Tuesday 28 April 2009

El Gordo: a better bet than El Gordon?

Like Alistair Darling, I took a very gloomy look at my finances last week. This led me to the depressing conclusion that the only way to make the sums add up was a major gambling coup.

I was duly talking to Mrs Hann about our chances on El Gordo for a full five minutes before she grasped that I was discussing the famously rich Spanish lottery, rather than our beleaguered Prime Minister.

This is indicative of a reality gap almost as yawning as that between the Chancellor’s assumptions and generally accepted probabilities. The notion that I am obsessed with Mr Brown is simply not borne out by the facts. For the record, I have mentioned him in precisely four columns this year, an average of one per month. Given that he has just presided over the biggest financial train crash in British history (a veritable Quintinshill of economic catastrophes, for those of you who are connoisseurs of railway accidents) I stand astonished at my self-restraint.

This Government has racked up more debt than the cumulative total managed by every previous British administration in the 315 years since the Bank of England was founded. Or, to put it another way, the combined efforts of New Labour and the Fred Goodwin school of banking have cost the British taxpayer more than Louis XIV, George Washington, Napoleon, the mad Mahdi, Kruger, the Kaiser, Hitler and Hirohito put together.

This is a truly mind-boggling mess. Every child born this year will be saddled with some £17,000 of British Government debt. A sum that will take until 2032 to pay off, even on the Treasury’s forecasts, which are almost universally acknowledged to be ludicrously optimistic.

Clearly I do not have the answer to this. Nor, I suspect, does David Cameron or even Barack Obama (both politicians from the Blair school of attractively packaged vacuity). I also have no personal axe to grind, as according to two respected firms of accountants the people who have done best out of the Budget are the very old with very young children, and I am about to sneak into that category. True, for maximum benefit I apparently also need to be paying myself lots of money from a loss-making company, own a farm in Bulgaria and a 10-year-old car, and be looking to retrain as an environmental engineer, but it is clearly a first step in the right direction.

The only personal downside I can see is that any slim chance I might have had of selling my house has been knocked on the head by the withdrawal of tax relief for properties used as holiday lets, which is about to flood the rural market with no longer affordable second homes.

Naturally, other wheezes will soon be found to shelter the incomes and assets of the better off from Messrs Brown and Darling. Because we can be sure that the one British industry to receive an absolutely massive boost last week was that of tax avoidance. The rich will always believe that they have a better idea how to spend the stuff than those jokers in Whitehall. On the evidence to date, who can doubt that they are right?

I promise not to mention this again, but as long ago as March 2007 I wrote of Mr Brown “It is hard to see such a famously shy, disorganised, irascible, indecisive and undiplomatic man as a happy or effective Prime Minister.” Would it be so wrong to add “I told you so”?

Now let us move on, in my case to an online flutter on El Gordo. Perhaps, I admit, combined with a bet on El Gordon pulling off a surprise election victory in 2010. With the odds currently on offer, it should generate a tidy and curiously tax-free sum to cushion the pain if the worst should happen.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 21 April 2009

The PM who would rather have been Pope

Those who have found the comfort of religious faith often speak of the moment of revelation when it all suddenly made sense – and I finally understand what they are talking about.

My lightning bolt of comprehension struck at about 6.20 on Sunday evening, as I was driving out of Alnwick tip – sorry, household waste recycling centre – and Radio 4 aired a programme about Tony Blair’s Faith Foundation. The most electorally successful Prime Minister of my lifetime, whose chief adviser insisted that “we don’t do God”, suddenly announced “I'm really and always have been in a way more interested in religion than politics.” A statement so astonishing that I have just checked it on the BBC website to ensure that I was not hallucinating.

True, there were hints of this before, notably in the 2006 interview with Michael Parkinson in which Mr Blair announced his belief that God would judge him for his actions in Iraq. Which will be a moment to savour, if he turns out to be correct.

But now I finally got it. Not just the wrongness of that war, but the destruction of the Union between England and Scotland, the vandalism of the House of Lords, the hundreds of hours wasted on the unenforceable foxhunting ban, the widening gap between rich and poor and the overarching failure to use his massive Parliamentary majority to do anything much for the mugs who kept voting him in.

None of this was based on stupidity or malice, as I had always assumed, but simply on the fact that the Prime Minister’s mind was on higher things. The poor soul cannot even have derived much consolation from such duties as the selection of bishops, since his adherence to the Church of England turns out to have been a mere political convenience, swiftly ditched when he left office and felt free to turn to Rome.

It is, of course, a truly splendid joke that one of the world’s most secular societies should have been led for a decade by a closet religious “nutter” (as he feared being described), but it is also profoundly wrong. Not in the fact, but in the concealment of it. Those who stand for office should be open about their beliefs and aims. Church of England clergy are currently barred from standing for Parliament, along with felons and lunatics (though quite a few of those seem to have slipped through the net). This ban should be lifted forthwith and those who fancy a vicar as their MP should be free to vote for it.

Indeed, we should be allowed to choose absolutely anyone we like so long as they have a respectable amount of experience of life and work. Surely the most grotesque thing about the controversy over the selection of the new Labour candidate for Erith and Thamesmead is not the fact that the apparent front-runner, Georgia Gould, is the daughter of Labour’s focus group guru Lord Gould; it is that she is a mere 22 years old. We have apparently reverted to the days before Lord Grey’s Great Reform Act, when rotten boroughs were routinely handed to unemployable young aristocrats.

I sincerely hope that Mr Blair’s confession will count against him as he lobbies for his next big job as President of Europe (a post whose creation is speeding down the track despite the technical inconvenience of the Irish refusing to ratify the necessary treaty). Sadly his wife and four children will count against him in any application for the perhaps more appropriate position of Pope.

Meanwhile I wait eagerly for news of what Gordon Brown was really more interested in during his long years in charge of the British economy. The bad news is that we will presumably have to wait until he leaves office to find out. And the good news: not long now.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 14 April 2009

People Like Us never get the sack

Yippee! Despite the desperate state of the economy, and the likelihood that nutters are plotting to blow us all to kingdom come, the mood of the nation rose perceptibly last week when a couple of well-fed blokes in important jobs “did the honourable thing” and resigned.

It is hard to suppress a chuckle about the careless copper who had to fall on his sword because he had “lost the confidence of the Home Secretary”; a woman whose bath plug to porn films expenses saga has surely lost her the confidence of absolutely everyone. Except, apparently, Gordon Brown.

However, can I suggest that our jolly mood may cloud over a touch when the terms for the departure of anti-terrorist supremo Bob Quick and top Downing Street spin doctor Damian McBride become known?

The key will be in that word “resign”. We are straight into the world of “mutual consent” and “compromise agreements”, which can lead, to take one extreme example, to someone walking away with a pension of £700,000 a year despite all but destroying one of Britain’s largest banks.

You might have thought that would be enough to get a fellow sacked, but when did that last happen to anyone in the elite now running this country?

I have a friend who married a sergeant in the Metropolitan Police. Towards the end of an otherwise exemplary career, he was convicted of a criminal offence. Not only did he lose his job, but they confiscated his pension, too. The whole family was punished by the need to sell their home and change their children’s schools. What are the chances of one of the people who run the show facing similar hardship?

A huge gulf has developed in this country between us ordinary mugs (OMs) and the small elite who band together as People Like Us (PLUs). Bad things do not happen to PLUs. Come the creation of unitary councils, surplus PLU chief executives pocket hundreds of thousands in compensation. But you can be sure that when economies are required among the OMs who empty the bins or mend the roads, there will sadly only be enough in the coffers to pay the statutory minimum for redundancy.

In the same way, I regularly read reports of OMs receiving surprisingly stiff prison sentences for fraud, involving sums far smaller than those claimed by the PLUs in Parliament for what seem decidedly questionable expenses.

Every political party tells us that it is in favour of social mobility, and of widening the range of opportunities for OMs to become PLUs. Yet the game is played on a board amply provided with ladders and signally bereft of snakes. Once you attain PLU status, you are made for life. Boardroom cronies in the private sector have hugely inflated each other’s salaries through remuneration committees set up in the name of “good corporate governance”, while senior pay in the public sector has had to be ratcheted up to match, to ensure that it retains its share of “top talent”.

What seem to most of us to be vast salaries (because they are) are just the starting point; if you actually want a PLU to get out of bed and do some work, he or she needs to be “incentivised” with bonuses, share options and the rest. And if they fail, they expect to be cushioned through a long and comfortable retirement.

I am anything but a socialist, and like to think that I am not naturally vindictive, but I still long to see the occasional failed police commissioner, banker, spin doctor or even MP reduced to scraping a living like one of us OMs, rather than quietly enjoying a vast pension, securing lucrative publishing deals for their side of the story or attempting to recover our sympathy on I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 7 April 2009

The police state tightens its grip

Yesterday made me deeply depressed, and not just because it marked the start of a doubtless expensive new tax year. For it was also the day Britain implemented the second stage of the EU Data Retention Directive, requiring details of every email we send and every website we visit to be recorded and retained for a year.

Similar records of all our phone calls and text messages are already being held, so that communicating with each other without State snooping is becoming the sort of challenge I used to associate with spy novels about Russia in the worst days of the KGB.

We can still meet and talk in person, though we will be observed by numerous CCTV cameras as we make our way to the rendezvous. We may also send letters by the Royal Mail without, I believe, having them opened and scanned. But surely that refinement must soon follow, along with the installation of a comprehensive network of microphones to complement the already ubiquitous visual surveillance systems.

Most depressing of all is that, far from protesting about this latest outrageous assault on our civil liberties from Europe, the British Government actually turns out to have been one of the prime movers behind the Directive, and is on record as saying that it does not go far enough.

All for “the fight against terrorism”, you see. Though the bodies who can access the stored data include local councils who, on past form, will use it to crack down on such heinous crimes as putting your bins out on the wrong day or trying to sneak your child into a slightly better school.

I’d also be prepared to place a reasonable bet that it won’t just be Mr Jacqui Smith who comes to regret his choice of viewing, as records of our visits to dubious websites “accidentally” leak into the public domain.

My, how our elected representatives hate it when their privacy is invaded; yet how useless they are when it comes to protecting ours. How useless they are in general, in fact, given that 80% of our laws are now handed down from Brussels and only the small and much maligned “awkward squad” is prepared to speak out on those issues where they could actually make a difference. Now many MPs are exposed as greedy exploiters of the expenses system, too, because their salaries do not properly reflect their huge egos, sorry talents.

This whole sorry mess is admittedly our own fault, for insisting that we don’t just want someone to represent our bit of the North East in Parliament, but for him or her to represent Westminster in the North East, too. Any candidate who stood up at a selection meeting and said “Of course I have no intention of living in your revolting constituency” would be shown the door immediately. So they have to have two homes.

All I can say from personal experience, having had two addresses myself for 20 years (one of which was in that epicentre of the Parliamentary “ooh it’s my main home really” game, Dolphin Square in Pimlico) is that you do not need to earn anything like the sums currently being raked in by many MPs to support that lifestyle. Even if you insist, as I did and they do, on commuting first class.

With the economy crumbling around us, these are dangerous times for democracy. If Parliament is to survive, its members in both Houses must rebuild public respect by moderating their financial demands. They must also give up their disgraceful habit of exempting themselves from the laws they impose on the rest of us, like the child protection register. Above all, they should show themselves willing to stand up and defend those liberties that so many of my father’s and grandfathers’ generations sacrificed their lives to protect.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 1 April 2009

The sad death of the all-night banker

Many people have sought to make our flesh creep about the potentially disastrous consequences of extending the European working time directive. There will be no retained firefighters to extinguish the blaze if your house catches fire, and no properly trained surgeons to attend to your injuries if you leap from a window to escape the flames.

Hospital waiting lists will allegedly soar and – gasp – university marking may be seriously affected. But there is one bright spot; it will presumably also put paid to the City dealmakers’ practice of working through the night to complete transactions. Anyone who has ever been involved in a flotation, bid or deal will know that, for some strange reason, it is technically impossible to conclude it without paying for teams of bankers, lawyers and accountants to work until dawn finalising the documentation.

In the days when I was tangentially involved in these things, it was the younger members of staff who always drew the short straws. Senior bankers would indicate that they were there in spirit by leaving a jacket strategically draped over a chair while they quaffed champagne in restaurants with their mistresses, having assured their wives that they would yet again be working very late.

Those expensively lined coats (in the City, only potatoes wear jackets) probably earned more in a year than the average worker in a lifetime, as they continued to rack up charges to the client at the top bankers’ stratospheric hourly rates. My tailor knew immediately that I was in a relatively humble calling when I ordered a spare pair of trousers with my suits, rather than a couple of extra fee-earning coats.

I used to feel rather sorry for those bleary-eyed juniors as they staggered about the next morning, columns of figures still swimming before their eyes. Until I reflected that, at the end of their apprenticeships, they would be fully-fledged Masters of the Universe capable of buying a modest country estate with their annual bonus.

And now, tragically, it could all be doomed, presumably along with the tendency to keep Prime Ministerial speechwriters up all night refining major speeches for party conferences, G20 summits and other set piece occasions. Which makes two bright spots from an EU initiative. Surely this must be a record?

Keith Hann is a financial PR consultant and enthusiast for going home.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.