Gibraltar is just displacement activity for Spain

Trying to distract itself from the financial crisis.

Normally Spanish late night television is like Hello magazine in debate form. A group of journalists sit around and shout at each other about which Matador is dating which model. It’s light it’s fluffy and it goes on for hours.

Last week though it was all a little different as the debate turned from Spain’s equivalent of Katy Price to a large inhabited rock at the very tip of the country. In the UK the story of Gibraltar has been covered with a hint of incredulity and as the situation in Syria intensifies is less often in the news. But Spanish media continue to cover it, and with increasing levels of belligerence.

As an example in the four days up to August 28th Spanish television channel Telecinco, always slightly right leaning perhaps, had covered the story in its news coverage no less than 8 times. It’s got the attention of the Spanish populace in a way that it never has in the UK.

However almost everyone you speak to in the Spanish capital knows it’s all a smoke screen for the major problems in the country. In particular the word on the streets of Madrid is that a dispute with Gibraltar couldn’t come at a better time for the scandal hit government of Mariano Rajoy.

Rajoy and his party, the Partido Popular (PP,) have been accused of taking backhanders and general corruption in a story that just won’t go away. Worse he’s presiding over the worst financial crisis in the country’s democratic history. Perhaps it’s significant then that it is the central government that has complained the most vehemently over alleged damage to Spanish fishing. Raising what was effectively a local fishing dispute to a matter that could yet go before the United Nations.

Significant or not, suddenly the Spanish are talking about little else (well there is one other subject but more on that later.) Rarely now do you overhear conversations in Madrid about the "crisis" or the employment situations of their friends and children. And yet in the same breath Spaniards mention that they know it’s all a distraction. The Spanish wanted, no needed, something else to occupy their minds other than one in four being out of work, over half the youth unable to find employment and a government and monarchy deeply embroiled in corruption scandals.

For many though there was a sense of disappointment that the argument was being led by a beleaguered government and on a subject normally only beloved of the right. So when the national obsession came up with a new distraction the smiles spread.

To many outside of Spain the distraction of one club seeking to buy a talented welsh footballer for a rumoured £86 million seems hardly something that would grip a nation.

Except, for the Spanish the club in question, Real Madrid is not just a football team. It’s a national icon and football is a way of life. To many it seems insane in a crisis riven economy to spend so much on one man. But the debate in Spain about the cost of Gareth Bale lasted 5 minutes.

Because Spaniards on the whole, and Real fans in particular, didn’t see it as a waste of money, they saw it as a source of pride. The reason was for the Spanish the acquisition of Bale is a different type of distraction to Gibraltar. It’s one where Spain was no longer a nation in suffering but one where they could compete with, and beat, the rest of the world. It’s just the tonic the nation needed.

Now all of us should just hope Spain doesn’t think that the Gibraltar situation is another where they can take on the world and beat them. But then they already know it’s just one big distraction, and they’d probably prefer to watch the football anyway.

Mike Cobb is a reporter at Private Banker International

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.