25 years ago today: Margaret Thatcher resigns

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25 years ago today, Margaret Thatcher resigned as prime minister. She bowed to the inevitable after her cabinet finally rebelled against her autocratic rule.

I blogged at length about Britain’s first woman prime minister when she died in 2013. I titled that post ‘the woman who changed Britain’ – which she did, for both good and ill. She was a force of nature, unlike almost all of her successors. Only Tony Blair came close.

Paris, Facebook and the fight for humanity

Paris 2014

Paris 2014: the city and people we love

Bravo to family and friends who have turned their Facebook profile photos into a tricolour in respect for the victims of Friday’s appalling murders in Paris.

I love France and the French, and grieve for them and everyone else who died in this assault on humanity. But I won’t be changing my profile photo. I feel equally sad for those who have been savagely killed in Beirut, on the Russian airliner, on the beaches of Tunisia and across the Middle East. And those who have perished fleeing the death cults of the Middle East.

I just wish we could find some way to combat such brutal, medieval tribes that wish to defeat those who hold different values. The sad truth is that the western powers will most likely respond in a way that makes things worse, not better.

It’s easy to change your profile photo. That’s not to say that doing so has no meaning. I’m sure it will bring some comfort to the people of France, a country that millions of us love and cherish. But I’d rather see brilliant minds across Europe thinking how we can turn the tide of hatred. The west has a grim record of intervening in the Middle East without thinking or caring about the consequences, from Britain, France and Israel’s 1956 Suez adventure through to the 2003 Iraq invasion.

Please prove me wrong.

Stephen Waddington on business jargon

The British are famous for being hopeless at languages. Yet when they get to work they start speaking another language. Unfortunately that language is business-speak. Former president of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations Stephen Waddington has blogged a list of the worst examples of business gobbledegook.

Stephen gathered the list after asking his Facebook friends for contributions. I happily contributed ‘visibility’ – a fine word in a weather forecast but nonsense when used as a synonym for information. (“I don’t have visibility on this” means “I don’t know” in the English language.) He could have filled a book rather than a blogpost: companies and other organisations create bullshit phrases on an industrial scale.

Business speak gets in the way of communication. It deadens the senses. And it prompts clever and sensible people to suspend their ability to think what they are trying to say and use the right words to communicate a thought. You’d be ridiculed if you talked to your friends like this. So why inflict it on the people you work with?

Let’s reach out to each other to create visibility about a roadmap to axe gobbledegook going forwards…

PS: it may be unfair to point this out, as Stephen is one of Britain’s finest communicators, but his job title is itself an example of business bullshit. ‘Chief Engagement Officer’ sounds like someone very important at a dating agency. 

Britain’s surviving fingerpost signs

Restored fingerpost in Chalfont St Giles, Bucks

Restored fingerpost in Chalfont St Giles, Bucks

This signpost is one of a dying breed. Fingerposts like this once guided travellers in every corner of Britain. They were simple and graphic guides in an age when people travelled slowly. As speeds increased, they were replaced by bigger signposts that could be seen by speeding motorists by day or night.

Happily, this example in the historic Buckinghamshire village of Chalfont St Giles has been adopted by the local community. It was restored recently for the second time in a decade. It is a welcome sight when I’m racing up Bowstridge Lane on my bike as it means I can relax as the climb is over.

Pointing to Threehouseholds, Chalfont St Giles

Pointing to Threehouseholds, Chalfont St Giles

This fingerpost is a witness to history. The Threehouseholds in the sign refers to the area of Chalfont St Giles at the top of the drag from the village towards Seer Green. It includes the popular White Hart Inn, and was named after the original terrace of three cottages at the top of the hill.

I hope the sign will be guiding travellers for many years.

Volkswagen: the company that can’t say sorry

Volkswagen’s reputation is in tatters after it deceived customers and regulators by doctoring emission test results with ‘defeat’ devices fitted to millions of cars.

As the owner of an Audi (one of the car brands owned by Volkswagen Group), I suspected that my car would also have been tampered with by this dishonest company, Sure enough, a letter dropped through my letterbox recently telling me that my car was affected by the scandal and would need to be modified.

The letter made me angry. Not just because I will have the hassle of taking my car to Slough Audi for the fraudulent device to be removed. No, what made me angry was the absence of an apology – or indeed any recognition that Audi, or Volkswagen Group, was to blame. It talked about ‘the recently highlighted emissions issue’, as if Volkswagen Group was an innocent victim. It went on to say that ‘your vehicle is affected by the issue’.

The letter was sent in the name of André Konsbruck, a director of Audi UK. Mr Konsbruck, this is not ‘an issue’. It is fraud on an industrial scale. I am amazed that you could send a letter to millions of customers about this fraud without saying sorry. Audi and Volkswagen’s reputation will never recover if you can’t grasp the simple fact that you need to apologise.

This appalling own goal is consistent with Volkswagen Group’s catastrophic handling of the crisis. The head of VW in America, Michael Horn, said the company had ‘totally screwed up’, using flippant language that suggested a careless mistake rather than deliberately defrauding millions of people.

My current Audi is my fourth. It is likely to be my last Ingolstadt made car unless VW and Audi show some contrition – and say sorry.

Thoughts on Wales beating England to Rugby World Cup knockout stage

Wales beat Fiji to reach Rugby World Cup 2015 knock out stage

Wales beat Fiji to reach Rugby World Cup 2015 knock out stage

In the end, the Group of Death proved nothing of the sort for Wales’s Rugby World Cup dreams. I was privileged to watch the victories over Uruguay and Fiji at the Millennium Stadium – but the real glory was our magnificent victory over England at Twickenham last weekend.

I still expected England to beat Australia – they have a good record against the Wallabies – but the hosts were woeful, going down to their worst ever defeat at HQ to Australia. Stuart Lancaster’s obsessive tinkering crashed England’s world cup chariot after just 16 days.

I’m thrilled that Wales are through. It’s extraordinary that a team so decimated with injuries should have the power to overcome tough opponents in England and Fiji. It speaks volumes for team spirit and their extraordinary coach, Warren Gatland, who has now plotted three wins at Twickenham in eight seasons. Australia will be tougher opponents, but that’s no longer a must-win match.

I’m also sorry that England are out. They didn’t deserve to progress, but the tournament is diminished by the host’s departure from their own party. And millions of England fans including many friends are feeling the intense pain of a premature exit. Blame the crazy decision to make the draw almost three years before the opening ceremony. Back in 2012, Wales slipped down the world rankings because we lost an extra autumn international to the Wallabies. As a result, the authorities placed four of the nations ranked in the top 10 on the eve of the tournament – Wales, Australia, England and Fiji – in the same group. Let’s hope they learn the lesson.

Meanwhile, the Welsh party continues!

Cymru am byth!

Cymru am byth!

The best Palace to Palace bike ride yet

We made it: at the Palace to Palace finish, Windsor

We made it: at the Palace to Palace finish, Windsor

Today, I joined colleagues from PayPal UK and thousands of others to cycle from Buckingham Palace to Windsor Castle (Palace to Palace) to raise money for The Prince’s Trust. It was a brilliant day that will have raised a huge amount of money for this very important charity, which gives a fresh start to disadvantaged young people.

This was my third Palace to Palace. It was definitely the best yet. Part of that was down to me – I’ve cycled hundreds of miles this summer, which helped me keep up with colleagues 20 years younger than me, and finish at an average speed of 15.9mph compared with 11.9mph last year. I’ve also got a wonderful road bike – a Specialized Roubaix. But it also reflects great work by the organisers. We were back on the faster traditional route via Fulham after last year’s slog through Wandsworth, caused by the summer 2014 closure of Putney Bridge. And they seemed to be managing the flow of departures better – while it took ages to get to the start line, we didn’t find anything like as much cycle congestion in London compared with the previous two years. We got to Richmond Park, 10 miles out, in just over 40 minutes.

Thanks to my new found fitness, I enjoyed a novel experience – being in a peloton. About seven of us from PayPal rode in formation, taking it in turns to lead the train. I was leading the way as we passed the M25, and again as we climbed towards the M3. That effort took a lot out of me, and I rode solo for a few miles before rejoining the train at the last water station at 35 miles. I braced myself for the hill I dreaded in previous years after Englefield Green. Suddenly the road plunged – and I realised I had already climbed the hill without noticing it. It was a delicious moment.

Windsor is a wonderful destination – whether you’re on a bike or arriving by car or train. This year we had the added bonus of cycling up the Long Walk towards Windsor Castle, which offers a wonderful view of the largest castle in Europe. Soon after, we arrived at Windsor Racecourse for a much needed drink and sandwich. (You can even grab a free massage in the End Village.)

Thanks to everyone who sponsored me – and all the other cyclists. If you’d like to add to the money raised, please visit my JustGiving page.

Here’s to next year!

PS: best wishes to the female cyclist who had an accident near Hampton. I hope she is OK.

Our longest reigning monarch: Queen Elizabeth II

The class of 1926: Queen Elizabeth II and Bob Skinner

The class of 1926: Queen Elizabeth II and Bob Skinner

The Queen reached a landmark this week: she is now Britain’s longest reigning monarch. On Wednesday she overtook Queen Victoria’s record of 63 years and 216 days on the throne.

For most of us, she has always been there – a constant presence. The photograph at the start of this post shows the Queen with my father Bob Skinner earlier this year, at an event to mark the 50th anniversary of Winston Churchill’s death and the creation of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust as the great man’s memorial. Dad was an early beneficiary of this noble trust, which offers British citizens the chance to travel overseas to learn a new perspective on their personal or professional lives. Bob spent time in Japan studying how that country’s great cities communicated with the people – a fascinating perspective given that London and Tokyo were similarly sized world cities in 1971. Dad found that Japanese mayors were far keener to engage with their public. His boss quickly dismissed the idea of holding public surgeries. How things change..

In 2015, a monarch wouldn’t be anyone’s obvious choice of head of state. How could you possibly decide that a family chosen by fate centuries ago should lead you country? Yet we’ve never found the idea of President Blair or Thatcher more attractive or compelling. We recognise that the monarch holds no power. So why change? Overwhelmingly we admire the Queen’s 63 years of service to the nation and the Commonwealth. (It’s striking that Australia, Canada and New Zealand have been no more enthusiastic about ditching the Queen, despite being confident independent nations.) Time will tell if that changes under Charles III.

I’ll end on a personal note. All my grandparents were Victorians, born in the reign of that extraordinary monarch. Nan, Dad’s mother, turned 10 the year Victoria died, yet lived through 42 years of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign to the amazing age of 102. Continuity is a huge factor in British history, and that applies to any family.

Why I’m cycling Palace to Palace for The Prince’s Trust

Ready for Palace to Palace 2013 - on three wheels

Ready for Palace to Palace 2013 – on three wheels

Almost 40 years ago, the Prince of Wales had a brilliant idea: to give disadvantaged and vulnerable young people a fresh start in life. So began The Prince’s Trust. On Sunday, I’ll be joining thousands of others cycling from London to Windsor to raise money for this excellent cause.

It’s my third Palace to Palace, riding with friends from PayPal UK. My first in 2013 was on my trike – as I blogged at the time. This time I’ll be on a faster road bike, my Specialized Roubaix, which has been a constant companion this summer. It’s a lovely ride from Buckingham Palace to Windsor, especially once you’ve got to Richmond Park and can start to build up speed. (If you think cars cause congestion, imagine thousands of cyclists negotiating London’s traffic lights!)

If you’d like to sponsor me – and more importantly help The Prince’s Trust and young people – please visit my JustGiving page. Thank you!

Please, no more Aylan tragedies

Please let Aylan be the last victim

Please let Aylan be the last victim. Photo: Reuters

This tragic image shook Europe into action. It shook an unthinking and uncaring continent into thinking about the tragedies unfolding every day, and rethinking its prejudices. Aylan Kurdi, we will honour your memory and make sure your short life has a historic legacy.

At last, the likes of Britain’s Daily Mail realised that the people fleeing to Europe were refugees desperate to escape death and persecution in the Middle East and North Africa, rather than opportunists seeking European welfare. I applaud Germany and Austria for their warm-hearted welcome for thousands of refugees. How I wish that David Cameron’s government could have shown a fraction of that humanity. How petty and uncaring these millionaire politicians appear as they turn their backs on the tragic flow of desperate people who simply want a safe future for their families. And how shocking it is that the London Standard newspaper thought Eurostar disruption was the story, rather than the plight of desperate refugees.

Over 40 years ago, a very different Conservative government welcomed to Britain some 30,000 Ugandan Asians who had been expelled by murderous dictator Idi Amin. The new arrivals made a significant contribution to the life and economy of Britain.

It has been hugely encouraging to see the positive response on social media to a more human approach to the crisis. That most intelligent commentator, Mathew Parris, said: “What kind of primitives have we become that we need to see a drowned person before we acknowledge to ourselves that people are drowning? Did we not know, had we not read, that migrant children drowned?” So true, yet sometimes one stark, appalling image transforms opinions. The best solution is surely to make the refugees’ homelands safe for them to stay or return – but over a decade of Western military interventions in the region has corroded our reputation.

How sad that the summer of tragedy on Europe’s beaches saw the death of Sir Nicholas Winton, ‘Britain’s Schindler’. Then as now, Britain was slow to help people desperate to flee death and persecution. Then as now, bureaucracy was a killer. Yet the wonderful Winton secured safe passage in 1939 for over 600 children from Czechoslovakia. The story has an echo in Mr Gruber in the wonderful film Paddington, with its echoes of the Kindertransport. How apt and poignant that German and Austria have been quicker than Britain to welcome the 2015 counterparts of the families of 1939.