Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Liam Fox and lazy and fat British Business and exports?

Liam Fox seems to have slipped back in time to the 1970’s sitcoms for his ideas on business. The free trade world of Terry and June or Leonard Rossiter’s Sunshine Desserts seems to have informed his views on fat, lazy businessmen playing golf on Friday instead of exporting.

All good knockabout stuff for the good doctor to amuse Young Conservatives down in London from the farm to hear what a great success Brexit will be.

Or perhaps to tee them up for the bad news as Brexit unravels.

But there is more than a grain of truth in what Liam says.

Peter Hargreaves, founder of financial services company Hargreaves Lansdown, also backed Mr Fox, saying:

"We have a lot of very good entrepreneurs in Britain, but there's no doubt that there are also some in boardrooms who don't deserve to be there - they're idle, incompetent and ineffective."

And let’s face it, British Business – or certainly British Big Business – has not done well recently.

The 2008 Recession drags on with no end in sight. Nor any government policies, except the vagueness and vagaries of Brexit.

The unacceptable face of British Business is writ large in Philip Green and Lord Grabiner of One Essex Court and BHS scandal of secret shareholders and financial jiggery-pokery. The latter as with Glick QC, a High Court judge too, and advising parliament on tax!

All of it little more than fraud, instead of solid retailing, destroying a stalwart of the High St.

Even Terry-Thomas would balk at such bounders.

Or Mike Ashley and Sports Direct, or Hermes courtiers, betting the company on short-changing the minimum wage. Shareholder revolts over excessive CEO pay for low performance are now routine.

The £14BN Mastercard scandals of illegal store fees, and secret currency exchange fees to rip-off consumers and SME’s this week suggests nothing has changed in many large companies.

Delays in reforms on the nodding donkey NED approach of most City firms rubberstamping exorbitant salaries for managers to plunder great corporations not of their making, and still just token women on the Boards, is from the 1970’s.

Even the only LIBOR criminal jailed so far, Tom Hayes, expresses concern that his bosses weren’t questioned under oath of their rip-off policies, something that One Essex Court or Sports Direct senior management must be less than keen on.

White collar criminals such as Hayes or Fitzgerald of Infratil tarnish business here and abroad.

In my MP candidacy role, and 25 years in the advertising business, I’ve only seen the rampant corruption in public sector and City and High Court. Certainly not in most businesses. And I don’t even know how to play golf.

Dynamic brands such as Lucky Iron Fish, Lifebuoy soap CSR in Kenya and Doitung in ASEAN and Scotland’s Vivienne Westwood, Siobhan Mackenzie, are perfect for UK exports and JV’s.

The UK export targets are certainly in need of a boost: the target on doubling the c.£490BN exports to £1TN by 2020 is just trickling along to £512BN since 2010 – the doubling of exports at that rate will be achieved by 2034.

Even Terry and June repeats could have ended by then.

But let’s suppose Liam is right and British Business is too fat and lazy to export, and Leonard or Joan Collins, have collared him at the 19th hole, or sat next to him on his next flight, and bought him a Cinzano, and given him some pointers, here’s what I think they’d say:

1. Less of the same old faces – surely British Business abroad should be more than Burberry and Rolls Royce? Every piece of research points to SME and startup business for growth and jobs and taxes. Companies such as Rolls Royce are marvellous – but they can promote themselves. And if British manufacturing is mainly sandwiches and microwave meals then there is work to do.

2. Less of the arms industries – schemes such as Sangcom or AlYamamah are just bungs-for-bullets schemes. They do nothing for UK exports or – wider UK business. Quite the opposite. And the UK arms industries are rife with the corporate welfare of BAE which employs few jobs and all on tax. And in a declining market with Germany calling for an EU arms exports ban.

Surely the Saudi princes could be tempted with some more Burberry – and hi-speed rail cross the Arabian peninsula between Kuwait and Mecca and the millions of Hajj tourists? We’ve an Admiral for every ship and all the ships tied up in port with the ratings on holiday on the rates.

All of which reflects badly on British business.

3. Shouldn’t UKTI/DIT be on track with railways as a Great British invention along with the internet and television and cinema and USA. Shouldn’t Network Rail be developing the international rail contracts that stimulate the steel industry and supply chain eg HS1-3, ASEANRail or AfricaRail. Britain did build many of the world’s railways in the first place. Partnerships with Hitachi or Mitsubishi as with HS1 and HS2 and HS3 would make sense too as part of Meiji reform.

4. Cars: get the motor out of the garage and on with the string-backed driving gloves, Liam. Much of the UK car industry is German or Japanese – the Nissan factory in Sunderland is producing more cars than the entire Italian automotive industry. Where is the plan to capitalise on this record year with say Landrover and VW for a JV in the Latin American markets?

5. More broadly why doesn’t every UKTI/DIT and FCO official have a copy of not just the UK Strategic Industries plan but also the Growth Markets eg Vietnam and Thailand. I’ll buy you a Campari and soda myself, if you can find a copy anywhere the voluminous and interminable Government websites. Lorraine Chase herself might fork out for a Campari too if Luton airport and the other UK runways and airline allocations are sorted out soon?

6. Shouldn’t the UKTI plans be developed into UK Export plans for each nation and their requirements eg Thailand and an emphasis on Education by increasing students to 17,000 as in Malaysia, or Retail in Kenya’s shopping malls? It's all a bit too random at the moment for a National Plan.

7. Graphene: another Great British invention invented here and then frittered away (just a Taiwanese lightbulb after 5 years?) or monetised in USA. Couldn’t UK Government take a leaf out of USA’s playbook as with DARPA and make markets – so, develop say 5 key products before Xmas eg phone battery, Panasonic DNA bathroom mirror etc etc.

8. Martin Sorrell is banging the drum for Great British Advertising with calls for improved digital infrastructure and wifi too – why aren’t those notes being heeded? Just today Juncker of the beastly EU is calling for free wifi in all of Europe's town centres before 2020. Why isn't raising that - and doing it?

While Brent Hoberman of has called for an innovative export policy with FTSE 350 companies to detail their support of SME’s – if the large corporates are simply going to push to the front of the queue for export deals, why would any smaller companies spare the resource? Why would anyone be charged for Trade missions already funded from tax if the national focus is on exports?

9. Israel’s StartUp nation should be bedtime reading for every UKTI official and Embassy, with Eric Pickles going round to test them – not just the specifics of the Israeli IT economy but the MOFA promotion of the activity with books and translations etc etc.

10. Shouldn’t the excellent GREAT campaign be rolled out further? Advertising on UK television is rather wasteful if not downright silly, but combined with point 6 there's the potential to develop specific niche markets eg Cuba and agricultural equipment.

11. As with the great success of the UK launch into Cuba why not enlist Kent’s Rolling Stones again – Stones in the Desert of North Africa? Certainly UK Music is just a backdrop at the moment rather than an effective export tool – where is the New Islands Records to promote say Khmer Blues rather than reggae? A missed opportunity for both UK plc and UK Creative Industries with Kent’s Beatles and the 50th anniversary of Sgt Pepper fast-approaching.

12. Space, 2020Tokyo, Creative industries, Sporting Superpower, Film – all neglected on Liam’s watch so far, and space precludes detailed free pointers. These and the other 8 ideas I’ve left behind the bar of the 19th hole next to Liam’s engraved tankard.

What is this? Liam’s expecting insults and then free ideas on the rates?

Liam’s expansion of UKTI coverage to more USA cities is a sound point - the UK can't go wrong in encouraging for USA trade - but bickering with Boris and turf wars of red tape don’t help UK plc – rather a bonfire of both red tape and the vanities around it is needed.

And today’s announcement that the Treasury are awarding themselves pension pots of 54% of their tax-salary is outrageous. There must be savings there to boost exports?

While only just beginning to hire a DIT Permanent Secretary last week on £160k suggests too much holiday and not enough business in Whitehall over the Summer. Although Ken Clarke urging you to take as long as you like on Brexit seems the better policy.

Brexit is looking feeble, and with more bureaucracy with DIT lawyers and accountants as trade negotiators to rewrite the EU contracts and maybe knock 10% off at best? Does retyping every EU contract but calling it the UE count as Brexit?

And somebody is employed to come up with pussy gags at the FCO for Pawlmerston or Larry at Downing St and Gladstone at the Treasury? Japan’s Kawaii culture and Supermario Abe may be viable as part of economic strategy but the UK just has fat cats on the internet if that's the best we can do?

We really are going back to the 1970’s if we have Mrs Slocombe’s pussies on the rates rather than driving exports.

Liam’s the right man for the job of UK exports - and as a GP, he must be aware that the worthwhile aim of a 24/7 NHS is derailed so far, because the Sir Lancelot Spratts of the hospitals are clogging up the golf courses rather than unclogging arteries or cataracts in the empty operating theatres?

Let's hope can change that too.

Time for Change

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