On Business And The EU

I was listening the other day to a businessman I know rather well avoiding a straight answer on Radio 4 to the simple question of whether he favours the UK staying in or leaving the EU.

We have more than a year of this to grind through, and you might as well ask every senior UK executive who their favourite Beatle was, for all it matters. Still, every single one will be asked. The answer is that, whatever their personal views, almost all would suffer in terms of their own business from a British exit. That is a given. Not one sector of industry, services or commerce that I am aware of will do better outside the EU.

During last year’s Scottish referendum it was different. Then, substantial Scottish employers were asked how independence would affect them, and a number pointed out that it would be a negative, to the point that several had drawn up plans to relocate south of the border if this happened.

One told me that having a tariff border between two parts of what was then, and still is, a single country would be a serious encumbrance in terms of added red tape. Other financial services companies made it clear they would much rather operate in the City than in an independent Scotland. That will have had some effect on the eventual vote.

Interesting, then, those business leaders who have emerged as part of a pressure group that wants us to leave the EU, even though, by my analysis, their firms would suffer. This must be a rare example of principle trumping economics in the business world.

It still doesn’t make them right.


On De Rothschild, And Transport

In one of the least appropriate interventions since Marie Antoinette opined on the relative merits of Mr Kipling cakes and a humble baguette, billionaire banker Sir Evelyn de Rothschild has been giving us his views on the London transport system.

Those views, as contained in the bankers’ house journal the Financial Times, can be summarised as the sheer frustration of trying to get his limo through streets packed out with other people.

Apparently without irony, he suggested that part of the problem is the large number of empty buses, and those “grinding their way pointlessly” around the 19,500 bus stops. He spotted six on the Strand once. (The reason buses are empty is that they are either heading to the end of their route or, on a road so relentlessly jam-packed as the Strand, everyone has got out and walked.)

He doesn’t like Boris bikes. (Me neither, but on safety grounds.) He doesn’t like road works. (Who does?) He thinks big lorries should only deliver at night. (Fair point.) He thinks there are too many private hire firms, rather than black cabs.

At no stage, unbelievably, does our banker address what most people see as the main problem with the capital’s transport, the obscenely overcrowded and unreliable suburban mainline and Tube services. Perhaps he has never been on one.

De Rothschild’s de haut en bas musings on transport, as viewed apparently from the rear windows of his limo, immediately generated derisive comment on the FT site. Some even wondered if this was an attempt by this old Harrovian to make Boris Johnson, the old Etonian mayor, look rather less posh and out of touch. Too cunning, I fear.

As it happens, I have a proposal that might suit both de Rothschild and most of the travelling public. Ban private cars from the centre of London. Better still, allow them in but increase the congestion charge to, what shall we say, £5,000 a day. That way bankers who can afford it can contribute appropriately. The merely wealthy can take a cab. The rest of us can get back onto those empty buses.

On The Law

The law was the one closed shop Mrs Thatcher failed to break. Blame the sheer number of lawyers in Parliament with a vested interest, though I suspect today the average MP is more likely to be a former policy wonk. Not an improvement.

Now my former colleague Michael Gove, who these days is justice secretary, will have a go. He says the law is the preserve of the rich but fails the poor, and that it must become more efficient.

Fair point, the first. Rich oligarchs and corrupt businessmen from the developing world flood to London to settle their disputes in our courts, though given how much they pay to do so, this might better be seen as a lucrative invisible export.

And while on the rich, Gove might have a look at the miscarriage of justice which has seen celebrities dragged through the courts for long-forgotten misdeeds, cleared and still hit with huge legal fees. In the millions. Ditto some journalists. I cannot understand how that can be seen to be fair. It’s a huge, disguised fine levied on the innocent.

Having, as I have written, just done jury service, it is pretty obvious to me that the criminal justice system is as riddled with systematic waste as the NHS, and for very much the same reason. It’s not their money. The procedures that operate in both would not be countenanced in a private company, though that sort of time-wasting and foot-dragging was prevalent enough there forty odd years ago when I joined the workforce.

Sit in the jury box, and you are often met with the bizarre sight of a judge typing away on a laptop while prosecuting and defending counsel rummage through piles of paper. Almost nothing is computerised. There are endless delays as key people fail to turn up. Bits of evidence are repeated over and over again, or are supplied in written form, only to be tortuously read out verbatim in court as well.

Several of my fellow jurors, quite independently, speculated how much of this waste and delay was down to lawyers being paid by the hour. And the hours? Ten to one, a break for lunch, two to four, or before this if convenient.

And don’t even consider the idiocy of men dressed in costumes more appropriate to the 17th century. What message does the wearing of wigs send to the 21st century juror? It does not, trust me, engender respect.

Over to you, Michael.

On The EU, And Totalitarianism

I tweeted the other day about the rudeness and aggression of a Eurosceptic interviewed on the Today programme. An old City mate tweeted back that not all Eurosceptics are aggressive and unpleasant, just sick and tired of the huge waste of money at the EU.

Fair point, though the sceptics do sometimes descend to tooth-grinding rancour. Brussels is indeed a corrupt kleptocracy utterly immune to the normal democratic checks and balances that control the behaviour of national governments.

But I think there is one element in this debate that is often missed in the UK. We have an attachment to our body politic and belief in our democracy that goes back, rightly or wrongly, a thousand years  – look at this week’s celebrations of Magna Carta.

Almost every other EU country has, within living memory, either been overrun by undemocratic, tyrannical states from outside, fascist or communist, and seen a degree of collaboration with them, or had the same imposed on it from within. Eg the Nazis, Mussolini, Spain under Franco, Greece under the colonels. Within living memory. The only exceptions are Sweden and Ireland

There isn’t the same inbuilt trust in that body politic, especially in southern European states where government and the business world may themselves be corrupt to the core – Greece, Italy, Spain to a lesser extent.

The attraction of an over-arching supranational entity that was designed to ensure that those totalitarian regimes cannot return, and which promises to ensure the maintenance of a degree of human rights, is clear enough. If it, too, is corrupt, and squanders millions, well, so what else is new?

A point, I think, often not appreciated in the country we are fortunate enough to live in. What it says about the UK’s membership of or departure from the EU I cannot say.

On Waterloo

The French are not good losers, are they? Their approach to the anniversary of Waterloo has been curmudgeonly, even attempting to limit the production of a special commemorative coin in Belgium. (A country that owes its questionable existence to Napoleon, as it happens.)

One French politician has suggested that Waterloo was some sort of moral victory. Now various intellectuals have been narrating counter-factuals that attempt to depict the course of history had Napoleon won.

These dream of French being spoken throughout Europe, of a successful invasion of Russia and an eventual French Empire that encompasses China. They also say that, as despots go, Napoleon was not that hard on his new subjects in the parts of Europe he did manage to conquer.

All this seems wildly implausible. By 1815, the combined forces of the German states, Austria and Russia had mobilised against him. A defeat for Wellington and Blucher at Waterloo would have been followed by the eventual and inevitable crushing of the resurgent French forces – he had, indeed, won at Quatre Bras a couple of days before Waterloo.

It also ignores the demographics. France was still in 1815 Europe’s most populous nation, about 30 million people. Yet Napoleon’s losses throughout the wars he fought probably reached one million,  most in the disastrous Russian campaign, disregarding losses among his allies. Put another way, of the troops he had available of the right age at the start of the wars, fully a third had perished.

Those deaths, the direct responsibility of this enlightened despot alone, led to a period of economic stagnation in France, given the lack of available male manpower and breeding partners.

And I am not sure if even a triumphant Napoleon, with all of Europe at his feet, would have gone anywhere near Russia again. 

On Jihad, And Moral Imbeciles

It’s never anyone’s fault, is it? The family of an idiot jihadist who went to Iraq and blew himself up in a suicide attack have been expressing their shock and grief.

Terribly sad, and devastating for the family.The fact that the brother of his best friend, who also went to Iraq and whose whereabouts are  unknown, was earlier convicted of terrorism offences at the age of 15 seems to have gone unnoticed by anyone.

It’s always a surprise, isn’t it? A woman was on Radio 4 a while back. She had fled Sierra Leone and taken refuge in the UK. Her teenage son had joined Isis and been killed in Syria. All desperately sad, again, but at no stage in the interview did anyone suggest that it was hardly an appropriate way to repay this country for its hospitality by producing a jihadist. Or that parenthood, even single parenthood, comes with obligations.

Apparently the town of Dewsbury in West Yorkshire, where the latest idiot came from, is in shock at the very thought that the local community should have spawned a jihadist. Except that would be the same Dewsbury where the leader of the 2005 suicide bombers came from, so perhaps it shouldn’t have been that much of a shock.

One Isis bride, who disappeared a few months back amid the usual hand-wringing, turned out to have been taken to see a radical preacher by her dad.

If a son of mine were minded to fly off to the Middle East and join a nihilistic death cult, I think I would at least have seen some signs beforehand  that he was heading off the rails. Ditto any daughter who might want to travel abroad to be compulsorily wrapped in a burka and married off to a complete stranger.

You would notice, wouldn’t you? Someone, somewhere would have tipped you off, perhaps a teacher, perhaps a concerned friend. Yet it never seems to happen, does it? It’s never the fault of the parents for producing a moral imbecile, is it?

On Current Music

I normally regard blogs about music, and what the writer is currently listening to, as deeply self-indulgent. But a follower of mine on Twitter has requested my current playlist, so here goes. You don’t have to read it.

Last CDs bought: John Coltrane, Live At Birdland. The classic quartet. Tyner, Garrison, Jones. I think I probably have enough Coltrane, though a colleague has just recommended More Lasting Than Bronze. Then again, at a price of £2.99 from HMV, why not?

Er, The Best Of The Monkees. A request from the Chief Executive, and only about five songs worth hearing. They were, admittedly, great songs. Written by the likes of Neil Diamond, eg I’m A Believer and A Little Bit Me, A little Bit You. Mike Nesmith, after the inevitable split, turned out to be a rather accomplished songwriter in his subsequent career. Try Different Drum, one of the great break-up songs. “So goodbye, girl, I’ll be leaving/I see no sense in you cryin’ and grievin’/We’ll both live a lot longer/If you live without me, babe.”

Still trending: Melody Gardot, The Absence. Latin, bossa nova tinged jazz singing. Open the French windows, let it drift out.

Steven Wilson: Hand. Cannot. Erase. A bit prog, but sometimes we need a bit of prog in our lives.

Susanne Sandfor: Ten Love Songs. Norwegian, voice like a ringing glass, house beats. Classy.

Mies Davis: Bitches Brew, Live. Dug up from the vaults, and the non-inclusion of Wayne Shorter on the first three tracks, from the little-recorded Chick Corea quintet, is a shame. Apparently he was held up in traffic. Sound quality lousy, but historic.

Alison Krauss and Union Station: Paper Airplanes. Best known for working with Robert Plant on Raising Sand. Her solo work veers towards MOR, though Away Down The River is a deeply moving song about death and resurrection. Listen to it. (Religion warning.) Her work with Union Station is more rootsy, with a proper country/bluegrass band. Not for those who dislike country and bluegrass, of course.

Carla Bley: Trios. Astringent chamber jazz from this Californian pianist and composer, with her long-time partner Steve Swallow and Bristolian saxophonist Andy Sheppard. An awfully long way from her mad, sprawling jazz/rock/world music operetta Escalator Over The Hill. Utviklingssang and Vashkar are among the most melodic jazz compositions ever. See also her The Lost Chords Find Paolo Fresu.

The War On Drugs: Lost In The Dream. Slacker US indie. A war almost certainly lost, I fear, from the sound of it.

Syd Arthur: On And On, or Sound Mirror. Psychedelic prog. The bassist is Kate Bush’s nephew and plays a bass given to him by the late Hugh Hopper. Enough said.

Robert Wyatt: Different Every Time. Just finished his biography, same title. This is a compilation of his solo work, plus collaborations with the likes of Elvis Costello and John Cage. Again, enough said. Try his cover of Chic’s At Last I Am Free.

Sia: 1,000 Forms of Fear. The Boy is outraged I should be listening to this. “This is modern music, Dad.” I liked her work with Zero 7. Horribly overproduced, though Chandelier, about her misspent youth, is a stand-out. Great back story.

The National: Trouble Will Find Me. US Indie, clever, tuneful, sharp as a paper cut. Still playing it several years later, and Daughter is a convert. Great baritone voice.

Jennifer Warnes: Famous Blue Overcoat. Leonard Cohen, filtered through AOR. Still timeless. Does anyone know what First We Take Manhattan is actually about? A Sixties radical coming in from the cold?

John Murry: The Graceless Age. Descent into madness, addiction, hell. Try  Little Colored Balloons, about how he clinically died on the streets of San Francisco. And was brought around by paramedics.

Jason Isbell: Southeastern. Another rehab survivor, another bundle of laughs. The Elephant, a song about his best friend’s death from cancer.

Plus, I am still working my way through Daughter’s latest two mixtapes. Her tastes tend towards mine, to the extent that we occasionally overlap. Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car? Bought it four decades ago, on vinyl, probably, actually. The Civil Wars? Tick. A country duo who appear to have recorded their last CD slap bang in the middle of a messy divorce. Try The One That Got Away. As in, I wish you were the one that got away… I wish I’d never, ever seen your face. Sung in perfect two-part harmony. One for romantics, then.

Daughter introduced me to Bastille, and Beirut. In return, I offered her The Smiths. About even, then. From her latest mixtape:

Obadiah Parker/Hey Ya.

Fyfe/Solace. Chilled electro.

Hozier/Take Me To Church. Nu folk.

The Last Bison/Switzerland. Ditto.

Ni Oui Ni Non/Zaz. Plainly confused French chanteuse.

Ed Sheeran/I See Fire. The Kygo Remix, obviously.

That’s enough music for now.

On Economic Micawberism

George Osborne wants the country to adopt the economics of Micawberism. He wants to bind future Parliaments to only spend what they receive in taxes. This is how the UK economy was run in Victorian times and in the first couple of decades of the last century; ever since, it has been received wisdom among economists that there are times when it is appropriate for governments to borrow to stimulate demand.

The Tory government is barely a month old, and it comes up with one of the worst cases of political spin and posturing for years, a piece of legislation apparently dreamt up by someone utterly ignorant of the basic principles of the British constitution. As I learnt when training to be a lawyer, it is one of the founding tenets of the latter that Parliament cannot bind its successors, that any measure introduced by one administration can be repealed subsequently by another.

If young George decrees by statute that we must all paint our front doors blue, then his successors can repeal this daft measure, if they have the requisite majority. Likewise, any statute that forbids public borrowing can equally be cancelled. It has no lasting or binding impact.

One can only assume it is a measure designed to embarrass Labour, who would have to take the decision whether to vote against it, so apparently confirming their high tax, high spending principles, or go along with such an idiotic law.

Parliamentary time is not meant to be used to stage publicity stunts designed to make the other side look silly; it’s expensive enough keeping the whole ridiculous circus on the road for the purpose for which it is designed.

There is one irony missed in all this, though. One of the objections to the Human Rights Act, and the whole human rights paraphernalia, is that it requires the UK government to sign up to a set of principles that sit above the will of Parliament and cannot be challenged or set aside by same.

The most strenuous objectors to this, on the basis that it is an unconstitutional block on Parliamentary autonomy and the UK’s right to manage its own affairs, as enshrined in that same constitution, have come from the right wing of the Conservative Party.

On The Midland Bank

For some years now I have been operating, subconsciously, under the illusion that I have an account with the Midland Bank. One day shortly this may prove to be true again.

I took up with the Midland, as it then was, in the 1970s, mainly because my parents had banked at the same south west London branch for decades. In those days the acquisition of a bank account was something of a rite of passage, and not open to all comers.

The history of the Midland parallels the history of the British banking sector. It started in Birmingham in 1836, expanded by buying other regional banks and came to serve a cross-section of the country’s emerging industrial base, foundries, engineers, railways and local corporations.

At one stage one of the biggest banks on the globe, it bought an investment bank before most of the others, made a disastrous overseas purchase in California and was swallowed by an overseas bidder, HSBC, in 1992. The distinctive griffin and gold coins logo, in an act of flagrant vandalism by the designers, was ditched thereafter along with the name and the slogan “The listening bank” for the more anonymous initials HSBC. And a non-descript logo whose design does not easily come to mind.

Now the Midland name is likely to be revived, quite possibly along with the griffin, and the bank’s HQ will go back to Birmingham. I will one day, assuming they haven’t managed to ban them, be issued with a cheque book featuring the griffin, which will reappear on the high street to replace those anonymous initials.

It will never be quite the same, because banking has changed. I can barely remember the last time I visited my branch. We get our cash from ATMs that began to be introduced in the 1970s. Before that, you had to go along to your branch, write and hand over a cheque and take your money. In banking hours, which ended at 3.30.

You could try a friendly pub after hours, if you fancied a drink, but many of these used to display a printed sign. “We have an arrangement with our bank. They don’t sell beer, and we don’t cash cheques.” Ha bloody ha.

I went in mortal terror of the Midland and its staff. As a broke student, I would hand over the cheque to the university branch. The man would step into a back room, check my balance, and if it had fallen too far into the red, re-emerge with a sad shake of the head.

My manager once gave me the choice, in my twenties, of having the mortgage paid but being barred from taking out any money until payday two and a half weeks hence, or falling behind with said mortgage. I took the wise option, walked quite a long way to work each day, and lived on what was left in the store cupboard. It was an object lesson.

This is an idea, I imagine, inconceivable to today’s twenty-somethings, who would expect to be extended credit without question. Until they were so mired in debt that there was never any possibility of escaping it. Or to max out their credit cards until they reached the same impasse.

You tell me which was the better way of running a bank.

On The Sex Pistols, And Revolt Into Style

In 1970 George Melly, the jazz singer, Surrealist and general bon viveur about town, wrote Revolt Into Style. The book was an overview of the popular culture, music and arts which he knew intimately.

He came up with the theory, if I recall it rightly, that any new aspect of youth culture was at first attacked and denigrated by the mainstream. It was subsequently and profitably subsumed into it, marketed by big business and the fashion industry and sold back to the young consumer.

As I have written in the paper I work for, the Sex Pistols are being used to sell a credit card. You can get a special novelty card featuring the artwork from their only album and first single.

Melly died in 2007, so he was around to witness just the process he described in his book take place on the coming of punk rock, six years after it was published. At first the movement was excoriated as a sinister youth cult and a nihilistic, anti-social rejection of everything middle England held dear. The hysteria it generated at the time is hard to credit now, though the punks didn’t help themselves by attacking, often physically, any musician or DJ they deemed too old and out of touch.

Within months, artfully ripped T-shirts, held together with safety pins, were appearing in high street boutiques, mass-produced by the same fashion companies that had brought us crushed denim loon pants and flared jeans a few years earlier. Record companies were frantically signing any band that fit the stereotype. Revolt had indeed turned into style, though rather more quickly than in previous incarnations of youth culture.

Kids who had been barely aware of the early punk gigs were queuing up to buy identikit versions of the uniform. As a satirical song at the time put it: “Oh, I wanna be me, I wanna be myself/Even though I look like everybody else.”

(Though one might argue that punk, most of which was musically worthless, was itself a con perpetrated by the music industry on the young consumer, so it was probably ideally suited to the process.)

You could see the same thing happening in the case of acid house, or rap music. Revolt into style. RIP George Melly, an acute observer of popular culture. Though I bumped into you briefly at the Edinburgh Festival once and thought you were a bit of a plonker.