Martin Vander Weyer’s Any Other Business
I once heard an after-dinner speech by Jackie Blanchflower, brother of the great Spurs captain Danny. Jackie also played professional football, for Manchester United, but his career was cut short by his injuries in the 1958 Munich air crash, in which eight of his fellow ‘Busby Babes’ died. Thereafter he scratched a living as a publican, a bookie and an accounts clerk, and by the time I saw him, not long before he died in 1998, he looked so knackered that I wondered whether he would be capable of standing to speak. But he did, and delivered an unforgettably funny and poignant account of the rotten hand he had been dealt. I don’t know whether he was distantly related to David Blanchflower (also known to his friends as Danny), the left-leaning former Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee member who is given so much air time to vent his opposition to public spending cuts. But if so, the motor-mouth economist could benefit not only from a touch of his late kinsman’s self- deprecating charm, but also from his acute eye for the harsh realities of life.
‘If [George Osborne’s] plans are implemented it is almost certain that we are going to have a double-dip recession,’ David aka Danny told a television interviewer recently. ‘Where’s the growth coming from in the economy? I see no evidence at all that private firms are investing or hiring. The only show in town is the public sector.’ To give him his due, he was right in 2008 when he warned that the recession was going to be worse than his fellow MPC members were prepared to admit. And double-dip is certainly flavour of the month in pundit-land today, what with a rash of statistics indicating a slackening of activity in China and the US on top of all those scary numbers for public-sector job losses that have to be matched by new private-sector opportunities for Osborne’s cuts-and-growth equation to work. Plus the UK housing market seems to have stalled again, and a survey of UK finance directors by the accountants Deloittes this week found only a quarter of them feeling optimistic about business prospects. Has Blanchflower, annoyingly, called it right again?
Well, it would certainly help if the Chinese and the Americans could be relied upon as the pacesetters of global recovery. But let me resort to football metaphor. The most memorable passage of Jackie’s speech was about rising to head a long cross out of his own penalty area. As the sodden leather ball (several times the weight, I’d guess, of that slippery ‘aero-grooved’ model they used in the World Cup) descended towards him, as if in slow motion, he braced for impact between his forehead and the ball’s heaviest segment, its laced panel with metal eyelets. The better the contact, the more painful the imprint, the more effective the clearance. So it is now, as we defend against an out-of-control fiscal deficit that will drive us to ruin if the public sector really is ‘the only game in town’, a phrase that should put steel in the soul of every taxpaying citizen.
Like Jackie, we lived the life of football stars for a while, we survived the crash, but things are never going to be the same again. Now we have to find new ways to make ends meet. I have faith in entrepreneurship to rise to the challenge. And I know which Blanchflower I’d rather listen to.
Giving up sugar
It’s not worth getting excited about the sale to a US company of Tate & Lyle’s British and European sugar interests, including its Silvertown refinery in Docklands, opened in 1878, and the Golden Syrup factory nearby. There goes another slice of our industrial heritage, you might be thinking, just like dear old Cadbury. But in reality, Tate had been defeated by the EU’s punitive sugar quota system, and its managers decided some time ago that there was more money to be made producing specialist food ingredients and sweeteners. It remains to be seen what the deal will deliver for shareholders of American Sugar Refining (which will still use the Tate & Lyle brand) but there’s no suggestion at this stage of turning Silvertown into a Sugar World theme park. And it’s worth remembering that the real heritage of past industrial glory is often found not in businesses that have changed beyond recognition, but in philanthropic legacies. Sugar is merely a commodity that we stir into our tea and shake onto our straw- berries, and it doesn’t much matter who sells it to us. But Sir Henry Tate’s fortune from it gave us, ultimately, Tate Britain, Tate Modern, Tate Liverpool and Tate St Ives — so his name has a sweet aftertaste, whatever happens to his company.
To Garsington for the finale of the opera company created in 1989 by the banker Leonard Ingrams in his Oxfordshire garden. Five years after his death, the whole project is moving to a new site on the Getty estate at Wormsley in the Chilterns, a few miles south. It’s a fine night — unlike many evenings here when rain swirled through the open side of the stage, and the cognoscenti wore wellies under evening dress. A joyful performance of The Marriage of Figaro, and a curtain call for Ingrams’s widow Rosalind, provoke a standing ovation from a crowd which turns out to include, in separate parties, no fewer than four of my former City bosses. Oxfordshire is densely populated with financiers, and there’s an overpowering whiff of wealth which some might find offensive in the mood of today — a whiff that will now have to be distilled into £3 million-plus to pay for the proposed 600-seat auditorium-pavilion at Wormsley.
Does building a private opera house count as philanthropy? It’s not quite the same as Warren Buffett giving $1.6 billion (as he did last week) to Bill Gates’s foundation for health projects in Africa. But speaking as a trustee of a music college and an opera company, both heavily state-funded, I’m all for it: it will generate work for singers and orchestral players, and enthusiasm for the genre, which will help them and it survive the age of austerity. Tate liked paintings, so he endowed a gallery. If you like opera, build an opera house. Philanthropy works best if lots of people do it in different ways: if you’re lucky enough or smart enough to have made money in the boom, put it to a good use that enthuses you. The worse thing you could do now is just sit on it.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated July 10, 2010