The MT Diary: Howard Davies

Quebec takes a liberty; my Hanoi hotpot supper; rocking on with LSE old boy Jagger.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

For most of the years I worked at McKinsey in the '80s, I shared an office with Michael Patsalos-Fox, a Greek-Australian right-handed opening bat who now runs all the firm's operations in the Americas.

It was a happy cohabitation. Michael would bet on anything: whether the next woman to walk past our door was wearing trousers or a skirt was a particular favourite. Oh, what fun we had (of course, only during those vanishingly brief moments in the office where we were not adding massive value to clients).

But there was one fierce argument. I once let slip that I found my current study - on cigarette marketing - to be of no interest whatsoever. Why should anyone care how many people switched from Silk Cut Extra Mild to Marlboro Lites if the price of the latter were cut by 5p? Michael bridled. There was nothing, he argued, that was completely uninteresting.

Since consultants have to deal with whatever problem the client wants solving, this is a prudent line for a McKinsey man to take. But I demurred. Surely there are some topics that are of no interest whatsoever to the educated mind?

A lively debate ensued. It spread round the office (business must have been slack). A shortlist of dull topics was prepared to test our respective propositions. I was surprised to find enthusiasts who found the price elasticity of low-tar cigarettes perfectly fascinating. But eventually I won. There were two topics that no-one thought of any interest at all: synchronised swimming and (the winner) the Canadian Constitution.

So when I popped over to Toronto recently, I did not expect the Constitution to feature prominently on the dinner-party conversation menu. How wrong I was, and how I now regret my thought crime of 20 years ago. The Canadian Constitution is big news - and the arguments have much to teach us.

In Canada today the talk is all of 'asymmetric federalism'. The Quebecois have enjoyed a version of it for some time, with their aggressive measures to promote the French language (and more generous public spending programmes). Now they're arguing that they can leave the federation if they wish, without the other provinces having anything to say on the matter. This is generating considerable resentment in the rest of Canada: politicos from Quebec are not easily marketable elsewhere just now.

Of course, the position of Scotland is quite different, because ... well I can't just now recall how it is different. The SNP are promising a referendum on independence, which they think, if it passes, will be decisive. Asymmetric federalism will, I forecast, soon enter the political vocabulary here: the first significant Canadian import since Conrad Black, and every bit as popular.

Gordon Brown may not wish to hear of it. Nor will he want to be reminded that Paul Martin was an outstanding Canadian finance minister for years, became prime minister when Jean Chretien stepped aside, and lost the next election disastrously.

There aren't too many contested elections in Vietnam, my next port of call. Uncle Ho Chi Minh still casts a long shadow from his mausoleum in the centre of Hanoi. The Russians embalmed him, Lenin-style, in 1969 and there he lies still, in a slightly creepy orange light. Tony Blair's office rather tastelessly said over the summer that there would be no state funeral for Lady Thatcher. Let's hope Blair didn't have something even grander in mind.

Though we paid our respects to Ho, we were there, primarily, on holiday. And a very good holiday can be had in Vietnam. But there's almost no country in the world these days where LSE alumni do not assemble from time to time to reminisce about the finer points of life in London - tasteless lager at £4 a pint and chicken tikka masala. So we spent an evening with some of our Vietnamese graduates, doing what the youth now do in Hanoi on Wednesday evening: a hotpot supper followed by ten-pin bowling, then a nightcap in the bar of the Hotel Metropole, a charming 1901 French 'railway hotel' just next to L'Opera.

Hanoi has got to be one of the world's most agreeable capitals, if you can adapt to the eccentric method of crossing the road: just close your eyes and hope that the squadrons of Hondas will swoop around you. It's like a scene from Hitchcock's The Birds.

Back home just in time for another LSE alumni event: the Rolling Stones concert at Twickenham.

We are still hoping Sir Mick will turn up for the third year of his economics course. His studies were suspended in 1964, with an explicit invitation from his tutor to return if the pop music thingy didn't work out. Sadly, from the School's point of view, the evidence from Twickenham was that there's a lot of life in the act yet. Jagger is seven years older than me but I was exhausted just watching him prance and mince across a stage the width of the rugby pitch. He looked much fitter than the England backs I saw on the same ground earlier in the year.

Fortunately, the Rolling Stones board (Jagger, Richards, Watts and Wood - the senior independent director, I presume) have adopted a more flexible approach to retirement than, say, BP. Unlike Lord Browne, there are no plans for Sir Mick to fade away in 2008.

Howard Davies is the director of the London School of Economics.

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