Book review: Fixing Britain, by Digby Jones
By Roland Rudd Friday, 01 April 2011
The ex-CBI boss has produced an engaging, readable romp through the UK's ills, but his ideas about how to cure them are inconsistent and over the top.
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In the dark days of the recession, Digby Jones would travel across the country expounding the virtues of unbridled capitalism. He would start with his usual gag: 'If you believe in business, the best thing you could do is gag Robert Peston'. The BBC business editor was constantly on television breaking the latest news about which building society was about to go bust, which bank needed more capital and which company was about to unveil record losses.
Jones's joke about Peston - and one assumes it was just that - is revealing for what it says about the former director general of the Confederation of British Industry. For a man who craves publicity, Jones has had a surprisingly poor relationship with the media. In Fixing Britain, he complains that when he took the issue of joining the euro off the CBI agenda, the Financial Times splashed with the headline 'CBI stops promoting the euro'. But it was a perfectly accurate summary of Jones's position.
Similarly, when Mike Harrison of the Independent arrived in his office late, wet and angry and complained that Britain was a banana republic, Jones concurred. Why on earth was Jones surprised when the next day's Independent carried the headline 'CBI boss says Britain is a banana republic'?
One has to admire Jones's energy, passion and belief in promoting business. His book on the business of reshaping Britain is something of a personal manifesto. He joins a long list of political and business celebrities who want the UK to do better and who instinctively feel the more they shout about it the more people will listen.
Jones has many varied suggestions about what we could do better, often contradicting each other. The aim is simple: to achieve a business nirvana. Although each chapter reads a little like one of Jones's after-dinner speeches, bordering on a rant, it is well put together. I suspect Michael Wilson, the former Sky business correspondent, who worked on the book with Jones did an excellent job in getting the words from the great man down in print. The result is a book that is eminently readable.
But Jones is naive in assuming the fourth estate's job is to sound the trumpet for wealth creation and downplay bad news. Although it's impossible not to have some admiration for a man who has found his passion in life and wants to share it with us at every opportunity, there is also plenty to quibble with.
Jones does not hide his prejudices. Airbus is a British success story; the French appear to have been written out of that one. We joined Europe to trade, full stop. Anything else is a breach of that initial decision. Well, sorry, Digby, I can remember the great BBC Panorama programme in 1975 which pitted Tony Benn against Roy Jenkins, the latter winning that debate with his call for Britain to pool sovereignty with its European partners. We fully knew what we were doing and if anyone doubted it the clue was in the title: European Union.
Jones also thinks Britain should be nicer to non-doms. He is a unionist to his finger tips but his desire to prevent Scottish MPs from voting at Westminster on anything but Scottish matters would create a fissure between the two countries and risk the break-up of the United Kingdom.
And there are lapses of taste. He dislikes the ban on fox hunting. Fair enough. But he then quotes a verse in the Holocaust museum on how the Nazis came first for the Communists and then picked on every minority until there was no one left to speak up against the persecution of the last minority left. He thus equates the ban on fox-hunting with the systematic liquidation of Hitler's enemies.
It's difficult to label Jones politically. His gut instinct is pretty right wing, although he accepted a peerage and ministerial patronage from Gordon Brown. He saw Britain's support for the invasion of Iraq as hopelessly one-sided; is against the immigration cap; supports Turkey's entry into the EU; supports AV; wants a partly elected House of Lords and, of course, wants less tax and benefits. The last takes up a whole chapter and is rich in anecdotes but is also a bit over the top.
There is no doubt that Jones's heart is in the right place in wanting Britain to do better. He was rightly appalled by England's lamentable performance in the World Cup last year. For a highly competitive, determined man there were no excuses good enough to explain our footballing failure.
Anyone hoping for a coherent prescription for what needs to be done is likely to be disappointed. However, if you want a light, readable romp through the ills of the country and a hotchpotch of ideas about how we could do better, this is the book for you. But let's not ask Robert Peston to be nice about it.
Fixing Britain: The business of reshaping our nation
John Wiley £18.99
- Roland Rudd is founder and senior partner of Finsbury PR