24 May 2018
Lens on the Week
ROYAL WEDDING: Since the Shaw Sheet believes that the wedding between Prince Harry of Wales and Meghan Markle has already had adequate coverage in the press, we do not propose to add to it, save to wish the couple a happy future.
SPEAKERS CORNER: Doesn’t anyone ever laughed in the House of Commons? Conservative MP James Duddridge (does the name, perhaps, say it all?) is demanding an investigation into the conduct of Speaker, John Bercow, who was overheard describing Andrea Leadsom as “stupid”, and possibly “fucking useless” as well. Can anyone really take this seriously? No doubt there are moments when the Speaker gets angry with people and probably he is irascible and rude on occasions or even often. But so what? Most of us have been called “stupid” and “fucking useless” from time to time without it mattering much. Surely our elected representatives can live up to the easy-going standards of those they represent?
Of course, that isn’t all. There are also the allegations of Bercow bullying his former private secretaries. Most of us, on reading about this, assumed that the private secretaries in question must be sensitive millennials bearded in their safe spaces, but not at all. Angus Sinclair, who said that the Speaker had intimidated him and smashed a mobile phone in front of him, had had thirty years service in the Royal Navy. Surely that should enable a man to cope with the antics of the most bullying little oik from Essex. (Bercow has a first class degree from Essex University).
There are a political issues about Bercow. Should he stick to his original promise only to serve for nine years? Does he favour the opposition over government? Those are questions for the House of, Commons and they need to take a view. It is not good enough, however, to replace serious decision-making with twaddle about insults to Andrea Leadsom and angry and doubtless unpleasant outbursts at staff.
GOOGLE: More brickbats for Google with Damian Collins, chairman of the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, expressing shock that Google autocomplete could reveal the identity of people (and in particular, rape victims) whose anonymity is protected by law. Can this really be rectified? What will happen if it isn’t? Presumably, ministers in countries throughout the world will be asking for particular things to be excluded, some for good reason and others for their own political ends. Failure will no doubt mean fines. What a gravy train for ambulance chasing lawyers. How are the poor techies to cope?
USA: A teenager armed with a shotgun and a .38 calibre pistol opened fire on fellow pupils at Santa Fe High School, Texas. He killed ten people (eight pupils and two teachers) and wounded another thirteen.
I appreciate that an armed civilian is a potent symbol of “government for the people, by the people, of the people” for many Americans. I would even understand if Americans claimed that their gun laws do not contradict the common definition of a civilized society as one where “the state has the monopoly on violence”, by arguing that in the USA the people are the state. Nevertheless…
This shooting is reckoned to be the 22nd school shooting this year. That’s more than two a week. The Washington Post has calculated that more people have been killed at schools than in the US military this year.
The National Rifle Association has announced that its next president will be Oliver North, the ex-Marine who was involved in the Iran-Contra scandal as an aide to President Reagan in the 1980s. The scandal involved a covert operation selling arms to Iran (!?) and using the proceeds to fund Contra rebels in Nicaragua. North was convicted, but the convictions were overturned. This week he said that the use of the drug Ritalin to treat pupils with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) is to blame for school shootings.
DEADLY VIRUS: An outbreak of the nipah virus has killed at least ten people in the Indian region of Kerala. Dozens of people displaying the feverish symptoms typical of the disease have been quarantined. The rare and deadly disease has a 70% fatality rate and has no known cure. It was first identified in 1999 among pig farmers in south east Asia; it killed more than 260 people in Malaysia, Bangladesh and India. This time the hosts of the virus are thought to be fruit bats, communicating the disease to humans via infected fruit.
Ebola (also carried by fruit bats) has emerged in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This month’s outbreak has claimed 23 lives (with another 44 suspects) in rural areas, but this week cases were confirmed in the provincial capital of Mbandaka, a city with a population of more than one million. The World Health Organisation has described the disease’s arrival in an urban area as a “a major development” with “the potential for an explosive increase in cases”. Mbandaka is a port on the river Congo, which is one of the main transport routes in the country; if the virus reached the capital Kinshasha (population tens of millions), also on the river, “it would be beyond apocalyptic”.
GLOOM AT THE TOP: It seems that even the most mighty shopkeepers cannot buck the market. Marks and Spencers’ results continued to show decline, though in the event were not quite as bad as expected, for the year ended 31st March 2017. That shows how bad the market expected them to be, with only £67m of profits – after £514m of special charges, mostly relating to its large store closure programme. Adjusting for the special charges, things were not so bad with profits down only 5%, on turnover that was actually up, but Steve Rowe, the chief executive, is clear that unless M&S tackles the migration in shopping to online that is now clearly further accelerating, things will turn out bad for the chain. That means more store closures – 100 more by 2022, continuing investment in and improvements to the website to make it even more customer friendly, and careful attention to the customer online experience – which means better delivery and collection systems, easier return mechanisms – and recreating customer loyalty, which was for years the envy of most other retailers. Tesco have been pondering similar problems but with a very different outcome – they have decided to close the Tesco Direct website. That is not the online food delivery business, which is doing well, but Tesco’s 12 year attempt to challenge Amazon and Argos by building a website which in the longer term might sell everything, but start with Tesco homewares, electronics, and a few other odds and ends. The problem was that it has always been starved of investment – unlike Amazon which was grown almost regardless of cost. Now Tesco will shut it down, at the loss of 500 jobs, and offer the range on its main site. Not maybe a great loss to most shoppers, but a might-have-been that turned out not to be.
GLOOM AT THE BOTTOM: Indeed there is little good news from retailers nowadays. C&J Clark are one of those British businesses that seem to have always been there, as indeed they have, founded by two Quaker brothers in 1825 and still almost entirely owned by the Clark family (now numbering in their several hundreds). Clarks was originally a wholly UK and vertically integrated business, from making shoes to retailing them on the high street, though in recent years they have not made shoes in the UK (they have recently begun to do so again). The retail business though is worldwide with 500 plus shops in the UK and more than 1000 worldwide. Their products are noted for value, with an emphasis on comfort and reliability (and children’s shoes, in which they are market leader). But none of this can save them from the effects of the massive shifts in shopping habits now so dramatically disrupting the high street. Recently announced profits dropped in 2017 to £12.3m from the previous year’s £34.5m, and turnover was down from £1.6bn to £1.5bn, mainly the effect of price competition. Clarks blame this on the weakness of sterling – the result of making shoes outside the UK – but also on a massive programme of modernisation and change. strengthening the online business, expansion in the US, speeding up the manufacturing and distribution side of the business, and greater emphasis on competitive pricing. Clarks say this strategy is working but the costs and impact on the existing business are causing more problems than anticipated. They reassure shareholders and customers that this process is now pretty much complete and things can only get better. They have also brought in a new chief executive, Mike Shearwood, who had the same job at the very successful Karen Millen business. The shareholders will be hoping to remain well shod.