Dewch ymlaen, Cymru!

Talking to Pele about 1958. London, 2016

It’s taken a lifetime. Cymru (Wales) tonight play our first game in the FIFA men’s World Cup finals since Pele knocked us out of the 1958 tournament in Sweden. Pele was 17 years old at the time. He’s now 82. But more on Brazil’s greatest legend later.

Ticket to disappointment

We’re used to heartache and disappointment. I was selling programmes at Ninian Park on the night in 1985 when Scotland denied Wales a place at the 1986 World Cup. I was standing on the touchline with my friend Anthony Beer watching the drama as Wales took the lead early in the game. We seemed to be heading for Mexico until Scotland equalised in the second half. But the drama didn’t end there. As the game ended and we left the ground we saw an ambulance arriving to take Scotland manager Jock Stein to hospital. The legendary coach had collapsed as the game ended, and sadly died that evening.

That wasn’t the first time I’d experienced heartache following Wales. In May 1976 I saw us lose narrowly to England in the old British home international tournament, grabbing the autograph of Southampton’s FA Cup giant killing manager Lawrie McMenemy as a slight consolation. Just weeks later I was back in Ninian Park for the home leg of Wales’s quarter-final against Yugoslavia in the European Nations Cup 1976. We needed to win after losing the first leg, but a draw that day in Cardiff saw us knocked out, a disappointment mixed with shame as hooligans invaded the pitch and pelted the referee with coins. (I watched the scenes with a sinking feeling.) Wales were banned from playing at home, and so the next disappointment, defeat to Scotland in the 1978 World Cup qualifier, took place in Liverpool.

C’mon Cymru!

The great Welsh footballing resurgence began with Euro 2016 in France, when we exceeded everyone’s expectations and reached the semi-finals, losing narrowly to Portugal. The highlight of that campaign was a magnificent 3-1 win over Belgium, with magical goals by Williams, Robson-Kanu and Vokes putting Cymru through to the semis. We also reached the delayed Euro 2020 finals.

All credit to the Wales FA, who have been masterful in linking the national football team with our identity as a nation. It uses the Welsh name Cymru for the team, and brilliantly adopted Dafydd Iwan’s 1980s protest song Yma O Hyd (‘Still Here’) as a second anthem to inspire the team and fans alike. The eve-of-tournament Yma O Hyd video used footage of defining moments in modern Welsh history including the destruction of Welsh village of Tryweryn for a reservoir for Liverpool, the Aberfan tragedy of 1966 and the 1984-5 miners’ strike.

Wales take on the United States in the first game of the campaign. Just think: a nation of three million taking on one with 331 million people! Wales is the second smallest country in the tournament after hosts Qatar.

The tainted tournament

This is one of the most controversial World Cup finals. Back in 2010 many were shocked that FIFA had awarded the tournament to a country with no footballing tradition. The finals are happening in November as Qatar is too hot for football during the normal summer slot. Still worse is the host’s attitude to LGBT people, and women. Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar, while many migrant workers have suffered injury or death in the construction bonanza the world cup unleashed. The BBC chose to highlight criticisms of Qatar rather than show the opening ceremony yesterday. Today, Wales and England, alongside five other national football associations, abandoned plans for their captains to wear OneLove armbands promoting diversity and inclusion. They caved in after FIFA threatened to book the players, continuing FIFA’s shameful surrender to Qatar’s regime.

The spirit of 1958

I’ll end as I began, with Pele. The night before Wales played Belgium in that 2016 quarter-final I was lucky enough to meet Pele at an event in London, organised by Shell. He spoke eloquently about his work with deprived young people in Brazil. I mentioned that Wales was about to play a quarter-final for the first time since that Wales v Brazil match in 1958, and that he’d scored the winning goal that ended Wales’s World Cup. His eyes lit up as he recalled the tournament that made his reputation. It was a priceless moment.

May the spirit of 1958 light up Cymru’s 2022 World Cup campaign.

PS: Cymru drew 1-1 after Gareth Bale scored an emphatic penalty to level the scores. Ry’n ni yma o hyd!

Own goal: Prince of Wales supports England

The Prince of Wales – supporting England. FA/PA Wire

No one asked the people of Wales whether they wanted an English prince William to be Prince of Wales in September. We’ve had no say in the matter since England’s Edward I named his son prince of Wales in the 14th century.

So it was no surprise that William didn’t give a moment’s thought before his crass decision to visit the England football team to say “I’m really here to point out that the rest of the country is behind you. We are all rooting for you, enjoy it.”

How could he be so foolish, so insensitive? Did he give no thought to how his actions and comments would be received in Wales? Did none of his advisers tell him to step back from cheerleading England?

It should have been obvious that he should have stepped down as president of the English football association the moment he was named Prince of Wales. Yet he chose to support England, a country in the same group as Wales in the FIFA men’s world cup in Qatar.

it’s time to ditch the anachronistic, imperial title of Prince of Wales. The country is not a principality, but has its own government and parliament, the Senedd. William backtracked today when challenged to the Llwydd of the Senedd: “I’m supporting both [countries] definitely.” He should have thought this through and avoided scoring this spectacular own goal.

Here’s to Cymru’s success in the world cup…

In praise of journalist Ian Jack

Ian Jack’s Guardian by-line photo

We’ve lost a fine writer and observer of British life and politics with the death of Ian Jack.

My spirits always rose on a Saturday when I spotted one of Jack’s beautifully observed Guardian columns. It helped that I’m fascinated by the topics he made his own, such as Britain’s industrial heritage, and the long-lost glories of our railways and maritime traditions. Who else would have linked the disastrous new rail timetables of 2018 with the misreading 153 years earlier of a timetable that caused the Victorian railway crash that ruined the health of Charles Dickens? (In that piece, Jack also highlighted that Dickens was travelling with his lover when their train crashed into the river Beult.)

He turned wistful memories into compelling copy. Take this example, a childhood memory of a 1950s dining car experience, woven into a column mourning Chiltern Railways’ axing of on-train catering services:

Continue reading

The Brompton: engineering for change – for life

City cycling by Brompton: Holborn viaduct, London. October 2022

I love my Brompton Electric bike, as I explained in this blogpost in 2019. So I was delighted to receive as a birthday present The Brompton, a book by Brompton Bicycle chief executive Will Butler-Adams and journalist Dan Davies.

It’s not a typical book about bikes. It’s part history of Britain’s best-loved folding bike, part business biography and part call to arms in the battle for the future of our cities. Butler-Adams is an eloquent advocate for the role of the bike in transforming lives – but more of that later.

Brompton’s progress

Butler-Adams is brutally open about the challenges of growing the Brompton business, and his relationship with the brilliant designer of the iconic bike, Andrew Ritchie. Will joined the company as a ‘young designer and dogsbody’, but after becoming CEO insisted that the founder stepped back from operational control. Ritchie found this painful – sometimes he’d only find out about his successor’s plans during a board meeting. Butler-Adams also felt the pressure, comparing it with the ordeal of an embattled leader facing prime minister’s questions.

I was intrigued to read about Brompton’s move to take its distribution network in-house, after years of working with distributors. Will poignantly describes the warm relationship the bike brand had with many of its former distributors, especially Simon Koorn of Fiets a Parts in the Netherlands. At one time Bromptons were sold with completely different names in the Benelux countries, such as Brompton-Ralph and Potter-Brompton. But as the world went online, people compared prices and specs between countries, and Adams-Butler concluded that the old ways would have to change. So Brompton bought out its distribution partners, a process he says was neither easy nor pleasant. He describes breaking the news to Simon Koom as one of the most agonising and emotional meetings he’s ever held.

This is just one example of the way that Adams-Butler took a far sighted, strategic approach to growing Brompton from a small scale manufacturer of a fairly niche bike to a business that can genuinely have an impact on how people move around our cities (and beyond). Leadership isn’t easy, and few companies thrive if leaders put off difficult decisions. Will recognised that Brompton had to increase dramatically the number of bikes Brompton can produce to meet actual and future demand.

Continue reading

When British mortgage rates hit 15.4 percent

John Major – the man who prompted my announcement

Mortgage rates doubling. Home owners in despair. Thousands of homes being repossessed.

Sounds familiar? This was Britain in 1990. I was running Nationwide Building Society’s press office and had the job of announcing that February that mortgage rates were going up to 15.4 percent. Just two years earlier the home loan rate was just over 8 percent.

The 1980s were a golden time for home ownership in Britain. Prime minister Margaret Thatcher championed a home-owning democracy, and the proportion of people owning their own home rose from 56 percent in 1980 to 67 percent in 1990. (Source: Statista.) But the housing boom crashed after Thatcher and her chancellor Nigel Lawson allowed the economy to overheat, and interest rates almost doubled in just over 18 months, culminating in that eye-watering 15.4 percent mortgage rate.

As spokesman for Britain’s third largest mortgage lender, I was busy explaining the impact on borrowers (and savers). Fixed rate mortgages were in their infancy in the UK, with the first launched in 1989, and I can’t remember Nationwide offering one back then. Many borrowers were on annual review mortgage schemes, which fixed the monthly payment but not the interest rate for 12 months. If interest rates soared, the borrower had to pay back the extra money owed later.

Continue reading

Keir Starmer: the quiet man who might just transform British politics

Keir Starmer. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA via The Guardian

Suddenly, Keir Starmer has become Britain’s prime minister in waiting. The catastrophic opening weeks of Liz Truss’s premiership has utterly transformed the political weather. Labour’s slow recovery after the disastrous Corbyn years has been turbocharged by the new Tory leader and her chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng. Labour now enjoys a poll lead of up to 33 percent, and is seen by many as the inevitable victor in the next general election, which must be held by January 2025.

Truss and Kwarteng destroyed the Conservatives’ reputation as careful custodians of the British economy with their budget on 23 September. The markets hated the way the former party of sound money planned to borrow billions to fund tax cuts, on top of existing promises to reduce the increase in energy bills and the debt built up during the pandemic. The pound approached parity with the US dollar, and pension funds faced insolvency. Mortgage lenders withdrew home loans from the market as interest rates looked set to soar to protect the value of the pound. Millions of people are worried about the consequences, and blame the already unpopular Tories.

Starmer’s opportunity

Labour has often been portrayed as the party that presides over financial crises when in government. The party devalued the pound in 1949 and 1967, and famously had to ask the International Monetary Fund for an emergency loan in 1976. (Ironically, it turned out that Britain’s finances weren’t as bad as the Treasury warned, and the loan wasn’t needed after all.) Now, it’s a Tory government that is damned by association with the IMF, as the international lender of last resort condemned the party’s budget.

Continue reading

Living through a heatwave – memories of the summer of 1976

The river Taff at Blackweir, Cardiff, 1976. Photo: Mirrorpix

As Britain braced itself for its hottest day ever, a single tweet caught my eye. It asked how people coped with the heat during the fabled summer of 1976.

Few who experienced that extraordinary summer will ever forget it, especially if like me they were enjoying their best ever school holiday. I can remember only one occasion in 1976 when I felt uncomfortably hot.

My memories of that golden summer start with rain. Mum and Dad took me to a summer fete at the Edward Nicholl children home in Penylan, Cardiff, and we dodged the showers as local MP and prime minister James Callaghan opened the event. But within days the rainclouds disappeared and stayed away for two months.

Photo: Frank Barrett/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The summer of 1976 may not have seen temperatures as high as this year’s frightening record of 40.3C, but somewhere in the UK the temperature hit 32C for 15 days in a row. Just as seriously, the lack of rain along with the previous year’s very dry summer led to a serious drought. I remember a standpipe being set up near our house, and the mains water being restricted. Jim Callaghan even appointed a drought minister, the jovial Denis Howell. Mr Howell worked his magic: within days of his appointment the heavens opened and the heatwave was over. Just as in 2022, the dry conditions led to forest fires, and fire engine sirens formed part of the season’s soundtrack.

Continue reading

Beating the Tories: a democratic revolution

Boris Johnson’s decrepit, dishonest government was hit by two devastating by-election defeats in different parts of England last week.

Labour retook Wakefield in Yorkshire, a seat it lost to the Conservatives in the 2019 general election. More dramatically, the Liberal Democrats took Tiverton and Honiton, a seat that had been Tory since the dinosaurs were young. (OK, slight exaggeration.) That Lib Dem success saw the biggest ever majority overturned in a British by-election.

The Tory defeat has led to a debate about the need (or not) for anti-Tory parties to agree a pact to ensure the progressive vote isn’t split, which traditionally means the Tories win despite the opposition winning more votes. Margaret Thatcher famously enjoyed big majorities because of this.

Sometimes it doesn’t matter. Labour won a landslide in 1997 and 2001 under Tony Blair and the Lib Dems did well too. That was the reverse effect: anti-Tory voters teamed up to punish the Conservatives,

Could the same thing happen in 2024? Last week’s by-elections suggest it might. Tactical voting can work, especially when there isn’t a Jeremy Corbyn to deter Lib Dem voters or a Nick Clegg to deter Labour ones.

What about a repeat of the Tory tactics in 2015, saying Labour will be in the pocket of the Scottish National Party? I can’t see that having any traction in 2024. Boris Johnson is the greatest boost possible for the SNP. The SNP’s apparently unstoppable advance has been turbo-charged by the Tories and Brexit. Brexit is done, at least for now, but the return of a progressive UK government might be the union’s last hope. Especially if that government replaced the deeply undemocratic first-past-the-post voting system with some form of proportionate representation.

The progressive parties must state their case – their collective case – with confidence and brio. Take a leaf out of RMT leader Mick Lynch’s book – don’t let this battle be fought on a field chosen by the Tories. Britain – England, Wales and Scotland – must be better than this. Make the case for a fairer government that fights for all the people, especially those less well off, not just the privileged few who win every time with the Tories.

As a Welshman, I long believed that Wales was best served by being part of the UK. We are a small country that has traditionally looked east to our large neighbour England for trade and much more. Yet I have come to believe that the UK in its current form is a divisive, destructive influence. London doesn’t care (spicier epithets are available) about Wales. Or Scotland. Or Northern Ireland. Even worse, it will force any amount of destruction through that negligence, as Johnson’s poisonous rejection of his own agreement to the Northern Ireland protocol shows. The Tory embrace of Brexit has made our nations and their peoples poorer than they were before. How could Wales – or Scotland – do any worse alone than under destructive London rule?

The next five years will decide whether the UK has a future.

In praise of Vigo

Vigo, my unexpected destination

I didn’t plan to go to Vigo, Spain, this month. I’d not given the place a moment’s thought since reading Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning for my school O level exams in 1980. The Gloucestershire writer began his walk through Spain at Vigo in 1935.

But fate brought me to this friendly city in Galicia. Fate and my father. Bob Skinner had been so looking forward to his first holiday for three years. He and my late mother loved taking cruises, and Bob was thrilled to book a week’s voyage to Spain and Portugal on P&O Cruises’s MV Ventura.

My cousin Brenda and her husband Ivor helped him get the compulsory Covid test and he was ready to set sail. But disaster struck within an hour of the liner leaving Southampton Water. Dad fell as he was getting out of a lift and he broke his right hip. The ship’s doctor called me the following day and explained that Bob would be taken to hospital at the first port of call, Vigo. I would soon me on my way to a city I’d not thought about for 42 years.

Continue reading

Mick Lynch: a text book lesson in winning the argument

Mick Lynch, the leader of the union that represents Britain’s railway workers, has become the media star of the past week. His calm, clever responses to hostile questions about the rail strikes have shown that disrupting people’s travel plans to fight for better pay needn’t be unpopular.

He brilliantly defused Sky News’ Kay Burley’s crazily over the top attempt to raise the spectre of a return to the violent picketing scenes of the 1970s and 1980s. Mick calmly turned to the tiny group of peaceful pickets behind him. ”That’s what a picket line looks like. We’ll try to persuade people not to go to work.” Outrageously Burley tweeted that Lynch was flustered – yet he was as cool as the cliched cucumber. The Sky presenter was the one losing her cool as her interview went nowhere. Lynch had the facts and the humour to defuse what could have been a tough interview.

The unions have a very good argument. So many people have had their real incomes slashed by 12 years of Tory austerity at a time when industry bosses have shown no restraint. The government may think that a summer of discontent will help it win back support. It didn’t work for Ted Heath in 1974 or Jim Callaghan in 1979. The cost of living crisis is going to get worse in the next year and Boris Johnson and his cronies have no answers. (Especially when Johnson tried to get one of those cronies to pay for a £150,000 summer house for his son in the grounds of Chequers.)

Keir Starmer should take lessons from Mick Lynch about how to win an argument. Right now, Labour’s leader is like a football manager winning 1-0 and determined to play safe and close down play at the risk of conceding a goal or two. He should be going for a convincing win.