Welcome to the new Peacock Throne

Pomp and Circumstance designed to emphasise “them and us”. The overt premise of the photographs is to reinforce the right to rule because of inherited privilege. None of those featured are where they are because of effort or achievement but solely because of the accident of their birth.

Dress is a key symbol of class and entitlement. This is symbolism at its most overt, “We are different” from you, they say, and you better know your place. In the wild some creatures, mainly male, signal their importance with colourful coats or feathers. This is peacockery saying “look at me in my finery you peasants”.

An earlier Prince George

There is a governance debate to be had about the Monarchy and its place in the modern world. The case for a constitutional monarch as Head of State is not helped by images like these which suggest a royal family stuck in a Regency time warp like Prince George IV in “Blackadder”.

“A nation scared stiff of becoming modern”

The quote in the headline above, on Twitter, is from the writer David Head and when I saw it it immediately struck a chord. The context was the weird Coronation which had largely incomprehensible pageantry which, it seems, was pretty random. The invention of tradition played a big part in the costumes, rituals and the rest.

We are a conservative nation whatever our politics are. We revere the past and don’t like change. Much was achieved in the immediate post war years with the creation of the welfare state. Then that became part of the tradition and as such became immutable to change, especially of course the National Health Service. So threaten the NHS, for example by suggesting a greater role for the private sector, and you’ll be vilified. Conservatism (not the political sort!) in action.

The reason our public services are such a mess is that they haven’t modernised enough. There are many reasons for this. Botched privatisation (The Railways, Water, Gas and Electricity…). Inadequate investment. Union intransigence. Nimbyism. Myopia.

The railways are one of the worst examples of Britain’s failure to modernise. Virtually every country in Europe has High Speed Railways. Paris to Lyon, Milan to Rome, Barcelona to Madrid, Berlin to Munich… quick, safe, clean affordable rail travel is taken for granted. Here zilch. Old tracks, slow trains, confused timetables, incompatible fare systems…

But it’s attitudes that are stuck in the past as well. The insane “Sovereignty” argument that gave us Brexit was like something out of Victorian and Imperial Britain. The idea that going it alone gets better outcomes than working with others is not just absurd but quantifiably bonkers. The delusion that it matters more where a decision is made than the quality of the decision underpinned the Brexiteers’ campaigns.

Sticking a union flag on something is meant to confer value as in the above campaign from a while back to try and persuade people (mainly ourselves) that Britain is Great. It was the sort of thing somebody with a self-confidence problem does.

In the past military and imperial power was such that “Land of Hope and Glory” with its confident assertion that “wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set” was probably true of its time. The Victorian era was a time of British dominance which is why we retain its symbols despite the dominance long since having faded away. That was the essence of the Coronation pageant.

With the exception of the United States and China no nation is large enough to be entirely self-sustaining. Europe together rivals these two great powers and the underlying transnational cooperation imperative in the EU is one that other nations are grouping together to follow. Japan and the ten ASEAN countries have economic and trade treaties and alliances. The Swiss, not in the EU, have an arrangement that gives them benefits in the same way that Japan, not in ASEAN, has them in the Far East. Meanwhile Britain goes it alone.

We are like the characters in “Fiddler on the Roof” where tradition is everything:

“Because of our traditions,
We’ve kept our balance for many, many years.
Here in Anatevka we have traditions for everything…
how to eat, how to sleep, even, how to wear clothes.”

For “Anatevka” read “Britain”.

People and Nations scared of change hide behind traditions or invent them. The past becomes a better place so our visions are backwards rather than into the future. “Why do you do that!” is answered with “Because we always have”. And utterly illogical behaviours are retained in part because nobody else has them. Resistance to change is endemic we are, as David Head rightly says “Scared stiff of becoming modern” or, I would add, taking a lead from other nations who do things better.

Multinational Oil Companies profits are largely determined by factors beyond their control

Cartoon in The Tines 3rd May 2023

This is an unpleasant cartoon and misleading as well. Multinational oil companies’ profits are driven by the crude oil price and that is determined by supply and demand. It’s a free market and there are many suppliers/producers. Russia is a major player but she did not choose to restrict exports, that was western sanctions. Sanctions reduced supply and as a consequence spot prices rose.

Crude Oil Prices March 2020 – April 2023

Prices peaked a year ago as sanctions were applied but have fallen back in recent months though they are still well above the levels of three years ago. Russian exports, especially at a discount to China and India, are back to pre war levels but their revenues per barrel are lower as these are to some extent distress sales. Nevertheless Russia’s war in Ukraine is substantially being funded by oil sales, though not to the West.

However big a multinational oil company is it does not determine the price it receives from its customers except on the margin. All supply contracts have a market price link in them – broadly if supply goes up prices fall and if it is constrained they increase. 

Oil companies are the wrong target, there is little they can do about the price of crude oil or refined products. And around 53% of current pump prices that the motorist pays go to the Government in Duty and VAT. Only 34% is Wholesale – i.e. Crude price influenced by supply and demand.

Companies like Shell and BP are woefully bad at explaining the realities of the oil economics I’ve summarised here.

Private Lives : Can love be lovelier the second time around?

Stephen Mangan and Rachel Stirling in the Donmar’s “Private Lives”

Private Lives” , like much in Noel Coward’s oeuvre, is a work that can be seen at more than one level. Sheridan Morley called it the “lightest of light comedies” but today Oliver Soden sees a great deal more in it, and I think he is right. The depths are not particularly psychological, we are not into Freud here. But Soden says that to miss Coward’s seriousness is to miss his wit. If the play is light it is deceptively so – another mask obscuring some hidden truths.

The truths include what Coward said about marriage – that it is a “fatal curse”. Sex is at the heart of the play and, no doubt in Noel’s eyes, at the heart of the curse. As he wrote to Gertrude Lawrence “Copulation has been the basis of the dear old British Drama for so long, we might as well salute it…”

Any production of “Private Lives” has to place the mutual physical attraction of Elyot and Amanda central. It was the basis on which their marriage was built and is suddenly driving their behaviour again “You don’t hold any mystery for me darling, do you mind? There isn’t a particle of you I don’t know, remember and want.’ says Elyot.

So why did marriage for Amanda and Elyot fail first time around if, to put it crudely, they couldn’t keep their hands off one another. Their suggestions to each other that it was infidelity are unconvincing. If they were unfaithful that was likely to have been effect rather than cause.

The chilling “That was the first time you hit me” from Amanda in Act Two is really the clue and the subsequent all out fight confirms it. Who started the violence in the marriage, and now again, is almost incidental. Gentlemen don’t hit women no matter how provocative they may feel them to have been. That Amanda, an emancipated woman, fights back and gives as good as she gets doesn’t justify the initial violence. Elyot’s line “Certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs” suggests a misogyny on his part inappropriate if the play was just a “light comedy”.

The actors portraying the characters in this very physical psychodrama need exquisite timing in both the love and the fight scenes. Stephen Mangan and Rachael Stirling have this to perfection. In the close confines of the Donmar everything is visible to the audience and there is nowhere to hide. Some reviewers have been uncomfortable with the violence but for me it was a legitimate counterpoint to the passion. That at any rate was surely what Noel Coward intended.

The Donmar is a wonderful venue and the play is cleverly staged both on the hotel balconies of the First Act and in the Paris apartment subsequently. “Private Lives” always entertains but in Michael Longhurst’s courageous direction it does more. As they creep out together at the end surely Elyot and Amanda will have learned that they need more than Solomon Isaacs to make it work the second time around.

Less isn’t more in this pared-down “Oklahoma!”

I guess we all have favourite plays, operas, movies where “Meddle with that at your peril” is top of our mind. Some years ago there was a staging of “High Society” at the Old Vic which was so gruesome that lovers of the movie (me) fled at the interval to rush home to play the DVD to remind ourselves how great it was. I wouldn’t put “Oklahoma!” in Daniel Fish’s production quite in that category, I stayed to the end.

Bare with me as I explain why Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic musical means a lot to me. When I was a child we only had two Long Playing records at home one of which was the Broadway cast recording of “Oklahoma”. Then in 1955 I saw the film and was hooked. In accessing R&H for the first time I sought out their other works and became a Rodgers and Hammerstein groupie, quite young. It’s a cliché to say it but “Oklahoma!” transformed musical theatre, it also transformed me.

The best stage performance I saw was that by the National Theatre in 1998, later filmed. But a concert-style staging at the BBC Proms in 2017 under John Wilson’s musical direction was vibrant despite the limited stage room in the Albert Hall (above).

And it’s the staging that for me most disappoints about the Daniel Fish directed production at Wyndham’s Theatre. The top picture shows the “set” just before the show starts. A bare stage with a few wooden tables and chairs. That memorable opening with Curly singing “Oh, what a Beautiful Mornin’ has him not starting offstage or riding in on his horse, as in the movie, but sitting with the rest of the cast as if he’s in a casual dress audition. This set and staging stays like this throughout the first Act. There is no attempt to in part tell the story with set or scenery.

Musical theatre has certainly become more full of elaborate sets and special effects since “Oklahoma!” was first seen in 1943 and in some respects this understated and under-staged production may be seen as an attempt to get back to the original. But actually it doesn’t do that. The downsizing applies to the band as well. Instead of anything like a full orchestra (as, appropriately, at the Prom) we have an eight piece string instrument ensemble. They were very good but it was a long way from the customary Big musical theatre sound.

The acting and singing was exemplary. Anoushka Lucas as Laurey and Arthur Darvill as Curly were very good and overall if you were listening to a radio broadcast you’d be impressed. The script of Oscar Hammerstein’s book is followed to the letter (though Jud’s final moments come differently as if there is some concern about exculpating knife crime in today’s youth machete-wielding gang times).

Gary Naylor has written a tough but fair review here which adds to my misgivings about this production. If you shut your eyes you can imagine the bright golden haze on the meadow. But if you’re paying £100 or more for good seats you want your eyes to be wide open and to see a bit of spectacle.

Nigel Lawson as Chancellor destroyed the status quo of the mixed economy and replaced it with freedoms many of which were phoney

The tributes to Nigel Lawson have been mostly warm and that is only right as, viewed from today, (a time of political pygmies) he was in his day a giant. But the problem with the Thatcher years, and he was Chancellor of the Exchequer for six of them, was that the ideology was greater than the pragmatism. Much of value in our mixed economy was thrown away.

Modern democracies are mixed economies – national public/private partnerships if you like. The Attlee government (1945-51) had a clear vision to shift the balance towards public ownership and was happy to be called “Socialist”. It was a one-off shift and successive administrations of both parties up to 1979 undid little that Attlee and Co. did. They were pragmatic, Butskellite and firmly in the centre.

That changed in 1979 with the election of Margaret Thatcher who saw the balance to have shifted too far to the “Left” and in particular believed that Trades Unions had too much power. This was an ideological shift and many Conservatives, including former Prime Ministers like Macmillan and Heath, sought to restrain Thatchers’s ambition. Unsuccessfully.

Thatcher’s first Chancellor Geoffrey Howe pursued a radical supply side economic policy which reduced inflation and interest rates at the cost of high inflation. Despite the unpopularity of these policies Thatcher was re-elected in 1983 helped by the perceived success of the Falklands War. She then appointed Lawson to the Treasury, The driving force of economic policy was a belief in liberalising the system and deregulating. Economist Geoff Riley has described Lawson’s positions as follows:

  • Tax cuts: Lawson cut taxes across the board, including income tax, corporation tax, and capital gains tax. He argued that these cuts would stimulate the economy and encourage investment. The most significant tax cut was a reduction in the top rate of income tax from 60% to 40% in 1987.
  • Monetarism: Lawson was a strong believer in monetarism, which is the belief that the government should control the money supply in order to control inflation. He used interest rates to control the money supply, and he was often willing to raise interest rates sharply in order to keep inflation in check.
  • Privatization: Lawson was also a strong supporter of privatization, which is the sale of state-owned assets to private companies. He argued that privatization would make the economy more efficient and would raise money for the government.
  • Deregulation: Lawson also deregulated the economy, which meant reducing the amount of government regulation on businesses. He argued that deregulation would make the economy more competitive and would encourage investment.

These pillars of Thatcherite economic management are notable for making no mention of Growth or Employment. There is, perhaps, an assumption that these are outcomes rather than goals and that if you get each of them right the economy will grow and jobs will be created. There is also no mention of the growing reality that economies are interdependent across States, especially in Europe. It’s a very nationalistic set of policies.

John Major and Tony Blair succeeded Margaret Thatcher in Number 10. The former could not unravel his inheritance though he was far more of a mixed economy and internationalist person than she had been. Blair, and especially his Chancellor Gordon Brown, steered the ship of state back to some extent to the pre Thatcher days, though without unraveling any of the Thatcher/Major privatisations and deregulations. It is no exaggeration to say that our economic construct today was substantially created by Nigel Lawson.

On leaving office Lawson embraced two causes of the Right of the Conservative Party, Euroscepticism and a strongly anti Global Warming legislation position. The latter he pursued in an almost fanatical way. The interdependency of nations led to the growth of the European Union which is based firmly on principles of cooperation across nation states and some surrender of national sovereignty. Lawson was against this. And it was self evident that environmental management (especially global warming) required the same degree of cooperation. Lawson denied this – he called the descriptor “Climate Change” a “Propagandists’ term”

Rishi Sunak was nine years old when Nigel Lawson left office. This hasn’t stopped him from penning a panegyric to him. No doubt this is designed to appeal to hard core Conservatives who share Lawson’s nationalism, support for Brexit and obsessive anti Climate Change legislation position.

Lawson’s geriatric faux-nationalism can be dismissed as the rantings of a rather silly old man. But that his time in office was characterised by a dismissal of the post war tradition of a mixed economy cannot be dismissed so easily. That Sunak sees it as a golden age is disturbing to say the least. To be involved in the destruction of a whole industry (mining) without any plans to replace it with anything was scandalous. To create private sector monopolies (e.g. in the water industry) in order to enrich buddies with well paid sinecures likewise. To destroy traditional private sector final salary pension schemes in the worship of phoney freedoms was nonsensical and borderline corrupt. I could go on !

Liz Truss was something of an aspirant Lawson though without understanding and learning from Lawson that it takes time. Rishi Sunak’s core beliefs aren’t much different but he unlike Truss knows that politics is the art of the possible. Elect Sunak with a workable majority next year and you’ll get Lawson redux. You’ve been warned,

Can Keir Starmer reverse Britain’s rush to self-destruction? The signs are not promising.

In 1963, exactly sixty years ago, Arthur Koestler edited and contributed to a book of essays under the title “Suicide of Nation” , a rather gloomy but accurate description of what they all saw as the slough of despond into which Britain had then fallen. From great power to nowhere in less than twenty years, with our heads ostrich like in the sand. A year earlier in 1962 Dean Acheson’s observation that “Great Britain Has Lost an Empire But Not Yet Found a Role” was a firm nudge from a transatlantic friend that all was not well in the Kingdom.

Harold Wilson was in campaign mode once he took over Labour from Hugh Gaitskell following the latter’s premature death also in 1963 and put planning at the centre of his “mission” – the “white heat” of the technological revolution was to be harnessed. It wasn’t. Acheson had told us to look to participate in the adventure of European unity well underway and Wilson was to agree, though less than enthusiastically, as was the new Conservative leader Edward Heath.

If a modern day Koestler was to commission a book reviewing where we are in 2023 he could borrow the title from the 1963 volume, and some. From Wilson onwards there has never been a “plan”, cunning or otherwise, that worked and whilst we did take Acheson’s advice our suicidal tendencies forced us to abandon being politically, economically and emotionally part of Europe following the disastrous 2016 referendum.Today both major parties are in “Don’t mention the War” mode but unlike Basil Fawlty it’s Europe not the War that mustn’t be mentioned. And the ostriches are everywhere.

The thing we struggle with still, all these years later, is recognising the reality of where we are. A medium sized modern European state with a crumbling infrastructure and startling social and regional divisions. The only force for unity was the late Queen and with her passing we are struggling even more. We seem obsessed with trivial issues, slogans and delusion, and lack of leadership. Keir Starmer’s “Five missions for a better Britain” are more of the same, little more than a shallow wish list.

When Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was asked what was the greatest challenge for a politician, he replied: “Events, dear boy, events. As civil servants Sir John Bevan recently put it “Events Happen. When they do a lot of things are at stake: lives, livelihoods, reputation. So knowing how to respond is a key survival skill for leaders and organisations of all kinds” Sir John reminded us of President Kennedy’s view “Good judgement is usually the result of experience. And experience is frequently the result of bad judgement”.

We have had some spectacular failures of judgement recently. Brexit, of course, and the fantasy that it can be made to “work” is more of the same. The brief Liz Truss Premiership was breathtakingly inept. That Boris Johnson got anywhere near Number 10, or that Jeremy Corbyn was ever Leader of the Labour Party, was more of the same.

In seeking solutions my instinct is here to blow up what we have and start again. That’s what Germany did from 1945 because they had to. Our victory was pyrrhic , arguably we won the war but lost the peace – the Germans the reverse. Our infrastructure crumbles through a failure of planning and investment and, in part, through Thatcher’s obsession with privatisation. Look at our water supply for a venal example. These private sector monopolies pollute our rivers and seas whilst paying their chief executives seven figure salaries rather than putting their customers first.

The idea of an “accidental suicide” is a bit tautological, suicide is usually a deliberate act. That said the acts that have led to the modern day “Suicide of a Nation” were, in the main, deliberate and were cataclysmic failures of judgment. They cannot be reversed by putting out more flags or by pious calls for more ‘“growth”. Sure a growing economy is better than a stagnant or declining one. But if you rule out reentering Europe by rejoining the Single Market you shoot yourself in both feet.

Arthur Koestler wrote: “If one looks with a cold eye at the mess man has made of history, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that he has been afflicted by some built-in mental disorder which drives him towards self-destruction.” This is gloomy and pessimistic but when we look at post war Britain (my lifetime exactly !) there is more than a kernel of truth in it. Particularly after the “events” of the last ten years.

Diageo, Brand Management and Shell and BP

Interesting article on Diageo in The Times today. The brand management model they have seems effective. The trading title of a multi brand conglomerate is not really important and only really of significance to investors. The general public does not know or care that Guinness is part of Diageo – as with Unilever or Proctor and Gamble the corporate trading title is pretty much unknown to the domestic consumer.

Consumer brand driven corporations can apply good brand management principles to all of its products. The alternative approach, using the corporate brand on all its product and service offers (as Richard Branson did with Virgin) has its benefits but is much riskier. A problem in one area can damage the brand overall.

Diageo has economies of scale which means it can demand good deals from suppliers. It’s an impressive model allowing brand additions or deletions based on performance and prospects. It’s also good for employees who can broaden their experience by moving from one brand to another under the company’s umbrella.

The world of oil and gas, in which I worked for forty years with Shell, has always been mostly a mono-brand operation. That said my first employer, Shell-Mex and B.P. , had quite a few consumer brands – Shell, BP, National Benzole, Power among them. This added value I think. But later Shell failed to establish a Convenience Store brand under the “Select” brand name. This is quite an interesting brand management story.

The image on the top was what we tried to do in the 1990s. The image was “foody” rather than “oily” because Convenience stores were predominantly food item retail outlets. So though located on Shell branded petrol stations the idea was that we had to persuade the customer that we had an authentic C-store offer. Food basically. The problem was that we didn’t invest in the brand.

In most markets little or no advertising money was spent building the “Select” name and identity. The basic idea was a good one, but you’ve got to give the customer a reason to believe – and we didn’t do that. Over time the distinctiveness of the “Select” brand faded away and it became corporatised as Shell. The lower image shows where, in some markets, it ended up. “Oily” again.

The new model adopted by the oil companies is to partner with established C-Store operators and brands like Marks and Spencer. This I think works well for BP . It’s not multi-brand like Diageo – BP does not own or even manage the M&S brand on its sites. But the hosting arrangement seems to work well and for the consumer the brand offer is clear. BP under the canopy, M&S in the shop.

On Senegal…

It was thirty years ago that I went to Dakar in Senegal. It was a business trip in respect of an international Shell project that I was managing which, to my great delight, took me literally around the world many times. In Dakar I did some work with Shell Senegal and also chaired a meeting with representatives of many of our African companies. It was a delight.

The GM in Shell Senegal was a Dutch friend of mine Gerrit. He was very able and also he had a growing affection for all things African. An ideal posting. He had arranged a special trip for us all on the final day to the Island of Gorée. UNESCO describes the island as follows:


“The island of Gorée lies off the coast of Senegal, opposite Dakar. From the 15th to the 19th century, it was the largest slave-trading centre on the African coast. Ruled in succession by the Portuguese, Dutch, English and French, its architecture is characterized by the contrast between the grim slave-quarters and the elegant houses of the slave traders. Today it continues to serve as a reminder of human exploitation and as a sanctuary for reconciliation.”

We were a mixed party with Dutch, English and French as well as people from English and French speaking Africa and our Senegalese hosts. We were silent during the visit both those like Gerrit and me who could be seen as being descended from the oppressors and our African colleagues who had kinship with those who had been enslaved.

This was not a time for reconciliation – that had in theory happened long ago. But it was a time for reflection. Thirty years on the visit is still very vivid to me. My position on the iniquities of Empire has never been one of hand-wringing. That helps nobody. But I fervently believe, however, that we should confront our past by being more actively open about it.

The Island of Gorée is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are hundreds more around the world. The past may be a foreign country but we can also, surely, learn from it. To stand where once a slave stood in chains is not an act of contrition but a moment of learning. As Einstein said “Once you stop learning you start dying”. Amen to that.

An open letter to Sir Keir Starmer

Dear Sir Keir

Sixty years of following politics fairly closely has made me understand the truth of Otto von Bismarck’s oft-quoted remark that “politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best.” The political world is tempestuous and dangerous and it requires skilful navigation to survive it. Our last four Prime Ministers were not beaten by the electorate but by their own failures of navigation and by their inability to apply Bismarckian pragmatism.

So I understand why you feel the need to go against what you must know to be true – that Brexit has been an unmitigated disaster for Britain. It’s no surprise that since David Cameron was brought down by hubris over his Referendum failure his three successors have also been sucked into the vortex of danger and not survived. In all four cases it was attempts to do the impossible that brought them down. Each case was different, but there was a common theme.

You know, and I think you’re right, that if you give the utterly unprincipled Conservative Party a sniff of an opportunity to label you as the Remainer that (of course) deep down you still are, your chances of getting rid of them in a General Election would almost certainly be fatally damaged. This is not because the country is still predominantly a “Leave” place – there are plenty of signs of a shift in public opinion. No the reason is that it would be an open goal which would fundamentally change the character of the Election debate and we’d be fighting again the binary “In versus Out” battle that dominated or politics for too long.

In 2024, unless there is a dramatic shift, you should become Prime Minister. I hope that you do. Labour’s manifesto will be a struggle to put together, though, if it relies in part on your telling the electorate how you’d “make Brexit work”. You know that if this was possible the nation over the past six years would have found a way to do it. The Labour Party would have a plan and would have told us about it. You have no plan, and you know it, and you know that you won’t suddenly find one. There’s more chance of finding life on Mars.

I am disappointed by the strength of your above referenced statement because , frankly, I’m tired of being lied to. Of course there is a case for going back into the EU. That case is being made eloquently daily by many of us. Of course there is a case for returning to the single market and the customs union. Countries like Switzerland, Iceland and Norway (not in the EU) benefit from doing this all the time. They are not fools.

Of course there is a case for the Four Freedoms, including that of Movement. British citizens are uniquely disadvantaged by restrictions on our movement and employment that citizens of no other European country have to endure. And, what’s more, our public services would hugely benefit if we can welcome workers from 30 countries again. Why on earth would we choose to perpetuate this absurdity?

Yes there is a xenophobia still around in Britain that has led us to close our doors, abandon free trade and destroy participating in the across Europe cooperation that every other country benefits from. But leaders are supposed to lead not follow and certainly not follow the isolationist tendency if it would lead to further damage to our economy and our reputation. Which it will. Stand up for what you believe in and what is right. Make the case Sir Keir.

Yours Sincerely

Paddy Briggs