Tuesday 28 October 2008

Does Auntie really always know best?

The lead story in Britain’s best-selling paper on Sunday was the shock news that we are all racists. Apparently we are failing to vote for the black contestants in Strictly Come Dancing, despite the judges telling us that they are absolutely terrific.

As a matter of fact I am completely innocent of this charge, because I have never watched the programme, and would rather go to a cocktail party on a yacht with Lord Mandelson than do so. But that will surely not spare me a stern lecture from the BBC about my disgraceful behaviour. And what if the electors of America pull the same stunt and have the temerity not to elect Barack Obama next week, after the Beeb’s months of cheerleading for the man? What it might have to say about them, in those circumstances, really does not bear thinking about.

I have believed for years that the simplest way to arrive at the correct opinion on any issue is to listen to the BBC’s view, then adopt the opposite one. The US election therefore presents me with a bit of a problem because, if forced into a corner with a cattle prod, I would have to admit that my only reason for wanting Senator McCain to win would be the simple joy of seeing industrial quantities of egg all over the face of our national public service broadcaster. Obama is undeniably the more inspiring orator, and it is hard to mount a convincing defence of any party in office which has made such a truly monumental mess of both economic and foreign policy.

The other big reason for reluctantly admitting the case for Obama is the dread prospect of Governor Palin inheriting the presidency. In Britain, her selection seems an error of judgement as egregious as George Osborne’s in thinking he could beat the Prince of Darkness at mud-slinging. In fact, it seems almost as bizarre as the idea of Dave Cameron sacking young George and replacing him with Kerry Katona.

Which might not be so crazy after all, come to think of it, as she is well used to going to Iceland and is probably scary enough to secure a full refund of our money from all those collapsed banks.

Yet, despite all the hilarity at her expense, Mrs Palin clearly wows rather a lot of Americans. There is even talk of her running for president herself in 2012. At a time when classic national stereotypes are crumbling all around us, with the traditionally prudent “bang went saxpence” Scotsman replaced by ones who run banks into the ground and bail them out with countless billions of our money, it is comforting to know that our friends across the pond remain so reliably dumb.

Obama is Bambi Blair all over again; the one ever so slightly black, the other almost imperceptibly socialist. Let us hope that his brave new dawn, if it duly breaks next week, does not prove to be quite such a crushing disappointment as the one in 1997.

But we have other delights closer to home before the big day in America, including Halloween and the Glenrothes by-election. There is apparently no truth in the rumour that the Northern Rock repossessions team will be taking to the streets on Friday, disguised as grim reapers on a trick or treat mission. However, there is every chance that the bloke in the unconvincing rubber Gordon Brown mask, desperately knocking on doors in Fife, really is the Prime Minister.

Will he defy the experts and pull of a surprise victory? As with Senator McCain, it does not seem the way to bet. But it is probably only fair to wait for ABC, CBS, CNN and Fox to send several jumbo jet-loads of pundits across the Atlantic to tell us what we should be thinking.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 21 October 2008

Please stick to the day job, Tom

I am still reeling from the shock I received on opening yesterday’s Journal and reading the first line of Tom Gutteridge’s column, which announced that he was giving up TV production. Surely Cilla Black’s eagerly awaited Loveland could not be destined for the great lumber room of televisual might-have-beens?

Then I read on and realised that it was one of those meaningless rhetorical flourishes beloved of certain columnists and public speakers, like Gordon Brown boasting every week for 11 years that he had abolished boom and bust.

This towering genius had apparently torn up the normal rules of economics and led us onto the broad, sunlit uplands of ever-increasing prosperity for all. Only that scenario now proves to have been a cruel delusion, built on dangerously unstable mountains of public and private debt. In the circumstances, surely a little schadenfreude is permissible?

The contention that Gordon Brown bears no responsibility for current events is simply risible. This was the Iron Chancellor, the control freak who held all the reins of domestic power under Tony Blair and was credited with delivering a decade of steady growth and low inflation. But who, in reality, laid the foundations for the present crisis by creating a new and patently inadequate system of financial regulation, massively increasing public spending and racking up huge amounts of dodgy off-balance-sheet debt.

How can anyone refer disparagingly to “Cameron’s City cronies” when Labour has been every bit as close to the financial sector since the “prawn cocktail offensive” of the early 1990s, and has famously derived much of its funding from “fat cats”? This is the party whose new Business Secretary Peter Mandelson announced a decade ago that Labour was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich” and which has duly presided over a massive widening of the gap between rich and poor.

To blame Mrs Thatcher for all this is like putting the research scientists who first split the atom on trial for causing the devastation unleashed on Hiroshima. Yes, she established the initial framework of economic liberalism and, having lived through the unbelievably depressing era of Heath, Wilson and Callaghan in the 1970s, I remain intensely grateful that she did.

But Tony Blair and Gordon Brown came to power in 1997 with a massive majority and the capacity to reshape British society in the way that Attlee did after the landslide of 1945. Instead they simply grabbed the reins of the Tory chariot and drove it ever faster to destruction. Mr Blair will indeed go down in history, but as the man who squandered a massive opportunity and led his country into two avoidable and unwinnable wars.

Mr Brown might yet win a more interesting footnote by finally fulfilling the hard left dream of nationalising the banks. Though I suspect that he will be marked down a touch for doing so in defiance of all his declared principles, just as the Conservatives received zero credit for the impressive economic recovery they engineered after the collapse of their core policy on Black Wednesday in 1992.

You would have to be a much more dedicated Tory than I am to claim that the boys Dave and George have covered themselves in glory during the present crisis. Nor do I have any answers of my own. Though since my trade is based on common sense, I am naturally suspicious when the Government announces that the only way out of the deep hole caused by excessive borrowing and spending is for it to spend and borrow even more.

Perhaps Gordon Brown will indeed call and win a snap election based on his handling of recent events. But, if he does, it will be as massive an injustice as an arsonist winning the George Medal for trying to save the victims of one of his own conflagrations.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 14 October 2008

Far from quiet on the Peston front

For days now I have been waiting in vain for Robert Peston to appear on the BBC in full clown make-up, wearing a revolving bow tie, and attempt to lighten the tone by cracking one of those “I’ve got some good news and some bad news” jokes.

Children in Need appeal organisers: you read it here first, but do help yourselves to the idea.

At least I have now grown so used to his distinctive delivery that I have stopped trying to re-tune the radio whenever he comes on in the morning, imagining that the extraordinary noises he makes are some sort of interference.

Robert Peston’s is truly the voice of today. Or rather yesterday, since I am writing this on the Monday when the world teetered on the brink of a new dark age of mass unemployment, poverty, fury, criminality and dictatorship. Or on the historic date when some technical difficulties in the capital markets were decisively corrected, and everything muddled on much as before.

It is hard to know which way to bet, though regular readers will know that I am not one of nature’s optimists. The fact that it has all come to a head on October 13th is also a bit worrying for the superstitious.

It must be so much easier to keep smiling, boozing and spending when you have got nothing much to lose. The great crash of 2008 is proving a splendid leveller as those who have put money aside for a rainy day discover that the dampness is actually arriving in the form of a tsunami. A year ago I was fretting because my pension fund was worth less than a third of what it needed to be. Now it has halved and retirement has become an impossibly distant fantasy.

I made the simple mistake of investing my savings in the stock market, because all analyses show that it delivers superior returns in the long run (in which, sadly, we are also all dead). What I should have done, with the benefit of hindsight, is put it all in some dodgy Icelandic bank offering an implausibly high rate of interest, ignoring the conventional warning that higher returns imply greater risk. That way I’d have got the Government to hand me my stake money back, with a friendly pat on the head.

Did it never strike you as odd that a country with a population little larger than that of Newcastle, and no obvious natural resources beyond gesyers and cod, should be supporting a huge banking sector and buying up every other retail chain on the British high street? It always seemed a bit fishy to me (no pun intended).

Now Iceland is on its back with its legs in the air, and our thoughts must turn to another sparsely populated, ill-favoured, gloomy little country on the fringe of the Arctic circle, whose banks have also just turned their faces to the wall. Yes, it’s Scotland, home of the Royal Bank, HBOS and Lloyds TSB. The last may not seem like a Scottish bank in any meaningful sense, but it does have its registered office in Edinburgh as yet another example of our decades of pandering to our chippy Celtic fringe.

Now is surely the time for bold and radical action. Let us give Alex Salmond the independence he so craves, and let the Scottish taxpayer pick up the entire bill for that little lot. By way of compensation, we could let them have Robert Peston to tell them cheery stories as they huddle around their wind-up radios, eating cold porridge by the light of a single guttering candle.

At last, for the first time since the crisis broke, I have managed to conjure up an image that has really cheered me up.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 7 October 2008

The pure hell of the Great North Run

This is the column that nearly did not get written.

I have come close to chucking in the towel several times in recent weeks, dazed by the sheer pace of events. Added to which, in a real world where Gordon Brown invites Peter Mandelson to join his cabinet, how can anyone hope to raise a smile by conjuring up some surreally implausible fiction?

But these challenges were not the thing that so nearly defeated me. No, I was simply utterly exhausted after the Great North Run.

I apologise for the fact that anyone who knows me will now have tea all down their shirt, and be gasping for breath. I should make it clear straight away that I did not actually do the run. Dear me, no. If you had suggested that before Sunday I would have fixed you with a Paddington Bear stare and said something predictably sarcastic like “I only look stupid.”

But after attempting to get to South Shields and back by public transport to see the end of the race, I can finally see the point of covering the distance on foot: it’s easier and quicker.

You might think that a wiseacre like me would just have watched it all on television. And so I would, if I had the remotest general interest in running. But when your beloved is actually taking part in the event and has handed you her bag full of post-race essentials, with strict instructions to meet her near the finish, you don’t have a lot of choice.

I was at the start, too, and surprised myself by being bowled over by the truly fantastic atmosphere. What a publicity triumph for Newcastle, I thought, and what a pleasant change from the media focus on St James’ Park and Northern Rock.

But that was before I had failed to get on the overcrowded Metro, been turfed off a bus in Heworth, talked to some Welsh ladies in the resulting queue who were close to tears about missing their daughters crossing the finishing line, and foolishly tried looking for some helpful signage when I finally made it to South Shields.

I am even less convinced that we have the right infrastructure to move 52,000 people and their families, friends and supporters out of South Tyneside on a single afternoon. Even the mobile phone system could not cope; I have not had so much difficulty making a call since I found myself in the West End of London on the day those bombs went off in July 2005.

On the other hand, it is only fair to say that my partner enjoyed it so much that she wants to do it again next year. And this despite hobbling across the finishing line with one foot so swollen that she did not dare take her running shoes off before fighting her way onto her standing-room-only train to York.

She had made the critical mistake, a couple of weeks before, of going to a rugby club ball with a partner who cannot dance to save his life, and taking to the floor alone. Whereupon 15 stone of drunken rugby player stamped on her foot with the sort of enthusiasm he presumably normally reserves for flattening opponents’ hands in collapsed scrums.

No point going to the doctor, she said. He’ll only tell me not to run on it. And that’s not an option when Maggie’s Centres are relying on me to help raise money for their wonderful work supporting people living with cancer. She’s not wrong, either. It’s a great cause.

Almost good enough to get me in training for 2009. But not quite, I think, given that my participation would almost certainly cost the healthcare system more than I could ever hope to raise. I’ll see you in the bus queue instead.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 1 October 2008

Suckers 0, Masters of the Universe 4

I worked in the City for more than 25 years but never received a mega-bonus, and could have been relied upon to invest it unwisely if I had.

The only major gain I ever made on the stock market was selling a load of Railtrack shares at their absolute peak. This was a pure fluke because no bank would lend me the money I needed to raise at the time. Otherwise I would have hung onto them all the way down. Just as I have this week written off my investment in Bradford & Bingley, which I could once have unloaded for over £1,300.

On the other hand, the shares were handed to me for nothing and I collected almost £300 in dividends along the way, so who am I to complain?

Such laid-back indolence is definitely not the hallmark of the successful investment banker, who is always hungrily on the lookout for ways to make himself unfeasibly rich. In the Tory years it was all about enticing thrusting entrepreneurs and sleepy mutuals into floating their businesses on the stock market, then enlarging them through costly takeover bids.

When that could go no further there were deals to be done creating focus through demergers, or taking public companies private.

There is no point even hoping that the current financial crisis will see the investment banking industry getting its richly deserved come-uppance. Yes, some may need to find new careers growing organic food on their hobby farms, and bonuses will not be what they were. But where does the Government need to turn for expensive advice on how to nationalise a former building society? You’ve got it in one.

The same organisations that so many business people will soon be asking for advice on how to downsize, restructure and buy their assets back cheaply from the receivers. And so the merry-go-round will continue until things pick up again and the bankers scent an opportunity to unload shares in these slimmed-down businesses onto the children of British Gas’s Sid.

Perhaps it will not always be true that there is no new thing under the sun, and that investment bankers have permanent rights to the mastery of the universe. But, as of today, it still looks the way to bet.

Keith Hann is a financial PR consultant who eschews (does he mean exudes? – Ed) bitterness.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.