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Tony Blair and Brexit – the man deserves a hearing

A couple of days ago Tony Blair, one of Britain’s longest-serving prime ministers, published a statement on his website arguing in favour of a re-think on Brexit. It was coherent and well-argued, as you would expect from a former lawyer and politician whose communication skills put those of the current crop of British political leaders in the shade.

As far as this reader is concerned, he was preaching to the converted. Others, including the influential London Times journalist Sathnam Sanghera, heartily endorsed his views on Twitter. But plenty of others didn’t, not because of the arguments themselves, but because they think Blair is a war criminal.

The thought process presumably goes that if a person is a war criminal, nothing they have to say about anything is worth considering. Which would probably have surprised the Americans, who happily employed Werner von Braun to design the US space program despite his dubious past as the creator of the V2 rocket, built with armies of slave labour.

But Blair has never been convicted of war crimes by any jury under British or international law. While it’s true that there are many people who would like him – and George W Bush – to be put on trial, that hasn’t happened and is unlikely to in the future.

So if I believe in the rule of law and my country’s justice system, I have to regard him as innocent until proven guilty. What’s more, I accept that his actions in taking us to war with Iraq in 2003 were based on good faith. Not a very fashionable view in blame-obsessed 2017, I know.

I also accept that for all the reasons that were endlessly chewed over in the Chilcot Report and elsewhere, the venture was a disastrous mistake, not only in its execution but in the subsequent administration of Iraq.

Fourteen years on, there are plenty of people who say they opposed the war from the start, but not so many who admit that thought it was the right course of action. In the same way, you would have been hard pushed to find many British people after the Second World War who would admit that they supported appeasement. My father was certainly one of those people who applauded Neville Chamberlain when he returned from his meeting with Hitler in 1938 with a piece of paper that allowed the Fuhrer to dismember Czechoslovakia in return for “peace in our time”.

I will happily confess that I supported the decision to go to war with Saddam Hussain. Not because I bought into the neoconservative guff about bringing democracy to the Middle East, but because I thought that Saddam was murderous thug who killed his own people and would continue to do so if given the opportunity. And I didn’t buy into the argument that it was all about the oil. Whatever the motive, knocking an evil bastard off his perch was fine by me.

How wrong I was, and how wrong Blair and Bush were. And how gloriously clear hindsight is. If calculating the extent of political and military errors is a numbers game – how many Saddam killed versus how many died as the result of the invasion and all the horrible events thereafter – the wrongness of what happened is an open and shut case.

It didn’t appear so at the time. A man who had actively sought nuclear and chemical weapons, and who had gassed thousands of his own people, was a menace who had to be stopped.

Anyway, there it is. Mea culpa. Nobody in their right mind would have taken Saddam out in the knowledge that his overthrow would trigger a vicious civil war, cost hundreds of thousands of lives, and lead to the instability that leached across Iraq’s borders into Syria and beyond.

But how much of the responsibility for the subsequent chaos can you lay at Tony Blair’s door? Was he responsible for Iran’s manipulation of the newly-empowered Shia, for the oppression in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya that blew like an exploding pressure cooker in 2011? Was it his fault that the blundering Bush administration slavishly followed the de-Nazification policy after WW2, and disbanded the one organisation that could have maintained some semblance of order in the shattered Iraqi state? Did he ignite the subsequent wars in Libya and Syria?

Iraq 2003 was certainly a way point in the sequence of events that led to Mosul and Raqqa, but it was by no means the starting point. For that you need to look much further back.

I doubt if anyone who blames Blair for all the consequences of the 2003 invasion could be persuaded to take notice of what he says on Brexit. Which is a shame, because what he says makes plenty of sense.

In my humble opinion, it’s time to forgive him for his huge mistake, just as the British public eventually forgave Winston Churchill for the disastrous Gallipoli campaign that cost thousands of British, Australian and New Zealand lives. I’m not comparing him with the hallowed Winston, but there are few politicians still on the stage with Tony Blair’s stature and experience.

Whether we like him or not, the least we can do is to consider his arguments on their merits, rather than dismiss them on the basis of the biggest mistake of his life.

I know there are plenty of people who share my views on many political issues, but probably not this one. So be it.

A local disaster, and life goes on – despite the politicians

A couple of days ago my local medical centre burnt down. It happened in the middle of the night. Nobody was in the building, because it doesn’t operate 24/7. Had the fire occurred three months ago, it could have incinerated patients in a hospice that was on the third floor. But perhaps not, because the staff might have dealt with the fire before it spread.

The blaze was so intense that people in nearby homes were evacuated and taken to the church hall nearby. Throughout the night and the next day, people came to the church with food and supplies for those who were temporarily homeless.

The medical centre was home to two general medical practices, a physio unit, an outpatient clinic and a pharmacy. For the past few years I’ve visited the centre three or four times a year – for doctor appointments, physio, annual check-ups that the National Health Service provides for people of my age. I have my retinas screened, my aorta measured, and when I had a serious back problem, the physio unit set me on the road to recovery.

The staff are courteous – some of them are volunteers manning the walk-in centre. The doctors are conscientious, even though these days I rarely get to see the person who is nominally “my doctor”, because she’s on a short working week. The centre has looked after my family for the best part of thirty years.

Every year or two there have been improvements – more screening programs, better communications, better trained staff. Thirty years ago, the receptionists behaved as though they were doing you a favour. Nowadays, they are kind, helpful and efficient. I don’t need to beg for a prescription from the doctor any more. The order goes straight down to the pharmacy. Regular prescriptions are available for me to collect without my needing to ask for them.

When I need to see a doctor, I rarely have to wait more than a day. While it’s true that my first GP, now long retired, had the time to talk about trivialities, with the result that I felt I knew him as a person far better than the current crop, that was then and this is now. A different ethos, more business-like and less personal, prevails. A maximum of eight minutes per consultation and only one problem can be discussed. Very different from the days when doctors would tease out the real problem hiding behind the apparent ailment.

But still, I have no complaints about the medical centre. Wait a minute – what am I talking about? It’s excellent. Why are we so grudging in giving credit to public services?

But now it’s gone. Did I appreciate it while it was there? Probably not. I took it for granted, just as many of us take for granted all the public services and civic amenities in the cities, towns and villages where we live – the schools, the police, the fire services, the libraries, the museums, the garbage collectors and the local council. We complain when things go wrong, but how many of us express our gratitude when things don’t go wrong?

The twenty-four thousand patients who use the centre will be accommodated elsewhere until things get back to normal. The GP practices will relocate to temporary premises. Other units will take up the slack. Many of us will perhaps not be thinking of the personal trauma that people suffer when their place of work is destroyed. We’ll just wait to be told of the temporary arrangements.

Why am I writing about such an everyday drama? After all, nobody died. Lots of people are inconvenienced, yes, but this was not Grenfell Tower. There is no whiff of scandal. It was most likely an unfortunate accident.

It’s not because the fire services were excellent. They usually are. Nor because people gathered round to help their neighbours. Commendable, yes, but I live in a country where people typically respond to emergencies with great generosity and compassion.

I write this because this fire, so close to home, cuts through the narrative running in my mind in an endless loop.

Not a day goes by – and on some days not an hour – when I’m not thinking about the state of my country. Not a day when I don’t search for evidence that the course we embarked upon a year ago might be reversed, when I don’t think of the dumb-headed politicians that helped to create the mess. The lies, the con tricks, the barmy ideologues on right and left who try to convince us that black is white, only matched by the self-serving antics of those in power across the Atlantic. The second-rate minds grappling with the biggest self-inflicted disaster for a couple of generations.

But then something happens to remind me that my immediate destiny doesn’t depend entirely upon the dullards running the country. There are a large number of institutions we all depend upon to live our normal daily lives. Mostly they still work – they have not been degraded to the extent that some politicians would like us to believe.

And as evidence, I present my experience after the fire.

I was due to have a blood test at the medical centre this morning. I assumed that I would have to wait a few weeks while the GP practice got itself organised. I was wrong. Last night, less than 48 hours after the fire, I got a call asking me to show up at a nearby health centre for the test – this morning.

I showed up. The test took place on time, and down a corridor I could see the staff from my practice busily setting up in their temporary accommodation. The centre I visited is three miles from home. The one that burnt down is a mile away.

Imagine the disaster recovery planning and the dedication of staff that allowed this to happen so soon after the catastrophe.

Britain’s National Health Service is not perfect. Much has been written and spoken in recent years about the effects of under-funding. Successive governments have tinkered with it to no great effect. It has had its share of failure and mismanagement.

But it’s still our largest public institution. And even as it struggles to deal with a rapidly aging population, and keep on an even keel despite haemorrhaging staff thanks to organisational flaws and the effects of Brexit, it can still come up with the goods. As it did in my town over the past couple of days.

Other institutions are also working. Again, not perfectly, and certainly not to everybody’s satisfaction. But by and large they’re holding the line.

So as I sit here with the tiny puncture mark in my arm already almost invisible, I’m profoundly grateful to the people who enable me to take for granted all the things that support a settled existence.

Images of people evacuating the ruins of Mosul’s Old City – stripped to the waist so they can’t hide suicide vests – remind me how bloody lucky we in Britain are – and will continue to be unless our politicians manage to screw up our future.

Self-censorship – a travelling blogger’s dilemma

Here’s a thought about blogging, or more specifically, blogging about politics in countries other than your own.

I have no problem with writing freely about my home country, the UK, about the United States with its wretched president, and about more or less any other western country that attracts my wrath or, just occasionally, my admiration.

If the contempt I pile upon Donald Trump results in an immigration official in New York or Los Angeles asking me to go to a room for a conversation that results in a swift return whence I came, that won’t be fine by me, but it won’t be the end of the world either.

It is, after all, the consequence of countries insisting on looking at your utterances, be they on a blog like this or on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn, and then determining that they don’t like your attitude towards their country or their president.

Immigration screening techniques have become much more sophisticated than they were in the years immediately following 9/11, when I would often be selected for special attention at US immigration purely on the basis of a large number of Arabic visas in my passport.

In other parts of the world, practices were cruder still. I remember standing in long lines in one Middle Eastern country in the immediate aftermath of the Arab Spring, while immigration officers took passports to a side office and did Google searches on the names of the travellers.

When I mention to friends that I no longer take for granted the ability to enter countries like the US because of what I write about Trump and other political figures, they tend to laugh. What they’re saying is that I’m pond life. My blog is read by relatively few people, so isn’t it absurdly vain of me to believe that my humble scratchings are important enough to attract the attention of  great nations?

Probably, I say, yet isn’t it also the case that much-vaunted security services such as the NSA and GCHQ dedicate themselves to searching out the obscure, the assassins and the terrorists lurking in the backwaters of the internet? How much easier is it for them to raise their eyebrows at the rantings of someone who makes no attempt to hide his political views?

Of course I don’t see myself as a threat to anyone. I just write stuff. I don’t incite riots and revolutions. I go to some lengths to avoid tarring countries and societies with the same brush that I use to criticise the behaviour of individuals.

And yet there are countries, some of which I know quite well, that would not take kindly to the kind of unflattering remarks I regularly make about politicians in the UK and the US, if those comments were directed at them. These are countries where bloggers are threatened, locked up and even stripped of their citizenship.

So herein lies a dilemma. There are parts of the world that are full of open-hearted, generous people. They also happen to have political establishments that are capable of acts of great cruelty and stupidity, for whom the primary objective in the way they govern is to preserve their pre-eminence – whatever it takes.

Is it therefore right that I should condemn those regimes in the same way as I criticise my own leaders? You would think so, even though there are plenty of journalists lining up to point out their deficiencies. But if I do, what might be the effect on people in those countries whom I’m honoured to consider friends, with whom I have regular conversations on the social media? Will they end up being tarred with my brush, damned by association with me, even if those conversations are devoid of political content?

Perhaps I’m being over-cautious. And perhaps I’m applying double standards. If I encounter regimes that offend my values, should I not call them out?

Maybe, but whereas there are millions of people who think the way I do about Donald Trump or Theresa May and can say so without fear of being rounded up, this is not the case everywhere in the world. Criticism of leaders can have consequences.

If I’m somewhat circumspect on occasions, it’s not because I’m afraid of the tap on the shoulder in immigration. It’s because I’m well aware that the more insecure a regime, the more paranoid it becomes, and the more it has the potential to create connections and intentions where none exist. Consider, after all, the lethal climates of suspicion in Stalin’s USSR, Saddam’s Iraq and Gaddafi’s Libya. And I don’t want to be the unwitting cause of damnation by association with me.

A bigger picture is that though I’m appalled at the detention of political figures and dissident writers in China, Russia, and the Middle East, I’m also aware that such acts are a small part of pervasive political apparatuses created to keep individual rulers and oligarchies in power.

In some cases, to stop abuses of power would require those regimes to be brought down. And should that happen through internal revolution, whether or not aided and abetted by third parties, there is a danger that, as in Libya and Iraq, the suffering caused in the chaotic aftermath could be greater than that inflicted by the outgoing regimes.

Better surely to encourage evolution through reform rather than revolution, even if in some cases there’s the risk that the mildest reforms are taken as weakness and trigger some form of revolution anyway.

Perhaps I feel a little guilty that I was prepared for so many years to work in foreign countries abroad while turning a blind eye to the repugnant behavior of their governments. Was I not conniving with those regimes? And would I not be a hypocrite by saying nothing at the time and waiting until I’d left to unleash a barrage of righteous indignation in their direction?

Hypocrite or otherwise, the fifteen years I spent working abroad countries enabled me to meet many wonderful people, some of whom are still friends. Those people have given me an understanding of cultures and societies that I would not otherwise have gained. Some have benefited from their governments, others have not.

Either way, it’s been my experience that the closer you get to any society, the harder it is see it in terms of black and white, of moral absolutes.

Maybe that’s why I’ve never wanted to be a journalist or a politician.

Standing up for Al Jazeera

The closure of Al-Jazeera, demanded of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates as the price for lifting their embargo, would be a serious setback to freedom of speech in the region.

During my second stint in the Middle East, between 2008 and 2014, it was my news channel of choice after the BBC. No other channel reflected more closely the ethos of my principal home broadcaster, which was not surprising since many of its journalists had been recruited from mainstream broadcasters in the UK.

I am speaking only of the English channel – my language skills are not up to understanding the Arabic version. Many Arab friends tell be that the Arabic channel is very different in tone and editorial policy. And if any of those friends come back to me to say I don’t know what I’m talking about, and do I realise how toxic and subversive the Arabic version is, I would respond by asking how it could be more toxic and subversive than other channels freely available in the area through satellite and the internet that preach hatred, sectarianism and yes, sometimes violence.

That’s not to say that Al-Jazeera is objective. Nor is the BBC. You can be objective in the way you cover a subject, but lack of objectivity can still be found in the choice of subjects. Thus, I learned plenty about the sufferings of the Palestinians, but not so much about the plight of low-paid foreign workers in Qatar and the other Gulf states.

Al-Jazeera is and always has been a concern to countries that feel threatened by media outlets that they do control. I’m not speaking of English-language outlets – it’s not the English-speaking audiences that they worry about, or at least not as much. As an Arabic channel, it is – or was until it was blocked by several neighbouring countries – pervasive, powerful and influential.

Whatever the rights and wrongs, the claims and counter-claims, whatever its biases, and regardless of the extent to which its editorial policy is dictated by the Qatar government, Al Jazeera is unique.

It should not be shut down. It should be replicated, emulated and competed against across the Middle East. Not just so that other stations can offer counter-narratives, though that can only be healthy, even if some of the narratives might be repellent to viewers of its English output.

More than for any other reason, it should be allowed to continue broadcasting because regardless of its editorial policy it is a product of the Arab world that is an advocate for the Arab world. As such it offers a counterweight to the non-Arab media that flood the region.

It also offers non-Arabs a window into the region that few other broadcasters manage to provide. The BBC is an honourable exception, but by and large, none of the other stations – such as CNN – come close to opening the eyes of the West to a region that is far more complex, enlightened and fascinating than the standard portrayals of wars, political oppression and social exploitation suggest.

In fact, I would not swap one Al Jazeera for ten Fox News channels. Its loss would be a heavy blow to a region that is suffering enough already.

UK Politics – the centre is dead, time for big ideas. Really?

As a fully paid up member of an apparently endangered species, I object to being considered irrelevant. Even more, that people like me are incapable of coming up with big ideas.

Recently, I spent a fascinating half-hour wading through comments on an article in The Guardian newspaper by Giles Fraser. He’s a Church of England priest who seems to identify with the Corbyn wing of the Labour Party.

In his piece Rejoice! Centrism in British politics is dead and big ideas are back he suggests that the consolidation of British voters around two fairly extreme opposites on the left and right is an encouraging development. The centre is weak or non-existent, he says, and in countries where it holds sway, such as France, it is the vehicle for the control of the state by what he calls the elite – business interests and other establishment stakeholders who would like to keep things just as they are, thank you very much.

Big, nation-changing ideas, apparently, come only from the edge of politics.

In my opinion he’s talking out of the nether regions of his cassock. But what’s really interesting is the 600-or-so comments on Guardian his piece. As you would expect, the contributors reflect the paper’s readership, which tends to range from those on the far left to the liberals (with a small L) in the centre.

Some of them do a far better job than I could of demolishing Fraser’s arguments. The first comment I read list virtually accuses him, as the representative of the established church, of hypocrisy:

giles fraser is right: let’s have big ideas, let’s be radical, let’s scrap the entitled centrist elite. Let’s start with the Church of England, famously ‘the Conservative Party at prayer’…. for starters, disestablish it, abolish the 26 Bishopric presences in the House of Lords, convert St Paul’s into a shelter for homeless and asylum seekers, sell off church lands, appropriate church investments, which are vast, for the public good, divest the clergy of their privileges…. after all. we no longer want elites, do we Giles?

A little unfair to tar him with the high Anglican brush, perhaps, particularly as he was relieved of his post at St Paul’s for his support of the occupation by homeless activists of the cathedral’s grounds a while ago. And also unkind given that he now works in one of the most deprived areas of London.

Another comment reflects to an extent my views, soggy, wishy-washy centrist that I am:

Reasonably certain the majority of the general public do not hold views that could be easily classified as Right or Left, they’ll hold some views that are liberal and some socially conservative, based largely on their personal experiences and prejudices.

Centrists will appeal to them in a way ideological purity never can. I agreed with half of what Jeremy Corbyn said and loathed the rest, likewise with Theresa May, and couldn’t vote for either in the end. Those of us who don’t consider ourselves political partisans have no cause to rejoice if what you’re saying is true. We can look forward to a permanently divided and angry Britain.

Here’s someone with an analytical bent:

Centrist-style politics is merely a matter of electoral mathematics. Most systems, including most human systems, follow Gaussian distributions, with most entities in the system clustering around a central average. Electorates are no different. In political systems like ours, with two big parties vying for power, it makes complete sense for the two parties to fight for the centre of the distribution, stressing their “centrist” credentials.

What could be happening is that because of Brexit and/or other forces at work, the midpoint of the electoral distribution is shifting to the “left”. This might explain Labour’s electoral results; ideas that the “Centre” would have rejected a few years ago they now embrace. In my lifetime, I’ve seen one such shift, to the “right”, the one that brought Thatcher to power. Now maybe the centre is shifting back again to the “left”.

Or, because of the fractiousness of Brexit, maybe the central dome of the distribution is splitting into two smaller domes, one drifting rightwards, the other leftwards.

Whatever it is, in electoral systems like ours, the party that wins has to appeal to the central voters, otherwise it has no chance of winning elections – which I presume is why they are there, to win elections.

And finally someone you would imagine is a Corbynista:

Really good piece. The comments about Macron apply equally to Barack Obama as well. Socially liberal (see LGBT rights etc.) but economically as neo-liberal as any world leader in history. Have no doubt that his vehement opposition to Brexit ahead of the vote was that he wanted to sneak TTIP through the (emboldened) EU. Much of my objection to the liberal reaction to Trump’s election success (which I obviously deplore as a socialist) was the strange idea that we had lost a left wing US president. As Fraser explains, this outlook is partly due to the ever rightward shifting of the political landscape, which is fuelled in no little part by the growth of centrism. Leon Trotsky said it best: “Centrism can never be a program in itself”. It is designed instead to embolden the right and make the left appear extreme.

Others question the meaning of ideology, of centrism and probably of God for good measure.

While quite a few of the comments caused my eyes to glaze over, it’s still impressive that so many people feel strongly enough about the issues Fraser raised to put digital pen to paper. You could wave them away with the thought that they’re just the chattering classes, university-educated urban lefties indulging in a bit of ideological masturbation.

But in comparison, if you take a look, as I do occasionally, at the comments attached to political articles in the mainstream US press – the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and the New York Times, you might be surprised at the low-grade quality of many contributions. Views, incoherently articulated, that would make Corbyn and Farage blanch, with contributors taking great delight in abusing each other. Very similar to a trip round the wilder shores of Twitter, in fact.

But then what do you expect in a country where the president delights in mocking a journalist for the blood on her face after a facelift (allegedly)?

Even though I profoundly disagree with what many of the Guardian readers said about Fraser’s piece, it’s good to see a bit of civilised and often well-argued debate, even if it is between readers whose views represent only part of the electorate. And if that sounds patronising, well, I suppose that bears out his theories on the centre.

For what it’s worth, I find it a ridiculous suggestion that “the centre” is incapable of producing big ideas. The much-despised Blair government, for example, came up with devolution for Scotland and Wales, and gave the Bank of England control over interest rates. These were changes that had a profound impact on the political landscape and on the economy. They were ideas that no subsequent government has attempted to roll back.

In the United States, Lyndon Johnson, who, as a Southern Democrat could hardly be described as a leftie, was responsible for the Great Society legislation, the most radical set of civil rights laws since the Emancipation. And I find it somewhat insulting to describe Emmanuel Macron as a tool of business interests because of his education at one of France’s top technocratic institutions and his professional background as a merchant banker. Is Fraser suggesting that Macron is incapable of coming up with game-changing ideas because he used to be a banker?

Also the suggestion that millions of voters who, like me, have no tribal loyalty to left or right, are incapable of detecting when a supposed elite is trying to manipulate us is both insulting and patronising.

The best ideas come from independence and freedom of thought, not from minds enslaved by ideology. Ideology, where it’s useful, should be our servant, not our master.

For all that, it’s encouraging to see that there are some places where people can debate without calling each other scum, subversives and traitors.

And, inept as our leaders are, and however disastrous the path they’re leading us down, it’s a small consolation that we don’t have a leader who’s more inept than any of them, and spends much of his time vomiting poisonous insults on Twitter.

We may be in deep trouble, but we haven’t got to that point yet.

Social inequality and the role of predatory purchasing

The story of Westminster and Chelsea Council’s relentless drive for cost savings will no doubt be explored in more detail in the forthcoming public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower disaster.

The fragments of information emerging, such as the “nudge email” urging the cladding contractor to be aware of the need to present “good costs” to the responsible councillor, remind me of painful experiences at the hands of corporate purchasers during my own career.

Over forty years, first as an employee, and subsequently as a business owner, I have seen all manner of methods companies and public bodies use to reduce costs, both through bidding processes and by unilateral demands for price reductions.

In the Middle East, I’ve seen whole teams of people adhere to Western-designed tender processes full of rigour and forensic examination of the goods and services on offer, only for the final decision on the winning bidder to disappear into a black hole of informal and undocumented discussions between the stakeholders. A week, a month or a year later, the name of the winner emerged. And you knew that the result was more or less predetermined. What you didn’t know was the distribution of the slice of the bid value to be divided up between the powerful figures who made the ultimate decision.

I also heard rumours of a major building contract let to a prime contractor, and the work performed by a subcontractor at the bottom of a multi-layered supply chain for ten percent of the main contract price. Whether the rumour was true of not is only a matter of scale. The system was well-established.

It was not for me to describe such practices as corrupt, but they were widespread. And I do recall being given a formulaic set of words to be used when discussing the delicate matter of the buyer’s “commission”. Fortunately I was never in a position to use them.

When I and a partner started our own business, the level of business we did with our clients was initially too small to come under the purchasing radar. The middle managers who used our services would determine whether we did business with their organisations, and the purchasing departments, if such existed, simply followed orders, and did what was necessary to put us into their systems as suppliers.

As our business with our larger clients grew from tens of thousands to millions, our growth happened to coincide with that of increasingly aggressive purchasing departments. Whereas in the early days we would have a relatively relaxed relationship with purchasers, and could expect to be dealing with the same people for several years, over time, those relationships changed.

New people came on board, assertive and aggressive. They treated us as suppliers rather than partners. They kept us at arm’s length. In many cases they blocked our access to the end user, thus depriving us of the opportunity to gain insight into what was required beyond formulaic statements of work.

That was not to say that the process was always transparent. If we were in an ongoing relationship with the client, we would sometimes be asked to write the specification for a new project. It would go to the purchasing department and be used as the basis of a competitive tender.

In that case, we would have a potential advantage because we would be familiar with the client’s needs, and the competitors would not. If we were bidding as an outsider, the art was to know whether or not we were making up the numbers or had a genuine chance of getting the business.

As the nineties turned into the noughties, the purchasers became ever more aggressive in pursuit of cost savings. Some large companies outsourced their purchasing to consultants, who would devise all manner of torturous wringers through which their suppliers would have to go, especially when long-term framework agreements were up for grabs.

In some cases, the purchasers took the back seat, as high profile executives came up with their own tactics, which often amounted to bullying. In one case, a major tech company phoned my partner and “advised” him that he required us to deliver a ten percent reduction in our prices. Immediately. Otherwise, the executive said, we would lose all of our multi-million revenue from his company.

I also remember a friend telling me that his company, a management consultancy, was subjected shortly after the 2008 financial crisis to similar tactics by the Cabinet Office Minister at the time, who allegedly banged on his desk and said “I want money!”. His suppliers were ordered to come back with cost savings within 24 hours. Slightly less subtle than an email nudge.

Which takes us into an era when companies and government use their power over their suppliers with increasing ruthlessness. Small businesses that depend on large ones for their revenue, are ground down, their profits eroded, often without a care on the part of the purchasers for the well-being of those who run and work for those businesses.

Large companies also use their purchasing power to squeeze margins by unilaterally extending payment terms. Ask any business about the effect of having to wait an additional three months for the money they’re owed, and they’ll tell you it can be catastrophic.

One of the major culprits of corporate bullying are the supermarket chains. Stories of small suppliers been squeezed to the edge of existence by Sainsbury’s, Tesco and their ilk are legion.

The bullies will always defend themselves by saying that they are driven by market forces. The supermarkets work on low margins, and know that the loyalty of their customers is only as good as their competitive prices. They might make noises about their suppliers being partners, but in the end all they care about, provided quality standards are met, is price. And all their shareholders are concerned about is return on investment.

Much of the political talk following the recent general election, and especially in the wake of Grenfell, is of the gap between rich and poor. But the behaviour of large organisations in their relationships with smaller ones should equally be of concern. Small companies, denied the ability to make a profit that enables them to maintain reasonably-paid, stable workforces, resort to hiring people – often from EU countries – on zero-hours contracts that pay the minimum wage.

Their growth is stunted by being unable to invest in expanding their businesses without having to resort to bank finance.

So we have a system wherein successive governments make great play of their support for small businesses, yet tolerate a business environment in which the powerful bully the weak in the name of competition. It’s a sacred nostrum in the West that small businesses are the engine of economies. But if those businesses are never allowed to move beyond the level of corner shops, all the work and tax-payer-funded resources invested in establishing a robust small business sector are wasted.

Inequality will not be solved merely by asking the wealthy to pay more tax, or by increasing corporate taxes on large businesses, as some politicians claim. And introducing a national living wage will not lift millions out of poverty. It will help some, but it will not help the unemployed, who remain so because potential employers who rely on business with larger organisations are deterred from expanding because they know that sooner or later they risk being exploited and possibly crushed by predatory customers, who say to them “if you don’t like the terms we’re offering, screw you – there are plenty of others who will take what we give them”.

I can claim a little experience on this subject. Apart from running a business for a number of years, I also once served as a non-executive director of one of the larger Business Links, an organisation funded by government to promote the growth of small businesses. Watching the constant gyrations in government policy in that field is another story altogether.

I don’t know how blame will finally be apportioned for the failings that led to the Grenfell Tower disaster. But I do know that our culture of squeezing and bullying suppliers won’t escape attention. And I also know that unless we introduce some controls over macho purchasing practices, there will always be suppliers who will be tempted to go against their better instincts in order to win business.

I for one would be happy to pay more for my milk, vegetables and meat if I knew that by doing so I was helping those farmers who ultimately supply them to move beyond the edge of viability, to employ more people and give those people a decent living. In fact I would be happy to pay more for more or less any goods and services if I knew that the money I paid was distributed fairly down supply chains rather than gobbled up by those at the top of the tree.

As we lurch into Brexit, we more than ever need a vibrant small and medium business sector. Without it, we will be reliant on government jobs paid for by an ever-diminishing tax revenue, or on large businesses who use their dominant market positions to exploit the lower-paid in the name of competition.

And if we don’t address the issue of predatory purchasing, slowly but surely our economy will hollow out. The gap between rich and poor will continue to widen. And we can look forward to a level of social instability last seen in the 1930s.

A year on from Brexit Day – does the UK still have an ejector seat?

This time last year, on the morning when Britain voted to leave the European Union, I was almost uncontrollably angry. One year on, everything I felt then I still feel: that the referendum shouldn’t have happened in the first place, at least not without a higher bar for success, that promising it had been an act of cowardice on the part of the ruling party, that the electorate was duped and that the consequences were unknowable but almost certainly negative.

Subsequent events have given me no confidence that things might, after all, turn out OK for the United Kingdom.

We are walking away from a political entity in which two major members – France and the Netherlands – by rejecting right-wing extremism in their recent elections, have reaffirmed their commitment to the union. The EU economy is getting stronger, while ours is getting weaker. Our most powerful ally beyond the EU is under the control of an unpredictable sociopath whose loyalty is extended no further than to the last person who flatters him.

Any expectations we might have had about doing a quick trade deal with the US, or any of the other major trading nations, must now seem fanciful.

We face a lonely future. No sunlit uplands, only the prospect of many years of economic under-performance. And if our economy under-performs, where will the money be found for all the post-austerity investments we so urgently need: infrastructure, health services, education, defence and social care? More debt – assuming that there are institutions willing to lend to us – more taxation or a combination of both.

I would be willing to believe that we would have a fair chance of making Brexit work if our political leaders were up to the task. But we are asking a mediocre bunch to do the impossible, and persuade 27 countries and an entrenched central bureaucracy to give us a deal that leaves us no worse off and more socially coherent than we would have been if we had never embarked on this project.

Why do I describe our politicians as mediocre? For me a successful politician needs three qualities in equal measures. These are campaigning skills, personal magnetism and ability to govern.

In the recent general election, the Conservatives were out-planned, out-thought and out-messaged by Labour. In terms of personality, Jeremy Corbyn wiped the floor with Theresa May. He came over in most of the key media events as warm, empathetic and reasonable, whereas May appeared cold, inflexible and emotionally blocked.

Theresa May has experience in government, but her track record as Home Secretary suggests competence rather than stellar ability. As Prime Minister, she has failed to unite her party, and has appeared irresolute and in thrall to her now-departed senior advisors. Her ministers are, with the notable exception of Boris Johnson, anonymous to the extent that it would be hard to imagine any of them as a credible successor. As for Johnson, he’s a chancer with a talent for self-promotion who might have been viable if it were not for his reputation as an incorrigible buffoon.

We have no way of knowing whether Jeremy Corbyn would be capable of governing effectively. Reports of his chaotic performance as leader of the opposition may be exaggerated, but it seems clear that he’s in his element as a campaigner, something he’s done for all but the last two years of his long parliamentary career. How would he deal with the daily grind of government? That remains to be seen.

Lurking behind his affable aura are others who appear far less cuddly. Chief among them is John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor, whose rhetoric is a throw-back to the golden age of mobilisation of the masses, agitprop and street protest. I know his ilk – I rubbed shoulders with them at university. There was a quality of hardness and intimidation about them then that I see in McDonnell now.

As for the policies of the parties, it was more of the same from the Conservatives, barring blunders of presentation on social care that sent a chill through the Tories’ most loyal constituency – the home owning elderly.

Labour’s package was a mixture of promises to energise our young voters, and old dogma scraped from the 1960s. The offer to scrap university tuition fees was bound to be a winner, and I support it. As for the re-nationalisation of rail companies and utilities, I fail to see how further reorganisation of our essential services would result in better outcome in the hands of a government apparatus that has become unused to running things directly over the past thirty years.

Either way, the minority Conservative government will limp on at least for the next few months until Theresa May faces one challenge too many to her authority. At that stage there may well be another election, and Corbyn my well get his chance.

It’s entirely possible that by then, opposition to our leaving the EU will have hardened to the point where it would be impossible for either party to ignore. Though both parties would campaign on various flavours of Brexit, an ace in the hole would be available for whichever of them is courageous enough to play it.

If, say, the Labour Party included the promise of a new referendum on Brexit – perfectly reasonable given what we know now and didn’t in June 2016 – it would pick up all those voters who have always known what a disaster Brexit will be, as well as a substantial number of Leavers who regret their original votes.

Add these voters to the under-25s, many of whom for most of their adult lives have been trained by the social media to put their emotions – likes and dislikes – before cold logic, and the newly-cuddly, Glastonbury-friendly Labour party would sweep the country. Corbyn may despise the EU’s capitalist institutions, but he cannot ignore the fact that Brexit was overwhelmingly opposed by the young, educated voters who subsequently turned to him in the recent election.

For the Tories to go for that option would be unthinkable. For Theresa May, or any of her potential successors, it would be a career-ending U-turn.

I might not like everything on the Labour agenda, but the prospect of a new referendum in which we voted to stay within the EU would override my concerns over their more questionable policies. Whether the vote took place immediately after the election or at the end of the negotiation is immaterial. Better a Britain in the EU with Labour in power than outside it with either party in control.

That prospect is the only chink of light I see in an increasingly gloomy outlook for my country. Otherwise, as the EU negotiators who represent member states who see no reason to curry favour with Britain grind away at us in the months to come, the only way forward is a slow decline.

I hope I’m wrong, and that we don’t face a future of friendless irrelevance. Much will depend on how things pan out with the EU negotiations. But we shouldn’t forget that if it becomes even more obvious that we’re plummeting towards a crash landing, we still have an ejector seat.

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