Asked what he did in the French Revolution, the Abbé Sieyes explained that he survived it. Against all the odds, this has been the London Stock Exchange’s achievement. It is still there. Its dreary old building looks better as a hole in the ground, but the Exchange has found itself a new perch in Paternoster Square, and remains an independent British entity. You could have bet against it. Not long ago its only choice seemed to be whether to surrender to the Germans or the French: ‘Levez les mains’ or ‘Hande hoch’? Not so long before that it agreed to join up with the Frankfurt exchange, Deutsche Börse, whose Swiss surpremo, Werner Seifert, would come in and run the merged business. This half-baked dish — I labelled it a horse-and-rabbit pie — was too much for the shareholders to swallow. They voted it down, the chief executive lost his job and the chairman did not last much longer. Since then the Exchange has recovered its corporate nerve. It has also been lucky. When Mr Seifert tried to prompt Deutsche Börse into bidding, his own shareholders revolted and he, too, was ousted. Euronext (Paris-based) never quite got so far. Both now find their own customers complaining to the European Commission that integration is another word for oligopoly. In London, the bidder of the month was Macquarie, an ambitious Australian conglomerate which operates a toll road in the English Midlands. The Exchange tried to laugh its advances out of court and, this week, succeeded — but, as the old Abbé knew, before you can relax, you need to be sure that the revolution is over.
The sole survivor
Solution seeks problem
The Competent People
Send for GricervIn this hour of need, my correspondent is minded to offer his services. He will, of course, charge for them, and his professional indemnity insurers (if he can find any) will, of course, charge him. Between them, they will run up quite a bill. He will be careful to err on the cautious side, for that is the side on which his bread, and his insurers’ bread, is buttered. The safest railway of all will be one with no moving parts. He will say so. Railways like the Bluebell depend on goodwill and on volunteer labour, and their finances will range from the sound to the desperate. Some will fall foul of the new regime. Others will go out of business. They will not be mourned in Health-and-Safety House, whose inmates will assert that it all makes their case for more staff, wider powers and grander offices. (Only this week 21 of them had to be rescued when the roof fell in on a safety meeting.) They assume that their objectives are infinitely desirable, and that cost therefore does not come into it. That goes for wheelchair access, qualified ladder-holders and other good causes. In fact, though, health and safety are both of them relative, and cost always finds its way in. Day after day, some ambitious or well-meaning regulator finds another reason to pour sand into the machinery. It then becomes less efficient, more rigid, less able to adapt to its customers’ varying needs. The economy sputters and chokes. That can only be bad for our health and, in the end, for our safety. Just ask any competent person.