Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Chocolate makers: who cares?

Every morning the news oscillates between impending planetary catastrophe and the trivia of new art installations or the abolition of the compulsory retirement age. It is like being on a flight where the pilot has announced that the plane is about to crash, yet the trolley dollies continue calmly handing out drinks and meals.

In the greater scheme of things, the impending takeover of Cadbury by American food conglomerate Kraft is clearly of minor significance. Yet it saddened me to see yet another great British company running up the white flag.

I became a keen consumer of Cadbury’s chocolate as a small boy. It proved the ideal training for my teenage graduation to a lifelong love affair with English real ale. Then, by the purest of flukes, I fell into jobs as a so-called investment analyst, and later as a public relations adviser, which involved visiting a great many food factories and breweries.

It seems quite bizarre now that so many of the major British public companies I dealt with continued to be led by descendants of their founders, even though the family shareholdings had usually dwindled into insignificance through the generations.

The last Cadbury vacated the chair of the company only in 2000. There used to be a whole raft of British brewers run by the dynasts of the so-called beerage. Even some of our banks reserved their top jobs for those with the right surnames.

As all this passes, I am torn between my meritocratic instincts and regret for the loss of those boardrooms filled with family portraits, the corporate collections of historic biscuit tins and other ephemera, and all those great beers that I will never taste again.

Does this latest triumph of unsentimental global capitalism represent progress? Surely the letter writer in “Voice of the North” on Friday who welcomed the Cadbury takeover had his tongue firmly in his cheek when he attacked its “undue priority given to the welfare of workers” and looked forward to a “hard-nosed maximisation of profit” under its new American owners.

Oddly, cocoa and philanthropy have proved natural bedfellows on both sides of the Atlantic. The famous concern for workers’ welfare at Quaker-founded Bournville was more than matched in Hershey, Pennsylvania, where America’s largest chocolate company remains under the control of the charitable trust that runs the town’s orphanage and school.

The key fact I absorbed during my years in the corporate world is that the most successful companies are usually those that care about their employees. Virtually all pay lip service to this nowadays, seemingly not appreciating the irony of these fine sentiments being expressed by a department with the chilling name of “human resources”.

Obviously there is a balance to be struck. It is in no-one’s interest to protect jobs in the short term by refusing to adopt new labour-saving technology, so ultimately putting the business at a hopeless competitive disadvantage.

But there is much to be said for this axiom: care for your employees and they will care for your customers, which is what the prosperity of any business ultimately depends upon. Many of our still “world class” retailers have founded their success on this simple principle.

If only consumers would return the compliment and care more about where and how the food and drink we buy is produced, the prospects for British famers and food producers would be enhanced immeasurably.

Kraft are paying £11.5 billion to get their hands on an “iconic” brand. They will take care not to devalue it by trying to fob us off with Cadbury’s Dairylea Milk. But they will undoubtedly produce their chocolate wherever they can do so most economically.

Some consumers have already been persuaded to favour “Fairtrade” products that supposedly guarantee a better return for growers in the Third World. Would it really hurt us to keep British workers in mind, too?


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

The juggernaut of political correctness

It is wisely said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. What we seem to be repeating right now is the Phoney War of 1939-40, with our very own Neville Chamberlain barricaded into Downing Street and life apparently continuing much as it always did.

Companies happily issue press releases announcing that they have been awarded major contracts to help build the Navy’s new aircraft carriers; even though it is a farthing to a banker’s bonus that these ships will be cancelled within days of the General Election, whichever party wins it, along with huge numbers of other public spending commitments.

Our politicians shadow box on the same tiny square of centrist turf, desperate to avoid saying anything interesting or radical lest they be skewered for a fatal “gaffe”. At least there was the faint hope of some entertainment from Labour in the form of old-fashioned class war, but now Lord Mandelson has apparently put a stop to that and it’s back to the cynical but hitherto successful New Labour philosophy of “screw the working class, they’ll vote for us anyway, let’s suck up to the would-be social climbers.”

I even read in the weekend press that they are planning to woo Tony Blair out of retirement to play a leading role in the Labour election campaign; but surely this can only have been a wind-up designed to capture damning shots of empty champagne bottles piled up outside Conservative Central Office?

While all this nonsense is going on, foolish people are making plans that can never come to fruition; our brave soldiers continue to die in a war that no-one seems to have a clear plan to end; and the crazed juggernaut of taxpayer-funded political correctness continues to crush all before it.

I was reduced to carpet-biting fury at the weekend by reading some reports from Ofsted (“raising standards, improving lives”) on the nurseries that my wife wants us to consider for our son when she resumes her career. This is not necessarily my or her favourite idea, but at least one of us needs to earn a living.

All we really want is somewhere that will keep him safe and warm, change his nappy, allow him to play and not take indecent pictures of him for circulation among the pervert community. But what we get is a rating system that seems to award top marks for kow-towing to the great god “diversity”.

Oh great, here’s a place where he’ll get to try lots of different foreign foods and to celebrate Chinese New Year and Diwali. Whoopee. But, no, sadly it has been marked down because “resources that reflect positive images of people with disabilities are more limited, thereby possibly compromising this area of children’s learning and development.”

Don’t get me wrong. I have no desire to inflict upon my son all my own prejudices from the 1950s, themselves picked up from parents born in the Edwardian era. But when “diversity” becomes a leading criterion for judging the quality of childcare in the still “hideously white” English countryside, I do feel that we have taken leave of our senses.

For where has our obsession with encouraging and celebrating “diversity” actually got us? To a point where dangerous, benefit-funded nutcases banging on about the imposition of sharia law can secure ample airtime to state their case. And when even the United States, home of political correctness, thinks that we are a nation of loons who have allowed ourselves to become one of the prime breeding grounds for global terrorism.

Would it not be wonderful if we could get on with the blitzkrieg of a general election in which at least one of the mainstream parties had the guts to confront some of the issues that really matter, rather than those that played well with last week’s nursery-educated focus groups?


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

The doomed buffalo of Downing Street

Perhaps the most distressing thing I watched on television last year was David Attenborough’s film of an unfortunate water buffalo becoming a tasty snack for a group of Komodo dragons.

First one of the giant lizards gave it an apparently innocuous nip on its leg. Then a hungry posse haunted the doomed animal for days, as they waited for the poisonous bite to take effect.

I am reminded of this scenario every time yet another half-hearted attempt is made to ease our beleaguered Prime Minister out of Downing Street. He certainly shares many of the characteristics of the hapless buffalo and his Cabinet are doing an excellent imitation of the dragons pitilessly watching his demise. Unfortunately, however, their fangs seem to lack the requisite killing power.

The most telling charge made by those who doubted Gordon Brown’s capacity to be an effective Prime Minister was his long track record of dithering indecisiveness, so it is wonderfully ironic that his closest colleagues now prove to be even more utterly useless in this respect.

It is crystal clear that most of them cannot stand him, yet lack the nous to give him a shove even though he is standing on a sheet of ice in flat-soled leather shoes.

The back roads of rural England last week were not the only places suffering from a potentially fatal lack of grit. Will anyone ever take David Miliband’s aspirations to lead his party seriously ever again, even when advancing grey hair and wrinkles have overcome his handicap of looking like a 12-year-old Rowan Atkinson?

It has to be admitted that Mr Brown was wonderfully well served by his choice of enemies. Probably the last person in the world likely to kick-start a successful popular revolt was that Australian nursery school teacher who did so much for the nation’s cigarette and booze industries when, as Health Secretary, she kept lecturing us about the virtues of abstinence.

Only her merciful retirement from the front line has enabled Harriet Harman to seize the title of most irritating woman in British politics, as she shamelessly bangs on about equality in the self-assured accent of the privately educated niece of a belted earl.

As for Ms Hewitt’s comrade in arms, everything that needs to be said is in the cheery nickname by which he was known throughout the armed forces during his tenure as Defence Secretary: Buff Hoon.

And so we must stagger on, looking uneasily upwards at that massive avalanche of bad news about tax increases and spending cuts that must inevitably descend upon us after the general election, whatever its outcome. In the absence of some sort of coup, that cannot be deferred beyond June 3.

So we could be in for almost another six months of this epically tedious version of Macbeth, in which Duncan, sorry Gordon, remains on his throne because all concerned persist in “Letting ‘I dare not’ wait upon ‘I would’ like the poor cat i’ the adage.”

Putting off administering the necessary economic medicine for half a year hardly seems sensible, either, but what else can we expect of our leaders? Those controversial pictures of the Queen wringing the neck of a wounded pheasant at Sandringham a while ago demonstrate that she knows exactly what needs to be done with her first minister, but it seems unlikely that she will take the constitutional risk of attempting it.

If it drags on long enough, perhaps Mr Brown will even start to attract a worthwhile sympathy vote. After all, by the time Stephen Fry arrived on our screens with his own account of the Komodo dragons in Last Chance to See, as part of the BBC’s ongoing efforts to squander our licence fees, I had identified with that water buffalo so strongly that the possible extinction of its assailants seemed a positively welcome development.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

The elephant lost in a snowdrift

I began the first working day of 2010 feeling uncharacteristically optimistic, until I had a searing flash of conscience about the stuffed elephant. How on earth could I have forgotten about that, yet again?

I should explain right away that it is not a real stuffed elephant, though given the long-running logistical difficulties in arranging its handover it might as well be. But I am assured that this one is merely a cuddly toy bearing a passing resemblance to the trunked and tusked creature that it is apparently no longer correct to call a pachyderm (did you know that they had fads like that in Nature Study, too?)

A kind friend bought it as a gift for my newborn son and, at the current rate of progress, he is going to end up presenting it to a sneering teenager rather than a gratefully gurgling infant.

And it’s all my fault, as usual. I told him that we would definitely be at home on Sunday if he felt like dropping by. Please God don’t let his remains be discovered in a snowdrift, like Ötzi the Austrian iceman, with an elephant clutched in his fist. (“Archaeologists speculated that the primitive inhabitants of Durham worshipped the animal, long extinct in their region, as a reminder of the times of plenty when its dung was prized as the magic ingredient in their legendary giant leek trenches.”)

We were supposed to be back at home by New Year’s Eve, but I contracted a stinking cold just in time for Christmas, then passed it on to Mrs Hann as an unwanted gift. Having spent a week coughing at each other in Cheshire, we were all geared up for an early start for Northumberland on Saturday morning when I happened to flick onto the ancient Ceefax system during a particularly dull TV programme on Friday, and caught a passing mention of severe weather in the North East.

We duly switched on the main BBC evening news to get the full story, but there was nothing. Not a word. This suggested one of three possibilities.

First, those setting the news agenda have finally appreciated that it gets cold as a matter of course between December and February, so it is not really “hold the front page” material. This was certainly true in my childhood, but has not really been so of late. I have only been seriously snowed in to my present house once, and that was for a couple of days in November 1988, shortly after I had moved in.

So we move on to the second and more sinister possibility for the news blackout: that the freezing conditions appear at variance with the endless bleating about “manmade global warming”, and must therefore go unreported in case us thickoes start thinking “Hang on …”

This also seems an unlikely explanation, as I feel confident that teams of scientists are already working on the case for the Big Freeze being precisely one of those “extreme weather events” we were warned about as a consequence of the underlying warming trend.

Which leaves us with the third explanation: that no-one at the BBC gives a monkey’s how bad the weather is in the North East, though if more than a couple of flakes fall in central London it is invariably the lead item on every bulletin for days.

Yes, that seems most likely on the whole. I am glad we had friends in the North to consult about the advisability of travelling (which they provided free of charge, not in return for a compulsory £142.50 annual licence fee). It is a shame to have missed the opportunity to capture some classic Northumberland snow scenes on camera, though. And it is a real pity about that elephant. I wonder whether we might have had better luck with a woolly mammoth?


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Friday, 1 January 2010

2010: the dawn of reality

So far we have faced up to our appalling financial crisis like those cartoon characters that keep running long after they have passed over the edge of the cliff. But soon grim reality must surely dawn, and we will all plummet downwards amid a resounding crash of tax rises and spending cuts.

Before that we are doomed to months of relentless point-scoring in the run-up to the General Election, as each party seeks to demonstrate that things would be even worse under the other lot. Then, whoever wins, we will face the shock revelation that things are far worse than expected, and that drastic emergency action must be taken.

For this reason, the General Election of 2010 will surely be like that of 1992; one not to win. Our electoral system almost guarantees that the winning party will have been backed by only a minority of the electorate, so at least most of us will be able to derive some grim satisfaction from watching the new Government rapidly sink to record depths of unpopularity. Personally I would like nothing more than to consign him to the book of Great British Failures; but, for poetic justice, surely that poisoned chalice has got to be Gordon’s?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.