Tuesday 29 November 2011

Remember that it will all be the same in a hundred years' time

As Europe teeters on the brink of an almost unimaginable economic catastrophe, one that may make the events of the 1930s seem like a perfect summer of cream teas and croquet on the vicarage lawn, my thoughts keep returning to a valuable saying of my mother’s: “It will all be the same in a hundred years’ time.”

Bearing this in mind, one of the many things I cannot get worked up about is pensions. Partly, I will admit, because my personal late breeding programme makes it highly unlikely that I will ever be able to retire. Though the other thing making retirement totally inconceivable is the dreadful performance of the investments that I was persuaded to make over the years in a pension fund.

I remember that this concept was sold to me with various projections based on differing growth rates. But I do not remember ever seeing these include the reality of no growth at all, or at any rate growth so low that it barely covers the fat fees of the towering geniuses managing my fund.

My pension fund: how it was meant to be

The image "My pension fund: how it turned out" has been removed to avoid potential charges (financial, not criminal) from the money-grubbing image copyright police. But imagine the one above with the arrow pointing the other way and you will be pretty much there.

I was financially sophisticated enough to see through the great endowment mortgage scan, even though I was called a fool for insisting on a dull old repayment mortgage when I could have this fantastic product that would not only pay off my debt at the end of its term, but leave me rich as Croesus, relaxing in a hot tub in the Caribbean with a minimum of three bikini-clad babes. It was like choosing a penny farthing when I could have had a top-of-the-range Rolls Royce.

I was even bright enough always to tick the “no thanks” box when persuasively offered Payment Protection Insurance, though this does not stop me receiving repeated automated phone calls from helplines eager to pursue my mis-selling claim.

But a pension I fell for, hook line and sinker. Tax relief on the money going in, and a tax-free environment in which my money would surely grow. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, for a start Gordon Brown (peace be upon him for saving the nation from the euro) came along came along and concluded that we were all having it too good, so reduced those tax breaks. Then piles of onerous and expensive regulations were heaped upon funds to prevent another Robert Maxwell craftily using them to line his own pockets. And to cap it all, the stock market went to hell in a handcart.

Not to worry, though, because my pension fund managers kept coming up with brilliant new wheezes for putting money into bright, shiny new things that offered so much more potential than dull old shares. For all I know, they could have included packages of mortgages on trailer parks in Detroit, dressed up as Triple A bonds. Because I made the critical mistake of getting so bored with the whole thing that I broke my lifelong golden rule of never investing in things I did not understand (which basically restricted me to a portfolio of pubs, breweries, hotels, restaurants and bakers) and saying the grown-up equivalent of “Whatever”.

So now I find myself with untouchable pension savings that were originally supposed to fund a comfortable if not luxurious retirement just two years hence, and would now buy me an annuity best described as pitiful.

Do I feel sympathy with those public sector workers who are going on strike tomorrow because their contributions are going up and their prospective pensions coming down? Of course I do. But I also feel that, to coin a phrase, “we are all in this together” in the face of inconveniently rising life expectancy and lousy investment returns. And the one thing I don’t feel inclined to do, as I contemplate the ruin of my own hopes of retirement, is to pay a penny more in tax to support their hopes of putting their feet up at my expense.

Working until we all drop sadly seems the only answer. Just like it was a hundred years ago before people started living long enough to make the whole idea of a pension industry worth dreaming up in the first place.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 22 November 2011

Dictatorship seems a more pressing danger than global warming

This column has never made any claim to omniscience. How could it? I am a half-employed PR man, for heaven’s sake. Though at least this makes me less of a threat to the nation than the former PR man currently resident in 10 Downing Street.

The sharpest knife in the box. Apparently.

But I did work in the City of London for almost 30 years after somehow picking up a first class honours degree in history. So I do know a tiny bit about both the world of high finance and the lessons of the past.

In “Views of the North” last week, Mr Derek Robertson of Gateshead took me to task for claiming in my last column that “our current financial woes are basically down to the EU and the euro”. I did no such thing. I merely pointed out that the creation of the euro had, quite unnecessarily, made an already extremely bad situation potentially catastrophic for democracy and peace.

At the risk of repeating myself, the euro was and is an economically illiterate construction, designed to drive the political union of Europe so that a tiny elite could strut the world stage as representatives of a superpower, claiming parity with the US or China.

Our beloved President van Rompuy

The fact that its creation was dressed up in the language of peace and prosperity made it all the more annoying. That is why I drew a parallel with wind power, which is a classic moneymaking scam designed to benefit a relatively small number of developers and landowners at the expense of the rest of us. Yet it similarly comes infuriatingly wrapped in self-righteous claims that it is all about “saving the planet”.

Let us accept, for the sake of argument, that the Earth is getting warmer. Let us further concede that this may be driven by population growth and industrialisation. I have no difficulty in believing that, while the world may be able to support more than seven billion human beings, it is going to be placed under some strain if they all aspire to the lifestyle of rich Americans.

But bearing in mind the UK’s tiny share of world industrial output, consigning 515 people around Lynemouth to the dole queue by raising taxes to cut carbon emissions seems to me a disproportionately high price to pay for Chris Huhne’s occupation of the international moral high ground.

So, farewell then: Alcan Lynemouth

Meanwhile the Government’s own chief scientific adviser on energy pointed out at the weekend that we will need to cover vast swathes of the country in wind turbines, solar panels and biofuel crops to “go green” and will still only be able to generate a relatively small fraction of our energy needs from renewable resources. Of which wind is much the least satisfactory because of its intermittent nature.

As for allegedly failing to name and shame those guilty for our current economic predicament, even I grew bored with writing week after week that the claim to have “abolished boom and bust” defied all the evidence of history.

The ultimate responsibility of bankers, and those who failed to regulate them, is beyond dispute. It is indeed maddening that they have gone unpunished, their unjustified bonuses neatly laundered into agreeable town houses in Chelsea and country estates in the Cotswolds. I have pointed out in the past that, if it happened in China, at least a representative sample of them would have been shot.

Bankers: the way forward?

But this isn’t China, and I hope it never will be, however much the Chinese economy may prosper. Because the bottom line is that I would like my sons to grow up in a free country where they have a chance to sack the government every five years, rather than being ruled by “technocrats” or commissars who can only be deposed by taking to the streets and facing down people armed with batons, rifles or tanks.

Call me dumb if you wish, but right now that seems a much greater threat to their future than rising sea levels, and is also something that we might be able to take some meaningful action to prevent.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

The Hann Perspective: In Praise of the Personal Assistant

In the unlikely event that I ever merit an obituary, I have little doubt that it will note that my principal vice was an exceedingly bad temper, luckily moderated by extreme laziness. It is only this that allows me to be writing this column rather than serving an exemplary sentence for a road rage attack.

Both anger and idleness are hereditary failings. My grandfather, a prosperous Alnwick garage proprietor, was ruined when he was successfully sued for libel by one of his competitors, after writing an intemperate letter to the Northumberland Gazette. Family legend has it that he blamed his downfall on my aunt, who acted as his secretary, for typing and delivering the outburst in accordance with his instructions. Instead of divining that he was just letting off steam and consigning it to the dustbin where it belonged.

The first lesson from this is that it is probably never a good idea to employ members of your own family. And the second is that there is surely no greater asset to any business than a good Personal Assistant, who can read the boss’s mind, anticipate his or her reactions, and head off disaster with a timely “Have you thought of …” or, in extremis, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

In a longish career offering advice to chief executives, I have often been struck by the symbiotic relationship between outstanding CEOs and brilliant PAs. Indeed, as the flawed system of remuneration committees has ratcheted up executive rewards to indefensibly stratospheric levels, I have occasionally been moved to wonder whether it would not be in shareholders’ best interests to let the PA run the business. She (and, let’s be honest, it is almost invariably a “she”) often seems to have a rather better grasp of many key facts about the company than her boss. Despite the distraction of taking responsibility for such important personal matters as paying her employer’s bills, booking his restaurants and holidays, and remembering his family birthdays and wedding anniversary.

Secretary recruitment errors No 1: probably crap at PowerPoint

As a tip to aspiring PRs and others in the service sector: if you are looking to win or retain business, there is no better person to befriend in any company than the CEO’s PA, who also usually has the advantages of being better-looking, more charming and considerably more accessible than her employer. In very large organisations, start with the PA’s PA and work your way up from there.

I know that I owe a great deal of whatever success I have had in my career to PAs: both those of my clients and the long-suffering and surprisingly long-serving employees who shielded them from the worst of my idleness and irritability. Though I don’t suppose for a minute that any client ever actually believed their traditional “He’s in a meeting” line as my lunches dragged on late into the afternoon. Particularly as they all knew exactly how I felt about meetings.

Secretary recruitment errors No 2: Home Secretary

For the last seven years I have been entirely self-employed, acting as my own PA. No wonder the growth of my business has stalled. My inadequate mechanical substitutes have been BT Call Minder, to shield me from unwanted telephone callers, and the Internet.

Hating telephone conversations as much as I have done since childhood always seemed a pretty fundamental handicap for a PR man, but luckily more and more media enquiries have migrated to email in recent years. Presumably this is because it reduces the scope for misunderstandings, though I have yet to fathom how I can give an “off the record” response in writing that will be saved on my hard drive for all eternity.

Secretary recruitment errors No 3: Cardinal Secretary of State

The other downside of the web is that it vastly increases the risk of making the same dreadful mistake of my grandfather. One only has to glance at the poisonous comments attracted by so many media and social networking websites to appreciate how easy it is to let rip. No amanuensis needed to type your letter, no postman to deliver it: just bang out the vitriol and ping! It is shared with the world.

That is why I always take care to read every outgoing email carefully before I press the “send” button. And, if it is on a sensitive or important subject, usually save it as a draft for an hour or two to consider whether it could be put better, or best left unsaid.

My son, aged two and a half, is currently demonstrating the Hann family traits to perfection, alternating between self-prostrating “It’s all spoilt!” tantrums and “Mummy do it” indolence. He is lucky to have found the perfect PA in his mother, though I suppose before too long I am going to have to give him a serious talk about the inadvisability of employing a member of his own family in such a critical position.

The Iceland Keith Hann is a DFS PR consultant who has already sold his naming rights – www.keithhann.com

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

Tuesday 15 November 2011

Small satisfaction in being proved right as the storm clouds gather

I find it hard to believe that almost two decades have passed since the Conservative party was tearing itself apart over John Major’s determination to ratify the Maastricht treaty, despite Britain’s ignominious exit from the Exchange Rate Mechanism.


That, it seemed to me, should have been evidence enough of the utter folly of attempting to lock exchange rates between divergent economies. But the ideologues pressed on regardless with their creation of the euro as a means to advance the cause of a single government for Europe.

Turned out well, hasn’t it? Having been castigated as a backward-looking little Englander for opposing this half-witted project, I hope I may be forgiven a moment of quiet satisfaction as I read the recantations of many of the scheme’s cheerleaders; there was a particular corker in one of the Sunday papers from the former editor of the Financial Times.

But unfortunately we are where we are: in the most horrible mess, with deeply depressing implications for prosperity, democracy and even peace.

Images of Greek protesters and rioters have been removed to avoid potential charges (financial, not criminal) from the money-grubbing image copyright police.

All going terribly well

In the early 1990s I had regular arguments with a distinguished client who was one of the leading lights of the pro-euro campaign. When his economic arguments failed, as they always did, he fell back on the spectre of war. Binding Europe together with a single currency was the only way to preserve the peace that had lasted since 1945.

It always seemed to me to be taking an excessively negative view of the Germans to believe that the only way to stop the Panzers once more rolling into Poland or Alsace was to give Germany a pivotal role in the economic management of the whole Continent.

Far more likely, I argued, that the creation and inevitable collapse of a supranational authority with no popular mandate would ultimately cause conflict, rather than preventing it.

It gives me no pleasure at all to note that this is exactly how it looks today, as the elected governments of Greece and Italy are deposed in favour of administrations led by “technocrats”.

This may not sound too bad, particularly as an alternative to a buffoon like Berlusconi. But how would we have felt if Gordon Brown had exited Number 10 not following a General Election, but because he had simply been sacked by the Queen, acting as proxy for the European Commission, and replaced by Baroness Ashton or Mervyn King?

Surely it is worth bearing in mind that the global banking crisis was the creation of the technical experts in that field, and that what we desperately needed was not more technocrats but more lay people with a smattering of common sense saying loudly and repeatedly “Hang on, this is completely mad.”

Right now, the ways forward seem to be the collapse of the euro, causing widespread economic misery; Germany picking up the gigantic bill to keep the euro together, which its taxpayers will not wear; or China backing down on its unsporting refusal to drop a few trillions into the proffered European hat.

Whichever way it goes, the implications look bleak for the future of democracy, and the avoidance of civil unrest and international tension. Yes, those of us who argued against British membership of the euro have done the country a service by keeping us off the passenger list of the doomed liner, but our rather frail craft stands no chance of enjoying a smooth passage as the whirlpool of catastrophe on the Continent does its best to suck us down.

So we sceptics were bang right. Big deal. Move on. But do please bear this lesson in mind the next time someone tries to sell you an idea wrapped up in the phraseology of progressiveness and inevitability.

A rare image of a wind turbine actually doing something

I will take similar momentary satisfaction, a decade or two from now, when the eager proponents of wind power finally admit that they were completely wrong. But by then our finest landscapes will have been desecrated by useless turbines, and we will be sitting in the cold and dark. And there will be no quick, easy and painless solution to that avoidable mess, either.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 8 November 2011

Remember, it is far better to arrive late than not at all

Of all the many causes of delays on our overburdened motorway system, surely none is more maddening than the long, stop-start crawl that turns out to be due to drivers slowing down to have a good gawp at some mishap in the opposite carriageway.

Accidents clearly have a horrible fascination for many of us. Although one of the many things I learned over the weekend is that we must now refer to them as “incidents”, because “accident” implies an absence of blame that may well not be the case.

Friday's serious incident on the M5

Yet, having taken a leisurely look at the wreckage, we seem to absorb remarkably few lessons. Motorway traffic soon returns to its customary but illegal 80mph and the bad habits of tailgating, undertaking, using hand-held mobile phones and ignoring electronic warning signs all continue exactly as before.

Perhaps that is why the bright idea of leaving crashed cars by the side of the road as a dreadful warning to others never seems to have caught on in the UK.

Now, I make no claims to be a particularly virtuous driver. But my bad habits are certainly moderated by having been tangentially involved in two multiple pile-ups: one on the M62 and the other on the central motorway in Newcastle.

In both cases I crested a rise to find stationary traffic in front of me, and stopped safely, if not without difficulty. Many vehicles behind me did not. In Newcastle I was driving a literally brand new Land Rover, fresh from the showroom, and will be forever grateful to the driver of the large van immediately behind who, as the multiple impacts shunted him forwards, manfully steered away from the rear of my car. I was able to drive away without a scratch.

As, in both incidents, were the individuals at the front of all the chaos who were observed calmly restarting their cars and leaving the scene, without bothering to hang around to help the police with their enquiries.

Whenever I feel tempted to take risks on the road, I call to mind the image of the blue BMW I watched in my rear view mirror as it became airborne and executed a perfect barrel roll, wondering whether its final resting place was going to be on top of me.

Although both these crashes are still seared on my memory many years later, they were deemed far too ordinary to merit any coverage in even the local media, which I duly scoured for reports. I deduced from this that no one must have been killed despite the large number of vehicles involved.

Though this might be an assumption too far, since the rule of thumb seems to be that it requires several fatalities in a road crash to merit a small fraction of the column inches lavished on a single death on the railway.

I have never understood this. Rail travel is inherently safe, and there is nothing any passenger can do to make it safer. Driving, while rendered much less dangerous over the years by improvements in car and road design, remains a far riskier business than catching a train, and responsibility rests squarely with all of us who get behind a steering wheel.

This seems to me a pretty good reason for giving more publicity to road crashes, and their causes. And, yes, if the bereaved families can bear it, to the “human interest” stories of the lives they have cut short.

Because every one of us who drives a car will surely benefit from a regular reminder that we are piloting something potentially lethal, and that it is ultimately our responsibility to ensure that we are equipped to handle the unexpected, whether that be a bank of smoke, a falling tree, or an animal or child dashing out into the road.

Yes, delays are frustrating, sometimes infuriating. I find that the best recipe for calm is to keep reminding myself that life is already very short and that it is far, far better to arrive late than never to arrive at all.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 1 November 2011

Making the wrong choice about where to put the clock back

So at last the great moment arrived when David Cameron could claim his place in my pantheon of true Conservative heroes by attempting to put the clock back – and not simply because it was the end of British Summer Time.

True, it was disappointing that he chose to do it by announcing the reincarnation of the British Empire Medal.

For God and the Empire. How very un-Dave

An award for those deemed rather too common to meet the Queen, abolished by John Major in 1993 in his pursuit of a classless society. With his famous cones hotline long closed, this reversal threatens to undo one of the few defining achievements of his administration.

Sadly one small step backwards counted for little in a week when a raft of other measures betrayed Mr Cameron’s continued obsession with that falsest of gods, “progress”.

These included the attempt to “modernise” the monarchy by altering the rules of succession to give equal rights to female heirs. Few seemed to question that this was a good thing. But how can you possibly hope to drag a hereditary monarchy into the twenty-first century? It is, by its nature, a mediaeval anachronism. That is precisely why some of us find it so appealing.

Once you start tinkering with the ancient rules, people will start to wonder why we have to have the first-born son or daughter when the third in line seems so much more personable. Or, indeed, why we have to have a member of that particular family at all.

Long may she reign
The Royal Standard for Australia (never let it be said that this is not an educational column)

I cannot help thinking that this great step forward will look slightly less brilliant when some of the Commonwealth legislatures invited to amend the rules of succession decide to vote for a republic instead.

As if that were not enough, there was the bold decision in principle to defy Nature and put Britain, at least for a trial period, on Berlin rather than Greenwich time.

No need to bother with any of that nonsense - we'll cave in on the time zone issue without even being asked

A piece of craziness to rank alongside anyone ever imagining that they could place a hard-working, efficient and well-governed country like Germany in a currency union with an indolent, shambolic and corrupt one like Greece, and not face major problems.

But then the people who came up with the euro were not stupid. They always knew that it was economic nonsense. But it prepared the ground for the sort of “beneficial crisis” that would advance their goal of creating a single government for Europe.

And so, behold, it is coming to pass. Just as those derided loony Eurosceptics warned it would. And very soon the siren voices of the Europhiles will be raised again, warning that Britain cannot afford to be left behind as this “inevitable” Union progresses.

In fact they are at it already, with David Banks reminding us in his column on Friday about “the £150m Brussels earmarked this year to build jobs and prosperity in the North East”. Only it’s OUR money. Britain is the second largest net contributor to the great EU racket.

Being grateful for handouts we have paid for is a bit like thanking a mugger who considerately hands you a tenner for your cab fare home after he has pinched your wallet.

Take an issue about which a large chunk of the population feel strongly, whether that be capital punishment or the extinction of our independence as a nation, and you can be sure that the reaction of the political class will be to close ranks, stick their fingers in their ears and chant “La la la not listening” until we go away.

Except that, in an attempt to put the inconvenient European issue to bed, they have already passed an act requiring a referendum on any future treaty change that hands more power to Brussels. One of the delights of the coming months will be watching them trying to weasel out of that promise as the United States of Europe emerges unmistakably from the euro crisis.

But why worry? We will all be able to enjoy an extra hour of daylight in which to polish our BEMs and pray that the Duchess of Cambridge may be safely delivered of a girl. Because otherwise an awful lot of valuable Parliamentary time will have been expended in vain.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.