Wednesday, March 28, 2007


The star of the past political week is almost universally expected to be confirmed as our next prime minister in a little over three months’ time. Given that this is so widely assumed to be a foregone conclusion, you could be forgiven for feeling a little surprised that the Chancellor should pull such a dubious stunt in seeking to wrong-foot the opposition by his announcement of a two-pence cut in the basic rate of income tax as the parting shot of his last Budget.

As surely as the night follows the day, politicians and commentators immediately began the search for the classes of persons who would enjoy no benefit from the tax changes of which the 2p cut was the showpiece. And, rather to his own disadvantage, it was soon found that those who would be worse off were overwhelmingly members of that stratum of society that used to be referred to as those in “genteel poverty”; which is to say, not those subsisting solely on state benefit and chips but those in low-paid service jobs who cannot afford to get onto the property-owning ladder. They’ll all be voting for David Cameron, then.

Gordon Brown is inevitably hoist with the petard of the Blair governments’ reputation. He has to “sell” the government’s economic policies, just as his colleagues have to talk up their own achievements (if such they are). And of course the danger must be pretty high that Labour’s present, very hard-earned reputation for economic competence – a reputation conspicuously lacking under previous Labour governments – will start to unravel before the next general election, as much due to global conditions as to any loss of touch by the Chancellor or his successor.

I always assumed that, after Blair’s third election victory, he would shift Brown to the foreign office, the logical post for an heir presumptive. The next prime minister would only benefit from greater exposure on the world stage, becoming a more widely familiar figure ahead of taking over the top job. After all, can you name the present secretary of state for economic affairs in Washington? Neither can I. But we all know Condi, don’t we.

If Blair wouldn’t countenance Brown as foreign secretary – or Brown wouldn’t countenance the idea himself – purely because of differing notions on how to develop the policies over Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and the Middle East, then that reflects well on Brown. If he wouldn’t move because he wouldn’t relinquish control of the economy, then he’s made a big mistake. He could have had a blameless two years at the FO, becoming a formidable global player, while the slow worsening of the economy began to tarnish his successor. As it is, who except Brown’s creature (Ed Balls) would willingly go to the Treasury in a Brown government? The PM would be on your back on a daily basis.

Gordon Brown needs to shake off as fast as he can the reputation for government by gimmick, sound-bite, tabloid agenda and polling returns because it is damaging. Among those who may run for deputy leader is one who has introduced a new irregular verb into the political lexicon: to blear. This means to blah and blur on behalf of Blair and it is to be found in the observation “Hazel blears”. Members of the present cabinet do a great deal of blearing. While Sir John Major’s governments became irredeemably associated with “sleaze”, Blair’s are stuck with a reputation for blather as well as for “spin”. Brown is not noted among the public for straight talking, even if his bluntness is more evident to colleagues at Westminster. And he has no reason to thank whoever it was who persuaded him to start flashing that unexpected salesman’s beam in mid-sentence, a habit now as ingrained as Thatcher’s change of vocal pitch. It’s more likely to frighten people than to reassure them.

There is one factor about Gordon Brown that I have never seen mentioned in the press so I will (of course) raise it here. It is that he is Scottish. Not only that, he sounds Scottish. Blair was born in Edinburgh but his roots are English and nobody would think him a Scot. In the era of broadcasting, when the appearance and sound of politicians have gradually become available to everyone, there has only been one British prime minister who did not sound English. Ramsay MacDonald, from Lossiemouth, Morayshire, was the first Labour prime minister, briefly in 1924 and again in 1929. It was a period of parliamentary stalemate and these were minority Labour administrations. MacDonald found it impossible to sustain power and invited opposition leaders to form a National government, an act for which the Labour party never forgave him.

So MacDonald is an unhappy precedent for Brown. The only other Labour leader with a Scottish accent was Blair’s predecessor, John Smith. Whether the English electorate would have accepted him was never put to the test for he died suddenly while leading the parliamentary opposition.

Smith’s predecessor, Neil Kinnock, led Labour to two general election defeats. Kinnock is – and more importantly sounds – Welsh. I have always believed that Kinnock’s accent counted heavily against Labour in its English seats. Don’t let’s mince words here. The English hate the Welsh. When I come across this hatred (which is surprisingly often), I am always astonished by the way its irrationality – as baselessly absurd as all racism and prejudice – is matched only by its vehemence. The English hatred for the Welsh is exceeded only by the Scots’ hatred of the English. This at least has some historical justification. It is just as ugly and malign, though. I don’t think the Welsh entertain any feelings, one way or the other, for the Scots and all of course merely despair of the Irish.

Now, I suspect that Brown’s Scottishness will tell against Labour in English seats at the next general election. Indeed – and, as a rule, I eschew political predictions as a mug’s game – I would not be a bit surprised if Labour does not go down to a rather bigger defeat after two or three years of a Brown premiership than any pollster predicts now or will be looking for then. In the privacy of the ballot box, voters can express their prejudices without anyone being able to expose them. Why do you think people vote for the BNP in the numbers that they do? They don’t tell pollsters that they are inclining that way.

I really don’t want David Cameron to win the next election, if for no better reason than his youth. The great movie director Billy Wilder once said that he knew he must be getting old because he was older than the pope (who at the time was John Paul II). I have been wrestling with the disheartening sensation of being older than the prime minister for the past ten years. But to find oneself old enough to be the prime minister’s father would really take the biscuit.

On the other hand, I have never before known a time (or dreamed I would ever know a time) when a Labour government – "New" Labour in Blair’s glib marketing speak, but nonetheless a Labour government – was to the right of every parliamentary opposition party, including the Tories, on just about every issue. Really, they need to be turfed out of office for the good of the Labour party. For Brown to reverse that perception – widely held if not perhaps in the terms in which I have expressed it – would be a Herculean task. I have an awful feeling that, irrational though it be, Cameron’s cultured Englishness set against Brown’s son-of-the-manse persona will be enough to make it impossible for Brown to stay in office. But who knows? – perhaps Sir Ming Campbell’s very home counties version of Scottishness will be enough to hold onto the balance.

Monday, March 19, 2007


My blogging has been suspended again because of a recurrence of the disconnection of my BT broadband/ADSL link as first occurred last October and again in the week before Christmas. The pattern of my dealings with British Telecom over the last fortnight has been a disheartening variation of what played out before.

The connection spontaneously died on Tuesday March 6th. Initially I phoned those contacts whom I had found helpful last time. The engineer who came to the house just after Christmas and who was bracingly scornful of the BT Broadband Technical Support line in Chennai, India did not return the messages I left on his mobile. Admittedly, he had told me that he was being promoted and was not likely to be the engineer who would come to see us if there were a recurrence of the disconnection. But I thought that he might at least pass on the message to someone who could deal with it. No such luck.

The man at the grandly named Office of Higher Complaints in Coventry who had been diligence itself last time – to the extent that I had to discourage him from phoning daily, after the engineer’s visit, to assure himself that the problem remained resolved – was successively “not in yet” and “off sick”. I then spoke to a man who claimed to be him (but I knew that he wasn’t) and he said that nothing could be done until a new ticket was issued from BT headquarters because the file on the matter had been closed. I then rang the woman at BT HQ who had issued the ticket on the earlier occasion but she too had been promoted – clearly negotiating with this particular relentless customer wins many brownie points at BT – and all she could suggest was that I call Chennai.

So I began a repeat progress down the British Telecom rabbit-hole, characterised as before by earnest but broken promises to make return calls, referrals to departments that were rather less helpful than their predecessors had been, refusals to accept that BT’s own equipment was in any way at fault and endless procrastination in face of my increasingly angry demands that an engineer be sent to the house. I knew from the first that, unless I made a nuisance of myself and refused to accept BT assurances that the problem was not theirs, I would not get my connection restored. So it proved.

After several fruitless conversations, repetitions of identifying data and useless expressions of apology, I finally (on the Friday) got myself put through to BT’s technical area. Three times members of the line maintenance team promised to instruct the line engineers to call me to make an appointment for a visit to the house. On the first two occasions, the line engineers sent me texts to say that they could find no fault on the line and had therefore closed the case. Both times, I called the line maintenance team again (the line engineers themselves are not available by phone even within BT and can only be raised by email) and said that the fault was not rectified. I had, I said, been again told that there was no fault on the line but, despite what the line engineers reckoned, there was no fault on my computer or on my wireless router. Perhaps then the fault lay with the junction box and/or the built-in filter, both of them BT property. Hence, I was therefore unilaterally reopening the case and it would remain open until, if necessary, it came before the high court.

On the second of these exchanges, I was told that the line engineers would call me “within 24 to 48 hours”. I said “you mean ‘within 48 hours’ because any time within 24 hours is within 48 hours”. “Er … yes” said the line maintenance man. On the third occasion, I was promised a call “within 24 hours” but after some 30 hours I had had no call. They must have got bored with me.

So I went back to the Account Management Desk that had put me in touch with the line maintenance team in the first place. My contact there prevailed upon the line maintenance team to call me again and this time they undertook to book an engineer to visit the house, perceiving perhaps that any customer this persistent was not about to go away. From a preliminary assessment of the problem from their end, it was decided that a conventional line engineer should do the honours. I was warned, as I had been warned several times previously, that there would be a charge for this call-out. Anyone would think it could run into six figures. I was told that it would be some £200. Fine, I said, but I didn’t expect to be charged for a fault on BT’s own equipment. I was told that if the main junction box was more than a year old, there would be a charge. It seemed to me that this item was BT property in a way that, for instance, the phones were not but I wasn’t about to haggle over £200.

I had a further call from the maintenance team to say that they had decided after all to send a broadband engineer to the house. He would be with us between 8.00 and 11.00 the following morning (Tuesday 13th) and would call ahead of his visit to say that he was on his way. The Account Management Desk man said that he in turn would be calling at 11.30 to see what had transpired.

The engineer telephoned the next day at 11.20. He said he had isolated a fault in the local exchange that affected our line and the one adjacent to it. He didn’t need to come to the house. So it was after all a fault with BT’s own equipment, something that ought to have been spotted in routine maintenance at least six months ago. The engineer said that he knew how to fix the fault but, being a broadband engineer, he was not allowed to touch it. The equipment belongs to something called BT Wholesale. He, like all the engineers, works for a franchised operation called Open Reach.

I asked if there were not someone else there who could do the job. He explained that, under Ofcom’s rules, BT Wholesale is not allowed to repair faulty equipment for five working days (a week in the customer’s life) because that would be how long it might take to do such a job on behalf of Tiscali, Orange, Virgin, Sky or any other broadband rival that uses BT’s phone lines. BT is not allowed to favour its own customers – those whose ISP is BT itself – as this would amount to unfair competition. I found it hard to believe that he was in earnest but he promised that he was.

I called my contact at the Account Management Desk but he was unavailable. The man I spoke to (who said he was a manager) refused to put me in touch with the man who had been on my case. I explained what I had been told by the engineer and the manager expended a great many convoluted sentences neither entirely confirming nor entirely denying that what I had been told was true.

At this point, I began the process that I believed would allow me to register a formal complaint but that I hoped would also raise a BT employee sufficiently senior – or having sufficient gumption – to be in a position to ensure that the fault was put right at once or sooner.

This proved less straightforward than on the previous occasion, perhaps because the woman at BT HQ who had helped me greatly then had been promoted out of harm’s way. I was now informed that I had to find a department manager who would be in a position, in BT’s curious jargon, “to escalate the complaint”. I talked to a manager in the UK Technical Help Team who was not able or willing to tackle any escalation himself but who gave me the number of the BT chairman’s office. Someone on that number gave me the address to which to write to make a complaint: Customer Service Director, Correspondence Centre, BT plc, Durham DH98 1BT – evidently they only disclose this address in exceptional circumstances but you, dear reader, may have it from me for nothing. It seems bizarre to me that of all organisations it should be BT that obliges you to write your complaint rather than phoning it.

I was also given a number for the BT Fault Management Service (0800 800 151). On this number I talked to two men successively, the first of whom found it difficult to credit much of the saga that I repeated, the second of whom seemed only too familiar with what I described as an Alice in Wonderland operation. “I realise you can’t comment on that” I said. “No, I can’t comment on that” he said. “But I can grin”. Neither of them was able to direct (officially or unofficially) that the fault be put right in fewer than five days. At this point, I decided I had to admit defeat.

During the course of this long week (and another week will have passed by the time we are reconnected and I can post this blog), I have become horribly familiar with BT’s customer service style. If ever I encounter the most used on-hold muzak in later life or in some different context, it will fill me with Pavlovian gloom. It’s a slow dirge for harp, strings and oboe or electronic simulacra thereof, presumably designed to calm the savage breast but all it does to me is enrage. The conversational style of the respective call centre staff in Chennai and Delhi is punctilious to a fault but (in their very patience and apologetic assurances) utterly maddening. They are always undertaking to “do the needful”, a charming phrase surely not heard in Britain since the 1950s but very current in modern-day India which is in so many ways a living parody of Britain in the 1950s.

There is also the ever-present suspicion that those employed to deal with the public are not able to be wholly candid, frequently referring as they do to scripted formulae and unable as they are to accede to the customer’s criticisms, save in a very generalised way. One begins to fall into familiar patterns of response oneself so that one hears oneself yelling, for the umpteenth time: “yes, well, a succession of your colleagues has already apologized profusely but what good is that to me? I can’t eat it. I can’t spend it. I don’t want apologies, I want action”. And all the calls end with their routine mantras – “is there anything else I can do for you today, Mr Gilbert?” and “thank you for using BT Broadband”. In almost every case, I have declared, at some point in the exchange: “if you won’t authorize an engineer to come out to fix this disconnection then I shall be summoning an engineer to remove BT Broadband altogether and I shall subscribe to one of your rivals instead”. Still they thank you. And BT really should instruct all its staff to avoid the cant phrases “no problem” and “not a problem”. They don’t play well with a customer who has already passed the end of his tether.

The heart of the corporate failure remains what it was during my last encounter with the BT hydra. The company will not send out an Open Reach engineer until it has absolutely no choice precisely because the engineering is franchised out and therefore costs BT to activate. A number of times, a harassed BT spokesperson told me gravely that if an engineer was sent out it might cost me money. At this I would scream that being without internet or email contact for a week was already costing me money hand over fist and that if it cost £10,000 to restore the connection it would be worth every penny but that, if the fault were found to be BT’s – as of course it would be – I would not expect to be billed for BT’s failure, rather that I would expect some kind of handsome recompense. This did not bring the arrival of an engineer at the house any nearer.

What BT needs is obvious to any customer who has the misfortune to have to resort to it for assistance. It needs to provide one all-purpose number that may be dialled which will raise someone who is empowered to say “yes, sir, leave it with me. I will [if necessary] do the needful and expedite the assistance you require. I will call you within 15 minutes to bring you up to date with the situation” and then to do that very thing, preferably with the words: “will it be convenient if an engineer calls at your address between 9.00 and 11.00am tomorrow, sir?” It would be handy too if one were not obliged to choose between a number of recorded options, none of which precisely fits the case at hand.

BT also needs to rethink its corporate attitude to its customers. Gordon Selfridge’s great dictum – “the customer is always right” – has been forgotten by the vast majority of commercial enterprises in Britain and across the world. Customers have grown used to being treated as mere economic counters in an accountant’s dream of share-holder profits but when those who work on the front line for corporations like BT encounter a customer who is not prepared to be walked over, there ought to be a widely understood Plan B, designed to take the sting out of the complaint rather than to exacerbate that customer’s frustration and indignation.

And BT should never have agreed to Ofcom’s restraint of its trade in imposing such a ludicrous delay on repairs undertaken on behalf of its own customers. This is the kind of lowest-common-denominator thinking that ought to have died out in the 1970s. Nobody benefits from the policy because any fault in BT’s equipment must have the potential to affect the working of lines that BT rents to its rivals as well as those reserved for its own customers. Everyone using a service dependent on the telephone grid needs repairs to that grid to be carried out expeditiously, not after a delay and certainly not after an artificial delay. What is more, BT is in fact put at an unfair disadvantage by Ofcom’s ruling. Its own customers feel grotesquely penalised by a pointless gesture. And BT’s rivals can all say that any delay is BT’s fault because they (the rivals) are dependent upon BT for repairs to be carried out. Thus BT ends up in bad odour with, on the one hand, its own customers or, on the other, everybody else’s.

BT is placed in a curious position by the privatisation of the telecommunications industry, analogous to neither that of the BBC, nor to that of British Airways, nor to that of Railtrack. But being called British Telecom and having the duty of maintaining the national telephone grid, it is inevitably seen as the national instrument of the telecommunications service. It needs to sit down with Ofcom again and reconfigure its own status, defining once and for all what it means to be primus inter pares.

Meanwhile, at the time of writing, we still await reconnection to the broadband computing grid so that we may resume our access to email and the net and I can resume my work that has been largely on hold for two long weeks. I shall be calling the compensation line (0845 600 7030, as I believe) when I finally know exactly how long we have been disconnected and I shall expect to be amply recompensed. Of course it is impossible to compute the value of the business that I might have generated had I been on-line for the period in question. Nor can I put a monetary value on the hours I have wasted talking on the phone – or more often holding on the phone – while connected to BT staff. I do not know whether all the numbers that I have been obliged to call are free or which of them might be at national or at local rates.

What I do know is that the frustration and bafflement that BT has caused is injurious to my health. Several times I have been conscious of the waves of tension and stress as I have found myself having to give out information I have already given many times or having to insist that various tests of the equipment have already been carried out and proved fruitless. I know that no individual BT representative who happens to pick up my call is responsible for my problem, nor that he or she can be expected to grasp its elaborate history within seconds. All the more reason to have a system where one person takes charge of an issue and sees it through to its conclusion. Recorded messages frequently tell us that our calls may be recorded for training purposes. It is time that somebody listened to those recordings and concluded that BT’s methodology needs a comprehensive rethink.

Saturday, March 03, 2007


A couple of weeks ago, the Independent Police Complaints Commission delivered its considered verdict on the notorious police operation in Forest Gate, London last June. You’ll remember that some 250 officers converged on a two-up, two-down terrace before dawn and that around 30 armed cops burst into the house and arrested two Muslim brothers, Mohammed Abdul Kahar and Abul Koyair, the former of whom suffered a gun-shot wound in the shoulder at close range.

Nothing incriminating was found at the house. The pair were held in custody for nearly a week and then released without charge. It seems that the raid was based on something called “flawed intelligence”. This could well be a euphemism for “gross stupidity” or even “racist malice”.

The IPCC heard 153 complaints from “members of the public” and upheld just five. It recommended the Met to “apologize” publicly. However, the Met declined to say sorry, as they put it, “over and over again”, which raises the question: “if the IPCC can’t even get the police to apologize, what possible power does it have to scold, command, reprimand, direct or discipline any officer or force exceeding the remit?” The brothers say they have never received an apology. More to the point, I have never seen it suggested that they have ever received compensation.

Since then, I have been awaiting the outcome of a trial at Manchester crown court. The defendant is Robert Cottage, who stood for the British National Party in last May’s local elections in his home town of Colne, Lancashire. Police raided his residence too and sealed off the street. This time they had well-placed intelligence, none other than Mrs Cottage, the defendant’s wife. Sure enough, they soon found a stash of the appropriate chemicals in sufficient quantity to cook up “a powerful bomb”, along with the notorious manual, The Anarchist Cookbook, which lists the ingredients and recipe; so at any rate the prosecution charges. Mrs Cottage confirmed the evidence of her husband’s diary that he was planning to assassinate the Prime Minister and other political figures.

The first police comment to the press was that “he’s not a terrorist and it’s not a bomb-making factory”. This quick conclusion must have been based on the fact that Cottage is white and a member of the Church of England (as well as the BNP), rather than a shy, soft-spoken foreigner who talks with a foreign accent and believes some pagan mumbo-jumbo. They must also have accepted his assurance that, along with his crossbows and airguns, the chemicals were for making “thunder-flashes” to protect his two-up-two-down terrace when civil war breaks out. As you do.

The arrest of Cottage and his co-conspirator (a retired dentist, also white and a BNP member) did not, as far as I recall, make the national media. In contrast, the Forest Gate raid was the lead story in newspapers and on bulletins for days on end in June last year. Cottage’s first appearance in court on February 13th got national coverage but thereafter the media lost interest again.

I had thought that the case would be soon over, given that Cottage was obliged to admit to possession of his arsenal of weapons and his potential explosives. But nothing was reported. Surely the verdict would be thought newsworthy. I had to trawl through the net to discover from Lancashire newspapers that, following nine days of evidence, the jury had found itself hung after three days of deliberation. A retrial has been booked for July. The defendants remain in custody.

According to Pendle Today, “the 22 chemical components recovered by police are believed to be the largest haul ever found at a house in this country” [October 6th 2006]. What’s more, David Jackson (the retired dentist) had a pair of nuclear protection suits at his house, along with sundry chemicals. Evidently, these items were “to help teach chemistry to Cottage’s teenaged son”. When teenagers are studying chemistry, you certainly need to retreat into a nuclear protection suit.

The Lancashire constabulary clearly missed a trick or two when they apprehended Cottage. After all, they could have shot him. They could have arrested and charged him under the various enormously malleable terms of the government’s anti-terror legislation; those powers, after all, have been invoked to remove a heckler in his 80s from the Labour Party conference and to arrest a woman reading out the names of dead Iraqis at the Cenotaph. I would have thought a declared intent to kill Tony Blair would have given the raiding party something to yell imprecations about. What’s more, you might think there was plenty of material here for the press – and not just the “serious” press – to investigate. But of course all the newspapers are much more interested if the defendants may be made to represent some generalised Muslim threat. And anyway, there are so many more important stories to pursue: Britney Spears, Cameron Diaz, Richard and Judy …