Friday 27 February 2009

A privatised affair

I’m a staunch believer in capitalism, though I admit I’m prone to try and have it both ways – as an ugly necessity that provides the money to pay for the nice things in life; schools, hospitals and the like. And as I’m someone who grew up in the eighties I’m generally comfortable with the privatisation of national industries; the notion of allowing potentially successful companies to operate free from political interference seems eminently sensible. Since our politicians are often failed businessmen, businessmen on the make or people who’ve never had a real job, they’re the last people who should be trusted to run anything. In addition there’s an inherent conflict of interest in having the same people who own a company being tasked with its regulation.

Whilst Harold Macmillan may have likened it to selling off the family silver, all this remark really demonstrated was (perhaps not unsurprisingly) how out of touch he was. The repeated windfall taxes are ample evidence that the government can, if it wants, steal money just as easily from the private sector as it can the public.

The earliest examples of privatisation (BT, British Gas) were extremely successful; we may complain about the prices but these are driven by market forces and we now have a very real choice. In later years however, flushed with the success of what had gone before, the Conservatives became almost dogmatic in their approach. If they could privatise those industries, they could privatise anything, and at times it appeared they weren’t too bothered with the outcome.

Had there been much left then I’m quite sure the current Labour government would have equalled, perhaps even excelled, the Thatcher years. However they found ways to make the Conservatives look almost prudish by comparison; the fluttering of its eyes at the merest suggestion of a PFI and the sluttish manner in which it jumped into bed with any industry that would have it. The re-employment of Arthur Anderson (accountants to the dodgy but, tellingly, sponsors to various Labour party events) who Thatcher herself had banned from government contracts, was ample evidence that there really were no limits.

Not even the Royal Mail was safe.

In principal I have no issue with a privatised mail service; I do however have a problem with the timing and reason behind the decision to sell a share in the company. I’m no great financial expert but it’s a pretty safe bet that selling in a busted market results in a much lower price than if you sell when all is well. It’s as idiotic as having a large pile of gold for sale but instead of selling it quietly, a little at a time to maximise your income, you announce your plans in advance and thus drive down the price. That particular example, courtesy of Gordon Brown, cost the taxpayer several billion pounds - and that’s back in the days when several billion pounds was a lot of money.

Of greater concern than the government’s incompetence is their duplicity over the need to sell. The company pension scheme has a crippling £6bn deficit and we know the government, in the form of Peter Mandelson, wants to sell. How convenient then that the chair of trustees for the pension scheme should write a letter to Peter Mandelson, stating the urgent requirement to do just that. There are two other methods to deal with the shortfall, one of which suggests the government take over the running of the scheme, allowing the company to run as a profitable concern. This is by far the fairest solution because had the government (past and present) not taken a 13 year pension holiday from paying in, then this problem wouldn’t exist; and neither would the negative image of the company (cultivated by the government) as a drain on public finances.

If The Royal Mail is to be sold, it should be as a going concern and at a time when the best price can be obtained for the British tax payer, not at a time that is politically expedient and the focus of the populace is elsewhere. But before selling we should first ask whether it needs to be; and this can only happen after an informed debate that doesn’t involve the orchestration of correspondence for the purpose of leaking it to the press.

Friday 20 February 2009

David McCallum and some giant man-dissolving snails

My gravestone
God I’m tired. It’s been a horrible week and, since I seem to use that phrase rather a lot, I’m thinking I should get those words engraved. You know where. I’ve overdosed on data scripts for the next rollout; I left my last script to run overnight and came back this morning to find it took nearly four hours to finish. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, a data script will take as long as it takes, but it’s enough to attract attention. I think I hold the company record for the longest ever running script, 38 hours to create 17+ million rows, designed to enable on-line queries to execute with greater speed. Is that ironic? I’m not sure, it might be. Did I mention I’m tired?

Ziva David, NCIS
Last night I was on a case with David McCallum who unfortunately, and literally, came to a sticky end. We’re looking at a tunnel in a sand dune, only of course it couldn’t be a sand dune because how can you have a tunnel through the sand? David, with his forensic hat on, takes a look and decides to crawl right in. “I wouldn’t do that” I said, noticing this giant snail, only I was too late. Poor David, he never knew what happened. Only he did, because giant man-dissolving snails aren’t exactly the fastest killers around. I’m not exactly sure what happened next but at one point my arms fell off, I fell over and I couldn’t get up again because… well it’s not easy when you’ve got no arms.

What the hell was that about? Why did I have to dream about Ducky? Why couldn’t it be Ziva? She’s ‘fit’ (I may be middle-aged but I know the lingo) and I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t come to a sticky end… at least not from a giant man-eating snail. Though with my luck, she probably would.

Wednesday 18 February 2009


rusty carMy car is ‘briefly’ in the garage for its paint job and I am currently driving to work in the oldest courtesy car on the planet. It’s an automatic, not much of the driver console appears to be working, a brake warning light decides to flash up periodically, it has a tendency to shimmy of its own accord and has 140,000 miles on the clock. To your average U.S. citizen this may be no more than a trip to the local shop, but in the U.K. that’s a long way. Oh, and the radio doesn’t work; so for 35 minutes I am trapped with only my thoughts for company. Now there’s hell for you.

Thursday 12 February 2009

Sing if you’re happy

My car has been patched up - it passed its MOT – it’s safe. I can’t afford to drive it anymore, but that’s a minor quibble. I spent yesterday afternoon shuttling back and forward between garage two, who had done some welding, and garage one, who failed the job because it hadn’t been done properly. I was supposed to be working from home and instead found myself fielding calls on my mobile phone whilst watching my car being welded for a second time. The only positive came when garage two managed to reverse my car into a Porsche. This might not sound too good, but the rear bumper was in a sorry state beforehand, now it gets a free re-spray before I attempt to sell the car on. If I’m lucky it may cover the cost of repairs.

Steam train
It was enough to have me pine for the days when I used public transport. For over ten years I travelled into work by train and even though the journey by car is hardly arduous, and using the train was never very quick (an hour door-to-door compared to 30 minutes if I drove), it was much more relaxed. I could spend my time reading the Metro newspaper (hey, it’s free) or even (gasp) a book. That’s right, I use to read. Whilst doing so I could drink vile coffee and munch on an over-priced cinnamon Danish – there was no end to my multi-tasking skills. I could leap tall buildings in a single bound. I could… I could… you’re not buying any of this are you? I lost you at coffee.

Working at home was much more productive than I’d imagined. This despite being crouched over a laptop, placed on a desk that wasn’t really large enough for serious work, and using VPN to connect to my desktop in the office. I didn’t check my blog once throughout the day. I don’t remember checking my personal e-mail. When I was called up to ‘attend’ a meeting over the phone I contributed far more than if I’d been there in person. Perhaps it was the novelty of it all. It brought to mind the Hawthorne effect – where a change in the working conditions (I think it was factory lighting) would result in increased productivity, temporarily at least. Perhaps when the novelty wears off I’ll return to normal; any advantages gained from having no distractions or being able to sing more loudly than usual will be lost. Singing doesn’t come naturally, I never could sing in tune – but importantly I keep trying.

Saturday 7 February 2009

Poor man, rich man, poor man

John and Yoko Lennon
This week I decided to address my haphazard finances. In the process I found an insurance policy with a high monthly premium that I could afford to cancel, and discovered to my surprise that it had a surrender value (£1045 credit).

Also this week I decided to sort out my car, though I didn’t really have a choice. On Monday I bought three new tyres and had the tracking fixed (£201), having wrecked the other tyre a week earlier driving over a pothole (£40). On Tuesday I put the car in for its MOT and service. On Thursday my car was returned with a seemingly endless list of faults fixed (£726) and a failed MOT. Tomorrow I pick up a new alloy wheel (£151). Next Monday I take the car in for some welding (£Unknown) and hopefully on Wednesday the car will be re-tested (£Unknown).

Hang on a second…