The politics of chaos

1990
The lights are going out at BHS

I’m bewildered. I simply cannot get my head around the contradictions we’ve seen this week. It’s the politics of chaos.

A tycoon buys a high street chain for £200m. He and his family extract dividends of £400m. He then sells it for £1 and devotes himself to the design and purchase of his third yacht, this one costing a mere £90m.

At that stage it appears the pension fund was intact and healthy. Under the next owner, twice bankrupt and having never run a company, a profit line of £64m becomes a loan of £70m. The new company, Retail Acquisitions, takes out some £10m in charges and dividends, leaving the business insolvent with 11,000 people facing the loss of their jobs.

That’s capitalism, folks. But now previous BHS owner Sir Philip Green, knighted for services to retail by Tony Blair in 2006, finds himself labelled the unacceptable face of capitalism.

I haven’t suddenly become a socialist: I don’t believe in the forcible redistribution of wealth. But I am puzzled by the ease with which individuals or private equity firms can buy businesses, strip the assets, enrich themselves and leave the employees (David Cameron’s “ordinary hardworking people”) to fend for themselves.

There seems to have been no condemnation yet from anyone in government. Nor any censure, come to that, of Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt who has achieved that spectacular coup of alienating the entire medical profession, something even the prickly Michael Gove didn’t quite manage with the education system.

If imposing a contract on highly trained, dedicated professionals is a bizarre (or, at least, ill-advised) move, his opponent, the BMA, has succeeded in turning an easy bid for winning public support into something of a PR disaster.  Doctors’ leaders have banged on about patient safety: they should have kept the message simple and stuck to unreasonable demands and poor rewards.

Poor? Yes. To be sure, many doctors, ten years into their career after long training, can expect six figure salaries. But, on the way, they work mind-boggling hours, carry enormous levels of debt and earn no more than the average teacher. I cannot understand why they didn’t push such a simple message.

The first edition of The Times covered the BHS scandal, but failed to mention the Hillsboro verdict.
The first edition of The Times on 26th April covered the BHS scandal, but failed to mention the Hillsborough verdict: but then, its sister paper The Sun got it very wrong.

This week saw justice, at last, for the families of the Hillsborough victims, illuminating the dismal spectacle of a police force, a quarter of a century on, still fabricating stories in a bid to deflect blame.

For most of us, police corruption features only in the racier kind of detective fiction. When we can’t trust the organisation meant to protect us, one of society’s certainties is undermined.

Back in Westminster, while government tears itself apart over Europe, an unholy alliance between Theresa May and Michael Gove is setting out to denigrate the European Convention on Human Rights (in the writing of which the UK was a proud leader) which tends to get in the way of politicians in a hurry. They appear to forget that the whole point of protecting human rights is to prevent authorities from trampling on people’s dignity and entitlements. We have to give them a fair hearing, which can be costly and slow. It’s justice.

When politicians decide they know better than the courts – even a supra-national court such as the European Court of Human Rights – we should be very afraid. All over the world we see examples of what happens when human rights are overridden: yet still some Tories brand the ECHR as interfering Brussels bureaucracy.

I for one wouldn’t trust Gove with a British Bill of Rights.

You might have thought so much government ineptitude might strengthen the position of the opposition. Instead Labour has chosen to implode over that anti-Semitism row. It’s the politics of chaos.

When business leaders, police and politicians let us down so badly, what can we do? In the absence of effective or honest government, we can only look to our own resources, treat others as we would have them behave to us and extend the hand of friendship to all who need it – and that (in my view) includes 6000 unaccompanied children lost in the middle of Europe

It’s not a good time to be a wishy-washy liberal like me: but, God knows, we have to try.

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