Monday, 20 November 2017

Should I have bet on May v Merkel?

Is the end nigh for the weakest politician in Europe?  I mean Angela Merkel, see my post of 17 November, who might be up for an early bath, to use a footballing analogy. Her party's coalition negotiations have broken down. The FDP, free market liberals who, with their 80 seats, are necessary partners for  Merkel's CDU to govern effectively, have pulled out of talks, saying there is "no basis of trust" and "no shared vision". The disagreements are thought to have concerned tax, asylum and environmental policies (remember that Germany is a climate change denier by action, rather than words).

The CDU may try to operate with the support of the Greens as a minority government. But if there is an impasse the German President (no, I didn't know they had one either but I suppose I would have guessed) has the power to call new elections. But only after a process I don't understand but which could take months. In that case, Merkel's party aren't sure about her fighting on and might ask her to stand aside.

This all may not come to pass. But it holds out the remarkable prospect that Theresa May could outlive Angela Merkel, in political terms. I must admit I wouldn't have bet a bean on that even last week, but I am regretting not placing a bet on it as I would have thought you could have got long odds on that before the German elections!

The UK is not the only EU member state living with uncertainty and trying to work with the hand their electorate dealt them in a general election. "Crisis" is a word now being used in Germany. The main beneficiaries of any new election there are likely to be the far-right AFD....

Germany's Merkel suffers blow as FDP pulls out of coalition talks, BBC website today,

Friday, 17 November 2017

The weakest politician in Europe?

No, I'm not talking about Mrs May. Weak though she is, there's a lot of competition for this title at the moment. I offer you my candidate: Mrs Merkel, or Mutti ("Mummy") as the Germans call her.

Nearly a month after the German federal election, Merkel has not put together a government yet. The Social Democrats have ruled out another grand coalition (the equivalent here would be Lab-Tory) and Merkel's Christian Democrats won't want to do business with the ulta-right AFD, so she is left trying to do the deal with the liberal Free Democrats and Greens. Talks so far have stalled over issues including immigration, climate change and EU defence plans.

I'm not surprised Merkel is coming under pressure from the greens on climate change as Merkel's government is the true climate change denier, in terms of actions, compared with Trump. Of course they are fully signed up to the Paris accord, but they say one thing and do another, burning ever greater quantities of coal, while the USA does the opposite, saying it will pull out of the international agreements but making progress in reducing emissions. Merkel is in a bind on this as a big reason for the Germans increasing coal burn is their commitment to phasing out nuclear and the Greens won't agree to her backing out of that.

Merkel has till Thursday, else there may have to be another election. Which she won't want in case the AFD do even better. So I expect deals will be cut.

But don't kid yourself that Germany has strong leadership. Our 'weak' PM's party got 42% of the vote, Mutti's party got 33%. They obviously succeed for other reasons.

PS It's not just me saying this. After writing this blog, I saw Wolfgang Munchau's tweet " Why Merkel's position on climate change is in reality no different from Trump's". In the eurointelligence blog his article titled "Germany's climate change hypocrisy" notes that at the Bonn climate change summit Germany was confronted by a 20 country initiative to commit to stopping burning coal. The problem for Germany is 40% of its power comes from coal.The UK is committed to phasing out coal fired power stations by 2025, while Germany is basically doing what Trump says he wants to do.

You can see the full article at

Saturday, 11 November 2017

We will remember them - but how?

This is the Weeping Window display by Paul Cummins and Tom Piper, they of the poppies at the Tower, when they took their ceramic poppies on tour for 14-18 NOW, the UK's arts programme for the first world war centenary. This display was at The Silk Mill in Derby, a building that hosted a corn mill and medical supplies business during WWI, back in June and July.

A super and thought provoking large scale work of art.

I have worn a poppy in early November since I was a child. If anything I've got a bit less keen on actually wearing one, though I always make a donation, because of the poppy police. It seems you can't appear on tv without one and I always think they start wearing them much too early on in October. Poppy wearing seems to have become competitive, which doesn't feel right to me.

And talking of competitive, Premier League footballers now have them embroidered on their shirts. If they don't all kinds of media hell breaks over their heads. It wasn't like this until just a few years ago. When I coached my son's boys football team back in the 90s at my instigation and by agreement with the coach of our opponents we held a minute's silence before the match nearest to Remembrance Sunday and the boys all thought it was great, both teams standing around the centre-circle just like their favourite clubs on Match of the Day. It was just about the only time I got them all to stay quiet! But I don't agree with footballers having poppies on their jerseys. Even more so now that the home nations have won their argument with FIFA so our international teams do it as well, including last night's England v Germany match where the players of both teams had poppies on armbands. FIFA have backtracked from their earlier view that the poppy was a "political" symbol.

I'm with Martin Samuel of the Daily Mail on this. He says that it's only "half right" to say the poppy is not political propaganda because it's impossible to separate acts of remembrance by nation or race. Iran was fined by FIFA a year ago because fans at a match with South Korea were asked to mark Tasu'a by wearing black and replacing football chants with holy songs. Tasu'a is the day before Ashura, which is one of the most significant events in the Shi'a Muslim calendar. Ashura translates as "day of remembrance". So we get our poppies but surely Iran will be able to mark Ashura and Samuel wonders whether Japan will want to acknowledge Hiroshima's A-bomb day if they play on or around the 6th of August. It seems to me only a matter of time before we find our national football team is compromised by having to join in an act of remembrance for fallen which might include people we thought of as terrorists.

To be clear, I don't think our poppies are political but others might. And we might think their equivalents are either political or inappropriate. FIFA should have insisted on keeping this box firmly closed.

One of my old bosses, who served with distinction in more recent times before his career in business, had a different take on this. He never wore a poppy and used to sniff at me wearing one. He said it discouraged the government from taking proper care of our former soldiers and their families when they needed it. I didn't agree, but I could see his point. There are different ways of remembering, but that should be the bottom line.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

A Brown Curate's Egg

Gordon Brown has re-emerged from the shadows. His memoirs are published today. No, I haven't blagged a preview copy - I've been reading the trailers in the newspapers. And, of course, I have my own views on the man who I lectured a Labour canvasser about in 2001. I guess it was the general election that Labour won handsomely: I remember because we had just moved house and I was decorating the hall. I'd got his attention by saying that, having 2 youngsters I was concerned about health and education. No sooner had he mentally noted me down as "for" when I launched into a vituperative tirade about how Brown had started well as chancellor but time would tell otherwise. Brown's £5bn a year pension tax grab featured prominently but wasn't my only stringent criticism. I was peeved about paying a huge wodge of stamp duty to buy a lower priced house than our previous one and, rather selfishly, about Brown's stealth taxes on my company car and health insurance. None of which I would have minded paying if it was spent wisely, but I felt state education and the NHS weren't performing and were unlikely to improve. "Mark my words" I remember saying "you all think he's a hero now but Brown will come to be seen as a total unmitigated disaster". (Ok, not quite right, that prediction, I'll give you). The poor chap eventually managed to get away from me and I turned to my younger son, who had been listening in and said "I don't know why I did that, look my paint brush has gone dry". "No, dad" he said "but it had to be done". (A very wise 15 year old, I thought).

Brown was, of course, a son of the manse - his father was a minister in the Church of Scotland. Though I'm effectively demoting his dad in saying this, after my 2001 tirade I came to the view that Brown was a curate's egg, good in parts. And, to misquote the American poet Longfellow, when he was bad, he was horrid.

The bad included letting public spending get out totally of control and helping to create the crisis in company pension schemes with that infamous £5 billion a year tax grab (though, to be fair, a Tory chancellor had started this stupid wheeze, Brown just pumped up the volume). He was also complicit in the "education, education, education" Blair government that did so little for education, other than come up with the dumb target of 50% of young people going to university, which has left us with the overhanging issues of university funding, student "debt" and a surplus of unemployable graduates in some disciplines, using that word very loosely. And it was Brown as chancellor who gave the gambling industry free rein, leading to wall to wall betting ads on Sky Sports, gambling companies sponsoring half the Premier League teams and, according to the Gambling Commission, half a million youngsters aged 11-15 gambling regularly, as do two-thirds of students. (Two thirds!! It wouldn't have been 1 in 50 in my day).

Horrid? More like appallingly awful.

However he did, as he put it "save the world" when he unfortunately miss-spoke in a debate in the House on the financial crisis. Though to be fair to him, he did, with Alistair Darling, skilfully ensure that the worst of the chaos that could easily have resulted was avoided. Very good. The reforms he made on assuming the role of Chancellor of the Exchequer - independence for the Bank of England and taking bank regulation from the Bank and putting it with the newly formed Financial Services Authority - were also good and bad respectively, the FSA proving not up to the job of regulating the banks and so contributing to the crisis he had to deal with. But Brown, along with Ed Balls, deserves enormous credit for thwarting Blair and keeping us out of the euro, otherwise the impact of the financial crisis would gave been far more serious*. And extricating ourselves from the EU would have been even more difficult, so your view on Brown's success in bamboozling Blair with his five economic tests probably depends on whether you think we should remain or leave.

Anyway, with that background, it's worth listening to what Brown has to say on the financial crisis. And guess what? It's a curate's egg.

Brown says "If bankers who act fraudulently are not put in jail with their bonuses returned, assets confiscated and banned from future practice, we will only give a green light to similar risk laden behaviour in new forms", a statement that led to headlines like "Bankers should have been jailed". This is the Gordon Brown who'd had 10 years to get the regulatory system right before the crash and at least 2 years after the crash to start to take action.

Brown says the actions of Northern Rock's bosses in covering up their financial situation were 'but a short step from criminality'. Hmm, not criminal then, so hard to jail them surely? And the Rock's business model, borrowing money on short term markets while lending it out on long term mortgages was very well known. Absolutely a failure of risk management and regulation in my book, so that one's actually down to you, Gordon.

Brown also hits out at Barclays bank for doing an 'unconscionable' deal with the Gulf states to avoid taking the Treasury's shilling, so avoiding Treasury control. Brown blanks out the fact that Treasury officials lied to the Lloyds team, who were also wary of state control. (Lloyds asked Treasury officials whether the other major banks were being bailed out and explicitly asked about Barclays, who they hadn't seen during the negotiations. They were told the Barclays team were meeting on a different floor of the building). Barclays maintained its independence and arguably fared the best of the British banks. OK, HSBC makes more profit than Barclays (£5.49bn against £3.93bn last year), but Barclays profitability (profit as a % of turnover) is a lot higher and HSBC didn't require a bail out (just as well as it is essentially trans-national, British taxpayers bailing it out wold have been problematical I reckon).

And of course Lloyds only needed bailing out because Brown had offered them the poisoned chalice of HBOS, which they had previously coveted but hadn't been allowed to acquire on competition grounds. Under pressure to get things fixed Brown changed the rules and gullible, greedy Lloyds didn't do proper due diligence. Otherwise Lloyds wouldn't have needed a bail out at all.

 To be fair the Gulf deal does look dodgy. But the government (i.e. you and me) didn't have to put up any of our money to bolster its balance sheet, some Arabs did. Brown argues that, because Barclays avoided government control, it carried on as before. Well actually it didn't because Barclays also reshaped its business away from what Vince Cable calls "casino banking", wilfully ignoring the fact that Northern Rock and HBOS got into trouble overstretching themselves on good old property. Barclays would probably would have done better if they had kept more of their investment banking business.

Meanwhile, RBS languishes in state control, unlikely ever to be able to repay the taxpayer bailout. Partly, I would argue, because the government made it get rid of its most profitable activities. Yes, it was to take out risk but it doesn't look with hindsight to have made any sense. So the bank most under the control of the state has done the worst - quelle surprise!

Brown takes aim at the egregious Fred the Shred - Fred Goodwin - and the ridiculous corporate excesses of RBS under his control. It was well known that RBS was a byword for hubristic levels of corporate extravagance don't I remember Brown saying anything about the overblown HQ in Scotland when it was opened. I wouldn't be surprised if he had applauded the job creation in his homeland.

Meanwhile the only bank executives charged with fraud are 4 former senior executives at Barclays. Ooh, it doesn't do to upset people like GB and the Treasury, does it?

So, as I say, curate's egg. I guess I should read Brown's autobiography in full to see whether it's as self-serving as the previews make it sound. But I'm not the only one - the Spectator said "Gordon Brown's memoirs show he is good at blowing his own trumpet - but nothing else"**.

Brown's memoirs is called My Life, Our Times and is published by The Bodley Head.
*For example, see Five tests that saved Britain from the fate of economic oblivion, Telegraph 27 Feb 2012
** The Spectator, 4 November 2017

Saturday, 4 November 2017

By St George - a world first I wasn't aware of

Liverpool is a great and notable city for many reasons (give over, I'm talking culture and heritage here, cut out the hubcap jokes please!) There is so much history that I don't know and I learned one more snippet earlier in the year.

I was at St George's Hall in Liverpool a few months ago for a sad purpose - the registrar of hatches, matches and despatches for the Liverpool area is there. My only previous visit was for an Emerson, Lake and Palmer gig in about 1971. (See Best Musicians I've Seen - 2, 16 October).  I already knew that St George's Hall is regarded as one of Europe's most notable neo-classical buildings.  There are many great public buildings in Liverpool: it is a UNESCO world heritage site which doesn't just cover the waterfront, with the famous three graces, but "a great number of significant commercial, civic and public buildings, including St George’s Plateau"*.

When I saw ELP, thinking "this is a bit of an odd place for a gig", I didn't know that St George's Hall was originally intended as a concert venue, funded by public subscription.

But I also didn't know that St George's Hall was the world's first air conditioned building. There were earlier systems intended for air conditioning dating back to ancient times. And invention of the world's first modern air conditioning system is claimed by Willis Haviland Carrier, who designed a system for a printing works in 1902, but then the Americans try to claim lots of things the Brits invented first. Equally it wouldn't be the only time we invented something only for others to work out how to exploit it commercially.

Anyway, here is the system, designed by David Boswell Reid and commissioned in 1851:

There is much more detail in the second reference below on the aircon system and the background to 25 year old Harvey Lonsdale Elmes winning the prize for the best design of the hall in 1839 as well as the inspirations behind the superb design. There was a subsequent competition for design of law courts to be built alongside St George's Hall. Elmes won that competition as well. Both competitions were judged "blind" and it is thought that Elmes's knowledge of the Hall design allowed him to make the designs complementary. He was appointed architect and asked to design a third building to house magistrates courts and a bridewell. Subsequently, Elmes's suggestion that two of the buildings be combined was accepted. Elmes had in mind that this would create "a public edifice that was larger than in any other borough in the land" - remarkable given that this was his first commission. The Law Courts Committee then took over the whole project in order to get it implemented and the money the public had subscribed for the concert hall was refunded. Elmes was asked to include a "concert room" to "contain 1200 persons" and it was presumably in that room that I saw ELP.

Despite the claims of Carrier, there is a blue plaque presented by the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers in St George's Hall celebrating it as the world's first air conditioned building. A royal charter is good enough for me: another first for Liverpool and England.

**Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers reference:

Friday, 27 October 2017

The "not for" prophet

Would you like your taxes to be collected by a private company acting on behalf of the government under contract? No, me neither. I'd be concerned about tax collectors behaving a bit like aggressive private car clamping companies, while mindlessly pursuing targets set by their public sector bosses.

But would you prefer to have the option of hiring a builder, a removal company or even a hairdresser who works for a not for profit, public sector organisation rather than a private company? The very idea seems a bit bizarre, I know. But I ask because "profit" is a dirty word for many in our society. And it was for me as a socialist-leaning long-haired student in the 1970s, when Stevie Winwood sang "The percentage you're paying is too high a price/When we're living beyond all our means/ and the man in a suit has just bought a new car/with the profit he's made on your dreams"*.

The example of a removal company wasn't randomly selected. The first time we came to move house we decided to do the equivalent of buying IBM, so we couldn't go wrong. But we did, because we chose Pickfords, then the leading national removals company. They were poor. Now this was a while ago - 1980 - but our things were literally packed into tea chests. Many folk won't have seen a tea chest but they're made of rough plywood and, unsurprisingly, are used to ship tea. Indeed the scruffy chests that Pickfords used still had a fair bit of tea in them! This wasn't the only aspect of the service we weren't impressed with. Having made a mental note to take more care in future, get multiple quotes and ask questions etc, we moved house several more times and I thought no more about Pickfords until I was reading Ken Clarke's autobiography last year. What I hadn't realised was that Pickfords, until much later in the 1980s, was still owned by the people, as John McDonnell might put it, being part of the enterprises nationalised by Labour in the 1940s, along with coal, steel, railways etc and was still in the public sector. Clarke happened on this as a government minister and proposed it should be one of the Tories first privatisations. Hmm, I thought. That explains a lot, in particular why they didn't seem to care very much and provided such a poor take it or leave it service at the time.

Now I accept 1980 is a long time ago, but human nature and behaviour patterns don't change much. I take the view that public sector organisations are institutionally less able to provide good customer service. They are often very large, so senior management is remote from the coalface. They are usually highly unionised, so middle managers have little empowerment, indeed they generally have less power, influence and knowledge of what is going on than their team member who is a union rep. That doesn't mean the public sector can't provide good service. But decisions to 'flex' the system to meet specific situations in real time are problematic in such organisations, especially where there is a jobsworth culture. But where the service is fairly standard there's no inherent reason why public ownership should result in a less efficient or responsive service. Apart, of course, from the obvious dynamic that private companies can go bust, so the employees naturally think about what is good for the business. In contrast, state owned enterprises can't go bust and, more importantly for customer service, public sector enterprises tend to be very poor at performance management, being slow to take action when employees under-perform and generally unwilling or even practically unable to sack people who aren't doing their job. There is no fundamental reason why this has to be the case, but it just is.

The public-private mixed economy is ubiquitous throughout the world. Well maybe not in North Korea, but in countries like Russia and China there are quite significant private sectors, albeit in Russia overwhelmingly owned by a small group of oligarchs. If you count black market activity, I'd venture there must be private "business" even in north Korea. The question is all about the mix - what should the state do and what should be left to the market?

I hold the view that the shift towards private provision made by the Thatcher government was a colossal improvement. That doesn't mean everything the privatised companies do is perfect - clearly it isn't. Some private supply arrangements haven't worked at all well, though there are always provisions for the contract to be rescinded if that is the case. And it doesn't mean that more private provision is necessarily for the best, though it would be odd if we just happened to be at the optimal point.

Of course, the real issue isn't whether the operation is publicly or privately owned, it's competition. I recall reading my favourite journalist in the early 90s, Norman Macrae, who used to say "don't throw money at it, throw competition at it" about everything from education to the railways. I suppose you could have competing publicly owned companies, but it wouldn't be for real: everyone would know they couldn't fail in the sense of going bust. It would be sham competition, not red in tooth and claw as they say.

The left accuses the right of pursuing privatisation through dogma. I think it's the other way round. It seems to me that most people on the right want to get it right - make the services work well and cost effectively. But they are prepared to make a case and listen to argument. And few of them think everything should be run by private firms. It's the left who are actually totally dogmatic on this issue, always raising scares about privatisation of the NHS, crying wolf and seeing plots everywhere when there usually aren't any. And remember, the NHS was set up as a public-private partnership - most GPs are self-employed private suppliers providing services to the NHS under a commercial, not employment contract, that pays them to provide the surgery and employ the people who work there, none of whom are generally NHS employees. It's been this way since 1948.

As noted above, one of the reasons why the private sector is generally more efficient is the simple survival motive - lose money on a sustained basis and the company goes out of business. It struck me in the 1970s, organising football club socials, that if you planned to break even you usually lost money. It didn't seem to work out 50-50 and balance out. There are always unexpected costs, often lower revenues, etc. If you set out to make money, you generally didn't lose money. And, when you did well, you created the financial scope to put on a better event next time. Now there is no reason why, given a cost budget to manage to, managers shouldn't succeed in any type of enterprise. It doesn't have to be about making a profit. Except in a public sector organisation there is often an implicit, or even explicit, driver to "spend the budget", for many reasons amongst them that, otherwise, next year's budget will be smaller. Which is lazy management, but tends to happen. Guess what happens if you make sure the budget is spent? There aren't savings, anywhere in the system, to balance the inevitable higher costs that occur in some places. However hard the managers try, overspends for the enterprise as a whole are culturally hard wired into the system.

And there is the feeling in those organisations that it doesn't really matter to overspend; it just shows there weren't enough "resources" (i.e. money) for the task at hand. Commenting on the fascinating underground "Mail Rail" that Royal Mail operated underneath London's streets from 1927 to 2003, Alan Johnson noted that it cost twice as much to build as envisaged and incurred an initial loss of £100,000 a year (a whacking great sum in the 1920s). "Yet the principle objective of the Post Office was not profit but public service"**. So that's alright then? This just confirms for me that it's a good job Johnson, upright member of society and all round good guy that he seems to be, only ever made it to Home Secretary and that, while shadow chancellor for a period, he didn't become chancellor or PM. I expect he'd  be a fascinating and very pleasant chap to talk to, but I also expect I'd conclude that, while his heart was in the right place, he'd have the wrong solutions for every economic issue that we face, every time.

The issue of the public-private mix is sharper than it has been for many years, with Labour's plans to "take back" all sorts of activities into the public sector and Nicola Sturgeon's plans for a public sector energy company in Scotland. In the case of the railways, many reports say that it's a popular policy. Not with those of us who used to commute into London in the 1980s, where I remember the refrain on the platform when trains were late: "Privatise the bastards, it's the only thing that will sort them out". While not claiming that it did "sort them out" I would argue that it is probably not a coincidence that rail passenger journeys have doubled since privatisation, after 50 years of decline before that. The railway has problems but they are, relatively speaking, problems of success now (e.g. far more overcrowding) rather than failure. (OK, apart from cost which remains a big issue).

Many of the problems the railway has are due to the failure to tackle union power. So the unions get away with concealing their insistence on outdated working practices  behind an unprincipled smokescreen on safety. Pay levels are stratospheric compared with broadly equivalent jobs elsewhere, partly because management won't take on the medieval guilds of drivers and signallers. And, even though the train companies are privately run, the culture is still very public sector. It can take a long time to get people in a privatised entity thinking in ways that aren't steeped in public sector culture. (I have an allegorical story, about monkeys and bananas, which my boss often made me repeat for people, as it showed how attitudes can persist through generations of change. But not now, I can't type that much on the tablet). The issue with Train Operating Companies is the unions know the franchise will be re-bid eventually, so they view all management as 'empty suits', temporarily in charge till the next round of changing the cap badges. (Cap badging being the phrase used in BR for the initial separation into units that would become new entities).

As another example, many of Corbyn's young supporters would have extreme difficulty in understanding what it was like being totally dependent on British Telecom for your phone service in  the days before mobiles and broadband. If they really would prefer to go back to 1980s BT and wait many weeks for their phone line to be installed, I'd eat my hat.

Nevertheless, for some, the idea that someone is making a profit out of providing a vital service sticks in their craw. I can understand that, but only a bit. All that matters to me in these situations is the total cost and actual quality of the service. While I don't think utility type services should earn high profit margins (and some of them have been pushing their luck on this), I've never seen why I should care if part of the cost I pay is someone's profit, as long as the total price I pay is as low as it can be. I am much more agitated about an under-performing non- profit making service I rely on paying huge sums to their Chief Executives. This is the case for some local authorities, for example. I'm sorry, I can't accept poor quality and high cost just because the organisation isn't making a profit when I can see a lot of high paid individuals in a management team that I think is taking the mickey. (Polite choice of word there.... but the fact that they aren't making a profit doesn't mean that they aren't, effectively, profiting from us and ripping us off big time through their pay levels.)

And where do the profits of privatised utilities go? Into the pockets of rapacious shareholders? Substantially into pension funds actually.

So, if you think something should be totally owned and operated by the public sector and not privately operated under any circumstances I issue a challenge. Aren't you the one being dogmatic? Where is the evidence that running that particular activity in the public sector will make it better in terms of service delivery to customers and cost? I accept that some might say it would be better for the employees of the business and other stakeholders such as unions, but that surely can't be the primary concern. And, having spent around half of my career in the public sector and half in the private, mainly in former public sector enterprises, I would reject as untrue the idea that employees are happier in public sector enterprises. I have seen too much frustration in public sector teams in organisations I have belonged to and in enterprises that were customers, where the employees know things could be done better and can't get anything done about it. As a result they don't enjoy their jobs as much as they should and many end up indulging in organisational game playing rather than getting on with satisfying their customers.

However, all current evidence shows that pay levels are probably higher in the public sector, though there is an issue about like for like job weight comparison, the public sector reputedly having more higher weight jobs, though I've never seen any evidence for that. What is clear is that when the value of pensions is included, the pay levels in the public sector are much higher. (Please don't try to tell me pensions are in some way separate - they are simply deferred pay and their value should always be counted in comparisons of employment packages).

My experience trying to make former public sector companies competitive and responsive to customers was fascinating, tough and only partly successful, which I'm sure is typical. Relapses in behaviours by the teams could happen at any moment for no apparent reason, years after  change appeared to have been embedded. But I don't think this is an argument for not attempting to privatise enterprises.

It doesn't need a crystal ball or the powers of the oracle to see that taking back water, energy and rail into public hands will increase the power of the unions and decrease competition. It is very unlikely to improve service delivery and will probably increase cost in the long term, even if shareholders aren't there to take out dividends.

That's why I'm the not-for prophet. Because it's a very easy prophecy to make.

*from Traffic's song The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys from the eponymous album, released in 1971. With sound quality what it was in those days I'd always thought he sang "beans" not "dreams", which also kind of works. Either way, not the most risible lyric I sang along to - or still do!
** Alan Johnson's fascinating column on the Mail Rail was in the Sunday Times on 3 Sept 2017

Sunday, 22 October 2017

So you're saying there's a chance....

I have a reputation for speaking in song lyrics (often unintentionally, I just realise after I've said it). But sometimes it's (deliberately) dialogue from films. Both me and Mrs H will announce a discovered non-trivial problem to the other by saying "Hello Houston. We have a problem." (This is a common misquote. The actual line spoken by Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Swigert and used in the film was "Um, Houston. We've had a problem").

Another favourite comes from Dumb and Dumber, where Jim Carrey's tongue tied character says to the attractive woman:
What do you think the chances are of a girl like me and a guy like you.... ending up together?
Eliciting the icily polite response Not good.
You mean not good, like one out of a hundred?
Bringing the even cooler I'd say more like one in a million.
This response is slowly digested, Carrey's serious face breaking into a grin:
So you're saying there's a chance. Yeah!

Me parroting "So you're saying there's a chance" always makes Mrs H smile, as she knows I've recognised that, whatever dumb proposition I've just propounded, has a one in a million chance of getting her agreement.

Which brings me back to the current real dumb and dumber subject, Brexit.

What I hadn't factored in to the Brexit negotiations outlook was personal ambition. It's obviously there in the Tory machinations - Boris's scheming, the others jockeying  behind May and Corbyn's positioning based primarily on making mischief for the government rather than any principle. And dear old Nick Clegg, still hoping we exit Brexit so he can have a go at being an EU commissioner (a scurilous suggestion, I know, but am I totally on the wrong planet there?). But I hadn't considered it on the EU side.

It is being reported that Michel Barnier harbours ambitions to take over from Jean Claude Juncker as EU Commission President. This is one of the 5 EU presidents, which tells you a lot. Well, I was sure there were 5 but the EU's website now only lists 4. If they think that's a positive rationalisation, I think I despair of them even more than before.

Be that as it may, Juncker's term ends in October 2019. So if Barnier can get a deal by the time his clock stops ticking in March 2019 then he could be a candidate. Of course  it can't be a deal that influencers in the EU think is generous to the UK. But it can't be no deal either, or we'll sort everything out later, in a transition period. And it can't be less than half-baked, even if he hands over to someone else to tie up loose ends.

So, maybe there's a chance of a deal. Whether it's any bigger than Carey's one in a million chance with the woman we'll just have to wait and see. You've got to ask yourself one question. Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?

These three lines are, of course, the actual dialogue that Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry says in the eponymously titled 1971 film, after musing out loud whether he has fired five or six shots. It's often misquoted as "Do you feel lucky, punk?" Of course, Harry Callahan had only fired five shots, so the punk got blasted by the Magnum 44, "the most powerful handgun in the world". We haven't got a BATNA (see post of 20 October). Maybe we've got a Magnum? If so, I'll bet it's Walls, not Smith and Wesson. Make mine a white one. At least that won't blow my head clean off, even if we crash out with no deal.

However, now I've got Dumb and Dumber in my mind for the two chief negotiators, David Davies and Michel Barnier. It's a mental image that will take some shifting, as it's alarmingly apposite.

PS I've remembered the 5th EU President, which they don't list on their website, is the President of the European Central Bank, which I accept is a separate, defined and valid role. It's the other 4 I have a problem with, especially since the EU seems so proud to have 5 presidents, given it's press release on the five presidents' report on strengthening monetary union published in 2015. Even if I could be convinced that the other 4 were required roles, it shows such a lack of imagination in calling them all "president", doesn't it, Bruce? (A comment which will be lost on you if you have never seen the Monty Python sketch)