Sunday, 31 December 2006

To live in a land free of corruption

I’m currently in the second-least corrupt country in the world, according to the annual survey by the politically non-partisan global civil society organisation Transparency International (TI). No, don’t be silly, it's not Wales; I’m in Finland, which ranked just behind Iceland this year.

Wales is not considered a country as far as the TI survey is concerned, but the United Kingdom was ranked equal eleventh, unchanged from 2004. However, the result was published before Tony Blair announced the termination of the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) investigation into the conduct of BAE Systems plc in the UK’s ‘Al Yamamah’ arms deal with Saudi Arabia.

An SFO statement said it was necessary to balance the need to maintain the rule of law against the wider public interest. It’s horrendous that the Prime Minister should consider there’s a conflict between the two. Since the decision was taken in the ‘wider public interest’, the Government has a duty to explain in detail how the public interest was endangered by the continuation of the criminal investigation.

In a separate statement, the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, referred to Article 5 of the OECD Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions, which precludes investigations and prosecutions being influenced by considerations of national economic interest or the potential effect upon relations with another State. Although he claimed that the SFO had not been influenced by those considerations, the Prime Minister’s statement suggested otherwise.

It should be noted that BAE Systems has consistently denied any wrongdoing. So why, then, has the SFO been pressured into prematurely terminating an investigation that had been diligently pursued for over two years by a joint SFO and MOD Police team? In terminating the investigation rather than allowing it to be completed, Lord Goldsmith has relieved himself of the duty of deciding whether or not to prosecute and has undermined any vestige of moral and ethical credibility this government might have maintained internationally.

The message from the Westminster government, therefore, is disturbingly familiar. Britain expects other countries to observe their obligations under international anti-corruption conventions, while reserving for itself the right to ignore its own obligations when this is politically expedient.

It might be that Wales could learn a lot from Finland, a country that achieved independence from Russia only after the revolution of 1917, having been part of the Russian empire for more than a century. For 600 years before that, up until Russia beat Sweden in the war of 1808-1809, it was part of the Swedish empire.

Although run as a group of provinces rather than a national entity, the imposition of the Swedish legal system meant that Finnish peasants were never serfs; in fact, Finns have always maintained their personal freedom. Personal freedom and personal responsibility are considered important here and Finnish women were the first in Europe to gain the right to vote in parliamentary elections.

When the Soviet Union tried to invade in November 1939, Finland’s well organised little army managed to inflict massive casualties on a overwhelming number of Soviet troops, ultimately forcing a peace treaty to be agreed in Moscow the spring of 1940. Finland was forced to give up Eastern Karelia, a region the Russians have failed to return since the collapse of the Soviet Union. (Actually, many Finns don’t want it back because of the detrimental effect restoration might have their very high standard of living.)

Then, apart from a hiccup in 1941 when they sided with Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union and were, at the end of the war, forced to cede Petsamo on the Arctic Ocean, the Finns have managed to maintain a peaceful, if uneasy coexistence with their massive neighbour ever since.

Having become a member of the European Union in 1995, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Finns are now debating the merits of NATO membership, having maintained a policy of neutrality since the war.

The land area of Finland is approximately 17 times the size of Wales (338,000 square kilometres), which is inhabited by only 5.3 million people. Although 69% of the country is covered by forest and 10% by water (187,888 lakes), electronics (eg. Nokia phones) account for the largest slice of exports, followed by machinery and then wood and paper products.

Despite having two official languages (Finnish and Swedish), having adopted the Euro, having mean temperatures that range between +20C and -20C (I remember it being -45C in Jyväskylä a few winters ago), being covered in snow and ice for 5 months of the year and being in near darkness for 2 of those months, Finland has the highest standard of living in Europe.

If you ask a Finn what they do, they’ll most likely tell you about their hobbies or interests; they won’t assume you mean what they do to get money/status/self-worth. In other words, their value system isn’t focused on wealth. Thus the gap between rich and poor isn’t that great. Consequently, they generally treat each other with kindness and respect and live in a safe environment free of corruption and mostly free of crime (although serious crime now comes over the border from Russia).

They laugh easily and have a great sense of humour despite being the butt of sauna jokes. They used to be the butt of European music jokes too, until Lordy won the Eurovision Song Contest this year. You want to know why a Finnish heavy metal band won a contest known for its sugar-pop-Euro-pap? It was the only entry that wasn’t cynical.

Now, why can’t we build a Finland-like Jerusalem in Wales’ green and pleasant land? I put it to you that it’s only a fear of the unknown holding us back.

Blwyddwyn Newydd Dda. Dal ati!

Click here to check out The Red Dragonhood.

Thursday, 21 December 2006

Land of Hope and Glory

Many years ago now, in 1991 to be exact, the conductor Mark Elder got the high profile classical gig of the year, conducting the Last Night of the Proms. Being a man of principle at the time, Mark considered it inappropriate to whip up jingoistic sentiment when the first Gulf War was about to kick off, so he baulked at the idea of playing the ritualistic tub-thumpers for the braying hordes of little Englanders who frequent this anachronistic event.

Mark publicly announced that he thought it best not to have Jerusalem, Rule Britannia and especially not Land of Hope and Glory in the set, and this moral position quickly led him into conflict with John Drummond, then the controller of the Proms. Needless to say, the Tory shires rose in indignation, stirred into a patriotic frenzy by the Telegraph and the Daily Mail.

Presented with this splendid opportunity, I hurried to Mark’s defence by offering a disarmingly simple compromise. He would agree to play Land of Hope and Glory after all, but I would rewrite Arthur Benson’s bombastic lyrics to make the song more humanistic in spirit. This seemed particularly appropriate since Edward Elgar, who penned the tune, supposedly recanted the lyrics before his death in 1934.

Now, the Royal Albert Hall on the Last Night of the Proms is one time and place where I’d dearly love to set off bombs (purely in the figurative sense you understand, I wouldn’t actually want to hurt anyone, not even Andrew Lloyd Webber.) Here, I smirked to myself, was a chance to stick one on Margaret Thatcher, then recently deposed as Prime Minister, and on the English middle classes generally. (You don’t remember the Iron Lady? Once upon a time there was a wicked old witch who dismissed compassion, social responsibility and human kindness as weaknesses. She promised sweeties to those who embraced her philosophies of greed and selfishness...)

So, I was hoping to provoke a riot when I wrote the words of the following ‘humanist’ anthem:

Land of hope and glory,
That’s what this could be.
Greed is not the answer,
It cannot make us free.
Subscribe to truth, to love of life,
On other’s toil don’t bet,
There’s glory in compassion,
And hope for all of us yet.

I must admit that the opening four lines are a bit wooden. To be fair though, I had to spin the whole plot out of the title, otherwise it wouldn’t have made much sense. I’m still quite happy with the last four lines.

My personal ‘Gunpowder Plot’ came to nothing, of course. Mark Elder was summarily fired before my heretical ‘dirty bomb’ could be detonated. The status quo held steady. A sympathetic soprano recorded the lyrics a cappella for me and, for all I know, the Decca Record Company may still have the tape in its vaults somewhere. I have the master of a video we made to support a record that was never released, but these things are scant consolation.

In an ironic twist, Mark Elder finally did conduct the Last Night of the Proms earlier this year, with all the traditional pomposity left intact, 15 years after being sacked for having the integrity to stand up for what he believed to be true. Evidently he doesn’t have the same sensibilities any longer for, if I’m not mistaken, there’s a war going on in the Gulf. By the way, which edition of the Gulf War are we up to now; is it still the second or have we moved on to the third?

I’m open to discussing an assignment of copyright if Rhodri Morgan really intends to return the Labour Party in Wales to its pre-New Labour values once the elections are out of the way. The Gulf War, which may ultimately become known as the second 100 Years War, obviously isn’t a ‘Welsh issue’ as far as Rhodri is concerned.

Click here to check out the Red Dragonhood.

Tuesday, 19 December 2006

Emotional blackmail won't save Burberry jobs but community action just might

It seems crazy that Burberry, a leading fashion brand which made £84.2 million profit in the last six months, would need to make 300 Welsh workers redundant on the basis that its Treorchy factory is no longer viable.

That is until you glance at the summary on page 1 of the firm's Annual Report and Accounts and see that nearly 50% of its business comes from North America and the Asia Pacific region. Burberry wants to switch manufacturing to China and, no matter how loyal and hardworking they may be, there is no way Burberry's Welsh workers can compete.

This is not simply a matter of Chinese workers working for less money than their Welsh counterparts, although of course they do. (The average Chinese textile worker earns approximately 35 pence per hour - £1.51 in Welsh equivalent buying power - whereas Welsh workers receive at least the minimum wage of £5.35 per hour.)

The Chinese currency, the Renminbi or Yuan, is pegged at an artificially low rate by the Chinese government to a basket of foreign currencies, dominated by the US dollar, and trades within a narrow 0.3% band. This gives Chinese manufacturers a massive cost advantage, even over countries with notoriously low labour rates, such as Mexico.

Since the Renminbi is pegged - rather than being allowed to fluctuate with market forces, as does the pound and every other major currency - companies like Burberry do not need to hedge against foreign exchange risks when sourcing from China since the price in dollars or pounds is always predictable. Most Chinese exporters trade in US dollars and, for a British-based business, buying in dollars is very attractive right now.

I'm not party to Burberry's business strategy, of course, but based on the experience of working with several similar companies, China probably offers Burberry greater and faster growth potential than any other territory. (Chinese managers are becoming rich on the basis of their cheap labour costs and favourable exchange rates, and they have developed a voracious appetite for Western luxury goods.) Manufacturing in China will keep prices competitive in the key Chinese market whilst allowing reasonable profit margins to be maintained. This will probably benefit Burberry's bludgeoning Japanese franchises too.

With North American being another important market and the Renminbi being kept artificially low against the dollar, manufacturing in China is win-win for Burberry. It doesn't require a degree in economics to work out that if the dollar is trading at 1.96 to the pound, goods manufactured in Wales will not be anywhere near competitive in the North American and Chinese markets.

A few years ago, Welsh workers would have had the edge over their Chinese counterparts in terms of craftsmanship and quality, but that's no longer the case. Globalisation is not good news for the former industrial heartland of Wales, and Burberry is a global business.

On page 7 of the Burberry Annual Report it says "The Group… took initial steps to rationalise its supply chain by consolidating sourcing of selected key products". Whatever that means, I doubt it offers any reassurance for the communities of Treorchy and Treherbert. 'Corporate social responsibility' extends to helping workers find new jobs but doesn't stretch to losing money if there are no new jobs to be found.

Whilst my heart is entirely with the workers, my head says there is no way Burberry is going to change its position. The emotional campaign currently being championed by Leighton Andrews AM, Chris Bryant MP, Peter Hain MP, actors Rhys Ifans and Ioan Gruffudd and others is unlikely to meet much success unless the government steps in with incentives to keep the factory open. Nevertheless, Ioan Gruffudd should be heartily congratulated for making a genuine personal commitment by risking his endorsement deal with Burberry to support the worker's cause. The interventions of Rhys Ifans and Bryn Terfel are evidently heartfelt too.

Burberry claims a 'distinctive British sensibility' but that doesn't mean 'Made in Wales'. Chris Bryant, the Rhondda MP, tabled an early day motion at Westminster warning that "by withdrawing from UK production Burberry will be irremediably damaging its brand identity". That begs the question; will American or Chinese consumers pay twice as much for a polo shirt 'Made in Treorchy'? I don't believe so. And does Burberry currently source most of its manufacturing in Britain? No, of course it doesn't. The consumer wants the added value that the words 'distinctive' and 'sensibility' imply. The word 'British' merely suggests a certain style. It conjures up images of Big Ben, soldiers in Bearskins, black taxis and red buses, not a factory in the Rhondda. 'Made in Wales' would mean little to Burberry's American consumers and nothing at all to Chinese consumers, who don't care where the product is made anyway. In Burberry's case, the consumer wants the emotional values the product represents more than its functional efficacy, in keeping out the weather, for example.

Chris Bryant went on to "urge investors to think twice about Burberry's commercial decisions". The very next day, Burberry's stock hit new highs on news of its half-year profits, and the price has continued to rise ever since. This demonstrates perfectly the short-term nature of the current investment climate and is a ringing endorsement from investors of the profit focus adopted by Burberry's management. These people don't feel any responsibility for a few Welsh jobs.

Angela Ahrendts, Burberry's new CEO who joined the firm in July, didn't get where she is today by being a mug either. According to Forbes magazine, she'll make $31 million (£16 million) over 5 years if she hits her performance targets at Burberry. That's a hell of an unemotional incentive to reduce costs.

The long and short of it is that the factory is going to close and emotional blackmail is not going to make any difference. 300 good people are going to lose their jobs and the knock-on effect will devastate their communities.

If the little business I'm now launching were two or three years down the road I'd be interested in taking over the factory. But, in the meantime, there may be something practical that I, the supporters of the 'Keep Burberry British' campaign (this name is spurious because the organisers are well aware that Burberry doesn't intend to close its 'British' factories in Yorkshire, but enough of the negativity) and everyone else in Wales can do to help.

If I was organising the campaign to save the Rhondda jobs, I'd ask Bernard Ashley, the co-founder and former Chairman of Laura Ashley, to get involved. Bernard has been a great supporter of Welsh craftsmanship over the years and he still owns an innovative digital printing business for fabric at Llangoed. His son Nick Ashley, a great designer in his own right and the man credited with invigorating Dunhill's menswear range (a competitor to Burberry), might be commissioned to draw up a classical collection the workers at Treorchy could manufacture.

What could I do myself? I would be willing to design, produce and market a t-shirt through The Red Dragonhood ( with the profits going towards funding a new venture to keep Treorchy going.

If Ioan Gruffudd, Charlotte Church, James Hook and Rhys Ifans (maybe some of our musicians too) were to model them, Terry Morris were to take the pictures, Bryn Terfel, Tom Jones and Max Boyce were to lend their fame and the politician's were to help with administration, then we'd be likely to sell enough in Wales alone to fund a new start-up at the factory.

The offer is on the table. If we can raise money for Children In Need and other good causes, why can't we do the same to keep the Rhondda in business? Forget globalisation. Let's start looking after our own.

Click here to check out The Red Dragonhood

Monday, 11 December 2006

Welsh World Champions not valued in England

I don’t want to belittle the achievement of 11th-in-line-to-the-throne Zara Philips in winning the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award but the fact that Joe Calzaghe and Nicole Cooke both got less than 10% of the vote shows that being a Welsh World Champion counts for nothing in England.

Predictably, neither Cooke nor Calzaghe got a fair hearing in the show. Without knowing the demographics of the vote, it would be impossible to say for sure whether the result was a victory for the campaign waged last week by the Telegraph and Daily Mail but it was certainly a victory for the status quo.

Wales was reduced by the BBC, in effect, to the same status as East Yorkshire/Lincolnshire.

Wednesday, 6 December 2006

Welsh World Champions reduced to mere contenders

It’s good to see two superb Welsh World Champions nominated for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award on Sunday, even if the bookies have Darren Clarke down as the runaway favourite while the Telegraph and Daily Mail are doing everything they can to rally support for the “dedicated, unbelievably hard-working and equally deserving” 25 year-old eleventh-in-line-to the-throne, Zara Phillips.

At the moment of writing, you can’t get better than 1/4 on Darren Clarke – clearly a pointless bet – while the odds on “committed, competitive and professional” Zara Phillips have shortened to 7/2. The bookies must be fairly certain that a Welsh personality won’t get the award since you can get odds of 50/1 on Joe Calzaghe at Paddy Power and 100/1 on Nicole Cooke at Coral, despite their achievements being by far and away the most deserving of the award.

Darren Clarke showed extraordinary fortitude, not to mention good old-fashioned sportsmanship, in contributing to Europe’s Ryder Cup victory over the United States shortly after the death of his wife from cancer, and Zara Phillips did very well to win the three-day eventing competition at the World Equestrian Games, even though her team mate, whose name is Toytown, actually did all the legwork. But these triumphs pale into insignificance compared to the accomplishments of Joe Calzaghe and Nicole Cooke.

I was lucky enough to be sat at ringside, alongside a few members of the cast of Coronation Street as a guest of ITV Sport, when Joe fought America’s then favourite super-middleweight, Jeff Lacy, at the MEN Arena in Manchester at two in the morning on a bitterly cold day in March this year. It was perhaps the most perfect demonstration of pugilism ever to be delivered by any fighter at any weight, the culmination of the brutally hard work the 34 year-old Calzaghe has put into his sport since the age of 9.

But its not that one fight that defines Joe Calzaghe; it’s all the fights he’s won since 1997, the longest reign of any World Champion in history.

At only 23 years old, Nicole Cooke may be the greatest woman road race cyclist there has ever been. This year she won the individual World Cup crown and captained the World title-winning team. She led the women’s equivalent of the Tour de France (La Grande Boucle) from start to finish and dominated the Magali Pache with perhaps her great ever performance in a time trial.

I’ve never participated in a television vote but I’ll make a point of voting for Joe and Nicole on Sunday. The result will come down to how the BBC producers decide to pitch each little film they make to support the nominations, of course, but I’d have a tenner on Joe to be the first Welshman on the moon at odds of 50/1, and I’ll take a 100/1 patriotic flyer on Nicole while I’m at it.

Since I’ll be at the bookies anyway, I might as well have a piece of the existentialist action at 6/1 on David Beckham getting a knighthood in the New Year’s Honours List, especially since the idea that such a ludicrous thing might actually come to pass appeals to my wicked, absurdist nature. By comparison with betting on the outcome of the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award, this is a wager that looks like ridiculously easy money in the upside down world we now inhabit.

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Monday, 4 December 2006

Are the Bluebirds doing the fans a favour?

“WHERE HAVE the 7,000 [fans] gone?” Cardiff’s manager Dave Jones was reported to have asked after only 13,500 turned out to watch the Bluebirds’ wretched home draw with Colchester on Saturday. (He was making a comparison with the 20-odd thousand that watched Cardiff beat current Championship leaders Birmingham back in August.)

And he complained about the attitude of those that did attend, “If they’re going to come then support us, don’t boo us. We are third in the league and we’re being booed. I think the fans should take a long, hard look at themselves.”

A collapse of 32% in the gate might indeed look bad were it not for the fact that everyone knows a game against Colchester is hardly likely to provide compelling entertainment, especially on the first Saturday of December when the missus is banging on about getting the Christmas shopping done.

Then there’s the fact that Cardiff have now failed to score in four matches taking only two points from a possible 12 and falling from first in the Championship, with a commanding lead, to a shaky third. There are other things you can do on a Saturday afternoon when your team is playing badly, but not in Dave Jones' world, obviously.

Jones’ attitude towards the fans, though, is typical of people in football management. To be fair, in the same interview he did praise the diehards who travel to all the away games, but he expects the supporters to turn up irrespective of whether his team manages to do so. It’s not whether the team loses or draws that gets the crowd booing, it’s the lack of application.

Foreign investors are merrily milking the blind loyalty of supporters at clubs like Chelsea, Manchester United, Aston Villa, Portsmouth and Hearts. Liverpool, too, will soon be joining their ranks, becoming the personal plaything of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the owner of a theme park in the Arabian Gulf, if media reports are to be believed.

By falling short now rather than later, Cardiff could be doing its fans a favour. Jones went on to warn that “If we are going to dip into the transfer market, we need as many fans here as possible”, presumably suggesting that if the fans don’t turn up, the club will keep its chequebook in the draw.

That might be a good thing given that the club is £30 million in debt and has been losing between £8 and £9 million a year for the last three years. To make matters worse, it has at its helm the same man who nearly destroyed Leeds United, a club where gates used to average 30,000 a week, by borrowing money against future gate receipts that didn’t materialise simply because the team didn’t win. That's what happens when teams don't win.

The Bluebirds average gate this season is 16,583. That’s not enough to support a premiership team over the long haul, not even with the Sky money. Reading, by comparison, are currently averaging 24,000. Chelsea’s average gate of 42,000 is not enough to maintain the club’s current position without the mineral wealth of Russia being squandered on it. Colchester, Cardiff’s Championship opponents last Saturday, average only 5,247, by the way.

With enlightened management, there is no reason why Cardiff City Football Club could not become, over a period of time, a Welsh Barça, a symbol of freedom and identity for Wales in the way that FC Barcelona is for Catalans. Except that Barça is owned by more than 150,000 members who elect their club officials, not by sultans or oligarchs or lunatic businessmen who merely take the fans for granted.

To build the kind of fan base the club needs to compete in the Premiership, the Bluebirds need to involve the whole nation (other than those living in Swansea and Wrexham, of course) in the running of the club for the benefit of the fans and for Welsh football generally.