Give them Flowers – Coop update

Regular readers may have noticed that, given the recent furore involving the Cooperative and my previous blogs about them, I haven’t yet taken the opportunity to write something new about the whole sorry affair. Well, if you have noticed that, then this is it.

As you may know by now, over the years I have developed a cautious (some may say cynical) mistrust of the flow of information as it is presented to us by the usual conduits. So when a story that has been simmering away for years suddenly breaks open thanks to a catalytic event like a drug-snorting, rent-boy loving Minister with no banking experience or apparently, any fear of discovery, I take a step back and just think, hmm, (affecting a cockney accents) “waz all this abaat then?”.

I don’t want to speculate about Paul Flowers drug habits, it seems quite obvious from the material released by the Daily Mail that he is a frequent and experienced lifestyle drug user. The more interesting questions I think, are, why now? What purpose does this serve (if any)? And how does this relate to the wider issues?

If the narrative of the media is to be believed, here is a man who has blazed a trail of incompetence and hedonism throughout his career in various guises, as a bank chairman, a Methodist minister, a Labour councillor and as a representative in various charities over several years. The floodgates have opened, it’s all coming out now, as if a thousand whistle-blowers have only just learned how to blow.

So what does this mean, given that it took the moral outrage of a man he met on a dating site, who attended drug parties with him and decided to secretly film him out of disgust with his hypocrisy, for this all to come to light? We could believe that large sections of the banking, political, religious and  even charity fraternities were all so naive and trusting as to not have noticed his behaviour over the years. As if this was a surprise and shock to them all – but that can’t be true, can it? Not given the deluge of past indiscretions that have now surfaced. So scrap that. But what’s the alternative? That at least some of these people did know about his lifestyle choices and inadequate faculties for the positions of power he held?

That latter option, which seems logical, is far more intriguing and worrying. What if, for example, key figures were acutely aware of his character, and used that to their advantage? It may sound far-fetched to you, but is it as far-fetched as a man who managed to avoid other major scandals from surfacing throughout his career, suddenly being caught out by a bloke with an iphone? If so, this incompetent buffoon (Flowers I mean), was up until that point, a master of deception and discretion, which doesn’t fit the narrative we are being given.

The obvious reason for having a fall guy like him at the top of a politically aligned bank, is that if it all goes wrong, you can just point the finger and say “he did it”. Which, given the ongoing inquiries into the Coop/Lloyds fiasco and the Coop’s own legacy funding problems, seems like a good time to do it, don’t you think? “Oh,” we collectively sigh, “it’s because they were being run by a druggy rent boy using idiot… that explains it then.”

But it really doesn’t, does it? And I know that the parties have all started slinging mud around as to who knew him, and how much they knew him and so forth, but despite that, the more important questions will now sit behind a sleazy, tabloid image of Paul Flowers in a car park buying crack, and jokes about crystal Methodists.

There are still some massively important questions to be asked about the whole affair, the majority of which sat not just with this one chairman, but with the various executive management teams, the interested political parties and the limp regulators. For the sake of posterity, I will record them here:

1.            The Buterfill Act.

When the Coop and Britannia announced the ‘merger’ of two profitable companies that had complementary synergies and would form a ‘super-mutual’ alternative to the big high street banks (that had been oh-so damaged by the global crash) – there was just one problem – just a little problem, nothing major really – THE LAW.

It was currently not possible for a bank to merge with a mutual, and as the Coop is basically a bank (with the only shareholder being the customer base) an act of parliament had to be drafted and passed before the house in order to allow this transaction to take place. The act was sponsored by Conservative peer, Sir John Buterfill, and passed, after it was announced the two businesses would merge.

At the time, Paul Flowers was still chairman of the Coop (a Labour councillor remember) while a Tory peer sponsored the act to allow a Labour (and Lib Dem) supporting bank to merge with a Building Society. It is hard to believe that this act did not attract the most careful scrutiny at the time, given the various interested parties and specific nature of its creation.

The customers and staff were told that both businesses were viable, profitable, and mostly unscathed by the credit crunch. They were told this was a merger, yet, even though the law of the land had to change, and massive regulator involvement was needed, this turned out not to be the case.

On a separate note, I was told directly (at a later date) that this was not the case. Britannia was in trouble, and without the take-over, sorry, I mean, merger, it would have gone down the pan. Which leads me to:

2.            The Britannia Members Vote to merge.

Given the above, and what has transpired, I would suggest that the entire member base of Britannia was deceived into voting for the merger to take place. The member vote was constitutionally necessary, and a bright rosy picture of synergies and super mutual’s was painted. If this turns out not to be the case – who is responsible, and what recompense or punishment is due? Given that we now know there was a bad loan book (all be it, not as bad as it is being represented by the Coop in recent inquiries) – this seems to be highly likely.

3.            The write-down of IT.

I worked for the Coop during the ill-fated IT upgrade that eventually cost them around £148 million according to their own accounting, which as we have seen, is probably not to be trusted. I would wonder if perhaps (again as was hinted to me directly) – a little creative accounting reduced this number down from a much more substantial figure. How was this figure arrived upon? A close look at the balance sheet may be a good idea. I worked on this project (all be it in a junior capacity) and the figures that were being quoted throughout the three years it was ongoing, were higher than this, much, much higher than this. Senior figures were popping off left right and centre when it became clear the IT upgrade was not happening, and apparently the Coop had been at it for many years before the Britannia merger, and still to no avail.

This may seem a smaller point that the others, but this is customers money they were spending, and the big accounting firms, the IT company itself and many third party contractors, all got their slice and left the company with virtually nothing to show for it. (not to mention the executive wages and pay-offs throughout).

So, I think that will do for now. There are obviously dozens more questions to be answered, many of which being heard by the select committee at the moment, but given the close political links to this affair, are they really best suited to be investigating this?

I would hate to see the media narrative use the whole sorry Flowers affair to divert attention from these issues. Let’s not forget that the culmination of all these failings is that both the UKs second biggest mutual (the Britannia) and biggest member owned cooperative are looking likely to end up mostly owned by American hedge funds as a result of all this, or in need of a bail out etc… So the ‘survivors’ of the Global Crash have finally caught up with the rest of the financial industry, it just took some twists and turns to get there.

Let us also not forget, that we still have not seen senior figures of financial institutions, political parties, regulators or big accounting firms go to prison or face any meaningful punishment for what they did to us all, quite the opposite in fact, they were handed their lifestyle back on a plate, and we were told to swallow austerity as a consequence.

So, they can give us Flowers, but it’s not enough.

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Rick Nobbinson @ The Liberal Democrat Conference. Guest Blog interview.

As I’m sure you all know, it’s Liberal Democrat conference week so I’ve asked a guest to come along and help me pick at the seams of rhetoric, posturing and policy-making. Rick Nobbinson is a political analyst and has been answering my questions on all things party conference.

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Me:                        So Rick, what do you think so far?

Rick:                       Well Garry, imagine if you will, a room full of people, affiliated with a particular political party, taking turns to talk about the kind of things they might want to do in that political party, and occasionally voting on the proposals put before them… and you’ll be somewhere close to the mood, the atmosphere, and indeed the actual objective of what they have set out to do over these last few days at the Liberal Democrat conference.

Me:                        Yes, thanks for that. But specifically, has anything stood out for you yet?

Rick:                       There are many ministers and party members who don’t want to be seen to be standing on the shoulders of giants, and there is a palpable sense of that, here, in this conference. Not that they don’t actually want to stand on the shoulders of giants. Who wouldn’t want to, at least once, if relative safety could be assured, perhaps by a small body harness rigged around the giants shoulder, or some kind of Velcro overalls, stand on the shoulder of a giant? But to be seen to be doing this is something no one wants to see, or be seen, doing. Do you see?

Me:                        Not really Rick, but let’s move on. Vince Cable hinted at a fringe event last night that the coalition might not last until the next general election. What do you think he meant by that?

Rick:                       Oh yes. Vince Cable has got himself in a word knot. He’s said some words, and let’s be honest about this, we all do, and those words have appeared like floating letters from his lips, encircled him and tangled him up in a ball on the floor. He’s thrashing, he’s shouting and screaming for help, but the more he shouts, the more words come out and add to the mess, indeed the mesh, that was this speech.

Me:                        I think I see what you’re saying. You’re saying that he may have let slip something that will tangle him up in speculation and perhaps embroil the wider party and actually cause the very thing he has predicted?

Rick:                       Let me put it like this. There are people, in this country, who stand for elections and become what we call members of parliament.

Me:                         Yes I know.

Rick:                       Because they rely on people voting for them in what are called ‘elections’, they have to make speeches about what they are going to do if they were elected.

Me:                        Again, I’m well aware of that fact but what does this have to do with…?

Rick:                       Hang on – here it is. Think of a bucket, an empty bucket, and into that bucket, pour your hopes and dreams. Add a dash of social mobility, life skills, education and ambition, and you’ve got the electorate soup. These MPs are standing around the edges of this bucket, with shiny ladles, sipping at the soup and trying to identify all the little tastes so that they can replicate this in the kitchen later on when a French man comes to visit and they can hopefully progress to the next round.

Me:                        What? I’m sorry Rick but you’ve gone metaphor mad. And I’m sure there was a little bit of Masterchef in that last one.

Rick:                       Sorry.

Me:                        It’s ok, but can we just, keep on track? I know you feel you need to dumb it down, but I can assure you my readers are more than capable of understanding what you have to say in plain English. So, Nick Clegg, what is he making of all this?

Rick:                       I think the question is probably what isn’t he making of all this Garry. He isn’t making a scrapbook or a photo album with funny little captions to hand out to his friends, decorated with pictures of luxury furniture cut out of an Argos catalogue from 1988 I found under my bed last week and stuck on with a really old pritt-stick that I had to lick vigorously to restore its viscosity and adhesive properties, that’s for sure.

Me:                        But what is he making of it all Rick? Come on, you can do this. Think about it. I’m rooting for you here man, I want you to get this down. I know you really want to work for the BBC news, but you’re trying too hard. Just say it how it is, don’t dumb it down or hide behind metaphors and simile or just plain crazy talk. You can do this Rick, come on Rick, COME ON MAN! DO IT! ANALYSE THOSE POLITICS!

Rick:                       Ok, ok! Erm… I predict that Vince Cable will turn on Nick Clegg in a bid for the Liberal Democrat leadership by dividing the party and making the case for a Labour coalition in a popular move that will see long-worried party members, uneasy with propping up the Conservatives, flock to him in droves. This will force an early general election in which Cable will portray himself as the saviour of the Liberal democrat party and reject the policies and politics of the Tories and more importantly, Nick Clegg. This may salvage the reputation of the Liberals, allowing them to join with Labour and defeat the Conservatives. The Liberals have to do something or they will be as good as vanquished from the 2015 election, and they know that. The biggest problem Vince Cable is going to have is convincing people that he is the man for the job, considering he has supported so many of the unpopular Tory policies that he is now rallying against in his conference speeches. Presumably he will link this to the need for stability in the economy and having done his best to soften the harsh edges of Tory ideology. If he pulls that off, who knows, he might just do it.

Me:                        You see? You can do it can’t you?

Rick:                       Yes, I suppose.

Me:                        So what was all that stuff with the buckets and giants?

Rick:                       I get bored.

Me:                        We all get bored Rick. It doesn’t mean we have to dick about does it?

Rick:                       No, I suppose not.

Me:                        Right, well, you get yourself back to that conference and get reporting eh?

Rick:                       Ok. (sniffs)

Me:                        Don’t cry. Come on. You’ve done a good job today haven’t you? Yes you have. And just think of all the free food and drink there will be back at the conference.

Rick:                       Buffet?

Me:                        You bet! You like buffet’s don’t you?

Rick:                       Chicken balls.

Me:                        Yeah. Chicken balls. Go on then. Thanks again Rick. Bye.

– Well there we have it ladies and gentlemen. It took some teasing out like an octopus from a dark recess in a Cypriot rock-pool, but we got there in the end.

More about Rick Nobbinson:

Rick is a disturbed man. Really disturbed. You can’t buy his book, he doesn’t have one. He wants to work for the BBC and to that ends he spends a lot of his time trying to blag his way into the news room, usually by carrying a brown box with the word ‘news’ written on it and trying to convince them that he is a courier who is bringing a box of urgent ‘news’. Once he was allowed access and when the box was opened, it wasn’t news, not unless news is organic matter from questionable origins. If you would like to hear more from Rick, he can usually be found crying over the Andrew Marr show in the window of Comet on Bridlington high street most Sundays, at least for a little while, until he is once again discovered and ejected. You may be wondering why I asked him along given such dubious credentials. Compassion? Mockery? No. None of these. Cold, hard cash. I don’t know why it was so cold, and it would have been nice to have been paid in notes rather than coins, but that’s why. If anyone else would like to guest blog, please throw at least £50 worth of frozen coinage through the third window from the left of the old shoe factory in Taunton Meadow Industrial Park (south-side). Please include a business card. I will be in touch. Thanks. 

Syria. A good day for democracy?

A funny thing happened when I came to write this blog last week. I had just written my (now previous) blog on out TV viewing habits (available here: https://garryabbott.wordpress.com/2013/08/31/the-rise-and-demise-of-the-boxed-set/), but felt unable to post it due to certain more serious stuff going on in the world. The blog was all ready to go but it just felt exceptionally unnecessary at the time when we were poised on the edge of another conflict. So, I decided to shelve the fluff blog and look at Syria, see if I couldn’t get some thoughts together.

It was the day of the commons vote, and I was trying to pick my way through the bafflement of it all. I was (and still am) acutely aware of the myriad voices speaking on the matter, most of which carry more authority and knowledge on the issue. So, I didn’t want to add another opinion piece, pulled out of thin air, to the strata of loose opinion that is already out there, and instead decided to look specifically at the question itself, the question being:

What do I think about Syria? (specifically, what can I think?)

Bearing in mind that this was before the surprise vote last Thursday that ruled us out of conflict in the UK, I will paraphrase here some of the notes I made from the never-released blog (and when I say notes, I am literally trying to read my own hand-writing). Following this, I shall just offer a little update, now I know what happened last week.

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(original blog, Thursday 29th August, afternoon)

The question isn’t what do other people think about Syria, the question is what do I think about it?

At this point I am totally flooded by a sense of ignorance, resorting to snippets and tit-bits gleamed from the news and other people’s social feeds.

A vocabulary emerges for people who like me, have not specifically researched the issue but who have rather ‘allowed’ the research to find them semi-distracted and sub-consciously absorbent.

The words that spring to mind immediately are:

Assad, regime, rebels, Damascus, terrorists, Islam, oil, Turkey … And now (with this latest development), chemical weapons, UN, resolutions, weapons inspectors, arms, Russia, China, allies, USA, Obama, Hans Blix, intelligence and so on.

But what do I think about Syria?! To be honest, I know next to nothing about it, and what I do know, I only think I know. I’m not getting all philosophical, metaphysical about it or denying reality here, it’s just true.

So, I could say that the Western interests are forcing its hand to intervene in the ‘civil war’, and that the stability of oil supplies and wider business interests in the region is actually closer to the true motive for intervention than any humanitarian concern. But I have this niggling feeling that Syria (like Libya) are not huge sources of oil production, or tactically as important as say Iraq or Afghanistan. But I don’t know any of this, I can’t even cite my sources.

Another possibility is that our leaders really do ‘draw the line’ on the use of chemical weapons, as hypocritical as that seems to me. I could justify this idea though, because I can imagine how the rich and powerful could foster a twisted morality whereby the reasons and the scale by which you kill people become less important that the means by which you do so. A kind of honour-amongst-thieves scenario. Yes, we happily go around killing civilians, but with drones and missiles, not with gas. Etc..

But I can’t be sure, who can other than the handful of people making these decisions? And even then, if they are ‘convincing themselves’ in order to make the organised killing of humans more palatable to their conscience, how can we trust that there thinking is clear and reasonable?

Another problem is that I can find a counter claim to every accusation made by our leaders, simply be reading the retorts of the involved parties. When a spokesman from the Assad regime says this whole thing is a set-up by the West to draw them into conflict, why shouldn’t I believe them? I’m not saying I do, but it’s not like the CIA haven’t created or encouraged ‘trigger’ events before, so why shouldn’t we entertain the idea that they are doing it again? After all, if the regime don’t want to be bombed into tiny pieces by the West (and I’m guessing they don’t), why would they do the one thing that looks certain to guarantee it? It would almost make sense for the none-specific ‘rebels’ to stage this, in order to bring about this set of circumstances. But who knows? I don’t.

Given the thought process I’ve just briefly set out, are our MPs really able to make such informed choices? If they deny evidence produced by those who rule them and want war, would they not be branded unreasonable and risk losing the little power they have been allowed to keep?

If an answer is incompatible with any logical puzzle, it cannot be a solution to anything. A bit like ‘Jeopardy’, the American game show where the answer is stated and then the question must be guessed. But in this version, the question and answer must constitute a positive truth. So the answer could never be ‘a unicorn’, because the only question could be ‘name a mythical flying horse’, which would constitute a myth, a negative reality as such. For me, ‘war’ as we know it (not self-defence), will never be the answer to a positive reality question. It will never justify any possible question that can be asked. This is why no amount of thinking or debate, or evidence, should ever lead us logically to military intervention. Which leaves us only with other factors, less honourable intentions.

***

So that was my blog, but I decided to wait for the vote before posting it, and as I guess you know, our house of commons voted against any military action in Syria. Big hooray yeah? I think so, but then…

It was hard to fathom at first, as I sat listening to the live house of commons session. An amendment was made to the bill by Labour, specifically Ed Miliband, that called for a second vote at a later time once the weapons inspectors had actually finished their task of you know, inspecting weapons. I must admit at this point I was confused, having been out all day and only just sat down to hear the process, I wasn’t aware of the structure of debate. As far as I could tell, whatever happened, there would be a second vote after the UN had published its findings, which I thought was at least better for our elected representatives to make an informed choice.

So, as I listened, Nick (what-is-the-point-of-me) Clegg was defending/explaining (badly) how it would work if a second vote was needed, and quite rightly being questioned by a stream of confused MPs as to why a need for the first vote, if a second vote was going to happen anyway. As usual, the pointless voice of Clegg evaded and danced around the question, while constantly assuring them that the result of the first vote wouldn’t be taken as licence to act. So why the vote at all? I wondered, as did most of the house, it seems.

Then, the house withdrew to vote on the amended version, and the amendment was defeated. Immediately the house withdrew to vote on the original bill, and it was only at this point I started to grasp that this meant no second vote, if this was passed, we were as good as signing up for the conflict. I tried to reconcile why it was then that I had just heard Clegg defending Miliband’s own amendment to his own party members, but before I could unpick this, the vote came back and the original bill was also defeated! Cameron said one of the most clear things I have heard him say, that it was obvious the house didn’t want to take action and that he would therefore respect that, and that was that. No war!

But wait! Was this a victory for Miliband? Well, no. If his amended bill had of gone through, the vote for war would have happened again the next week, which by then, no doubt, plenty of ‘compelling’ evidence would have been compiled. So Miliband, Clegg and Cameron all had a position that led us to war/intervention, whatever you want to call it (killing people, basically). It was only the surprise overturning of both bills, by rebels in both parties I expect, that prevented all our leaders (opposition and all) from getting what they wanted. Conflict.

So now, am I meant to be happy with this? I get a suspicious shudder when I think that actual ‘democracy’ happened last week, because I have learned not to trust the power people, and now don’t know if I should just be happy, or wary. I’m certainly weary.

I can’t shake the feeling that something good happened, but that there will be repercussions. And I don’t mean, more chemical attacks etc… Conflict is conflict, solving it with conflict, that doesn’t add up. I mean, in our processes that allowed us to actually say ‘no’ this time. And then (the even more suspicious side of me) worries that this was engineered in order to show a glimmer of democratic control at a time when so much vile and damaging domestic policy is being shoe-horned in against the will of so many people, and no real opposition exists. But hey, at least we aren’t going to lob some missiles at another country right?

What has happened to me that makes me think everything our governments do is so suspicious? Even when it is something I want? Is it me? Is it paranoia?

No. I don’t think so. I am perfectly able to conceive of a world where the kind of inequalities I see, the kind that lead to conflict, disease and death, are not present. And in this world, the only factor that is different, is the lack of the ‘kind’ of people that are running things currently, and the systems that support them and that they utilise, i.e. massive financial backing. Sorry, MASSIVE FINANCIAL BACKING and access to machines of war, that just isn’t made available to the rest of us, because if it were, we just wouldn’t accept the lots we have been granted, across the world.

That’s what I think of Syria, I think. I hope that the suffering is alleviated by greater wisdom than we seem to posses at the moment. I hope that ‘Nobel peace prize’ Obama is defeated in his congress vote to happen soon, but I guess he won’t be. I hope we do not get consistent with the shame and pressure we should be pouring on all the leaderships of our democracy who tried so sneakily to dupe us into conflict, and that we stand up more often to be counted against the multitude of sins that are taking place both at home and abroad by people who would convince us they are helping us, while they are really feeding off us.

But then, I hope a lot of things.