now descended to such farcical levels that even I feel it is cruel to mock the afflicted.

So back to poor old England. Our sporting teams are generally pretty useless, and the national church would be a standing joke if it had not made itself so completely irrelevant. Our real masters in Brussels do not recognise the existence of England at all, preferring to operate through what they grudgingly call “the English regions”.

Uniquely among the constituent nations of the United Kingdom, we are denied our own Parliament, though we are expected to fork out for the special rights and privileges of those inhabiting our Celtic fringe. Rural England, where something like the traditional life of the indigenous people still goes on, is under unprecedented assault from efforts to industrialise the uplands with wind farms, wipe out what is left of the farming industry, and destroy the network of essential support services such as local post offices, shops and pubs.

Yet, despite all this, I would not wish to live anywhere else. It seems slightly bizarre that we need to import an American, Bill Bryson, to proclaim the obvious fact that we have the most beautiful countryside in the world. We also produce some of its finest food and ales, while even our wine is increasing in quality as one of the beneficial side-effects of global warming.

By all means celebrate the very special qualities of the North East, but don’t let us be lured into playing our enemies’ game of “divide and rule”. England as a whole deserves our loyalty and love.

So if you spot a man in Alnwick or Newcastle tomorrow sporting a rose in his button hole, do not instantly assume that he is canvassing for Labour in the local elections. Particularly if he is wearing a suit that is much too big for him as a result of recent weight loss, and humming “For he is an Englishman” from HMS Pinafore. That will be me celebrating St George’s Day, and I hope that you will all join me in raising a glass of English beer in an English pub to the greatest little country on God’s earth.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 15 April 2008

Not waving but drowning

Tony Blair may have been wrong about many things, but he was absolutely right on one point: Gordon Brown clearly isn’t up to the job.

Some pundits have compared the unfolding events in Downing Street to a Shakespearean tragedy, but to me the closest parallel is with James Cameron’s film, Titanic.

The “election that never was” last autumn was the shuddering impact with the iceberg, which was laughed off as it rattled the crystal in the first class dining room.

We have just passed the stage of that tense meeting in the saloon, with the pollsters taking on the role of the ship’s designer in explaining to the dumbstruck captain and White Star Line chairman that the allegedly unsinkable vessel is doomed.

Soon the decks will begin to tilt crazily, and the more enterprising male passengers will begin donning ladies’ frocks in an attempt to secure a place in the lifeboats. A tactic, incidentally, which would have served some of our outgoing Labour county councillors rather well in the age of all-women shortlists.

Ever since he made the incredible claim that he would still have abandoned his election plans if he had been on course for a 100-seat majority, it has seemed that poor Gordon can do nothing right. Every action appears calculated to encourage the impression of chronic dithering, and to get up the noses of people on both sides of any argument.

We saw that in his bizarre decision to receive but not touch the Olympic torch and its escorting Chinese thugs; and in the way he subsequently conveyed the impression that he was boycotting an opening ceremony he had apparently never intended to attend in the first place.

A stop was supposed to be put to this sort of thing by the recruitment to Number 10 of Stephen Carter, chief executive of the leading City financial PR firm, Brunswick. Now one of the few things that I do actually know a bit about is financial PR, since I have made a living out of it for 25 years; a living, but not a fortune.

I stand amazed at the way it has suddenly become the new rock ‘n’ roll. I can really empathise with those retired first division footballers who played for thirty bob a week, a free orange at half time and a nice hot bath at the end of the match, and now gawp in amazement at the mansions and WAGs of today’s Premiership players.

National newspapers carry fawning profiles of Mr Carter’s former boss, mega-rich Brunswick founder Alan Parker, whose mastery of networking is such that he somehow contrives to enjoy close friendships with both Gordon Brown and David Cameron.

Meanwhile “chief of staff” Carter is getting up the noses of the Cabinet by sending them off into “break out groups” and bombarding them with management speak. He has also decreed that they must stop attacking Messrs Cameron and Osborne for being toffs, even though it is perhaps the most telling point that can be made against them.

Let me share with you a closely guarded secret. I have fought the famed Brunswick in contested takeover bids, and worked with them on agreed transactions. I was much relieved to discover that the incompetence of these alleged masters of the universe at least equalled my own. At any rate, when we were on opposing sides, mine always won.

So I reckon there’s a sporting chance that Mr Carter will not provide the answers, and he will end up floundering alongside Mr Brown in the icy ocean. We all know what happened at the end of James Cameron’s film. In real life, let us hope that his namesake Captain Dave has his radio operator listening attentively for our distress calls, and can steer the Conservative Carpathia alongside in time to pluck at least some survivors from the water.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 9 April 2008

Are we still too generous to failures?

The average age of a FTSE-100 chief executive is currently 52, and he or she (but almost invariably he) can expect to remain in place for less than five years. He is paid an annual salary that would take the average worker 58 years to earn. And since that obviously isn’t enough to get him out of bed in the mornings, he is also incentivised with generous share options and an enormous pension fund.

Now I’m not an egalitarian: anything but. I am aware that the market for top management talent is truly international, and that companies must pay the global rate for the job. I also appreciate that a successful CEO can add billions to shareholder value, and naturally feels entitled to participate in those gains.

I’ve tried running a business myself, albeit a small one that got even smaller on my watch, and know that it is by no means as easy as it may look.

The personal gains that a CEO can make during his short stint at the top are beyond the wildest dreams of avarice for 99.999% of the population, yet they are modest compared with those achieved by a top entrepreneur. That reflects a completely different risk: reward ratio. Most successful entrepreneurs I know failed before they made it, usually more than once, and if they did not actually lose their shirts as well as their jobs, they sacrificed pretty much everything else.

Like political lives, most CEO tenures end in failure. That’s the way of the world; business is cyclical, and the profit warning that led the non-execs to hand him the pearl-handled revolver may genuinely have been due to circumstances beyond his control. The compensation package he receives under the terms of his contract will also seem paltry compared with what he has been used to.

But, in the case of the most spectacular corporate collapses, it still looks like a massive amount to those small shareholders who have lost everything, and the employees who face losing their jobs and receiving only statutory minimum redundancy pay.

Despite everything that has been done to curb management excesses under the various corporate governance codes of recent years, can we really claim that we have got the balance right?

Keith Hann is a PR consultant who can run a bath, but little else.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 8 April 2008

How not to get from Greece to China

Of all the goodwill-generating publicity exercises ever devised, the Olympic torch relay must surely be the barmiest and most counter-productive.

The idea of conveying a torch from ancient Olympia was apparently dreamt up for the Berlin games of 1936: hardly an encouraging precedent. I recently heard a churchman on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day waffling on about the spiritual significance of the eternal flame, clearly ignorant of the fact that it is specially lit for the purpose by Greek actresses capturing the rays of the rising sun (or using a Zippo lighter, if wet).

When I heard that the torch was coming to London I wondered whether the organisers had ever looked at a map. Admittedly London may look less of a challenge than Iraq or Iran (though it probably wasn’t, as things turned out). But, unlike them, it isn’t actually on the way from Olympia to Peking (as all right-thinking Englishmen must call it, unless they insist on Pekin.)

Nor, unless you were in thrall to a particularly deranged satnav, would you ever dream of getting the torch to its destination via the summit of Mount Everest.

Then I learned that it was arriving in London by air. At a time when you have to jump through umpteen security hoops to get a bottle of baby milk onto an aircraft, how on earth can you be allowed to take a naked flame on board? And why did BAA not manage to lose the wretched thing at Heathrow, as they do with so much else? BA could then have trucked it to a warehouse in Milan for sorting, which would at least have moved it in the right direction.

The culmination of all this lunacy was the relay from Wembley Stadium to the O2 Arena, passing through central London on Sunday. I hardy ever watch the TV news, but happened to be slumped on my sofa when the ITN bulletin came on that night. It gave rise to many questions, including why more than a dozen track-suited “Chinese security officials” were ever allowed through immigration, and why the Metropolitan Police had nothing better to do than to guard them in such force.

In addition to the ridiculous phalanx of escorting police cyclists, up to 2,000 officers were apparently deployed to protect the flame along its route. The heavy-handedness with which they dealt with protesters was repugnant, and culminated in the ITN cameraman himself being knocked to the ground and repeatedly kicked.

From the miners’ strike of the 1980s through to the more recent scenes of pro-hunting toffs being clubbed like Canadian seals in Parliament Square, the police in this country seem to have developed from public servants into an occupying army. I never cease to be shocked by their rudeness when I venture near “sensitive” areas like Buckingham Palace when I am in London.

We are all familiar with instances where burglars and other criminals have been allowed to go free because the police were “too busy” to turn out to arrest them or collect fingerprint or other evidence. Yet they seem to have no difficulty turning out mob-handed to protect a totalitarian regime’s publicity stunt, or indeed to flood a single London street with 600 officers in riot gear as they did the other week.

Taken together with the universal CCTV cameras, DNA database and soon-to-come identity cards, Britain is fast developing into a police state to rival China, but with one crucial difference: ours will be a police state where the freedom of the innocent is constrained, but crime continues unabated.

It is past time to call a halt to this process of creeping repression. If the weekend’s disgraceful scenes in London encourage this, and result in the long overdue sacking of Metropolitan Police Commissioner Blair, then the crazy torch relay will indeed have served a useful purpose.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Monday 7 April 2008

The night we went to Lisbon via the River Kwai

Only once have I felt moved to write a fan letter to a politician. It was in January 1997 and the lucky recipient was Michael Portillo, then Secretary of State for Defence, who had just lived up to his job title by mounting a virtuoso defence on the Today programme of the Government’s decision to order a new Royal yacht.

Of course I realised that the belated decision to replace Britannia was a cynical attempt to rally the support of Tory loyalists like me, who had been disgusted by the performance of the Major government, and that the failure to secure all-party support for the announcement made it totally pointless. The new yacht was duly cancelled by the incoming Chancellor Gordon Brown shortly after the election.

This seems somewhat ironic now that he has become so keen on the symbols of British nationhood. I can think of few things that did more for our standing in the world than Britannia, and its replacement would no doubt have been more useful for that purpose than those long-promised aircraft carriers, which are clearly never going to be built.

But back to Mr Portillo, one of the many next Prime Ministers of my lifetime who never made it. He was in Alnwick last Tuesday for what I can only describe as a one-man show at the Playhouse. When I booked my seat in the front row, it looked like we might be having quite an intimate conversation, but amazingly the theatre was full. Even more surprisingly, no-one had come to jeer, heckle or take revenge for the miners.

This might be considered a positive indicator for the Conservative Party, but for the fact that I’m not sure Mr Portillo can now be classified as a Tory in any meaningful sense. Those memorable events in Enfield on the night of 1 May 1997 have clearly destroyed what old-fashioned types would call, without irony, his bottom.

For the first half of his entertainment Mr Portillo told a series of old jokes, dressed up as personal experience. It was professionally done, though in the field of political humour he is to William Hague what Little and Large were to Morecambe and Wise.

After the interval, he took a series of sensible questions from the audience, and one unbelievably long and tortuous one about Portugal’s contribution to the Spanish civil war. Happily Mr Portillo proved to be as ignorant about this as everyone else in the theatre.

He made one observation that was as illuminating as a Very light on a battlefield. During the struggle over the Maastricht Treaty which did so much to destroy his government, John Major became gripped by the same sort of loyalty towards his fellow European leaders that the colonel in The Bridge on the River Kwai felt towards the Japanese. He put his pledge to them to deliver the treaty before the interests of his party or his country.

Something remarkably similar has happened over the Treaty of Lisbon to Gordon Brown, even though he is, as Mr Portillo put it, “at least as eurosceptical as most Tories”. In all the furore over the lovely Carla, you may have missed the praise that President Sarkozy heaped on Mr Brown’s “courage and loyalty” (to Europe) for ramming the treaty through Parliament without the promised referendum.

What is the killer fact that officials whisper into every Prime Minister’s ear as he enters Downing Street, which makes him feel that he must always kowtow to Europe, whatever the domestic political consequences and the damage to public trust? Is it just the ancient belief that Britain cannot defend itself against a united Continent? Or is there, as one might hope, some more sophisticated thinking than that taking place?

I’d be prepared to write my next fan letter to the political leader, from any party, who gives us an honest answer to that question.


Written for The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne, but not published as I was moved to write about the Olympic torch relay in London instead (see entry for 8 April).

Tuesday 1 April 2008

Have we found the next Queen of Hearts?

I have just dragged myself to my desk after a weekend in my sickbed, where my semi-comatose rest was disturbed only by faint consciousness of a distant thumping.

At first I thought it was caused by the International Olympic Committee banging their heads against the nearest brick wall as they contemplated the Terminal 5 fiasco, following hard on the heels of the Wembley Stadium saga, and wondered what on earth had possessed them to award the 2012 Games to London; particularly after they had made such a brilliantly trouble-free selection for 2008.

Then I realised that the disturbing noise was, in fact, caused by the British media scraping along the rock bottom of our debased public taste. How on earth have we become so shallow?

The morning after President Sarkozy’s state visit last week, I picked up the papers hoping to read some thoughtful analysis of how this faintly comical midget had managed to convert a notable election triumph into massive unpopularity within ten months. I would also like to have learned more about the apparent openness of French society, which allowed them to elect the son of a Hungarian immigrant as their head of state, and to accept a swiftly acquired Italian ex-model as their first lady.

Instead, British press comment may be summarised as “Carla: phwoar! I would. Wouldn’t you?”

And that was in what we used to call the broadsheets. I did not even bother looking at the red-top tabloids.

How did we become so obsessed with good looks? The most popular public figure of my lifetime, Diana Princess of Wales, owed everything to her appearance rather than her intellect or nature. Wholly disproportionate attention was focused earlier this year on the promotion to attend cabinet of the one female member of Gordon Brown’s top team who does not have a face like a welder’s bench.

While after 40 years of women’s liberation in the impeccably right-on world of broadcasting, they are still firing female journalists because they are knocking on a bit, and paying £1 million a year to a bimbo who can perform the minor miracle of reading an autocue.

It would be wrong to pretend that this is entirely new. Watching that dignified octogenarian couple greeting the Sarkozys for the state banquet at Windsor, it is easy to forget that the Queen and Prince Philip owed much of their popularity in the 1950s to their film star looks. Four centuries before that, the first Queen Elizabeth betrayed a lifelong obsession with her appearance.

Still, things have clearly reached a point where, if we needed to find another national saviour in a hurry, we would be vanishingly unlikely to choose a fat, bald, chain-smoking drunk with a lisp. Indeed, if the glamour-obsessed criteria of 2008 had applied in 1940, we would presumably have ended up with a government headed by Lady Diana Cooper or Oswald Mosley.

Fascinating new opportunities for those with the right looks may well be created by the Government’s recent mutterings about abolishing the Act of Settlement of 1701, which debars Roman Catholics from the British throne. The Queen holds her office by virtue of her descent from the Elector of Hanover who became King George I in 1714. He had a perfectly legitimate claim to the crown, but unfortunately there were more than 50 people with a better one, who were excluded by virtue of their Catholicism. Repeal the act and their descendants will be perfectly entitled to come forward with their claims. After all this time, creative genealogists should be able to prove the eligibility of thousands.

What’s the answer? I would naturally suggest a popular referendum to resolve the issue, but Gordon has set his face firmly against those. So I suppose it will come down to those wretched focus groups as usual. My money is on Queen Carla I. You read it here first. Happy April Fool’s Day.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.