Speaking of which…

Men of genius are admired, men of wealth are envied, men of power are feared; but only men of character are trusted.

Regular readers of this blog will know that my criteria for rating conference and after dinner speakers usually depends on their sporting prowess – particularly if they won a bit of bling for it – and, occasionally, their aesthetic qualities.

So getting all excited about Lord Digby Jones’ speech was a bit of a departure for me. His keynote speech to Fortis’s lightside conference was wide ranging and to the point, both at the same time.

I could have sat and listened to him all day and it’s not often I say that.

It had it all – politics, economics, sports (sort of), chocolate (yes, really) a call to arms to solve the upcoming skills shortages, predictions not only for the general election but also the Scottish referendum and the European elections, and an acknowledgment that those in the room are the most important people in the economy. Not something merchants or building material manufacturers hear very often.

But then I shouldn’t really expect anything else from a man who not only managed to turn the tables on Jeremy Paxman during his very first TV interview but whose idea of a good way to lose weight is to run the London Marathon. And get sponsorship from Cadbury’s for doing so. Respect!

His analysis of how the Scottish referendum might pan out and its implications for the long term success or otherwise of government both sides of Hadrian’s Wall was better than anything either the Yes or No camps have managed to produce yet.

Amongst the humour and the jibes about, well pretty much everyone in Government and the European Union (particularly the French for some reason), there was some good news and some possible bad news and some serious challenges ahead.

The good news, he said, is that the UK economy is recovering from the worst, deepest recession anyone can remember, far better and far quicker than anyone ever expected. “Mark Carney, the Governor of the bank of England thought we would get to 7% unemployment by 2016. We’ll do that in the next two months”.

Apparently, we are recovering from the recession better than the US is. They may have the bigger economy, but ours is healthier. Hurrah.

While things are undoubtedly better and we may be tempted to sit back and breathe a sigh of relief, there are dangers and we will ignore then at our peril. The huge number of people in Asia who have their sights set on the sort of middle class lifestyles that many of us take for granted. They may seem a long way away from us at the moment. But they include the Indian limo-driver who is sending money home from his job in Dubai to pay for the education of his children so that they are the ones being driven. Closer to home, Lord Jones shared the worrying fact that 48% of 16 year olds leave school having failed to achieve GCSE grade C.

He urged businesses to get out there into the community and go into schools and work with them, helping to prepare them for the world or work. That’s something a lot of merchants are already doing – Ridgeons and NMBS spring immediately to mind, but I know there are more. Without a throughput of skilled, educated youngsters coming into the workplace here, we will lose our advantages to those in other countries who do value education, who have got the drive to achieve and to improve their lot and that of their offspring.

The most important thing for this industry thought, Lord Jones kept for the end. “People do business with people they trust and like. You only have to see what happened to the reputations of those industries that forgot that – the banks and the energy companies – to see that”.

You don’t have to spend as many years in this industry as I have to know that that is exactly how merchanting has worked over the years. As I write this, I’m sitting in a bar, surrounded by merchants and manufacturers all determined to do business with people they like and trust. Nice. Let’s try and keep it like that.

About Fiona Russell-Horne

Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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