Give or take a few leader-writing shifts and editing projects, I’ve been working from home for the past 30 years, so it may seem hypocritical to tell anyone else to return to the office. But it’s time to bring normality back to the world of work. I believe few people are capable of higher productivity in isolation than they are amid the shared energy and competitive pressure of a physical congregation of colleagues. Employers should not be allowed to use WFH as cover for cutting office space and certainly not for cutting wages. So on this issue I’m unusually but firmly at one with Goldman Sachs boss David Solomon, who said earlier this year that remote working is ‘not a new normal, it’s an aberration’.
And restoring normality also means — yes, kids, I’m talking to you — that if you’ve been taking it easy for the summer, it’s now your patriotic duty to get a job as well as a jab. The furlough scheme has kept unemployment unexpectedly low — 4.7 per cent in the quarter to June — while the exodus of foreign-born workers contributed to a UK record of 953,000 vacancies in May to July, most visible in the number of hospitality venues closed for lack of staff. The Office for National Statistics says this squeeze is contributing to earnings growth of between 4.9 and 6.3 per cent, which is a serious inflationary threat on top of the shortages and blockages I’ve recently highlighted. We elders need to explain to the young, who have never experienced it, just how painful inflation can be. And all of us, whatever our age or ability, need to get back into the workforce and workplace as soon as we can.
How revolutions happen
My forthcoming book on capitalism (out in October) expresses greater faith in entrepreneurs and private-sector companies than in ministers and civil servants to bring about rapid change when it’s needed. It was Big Pharma, not Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock, that made the vaccine rollout possible. It is Tesla and Nissan that are accelerating the switch to electric vehicles, while government shilly-shallies over the provision of plug-in networks. Likewise, it is the energy industry itself that will set the practical pace and direction for an epochal shift away from carbon fuel, while world leaders focus on out-greening each other’s rhetoric on their way to the COP26 conference.
Accordingly I attach more significance to the news that the natural resources giant Glencore is investing in Britishvolt, the venture behind the UK’s first vehicle-battery ‘gigafactory’, and that Glencore’s rival BHP is aiming to sell off its petroleum interests, than to a press release from business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng launching his ‘plan for a world-leading hydrogen economy’. Of course government can be a catalyst for industrial change (it claims offshore wind as a successful example) and hydrogen power is a concept that demands to be explored, even if sceptics say its potential is over-hyped. It’s just that a rash of consultations, subsidy offers and targets (‘9,000 jobs by 2030’) don’t amount to a hill of beans until the private sector figures out the risk-reward ratio, the real scale of investment needed and the possible share-price impact. If all those factors begin to add up, then the revolution happens.
The latest crazy crypto news is that an anonymous hacker last week stole the equivalent of more than $600 million from Poly Network — a ‘decentralised finance’ venture that facilitates transactions between different cryptocurrencies — and then gave most of it back, claiming that the hack had been carried out ‘for fun’, simply to highlight vulnerabilities in the platform. Poly responded by offering the code-cracker $500,000 as a reward for helping to improve its security, though possibly also as a ransom for release of the funds, $268 million of which remained temporarily inaccessible behind the hacker’s password.
The scale of the raid and the fact that no regulator has jurisdiction over the parties involved ought to give crypto investors pause for thought — but won’t deter them. Perhaps the most illustrative trivia I can offer is that the $268 million still effectively in the wrong hands last weekend exceeded the total proceeds of the UK’s four biggest money heists of all time, namely the 1983 Brink’s-Mat raid at Heathrow (£26 million), the 1987 cash-and-valuables grab from Knightsbridge Security Deposit (estimated at £60 million), the 2004 Northern Bank robbery in Belfast (another £26 million) and the 2006 assault on the Securitas depot at Tonbridge (£53 million). Yet the world of crypto is so unreal — even though punters buy into it with real money — that the Poly story is reported as a mere curiosity.
The fall of Kabul made me think of a Spectator piece by Elliot Wilson in 2009 headlined ‘One day, the kharbouza will be mightier than the Kalashnikov’. Written at a moment when Afghan ministers were winning western confidence and popular support for the Taliban was reported at just 4 per cent, it described efforts to revitalise the country’s exports of fruit, especially table grapes and the kharbouza melons once favoured by Persian emperors and Mughal shahs. Fruit farming had flourished for centuries until the 1979 Soviet invasion; the idea was to wean farmers away from their subsequent dependency on opium poppy crops, which had made them the prey of warlords and Taliban, towards a healthier rural economy that would also be fertile for peace and social progress.
It wasn’t a pipe dream but it certainly required optimism, and it would be easy to say with hindsight that but for the withdrawal of foreign aid (the lead donor was the UK’s now-diminished Department for International Development) as well as troops, it might have come to pass. But in ill-fated Afghanistan, I fear all visions of peace have ultimately been doomed to fail.