Thursday, July 17, 2008

Simon Heffer on Whelk Stalls

Simon Heffer has never run for elected office. Simon Heffer has never run a business of any size. However, Simon Heffer feels qualified to comment both politics and economics at great length and with great assurance. Now, a total lack of experience does not always disqualify a commentator from, well, commentating. After all, many of those who guide us through the maze of professional sports are not ex-professional sportsmen but journalists who have become knowledgeable through study and experience. Simon does not write like one of those though. He writes as if he is an ex-Prime Minister who also happens to be a self-made billionaire and guess what, he ain't. This brings us on to Simon's latest missive where he roundly condemns Labour's failure in Glasgow East and by extension their failure for the rest of the country. He then somehow mutates this into a pretty nasty attack on David Cameron using such phrases as 'economically ignorant' and 'old claptrap' to describe the Conservative leader's approach to rebalancing the economy after a decade of Labour misrule. This is not a measured critique; this is bar-room ranting from a man who a year ago was singing the praises of Gordon Brown and who has happily sat on a Labour government committee. Meanwhile in another part of the Telegraph there was an article by David Cameron laying out what Labour should do right now to help the British people as the economy slides of a cliff and pretty clearly laying out aspirations for a smaller and more efficient state that promotes individual responsibility and economic growth instead of strangling it. The contrast was stark: a man slurring his words after four pints on the one hand, insightful analysis tied to practical policy on the other. David Cameron is under no obligation to help the government out of the economic mess that they have made, in fact it is politically dangerous, but he did it anyway. That is because he is a leader, not a windbag.

This brings us on to basic politics. Simon's approach is ideological, with the axe falling and the pieces dropping where they may. Government spending is to be cut quickly and nothing else matters. Except that other things do matter, like maintaining good quality public services, and the secondary effects on the economy of firing people in large numbers, because that what slimming government means, also have to be managed. Anyone who has ever been is business will tell you that transforming an organisation, any organisation, to reduce costs while still keeping things moving forward is very difficult and it is almost impossible to do it very quickly. Of course, Simon has never been in business. There is also the small matter of the politics. Each of the general elections since 1997 has been fought by the Labour party on the theme of their investment versus Tory cuts. Oddly enough, David Cameron doesn't want to give his opponents any ammunition that would allow such a campaign against him next time, even allowing that public opinion has shifted from where it was in 1997. Of course, Simon has never been in politics. This brings us to the interesting question of why the Telegraph actually employs him? Actually, it is a matter of marketing. Somewhere in the back room of the Telegraph HQ there is a marketing department and one of the tools that they employ is customer segmentation. This is the art of taking a customer population and slicing it up into geodemographic chunks with witty names like 'shotguns and pickups' and 'struggling families' to better analyse their needs and wants and to provide for them, at least insofar as it promotes sales. So, the Telegraph will have noticed that they have a paper-buying segment called 'experienceless ideologues' and the word will have gone out to devote a certain amount of newsprint in cater for them. Step forward Simon Heffer, kept around in order to keep a minority of people like him ponying up 80p a day. The question is does he realise that this is his function? If so, maybe it is time to re-evaluate his writing as satire.