Blackhurst's diary - In which our diarist sings for his supper, questions the Revenue's liberal view of bribery, and reveals Tim Bell's secret weapon in the realm of New Labour.
IN VINO VERITAS BUT YOU'LL PAY LATER
With hindsight, of course, I should have realised the letter of invitation contained a vital clue as to what was expected from me. Kamlesh Bahl, deputy vice-president of the Law Society, would like me to come to lunch, to meet the society's new interim executive committee. 'We recognise that much needs to be done, and have already made a positive start, which we can discuss with you,' wrote Bahl. She continued: 'We would, however, really welcome your own thoughts on the Law Society.' There, that was the hint: 'your own thoughts'.
Like many invitation letters, though, its wording was promptly forgotten. A date was made and I duly turned up at the imposing headquarters of the Law Society in London's Chancery Lane. 'The interim committee is upstairs waiting for you. They are so looking forward to your talk,' was the greeting from Bahl. Gradually, the true horror dawned. I had met Bahl at a reception to celebrate Diwali, we had got talking and I had expressed, after several drinks, some strong views about solicitors and their trade body. Hence the invitation - and the committee's eager anticipation. The Law Society is at present undergoing great change and at the vanguard is Bahl, a fiercely determined solicitor who made her name at the Equal Opportunities Commission. The interim committee is the group charged with putting into practice the profession's reforms. Apart from one or two of the members, they were a receptive bunch. I apologise if I offended the representative from the City law firms when I said that they were Oxbridge, sexist and racist - which they are.
To the chap from Birmingham, I did say the Law Society was trying to modernise - I did, I know I did. In fact, no matter what I said about solicitors being generally behind the times and out of touch as a profession, they did not seem to mind. Tell them that the Law Society is a cosy, protective institution which is slow to respond to complaints, and the members all nod in agreement. I had two solutions for the interim committee: move out of their Palladian headquarters and scrap the 95-strong main committee, replacing it with a PR-savvy, chief executive. As for Bahl, I said that she should become the first non-white female president of solicitors in England and Wales. Her elevation, at least, would be a sign that the Law Society means business. After that, they even applauded.
PREACHING TO THE UNCONVINCED
From one potential disaster to another - again involving lawyers. Due to give a talk on journalism at the careers evening at my elder son's school, I rashly offered to stand in for the lawyer who was late. I walked into a classroom of 30 expectant parents and their 15-and 16 year old offspring. At least I could claim to have read law at Cambridge. They listened in stony silence as I said my own degree had been a waste of time, that in my experience some of the best lawyers had not studied law at all, and that some employers actively look for trainees who have qualifications in something other than law. Too many people, myself included, did law because it was a safe, parent-pleasing, middle-class option, without having any idea what it actually entailed.
The people I know who had gone to the Bar had all done well - but only after years without any pay. The Bar, I added, looking at the women and Asians present, was also incredibly sexist and racist. I was just telling them to forget the glamour of John Grisham when the door opened and the real-life lawyer walked in.
Journalism was also well attended. There, the boys all wanted to be football writers and the girls wanted to report the catwalks. Afterwards, over wine, the careers master gave me the breakdown for the evening: most popular was marketing, followed by law, computers and media. Engineering, once the stalwart of this great country of ours, was nowhere. The real-life lawyer wandered over and I apologised for putting his audience off. Not a bit of it, he replied. He had been giving the same talk for 20 years and always hoped to dissuade as many as possible from becoming lawyers. The master agreed: that was the object of the evening - to make them think twice before rushing headlong into something. So, perhaps there is hope for engineering after all.
SHOW ME THE (DIRTY) MONEY
On to the London conference of one of the most worthwhile bodies around, Transparency International, the only international, non-governmental organisation dedicated to stamping out corruption. A lot of earnest words are spoken, but one message, from Jeremy Carver, a solicitor, stands out. According to the Inland Revenue's Instructions to Tax Inspectors, in this country, bribes paid overseas are tax deductible. American companies do not enjoy the same benefit. For them, bribing overseas companies has been a criminal act since 1977. Here, not only are such payments legal, they actually incur a tax advantage. Small wonder that the UK is so often at the centre of murky arms deals and Robin Cook's words about the need for an 'ethical foreign policy' appear so empty.
DEATH OF THE SALESMEN
Everyone, it seems, is anxious to climb aboard the multi-faceted Richard Branson bandwagon. I overhear two executives from Heinz discussing how their organisation is going to exploit the brand by going into other unspecified areas. After all, they say, 'Branson did it with Virgin'. I should have leaned over and said: 'You miss the point. Branson succeeds because he plays off his independent image against monoliths like yourselves.' But I didn't. Instead, I was left thinking about Heinz financial services and an airline. Then it came to me in a flash: Heinz clothing ... Heinz jeans ... I can see the slogan: 'Jeans means Heinz.'
Listening to these two made me realise why so many business people these days have cards describing themselves as 'brand development managers'. Once, they would have been salesmen, but nobody owns up to being one of those any more. And nobody, God forbid, wanted to be one at my son's careers evening.
CITY BOY IN WOMEN'S CLOTHING
While Heinz contemplates entering another sector, a most unlikely name has cropped up in the world of fashion retailing. Gary Klesch, former US junk-bond dealer and investment banker, has bought Miss Attitude, a North of England accessories chain. Klesch, who used to set City hearts aflutter with some inspired raids, has emerged as a would-be king of the British high street. Already, his Bermuda-based Klesch Capital Partners has bought Knickerbox. The aim of the sober but ever so sharp-suited Klesch is to use his banking skills to create a £1-billion women's retailing empire. The ex-investment banker is prowling around, picking off under-performing bits here and there. He acquired Knickerbox for between £1 million and £2 million and Miss Attitude, which has 35 stores, for £500,000. His next stop is the internet and mail-order shopping. Retailers are sniffy about their new rival, believing there is more to their trade than being financial managers. Klesch's riposte? 'That is like being at the roadside dying and asking the Good Samaritan if he is a doctor. Whatever has occurred in retail before, obviously, has not worked.' Aim high, Gary, aim high. You never know - Marks & Spencer could soon be yours.
WHEN ONE PARTY'S OVER ...
You have to hand it to Tim Bell, now Lord Bell. Mrs Thatcher's favourite public-relations specialist was widely predicted to be heading for a rocky time when the Tories lost power. Yet Bell says that Chime Communications, his company, has just enjoyed its most successful year to date, posting a 113% rise in profits - to £7.8 million. While PR represents only a small part of Chime's business, it is still vital to Bell's profile. It was this activity that was expected to suffer under Labour, but not a bit. For that, Bell has to thank Dave Hill, once Labour's press chief, now a key player in Chime. Hill has been active on a number of Bell accounts including the Central Office of Information, the Welsh Development Agency, the Welsh Office, Securicor Custodial Services and Monsanto, the agriculture and genetically modified foods research company. There I was, when still a journalist in the Commons, thinking that Hill and his colleagues, many of whom have since joined PR and lobbying firms, really meant it when they denounced the 'fat cats' and complained about hard-nosed Tory business practices. Silly me. I should have foreseen that Hill would one day work for an agency that counts among its clients the campaign for President Pinochet to be returned to Chile a free man. Of course I should.
SHOW ME THE (TOY) MONEY
Note to the folk from Citibank who were on a management training course at a Sussex hotel: I know what happened to the 'treasure' on your treasure hunt. There you were, running round in groups of six, searching for clues, all wearing identical corporate T-shirts and literally tied together with rope (it helps bonding apparently), and there we were, also on a management 'away day', relaxing and watching you in disbelief.
One of my colleagues, while she was out walking in the gardens, found the 'treasure', an envelope of toy money, and hid it. I know she shouldn't have, but she couldn't help herself, and just think how much closer you became as you scoured in vain among the rhododendrons. Your bosses, who paid for you to take part in the treasure hunt, owe her a big thank you.
Chris Blackhurst is deputy editor of The Express.