A stagnant economy in need of visionaries

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Belfast Harbour – once feeding one of the great industrial hubs of the world now serving a city which is not living up to its potential

The Financial Times has just been sold to the Japanese for £844 million. Who says newspapers are dead? The new owner is the Nikkei Corporation, little known on this side of the world, but a major media player in what we once quaintly called the Far East. The term is frowned on these days for its colonial overtones.

The Japanese economy is in the doldrums, and not without its corporate woes as the Toshiba scandal has shown. Executives there have fallen on the swords after revealing they overstated profits (as happened recently at Tesco). But nonetheless, Japan remains a powerful force in the world economy – as the Nikkei acquisition shows.

Other nations where Irish missionaries once won soldiers for the pope’s many battalions are also showing the west a thing or two financially: Taiwan, still contested territory, Singapore where this week David Cameron has been touting for business for Britain, and of course the mighty China.

Still nominally communist, Mao’s successors have embraced the free market, as once the pigs did the farmers in Orwell’s Animal Farm. China too has been on a bumpy ride this past week. Stock markets can plunge, even in an economy as meticulously planned as the Chinese.

Such is the interconnectedness of the global economy, that the fall in the Chinese market is said to have cost US investors almost $60 billion (the equivalent of a company the size of global technology giant HP). Those of you piling money into company pensions will have been impacted indirectly. China has been seen as a pretty safe bet to now.

Regardless of these specific difficulties, the Asian economies will continue to grow in strength at the expense of the west. China is likely to become the world’s economic powerhouse, supplanting America. Without wishing to indulge in racial stereotyping, our Asian brothers tend to work harder and pay themselves less.

The American Empire (with its protectorates in Europe) is on the wane. It is still enormously strong economically, politically and militarily as President Obama’s emotional ‘return’ to Africa has demonstrated. But all the signs of decline and fall are there.

By stealth China is buying up real estate and influence in western nations, but in Africa it is investing billions in major infrastructure initiatives – ports, roads, rail and power. Africa remains rich in natural resources critical for China’s economic development; the Chinese now pump in more than the US, and ship out oil and minerals essential for industry.

As the tectonic plates of the global economy shift, where does that leave Northern Ireland? It is a tiny economy whose deficiencies have been well explored on these pages. It is also hobbled by being wedded to a much bigger economy centred on London. Being part of a large economy can be a strength, but it is also a weakness, as cities like Manchester, Newcastle and Glasgow know well.

Regardless of the constitutional niceties, the UK link has created a dependency culture here. Devolution provided the opportunity for the region to take greater control of its own destiny.

But the Executive has not proved to be up to the task; and it is not just because of the tension between nationalism and unionism. There is no consensus about how the economic needs of society are best met – within the parties, never mind between them. And there is no consensus about the priorities for Northern Ireland.

This economy is in an accident and emergency department where triage isn’t practiced. Doctors are focusing their attention on minor injuries rather than potentially mortal wounds.

Worse still, those with the capacity to help Northern Ireland out of its difficulties feel they are being ignored. We have all been in a position where the person we are talking too nods encouragingly, but doesn’t listen.

That’s how business feels about the Executive.

There is no doubt about the problems facing those who govern us. Needs grow and resources dwindle. But there is a limit to how much more you can do for less. We need to find a way of growing the pot.

There was once a time when the relationship between Britain and Ireland mattered, where sovereignty mattered, where protectionism could help countries withstand global competition.

But that world has gone. In Northern Ireland we are still fighting the wrong war.

The big issue is how do we invest limited resources where they are best able to stimulate growth, generate income and create wealth to be reinvested in those areas that best improve quality of life.

  • A version of this column appeared in The Irish News on July 31 2015

How Our Man in London plans to sell a rebellion

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The Easter Rising: a terrible beauty and a challenge in the 21st century

Pity Dan Mulhall, the urbane Irish ambassador to the Court of St James. A press aide to Dick Spring during the turbulent but dramatic nineties, Mulhall has gone on to a distinguished career in the diplomatic service.

London needs safe hands. Even in the best of times, there’s a rough edge to the relationship between the two countries and Mulhall is well versed in the intricacies of Anglo-Irish relations.

The ambassador is obsessed by the work of WB Yeats, so the 150th anniversary of the poet’s birth has been a gift. One of the finest writers in the English language, Yeats speaks to the world, not just Ireland. He has become one of Mulhall’s primary tools for soft diplomacy, as subscribers to his twitter feed will know only too well. Yeats scholars watch out, the ambassador is after your job.

The poet has been in the news this week for other reasons. But the controversy about whether the bones buried in Drumcliffe belong to him or a French peasant doesn’t much matter. Yeats’s spirit resides in his visionary writing.

From Yeats it is just a step to 1916, and the men who were martyred by the British after the Easter Rising.

In his remarkable meditation Easter 1916, Yeats coined one of the most dramatic couplets of the English language: “All changed, changed utterly:/A terrible beauty is born.”

Next year sees the 100th anniversary of the Rising, it coincides with an equally potent one for the Somme, one of the sorriest of sorry battles in the First World War. Irishmen died there too in their thousands – nationalists fighting in the forlorn hope that war would yield to home rule, and unionists fighting on the same side for the opposite outcome.

Irish anniversaries have a habit of turning out badly. The Twelfth is a constant reminder of that. But at least with the Twelfth we sort of know where the hot spots are going to be and the likely results.

The Rising anniversary is a different matter. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that it is fraught with risk. The Law of Unintended Consequences will almost certainly come into play. Like relatives fighting over a will, many claim to be the rightful inheritors of the flame lit that fateful Easter morning. In addition to internecine rivalry, there is its impact on the tensions between the two traditions here.

History has a way of flattening things out, and the 1916 rebels are now seen as being players in Ireland’s seamless transition to nationhood. It was bumpier than that. Whether the Irish government can claim direct line of descent is a matter of debate. Nonetheless, it has taken on the job of commemorating the event, not just in Ireland but globally.

It is Mulhall’s job to sell it to the British. Like selling ice to Eskimos, it’s a thankless task. This week in his blog (check out the Irish Embassy website) he confronted the question: how does the rising commemoration relate to Britain? Interestingly, he sees it in the context of the “extensive Irish involvement in World War 1”, and details exhaustively Ireland’s involvement in remembrance events.

“Just as involvement in the First World War had a major impact on Ireland, so too the Rising was an important event in British history and in the remaking of relations between our two islands.” You have to admire his pluck.

“It was the beginning of a new era between us as neighbouring States and it is important that we take this opportunity to look back at a century of Irish independence and take stock of where we’ve come from and where we’re headed.”

Unsurprisingly, he plans to focus on “the future direction of relations between our two countries and on the contribution Irish people have made to British life over the years, notably in the cultural field”.

He hopes this will lead to “greater awareness in Britain of the intriguing complexities of Irish history”. Few will dispute his observation that: “Proper reconciliation comes when we can grasp and appreciate each other’s perspectives”.

But I doubt the English will be fussed. The residents of Kensington and Chelsea have long since reconciled themselves to the Easter Rising. The intellectuals will enjoy their seminars, speeches and canapés in the Irish Embassy and no doubt a member of the Royal Family will be persuaded to raise a glass to the memory of Pearse and his comrades.

But what’s the strategy for Northern Ireland where the outcome of the Rising has not yet been resolved?

  • A version of this article appeared in The Irish News on July 24 2015

Public Service broadcasting under threat

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God save the… BBC another British institution under threat. The Queen interrupts the news, is her Government is planning to interrupt the BBC

 

We have America to thanks for the BBC. When broadcasting was in its infancy, the British government looked across the Atlantic at what was happening in the United States, and it didn’t like what it saw.

Lack of regulation combined with competition saw broadcasters going for the lowest common denominator in search of ratings and advertising revenues. In its wisdom, the British government decided to broadcasters would have to apply for a licence, and to ensure Britain remained free of crass commercialism, it issued only one.

The British Broadcasting Company, later the British Broadcasting Corporation was born and, with a dour Scot – John Reith – on charge so too was the principle of public service broadcasting. Reith articulated the BBC’s mission – its purpose in life was to inform, educate and entertain.

By and large it has served Britain well through challenging times, as well as those years when “we never had it so good”. Such has been the BBC’s influence on broadcasting, that the concept of ‘public service’ is embedded even in those channels with a commercial remit (though Channel 5 stretches the boundaries somewhat, it must be said).

Like many institutions, the BBC has its detractors – not least in government (parties of all political persuasions); and over the years it has been subjected to sniping, whispered threats and the occasional full-frontal assault. On occasion the attacks are justified. Even its friends recognise the BBC has the capacity to shoot itself in the foot. More often than not, however, the criticisms are politically motivated.

Although the BBC is an independent body, established by Royal Charter, the government keeps the corporation on a short leash. Its governing body – currently the BBC Trust – is appointed by ministers, and its Charter is up for renewal every 10 years. With this sword of Damocles hanging over its head, the BBC is constantly on its guard.

We are going into a Charter renewal period now, and this time the long grass surrounding Broadcasting House is filled with enemies waiting to pounce. A newly-elected and hubristic government has just released a Green Paper ahead of Charter renewal which questions the role of the BBC in a new digital landscape.

The future of the licence fee is one line of attack, the second is the type of programming the BBC should be focusing its energies on.

Should it be running popular radio stations such as Radio One and Two? Should it be competing with Independent Television in prime time with crowd-pleasers such as Strictly Come Dancing and The Voice? Should it be ploughing public money into soap operas, daytime television and online services?

We have been here before. The BBC has few friends in the national press and they have led the charge – the Murdoch papers, the Daily Mail, the Express – all have their own commercial reasons for wishing to see the BBC cut down to size.

But the truth of the matter is that the BBC is the grit in the commercial oyster. If it did not exist, Independent Television would be much the poorer. Strictly keeps the X-Factor on its toes, EastEnders keeps Coronation Street focused on producing compelling drama; BBC News is a spur to ITN’s newsgathering.

But more important still is the importance of ensuring the principle of ‘public service’ underscores popular programming as well as so-called serious broadcasting.

Radio One is more than just the latest pop. There is no comparison between its non-music output and that available on commercial rivals. The type of informed debate and intelligent news you get on Newsbeat has been driven off other music channels because it is not “commercially viable”. Its output reaches an audience untouched by other media.

If we have learned anything from the last decade, it is that the market alone cannot be trusted to operate for the public good. The Green Paper threatens to do for broadcasting what deregulation did for the banks and the City.

This Charter renewal process threatens an institution that, for all its faults, is an important bedrock of society and a pillar of our cultural life – serious and popular. It should be the last Charter renewal to be managed by politicians. We need to take the future of the BBC out of the hands of people who feel most threatened by its all-seeing eye.

 

In the gutter … looking at the stars

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Lord George Brown: a tired and emotional man

There’s a fabulous story about George Brown, the former British Foreign Secretary in Harold Wilson’s first government. It’s almost certainly not true, but it should be.

Brown was a drunk in an era when it was quite acceptable to be a senior member of Her Majesty’s Government while being incapable of functioning as a rational human being. (Ok not much has changed.)

The story goes that Brown was on a trip to South America extolling the virtues of Britain in a post-colonial world. One night, he’d rather over indulged at a very grand reception. From across the room he spotted a talk willowy figure dressed from head to toe in scarlet. He decided he might be in with a chance and sauntered across to the alluring ‘lady in red’.

“Fancy a dance, dear,” he said in the seductive tones of a politically-correct Nobel Prize-winning scientist.

The tall slim figure looked down at Brown disdainfully.

“I’m sorry sir, there are three reasons why I can’t – you are blind drunk, this is not a waltz but the Peruvian national anthem, and I am the Cardinal Archbishop of Lima.”

For quite a while, the Press turned a blind eye to Brown’s indiscretions. Sobriety was not much valued in the newspaper business in those days, and he was a character. But Private Eye was less inclined to ignore Brown’s activities. The phrase “tired and emotional” was coined as a euphemism to describe his state of consciousness in the service of the realm.

From my teenage years I vaguely remember a story of Brown – then a peer – being found by reporters one evening in the gutter. The incident, which happened in 1976, when Harold Wilson was still in Number 10, prompted an observation in The Times that “Lord George-Brown drunk is a better man than the Prime Minister sober.”

I had sort of forgotten about Brown until he popped up in my life again when I was going through the papers of the late Alastair Hetherington in the special collections at the London School of Economics.

Hetherington, a former editor of the Guardian, ended his career as a professor of journalism at Stirling. Most of his papers are in the University of Stirling library, but LSE has six boxes of material.

LSE’s holdings are almost exclusively file notes of meetings with politicians – mostly Hugh Gaitskell and Harold Wilson (both of whom recognised the importance of the Guardian as the UK’s only left-leaning national newspaper); Jo Grimond the Liberal leader; and Dick Crossman (the Labour politician and professional political gossip).

There are a few records of meetings with Brown, including one at the Shepherd’s Hotel in Cairo where Hetherington walked in on a full-scale row between Brown and his Foreign Office minder; and another of a meeting to discuss the Middle East where Hetherington described Brown as “neither drunk nor sober”. Hands up if you know what he means by that.

In December 1964, two months after the General Election that first brought Wilson to Number 10, Hetherington had dinner with Brown where they gossiped about members of the cabinet, and discussed the economic situation, the state of the pound, and Vietnam – Wilson was decidedly uncomfortable about the Johnson administration’s policy there.

Brown – who was an impressive political operator at his best – impressed Hetherington. But the editor noted: “I was thankful nevertheless that he wasn’t prime minister.” He was not the only one who thought that. Tony Crosland, referring to the contest between Wilson and Brown for the Labour leadership had said it was a choice between a “crook” and a “drunk”.

I thought of the gutter story again on my last night in London when I lost my footing in a pothole near Covent Garden and fell dramatically at the feet of a tourist – finding myself in much the same position as Lord George-Brown in 1976 (though I was sober your honour).

As I lay there on the tarmac, two things came the mind. The first was whether my sprained ankle would be considered to be a work-related injury given I was a on a research trip; the second was Oscar Wilde’s observation: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

I bet George Brown thought that too.