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Leader: private gain, public loss

The government’s carelessness has deepened the consequences of Carillion’s collapse.

Until recently, few outside the opaque world of procurement had heard of Carillion. But the construction company, which was placed into liquidation on 15 January, is profoundly immersed in the public realm. As well as providing 11,500 hospital beds and 32,000 school meals, the firm – which employs 20,000 UK workers – was responsible for constructing the High Speed 2 rail link, the Royal Liverpool and Midland Metropolitan hospitals and the Birmingham library. It maintained 50,000 army homes and half of Britain’s prisons and young offenders’ institutions. At the time of its demise, having absorbed other firms including Alfred McAlpine, Mowlem and part of Tarmac, Carillion was responsible for 450 taxpayer-funded contracts.

Though the company’s collapse appeared sudden, it was not. The firm’s market value last year fell from almost £1bn to just £73m, it issued three profit warnings and went through three chief executives in six months. As long ago as 2015, its shares were shorted by investors who exploited its anaemic growth and excessive debt.

In view of this, the government now appears not merely complacent but reckless in continuing to award contracts to the troubled company. On 10 July 2017, Carillion issued its first profit warning, an act which reduced its share price by 39 per cent and led to the resignation of its then chief executive, Richard Howson. A week later, with almost comic timing, the unfailingly inept Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, awarded Carillion a £1.4bn HS2 contract as part of a joint venture.

The government’s largesse did not end there. On 18 July, Carillion was awarded a £158m contract by the Ministry of Defence to provide “catering, retail and leisure, together with hotel and mess services” at 233 military sites. After its second profit warning in September (which revealed a first-half loss of £1.15bn), the company won a Network Rail contract to electrify the London to Corby line. Finally, three days after Carillion’s third profit warning (and a 48 per cent fall in its share price), the company was handed a £12m schools building contract.

Company failures are an inevitable – and painful – feature of a market economy. But the government’s carelessness has deepened the consequences of Carillion’s collapse. The Business Secretary, Greg Clark, has rightly announced that a statutory investigation into the conduct of the company’s present and past directors will be “fast-tracked”. It would be unacceptable for executives such as Mr Howson (who is still entitled to a £660,000 salary) to privatise the profits and socialise the losses.

The government’s own conduct must also be probed. The justified suspicion is that, having helped create the Carillion behemoth, ministers awarded contracts to prop up a company that had grown too big to fail (the firm’s chairman, Philip Green, served as an adviser to the government on corporate responsibility).

Carillion’s fate is a salutary demonstration of the limits of the market. Too often, as in the case of Britain’s railways, the government’s ideological presumption in favour of outsourcing and the private sector leads to avoidable costs and failures. The demise of Carillion should also herald the demise of this ruinous dogma. 

This article first appeared in the 18 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Churchill and the hinge of history

Tracey Thorn. CRedit: Getty
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“Not technically beautiful, she has an engaging laugh”: 35 years of being described by men

For women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

I am sure you all saw the Twitter challenge that took off the other day – a request to women to “describe yourself like a male author would”, started by the writer Whitney Reynolds. There were thousands of hilarious replies, with women imagining how a bad male author would describe them. I thought about posting an example, but then realised, I didn’t have to imagine this. I’ve been being described by male journalists for more than 35 years.

Katy Waldman in the New Yorker wrote about the challenge, and how it highlighted clichés in men’s writing: “…prose that takes conspicuous notice of a female character’s physical imperfections. This is done with an aura of self-satisfaction, as if the protagonist deserves credit simply for bestowing his descriptive prowess upon a person of less than conventional loveliness.”

And oh boy, that hit home. Yes, I thought, that is precisely how I’ve been described, too many times to recall, so many times that I’ve actually sort of stopped noticing. The following aren’t direct quotes, but near enough.

“Not conventionally pretty, Thorn nevertheless somehow manages to be curiously attractive.” “Her face may not be technically beautiful but she has an engaging laugh.” “Her intelligence shines through the quirky features.” Often what’s irritating isn’t the hint of an insult, but just being wide of the mark. “She isn’t wearing any make-up” (oh my god, of course she is). “She’s wearing some kind of shapeless shift” (it’s Comme des Garçons FFS).

I’m not trying to arouse sympathy. I’m much thicker-skinned than you may imagine, hence surviving in this business for so long. But the point is, for women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

A few weeks ago, when I was in Brussels and Paris doing interviews, I was taken aback all over again by the absence of female journalists interviewing me about my album – an album that is being described everywhere as “nine feminist bangers”. As the 14th man walked through the door, my heart slightly sank. I feel like a bore banging on about this sometimes, but it astonishes me that certain aspects of this business remain so male-dominated.

Even the journalists sometimes have the good grace to notice the anomaly. One youngish man, (though not that young) told me I was only the third woman he had ever interviewed, which took my breath away. I look at my playlists of favourite tracks over the last year or so, and they are utterly dominated by SZA, Angel Olsen, Lorde, St Vincent, Mabel, Shura, Warpaint, Savages, Solange, Kate Tempest, Tove Lo, Susanne Sundfør, Janelle Monáe, Jessie Ware and Haim, so there certainly isn’t any shortage of great women. I’ve been asked to speak at a music event, and when I was sent the possible line-up I couldn’t help noticing that over three days there were 56 men and seven women speaking. The final bill might be an improvement on that, but still. Any number of music festivals still operate with this kind of mad imbalance.

Is it down to the organisers not asking? Or, in the case of this kind of discussion event, women often feeling they don’t “know” enough? It’s a vicious circle, the way that men and their music can be so intimidating. The more you’re always in the minority, the more you feel like you don’t belong. Record shops seemed that way to me when I was a teen, places where guys hung out and looked at you like you didn’t know your Pink Floyd from your Pink Flag.

I also have to watch songs of mine being described by male writers, and sometimes misinterpreted. I’ve got one called “Guitar” on my new record. There’s a boy in the lyrics, but he’s incidental – it’s a love song to my first Les Paul copy. That fact has sailed over the heads of a couple of male reviewers who’ve seen it as a song all about a boy.

That’s the trouble, isn’t it? You miss things when you leave women out, or view female characters through the prism of their attractiveness, or when you take for granted that you’re at the centre of every story, every lyric. I bet you think this piece is about you. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge