Did Thatcher Destroy British Coal?

Three days on from her death and the debates are still fiercely raging about Margaret Thatcher’s time as PM. They all seem to revolve around the same theme: that Thatcher’s spiteful policies ruined lives and divided the country.

In the twenty-year period since she left office the debate has become criminally over-simplified and certain myths persist, almost entirely unchallenged.

The most significant of which is that she destroyed the British coal mining industry.

This is simply not true.

The fact is that she inherited an industry already in precipitous decline, largely due to increasing global competition from places like Australia, America and even South Africa. See the chart below:

Decline of UK coal industry

The majority of mine closures had already occurred under her two Labour predecessors, Harold Wilson and James Callaghan.

And the 1984 (UK) Monopolies and Mergers Commission found that 75% of British coal mines were losing money, costing the taxpayer an annual £1.3 billion in government subsidies.

The truth of which couldn’t be avoided: British coal was on life support and showing few signs of ever regaining consciousness.

All that was left to Thatcher and her Conservative government was to pull the plug –which they did.

It is perhaps here that one could take issue with the way in which Thatcher decided to handle it.  She viewed it not only as laying to rest a dying industry but also an opportunity to completely crush the trade unions, who she believed were destroying Britain.

So she fought ideologically with ideologues. And won.

But what was lost amidst all the political grandstanding, were the genuine fears and concerns of the coal miners, who for generations had only ever known that type of work and that type of life, and for whom the prospect of retraining and having to begin again was daunting.

And that was why they fought as hard as they did. However misinformed they might have been about the future of British coal.

Maybe if she’d tried to reach them directly and explain the economic realities of their situation, they would have understood that if they didn’t take the pain now that one day their children would have to. That they could be part of a new Britain, that they’d be helped through this cruel time.

But the actions of their union leaders, in the past, had ensured the downfall of her predecessor and Thatcher was determined not to suffer the same fate. The miners were unfortunate collateral.

Could she be accused of coldness? Yes. Arrogance? Maybe.

But, deliberately destroying the coal mining industry and the lives of the coal miners? No.

Their lives were, by harsh circumstance, caught up in an elephantine battle between two competing visions for Britain; against the backdrop of a rapidly changing global economy, beyond the control of anyone, least of all Thatcher.

Mad Men: Don’s Inferno

Season Six, Episode One: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

Death. It’s the first thing you thought of when Don Draper presented that ad with the rumpled pile of clothes lying on the beach and footsteps leading off from them into the unknown.

It was beautiful. It was art. But it was dark.

And so it went for the long anticipated premiere of Mad Men season six. It began with a voiceover from Don silently quoting from Inferno:

“Midway through our life’s journey I went astray from the straight road and awoke to find myself alone in a dark wood.”

This sober sentence seemed somewhat incongruous with its setting: Don, in Hawaii, on Waikiki  beach, reading Dante; Megan, in a summery bikini drinking a blue cocktail.

Surely this is Heaven and not Hell?

Beautiful. Art. But it was dark

Don’s dissatisfaction, however, is evident. He seems somehow detached from this colourful scene. Megan is happy and chit chattering; Don is quiet (he has no dialogue for the first five minutes) and his smile strained. They have sex and Megan is giggling but it seems he’s only going through the motions. It’s a pensive, slightly unsure Don, not the confident, alpha male we’re used to, although he still quite convincingly wears that costume, even if it is starting to look a little anachronistic.

He’s played Don Draper for a long time, the lead role in a hit play. But the audiences are moving on, the supporting characters are starting to shift around him and the set is slowly being dismantled. The future has finally caught up with him.

Back at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce it’s clearly the late 1960’s, the men are starting to look shaggier and shabbier and are definitely turning on and tuning in. The ubiquitous liquor bottle has been replaced with the marijuana cigarette. And as generously as SCDP’s senior executives partake of the grain, so do the younger generation of the herb.

As in Hawaii, Don feels awkward in these surroundings. He’s still creatively brilliant but but…

One night at the hotel, whilst still on holiday in Waikiki Beach, he’d been sat having a solitary drink at the bar, when a drunken young soldier serving in Vietnam had engaged him in conversation. “Were you in Korea?” he asks.

“Briefly,” answers Don. Or was it Dick? Which one answered? Both served, both died and were then reborn.

This well-intentioned young man reminds him of that fraud, that stolen identity.

He is an impostor, not just Dick Whitman playing Don Draper, but for all his outward success he still feels like that hapless failure inside. “Noone loves Dick Whitman,” as Megan had jokingly cooed in the season premiere of season five.

In Dante’s tenth circle of Hell, the deceptive are punished. These are the alchemists, the counterfeiters, the perjurers and the impostors. As they afflicted mankind with their disease, they are afflicted with diseases in the afterlife.

Sinon suffers from a burning fever; Myrrha is mad.

And Don is himself and no more.

Image Credit: AMC. Artist: Brian Sanders

Lessons from ICU

Everyone is fighting their own private battle. So be nice. Read More…

Seeking Imaginative Investment

An open letter to Elon Musk & South Africa’s investor community.

I read two articles recently, Duncan Alberts’ “Funding hurts SA tech start-ups”  and Alistair Fairweather’s “Elon Musk: Pretoria’s billionaire space explorer and inventor.” Both of them resonated with me and I wanted to add my voice to the discussion based on my experience at Triggerfish. There is no doubt that a shortage of risk capital exists in South Africa. I see entrepreneurial activity all around me and I’m sure that if you went onto the campus of any university in the country, you’ll find some amazing ideas. I believe South African creativity, and indeed African creativity, is as good here as it is anywhere else in the world. Visionary entrepreneurs are out there for sure – ready and able to make a big difference to their communities – but visionary investors are in short supply.

Private capital is not finding its way to startup companies and high-growth opportunities.This does not lead to a healthy economy. South African investors are unwilling to take risks. I’m not sure how much genuine venture capital is available in this country, but I doubt it’s more than R1 billion, if that, a drop in the ocean of what’s needed to build game changing companies that compete on the world stage. If we are unwilling to take risks, if we are unwilling to accommodate audacious ambition, we are never going to get the innovative economy we need to build a prosperous and stable country. The companies that dominate South Africa’s economy are by and large the same companies that dominated the economy 10, 20, or even 30 years ago. There is little change.

Patrice Motsepe, South Africa’s billionaire mining magnate recently committed half his fortune to a foundation to provide for the poor. This is a magnanimous and noble gesture which should be celebrated, but if he had committed even $50m to a venture capital fund, on purely commercial terms, it would be the biggest VC fund in the country. What kind of impact would this have had? We’ll never know.

There is no shortage of capital in this country, from high net worth individuals to pension funds, family offices, and other large pools of savings. The custodians of these funds are not even allocating small sums of money to venture capital. Being an optimist by nature, I cannot understand how this can be. Diversifying your investments is science not wishful thinking.

Elon Musk was a keynote speaker at this year’s SXSW Interactive conference. He said, “I didn’t go into the space, car or solar industries because I thought I could make a risked adjusted return, I went into them because they were areas in which I wanted to make a difference.”

We need investors ready to make a difference.

Stuart Forrest, our CEO, was recently invited to speak at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. A two-time Oscar winning professor was astounded to hear that a small production company at the tip of Africa was able to produce two significant feature films outside the Hollywood studio system. Not even Pixar did that. And we did it here, in Africa. The reception he received in Silicon Valley stood in stark contrast to the obstacles we face in South Africa.

We can do great things, but if we want to go to space, like Elon Musk, we need investors ready for the ride. We cannot take on the giants by being timid. Nico Dekker of the Cape Town Film Studios once told me not to let people dismantle your dreams. You cannot walk around on-set at the Cape Town Film Studios and not be inspired. We have all the talent in this country to accomplish anything we set our minds to.

Triggerfish’s first film, Adventures in Zambezia, is Africa’s most successful film export since The Gods Must Be Crazy, released over 30 years ago. Zambezia was the first African film to be nominated for two Annie Awards – the animation industry’s Oscars. In half the territories it has released, Zambezia has either beaten or earned at least half the box office of its rivals in a country by film matrix. In Russia, it beat 3 Oscar nominated films and in territories like Poland, Croatia and the Benelux, it’s beating the majors outright – an incredible result for a first film. We expect our second film Khumba, starring Liam Neeson, to do even better.

Africa has a PR problem. We are all tired of the steady stream of negativity that emanates from our news. The sum of our hopes and dreams, and the potential that exists in this great continent, is worth more than the sensationalist stories that dominate the headlines. More than 2 million people around the world have watched Zambezia in the theatres. For many of them, it’s the first time they’ve been exposed to an African product. When Zambezia has finished its run on Pay TV, VOD, and free-to-view, tens of millions of people will have seen a story, from Africa, that isn’t about politics, murder, corruption, or poverty. It’s family entertainment; something kids can watch and get excited about.

We can change the way the world sees Africa. There is an unprecedented opportunity for us at Triggerfish to engage with the world in a way that better presents the hopes and aspirations of a billion people on this continent. We are building a global, film and entertainment company that showcases the best in African creativity and technical excellence.

Alistair Fairweather finishes his article by saying, “In some ways it is inevitable that we would lose a pioneer like Musk to the country that has specialised in welcoming them from around the globe for the last two centuries. But we should mourn that we could not offer someone like Musk more opportunities. And at the very least we should do more to celebrate him as one of our own.”

Triggerfish is already competing against the majors on the world stage. When I outline our plans to potential investors, I keep doubling our ambitions until I see the fear in their eyes. One day, we hope to meet an investor whose ambitions for us, puts fear in our eyes.

 Elon, if you want to change the way the world sees Africa, call me.

 Image Credit: ‘I dream’ The Imaginary Foundation


Where have all the good leaders gone?

Britain”s leadership deficit and the state of utter stagnation.

Despite being such a great influence on cultures the world over, Britain is, in some ways, a strange society to live in. It does have certain clear advantages over South Africa, notwithstanding the weather of course, but in terms of its stability, its fascinating vibrant history, its centrality and primacy on the world stage, the availability of just about everything; all owing to it being something of a global hub between Europe, America and its former colonies, there is much to praise.

That being said, most of the optimism about Britain relates to its past and it is difficult to find individual citizens who are genuinely optimistic about its future. The stagnation of its political culture has run parallel to an increased pessimism about its society and even a sense of resignation about the whole process.

What is curious about Britain, and perhaps apparent only to those who live here for any length of time, is that its national demeanour and political culture has come to resemble the aforementioned weather: grey, unchanging, moist and stagnant.  Of course, some sense of melancholy is perhaps inevitable after the loss of its empire followed by half a century of stable shrinking as a world power; one gets the sense from talking to a fairly broad cross-section of society that the greatest things have passed, the heroism of the Trafalgar, the Battle of Britain and D-day replaced by the dystopian squalor of reality television and celebrity gossip; the Britain of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror. A sense of guilt runs parallel to this, those who are not lamenting the loss of Britain’s past, are apologetic that it happened at all, the middle ground is hard to find. This social malaise has been a gradual process amplified in recent years by economic decline as has the loss of animus in the political system.

Despite their mutual acrimony, the three main political parties share some common ground in their inability to offer any kind of vibrant vision for Britain’s renewal. The Labour party have lost what was previously their main USP: their perceived moral high-ground. Tony Blair, a shrewd and skilled politician and a far cry from Labour’s previous naive idealists, took a leaf out of both the respective left-wing hard-line unionist and right-wing Thatcherite books in his fairly autocratic style of personality politics. There are aspects of Blair that I admire but, having run Britain like a mafia organisation for a decade and embroiled it in an unpopular and damaging foreign conflict it is hard for Labour to claim to be the voice of the common man any longer. They now tread a deft line between uncharismatic incompetence, thinly veiled corporatism and champagne socialist hypocrisy,  elegantly distilled in their gormless leader Ed Milliband; a man whose election as leader over his more charismatic brother was predicated on his endorsement by Britain’s racketeering unions and whose main political tactic is the repetition of the hypocritical mantra of “same old Tories!”

The Liberal Democrats, for a time, seemed to offer a middle way. Prior to the last election their popularity climbed, their leader was young and fresh-faced with a strong academic background and they were untarnished by the historical baggage of the other two. Indeed their own history as a breakaway party gave them increased credibility of a sort. However, the ominous signs were there in the run-up to the election for those who knew what to look for. The Lib Dems didn’t so much offer a fresh new vision so much as one that slalomed between the views of the other two. During the prime ministerial debate Nick Clegg commented that the more David Cameron and Gordon Brown bickered, the more alike they sounded, however, this did not bode well for him either as he was attempting to secure the apparently centrist gap between the two. The party has now been abandoned by swathes of former supporters on the left and right, their personality assimilated into the murk of coalition politics. To the right they are pliant and ineffectual, useful only insofar as they were able to make a Tory government more palatable to liberal voters in the form of the coalition. To the left, they are sell-outs to the right, pure and simple.

The Conservative party too, seem to have lost their identity. In their scramble for the centrist position they are led by an ungainly bunch of what Thatcher would have called ‘wets’, with the Tory old guard playing their part from the shadows. For many libertarian or conservative citizens, Britain’s last fifty years has been a repetitive cycle of Labour coming into power on the basis of popular but idealistic and impractical policies, leaving the Tories with the task of having to clean up their mess by implementing unpopular but necessary readjustments. After years of money-squandering from Labour and a turgid public sector bursting at the seams, fiscal Conservatism seemed like an attractive prospect for many disillusioned Brits but since they have come to power, they have stumbled from one humiliating catastrophe to the next. Even staunch Conservative voters who have never deviated from their core party even during Labour’s glory years of the late 90s, are now cradling their foreheads in embarrassment; the administration is doing itself no favours.

Enduring both crippling economic woes and an almost pubescent political identity crisis is certainly taking its toll on Britain’s morale and collective will. The weakness of both leadership and the opposition is serving to prolong the recession and, by extension, the loss of optimism; they are without a doubt, mutually reinforcing problems. Is this a new phase of terminal and permanent decline? The political scene is desolate but Britain is a an island nation with cold grey winters, battered by countless wars and invasions over the years, and thus imbued with a unique ability to limp on. What is needed for some sense of renewal in this country is more than cabinet reshuffles and bitter opposition. British political parties need to stop trying to have it both ways in the battle for the centre ground and to regain their sense of identity. Reinvention is inevitable and the party faithful of all three entities are nearing the end of their tether. It is essential that neither they nor the electorate recede into nihilism and resignation. But who knows how long this slump will continue?

Whereas  America thrives on patriotism and optimism, Britain gets by on irony and lugubrious self-deprecation. So until we find a way out of this economic and existential ditch, we will at least have the capacity to enjoy complaining about it