MARCH 15 2018

So the odious Vince Cable declares all Brexit voters to be racist and stupid in his shameful "white faces" speech.

Perhaps he should read James Bloodworth's book, "Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain" – or even just Nick Cohen's excellent review of it in The Guardian – to get a hint at how working people are treated today. Cable clearly hasn't the first clue. Even these few paragraphs from the book review give a clear insight into the motivations of many many Leave voters who believe in standing up against exploitation and abuse in all its forms. Shame on you, Cable.

Nick Cohen wrote: "Immigration and class are now inseparable subjects. By Bloodworth’s account, the native working class has respectable reasons to worry about mass migration. The recruitment agencies that supplied eastern Europeans to Amazon warned their workers that, if they made a fuss about their conditions, there was a reserve army of their fellow countrymen ready to take their place. Bloodworth and his colleagues made about £250 a week. The average weekly wage in Romania was a little over £100. One migrant told Bloodworth he worked like an animal and was a nobody in the UK. But in Romania he would be a nobody without enough to eat.

"Bloodworth argues it is progress that most British workers will not take jobs from employers who treat them like animals. He does not want to lionise migrants for putting up with intolerable conditions. Instead, he takes a nice swipe at stereotypical reactions to migration. The average eastern European meets two types of people in England: “those who wanted you to go home and those who wrote letters to liberal newspapers waxing colourfully about how wonderful and hardworking you were”.

"The point is that no one should have to work in the conditions Bloodworth experienced. This is an easy sentence to write. But if we were to build a society where its sentiments were made a reality, every reader would have to accept paying more for the goods and services they now receive at bargain rates. Even from a selfish point of view, I think it a price worth paying. Jason Moyer-Lee of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain warns at the end of this book that, if we do not stop the mistreatment of Uber drivers and Deliveroo riders, one day everyone could wake up to find their employment rights gone.

"It feels wrong to say that it is a pleasure to read Bloodworth when he is describing the true location of poverty in Britain, which is not among the allegedly workshy, but in the lives of the women at checkouts and the men packing boxes for 30 hours one week and two the next. That said, the element of pleasure or at least satisfaction cannot be denied. For Bloodworth is the best young leftwing writer Britain has produced in years. And it is not only the exploited who are lucky to have him."

MARCH 2 2018

Here are my notes from a speech I gave to an FT Conference on education and recruitment in about 2011. It's in note form but I think it gives the gist. It didn't go down well with the head of Universities UK, also on the panel of speakers. But just look at the mess we're in now.

MY NOTES

Based on: Anecdote, facts and figures, observations of recruitment sector and personal beliefs. And experience.

Facts and figures.

  • 1960 – 50,000 applicants for 20,000 places. / Today 730,000 for 490,000. 25x

  • Unemployment is 8 per cent. But 18-24 year olds = 18 per cent.

16-24 – it’s 20.3 per cent. This is DANGEROUS.

  • Nov – Ernst and Young – rush for places – 4,500 grads going for 700 places on training programme.

  • totaljobs.com research:

        • 38 per cent graduates claimed jobseekers allowance since leaving university.

        • 37 per cent of those for more than 6 months.

        • 44 per cent saying university not equipped them for world of work (well-should it?).

        • 24 per cent would not recommend it. Shocking.

  • Richard Lambert – welcomed 10,000 work experience places ie NOT jobs.

  • But High Fliers research shows 6 per cent fewer grad vacancies at the large recruiters than in 2007 – with growing numbers of grads.

So how to get a job?

  • FreshMinds Talent study emphasised importance of work experience.

        • Says 90 per cent of its candidates making top-tier companies have had extensive work experience.

        • 75 per cent of its FTSE 250 clients are asking for 6 months W-Exp as a pre-requisite.

        • Also – employers are favouring graduates who have done a year’s work and are now looking to move – at cost of new graduates.

  • Lead headline in yesterday’s Metro – “Jobless urged to work for free”. Unpaid training or volunteering.

  • Forcing new graduates to intern for ever. Demanding ever greater work experience

  • How did we get into this mess?

How it started…

  • Someone dreamed up idea of lots more universities – then a target of 50 per cent of school leavers going to university.

  • Not achieved – but nearly there – partly by re-badging CFEs and Polytechnics, which did an excellent job on more practical and vocational courses.

  • So universities needed to take more students? Commercialised – businesses – to encourage them to take more - student heads carrying a value.

  • Numbers grew. Old grant system couldn’t cope with numbers. So start charging fees.

  • But had to be done via loans – so who puts money up front? And not paid back for at least 3, 4, 5 years – or never.

  • Government wants to give less support, so demands more from students. Fees go up – but then so does amount needing to be loaned. To make this palatable - needs higher interest rates – and even penalties for early payment etc.

  • And so we get to £9,000 a year.

  • What a mess…..

Results…

1. University explosion – disaster. Courses that fitted well in flexible CFE colleges look ridiculous as three-year university degree courses. Some sound like little more than training. A 3-week training course in using a software package stretched to three years of media studies.

2. Loss of sight of what universities are for – Learning for its own sake. Academia. Never even thought about a job at LSE in the 70s. Now more “training” and universities are businesses…

ZeFrank – LA blogger – recent cover feature – Argued both ways – for and against university – saying in an era of instant and constant access to information, what could universities offer? “Students are expected to perform redundant tasks in exams with artificial restrictions on access to information – learning to live with inefficiency rather than to challenge it.” Saying outdated.

But he also says it is where we learn essential survival skills. “learn to spell in case the spell-check stops working; learn to use the library in case Google goes down; learn to appreciate the classics in case a boss mentions one at a party; learn basic maths in case your accountant is a cheat”

It’s also about making contacts/friends and having a good time – nothing wrong with that.

But at what cost? We’ve introduced value for money

  • Debt culture – I’m low church on this = plain evil. Ghastly message.

Debt is a gamble you’ll be able to repay.

But gambling seems to be OK too – eg Sky ads offering starter packs.

  • Debt and gambling go hand in hand - and are diseases – and if you’ve known an addict, you’ll know what I mean. Wrecks lives, relationships.

  • We are, remember, living with the mess left by a massive debt bubble bursting.

  • Debts don’t seem to diminish… Talk to people in this room – Becs etc.

  • Elsewhere – Scotland and Wales. Not like US – where prepare for 18 years. More expensive than Europe. World’s worst?

  • We had a review. Lord Browne – laziest ever? Just charge more.

        • No analysis of what students actually pay for (Professors writing books and lecture tours subsidised by students

        • No look at course lengths - could be two years – I did 90 weeks (less in reality.) Oxbridge = 72.

        • No look at pre-payment – earning credits during school/gap year

So is it worth it?

“A university education resulting in debts of £30,000-£40,000 is astonishingly bad value. Why pay so much to spend three or more years memorising facts and theories, and performing tasks that the internet has already made redundant - and that might never be called upon again for the rest of that student's life? Apart from those seeking a vocational qualification in science, medicine, the law etc, it will surely be folly for a student to choose university.”

  • At that price there must be better ways of spending three years.

  • At that price only those confident of high pay will apply. “Study” will die.

  • Reduced attraction means employers already looking at school leavers. KPMG 6-year scheme.

What do employers want?

Plethora of graduates = good and bad for employers. “Universality of skill-sets”.

  • So recruiting on character, personality and cultural fit - teach the rest.

  • They moan about talent shortage. But self-imposed. (See Thursday) – in order to de-select as many as possible.

  • No good going to campuses (or digital marketing, fliers etc) etc with unrealistic pre-conditions and then complaining.

  • They want “oven-ready workers” – but chicken and egg – young people need experience to become “workers”. But why should they? Why not accept them for what they are – and their potential – and develop them?

To do otherwise is to see employers interfering in study. Blurring academia and training for work.

NOVEMBER 17 2017

What am I against?
  • I am against sweat shops.
  • I am against exploitation.
  • I am against inequality and injustice.
  • I am against racism.
  • I am against religious dogma.
  • I am against gambling and debt.
  • I am against unearned income (and that includes absurd levels of executive pay).
  • I am against greed, selfishness and impatience.
  • I am against pitting the workers of one country against those of another in a fight for jobs.
  • I am against statebenefits needing to be paid to people actually in work (ie - businesses on benefits).
  • I am against zero hours contracts.
  • I am against mis-selling a vision of their futures to our children.
  • I am against global warming.
  • I am against goods being transported thousands of miles.
  • I am against rabid and pointless consumption and a culture of consumerism.
  • I am against a throw-away culture that sees goods go from sweat shop to recycling bin in a matter of weeks.
  • I am against oceans full of plastic.
  • I am against the rampant destruction of countryside.
  • I am against everything (homes, hospitals schools, universities, public services) being turned into businesses and markets.
  • I am against the biggest migration of peoples the world has ever seen – and its catastrophic consequences.
  • I am against globalisation that turns the whole planet into one giant market.
  • I am against a world that is treated as a playground in which big business is allowed to run riot.
  • I am against tax dodgers and "financialisation" (read Rana Foroohar's book "Makers and Takers")
  • I am against every important decision being made to facilitate "business".
  • I am against many many more things, too....
What do I favour?
  • I favour localism.
  • I favour seasons.
  • I favour clean oceans.
  • I favour popular democracy.
  • I favour businesses run for the benefit of society, not their owners and agents.
  • I favour saying "enough".
  • I favour fairness, justice.
  • I favour the opposite of all of my "againsts" (where applicable).
  • I favour many many more things, too...
So why did I vote to leave the EU?

Never-ending "economic growth" - the only measure of "success" today - is simultaneously a physical impossibility, the direct cause of the gradual destruction of the planet, and the pathetic justification for global greed and consumerism. Britain has often been a proud leader of global changes – the industrial revolution, parliamentary democracy, etc. It can lead again – against the trend of business-led globalisation and cheap, poisonous consumerism, towards a cleaner, sustainable, localised culture that indulges more in leisure and pleasure and less in rubbish and consumption. That means plotting a new path – away from globalisation and consumption, and ever freer trade and pollution – towards sustainability, shorter supply lines, seasonality, and a whole new way of thinking and living. Being the first to leave a huge free trade area that fosters, promotes and encourages many of the things I am against would be a start. (Even though the motivations of most right-wing Leave voters were to achieve precisely the opposite!)


AUGUST 24 2017

So much foolishness reported in one day:

1. Provident Financial is in trouble with its sub-prime loan book. Surprise, surprise. The first small domino in the next financial meltdown is starting to topple. This follows years of failing to deal with the last meltdown, thanks to a complete misunderstanding of the forces at work.

2. The idiot president of France (who many, quite bafflingly, call a "centrist" when he is anything but) now admits that eastern European workers are damaging employment equilibrium in the "wealthy west". His fellow EU leaders will be shocked to hear this, as they have been denying this oh-so-obvious phenomenon for years – at enormous cost to workforces across the continent.

3. The madness of Mrs Merkel is now seen starkly in the misery of the Libyan holding centres for African and Asian economic migrants. The EU's various policies that encourage migrants to risk their lives at sea is criminally insane. Do EU leaders think this is some sort of game? "Cross the Med and claim your prize!" The Australian solution looks far less cruel when you come face to face with the filthy consequences of "trying to be nice".

4. And all this to the backdrop of the vile Trump creature's joke presidency; the UK's "dog's breakfast" approach to Brexit; the top exam grade now being a Nine; and Jon Snow rightly pointing out in his lecture that hardly anyone working in the media today has even the slightest experience of what austerity means to the UK's deprived and forgotten millions.

It makes you want to weep.

JUNE 3 2017

LET GRAYSON PERRY RUN THE COUNTRY

Grayson Perry's brilliance was again demonstrated in "Divided Britain" a programme he made for Channel 4, in which he created two large pots, one decorated with images representing the hopes and way of life of "remainers" and the other the "leavers". It took an artistic and intellectual genius to achieve what he achieved – two almost identical vases.

The most telling moments, apart from the warm embraces between the "opposing camps" at the end, came with the realisation that in the 2016 referendum everyone, in reality, voted the same way – to protect the way of life they have, desire, or fear they are losing. And the way of life that everyone wants, at least in Perry's sample, appears to be pretty much the same.

The stark differences only appear when the extreme complexities of life in Britain are reduced to a simple binary question and the population is divided into those who already have the way of life they want, and those who don't or who see theirs disappearing.

In one scene, Perry spoke to a typical group of well-to-do metropolitan young mum's at a yoga class – all naturally fervent and unquestioning "remainers". In the programme's most daramatic moment, one expressed deep regret at how little she understood of other people's plight and feelings in her own country – she even said she felt ashamed at the realisation.

Treating everyone with complete respect, dignity and good humour, Perry got to the heart of what matters and illustrated how little difference there really is in what we want – but how great the differences are in what we have.


MAY 25 2017

A REAL LABOUR MANIFESTO

I was called "a socialist" at a dinner party recently. It was said in tones that were as accusatorial as is decent during an otherwise convivial evening. But, to me, it came as quite a relief and a back-handed compliment. I have always equated socialism with caring about the weak and deprived in society, about social justice and fairness, sharing and co-operating, working together for something better. But with age, increasing material comfort and a growing frustration and cynicism towards political orthodoxy, I had become concerned that my own views were less clearly "socialist" in nature. Thankfully, when put to the test, it appears they are not.

More importantly, why can the Labour Party not find a "socialist" solution to its pathetic floundering in the shallows of UK politics? There is a glaring chasm into which it could march, as torch bearer for the underprivileged, the forgotten and the victims of unfettered market forces and globalisation. Perhaps its leadership already sees the party in that role. Few others do, really.

I offer here, therefore, the brief outline of a Labour manifesto that deals with the world as it is and that would reconnect the party with the millions of people it has deserted in favour of doctrine and woolly wishful thinking.

Vitally, Labour must seize the Brexit debate rather than stand bleating at the edges, swaying this way and that. Without a Labour presence, the arguments are dominated by the combined ultra-conservative forces of Leavist Tories, markets, big business, finance and the economy. This leaves the bulk of the population unrepresented and Labour failing in its purpose.

There is, in fact, a very strong socialist case to be made for Brexit – it was what earned me my dinner party accolade – yet Labour is almost silent on the subject, leaving the field clear for odious types such as Farage, and for far more dangerous types across the Atlantic and Channel. Brexit is real and Labour needs to have a policy, an approach, something to question the right-wing nationalist free marketeers who will de-regulate whatever they can and leave working people facing all the handicaps that weighed down on them before.

The case: markets and globalisation are not inherently bad – but become very bad and very dangerous when uncontrolled and operating on a "winner-take-all" basis, as my former FT boss Sir Richard Lambert warned in 2012 (see items below). He, as I had been doing for some years, was warning of the rise of the right – now all too apparent. Completely free markets are very dangerous devices indeed: for a start, they are completely amoral. Only the welter of social and employment legislation slowly introduced over recent centuries – and now, extraordinarily, being rolled back in the UK – reined in its worst excesses and abuses and today only a mad person would advocate trusting a totally free market to deliver anything other than brutality to many on one hand and vast riches to a few on the other. Similarly, the opposite extreme – state corporatism and controlled markets – as experimented with in the Soviet Bloc and elsewhere, is equally unpalatable and equally ruthless.

Today's politics are therefore all about how, and to what extent, business, markets and finance are regulated, controlled and tamed to do the bidding of the whole of a society, rather than enriching a few. The right-wing view is that minimal control frees businesses to flourish and enrich the whole of society via the mythological (and absurd) notion of "trickle-down". The domination of society by big business to the point we have reached today, where politicians are of only marginal relevance, ensures that this is the prevailing view and is the main driving force behind the right-wing anti-EU movement. The alternative pro-EU right-wing view is that free access to nearby markets matters more – but both cases assume the first priority is to give business what it wants. The differences occur because big business, markets and finance want more than one thing. The referendum debate was essentially an argument between these two rightist camps.

The left, Labour, "socialism", stood bemused and isolated on the sidelines, failing to understand the underlying philosophies, and said nothing of the slightest consequence.

So where does this leave left-wing, socialist, Labour ideals and policies now?

First, Labour has to come to terms with the fact that it was never part of the Remain-Leave debate. Second, it has to accept that the Leave argument prevailed and that it has to adapt. Third, it must ask why millions of instinctive Labour voters ended up supporting a right-wing, "deregulationist", free market movement, quite probably against their own interests. And fourth, it must write a manifesto that will persuade them back. The overwhelming dominance of the right-wing agenda requires at least some questioning and countering, and a coherent Labour opposition is needed now more than at any time I can remember. Instead, we have nothing.

It could be some time before Labour even reaches the first of my four steps to recovery. But let us hope that it can accept points One and Two and reaches the difficult question regarding its natural constituency. And this is all about employment – or "dead-end jobs for peanuts", as it might be summed up. Many economists have declared the rise in employment, coupled with stagnating wages and falling productivity, a mystery. But study this enigma from the native workforce's view and you see how extending unfettered competition for jobs across the whole of Europe cuts their wages and stifles productivity. Naturally, business loves it – a cheap, plentiful labour force working with low technology brings huge payroll savings and reduces spending on research, investment and modernisation. Companies' standards have plummeted to the point where one employer was reported as not even bothering to advertise jobs in a new plant in the UK – it went straight to the cheap, exploitable labour markets of eastern Europe, claiming local people were lazy and not interested in working. One look at the job description made it crystal clear why no self-respecting local would want to work there. Other employers have demeaned existing staff, threatening them with replacement by eastern Europeans if they fail to toe the line. Worse still, migrant workers, prepared to operate in dangerous conditions, have lost their lives as safety standards are undermined.

And of course, the hard-working reputation of eastern European immigrants is nonsensical. Only those with sufficient energy and gumption arrive in the UK and, when here, are enthusiastic and diligent. However, they quickly respond to the way they are treated and attitudes and motivation become indistinguishable from the native labour force – a piece of research on the subject (by the University of Bath) puts this disillusionment period at about two years.

So why does Labour not speak up on behalf of the newly uncompetitive native workforce, or indeed the exploited youngsters from eastern Europe on poorly paid (by what used to be UK standards) zero-hours contracts? Or even the communities in Poland, Romania and elsewhere suffering the loss of their brightest youngsters who arrive in the UK to work in bars and restaurants or in hospitals and on building sites? Why leave the field open for UKIP? These are real issues that affect working people. They understand it only too well and, given the chance to express their pain, did so in the referendum.

Yet Labour sided with business. It's easy to blame Corbyn and his allies for their internationalist focus, but they are not the whole party. The rest must wake up and provide a voice for those natural Labour supporters who voted Leave and to whom the UKIP message makes perfect sense, based on their everyday experiences.

The referendum did indeed produce the strangest of alliances. The millions voting for change did so with many different ideas, hopes and motivations – from right-wing nationalist, deregulationist Tories to neglected and angry workers reduced to accepting "dead-end jobs for peanuts". These workers are the people who NEED Labour now. They need the valuable social and employment legislation that has come from the EU, often against the wishes of the UK's business-first governments of the past 40 years, to be kept and enhanced. The threat from a right-wing government is that much of the good that came from the EU will eventually be thrown away at the behest of business and finance.

The corporate world is obviously worried about a drying up of its ready supply of cheap labour to fill its many downgraded jobs. It fears that restricting mass population movements from east to west will increase the power of the workforce to demand better pay and treatment. It is worried that it will have to pay wages that enable employees to secure a mortgage, eat out occasionally, take a holiday – all the things that even the Just About Managing middle classes (and above) still take for granted. To meet these fears, Labour has to grasp the fact that there is now a global rate for a job and a local rate for a job. UK businesses offshoring their work to cheap labour markets have been setting new – and very low – benchmarks for "the rate for the job". Now, with mass migration and porous borders, offshoring no longer becomes necessary as those cheap labour markets arrive on the doorstep.

Facing up to the reality of how mass migration has transformed the employment landscape, distorting the supply and demand equilibrium, would enable Labour to re-engage with its natural constituency. Arguing that limits to population shifts will leave hospitals, the hospitality sectors, agriculture, construction and many other sectors short of workers is, of course, a nonsense. First, because some movement of people from the EU will continue, just as it always has for people from outside the EU. The UK has significant communities from almost every country in the world living and working here, mostly to the benefit of all. Why would that change? Second, because importing cheap workers and exploiting them harms both them, the communities from which they come, and leaves the local labour force unable to compete for the jobs they once had without reducing their living standards to those that migrant workers are prepared to accept. The only winner is business.

On the other hand, where strong unions still exist, for example in the railways sector, jobs that had become hard to fill – such as train driving – are vastly over-subscribed because the pay and conditions are now very good. Local workers would be queuing up for jobs if they were restored, offering good pay and conditions, decent treatment and respect? If nurses' pay rates, or sandwich-makers' salaries began at £50,000, and they were treated as respected professionals, would we still have problems recruiting native staff?

This would, of course, make such jobs even more attractive to migrant job-seekers, which us why the EU's desperate clinging to the principle of "free movement of people" is a logical absurdity in a community of nations that has been knocked completely out of equilibrium. It would also, of course, need paying for. But the UK is a very rich country. Sadly, swathes of it have grown selfish and greedy and are not prepared - or able- to pay the going rate for anything.

This is where the Labour case, the Socialist case, must be focused: a new social contract advocating a more equal society; a society that pays the going rate; a society that improves the lot of the many at the marginal expense of the few; a society that kicks its addiction to "something-for-nothing", gambling, materialism and rabid consumption. But it can only do this by acknowledging and understanding the issues that are affecting its constituency.     


FEBRUARY 8 2017

THE NEED TO TACKLE THE HOUSING FINANCE CRISIS

I discussed the question of Britain's housing "crisis" in my 2011/12 business school lectures on the rise of big business and executive pay (see JULY 9 2016, below, as the month I added it to this blog). So it inevitably makes me weep to listen to Sajiv Javid, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, introducing measures to tackle this "broken market" when he clearly has not the first clue as to the nature of the problem.

Radio 4's "You and Yours" programme of February 7 2017 on housing provided plenty of clues about the reality on the ground, as caller after caller agreed there were plenty of houses to buy – but none that they could afford. The "crisis" we keep hearing about in the UK is obviously not one of supply but of finance and it is equally obvious that building 1m, 2m, or 10m new homes will make barely a scrap of difference unless the financial crisis is tackled. It makes as much sense as arguing that building more lanes on to the M25 will end south-east England's traffic jams.

As outlined in the lecture below (under JULY 2016), low interest rates are the primary cause of rapidly rising house prices. Even in the 1990s, when the UK population was static and births were running at below replacement levels, prices were soaring, thanks to low interest rates. This is because it is the mortgage rate that governs the level of monthly repayments, which is the figure in the equation that matters – the headline price is merely a reflection of what people can afford to pay each month. The snag is that while monthly mortgage repayments are still roughly in line with private sector rents, or lower, the initial deposit required to secure a mortgage is out of reach of a large proportion of first-time buyers – because prices are so high.

This was far less of an issue before the banks' recklessness and greed crashed the economy – they were happy to forgo a deposit and lend 100 per cent, or even more, of the purchase price. A fool's paradise if ever there was one. One of the "more responsible" post-crash lending policies imposed on the banks was the re-introduction of deposits which, after the years of deposit-free lending had pushed up prices even further, leaving potential borrowers locked out.

The state of the market is complicated by many factors, including: the treatment of property as more of an investment than a home; the huge number of properties standing empty; the vast number of second – and third – homes; the short-term market manipulation by developers sitting on banks of land with planning permission; the focus of developers on pressing to build on green field sites where they can maximise profits; the power of the developers' lobby to hijack the debate; an adversarial planning system; increasing housing demand from mass inward migration and the resultant steep population growth (although to mention this is taboo); also "house-blocking" by an ageing population delaying downsizing; and a confusion of the terms "housing demand", "housing need", and "housing desire". Most of these are also financial factors.

Why, then, is the government seeking to tackle a complex housing finance problem with a housing supply solution? The trap we have fallen into, caused by low interest rates, is not an easy one from which to escape without causing terrible and widespread pain. But compare the probable impact on house prices of building 1m houses in the next four years with a mortgage rate rise to 6 per cent or 10 per cent – levels that, until recently, were pretty standard. The first initiative would satisfy developers and do very little to prices; the second would see a repossessions epidemic and big reductions in prices.

Those are the two main choices facing policymakers – so is it any wonder they always choose the first, and hopeless, option? It gives the appearance of taking action but changes nothing. The only real, practical actions that can be taken without seriously hurting existing mortgage holders involve dealing with the many complications – such as taxing empty houses into use, forcing developers to build once planning permission is granted, shifting economic assistance to areas with excess housing, building units for the elderly to ease them out of larger homes and ease the social care/NHS beds crisis, etc etc. None of these can overcome the central issue of the interest rate/house price equation but might help in other ways and mitigate against some of the worst effects of a rise in interest rates which, when it eventually comes, could be devastating – and will be beyond the scope of policymakers to control.


FEBRUARY 7 2017

TRUMP-MARES

For the record: the stuff that the usual shouters are shouting about (Trump's travel bans, use of torture etc) is bad, of course, but what really threatens global stability are two far greater things: Trump's planned dismantling of the financial regulations that have averted anything worse than a few crashes and recessions since the war; and his weak and unstable personality that will make sensible long-term diplomacy almost impossible.

Of these, the second will create a succession of international crises that, with luck, wiser heads will be able to resolve. The first, however, will unleash the ruthless and amoral forces of finance, markets and business which, when they collapse again, will result in a deep slump/depression, dwarfing the little banking crash from which we are still suffering. More immediately, it displays a touching faith by Trump supporters in the idiotic concept of "trickle down". This will, in time, infuriate the blue-collar workers who gave Trump his chance as they see billionaires enriching themselves while they suffer increasing exploitation.

We can only hope the men in white coats are ready to administer the necessary injections when things reach maximum crisis point....


NOVEMBER 9 2016

AND STILL NOBODY LISTENS

If the right people learn the lessons of the recent poll results around the world, then a Trump presidency – if we survive it – could be a wonderful thing. Sadly, the omens are not good. As some of us have been saying for two decades – Joe Rogaly and Charles Handy are two people I particularly admire in this area – a world run by business, for business, inevitably produces inequality, injustice, waste, misery and hatred and will generate a backlash. Globalisation and the unfettered rise of pointless financial services (in truth, gambling) brought about the painfully predictable meltdown of 2007-8 which, instead of being seen as a warning by the establishment, was treated as an aberration to be “cured” so that the whole pantechnicon could rumble along again towards its next precipice.

In lectures I gave in 2011 on levels of executive pay, I charted the course of the rise of all-powerful businesses (see “July 9 2016”, below) and said at the time: “Fairness DOES matter. It comes back to our instinct for cheating. You can get away with a bit of self-interest at the expense of the group – but only up to a point. And while everything was going well and we all had gadgets and holidays and lots of eating out, no one cared too much. But that’s changing. A lot of people are becoming worse off, some losing their jobs, their benefits, their homes.

“And this makes having 'an unfair advantage' matter a lot and so we see the social group reacting to deal with the 'cheats'. The Occupy movement, rioting – and even shareholder 'revolts', as at Trinity Mirror, AstraZeneca, Aviva and now WPP. We are also seeing a mass movement towards very nasty right-wing political parties, for example in France and Greece – an obvious refuge for the discarded and disregarded.

“As my old boss Richard Lambert, former FT editor, said recently in the FT: 'Public support for free markets is based on two broad arguments. The first is that they deliver more efficient outcomes than the alternatives. The second is that over time they create increased prosperity for society at large. Both these assumptions have taken a severe jolt in the past few years. It may be that capitalism is approaching some kind of tipping point, away from the winner takes all culture of the past three decades. If left unchecked, public disquiet will sooner or later bring a political response.'

“Notions of fairness and cheating matter a great deal.”

And so we now have a Trump presidency – surely the stupidest-sounding man (during the campaign, at least) ever to hold an important office of state. And the extraordinary irony is that the public's disquiet in the US has been expressed via a member of that very ruling business clique. But how else could it be expressed? Better Trump than a country in flames, perhaps?

But now we risk a whole world in flames because the warnings about the real dangers continue to go unheeded. The global dangers are real. The damage a reckless US president could do are infinite.

What has to happen now – though I very much doubt it will – is that the lessons that democracy keeps throwing in our faces are actually acknowledged, understood and acted upon. The lessons are that globalised business is not satisfying vast swathes of the world's populations. Shame on anyone who blames the electorate or democracy for creating this situation. And shame on the establishment media, which has for far too long relied on so-called "experts", who know very little, and which has failed to connect with the people feeling - and suffering - the real effects of a world run by and for business (see Brexit debate, below, for examples).  

We can do something about it. More likely,however, the lessons and dangers will not be understood or appreciated and we will change nothing. More and more extreme individuals and political movements will be voted in to power around the world by electorates that know things are not right but have no other way of expressing their anger. Where this might lead is what should really concern us.

 

JULY 30

I know it's hard for the generations brought up in the "age of business" to perceive of anyone making choices based on anything other than self-interest, but this does not excuse their displays of glee at reports of pension funds being hit by the Brexit vote and that the old Leave voters are "getting what's coming to them". Suggesting that this proves "the link between age and wisdom is broken" is completely wrong: in fact, it is precisely the opposite. Voting against your own narrow economic self-interest because there are far greater issues at stake that affect everyone else is the very essence of wisdom.  

 

JULY 29

If you've ever asked the question "What is the EU actually for?" then I commend to you a piece by Frank Furedi. Read it here: A Project With No Name

or cut and paste this into a browser if that link doesn't work: http://www.spiked-online.com/spiked-review/article/a-project-with-no-name-brexit/18591#.V5szG7grLy1    

It cleverly explains why - and this puzzled me during the referendum debate - anyone daring to ask questions of the EU was instantly branded a right-wing racist nationalist xenophobe, even when they were patently the opposite. It also explains why virtually nothing positive came from the Remain camp during the whole campaign. It's one of the most interesting and intellectually sound pieces I've read on the subject and is certainly in line with my experience and thinking (as reflected in writings below).

The key points Furedi makes are that the EU has failed to find a raison d'etre since the end of the Cold War beyond that of "economics" and that it has had to create purposes for itself while relying on merely the "implicit consent" of the European people for its grand schemes. This lack of real purpose, allied to PR campaigns that label its critics as right-wing racists and the pursuit of extreme integrationist policies has had the dangerous and disastrous consequence of fuelling a huge rise in nasty right-wing parties across the continent. They are a direct product of ill-thought-through EU behaviours. A change of direction is desperately overdue and with the EU hierarchy not even prepared to accept minor reforms, the Brexit vote here - and similar votes elsewhere - have become inevitable. As has a lurch to the right, unless something is done. But read Furedi's piece, he puts it all very eloquently.


JULY 13 2016

If Theresa May really believes in her “business's role in society” speech and acts upon it effectively, it would make her the most left-wing British prime minister since Attlee. That's a very big “if” - and she carries plenty of “nasty party” baggage with her. And sadly, business will not allow it - what business says, goes. But on the face of it, in one speech she might have seized the radical non-socialist left-wing agenda that could and should have been the popular platform for a resurgent Nick Clegg.

JULY 12 2016

Here's an experiment based on a brilliant “Occupy Democrats” video, being circulated on Facebook:

Would you please raise you hand if you would be happy to be treated in the same way unskilled migrant labour is treated in the UK. How many of you reading this would be happy to swap places? If you have your hand up, you must be either a liar, a fool or haven't understood the proposition. If you don't have your hand up, then you must KNOW about the level of exploitation these people are prepared to put up with – but do you feel a need to do anything about it? I quote the words of Jane Elliot, the extraordinary former US teacher and anti-racism activist, who challenged members of a white audience to stand if they would be prepared to tolerate the treatment meted out to black people by American society (and not a single person stood). She said: “That says very plainly that you know what's happening; you know you don't want it for you. I wanna know why you're so willing to accept or to allow it to happen for others.”

Exploited workers endure these conditions because they might be a lot better than anything they can find at home. And this is how developing world working practices have become increasingly widespread in the UK, as downward pressure on standards and pay puts into reverse so many of the advances made over the past century. We could ask the five Gambian-Spanish labourers working hard for their minimum wage at a Birmingham recycling centre, where health and safety concerns had been raised in the past, how they feel about it. But a wall collapsed on them on July 7 and they died.

Of course, globalisation in recent decades has brought about a reshaping of global labour, with expertise gathering in "hotspots" and unskilled work heading for where labour is cheapest (NOTE ADDED 18-7-16: see Philip Aldrick's excellent article in The Times, 16-7-2016 on this very subject and in which he points out that even President Kennedy in the 1960s was aware of the issues and warned that measures needed to be taken to mitigate against its worst effects). But EU-wide “free exploitation of labour” - let's call it what it really is - involves pitching the workforces of one country directly against another. There are EU rules that aim to protect workers but this merely makes it the equivalent of a lightly regulated cockfight. EU employment legislation barely touches the real-world issues unskilled workers face – what use have they for maternity/paternity rights, working time directives, temporary worker legislation, etc etc when they are desperate to be included in that day's work gang, working on zero hours contracts, in dangerous environments untouched by health and safety, and paid a minimum wage – if they're lucky.

People have, of course, always been free to move, subject to sensible safeguards. The UK hosts significant communities from almost every country in the world. Migrant labour has been and should always be welcome as long as it meets a need and does not undermine hard-won UK working conditions and standards. As I say in my Referendum reply to Frank Brierley (see June 22, below), those needs would be greatly reduced were the UK and its businesses to take proper responsibility for training and skills, and to treat those that it trains sufficiently well to keep them from disappearing off to countries such as Australia. Ending the logical absurdity that is “free movement” will not prevent any business from moving its employees into or out of the UK or from recruiting skills from anywhere it finds them; it simply means there will be safeguards – amounting in most cases to straightforward paperwork – to prevent the sort of exploitation outlined above. Unchecked, we will eventually come to see this “freedom” to be as noxious as the irresponsible lending that led to the 2007 banking collapse – about which there had also been plenty of prior warnings.  


JULY 11 2016

Would you BELIEVE it. For years and years - decades even - I've been waiting for someone in power to listen to the warnings that I and plenty of higher profile minds than mine have been issuing regarding the role of business in society, its behaviour and its drivers. Then finally, after we vote to leave the EU, Theresa May, UK prime minister in waiting, comes out and says in today's Times, almost word for word, what I (and others) have been saying for so long (see the next item, below, in this "blog"). Perhaps if anyone had cared to listen to the obvious - and had had the courage to act on it - BEFORE the referendum vote, things might now be very different, both in the UK and in the EU.

JULY 9 2016

This is a piece written from notes I used to give a short series of lectures in late 2011 and early 2012. The ideas were those I had been carrying - and expressing to anyone who cared to listen - for a couple of decades, based on learning and watching the world from the vantage point of the Financial Times' editorial department. It's obviously a little dated in some of the detail and I've largely resisted the temptation to update it with the benefit of hindsight. But I think it relevant to today's debate and that it was one of many warnings given about the state of UK capitalism, business and society that has finally led to a series of predictable, and predicted, popular protests. It's also very long. And way down below it are some related thoughts on the 2016 referendum.

For nearly 27 years I worked as a journalist at the Financial Times, watching the world change and trying to make sense of it.

I enjoyed several different roles there – from editing on the main news desk to being deputy editor of Weekend FT, editing a section on technology and ending with nearly four years editing the weekly Executive Appointments supplement and the FT’s Non-Executive Directors’ Club website. I took early retirement on February 28 2014 and have since gained yet another perspective on the debate over business, executive pay and related issues.

So what do I know about how hard it is to run a big company? I’ve never run one. Departments, yes. But not a large business.

But I think if you asked someone who HAS actually done it, you would get a very one-sided, biased point of view. As the quotation goes: “It is incredible what a person can believe when their salary depends on it.”

When I first gave this lecture in November 2011, I had a couple of helpful criticisms – that I was being political, and there were not enough statistics.

Well, it remains political – because I don’t think there is anywhere near enough politics around these days. And there aren’t many stats because I’m dealing in ideas, not figures. Our lives have been run too long by figures – and look where they have got us.

I think journalists, as professional observers and analysts are in as good a position as anyone to provide an impartial and informed outsider’s view. And I should stress that all the views expressed below are my own. Although they were formed while working at the FT, the FT is a broad church. Some at the FT might broadly agree with me, others will not. But I always speak as an individual.

So – to the questions of business and leadership. I believe you can only make sense of where we are today by looking back at where we’ve come from – and we'll take that trip shortly.

■ ■■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■

But first…. Just how hard is it to run a large company? Let us look at how some have done:

  • In 1985, Coca-Cola launched New Coke – it was a complete disaster and had to be withdrawn almost immediately. No one wanted it.

  • Cerberus Capital Management investors took a $7.4bn stake in Chrysler, the car maker. The following year it collapsed.

  • When Royal Bank of Scotland took over ABN Amro it was another disaster – described as “value-destruction on an epic scale”.

  • And of course we had Enron, the US energy company – some of its leaders ended up in jail.

  • More recently, in the Mexican Gulf, BP didn’t do too great a job handling a giant oil spill.

  • Closer to home – HomeServe, the emergency plumber and electrician had to suspend its telesales after fears of mis-selling its products.

  • And NPower was fined millions for mishandling complaints.

  • G4S, the security company, had to back out of buying a Danish rival company – because the chief executive misread the mood of the market. The failure cost £50m. And that's to say nothing of its contribution to security at the London 2012 Olympics.

  • And as customers of large companies, we see the shambles every day – someone from British Gas came to my house a while ago to fix a valve. On the first visit, the engineer had no valves on his van. Then when he came back, he managed to lose power to the whole hot water and central heating system.

At every level, history is littered with examples of not-so-great leadership. Yet someone is supposed to be running these businesses – and they are being paid a fortune to do it. In my view, it is simply not good enough for a chief executive to say “I can’t know everything,” because they set the culture – and the incentives – for their staff. They DO control everything. The buck stops at the top. And I haven't even mentioned the banks.

Much of the time it hurts few people other than the business itself and its shareholders if a concern messes up. But in the case of the banks being run badly, it matters to everyone. Their failure has macro-economic effects. Tesco (with a market capitalisation roughly similar to Barclays Bank at the time of writing) can go bust and not cause widespread disaster. Suppliers will be hurt, staff and shareholders - and customers might have to go a bit further for their groceries. It would be messy but the impact would be limited.

But if Barclays goes bust people’s money disappears. As Andrew Haldane, a director of the Bank of England, said in a Wincott lecture: “The risks from banking are now widely spread throughout society but the returns to bankers are held privately and very narrowly.” Of course, in 2014, Barclays is still in and out of court facing fines for its market behaviour in previous years.

We could go on – the list of extraordinary failures is endless. Yet we are supposed to have the world's very best people running these businesses. At least that's what we're paying for – that's how they justify their sky-high salaries.

There might, of course, be an argument for saying that entrepreneurs who have created and invented things – people such as Richard Branson, James Dyson – even the annoying Alan Sugar – can be said to have earned a decent reward. We could argue over how much.

But we have reached the point where simple managers, who have created or invented nothing, enjoy fabulous wealth – no matter how badly they perform.

Chief executives have surrounded themselves in mystique; they have even created a cult of minor – and in some cases major – celebrity. Which is simply laughable. Most men would like to be photographed with their arm around the model Kate Moss, I'm sure – but how sad and foolish does Philip Green look doing it in the “celebrity” columns?

Lord Turner – Adair Turner – came to breakfast at the FT and he referred to this idea of “star CEOs”. He was highly dubious about the idea of a “transformational chief executive” and said the cult status they enjoy is overdone. He said performance was just as heavily dependent on team, culture and economic climate.

However – we must not make this personal. Chief executives are merely doing what they have been encouraged and incentivised to do. Their bonuses have been linked to short-term profitability and the share price. There have been few rewards for caution; no incentives for wisdom. Quite the opposite, in fact. So, being fair, business leaders have been behaving perfectly rationally. How can this be?

■ ■■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■

The title for this lecture led me to consider much bigger questions about business and leadership. And I believe you can only make sense of where we are today by looking at the context in which today’s business leaders operate.

First, a lesson from zoology: animals, including humans, are programmed to cheat. They will act in their own self-interest and take advantage of others. But there is a conflict between this selfishness and each individual’s need for their social group as a whole to survive and prosper. So an animal will cheat – up to the point at which it endangers its own survival.

Capitalism, in the form of individually owned organisations, exploits this idea of self-interest. But businesses have little need for altruism or responsibility to wider society – just look at working conditions even today in some parts of the world. So business and capital have needed regulating to provide this balancing force. Creating a centuries-long struggle of ideas – between liberty and authority.

Adam Smith thought the “invisible hand” of the market might serve as a sort of regulator. People pursuing their own selfish interests would automatically benefit society and keep everything in check. But even he himself seems to have doubted the purity of that idea. And it plainly doesn’t work. John Stuart Mill and the Utilitarians had similar libertarian leanings. But even Mill accepted limits on what companies could do, such as being required to pay taxes for the social good.

For about two centuries, efforts went on to referee this struggle between the opposing forces of liberty and authority. We see the creation of joint stock companies and the limited liability acts in the 1800s – which created shareholders -- and then the great court case of Saloman v Saloman, confirming that a company is a legal personality, giving the shareholders protection.

This made companies strong. Capitalism flourished. And countervailing political forces, such as social reformers and increasingly, trade unions, kept it roughly in check.

But then, in 1976, Mike Jensen, an American economist, wrote about something he called “agency theory” – and it led directly to the creation of executive bonuses and the culture of business leadership we see today.

The idea was to align managers’ interests with those of the shareholders by giving them a stake in maximising shareholder value, by promoting the widespread use of stock options in executive compensation. The idea of giving them some “skin in the game”.

And today we live with the consequences. It led to “jacking up the share price”, severe short-termism and an explosion in executive pay. It tempted bosses to play with the figures – hence Enron and the like – and other financial trickery, such as share buybacks (largely achieved through savings made by outsourcing labour).

But most of all, it shifted power from the politicians to the people in the new glass towers. So how did it happen?

■ ■■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■

This is where we have to take that step back in time to provide the context. And when you’re looking at things that are wrong with today, you usually have to begin with Margaret Thatcher.

I left the London School of Economics with my law degree in 1979 and started work as a news reporter with the Chronicle and Echo evening newspaper in Northampton. I was excited – the previous few years had been thrilling. Indeed, 1976 is routinely voted the year of greatest happiness by people who lived through it, and the years either side of it saw huge political debate and activity that is today portrayed as a national calamity, the country going to the dogs, rubbish in the streets and so on. But compared to what we have today, it was a high point of vibrancy, participation, democracy and creativity. Everyone had a voice of some sort and a broad range of riches were valued.

But 1979 was a year of brutal, ugly and overnight change. Very quickly, the incoming Thatcher government used high interest rates to reduce inflation, squeeze the economy – and keep the money supply tight. There were no thoughts of quantitative easing then.

Nigel Lawson was chancellor of the exchequer (younger people might be more familiar with his daughter, Nigella). This is how he described the Tories’ philosophy: “Free markets, financial discipline, firm control over public expenditure, tax cuts, nationalism, 'Victorian values', privatisation and a dash of populism.” In my view, that is a truly ghastly mixture.

But what did it amount to? Well, there was one overriding and truly fundamental change: from 1979 onwards, business has come first. Completely and utterly.

All attempts at fair distribution of wealth and social justice were abandoned. There was a vague idea that as rich people became richer their wealth would “trickle down” to the poor – as the rich would be able to employ more cleaners, for example. It was obviously sheer nonsense.

Back in real word, it was actually the other way round – rewards were sucked up to the top and people lost their jobs in order to make the wealthy even better off.

Under the Tories, everything became a market – homes, hospitals, phones, public transport, education, gas, electricity. Everyone became a “customer”. The watchword was competition – with the inevitable result that there would be winners and losers. Collaboration was abandoned and Thatcher’s hideous vision of society was one of competing individuals. Nothing was communal, there was no community – as she said, “no such thing as society”.

All this, along with such ideas as stock options, kick started the emergence of today’s almighty business leaders. One by one, the building blocks were put in place.

First, on October 27 1986 came Big Bang – the liberation of the City of London. UK financial markets were deregulated. One crucial change was from open-outcry trading to electronic, screen-based trading. A huge increase in market activity was expected. And encouraged. And boy did it happen. Money flooded in.

It was seen as a huge change – but no one at the time could have fully realised just what had been unleashed. Even so, a few people WERE worried – it wasn't long before some started calling it “casino capitalism”.

The second building block involved the crushing of the unions. Thatcher took on the powerful unions and, for the most part, won. But there was spectacular resistance, notably from the miners, led by the very left-wing Arthur Scargill. There were running battles, through the mid-1980s, notably at Orgreave Colliery in Yorkshire.

In the end, the miners lost – they lost many of their rights as workers and they lost the physical fight. They were, in effect, starved back to work. And it was a hugely divisive period for many of the country’s mining communities, some of which have yet to heal.

There is a counter argument that the unions had become too powerful and irresponsible and too rooted in the past and were preventing businesses from adapting to changing conditions. Which might have been true, up to a point. But the unions were attacked, rather than engaged – the tactics were confrontation and violence, and the only consideration was the needs of business, not communities.

The third building block was the unleashing of vast wealth into individuals' hands via the privatisation of state assets.

The Tories set about selling communal property – the nationalised utilities including gas, phones, water, steel etc. And they sold council houses. Selling utilities raised billions of pounds for the government – as did council house sales.

But the amounts don’t look very big today – partly because of inflation, but partly because they were deliberately sold cheaply at the time. To encourage people to buy, big discounts were offered. This was Nigel Lawson’s “populism” element: the public – or rather individuals – were invited to buy shares and sell them straight away at a profit. There was talk of creating a “share-owning democracy” which was, of course, pie in the sky. In fact, it was the start of “Money for nothing” on a grand scale.

As for council houses, these were well built to very high standards, and were offered for sale to tenants at very big discounts. All the new owners had to do was keep the house for a few years and then they could sell it at a huge profit. Between 1980 and 1998, it is estimated that 2m council houses were sold. And this was a process that transferred enormous amounts of value from communally held assets into the hands of individuals.

This might be good in some ways. But, looking at the bigger picture, it was part of a terrible trend. Towards a society focused on money, markets, consumption, greed, self-interest, self-obsession, short-term thinking and individualism.

In political terms, it suited Thatcher perfectly – enriching just enough of the electorate to give them a stake in continuing to vote for her.

It was also the beginning of the end of politics in its old sense. And politics finally died completely during the 1990s, when Labour gave up the fight. Politics was replaced by a dour managerial consensus, in which everyone was assumed to agree on the primacy of the economy and economic growth, fuelled by consumption. A promise of binge drinking, electronic gadgets and cheap foreign holidays was enough to keep the voters happy – while it lasted.

Internal Tory politics continued, however, and in 1990, Thatcher was ousted in tears from Downing Street and we endured seven years of muddle – not all of it terrible – under John Major. By 1997, the Tory government began to look tired and sleazy and the people turned to a young, fresh-faced Labour leader – who turned out to be a snake-oil salesman of the worst kind.

Tony Blair was elected on a wave of optimism and euphoria. It lasted less than a year.

To be fair, Labour had faced a dilemma – it had to move to the right, join the consensus and become electable, or stick to its principles and stay out of power. So Labour gave up, moved to the right, changed its name to New Labour and continued Thatcher’s work.

The business-first policies continued. And we saw some dreadful decisions – for example, New Labour said “yes” to the narrow business interests demanding a third runway at Heathrow; it said “yes” to the developers wanting to set up a huge business in the heart of the green belt beside the M25 in Surrey in the guise of a service station, to name but two. But every decision that had to be made between people and business went business’s way. Cheap labour? No problem, as Blair opened his arms to exploitation of the pittance-wage workforces of eastern Europe, sparking a battle for jobs that the UK's already low-paid, low-skill working class communities could not win and a further degradation of pay and conditions that continues escalating to this day, with widespread dire – and sometimes deadly – consequences.

New Labour had to appease the left of the party by taking some money from corporations through taxation to spend on worthy projects. Companies squealed but because of the apparent strength of business, money appeared to be plentiful and Labour was able to shower it across the public sector with considerable generosity. Labour's spending was also heavily funded by borrowing and debt. Yet all this has hardly eradicated poverty or injustice. In fact, I don’t see much change in equality of opportunity since the 1960s.

By the end of the last century businesses ruled the world. Joe Rogaly, the late and very great Weekend FT columnist who I used to work with every week, was writing columns on how tight a grip businesses now had on the world. His columns from the late 1990s are well worth reading today.

■ ■■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■

So what was Blair’s contribution to creating new business leaders?

First, he had one main policy – consumption. He made shopping our number one national pastime. Blair breezed into power shouting “Education education education”. But Weekend FT ran a column by Michael Prowse on September 16 2000 with a far more accurate headline – it read “Consumption, Consumption, Consumption”. Michael Prowse had spent several years living in the US and Switzerland and had just returned to London. And he was shocked by what he saw.

He wrote : This new Britain is rich in everything that can be readily priced and sold on the market, and poor in everything that cannot be easily commodified. Market forces have turned the urban landscape into a parody of shop-until-you-drop America.”

He saw workaholism, individualism and vast wealth in private hands. What he said at that time makes uncomfortable reading: “As in the US, this cornucopia of private wealth contrasts starkly with the inadequacies of public services – from transport and healthcare to education. You don't, I think, need to read accounts of failing schools to grasp the poverty of state education in the UK. You just need to look at the blank, yobbish faces of young (and not-so-young) people. Most seem untouched by any form of culture, which is not surprising since none is on offer, least of all on television, which is now mostly a commercial business.”

He saw the UK slavishly imitating the US – which was hardly surprising given Thatcher’s infatuation with Reagan, and Blair’s with Bush.

Prowse wrote: “Those urging ever more deregulation always talk the language of economic efficiency, or, more dubiously still, of personal 'freedom'. They tacitly assume that people stay the same regardless of the kind of social structures that surround them. This isn't true. If a society becomes too thoroughly 'marketised', if the principle of private pursuit of personal gain becomes too dominant, then people become greedy and selfish.”

Michael wrote that in 2000 – and today it’s far worse. You just have to look around a depressing shopping centre with people slowly wandering about, trying to find things to buy… it’s not even proper shopping.

Blair's second contribution to creating the new business leader was to turbo-charge the “something for nothing” culture, with various measures, including the freeing up of gambling.

The Conservatives had set up the National Lottery in 1993 – partly to raise money for good causes. But it set a tone – people started dreaming and fantasising of escaping the drudgery of their daily life.

Then in 2005, New Labour passed the Gambling Act. Casinos, and gambling advertising sprouted up everywhere. Spread betting became commonplace. And we now have the grotesque sight of actors peddling gambling websites in TV ad breaks in sports matches at all times of day.

The truth is that gambling is hugely addictive – it can become a disease. It undermines common sense and responsibility and replaces it with false hope and desperation. Only the gaming houses – the businesses raking in the profits – are winners. The rest – the punters – are, by definition, losers.

Gambling, and its symbiotic relationship with debt, brings us to the third of Blair's contributions – the normalisation of debt.

Debt used to be all about borrowing to build something, or to buy a house. And not much else. When I was growing up, people did borrow to buy consumer items, but it was frowned upon and referred to disparagingly as “buying something on the never-never”, or “tick”. Now, debt is normal – it’s even seen as funny. People make jokes about it. Perhaps they have to. But casual debt is bad, wrong and hugely debilitating.

And yet we now routinely saddle students with huge debts at the start of their adult lives, which could not send out a worse message about how to manage their personal finances.

Blair's fourth force, working alongside debt and gambling, was the continuing rise of the City and financial services. The culture of gambling and debt reached its epitome in the City of London. Strangely, it was scientists joining investment banks who perfected the system. The Quants – quantitative analysts – brought incredibly complex maths to the job of providing financial services. And, to be fair, they found some incredibly clever things to do with debt. They took junk, sub-prime mortgage loans, and the like and dressed them up to look good, called them “derivatives” – and sold them to gamblers – aka suckers.

At the same time, trading systems became automated with the rise of technology. Machines – running complex algorithms – trade automatically, making tiny margins on vast volumes of artificially created trading. Few people running the banks understood what was going on. But they only had to make money. No one was responsible for “good” or “sustainable” or “creative”. It was all incredibly short-term. And government not only did nothing – it helped, assisted, encouraged and incentivised the whole ghastly edifice.

■ ■■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■

So where did all this debt come from? Well, a lot of it came from mortgages and housing. At one time, rising house prices were seen as wonderful – people could get rich just sitting on their sofas – on paper, at least. But the big snag with this is that the actual price of a house is largely irrelevant to a purchaser.

If you go to a building society for a mortgage, the first question is not about price but “what can you afford per month?” Because the property you can afford is a combination of price and interest rates.

Put simply, if the mortgage rate at the time is 8 per cent, your £500 a month might enable you to buy a property valued at £100,000. A year later the mortgage rate might be 4 per cent – in which case, your £500 a month would buy a property valued at £200,000. Probably the same house.

If you're borrowing to buy a property – which most people do – then what matters is the “cost of buying”. Prices naturally adjust as interest rates change. In an era of low interest rates, house prices inevitably rise because the cost of buying them falls dramatically, subject to the payment of a deposit.

Unfortunately, in this perfect storm that was gathering, low interest rates meant large sums could be borrowed, which gave investment banks increasingly large bundles of debt to play with – by dressing it up and selling it on, making a profit along the way – and fuelling a giant derivatives boom. Which created a demand for more debt to play with – the system needed more borrowing and hence mortgages – which led to reckless lending.

Things might not have been disastrous if all the mortgage loans were solid and sensible. But the financial services sector was dishing out 125 per cent mortgages, requiring no deposits, and lending to people with no hope of keeping up their repayments. It was absolute madness – a defiance of gravity.

All through the 1990s – when the UK population was not even increasing – up to today, when it is growing, thanks to immigration, there has been enormous pressure to build homes. And it was as much to do with creating mortgages and debt as it was about providing homes. Properties became one of the key raw materials of the derivatives boom – among many other factors, of course. And while a little more common sense is being applied to mortgage lending, they still are.

Lobbyists for the developers, builders and property industry keep talking up a so-called “housing crisis” – but you could go out tomorrow and buy thousands of houses if you had the cash. It suits the builders to talk of unmet demand, to which they contribute by sitting on vast land banks upon which they will not build until profit can be maximised. Admittedly, uncontrolled EU free movement of people policies have now created a shortage of homes – but the “housing crisis” cries pre-date the recent population explosion.

■ ■■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■

So this is what our “strong economy” was built on – shifting sands, a house of cards, and an aimless reliance on permanent economic “growth”. Yet even children learn very early that you can only build a brick tower so high before it collapses. Andrew Simms, in his book “Cancel The Apocalypse” writes brilliantly about the meaningless of growth without any pursuit of maturity or equilibrium.

So much for the “end of boom and bust” and the “prudence” of Gordon Brown. It was actually the opposite – everyone was being incentivised to do the same wrong thing at the same time – gambling, borrowing, spending, thinking short-term – making it the most extreme example of reinforcing the cycle imaginable. The good times only lasted as long as they did because the boom was so enormous – and the bust equally enormous. And it’s far from over. Because very little has changed. Even today, we have George Osborne, the chancellor, saying: “We are unashamedly business first.”

The trouble is, it’s very difficult to change. We have travelled up several one way streets – and it’s hard to see how we back out. Let's look at them.

First – house prices. As we’ve seen, if interest rates come down, prices go up – and loans get bigger, without costing the purchaser more. But this traps people and makes them totally reliant on low interest rates. If a variable repayment mortgage rate rises from 2 per cent to 4 per cent – that’s a rise of 100 per cent. (Although it’s not quite as simple as that, as there are other costs.) But it still means a huge and potentially unaffordable rise in monthly repayments.

So if rates rise, house prices can stabilise or even fall, and thousands of households fall into negative equity – and repossessions of homes rocket. Which is politically dangerous. This phenomenon works in other areas, too, and makes us slaves to low interest rates – and this is shaping and distorting economic policies.

Second – consumption. We are similarly reliant on consuming: we cannot – must not – stop spending. And so far, we haven’t. Figures from shopping centres and Amazon are healthy.

But the need for mass consumption prevents government from taking too much money out of individuals' pockets via taxation for fear of reducing their spending. At a Tory party conference in 2011, David Cameron had to change his speech. He wanted to say we needed to pay off our debts. But he couldn’t – because if we all used our money to reduce our borrowing, it would hit spending. So we are now officially slaves to consumption.

Third, we are also slaves to The City and financial services. Some of the UK economy’s largest eggs are now in one basket – in financial services. This could be reversed out of – but with great difficulty.

oughly 10 per cent of our economy consists of financial services – much of which is actually nothing at all. It might be dressed up as “providing liquidity” or enabling investment – but most is actually simply making money from moving money around.

More than anything, we’re slaves to big business.

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So our politicians and our business leaders have locked us into a tight corner. And now that things are in such a dreadful state, is there any hope of our business leaders – or indeed, our relatively impotent politicians – steering us out of the mess?

And who are the people running our large businesses – and our society? How is the system working?

Well, not too well, really. Everything that can realistically be done to smooth the path for business HAS been done, and it has given business leaders an incredibly narrow focus. Because there is such a close alignment between their own personal interests and the short-term interests of the businesses they lead, they seem to find it hard to see the bigger picture.

Let’s look first at what this 35-year process has produced in our boardrooms.

It’s left the leaders of our big businesses increasingly out of touch with reality. Their wealth creates a bubble. It certainly doesn’t make them wiser – instead they become naïve and detached. I’ve met lots and most are really nice and clever and well-meaning. But many also have little contact with, or understanding of, other people’s issues.

They are highly focused on their own results and the business. Anthony Hilton, a financial commentator in the Evening Standard, pointed to research in March 2011 that showed how the well-off don’t have a clue about what life is like for everyone else. He wrote: “They grossly over-estimate how many people earn as much as they do. They think the average wage is two or three times what it actually is.”

Leading a large business for vast pay packages also leaves bosses resisting change and being a real drag on progress. If the strong trade unions were holding us back in the 1970s, the leaders of big businesses are doing the same today. But the benign system that has provided them with great wealth, privilege and access to government, is bound to be defended. I would argue that in a rich nation such as the UK, they represent today's Neanderthals, holding us back from creating a society with a very different set of values and aspirations to the narrow, money-obsessed, materialistic world we have now.

But they have a lot to defend. In the past decade or so, the average year-end share price has performed poorly. Yet directors' pay has increased dramatically. Statistics from the “Manifest and MM&K Total Remuneration Survey” show that in the 12 years from 1998 to 2009, total remuneration of FTSE 100 chief executives increased by a factor of 3.89, roughly quadrupling.

Less than 20 per cent of that was paid in salary up to the belated and fairly feeble regulation that slowly filtered in during the downturn. Total remuneration packages are now made up of a complex mixture of bonuses, pension payments, share options, etc.

The High Pay Commission, an independent body set up to investigate high pay, monitors rewards. And in one of its reports it argued that there is “rarely” a link between company performance and executive pay. Its chairman at the time, Deborah Hargreaves – a former FT colleague of mine – says: “The evidence exposes the myth that big bonuses and high salaries result in better company performances. There has been massive growth in what has been termed as performance-related pay yet no such corresponding leap forward in company performance. Corporate governance reforms attempting to link pay with performance appear to have done little more than add to the huge complexity of executive packages, reward schemes and bonuses that make up the pay of FTSE 100 directors.”

In the US, there have been moves at least to expose the truths about pay. The “Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act” contains a raft of measures – one of which requires the disclosure of ratios of average earnings to executive pay. This requires a company to reveal the chief executive’s total compensation as a multiple of the median total compensation of all other employees (the “CEO pay multiple”).

There is snag, of course: there are arguments over how to make the comparisons. And there are fears it could lead organisations to outsource more of their poorer paid workers to raise the median wage. But it’s a start and it might give shareholders some insights and perhaps a lever to control pay.

How else might pay be moderated? One idea might be to include employees – or their representatives – in the process? Or perhaps use “the veil of ignorance”. It’s fascinating to guess how different pay levels might be if they were set for all employees, top to bottom, by one person from behind this veil – a brilliant notion from John Rawls. The idea is that the person making decisions on pay would also be on the payroll but have no idea where they fitted in the organisation. You might assess people’s worth very differently in that situation.

There are plenty more horror statistics: The Hays Group, for example, in February 2011 estimated that chief executives were earning up to 43 times the average wage in their businesses. Other figures suggest that that could be a huge underestimate – citing up to 200 times or more, which sounds more realistic for some of the largest enterprises.

Either way, there are only so many hours in a day, and can a chief really contribute 43 times, let alone 200 times, or even 1,000 in the most extreme cases, more effort, hours, brilliance, responsibility, stress and sacrifice than other employees? Especially when they might also have other jobs as well – perhaps as non-executive roles with other companies – and the task of running their own considerable financial affairs.

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So what do business leaders do to earn this money?

Here are a few things they DON’T do – from a fine song called Pretty Penny by Steve Tilston:

They don't plant wheat,
They don't cut corn,
They don't pick tea,
They don't dig coal,
They don't forge steel, ….
They just push numbers all about,
They push too far we bail them out”

Another thing they don’t do is take risks. Entrepreneurs do, bomb disposal experts do, but chief executives don’t – because they are staff. They used to be called managing directors or general managers. They are employees, just like all the others.

Carl Mortishead in the Times in March 2009, wrote: “Once upon a time a managing director was just a superior manager. Today they are rewarded like venture capitalists – risk takers who claim a big return for taking a personal financial risk. This is absurd because Sir Fred [of RBS fame] and the other CEOs have no skin in the game; they are staff.”

I think it’s actually worse than this. Because so many of the incentives offered to chiefs are related to short-term financial performance targets, one way they can hit them is to “improve efficiency” or “increase productivity” – in other words, sack people to make the balance sheet look better – for bonus purposes. These incentives create huge temptations to cut corners and run the worst sort of risks.

And so we see chief executives being jailed and businesses fined for insider trading, ponsi and pyramid schemes, mis-selling, tax dodges (keeping empty offices in Jersey etc for “subsidiaries), insurance scams, phone hacking – every day something new. The court cases drag on.

And this decline in morality spreads. When role models become the wealthy we start to celebrate wealth. And those excluded from wealth choose occasionally to riot, or to occupy, or equally dangerously, seethe silently and helplessly, waiting for a chance to lash out. And when those who are bold, desperate or reckless enough to riot take to the streets, the chances are it will turn into looting – an orgy of “something for nothing”. Which, while we can't condone it, seems to be perfectly logical.

So what DO chief executives do? They have responsibilities as a communicator, decision maker, leader, and manager. I found a 30-year-old list with none of the business buzzwords we all use today. It just stuck to plain words, and is all the more revealing for it. It says chief executives are responsible for: “Planning; Organization; Management of recruitment and development; Policy; Standards of performance and performance reviews; Controls; Management of morale; Product development; Community relations; Profitability and growth; Relationship with board of directors.”

But then we have to ask whether they actually do all this satisfactorily. And the trouble is, there are very few measures of performance. Investors might look at share price – but is this all there is? How about honest feedback? Well, there’s not much going around. You can’t ask subordinates to appraise their bosses for fear that non-flattering feedback may stall their career. And so we can see that “being adequate” becomes “good enough” – and extravagantly rewarded.

Warren Buffett said as far back as 1988: “A CEO who doesn’t perform is frequently carried indefinitely. One reason is that performance standards for his job seldom exist. When they do, they are often fuzzy or they may be waived or explained away, even when the performance shortfalls are major and repeated. At too many companies, the boss shoots the arrow of managerial performance and then hastily paints the bull’s-eye around the spot where it lands.”

This, clearly, is still very much the case today.

Being in a sort of “CEO club” helps: once you’re in, it’s hard to break out. My Appointments section at the FT spoke to Dr Roger Barker, head of corporate governance at the Institute of Directors. He believes it is more difficult to break into top management, even for those with an impeccable record, than it is for those already in top management to be kept out, even after blotting their copybooks. He says: “Once you have made that break, even when you are sometimes unsuccessful, you still have the qualification to go forth on that level.”

Tom Lloyd, a visiting fellow at Northampton Business School also wrote a short series of columns for my FT Appointments section, and in one of them he quoted Rakesh Khurana of Harvard as saying the so-called “market” for CEOs is “closed”, in that CEO jobs at large, listed companies are only open to those “who fit certain socially defined criteria”. Which boil down to: “Must be a C-level executive at a well-performing FTSE 350 company” – ie already at the top of a big business.

So a small pool of “qualified” business leaders keeps revolving around, no matter how bad they are at it. Three recent high-profile departing CEOs, at AstraZeneca, Trinity Mirror, and Aviva, will soon be back in a job. And for the companies, it’s “the CEO is dead; long live the CEO”. It looks like a “perpetuocracy”, if there is such a word.

Even when it all goes wrong, the key to making a recovery, says Dr Barker, is simply to explain yourself: “If you can explain what went wrong and the lessons you learned, the fact that you have already operated at such a high level gives confidence.”

For those who mix in CEO circles and know they will, at worst, enjoy a soft landing, it must affect their thinking. They have nothing to lose. No skin in the game.

Even worse, on a day-to-day basis, research on chief executives' diaries shows they spend an embarrassing amount of time managing their own personal interests – their fortunes, their careers, their images – which is unsurprising, given that some of them have incomes larger than many small businesses.

As Tom Lloyd again points out in a recent column he wrote for me on the subject of what CEOs do all day – when you pay CEOs such huge sums they become lucrative one-person businesses in their own right, which require managing. He wrote: “This might involve regular meetings with accountants and asset managers or networking with headhunters and influential business people, to maintain and enhance their personal brands.” And some of these might even take place in “work time”.

The remoteness that all this creates leads to several more unwanted characteristics in business leaders. Other commentators and researchers have found a list of dangers that chief executives must guard against – but often don’t.

  • They can assume an air of unreality and infallibility.

  • There is then a danger of arrogance – “I know best” – and they stop learning.

  • When things go wrong, they can blame everyone else: “My employees just don’t get it.”

  • Remoteness can breed ignorance – chief executives often don’t know what’s going on at grass roots level.

  • They can become fearless – because they never “fail”. There are rewards even for failure. And no bad consequences. Their wealth shields them, with the very great assistance of “golden hellos and farewells”.

  • And if things get tough, they can call in the consultants – at vast expense – to hold their hands.

As Adair Turner said – the “transformational capabilities” of chief executives are overblown. Even in normal times, success is actually more down to team, culture and climate. Large companies have plenty of advisers presenting a chief with options for them to pick from. And when things go wrong, they might well be right when they say there’s nothing they could have done about it – so much is outside their control anyway. Markets move, conditions change, the macro economic picture is shifting all the time – affecting businesses. All of these factors make chief executives feel bulletproof.

■ ■■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■

So how can they justify their rewards?

Businesses and boards talk about “paying the market rate” to get the best leaders. But pay is set by a small club – and the comparisons are only within that small club – not the rest of society. So a parallel universe is created. Sir Martin Sorrell of WPP, the advertising giant, was interviewed on the Radio 4 Today programme and said the comparison SHOULD be with other CEOs. But this is a circular argument. They’re saying: “We have to pay it because everyone else pays it.”

And arguing that “We’re competing for the top talent” assumes a limited supply of top talent. Which, given the managerial functions they are tasked with, the mistakes they make, and what we’ve seen about what they do and how they are measured, is a spurious assumption.

Dr Douglas Board another contributor to my section and a visiting fellow at Cass Business School, highlights this very wittily in a book called “Choosing Leaders and Choosing to Lead”.

He takes us to another planet and describes how they organise their big business leadership. He writes: “On the planet Delusio there is a pyramid of increasingly well-paid jobs. Delusians believe that the better-paid jobs are harder, requiring high levels of skill as well as the training which comes from working up the pyramid from one level of difficulty to the next. But the opportunities are few and this makes it tough for ordinary Delusians to have a go at a top job. However, if they could, they would find it no more difficult than the job they are doing already.

No senior Delusian ever visibly screws up, in the sense that every junior Delusian who has to pick up one child from school while taking another to the doctor and working a late shift, will definitely screw up.”

I think the telling point is that most people, I am sure, would find a CEO’s job to be no more difficult than the one they are already doing, given the right training and experience. After all, they are only tasked with managerial functions, and they still manage to make plenty of mistakes.

I argue there is no justification for such levels of executive pay. Whether you base pay on their contribution, levels of risk, or effort, they simply don’t do enough. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day.

In any case, it’s surely a very poor worker who can only be energised, motivated and inspired by a seven-figure pay packet. If I went for a job interview and said “You have to pay me more – I am only prepared to do the job properly if you pay me a massive salary,” I don't think I would get that job.

But it creates a big problem for society. We have seen City protests outside St Paul’s and all over the world. Everyone understands why they happen – most of us feel some vague notion of a deep unfairness.

Just as badly, it also misleads youngsters as to what their futures might hold. Surveys have shown that new graduates all greatly over-estimate their likely salaries and speed of progress in a job.

■ ■■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■

Which raises the question of whether any of this matters.

Well, consider this. A friend of mine, Mrs Moneypenny, said in a Radio 4 Today programme debate on this topic that no one over the age of eight should complain about things not being fair.

But I disagree. Fairness DOES matter. It comes back to our instinct for cheating. You can get away with a bit of self-interest at the expense of the group – but only up to a point.

And while everything was going well and we all had gadgets and holidays and lots of eating out, no one cared too much. But that’s changing. A lot of people are becoming worse off, some losing their jobs, their benefits, their homes.

And this makes having “an unfair advantage” matter a lot and so we see the social group reacting to deal with the “cheats”. The Occupy movement, rioting – and even shareholder “revolts”, as at Trinity Mirror, AstraZeneca, Aviva and now WPP. We are also seeing a mass movement towards very nasty right-wing political parties, for example in France and Greece – an obvious refuge for the discarded and disregarded.

As my old boss Richard Lambert, former FT editor, said recently in the FT: “Public support for free markets is based on two broad arguments. The first is that they deliver more efficient outcomes than the alternatives. The second is that over time they create increased prosperity for society at large. Both these assumptions have taken a severe jolt in the past few years.

It may be that capitalism is approaching some kind of tipping point, away from the winner takes all culture of the past three decades. If left unchecked, public disquiet will sooner or later bring a political response.”

Notions of fairness and cheating matter a great deal.

■ ■■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■

So – I contend that it’s actually very easy to run a large business in this environment. And the rewards are fabulous. But is it sustainable? And if not, how might things change, or be changed?

One force for change is entering the workplace in the form of technology. Today, we still operate industrial revolution work patterns, that were created for factories in the 19th century. People were paid for their time, not results. Talent isn’t necessarily rewarded – but face-time is. Which leads to presenteeism – workaholism. You can’t go home before the boss, regardless of whether you have anything to do or not.

Technology is changing this – by enabling people to work any time, anywhere. This means they can be more task-based. And managers will have to trust their staff to perform when they can’t see them.

Technology is also changing the way younger people think – and their priorities in life and work. Those brought up in an age of broadband – known as “digital natives” – use social media. This vastly enlarges their networks and expectations. And it’s become part of their life – and something they’re not prepared to give up in the workplace.

I offer one quick example. I was advised to follow a young lady called Poppy Dinsey on Twitter – because she was funny, observant, incisive, fearless and witty. As editor of the FT's Executive Appointments section, I asked her to write a feature for me on why she had rejected the traditional “grad scheme” route to finding her way into a well-paid job on the corporate ladder.

She wrote that she wanted to do her own thing. She wanted to work – but she did not want a job. So she set about building expertise and making a name for herself – and creating her personal brand via online social networking, which in her case revolved around fashion. She wrote about how attitudes in sections of her age group towards companies are changing.

Which brings us to the question of talent and leaders of the future. Because this is now a problem for employers. They have created a new model of leader, which is not in tune with the way younger people think. It’s a problem for organisations when the top young talent starts to reject them.

The early signs of this came when employers began to complain of a “talent shortage”. But rest assured, there is no talent shortage. In fact, the UK has a glut of talent, with ever more well-qualified youngsters, which is partly down to the massive increase in university student numbers – Blair’s random target of 50 per cent.

The trouble is, that target was set without any thought for what the result would be. Because what we see now are large numbers of new graduates every year with very similar qualifications – especially in arts and humanities, because these courses are easy and cheap to set up and run, and are therefore good business for the newly commercial universities. And this has created a huge rise in applications for jobs – because there are many more graduates and technology makes it ever easier to make multiple job applications. Employers then have to introduce processes to handle the volume - and you see that recruiting becomes a process of mowing, rather than cherry picking.

Employers try to wipe out as many candidates as possible in a first sweep – by allowing through only certain degrees, or certain universities, or other basic attributes. It's understandable why they do it – but dismissing whole categories of applicants is likely to mean they miss the best people – who might have non-standard qualifications, or have been brilliant at an unfashionable university.

So there appears to be a talent shortage, partly because employers discard so many talented people in their first sift. In fact, I argue that you could train almost anyone to do any job – including running a large business. And nearly all would do it well – most, very well. What more could you want?

To make things worse, this apparent talent shortage is exacerbated by the changed expectations of businesses, who expect to find the finished article – someone who can tick eight out of their 10 boxes, instead of four or five previously; someone who can do the job from the moment they walk into work on their first day.

This is partly because businesses have become pared back to the essentials in order to be “leaner” and “fitter” and have less and less time or money or inclination to train and nurture staff. Many have fallen back on outsourcing jobs to cheaper parts of the world, or more recently exploiting cheap labour from eastern Europe.  [Read this relevant piece by former FT editor Richard Lambert  or this about the views of Tidjane Thiam ]

This slimming down of organisations is gradually making some of them just a core of “experts” who form a central team that hires niche skills on contracts to do the actual work.

Luckily for them, technology and the changing attitudes of the broadband generation are in line with this and we are starting to see the emergence of “talent clouds” – or “talent on demand”: people who are happy to work on contracts and projects and fit working into their lives, rather than the other way round. This “IT-enabled flexibility” could well suit both parties.

There are also demands from younger workers for organisations to be more socially responsible, and to enable a better work-life balance.

Another force for change might come from alternative business models – the John Lewis model, The Co-operative model, or employee-owned organisations.

Today, there is virtually no role in running businesses for the people who work in them – other than the top executives, of course. Yet the staff often have the biggest REAL stake in any organisation.

Or what about a different attitude towards allocating jobs and work. Rather than either being IN work or EXCLUDED from work, why not give everyone a job so that we all do a little less. Everyone contributes and everyone shares. After all, the system requires us to work, so why should so many be excluded?

We might also change the incentives for business leaders which caused so much rottenness in the first place. In the hope that it changes the way they think and behave.

And please don’t think I’m anti-business per se – or even anti chief executives. I’ve met many and most are charming and reasonable. Ruby McGregor-Smith, chief executive of Mitie, and Karren Brady, chief executive at West Ham, both come across as sensible, down-to-earth young leaders who can see things a little differently. And I think more will start to “get it” as younger leaders emerge. I just think business is not performing the social function it could and should be performing.

To make it work more widely, we need new thinking on what constitutes a competent modern business leader. I think these are the essential characteristics they will need:

- They will want flexibility – and enable it for others.

- They will be collaborators, rather than being competitive for the sake of it.

- They will be service providers, rather than profit maximisers.

- They will be technologists, and avid online networkers.

- They will champion local community involvement.

- And at the same time they will be international in outlook – sharing best practice from anywhere in the world.

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I think work will change, too. As we have seen, technology and the next generation’s attitudes are moving to a more contractual, task-based model – with a priority on flexibility and work-life balance.

I also think we will eventually learn how to live in an age of extraordinary riches. It might not feel as though we are rich – but we are. No other era has had what we have.

The irony is that we can’t handle this fabulous wealth and comfort. We still want more – partly because we are constantly bombarded by a system that’s built around people consuming and wanting more and more. We have a whole society that is geared to achieving material gains. The overwhelming driver has become money and “stuff”.

We will – hopefully – learn to value other things – such as time, the simpler pleasures of doing less. A pursuit of happiness, rather than expensive gadgets, flat-screen TVs and designer clothes. It’s interesting that in surveys that ask when people were happiest, they tend to say 1976 – if they're old enough to remember it. It was a hot summer – but it certainly wasn’t the richest year on record.

And for all that we have it doesn't seem to make us happier. A survey [2011] by PwC and Demos, the think tank, found people in the UK to be pretty miserable because of working hours, income inequality, transport costs, etc. It’s an inherently depressing system because it relies on permanent dissatisfaction.

In short, business must be made to serve people and society, and not the other way round, as at present. And George Osborne should ask himself why he is, as he said, “unashamedly business first”? To what end? And if the end is not “to enrich an elite”, then he needs to think again.

I also think there has to be a huge shift from society holding so much of its wealth in a few private hands. This vast personal wealth creates dreadful stresses in society because individuals spend their money to suit themselves, which is often anti-social. If you walk around the wealthiest parts of west London, the pavements are blocked every few yards by builder’s machinery and hoarding – because they are digging out basements. Some have even collapsed, endangering neighbours and the public. This is surely the most stupid, anti-social waste of money. But people have had all that cash shoved in their wallets, so they can do what they like with it.

Shifting a large proportion of this unearned, or lightly earned – and definitely undeserved – income into communally held funds could reduce such selfish madness and raise the quality of life dramatically for everyone.

There is, of course, an obvious problem with this – it requires trust in the quality of public administration. Sadly, competent public administration is VERY hard to find. A lot needs to change there.

■ ■■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■

For any improvements to be made, we need brave, intelligent and socially minded politicians to listen – and to be leaders, rather than the lapdogs of big businesses that have taken a stranglehold on what we do and how we live. Politicians helped stoke all this up – promising material riches and an easy ride for businesses – to stay in power. And when it started getting out of control, a very long time ago, they were the only people who could stop it. Plenty of people were pointing out that things were going wrong – some of us at the FT were saying that we were living in a fool’s paradise and way beyond our means as far back as the 1990s. It was blindingly obvious, even at the time.

But the political leadership had neither the knowledge, nor the inclination to stop the unsustainable economic bubble growing. And when it burst, they all claimed it was “unforeseeable”. Gordon Brown repeatedly blamed everything on the “world economy”, global forces beyond his control. Which, of course, was all complete rubbish.

We need someone who can relieve the intellectual and political constipation from which we have been suffering for decades. We must stop thinking that everything can be solved with flashy maths and financial wizardry. And we must decide whether Big Business is our servant or our master.

I leave you with three quotes:

This first one is from 2009, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a veteran trader, and professor at New York University's Polytechnic Institute – and an influence on David Cameron (so perhaps there is hope). It’s from his “Ten principles for a Black Swan-proof world”. He came up with the Black Swan theory, which is that history does not make steady linear progress – it leaps in response to surprise events that it then subsequently rationalises, in a sort of “re-writing of history”. Here are brief versions of his principles 3 and 4:

3. People who were driving a school bus blindfolded (and crashed it) should never be given a new bus.

4. Do not let someone making an 'incentive' bonus manage a nuclear plant – or your financial risks.”

The second one comes from Einstein: “We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

And the last one is from something I wrote shortly after the financial catastrophe of 2007-8: “We have been on a bus hurtling towards the edge of a cliff at increasing speed. Luckily, that bus has broken down. Unfortunately, the response of those in power is to try and fix it and get it roaring along again in the same direction. It has to change course.”


JUNE 29 2016

Does anyone agree that the EU would look a very different place if my "Approval Rating" system had been in place? The idea is that every EU country holds a referendum each year and instead of the binary option of IN or OUT, voters would score the EU's performance over the previous year out of 10. The UK referendum of June 23 was basically this, but with only the possibility of awarding 10 out of 10 or zero out of 10 - with the inevitable result. But an annual rating from the entire EU population - or those that care enough to vote - of between one and 10 would send a clear message regarding satisfaction levels, especially if any score below six - or maybe seven - resulted in the expulsion and replacement of every commissioner. It might take three or four years to find an acceptable group, but after that we might have a competent commission acting in the interests of the vast majority of the European people. 

JUNE 25 2016

There is no need to be bewildered by this vote - the numbers were shocking, I agree - but the depth of feeling has been there for a long time, for anyone prepared to look. Janice Turner's brilliant column in The Times today says it all, and is very similar to the arguments I outline below. PLEASE read her column.

JUNE 23 2016

For anyone demanding evidence of EU incompetence, dysfunction etc, (accusations levelled below) I give you: last year's "madness of Mrs Merkel", barbed wire borders, falling hostage to Turkey, vehicle emissions testing, TWO parliament buildings, farm subsidies, to name just a few of the big ones that are barely even mentioned in the piece below.

And to those bemoaning the threat of continuing division and rancour - don't worry, it's always been there. It's just that for a fleeting moment the weak, poor and ignored have been given a tiny voice. They will go back to being subjected to Business As Usual from tomorrow. 

JUNE 22 2016

Why I cannot vote for the EU - but don't like Brexit campaigners either   (In reply to an essay “Why I shall vote to stay in Europe” – by Frank Brierley)


Frank wrote an intelligent and thoughtful piece on why he supports remaining in the EU. I felt there were other ways to interpret the issues he raised and annotated his original essay. Frank then provided further notes and the beast grew to unwieldy proportions. I have therefore extracted my thoughts into this reply, attempting to introduce each section with a very brief summary of the point Frank was making. If I have misinterpreted him in any way, or been mistaken, then I apologise, as that was truly not my intention. You should already have been sent his original article, so you can judge for yourselves, if necessary.

But reflecting on our friendly exchanges, I can now see the underlying difference in our approach. Anyone who believes the status quo to be most excellent will have no trouble deciding how to vote in this referendum: they will choose Remain. I don't think either of us are in this camp.

But if you see the EU's influence as less than perfect, then how you vote may depend on your priorities and how you regard the EU's willingness to listen and change. This is becoming an increasing theme in the debate as the EU's imperfections are at last being discussed, as seen in The Times' leader column on June 21, headlined “Leading, not Leaving”. Frank believes that staying in the bloc will enable the UK to engage more deeply with EU member states and to argue for – and bring about – great reforms, as The Times leader argues. I take the view that the EU is not interested in our concerns and is fundamentally incapable of reform. Having been an enthusiastic Europhile for so long, I am hugely disappointed at the direction it is taking.

Also, neither of us has delved into the arcane and largely meaningless realm of economic forecasts. During my many years working for the FT I always felt they were on a par with trying to predict next year's football results. Frank alludes to them tangentially a couple of times and I am prepared to concede that a Leave vote would inevitably cause market turbulence. How things might look in 10 or 20 years obviously cannot be known. Beyond that, I hope Frank will agree that our cases are more to do with principles and the future of our society than numbers.

But to get to our debate:

Frank and I agree that the level of debate by leading politicians has been infantile and irresponsible on both sides. The Prime Minister should be especially ashamed of himself for offering the country a choice regarding a matter upon which he now claims there is none. In our discussion Frank and I have ignored the sorry state of the current political leadership on both sides of the argument, probably both assuming (certainly in my case) that this cadre of unworthy, here-today-gone-tomorrow politicians will be an irrelevance within five years.

Overall, I am not especially political – at least, not party political. Although I suspect Frank and I are far more “political” than we are admitting. But either way, being an FT journalist for nearly 27 years provided me with a ring-side seat at the main political and socio-economic events of the era and a close-up view of the oppressive rise of the corporation since the mid-80s. Also, my upbringing in the low-church, anti-establishment, heavily work-centric and justice-seeking environment of south Northamptonshire might help explain the distribution of my sympathies.

For his part, Frank said he was temperamentally more attracted to the Remain case and wanted to examine whether he could justify his stance objectively, choosing the issues that have influenced him. I have stuck to Frank's agenda in this response. There are, of course, many more issues, but we hope the ones chosen will prove illustrative of our stances.

I, too, am idealistically and temperamentally strongly supportive of a co-operative Europe and would, in other circumstances, be – and indeed have been in the past – an enthusiastic EU supporter. But I cannot overlook the manifest and widely acknowledged failings of the current embodiment of that co-operation, the EU. This is where the distinction between “Europe” and the “EU” becomes critical. The act of endorsing an incompetent, dysfunctional, out-dated, anti-democratic organisation that is riddled with dubious practices and waste must surely involve holding one's nose quite tightly. It would not be out of the question, depending on how we weight our other priorities, but very unpleasant. It is also amusing to see so many politicians who were deeply critical of the EU until a few months ago now extolling its virtues and denying its vices.

Waste

Frank's first issue concerned the enormous waste that leaving would entail, in terms of adjusting to being outside the EU on multiple fronts and levels. I counter that this has not become an issue in the debate because it really isn't one. Why? First, the EU itself is a gigantic bureaucracy and renowned for its wasteful procedures, which we would be spared. Second, while there would be much to be done if the UK votes to leave, those carrying out the bulk of it would have been doing the same or similar work anyway, whether in the civil service or business. Third, to argue that there would be a lot to do could be applied to virtually every action or change, no matter how worthwhile.

Peace and prosperity

In response to Frank's argument that the EU has made a vitally valuable contribution to peace and prosperity over the past 60 years, I agree up to a point. It is certainly likely that the EEC and EU have had some effect on peace and prosperity since the war. But how significant the causal link might be is debatable. The unifying effect of the cold war, Nato, political developments favouring democracy over authoritarianism in the west (capitalist democracies tend not to go to war with each other – all possible outcomes show negative returns), and the suffocating dominance of business, markets, money, economics and self-interest must also have contributed. And not all of those had much to do with the EU – or are even completely desirable to a mind devoted to social justice and fairness.

Worryingly, EU pressure for eastwards expansion, coupled with its blindness to social unrest within, caused by mass uncontrolled migrations, are fast becoming potential causes of future conflict. The parties – and gangs – of the far right are increasingly prominent across EU countries as ordinary unheeded communities respond, perfectly rationally, to what is happening to them. And it is not Farage, or newspapers creating this frightening rise of the right – they are reflecting it in one instance and feeding off it in the other. It is thus perfectly plausible to argue that the EU is now turning into one of the biggest potential causes of conflict and serious unrest within Europe.


In theory, the EU as a bloc ought to carry a political weight greater than the sum of its parts. In practice, it has rarely acted as a “cohesive world power” politically, usually becoming paralysed by the conflicting viewpoints and interests of its members. Its role during the Balkan wars, for example, was hardly decisive or effective. Similarly, its role in courting Ukraine can be seen as fuelling Russian paranoia and aggression, leading to an unnecessary worsening of relations, sanctions and tension.

In economic terms, yes, Spain and Portugal's economies have expanded hugely, but from a very low base following liberation from dictatorships. Similarly, Ireland has veered from basket case to “tiger” and back again. Many countries around the world, outside the EU, have had very similar experiences: the BRIC countries, for example. It can be equally logically argued that the rise of business globally and the easing of trade barriers around the world have had a far greater effect than the EU economically. Indeed, the EU's one-size-fits-all, lowest common denominator arrangements can be seen as less than optimal in securing the most advantageous conditions for all of its members. And as for the euro experiment, it seems to have dragged the EU economy as a whole into the doldrums.

Meanness

Frank and I are both upset at how Britons seem to have become meaner and more selfish over the past 50 years. I completely agree with him that the era since the late 1970s has been characterised by meanness and selfishness. The direction of travel since the rise of the corporation in the 80s has been towards money, greed, and unearned income. We need to examine the causes. But before we look at the three categories Frank identifies as examples, I would suggest that the “natural” state of British people is to be open, generous and caring. The UK experienced repeated waves of immigration throughout the last century, the vast majority of which was met with tolerance and charity. Where there have been tensions initiated by the pre-existing population, these can largely be attributed to secondary factors directly affecting communities' well-being. So to call ordinary people “mean” and “selfish” for reacting angrily to losing their jobs to people prepared to undercut their wages, for example, seems to ignore the real underlying causes.

Meanness 1 – Immigrants

Frank argues that immigration, as an issue, is exaggerated and exacerbated by the emphasis politicians have placed on it and tries to downplay its real significance. But I reply that we have to accept that immigration clearly IS the most significant issue for millions of people. It is the number one factor cited in polls and interviews etc (outside the south-east England wealth-belt, at least).

And this brings us to the very nub of the debate. How you view immigration seems to depend largely upon whether you are a beneficiary or a victim. The business case is that immigrants work hard for low wages. This, they say, benefits business, the economy and the treasury. They “pay their way”. The alternative, and far less heard, case is that lowly paid immigrants are prepared to endure conditions that would be considered unfit by the vast majority of the pre-existing population, and depress wages or even destroy “proper” job opportunities entirely, at enormous cost to individuals, communities, and the taxpayer footing the bill for the benefits of the locally displaced.

Consider these two paragraphs by an old colleague of mine, the FT's John Gapper. He puts in a nutshell the conflict between attitudes in the south-east cosmopolitan wealth-belt and the under-reported realities of life beyond the home counties. He is talking about that wonderful “wealth creator” Mike Ashley, and his disgraceful Sports Direct factory at Shirebrook, staffed mainly by long-suffering eastern European migrants. What he describes here should be, for all of us, the nub of the issue:

"To a university-educated, London citizen such as me, the benefits of technological innovation, free trade and free movement of labour are clear and unalloyed. They stimulate economic growth and raise the quality of goods and services, as well as making it cheaper and easier to shop online. Leaving the EU and European single market would be a deeply damaging mistake.

"For those in Shirebrook, who swapped a mine that provided quite rewarding jobs until it closed in 1993 for a warehouse that employs outsiders on low wages, the gains are less obvious. Sports Direct employs people — but not the same ones and not at the same rate. It is now hard to find a good job if your education is limited to school.”

This is the reality for millions of British people, of whatever background, that has shaped their “meanness”. I am not prepared to judge them as “selfish”. Yes, Shirebrook is only one appalling example of exploitation – but this is how modern business operates: cutting costs to maximise profits. Across vast swathes of the UK, free movement of labour is reversing the business trend of “outsourcing” and “offshoring” – so popular only a decade or so ago. This is because businesses no longer need to go to the trouble of employing low-cost labour overseas – they can hire it on their doorstep. The fact that so many poorly paid people qualify to have their wages topped up by the state – which we might call “businesses on benefits” – speaks volumes. Is this steady, business-led downgrading and cheapening of our society really the way we want to proceed?

And consider this extract from a piece of first-class reporting by John Harris in The Guardian:

Instead of the comparative security and stability of the postwar settlement and the last act of Britain’s industrial age, what’s the best we can now offer for so many people in so many places? Six-week contracts at the local retail park, lives spent pinballing in and out of the benefits system, and retirements built on thin air?

It may have been easy to miss in the London-centred haze of the “knowledge economy” and the birth of the digital future, but this is where millions of lives have been heading since the early 1980s – and to read that some Labour MPs have come back from their constituencies, amazed by the views they encounter on the doorstep, is to be struck by a political failure that sits right at the heart of the story. How did they not know?

What has any of this got to do with the EU? Not much, but such is the nature of referendums: offer people a ballot paper, and they will focus whatever they feel strongly about on to it. There again, one obvious issue is directly linked to the EU, and so central to the political moment that it arises in countless conversations within seconds.

Yes, some people – from bigots in the stockbroker belt to raging gobshites in south Wales shopping precincts – are simply racist. But in a society and economy as precarious as ours, the arrival of large numbers of people prepared to do jobs with increasingly awful terms and conditions was always going to trigger loud resentment. For many places, the pace of change and the pressures on public services have arguably proved to be too much to cope with.”

He warns later: “People have good reason to worry about [free movement], and their anger and anxiety will not go away.”

Frank goes on to say that we need Latvian farm workers, Polish builders, Indian doctors, Filipino nurses, and IT workers from wherever we can get them and accuses Brexiters of only playing the immigration card to stir voters' emotions towards their cause. I think this accusation is fair – I agree that it has been a nasty aspect of the right-wing Brexit case. But there are complex issues here that are often jumbled into one, concerning EU legal economic migrants, non-EU legal immigration, illegal economic migration, and refugees.

First, whatever the precise figures on EU versus non-EU immigration – and most figures show them to be roughly equal – the population shifts from eastern Europe to the west and the UK are now large and have multiplied enormously in recent years. This has effects both for us and the countries of origin. At present levels (184,000 net per year), EU immigration alone would require building a city almost the size of Birmingham (1.1m) every six years simply to be housed. Frank counters that wide distribution of migrants in every town across the land would make their presence barely noticeable. But this is not the reality – some communities (not ours in Surrey) bear far greater burdens than others. Consider the outrage sparked in Claygate by threatened encroachments into the Green Belt, for example. This ought to make us empathise with those communities facing the arrival of hundreds or thousands of, rather than one or two, people on their doorsteps. And population growth on this scale must inevitably pose huge challenges to policy-makers and service providers at all levels. 

In the future, this population explosion could, of course, reduce. Or increase. The prime minister's feeble attempt at slowing it shows that which way it goes currently depends entirely upon the free and unfettered choices made by millions of individuals in eastern Europe. And the disequilibrium within the expanded EU's economies makes it a rational choice for most of them to move west.

Second, non-EU immigration is high, too, because we are importing skills. There are several problems with this. One is that, because of uncontrolled EU immigration pushing up the totals, the government felt forced to impose restrictions (salary threshholds, restrictions on “indefinite leave to remain” etc) on non-EU migrants. This is limiting our ability to access some skills. Why do we need skills from other countries? Because, for example, we don't train enough doctors, IT specialists, engineers, etc – nor do we provide those that we do train with a sufficiently attractive work-life to keep them in the UK. And we need to import these skills from beyond the EU because the bulk of the self-selected EU immigrants tend to secure work through their low cost, rather than bringing the specialist skills we seek.

It is therefore perfectly reasonable to argue that immigration could be reduced and managed at a level closer to our choosing were we allowed to control EU migration, focus on training for the skills we need, and provide a greatly improved working experience for those we do train.

As for the rest, illegal economic migration from across Africa and Asia into the EU is an immense problem. Fortunately, the stunning incompetence that European leaders have applied to this crisis has not had a profoundly adverse impact in the UK – yet. But it surely will, whether we stay in the EU or whether we leave. And worse, the ineptitude with which the illegal migrant crisis is being handled – or not handled – is hampering anyone's ability to do more for genuine refugees. It is deeply infuriating that illegal migrants, criminal traffickers, and the witless EU policies that aid and abet them are diverting so many energies and resources and so much capacity away from helping people who genuinely ARE in desperate need.

So yes, as things stand, we need Indian doctors, Filipino nurses and IT workers because of the UK's “training and treatment gap”. Sadly, we now need Polish builders and Latvian farm workers because UK labourers cannot live reasonably on reduced standard rates of pay. And I would not be prepared to ask them to. A recent news story illustrates the point: a sandwich factory in Northampton was reported as advertising for staff in eastern Europe, claiming local people were lazy, not prepared to work and preferred benefits. But a closer look at the working conditions – zero hours contracts, low pay, and the prospect of Sports Direct-like maltreatment – made it unlikely you would want to send a dog there to work, let alone allow someone you cared about to go there.

In summary, I think it unfair to accuse every Leave supporter of using immigration to whip up jingoism and racism. Yes, Farage is an unpleasant man, as are many of the right-wing Brexiters (who are making most of the noise). But there is a very strong, little-heard, left-leaning Brexit case that can see what immigration is doing outside the home counties to the weakest people in the UK. This referendum is giving those people a say; what would you expect them to do?

Meanness 2: The Social Chapter

Frank admits he was “dead against” the 1992 Social Chapter, aimed at improving living and working conditions, because of the extra costs and reduction of the power of company managements (eg to dismiss employees). He now sees it as having had significant benefits for workers across Europe, in areas such as maternity and paternity leave, health and safety legislation, etc. Franks says: “It is an example of European membership having pushed Britain in a more humane direction....I personally am very pleased in retrospect that European social legislation still exercises some influence on a Britain where I believe the mean, materialistic attitudes of successive governments and big business have nevertheless succeeded in polarising wealth distribution to a morally indefensible degree.”

In response, I think it's marvellous that we now all love the Social Chapter. I've always been a big fan of regulations that protect workers and ordinary people. So to hear that initial business-led opposition (“Stop! - we need to be able to sack people more easily”) can be turned around by time, experience and reality is encouraging. But it does raise the question as to how much influence we should be allowing business on other issues.

It also raises a question around effectiveness. Mike Ashley has been operating happily without worrying too much about workers' conditions. It's true to say that we don't know how much worse things could have been without a basic minimum provided by EU regulation. What we can say is that while UK workers' ground-level power – via trade unions – has been seriously eroded under both Tory and New Labour governments during the UK's 40 or so years inside the EU, all workers have been granted protections “from above” by EU rules governing working time, parental leave etc etc. And, of course, EU rules have had positive effects in other areas, such as the environment. Although I do find it deeply troubling that we now have to rely on the EU for protections against our own governments and employers. And we might ask to what extent this "safety net" has affected the UK's political discourse and even its choice of governments.

Meanness 3: The money criterion in education

Frank and I agree that higher education policy in the UK is “marginally economic and misery-making” and needs to be changed. Frank argues that this could he done by “leading the way within Europe to persuade our partners to join us in far wider governmental support for education”. He also cites the Erasmus programme as “a glowing example of the benefits available in this field from EU membership”.

My only quibble in this area is over whether much-needed improvements in the UK's education and training sectors can only be achieved within the EU. There has to be a strong case for saying that education policy changes are far easier to write and implement within an independent country than within a large group. And we are in a poor position to persuade other countries when the financing of our own higher education system is such a shambles. It might also be pointed out that the UK, Germany and France initially opposed the creation of the Erasmus programme (itself an amalgamation of pre-existing programmes) because they already had superior student exchange systems of their own – and so it was, at least initially, another example of “lowest common denominator” politics.

Sovereignty

I have no huge concerns over sovereignty per se. Government is either good or bad, whatever its jurisdiction. However, the undemocratic ways of the complex EU structures are undeniable, and the anti-democratic force of the “rule of law mechanism” is shocking. Some MEPs themselves say they are frustrated at their lack of power. But again, if everything else was fine, this would not be a big issue. I would always argue for decision-making to be closer to the people, in principle, for reasons of accountability and change. But against that, our own government or councils are just as capable as the EU of being misguided, blind or idiotic.

Idealism

I hope I haven't misrepresented any of Frank's views, and I hope he agrees that on this subject he is calling for the UK to use its influence, and the respect it enjoys in the world, to spread learning and enlightenment across the EU. And who could deny that this is a wonderful ambition? But the evidence stands piled high against the possibility of success. The EU has shown itself to be completely uninterested in reform or significant change. Yes, it has allowed the UK a few opt-outs when we have insisted, but it is hard to see much sign of UK influence within the EU beyond this. The commissioners pursue their agendas with blinkers firmly in place. The idea of a rosy European conversation or round-table learning experience is not on any EU agenda.

Having said that, it might be forced on to the agenda if a big enough shock were to be delivered. Clearly, the possibility that the UK might vote to leave is of insufficient concern in Brussels to have made it worth discussing meaningful concessions or reform. But Austria almost achieved a shock with its recent election. And what was the response of the EU? Not “it's time we thought about the causes of this frightening rise in fascism across Europe”. But “if the people of Austria elect a far-right president, we'll just take over its government”. This simply fails on so many levels. The EU is breaking down and no longer functions as it once did. The cavalier admission of the accession states threw away the delicate equilibrium that had enabled it to work so well – yet its current unbalanced condition has not even been acknowledged, let alone dealt with.

I would dearly love EU leaders to be capable of seeing the real problems they are causing and to address them; then my enthusiasm would be renewed. Failing that, we should be in no doubt that a vote to leave will incur a heavy price as a vindictive European Commission takes its revenge. But looking further ahead, I sadly conclude that only a big shock will force the EU to recognise the deeper damage it is doing. And that's why I cannot bring myself, whatever else I might do, to endorse it with my vote.


MAY 17 2016

Two quick points: I think it's a great pity that the EU membership debate is being conducted almost entirely between members of groups one and two, as identified in my April 25 notes. Also, it's becoming increasingly clear that the Remain campaign has to work harder to overcome its basic message that "this is as good as it gets". It has no grounds for optimism and is essentially a conservative, defensive stance. The Leave campaign, on the other hand, has to overcome the problem of which philosophy will prevail in the event of an exit vote: the one that will free businesses to trade and exploit, or the one that will protect society and the environment. If the former, we would probably be better off staying in the EU.


APRIL 25 2016

Views on the EU debate seem to fall into a four-way matrix. Two groups view the issues from the business/economy perspective - and reach opposite conclusions, and two view them from the people/social perspective - and also reach opposite conclusions.

The first two groups, most prominently supported by right-wing politicians, both see the economy and business as paramount - but one focuses on trade deals, the threat of financial services firms to move abroad, and cheap labour and predicts catastrophe if we leave; the other focuses on mass immigration, business regulation, EU costs and employee protections and says freeing ourselves of these will help businesses.   

The second two groups, most prominently supported by liberal and left-leaning commentators, see the environment, culture, society and workers as paramount. But one group focuses on EU environmental and workplace protections and sees these as an overriding reason to remain; the other focuses on mass migration and its impact on lowering wages and overloading services, causing social conflict and destroying the environment.  

Each group makes perfectly valid and reasonable points but is also vulnerable to criticism from each of the other three. For example, the pro-business Remain group might be right in saying there will be a shock to the economy from which we will all suffer financially. But the second group would counter that this is short-term speculation and that a new equilibrium would emerge; the third group argues that a more positive message than pessimism and scaremongering is required; and the fourth group would argue that as business interests and workers' interests become increasingly misaligned, a large part of the population has too small a stake in business to support it at all costs. Such strengths and weaknesses apply to each group - and there may well be other groups and sub-groups, too.

The two people who have impressed me most with their views on the EU vote - Janice Turner, Times columnist (Leave) and Jeremy Corbyn (Remain) - illustrate these divides. They make almost the same arguments but reach opposite conclusions - such is the nature of this debate. Corbyn is a group three man and argues that the EU's employee protections make everything else a price worth paying. And here's Janice Turner's column, she's group four:

http://marcpontinblog.com/brexit-great-article-by-janice-turner/

It's therefore a highly complex debate. And the greatest danger I see is that those taking part place themselves in one of these groups and fail to acknowledge the legitimate claims and nuances of the others. This is why I have looked at what I see as the key issues and categorised them as reasons to stay, leave or both/neither. 


APRIL 18 2016

SHOULD WE STAY OR SHOULD WE GO?

The EU affects many aspects of our lives. Here, I have selected the key factors that will influence my vote in the coming referendum. It is far from a clear-cut decision.

I see three powerful reasons to stay in the EU.

The first reason for staying is to retain the employee protections afforded by EU laws and regulation. These would almost certainly be stripped away by business pressure if we leave the EU, leaving workers exposed to ever more exploitation and relative impoverishment.

The second is that I have no confidence whatever in the politicians responsible for dealing with our proposed exit. There has to be a huge fear that they will not make a clean break and will negotiate a deal with the EU that is even worse than the one we have now. Talk of the “Norwegian model” or “Canadian model” is worrying and distracting. We would only be better off leaving if we choose the “UK model”. And if that model placed the protection of society, workers and the environment at its core.

A third reason is the romantic idea that we should strive towards a greater understanding of, and deeper relationship with, our neighbours in Europe, which has enormous value.

I see the following six factors as neutral.

EU spending. Redistributing the UK's EU contribution and spending it on hospitals etc is a simplistic argument and cannot be a decisive factor. Money flies in all directions around the EU and the overall impact either way is unknown and subject to manipulation.

Business/trade/economy. Arguing that the country will suffer because business and trade will be badly affected is to argue that the UK is merely a business machine and nothing else matters. It also assumes economic forecasting has any value - which it hardly ever does. On the other hand, UK businesses are artful, ruthless, largely amoral, and capable of operating in whatever environment they find themselves. Those that are not are probably not real going concerns at all. Businesses abhor change – but tend to adapt well to new trading circumstances. The levels of UK trade with the EU also appear to be rather lower than we are often led to believe. Overall, the UK's medium and long-term economic behaviour and fortunes are unknowable and cannot therefore be a defining issue.  

'Things will change'. The “things will change” argument also works both ways. Some things will be better, other things worse. But the constant bombardment of scare stories, mostly from the Remain campaign, are merely statements that things might change. But would change be so awful, given our recent history of financial disasters and “austerity” (for some)?

International relations. Again, this works both ways. Being part of a bloc adds weight, but the EU is prone to blundering and disunity. And as for the EU preventing renewed war in Europe? Today, the EU is just as likely to be the cause of a war than prevent it.

Security. Security can hardly be called an EU competence. The UK is already a leading global force in security and will remain so, in or out of the EU.

Law. Sovereignty of the legal system is no deciding factor, either. I have no great confidence in the EU or other international courts, but the UK's own can be equally daft.

The following six factors support leaving the EU.

Mass migrations. The EU has proved itself utterly incompetent over economic migration, illegal and otherwise, from beyond its borders. Germany's role in this has been astoundingly stupid – and this will have serious implications for every EU member country.

'Free movement'. Mass movements of populations within the EU are also a potential catastrophe. Mass migrations throughout history have invariably resulted in social unrest, hatreds, rivalries, civil wars and bigger wars. Taken to its logical conclusion, the EU “free movement” policy is a dangerous absurdity. In spite of what the government's pro-EU booklet says, the UK does NOT have full control of its borders, which inevitably undermines security.

Population explosion. This is to say nothing of the unprecedented population explosion, the effects of which range from overwhelming pressures on social services and serious and growing social tensions, to being the predominant factor in fuelling the frightening levels of housing demand. Building a city the size of Birmingham every three or four years is not physically sustainable. Unrestricted migrations also hamper our capacity to contribute towards resettling desperate refugees (who are very different from migrants - we are ALL potential migrants).

Jobs and wages. Economic disparities across the enlarged EU have destroyed the former equilibrium, creating a strong imperative for uncontrolled mass migrations, with eastern European workers free to compete for jobs in western European economies, which drives down wages to a level that UK workers - especially youngsters - cannot reasonably live on, thereby alienating an important section of the workforce. High levels of employment, coupled with low pay, stifle investment and create low productivity in a slowly growing economy. (Some see this as an inexplicable paradox!)

EU expansion. EU plans for wider and deeper integration and expansion to the east and south are further reasons for exiting. The EU's ambitions in each of these areas are unrealistic and extremely dangerous, and are already causing tensions which are likely to lead to some level of EU disintegration whether the UK stays or leaves.

EU refusal to change. The EU will not countenance meaningful reform. Even David Cameron's trivial attempts at reform were resisted and EU leaders have made very clear that basic principles are non-negotiable. It is possible that the impact of a “leave” vote on other restless EU member states might make the EU hierarchy more willing to listen, opening the possibility of real discussions and perhaps even renewed UK participation in a reconstituted European entity.

On balance...

In some areas the EU is valuable – for example, as a haphazard protector of employee and consumer rights; in others it is dysfunctional, wasteful and potentially dangerous. A vote to stay would be to endorse the current sorry state of affairs – and the repercussions of that are frightening: the UK will be walked all over. As in most relationships, by the time the “stay or leave” question is asked, the only sensible answer is “go”.

While I find some of the reasons given by “Brexiteers” for leaving the EU (avoiding EU employment regulation, for example) to be odious, and while most “Remain” campaigners merely peddle hypothetical scare stories about the effects on business – as if nothing else mattered – I have to conclude that a vote to stay in the EU is marginally worse than a vote to leave. I shall therefore be voting Leave on June 23.


2014

April 21 2014. In the few weeks since retiring I have visited Copenhagen in Denmark and A Coruna in northern Spain; rearranged our cupboards at home to create a working environment for me, should I decide to work; sold my first items on eBay; begun sessions with a.personal trainer; been to the golf driving range and Hampton Pool for swimming; attended several functions, including interviewing Lord Chris Smith at an "audience with" event; have re-started the process of transferring my vinyl records into digital format; played tennis; and held several meetings. And much more besides.     

March 1 2014. This is the day I retired from the Financial Times, after almost 27 years in various roles at the newspaper. I began on June 1 1987, when it was very much a newspaper. By the time I left, it had grown into a multi-channel, multi-media company. I was only 55 when I quit - but believing that quitting while you're ahead and not doing anything purely for money are two good principles, I decided I could just about afford to take early retirement and really couldn't afford to stay.