The Terror Approaches: Sir Fred pleads for mercy

February 10, 2009

Fred Goodwin and Tom McKillop

The leaders of failed financial institutes are being dragged out of their chateaux and paraded through the streets. I can hear the distant rumble of the tumbrels

Or, to shake off that fearsome image, let’s start with the show trial which took place today. Erstwhile heroes of capitalism were called to account by that Robespierre of the New labour Revolution, the Treasury Committee chairman John McFall

The BBC covered the proceedings

The former bosses of the two biggest UK casualties of the banking crisis have apologised “profoundly and unreservedly” for their banks’ failure.

Former Royal Bank of Scotland chief executive Sir Fred Goodwin told MPs on the Treasury Committee he “could not be more sorry” for what had happened.

The wrath of the prosecutors was reported in The Guardian

Sir Michael Fallon: “You [McKillop] were in charge of this board. You’ve destroyed a great British bank.”
John Thurso: “… I have rarely never heard such anger about an issue … And that’s because so many sound businesses are at risk of going under because they can’t get funding. 99.9% of my constituents believe that if a black hole opened up and every banker, and every derivatives trader and arbitrage trader fell into it, the world would be a better place ….”
George Mudie: “…The anger that the public feels is because you’re all in denial.”

But the jury remained unmoved. Chairman Tom McFall dismissed their grovelling pleas for mercy.

“They did give an apology and it seemed fulsome, but, as the session went on, I think they were drawing back from that and saying ‘Well, look, there were events outside our control’. If you ask me my opinion – yes, they were advised to do it (apologise). Was there a hint of arrogance still there? Absolutely.”

The Terror begins

I can’t get that image out of my mind’s eye. It took the French Revolution over a year to get down to the really brutal stuff, the show trials and public executions. But that was then. No chance of public executions here …

But the public anger might be as intense, and approval for meting out the harshest punishment possible on those accused.

So far, the most virulent attacks have showered down on the Leaders of the biggest financial institutions, and then The Government. But there is a more general wave of anger directed to all politicians, and that ‘least worse system’ of representative democracy.

And who next?

Business Leaders? Entrepreneurs? Foreign workers? “Make them walk naked ..stand in public with clown hats. ”

It is coming. The terror. And intellectuals will not escape scrutiny. What training did these people get to equip them to run a bank? Well, the answer is, a great deal of training. So let’s reserve a tumbrel for the leaders of business schools. Once again, the cry will be heard. What did you teach the MBAs at Harvard Business School?

And after that the tumbrel. Stop, enough. I want to get back into a state of denial.


Davos and the underworld

January 28, 2009

davos-second-life-protest

Davos is an annual top-level business and political networking event. For some, it is a place which symbolises the ultimate conspiracy of global domination. Whatever. A version of the drama is being played out on Second Life

The little Swiss community of Davos attracts over 2000 leaders from many walks of life for an annual conference. The event also attracts protestors, and much intense blogging about global elitery, and global conspiracies, although not attracting as many conspiracy theorists as the even more elite Bilderberg group meetings .

The BBC loves a swanky conference but tends to play down the international conspiracy side of things, and presents Davos as a bit of a junket for global high-fliers

This year, leaders of global finance institutions were rarer than usual, perhaps not wanting to be accused of reckess spending habits.

Davos and Second Life

It is not surprising that the protests at Davos are also played out in second life

During a series of interviews conducted in the online universe of Second Life — in which a digital persona of Reuters’ Adam Pasick questioned the digital personae of various Davos attendees — a man carrying an anti-Davos placard apparently sauntered right into the virtual auditorium.
On its Davos blog, Reuters reported Friday [Jan 2007] that the interloper was Iuemmel Lemmon of the protest group DaDavos. His avatar, or online personality, sported a beard and what looked like a blue beret.
Did virtual guards leap up to eject Mr. Lemmon from the scene? Hardly. Reuters said that he “sat politely with his banner in the front row.”

Second Life protests have considerable appeal. There are no broken heads the next day in a little Second Life island high in the Swiss alps.


Battle of Ideas: Picking on the Apprentice

October 19, 2008

Alan Sugar acts out the leadership myth

Alan Sugar acts out the leadership myth


Creative leaders are idea warriors. Which is why many will be found engaging in the debate on bullying at work organized by The Institute of Ideas

The Fourth annual Battle of Ideas will involve over 1500 participants including strands on bullying at work, biomedicine, the family and (inevitably for election week).

The bullying at work session has marketed itself as Picking on the Apprentice. Leaderswedeserve has had a few points to make in the past on the television program. Like ourselves, The Institute of Ideas is more interested in hitch-hiking on the over-publicized programme to get at a far wider wider range of issues.

The bullying event will examine the recent case when a Marks & Spencer employee was fired for whistle blowing. And the example of Jason Toal, a black fireman bullied by colleagues who hurled racist taunts at him and allegedly soaked him with water and binned his paper work.

Other sessions will explore whether management consultancy and the professionals are in need of a stronger moral compass in the interests of the community, and (if that appeal is not enough) for their own post-credit crunch survival.

Political correctness running sane

Many people have developed a kneejerk reaction to describe their feekings of frustration and anger under the catch-all phrase political correctness gone mad. It might be interesting to trace the origins of this.

I have no doubt that themes within the Battle of Ideas will attract the inevitable media take of political correctness running mad . Which is OK. It is a comfort to think that debate offers a chance to develop more balanced views, and more importantly to act accordingly. On balance I’d say that is political correctness operating in a socially healthy way.

Acknowledgement: The Institute of ideas for the press release which prompted this post


Guido Fawkes Blown Up?

April 26, 2008

The influential Guido Fawkes blog disappeared from the blogosphere this morning. Has its author finally succeeded in getting himself blown up?

What I Didn’t See This Morning

I didn’t see something this morning [Saturday April 26th 2008]. I didn’t see a blog on the web. I was looking for the latest posting from a political blogger described as one of the most influential around. The blogger goes under the name of Guido Fawkes, in homage to that earlier revolutionary figure Guy Fawkes.

This Guido Fawkes has acquired a bit of a cult status among bloggers. He has been attributed with breaking political stories which eventually have impact in the real world. For example, he can claim credit for starting the stories about a damaging bit of naughtiness by Peter Hain, during the campaign to replace Mr Prescott (arguably also caught in e-flagrante.

The convenience of pseudo-anonymity was blown most obviously in a Newsnight interview, after which a Mr John Staines claimed that he was indeed the blogging Guido Fawkes.

Guido Revealed

Another blog [‘Tunbridge‘] described the outing of Guido:

Despite the pantomime of the shadowy, unidentified mystical figure sitting in the studio, which everyone in political circles knows is Paul Staines; and Paxman’s usual put-them-on-the-back-foot opening gambit of “Why do you insist on this preposterous charade of sitting in a darkened studio?…” or words to that effect, the central question being raised by Paxman and Michael White, of the Guardian, was a crucial one. That Guido as a blogger can say pretty much whatever he likes and that newspapers, TV and more traditional media have all kinds of pressures and restrictions on them which prevent them from being so loose tongued.

Which remains the central point of the blogging debate and of this post.

In Search of Guido

Anyway, this morning there was an item on the BBC webpages which again referenced the egregious Guido, which prompted me to follow the link to his web-site. Not available. A bit surprising, but it happens, so I tried a few other ways to locate his site. Same results. Guido was no-where to be found.

Conspiracy?

Only if you believe in conspiracy theories. I’m on the opposite side of the world on this one, as far away as possible from believers in Lady Di assassins, cover-ups of alien visitors, Masonic plans to rule the world, and so on.

But I found myself wondering if Guido has been taken out of the game, having gone too far. Something he has done, or was about to do called for swift action. It would have taken some clout to do that. The sort of influence required to ‘persuade’ Google to operate a censorship filter to prevent its zillions of users in China from accessing the sort of information available in the West. A Mr Big has nobbled Guido. Or maybe a Ms Big ?

Guido Restored

Later: [1500 hrs]. Guido is back. But he was worried too, noting

Overnight something has happened. Not sure if it is technical failure, a hacker attack or just a glitch. Everything is backed-up and will be restored in due course…

[Later] UPDATE : It was a glitch.

The Importance of Blogging

A debate going on about the merits of blogging, and its willingness to transmit (and create) unsubstantiated, and mainly scurrilous stories. It was touched on in the Tunbridge post above on the kind of virtual world whose inhabitants can write ‘pretty much what they like’.

The BBC Story

The BBC story prompted me to take a look at the Guido Fawkes site was about a hoax purporting to be reporting the resignation of a government minister.

Labour Deputy Leader Harriet Harman is the latest MP to become a victim of internet hacking. An item was posted on her personal site for several hours announcing her defection to the Conservatives. It began: “To friends, foes and fans, below is a copy of the resignation letter that landed on Gordon’s desk this morning.”
Beneath it was a link to a spoof Harriet Harman blog. The site ..appears to have been taken off-line following the discovery of the rogue message, which was highlighted by the widely-read Westminster gossip blogger Guido Fawkes.

The story also pointed out that

Last year, Conservative housing spokesman Grant Shapps was targeted by hackers who broke into his YouTube account to post a message under his name saying the party could not win the Ealing Southall by-election. In 2006, David Miliband [environment Secretary at the time] was forced to shut down an experimental wiki site after it was bombarded with surreal and abusive additions.

Games People Play

These examples seem to be indications of assorted behaviours, including creative if malicious japes, to the web equivalent of graffiti, passing off, and evidence of the wisdom or otherwise of the crowd.

The Bloggers we Deserve

One of the few clear aspects in the debate is that no simple answer seems to be adequate. At present, bloggers have a well-earned reputation as purveyor of unreliable stories.

In keeping with the interests of this particular blog, I find myself arguing that the development of the blogosphere comes with its particular context of social action.

Through it, in ways we are still trying to understand, ideas gain credibility in the old world of modernity, with its traditional concerns about truth, reality, and morality. Some ideas take hold. This happens probably because of what people are inclined to believe, which itself indicates something about deeply-held fears and hopes.

On this line of reasoning, celebrity bloggers like Guido Fawkes are the bloggers we subscribe to, and are the thought leaders we create and deserve. The hackers, and jokers come as other denisons of the new blogospheric territories.

Something Old, Something New

For what it’s worth, I find connections with various old and newer ideas about innovation and change. I’m reminded of Rosabeth Kanter who developed a visionary picture in the 1980s of a future in which the most successful organizations operate with open access to information

More recently, a similar ‘freedom is good’ theme can be found in the ideas of Henry Chesborough under the catchy rubric Open Innovation

These ideas present the case for the virtues of cherishing freedom of expression in the interests of social and economic good.

However, I wish I could agree with Guido that ‘everything is backed-up and will be restored in due course…’ That would be very nice.


Gwyneth Dunwoody: This One is Personal

April 21, 2008

Gwyneth Dunwoody [12 December 1930 – 17 April 2008] never placed personal ambition above public service. So she avoided the more fatuous trappings of high political office. Her undoubted leadership talents may have been seriously under-estimated

If Gwyneth Dunwoody had followed personal ambitions on the road to political advancement, she would have challenged for the highest political honours. It is interesting to speculate what might have happened in the process.

We would probably witnessed very lively and uncompromising campaigning battles. There would probably have been one of those dubious market research investigations beloved of Newsnight producers. Maybe a representative panel of voters would have been assembled and quizzed for their views by a remorselessly cheerful American. ‘If we had to choose between Gwyneth to Tony, which car would be more like Gwyneth? ‘

If so, the panellists would almost certainly have been more likely to opt for a no-nonsense, tough and reliable model. Maybe a modern Skoda. Certainly not a flashy and sporty job. They would certainly not have nominated a sporty Austin Healey, trendy Smart Car, or posh Porsche Testosterone.

Crusty Integrity

She developed a media style of humouring the more fatuous celebrity journalists. It seemed to reflect a crusty integrity. But a leader?

Maybe she was too likely to place ethical considerations even above party political advantage. I suspect she would have been more than able to combine integrity and competence, but the suspicion among the king-makers and queen-makers might have been enough to preclude her as a serious contender for the top job.

Maybe a different culture facing different problems would have recognised her leadership attributes. Yes, I could just about see Gwyneth not as a Tony Blair middle-east mediator but a Middle East leader of Golda Meir stature working tirelessly towards a just resolution of the region’s problems.

But that’s all a fantasy. Crusty integrity does not generally play as well in the leadership dramas as polished insincerity. Or, maybe even the rarer commodity, polished sincerity.

Why didn’t I think of Gwyneth before?

So have I fallen into the tradition of praising the recently-departed figure? Possibly. In compiling case examples of political leaders I have been aware of a dearth of female candidates. Has habituated prejudice blinded me to the possibility among those in public life in The United Kingdom? POssibly.

But I don’t think even now of Dunwoody as a female politician, but as an unremarked but able politician who happened to be female.

It is a pity that her story is less well-known than would be the case from a more determined self-publicist. I vaguely remember her father Morgan Phillips as a General Secretary of the Labour Party. I did not know that her political pedigree went back to her grand-mothers, who were both suffragettes, and her mother who became life-peer, and Lord Lieutenant of London.

The tributes today brought back other incidents that briefly hit the political headlines.

In December 2007 she surpassed Barbara Castle’s record for the longest unbroken service for a woman MP .. Mrs Dunwoody was also a Member of the European Parliament between 1975 and 1979, at a time when MEPs were nominated by national parliaments. Her most famous victory over those within the party who would shut her down came in 2001, when backbencher Labour MPs defied the party hierarchy to back her as chair of the House of Commons’ powerful transport select committee.

Under her leadership, the committee had produced several [frank] reports on government transport policies – which many saw as a factor behind the government’s desire to replace her with a more pliant chairman.

Gwyneth and Shirley compared

It is still tempting to compare and contrast the background and careers of Gwyneth Dunwoody and Shirley Williams. The association comes to mind in examining their backgrounds. Williams hailed from the intellectual and more privileged Fabian wing of the emerging socialist movement. Her mother was the distinguished novelist Vera Brittain.
Vera and Shirley graduated from Somerville College, Oxford (as did Margaret Thatcher).

Gwyneth, The Skoda; Shirley, perhaps like some car out of a movie fantasy, maybe on of the most famous of all, Genevieve herself.

Genevieve is fondly remembered for symbolising some gentle unself-conscious former beauty. Quintessentially English, of course. Except Genevieve in the film was actually not what we always believed. Genevieve, unlike Shirley Williams, was in truth of distinctly non-English heritage (a veteran twin-cylinder Darracq).

Shirley Williams was also a rather glamorous and romantic figure in an earlier era. Not that you’d think so from the rather prim version available on her current web-site.

She became a more notable political figure in British politics for her membership of the gang of four now demonized for its contribution to the decline of the traditional Labour party, and eventually to the formation of today’s Liberal Democrat party. Her break was with the values of Old Labour to which Dunwoody remained faithful to the end of her days.

In contrast to Gwyneth, Shirley has shown an intellectual pragmatism throughout her career. Quite recently she accepted Gordon Brown’s invitation to work within his ‘Government of all the talents’ while retaining the Lib-Debs whip in House of Lords.

Gwyneth has always demonstrated her convictions as unshakably as did Margaret Thatcher. That is not to suggest that Williams is less genuine or firm in her beliefs. Rather, her upbringing, and scholarly professonal career shaped a more nuanced political philosophy.

This One is Personal

Bloggers tend towards the detached or the involved. In general I have favoured the detached style, dealing with people and issues which I nevertheless find personally important.

This one is different. Gwyneth died on the day I shared with my family in South Wales services of thanksgiving for Mabel Goldsworthy Rickards.

‘… In loving memory of Mabel, devoted wife of Tom; much loved mother and mother-in-law of Tudor and Susan, Philip and Kathryn; proud nan of Lloyd and Catherine, Paul and Theresa; adoring great-grandmother of Morgan, Alun, Joanna, Evan and Freddie.’

That’s why this is a very personal blog, and utterly influenced by not one, but two remarkable women.


Does it Take a Dictator to Make Trains Run on Time? The Case of Network Rail

March 10, 2008

fat-controller.jpg
Network Rail has been given a record fine for its poor operational record over the New Year. It accepts it must improve, and says it has installed military style leadership. Which raises the old question: ‘does it take a dictator to make the trains run on time?’

O.K., here’s a confession. Network Rail doesn’t actually run trains. It looks after the tracks, and gets blamed when the trains fail to run on time, and that’s the tenuous link with the old myth about trains needing dictators to be run on time.

The current case came to a head with the news story that Network Rail

[Network Rail] has a month to haul the upgrade of its busiest line back on track after regulators imposed a record £14m fine and a package of measures to tackle the infrastructure company’s lacklustre planning procedures.
The Office of Rail Regulation yesterday gave Network Rail until March 31 to agree with passenger and freight train operators a new plan for the £8.12bn upgrade of the London-Glasgow West Coast Main Line. The project is due to allow substantial reductions in journey times and more frequent services from December this year but is more than 300 hours of work behind schedule.

According to the BBC

Network Rail’s chief executive Ian Coucher said his company had now put “military-style” command posts in place, and he pledged that the delays suffered by passengers over the New Year would not be repeated.

Let’s say I’m a bit sceptical. About Dictators making the trains run on time. About Network Rail’s changed operating procedures.

The Background

Network Rail came into existence as an emergency measure when in an earlier incarnation, Railtrack, failed to meet its charter. Railtrack was itself part of one of the last efforts to introduce competitiveness into Britain’s public sector transport systems. The plan always had a clunky feel to it. The vision of effectiveness through liberation of free market entrepreneurial behaviours through competition proved too much to achieve.

Competition between the new companies owning trains was always marginal, outside a few fingers of land in commuter territories. No way was found to breathe competition into the operation of the track, which is where Railtrack, and subsequently Network Rail came in.

The Government’s Dilemma

The dilemma for the Government was pointed out by commentators such as Management Today.

Network Rail is, to all intents and purposes, a nationalised company (although the government doesn’t technically class it as such, or it would have to take its enormous debts onto the public balance sheet). It’s not run for profit, and it doesn’t have any shareholders. So where exactly is this £14m – a record fine for a rail company – going to come from?

The only possible answer is that either the government hands over £14m of taxpayers’ money to pay the fine (which would basically amount to robbing Peter to pay Paul), or the money is taken from the pot that Network Rail is using to upgrade the railways. And as punishments go, this seems a bit self-defeating – how is it going to do an under-invested rail network any good if the Chancellor confiscates £14m from the network operator for the Treasury coffers?

The Mussolini Myth

So might a dictatorial approach be worth considering? Would the trains then run on time? That may be in the nature of an cultural myth. It arose around the Italian dictator Mussolini. The history-debunking site Snapes will have none of it.

Turns out that there were efforts to improve Italy’s ramshackle railway companies in the 1920s, before Il Duce came to power. Mussolini claimed two things. One that the trains now ran one time. And two, that he had achieved the changes through his leadership. Neither claim seems to survive more careful scrutiny.

So when Network Rail claims to have improved by introducing more military discipline into its operations, we might be wise to exercise some caution about promises and premises.

You don’t need a dictator

A related case illustrates that you don’t need a dictator to run a rail business well. The business is National Express. The rather non-dictatorial leader is Richard Bowker. The story requires a post of its own.

National Express runs the C2C, Gatwick Express and One Rail franchises, bus businesses in Birmingham, London and Dundee, and long distance coaches across the UK. Richard Bowker has been hailed as an effective leader of a complex business.

Bowker, the one-time government rail enforcer, is a graduate of the Sir Richard Branson school of management, his natural style being casual clothes and an easy-going manner. Last Thursday he unveiled an impressive set of full-year results, the first he can claim as all his own work

Reporter David Parsley noted the difference in style in the former rail regulator.

Bowker is a changed man. He’s friendly, open and makes a great deal more sense than he ever did working for the Government. It’s like someone has taken his brain off a Whitehall shelf and put it back in.

Situational leadership? Maybe, but it is clearly counter-evidence to the simplistic proposition that you need a dictator to make the trains run on time.


If looks can kill … Rudy’s dead

January 30, 2008

rudy-giuliani.jpg

Rudy Giuliani’s tactics for becoming President failed in spectacular fashion in Florida. Did he rely too much on his reputation as the strong leader in New York after 9-11? Were Republican voters influenced more by his policies or by other more personal factors?

Several factors are being discussed as contributing to Rudy’s failed bid to win support for his campaign to become the Republican candidate for the Presidency.

It is still hard to write about Mr Giuliani without some reference to his leadership as Mayor of New York, in the immediate aftermath of the twin towers disaster in 2002. This was widely acknowledged as a bonus in his subsequent attempt to become President of the United States in 2008. His reputation as a strong leader had remained with him, an apparent personal asset in the intervening years. But that reputation is now being discussed as having been over-emphasised in the present campaign.

[H]e may have overplayed the 9/11 legacy. One Democrat parodied his speaking style as “Noun, Verb, 9/11″.

The second factor concerns the tactics of the campaign, which had always been seen as at best risky, and at worse foolhardy.

We always knew that Mr Giuliani’s strategy of focusing his time, energy and money in the first big state to vote was one of two things; either a stroke of political genius that would rewrite the rule book about how you run for the presidency, or an act of madness that would see the long-time Republican front-runner fall at the first hurdle. Now we know which it was.

The other factors cited included his personal life style.

While his rivals were making headlines for their early victories, the former New York City mayor faced a flood of negative stories about his personal life and judgment, many tied to third wife Judith Nathan and disgraced longtime ally Bernard Kerik.

Other factors were also mooted. His refusal to bad-mouth other candidates was suggested to have been a mistake. If that can be shown important it it even clearer that we elect the leaders we deserve. His emphasis on a hawkish line on Iraq was also believed to have been an unpopular message. Concerns about the economy strengthened the claims of the Reagan-like charms of Senator McCain.

Then there’s the unmentioned factor …

I have not come across a single published reference to a factor that has struck me from the start of the campaign. Rudy Giuliani comes across as one of the least photogenic of the candidates. Perhaps it is too crude an observation; his appearance has not been helped by his medical condition in recent years.

Maybe I am alone in thinking he appears somewhat off-putting. He reminds me in appearance rather like the cadaverous and seriously scary English politician Norman (the polecat) Tebbit. Margaret Thatcher was said to approve of men with charm. Norman was not high on the charm meter, but she approved of him, because she needed the impact of such a semi-domesticated frightener from time to time.

Nor did his appearance prevent Lord Tebbitt from gaining high political honours, any more than a more recent conservative figure Michael Howard who was also less than an easy figure to provide with a reassuring public image.

Ugly can be reassuring and even provide scope for a public image of a no-nonsense and dependable leader (‘warts and all’ as Oliver Cromwell put it). But ugly and scary?

Should it matter?

Should any of this matter.
No.
Does it matter?
Perhaps.

It would be comforting to think that it does not matter as much as policies, integrity, psychological stability and a dozen other factors when we chose a political leader. The absence of comment about Rudy’s appearance may mean it’s a trivial point. Or it may suggest a collective sense of discomfort in observers which sets any discussion out of bounds.

Update

One day after the Florida results, Guiliani retires from the race, and offers his support to John McCain.


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