Have you ever tried discussing the merits of gun control with a Texan, or of deregulated labour markets with a Frenchman and his Belgian cousin? The prejudices involved are much the same.
Many Americans believe that guns in the home and the pick-up truck are their best protection against violent attack, and that the 13,286 US gunshot deaths last year would have hit an even higher number if gun ownership was more restricted. Likewise, French trade unionists believe a 35-hour working week combined with laws restricting any company that is a going concern from making redundancies are the best protection of their economic wellbeing, rather than a root cause of the fact that more than 3.5 million of their compatriots are unemployed. That’s 10.2 per cent, which even if it has fallen a fraction in recent months is still double the rate in the UK.
And so this week, in opposition to President François Hollande’s timid and too-late labour law reforms, the militant Confédération Générale du Travail union — led by the fiercely moustachioed Philippe Martinez, who has called for a 32-hour week — was doing its best to bring France to a standstill by closing refineries, fuel depots and nuclear power stations. Rail workers and Air France pilots were expected to join in, with a view to crippling their own country as it hosts the Euro 2016 football championship commencing next week. Meanwhile in Belgium, rail workers, prison guards, teachers and other public-service workers (principally French-speakers in Wallonia and Brussels, rather than their Flemish counterparts) have been indulging in a general strike against changes in their working conditions.
Let’s not be too smug here: French workers are more productive than our own by a startling margin (GDP per hour worked in 2014 was $50.5 in the UK, $62.7 in France). The number of people in work in the UK has risen by almost 2.5 million since 2009, compared with fewer than a million in France — but UK wage rates were squeezed in the process, and employment conditions clearly became harsher in low-waged sectors. Nevertheless, the flexible UK labour market that has developed over the past 30 years has been, on balance, a progressive force in our national life. It encourages business investment and start-ups, which bring faster recovery from downturns, and the wider social benefits that come from having more young people in paid work. The decline of public support for strikers (though junior doctors won more sympathy than most) has forced unions to work with employers, largely to mutual benefit.
‘Hollande = Thatcher’ said a scrawled graffito on the route of a CGT march through Paris last week. Not quite, François mon brave, but stand up to Monsieur Martinez and keep trying.
Heading for the exit?
‘HSBC chief Gulliver tops European exit poll’ was a curious headline in the FT this week. Had the boss of the UK’s biggest bank been selected for a personal Brexit — voted, Love Island-style, into tropical tax exile? No: it turns out that Stuart Gulliver has topped, by ‘a chunky margin’, a poll (conducted by Autonomous Research) of institutional investors to name the European bank ‘most in need of a change of chief executive’. Tidjane Thiam of Credit Suisse came second.
The core problem is that HSBC’s share price has been sinking for three years, along with its reputation. The bank that sailed through the crisis of 2008 has subsequently been hit by a variety of money-laundering and tax-dodging scandals, as well as turbulence in the Asian markets in which it is a major player. The global portfolio of businesses that used to be presented as its best defence against local difficulties is now seen by investors as a ragbag of potential trouble.
Gulliver has been in the hot seat since 2010 and in the old HSBC way, he might once have hoped to succeed Douglas Flint as chairman next year; but investors just don’t seem to like the cut of his jib. The Autonomous poll is not a vote of HSBCshareholders, but it’s certainly a nudge towards the door.
The hotter debate
You may be surprised to hear that I’m glad to be living not far from Kirby Misperton, the North Yorkshire village where planning consent has been granted to a company called Third Energy to carry out hydraulic fracturing tests for shale gas, despite 4,375 objections and just 36 expressions of support. This is the first such permit since similar tests on the Fylde coast in 2011 were accused of causing minor earth tremors — and the first sign that Tory energy ministers’ commitment to shale-gas development might one day come to fruition, despite a rising tide of opposition and the economics of an oil price that’s stuck far below break-even for most exploration projects.
Argument about this issue is so heated in these parts that I have tried to duck it by declaring, like Private Eye’s Revd J.C. Flannel on the H-bomb, ‘In a very real sense, I am both for and against.’ By which I mean for the exploitation of carbon resources that don’t have to be imported from bad parts of the world and will keep us fuelled until renewable technologies are capable of taking over, but against the industrialisation of beautiful rural landscapes.
Now, however, I’m asked to declare myself one way or the other whenever I step out of my gate: not on Third Energy’s plans but on the Brexit question — in which the lies and slanders of both sides, in campaigns seemingly designed to insult the voter as well each other, have all but killed my appetite for debate.
So when neighbours block my path and ask: ‘Now then, Martin, in or out?’ it’s shale gas that gets me off the conversational hook. ‘I’m as confused about Europe as you are,’ I reply. ‘But let’s talk about fracking. Of course the risks are higher if we do it than if we don’t, but so are the potential rewards, including the independence it would give us. Just don’t believe the scare stories…’