Monday, 21 February 2011

Working to put back the ‘Great’ in Britain

I am old enough to remember my home town as it used to be when I lived in an avenue of beautiful cherry trees flowering in the spring (they were replaced to save sweeping up the blossom), when litter was the exception not the rule (people had a pride in their neighbourhood and town), and when service in shops was the rule not the exception (or you shopped elsewhere). What happened to those old values and expectations? I seem to recall that when computers first arrived they were heralded as the way processes could be automated so people could work less hard and have more leisure time. What happened? We became slaves to the computer in order to produce more for greedy companies. Commerce ruled.

Years ago I predicted the financial crisis that struck us all, but I am not claiming to have been a visionary, which is the really sad thing. Most people I talked to back then to seemed to be aware of the madness in financial companies offering easy credit no matter what your circumstances. Barely a day went passed without one or more leaflets dropping through the door begging us to take out further credit. Mortgages were easily approved with people exaggerating their earnings without any proper checks. People were given money despite the fact it was clear huge numbers did not have the means to ever pay it back. This was the build-up of a terrific bubble that had to burst when people could not afford what that bought. It did not take a genius to see this was happening, yet governments on both sides of the pond claim they didn’t see it coming, nor did the financial institutions. What? Really? How hopeless or irresponsible were they? Governments, of course, did not want to stop the party when everyone was happy. I think it suited them to turn a blind eye, make hay while the sun-shined, feather their nests - please add all the other applicable clich├ęs.

Once a bank manager was respected as the person to whom you needed to prove financial viability and management expertise before you were given a loan. The bank worked hard to see if it could trust you. What now? We must work hard to see if we can trust a bank. We must consider how safe our money will be in any financial institution. We must weight up whether money in a financial institution is a better or safer investment than the proverbial mattress. What has the world come to when ordinary people are expected to make financial decisions trickier than banks themselves were expected to make?

Now, talking mainly of the UK, although I feel sure a lot may apply to the US, we are in a recession (forget technical definitions, trust the gut-feeling), and we need to reconsider what made us great in the ‘good old days’. A country can only be great, and viable, if it actually produces something useful: by which I mean PRODUCTS. I do not mean paperwork. This country built up arrays of civil servants with gold-plated pensions to push papers. Workable systems were made subject to change even though they worked perfectly well, and that change inevitable involved more paperwork. Take education, where teachers now spend so much time doing an administrative task, where paperwork is given priority over actually teaching. When I went to school teachers just taught. We learned. A great system. It worked! When we went to hospitals, the National Health Service used that old-fashioned method of local delegation, where ward sisters made sure things worked smoothly, and it did not take an army of civil servants in ivory towers to decide who was worthy of an operation and when, just a fair waiting list. Now, it seems, Mr. Cameron believes doctors can sort all that out instead, but, you know what, doctors should be spending their time making patients get well, not being involved in hospital adminstration. Why would a GP have better knowledge of what is needed at a local hospital than the staff there? So both governments, Labour and Coalition, have this one wrong. It was wrong, anyway, to expect the NHS to work like a profitable company. The profit in the NHS should be a fitter population.

Please, Mr. Prime Minister, look back at the models of yesteryear: the ones that worked. Delegation within a working system, not the micro-management and administrative nightmares concocted by Mr. Brown, nor Mr. Cameron’s empowered people keeping our country going for free because the tank is on empty. Yes, the present prime minister has a tremendous problem to sort out, and yes, it will be painful for everyone. We can only accept that – and the fact he inherited the problem. Tough measures are needed. It should, of course, be far more painful for top bankers, since it was their mismanagement that led us all into this problem. Afraid they will go abroad if their bonuses are cut? Maybe there would be newcomers filling their shoes who were prepared to be rewarded fairly for a fair day’s work – so what loss is that?

And on the subject of making cuts and savings, I would ask why decommissioned and fully functional military equipment could not just be moth-balled rather than cut up for scrap. It might come in useful one day in this troubled world.

It is inevitable people will be made unemployed in a recession, since paper-pushing people who are not really needed within a more efficient system really do need to get into more practical employment. What they need is different jobs, not the dole. They are not the kind of people used to, or wanting that. So let’s get back to what makes a country great: PRODUCTS. China and India are in the early phase where they see that these make wealth and happiness, although, of course, they have not got to the QUALITY phase yet; lots of what they make is rubbish. Germany realises quality and trustworthy products are the way to profitability. Why not us? We once got to the quality phase on both sides of the pond but now, because we are out-priced, we are suffering the rubbish phase with poor quality goods replacing those we knew and loved. Know what? There is still a marked to quality goods, and there is still an export market for them – and we know how to produce quality better than up-and-coming countries. It might be ironic if we supply high-quality goods to the countries feeding us low-quality goods for a while, but at least that would be TRADE: leading to us upping out standards again, in due course. Quality costs a little more, but it is what people really want, and many will pay extra for that, especially abroad. Some UK manufacturers who moved production to China, India, etc, to save on labour costs, are learning this to their cost how this affects quality and are bringing manufacture back to Europe and the home country where they can control it.

Yes, we do need to tighten our belts, we must not allow or be part of strikes asking for more money, we must be pleased we actually have jobs when we look upon those who do not. But what is the answer to the larger problem? Apart from banks helping financing sound and proven companies who are actually in the position to expand, and new companies with good business models and plans, I suggest it lies in investment within our infrastructure. We are still expecting Victorian sewers to function today when that was not the design aim. We expect the wires laid in the days of shared-line telephones to still deliver broadband services in those areas of the UK not yet upgraded (like mine). We loose precious water through leaky Victorian water pipes. We risk serious explosion through leaks from aging gas pipes. We plug holes in the roads instead of making them good again. Now we see a growing number people being paid for being unemployed – either through lost jobs or because they have yet to get their first job. True, the cost of paying their unemployment might be less than the waste of paying them to needlessly push papers, but how much better if they contributed to either producing products for export, or in restoring the aging infrastructure of our country. The UK government should invest in the better future they hope and pray for by using this available labour force to bring our infrastructure up-to-date. Then people are paid to contribute towards the better future to which we aspire. This is not just spending our way out of recession, as the previous government used to talk, but investing in our way out: there is a pay-off. That way they could work to make this country great again and it will be sounder for eventual growth and prosperity.

The modern world teaches everyone to expect everything NOW. We must learn again that you need to work for the luxuries of life – and WAIT a little. You can actually be happy with less. Less really is more. Work diligently now, and Mr. Cameron, please put people into work which will improve our country not just pay people to stay at home.

Know what? A country that pulls itself up by its bootstraps might also be a country that has some pride again. A country with less crime because there is more work and more money earned instead of illegally gained. Pride to keep its streets clean, its youngsters in order: less necessary with places to go and things to do. Pride in being known for quality goods and concern for our neighbours. Pride in being British again and feeling the word ‘great’ still applies to ‘Great Britain’.

(Please link to this article if you agree.)