Tuesday, 27 September 2011

You know things are really bad when politicians start saying "sorry"

One of the few things I remember about school physics lessons is being invited to laugh at the discredited belief in an invisible substance called phlogiston, supposedly released during burning.

It stuck in my mind chiefly because it actually sounded more plausible than many of the things I was told to believe as undisputed facts.

The man behind the phlogiston theory: was it really balls?

So I was delighted last week when some apparently reputable scientists came up with data that appear to challenge Einstein’s theory of relativity, even though I haven’t got the slightest clue what any of it means.

Does this man look relatively trustworthy?

It’s just that my spirits instinctively soar at even the faint possibility of experts, who nearly always have a greatly inflated sense of their own importance, being proved wrong.

So I suppose I should be positively ecstatic at seeing the financial geniuses who held such sway in the Thatcher, Major and Blair/Brown eras being so comprehensively discredited. And I would, but for the fact that their uncontrolled mishandling of the financial system looks certain to plunge all of us into a decade or two of relative poverty – which is particularly disappointing for those of us who only have a couple of decades left.

There is also the niggling sense that this setback will seem altogether more bearable from the comfort of a private island, luxury yacht, Swiss Alpine lodge or Cotswold mansion bought with the bonuses dished out for brilliance in conjuring up entirely illusory profits.

These people were not mere bankers, they were alchemists. The priestly caste of our age who could perform magic so powerful that no one dared to say “Hang on, this is total cobblers” when they invented supposedly AAA super-safe investments out of the mortgages insanely and aggressively marketed to crazed optimists and congenital liars living on the margins of society.

You know that things are really, really bad when a senior politician pops up on the media and says “Sorry,” as Ed Balls did yesterday morning, doubtless hoping that the electorate will react with a friendly slap on the back and a “Don’t worry about it, mate, it could have happened to anyone.”

Spot the Balls

I devoutly hope not, though my confidence in the alternative is not increased by hearing Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander attack his Eurosceptic Conservative colleagues in the coalition as “enemies of growth”.

Mr Alexander, you may care to recall, wasted five years of his life as head of communications for Britain in Europe, the expert-rich movement campaigning for the abolition of the pound, which was all too inclined to dismiss its opposition as barmy xenophobes and simpletons who did not understand the complex issues involved.

It would be rather satisfying to sit back and watch our euro-adopting neighbours trapped, as William Hague vividly and accurately warned, in a burning building with no exits, but for the certainty that the collapsing structure will almost certainly land on our own heads. Such are the perils of schadenfreude.

So instead let us focus on the sane way forward, based on a massive increase in scepticism about anyone pretending to expertise or presenting painless solutions to the gigantic hole in which we find ourselves.

As our living standards decline, remember also that material things in themselves never bring happiness. They merely fuel the appetite for that next material thing which, if only we could get it, would make us truly happy. Only it never does.

But why listen to me? I’m not an expert. In fact, I have been repeatedly told that I am fool. Notably when I turned down a series of fantastic opportunities to make me richer, from taking out an endowment mortgage to investing my meagre pension fund in dot.com bubble stocks or complex derivatives I did not understand. Luckily for me no one ever offered me shares in a phlogiston factory. I would probably have snapped them up.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

The Hann Perspective: In Defence of the Business Lunch

According to Kingsley Amis, who knew a thing or two about English, the most depressing words in the language are “Shall we go straight in?” Uttered on arrival at a club or restaurant, to suggest that lunch might be commenced without one or more appetite-enhancing and conversation-stimulating alcoholic sharpeners.

Sir Kingsley Amis

Evelyn Waugh, as I recall, suffered a similar sinking feeling when asked “red or white?”, implying that the table was not to be graced with an ample sufficiency of both, doubtless followed by something sticky to accompany pudding.

We must consider it a mercy that neither of these great writers lived long enough to observe what has become of the British business lunch in 2011. So you will just have to make do with me.

I am perhaps unusual in having embarked on a City career less because I cared about money and more because I really enjoyed a first class lunch. True, I was initially dazzled by the wealth of the partners at the stockbroking firm where I started work. But I soon realised that this had nothing to do with their professional endeavours. They had simply inherited tons of the stuff, and did not have the intellectual resources to fill their days without going to an office and losing some of their cash on dodgy share tips.

Stockbrokers' annual sports day

But they certainly knew how to put on a good lunch. I have fond memories of the chief executive of one major British business falling over backwards in his chair towards the end of a well-lubricated discussion with his shareholders. Though it was not this mishap that prevented my colleagues from following my earnest (and, for once, accurate) recommendation to pile into the company’s shares.

“We couldn’t possibly, Keith. Didn’t you see? The chap’s a wrong un. He was wearing brown shoes with a grey suit.”

It was on such laughable principles that the City of London operated in the long-gone days of gentlemanly capitalism, when stockbrokers and stockjobbers were hereditary asylums for less intelligent younger sons and everything stopped for a three-hour lunch, after which it might well be prudent not to return to the office.

Then came “Big Bang” 25 years ago, the end of so many of the City’s quirky traditions and the entry of American and European investment banks. This brought a massive extension of working hours and the rapid erosion of the business lunch. By now working in financial PR, I made it my mission to try and keep the keep the flame alive.

Partly because, like many Englishmen, I start out with the handicap of being at least two units of alcohol below par. That is what it takes to kick-start my still limited abilities in the field of small talk. Similarly, I have always found sharing a bottle of wine over a decent lunch invaluable in building and sustaining good relationships between business leaders, commentators and financiers.

But along comes Gordon Gekko pronouncing that “lunch is for wimps” and soon everyone wants to spend their short midday break in the gym. Forcing the PR man to lower his aspirations to engineering a quick and inevitably dull meeting over a cup of coffee. Decaffeinated for preference, obviously.

Gordon Gekko

Now you might say “And a good thing, too,” bearing in mind the well-publicised risks to health from alcohol. Yet there is no evidence that the demise of the traditional business lunch has done anything to reduce Britain’s ever-increasing overall booze intake.

And you might consider it hypocritical to argue that chief executives should be enjoying a glass or two of wine during the working day when their HR departments would no doubt descend like the proverbial ton of bricks on any junior employee who returned to the office the worse for wear.

I, too, accept that there are sensible limits. I would not want to receive the professional attentions of a heart surgeon or taxi driver who had sunk the best part of a bottle of wine before arriving at their place of work.

But at the higher levels of business, finance, the media and politics, I remain firmly convinced that the old-fashioned extended lunch was a force for good. Would newspapers have needed to hack so many mobile phones in the days when they could gently persuade people to blurt out their secrets over a few glasses of Chassagne Montrachet and a nicely grilled Dover sole?

And what did the sober, gym-honed, working-all-hours bankers of the twenty-first century bring us? The sub-prime mortgage crisis and the near (and possibly yet to come) collapse of the entire global financial system.

Instead of being chained to their desks dreaming up ever-more bafflingly complex financial products, they would surely be much more safely employed sitting in restaurants browsing and sluicing in the humane and civilised company of entrepreneurs, executives, journalists and PR advisers.

Keith Hann is a PR consultant who feels that the old ways were often best

Originally published in nebusiness magazine, The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Slowly adjusting to the brave new world of daylight robbery

Like many people, I made the schoolboy error of imagining that I had little choice but to buy my domestic energy from a greedy giant squid of a business that would jack up its prices whenever a movement in world markets gave it the flimsiest excuse to do so, yet prove strangely slow to react when wholesale prices edged in the opposite direction.

So I was greatly indebted to Energy Secretary Chris Huhne for his revelation at the weekend that the problem lay not with the energy companies but with consumers like me for being “too lazy” to shop around for the best deals.

Nothing to do with me, guv. I wasn't even in the car at the time.

This was ironic because I had just been spurred into action by a letter from my electricity supplier advising me that the price I pay would be going up next month by a staggering 30.5pc (no, not a misprint), because the “discounted tariff” I was blissfully unaware of enjoying was about to end and they would be switching me to their standard prices, which they had just put up.

They went on, helpfully, to outline what I could expect to pay for my power in a three bedroom cottage in Northumberland over the next 12 months: a mere £7,075.22. Admittedly this was based on their persistent delusion that I consume 90pc of my power during the day, whereas the reality is that I use it at night, at the much cheaper Economy 7 rate, for storage heating.

But this distinction would be of little importance if I were, say, a vulnerable old age pensioner, because instead of writing this column I would doubtless now be lying stone dead on the floor with their wretched letter in one hand and the other clutching my chest.

As it was, though I had no recollection of signing up for the aforementioned discounted tariff, it seemed that the best course of action would be to go to their website and sign up for another one without delay. And, yes, they had bargain deals on offer, but only if I agreed to buy my gas from them as well. Which is not really an option when one lives miles from the nearest mains gas supply.

So I finally went to one of those switching websites that Chris Huhne thinks are the bees’ knees and – yes, I could save more than £300 right away by switching supplier. And my great value new supplier is … npower, the people I am already with, along with everyone else in the North East who has lazily allowed their account to be passed, parcel-like, through the hands of NEEB and Northern Electric.

Cuddly ... nothing like a giant squid, so long as you don't mind paying 7,000 squid a year to heat your cottage

What a total farce. Though of a piece with my recent experience in car insurance, where a whopping premium increase from the company I have been using for the last seven years prompted me finally to try one of those comparison sites that advertise themselves with such infuriating persistence, with the result that I was able to obtain identical cover for less than half the price my established insurer hoped it could con me into coughing up.

Meanwhile the personal finance pages of every newspaper are full of complaints from often elderly people who placed their savings in accounts paying an attractively high rate of interest (by today’s pathetic standards) only to find their money shunted, at the end of the initial fixed term, not to the next best product currently on offer but to something paying virtually no interest at all.

The message to consumers in all cases is clear: loyalty is for mugs, and if you don’t watch us like hawks we’re going to rip you off at every chance we get.

Perhaps it is not that we are lazy, Mr Huhne. We are just taking a little time to adjust to the brave new world that has such people in it.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Counting my blessings in the best place on the planet

I have never been in any doubt that Northumberland is the finest county in the greatest country on the planet, and therefore the world’s best possible place to live.

Though when I formed that judgement the county stretched, as in my mind it still does, from Tweed to Tyne. One of the saddest acts of vandalism in the benighted 1970s was surely the removal of those white LNER signs in the middle of the King Edward Bridge that marked the boundary between Northumberland and Durham, following the creation of the bogus “Metropolitan County of Tyne and Wear”.

On the King Edward Bridge heading south: usually a mistake

People south of the river are different, as Gateshead proved again yesterday by snatching the uncoveted title of obesity capital of Britain. Perhaps a brave attempt to fall in with David Cameron’s enthusiasm for the big society, but hardly what he had in mind.

Gateshead's "Slimmer of the Year" 2011

Meanwhile the ties between Newcastle and the rest of Northumberland are age-old and enduring. Why on earth would anyone in their right mind want to be rushed from the north of the county to the Wansbeck Hospital, or the proposed new emergency unit in Cramlington, when there are much better transport links to the RVI just down the road?

Particularly when the facilities and services on offer in Newcastle are so outstanding. Two weeks ago I kept an appointment at the Department of Nuclear Medicine at the Freeman Hospital. Up to then I had no idea that any such thing existed. Nuclear fission, bombs and power stations, yes. Medicine, no.

What struck me above all was the cleanliness and efficiency of the place. The equipment was clearly state-of-the-art, the staff charming, their timekeeping spot on. But the biggest difference from the hospitals in the North West, of which I have seen rather too much during my wife’s pregnancies, was the ready availability of clean and functioning lavatories.

Over there they have an abundance of “out of order” signs and the few working conveniences appear to have been recently visited by an orang utan after an exceptionally boisterous beer and curry night.

The only depressing thing was struggling to make it back to the car park past a trio of incredibly fat people, all drawing on fags as though their lives depended on it, despite the abundance of “no smoking on site” signs. Visitors from Gateshead, I now assume.

I filled the time by trying to remember what the Freeman reminded me of. And I realised: a private hospital, where those who have paid through the nose for health insurance can admire the quality of their surroundings and feel that they have got their money’s worth. As an NHS patient, I felt truly blessed.

I felt a similar glow of contentment on Thursday, when I stood with other donors on the stage of Newcastle’s Theatre Royal to see the curtain raised on its newly refurbished auditorium.

Looking good: the curtain rises

What a gem this is. And, having walked all the way up to the gods for the first time since the 1970s, I can report that there are some outstanding bargains to be had in its upper reaches, offering high levels of comfort and still splendid views of the stage.

The view from on high
A modest tribute in the Grand Circle
Still waiting for that booking for my one man show

Though I noticed that there were, amongst those shovelling down canapés on the stage, one or two who would never fit into one of the theatre’s comfortable new seats, or make it above stalls level without the assistance of a hydraulic crane.

More day trippers from Gateshead, I expect.

So let Newcastle and Northumberland advance hand in hand, marrying the greatest city and the finest countryside on Earth, and let all of us north of the Tyne reflect on how outstandingly fortunate we are to be living here.

And maybe join me in dusting off a diet sheet to maintain our point of difference from the folk across the water?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

So what does the Conservative Party actually exist to conserve?

When I pitched up at university in 1972, as a fresh-faced though already tweed-jacketed adolescent, the first two organisations I joined were the Conservative Association and the Conservation Society. Both names appeared to share the same root, and I perceived no conflict between them.

How unbelievably naïve I was in those days. Within three months a supposedly Conservative government had enacted the most radical constitutional change in a thousand years by taking Britain into what was always planned to become the European Union.

Under Margaret Thatcher, the party became even more extravagantly radical. As a reactionary, I naturally welcomed the smashing up of the old, monolithic nationalised industries because this seemed like a genuine attempt to put back the clock.

I enjoyed that brief window of dealing with locally based utility companies in which I could also own shares, not realising that the process of “creative destruction” was set to continue so that I would soon end up buying my power from some unaccountable, foreign-owned conglomerate with apparently zero interest in the wellbeing of its long-suffering customers.

Given that record, I suppose it should now come as no real surprise to find George Osborne and Eric Pickles limbering up for a bare-knuckle fight with such unlikely adversaries as the National Trust and the Daily Telegraph in their effort to force through a radical reform of the planning system, based on “a presumption in favour of sustainable development”.

An appropriately meaningless phrase that apparently covers everything from the concreting over of cherished green spaces to build new homes to the erection of regiments of useless wind turbines and their supporting infrastructure across our uplands, and crazed vanity projects such as the new high speed rail link. The Dale Farm travellers’ approach to development goes nationwide.

Underpinning their determination, they claim, is the conviction that “sticking with the old, failed planning system puts at risk young people’s future prosperity and quality of life”.

Assuming, it would seem, that prosperity and quality of life are natural partners. Even though the belief that we can all go on getting ever richer seems as fatally flawed as the long-established presumption that house prices could only keep going up.

There is also precious little evidence that increasing wealth adds to the overall sum of human happiness, though I have no doubt that it gladdens the hearts of developers and their financial backers, who will be the prime beneficiaries of the proposed changes.

So what does the Conservative Party of 2011 actually set out to conserve? Certainly not the armed forces, which were traditionally considered safe in Tory hands. Nor the English countryside about which Stanley Baldwin used to wax so lyrical.

A proper Conservative: with a wing collar and a pipe
A contemporary Conservative with his mid-morning snack of 2lbs of sausages ... oops, no, sorry, they're his hands

Where are the initiatives we might hope for to wrest powers back from Brussels as the euro project collapses, or to stop the abuse of “human rights” legislation by wrongdoers?

I have remained a member of the Conservative Party for 40 years now, but increasingly struggle to see how its interests are aligned with those of us who would like our chief legacy to our children to be a country that is still faintly recognisable as the Britain in which we grew up.

In Scotland, one would-be leader of the party is proposing a name change to expunge the tainted Conservative brand. Is it too much to hope that the party in England might adopt the same course and take a name that actually describes its priorities? The Sustainable Development Party might have a ring to it. The Creative Destruction Party would be more honest.

That would leave the name “Conservative” free for those of us whose priority is just that: to preserve and restore what was best about our country before what Baldwin might have called the hard-faced men and women who have done well out of politics took over every potential governing party.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.