Monday, April 04, 2011

Digby Jones - Fixing Britain - reviewed

Just as empires have been judged to have crumbled under the weight of their own contradictions, so too this memoir/manifesto from the enigmatic Lord Digby Jones leaves you wondering how it all came to this.

Even the starting point (and conclusion) where the bombastic Brummie professes to love his country, then likens it to Ancient Rome (just before it collapsed), he puts a familiar marker down with the pomposity and grandstanding that took him to the top of the CBI and into Gordon Brown's Government of all the Talents. I say all of that as someone who admired him as the Voice for Business. He always delivered a good speech. He clearly worked ferociously hard at the helm of the UK's most influential business organisation, touring the country and talking to businesses. But just as you always wonder if a good campaigning politician could effectively lead a great department of state, so you found yourself wondering where all of this tub thumping would take dear Digby.

During his time at the CBI, he boasts in the book, he was the most visible leader that the business organisation had ever had. He was also taken inside Tony Blair's big tent and listened to. He had the ear of government.

He was asked round for chats at Number 10 and was frequently consulted on policy. Politically, he skilfully sidestepped the issue of the Euro, pandering to his bigger members by not following the weight of business sentiments which was against entry to the single currency. And during a period of economic growth, business enjoyed a good run. And yet for all of that access, for all of the massive strides that Labour made to be seen as business friendly - a Labour government, a Labour government (as he paraphrases Neil Kinnock) introducing a 10 per cent rate for Capital Gains Tax - by his own judgement, by his own standards and analysis of where we are now, it must have been a era of failure. He charts all the tactical defeats in the book without a hint of self-deprecation; the implementation of EU regulations on working time, the hike in National Insurance in 2004, the climate change levy. And culturally, he moans that business people are always portrayed as the bad guy in soaps and that journalists don't understand where wealth comes from.

So, you ask this question, why did this happen on your watch, Digby?

As he stepped into a new career as a minister he is frustrated from day one by the stifling civil service culture. He cites, but doesn't name, a thrilled woman minister accepting the trappings of office for the first time. He turns his back on all of that though and gets on with the job of "promoting Britain". But at what? I dare say he shakes a lot of hands, refuses to make apologies to imperial crimes, makes a lot of speeches, but more than that he doesn't really say - apart from accepting without a crumb of modesty that he "played a blinder" on a number of occasions.

So what is to be done about the broken Britain that needs fixing? To be fair, politically, if you take the book as a series of stances to take on a number of issues, there's little anyone who runs a business and who cares about Britain could disagree with him on. He's fairly centrist and fair minded, he articulates very well the distressing culture of worklessness, indolence and welfare dependency. His is the politics of the common sense voice of reason. But he also goes further and isolates the importance of education in an age of globalisation. So far so good. But this is supposed to be a serious figure from public life, one of the most influential of the last 15 years. And while this isn't a policy document, it is frighteningly light on detail or evidence, all the more surprising as a former lawyer, lobbyist and minister. It's just anecdote after story. Personal confrontations where he always has the last word and the best line.

He dreams up initiatives - like compulsory training - that will have to be enshrined in laws and delivered by reluctant civil servants. More red tape, tut tut.

He urges the Great British Public to embrace public life, but deliberately doesn't endorse the Big Society, because he's apolitical, see.

Take a look at this BBC interview, here, Digby oozes charm and self-promotes his own achievements. He is an ordinary bloke from the Midlands, he says, who has voted for every party. This is him batting for business, his constituency. His country. Using short sentences. Like this.

But just as he swerved the Euro issue, so too he has surprisingly little to say on the financial crisis of 2008, just a plea to leave the bankers alone. Has Britain's banking sector failed his constituency? The hard working, honest, red tape snarled, beleaguered and unloved British entrepreneur. Where is his railing against the monopolistic abuses of power of big retail and their destructive effect on the high street and on their supply chains?

This book ultimately reads well enough. Pugnacious and passionate; a little bit "Richard Littlejohn" in its saloon bar polemics. But it's also strangely close to the consensual politics the coalition agreement represents. Sadder though, it reads like a wall of unappreciated noise from a man with plenty to say, but nothing left to do.

The subjects he raises are at the heart of what kind of country Britain should be. The conclusions he draws are largely correct. But they're also not far off what the inclusive coalition agreement mapped out. I feel slightly mean spirited raising a critical word, as his is a voice in the political wilderness, a man who embraced coalition politics for the good of the country before the coalition government, explaining that although he was ennobled, he made big financial sacrifices as he did so. It's placed him, for now, outside of the corridors of power and influence. But the only person who can explain how that has happened is Lord Digby Jones of Birmingham himself, the one person least able, and least likely, to do so.

No comments: