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Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Thank you Scotland, The Ice Bucket Challenge, Business Breakfast, RIP Joan Rivers, The Monument

Thank you Scotland for choosing to stay part of the United Kingdom!  It was almost too close to call and the potential impact on the financial markets was huge.  A YouGov poll in the Sunday Times ten days before the referendum put the Yes vote ahead for the first time.  The pound weakened and the major Scottish companies (such as RBS) saw a drop in their share prices.  The Yes Campaign just shrugged this off and talked about the Scottish people being bullied by big business, who were also drawing up plans to move their HQs south of the border.  The whole campaign has been fascinating for a number of reasons:  the inability of pollsters to predict the outcome, the impact on business, the heart versus head debate, the engagement of 16 to 100 year olds in the debate, and above all, the consequences that the No outcome is going to have on everyone in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the group of territories that we still call the United Kingdom.  Let’s start with the polls.  At the last moment, most were predicting a narrow win by the No Campaign, but by just a few percentage points which is normally too narrow to be statistically significant.  So why did we end up with a lead of almost 11% by the No’s?  From what I can see, the pollsters are not used to referendums and had failed to take into account the fact that a significant number of Yes voters changed their mind at the last minute.  They couldn’t actually bring themselves to write an X in the Yes box and make such a big change when actually, for most people, things are relatively good.  The majority of the Yes voters are younger and poorer and are more likely to be dissatisfied with their lot and wish to try something different, happy to chuck out the past.  The impact on business of a Yes vote would have been massive and potentially catastrophic for Scotland and to a lesser extent the rest of the UK.  The pound was widely forecast to fall by 15%, merger and acquisition activity in the City had pretty much gone on hold, and the majority of Scottish businesses were drawing up contingency plans.  Without a clear understanding on what currency Scotland would have and how it would be financed, things were naturally looking very grim.  The remainder of the UK would have lost its place at the top table in many of the key global meetings. The debate itself was in some way politics at its best.  97% of the electorate had registered to vote and the turnout at around 85% was the highest since the 1950s.  Seeing 16 and 17 year olds engaging with 85 year olds, often in the same family on the various subjects was most rewarding.  At the end it was Heart versus Head.  The parochial, local, NIMBY view would favour Independence, whilst the bigger, European, global, partnership and business view voted for the Union.  But perhaps what nobody really considered at the time and is only now emerging, is the profound change that the referendum is going to have on the constitution of the whole of the UK.  The famous ‘West Lothian question’ must now be addressed.  The leaders of the 3 main parties have promised Scotland far more local control.  This promise now has to be extended to England, Wales and Northern Ireland otherwise that is clearly not fair and unacceptable. The West Lothian question refers to the debate in the United Kingdom over whether members of parliament from outside England – from Northern IrelandScotland and Wales – can vote on matters that affect only England.  This has been an unresolved issue for some time, but with increasing levels of devolution on the table, it now must be resolved  There is clearly an imbalance here that needs to be fixed but as yet nobody has been able to come up with a simple and acceptable solution.  We need some really clever people to help out.  Unfortunately, the main politicians are likely to be blinded by their parochial issues.  For example, if the Labour Party can no longer count on their MPs in Scotland, they will no longer be large enough to form a government.  Is this the start of the biggest changes in the UK‘s politics since the war?  Probably Yes.  Despite the No vote.

The Ice Bucket Challenge is an interesting phenomenon that has gone viral and would probably never have happened before the invention of social media (Facebook).  It consists of someone throwing a bucket of iced water over their head and making a charity donation for the privilege.  Yes that’s correct.  This started in July in the USA and went viral almost immediately resulting in millions of people all over the world chucking freezing water over their heads.  Hundreds of millions of dollars have been raised.  In the USA, the charity associated with this the ALS Association and in the UK it is the Motor Neurone Disease Association.  I was asked if I would like to participate in the Ice Bucket Challenge by one of the businesses in our building and it seemed churlish to refuse.  So about 20 of us stood in a row and one by one we tipped a bucket of ice cubes and water over our heads.  I didn’t really enjoy it.  Then I used my smartphone to donate to the charity.  In the UK the charity typically manages to raise £1 million every month.  Over the summer this has shot up to £6 million.  Sadly, according to an article in the BBC, only 1 in 10 people who participate actually made a charity contribution.  But power of social media is unquestionable.

I recently attended a local Business Breakfast meeting organised by Tring Together.  The organisation holds a regular series of meetings where local businesses get together to exchange ideas, listen to presentations and discuss new challenges and opportunities.  It was extremely well organised and held in a local restaurant, The Akeman (part of Oakman Inns & Restaurants) in a great informal setting.  It was here that I realised the extent to which I live in my own world and spend my time with similar business people, as the mix here was a real eclectic contrast to my normal encounters.  One of the first speakers stood up to thank everyone for their role in helping her reach her target of collecting 15,000 bras.  I assumed I had mis-heard but I checked with the other people on my table and she had indeed said ‘bras’.  The next presentation was from a gentleman who had just won Gold Award for his Gooseberry and Elderflower Jam.  On my table was a gentleman who imports electric bicycles from China, a lady who sells the Brandon Wagon and another guy who makes vinyl records.  Over coffee I met a lady with whom I had indirectly done business when she worked for a large Telco but now she provides Behavioural Consultations for Dogs.  I also met an insurer and a couple of solicitors, much more in my comfort zone.  The main presentation was given by Jules Wake, a local author, who has just published her latest book ‘Talk To Me’.  I bought a signed copy from Jules who I have known for some time and whose husband, Nick, I used to work with.  I left the Akeman and walked to my office with my head spinning with a whole range of diverse thoughts relating to the amazing mix of businesses in Tring!
RIP Joan Rivers.  Comedian and TV host Joan Rivers died last month at the age of 81 while she was in hospital for a routine throat procedure.  Her daughter, Melissa Rivers said "My mother's greatest joy in life was to make people laugh.  Although that is difficult to do right now, I know her final wish would be that we return to laughing soon."  I always admired Rivers’ ability to make people laugh and her unique manner of being offensive without normally offending.  She was pretty revolutionary in her time and in the last 10 years her ability to continue with the same high powered work into her 70’s was as impressive as her self-depreciating humour and the regular procedures she performed on her body.  You were no longer sure how old she looked at all. It was hard to tell.  It was an extra-ordinary package that had both made people laugh and hit the headlines for 50 years.  Joan Rivers had announced that her UK tour ‘Before They Close the Lid’ was starting in Oxford this October and I was planning to buy tickets just before I heard of her death.  I am sad to have missed her.  I shall finish off with some of her death related humour:
“I’ve had so much plastic surgery, when I die, they will donate my body to Tupperware”
“The fashion magazines are suggesting that women wear clothes that are ‘age appropriate’.  For me that would be a shroud.”
“At my funeral, I want Meryl Streep to cry in five different accents”

“With all the plastic surgery I've had I'm worried that when I die, God won't recognize me!”

I had a spare hour in The City last week in between meetings so I decided to climb up The Monument.  It is in Monument Street (surely not?) and I climbed the 311 steps up the narrow staircase to the top where, as you emerge from the dark, you gasp as you see the view that beholds you.  There is a cage to stop you falling off the narrow platform which at the same time slightly spoils the view but makes you feel less uncomfortable – on balance a good mixture.  Your brain quickly adjusts and filters out the caging as you start to notice every famous landmark in The City – but viewed at this new angle.  Not as high as say from the top of the Shard or Gherkin, but 61 meters higher than your normal viewing point.  This is perhaps the best of both worlds – not towering above the city but somehow right in the middle with the wonder of the great landmarks surrounding you at eye level so that you feel part of it.  To the south you see the Thames and Shard, almost next to you.  To the east, The Tower, Tower Bridge and beyond.  I could just make out Canary Wharf in the haze.  To your north, the Gherkin, Walkie Talkie and Cheese Grater buildings right in front of you and as you turn west, St Paul’s and those brutalist Barbican Towers completed in the 1970’s. In contrast to those, The Monument was completed in 1677 to commemorate the Great Fire of London and to celebrate the rebuilding of The City.  The fire began in a baker’s house in Pudding Lane on Sunday 2nd September 1666 and raged for 3 days and destroyed most of The City which was built of wood.  The only buildings to survive the fire were the few stone ones such as The Guildhall.  Samuel Pepys climbed the spire of All Hallows church to watch the progress of the blaze and what he described as "the saddest sight of desolation". The church, originally built in 675, was largely built of stone and is the oldest in The City. Thomas More was buried here briefly after Henry VIII had his head cut off at the Tower next door.  Sir Christopher Wren, architect of the new St Paul’s Cathedral, and his friend Dr Robert Hooke were asked to design a permanent memorial to the Great Fire.  The Doric column leads to the viewing platform and on top of this is a drum and copper urn from which flames emerge to symbolise the fire.  The distance between the Monument and the exact spot that the fire started in Pudding Lane is exactly 61 meters, also the height of the Monument.  Whilst the Great Fire killed few people, it came straight after the Great Plague of London which had killed 100,000 people or about 15% of London’s population at the time.  I recommend you climb the 311 steps to the top of the Monument.

“Always aim at complete harmony of thought and word and deed” Mahatma Gandhi

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