A week is said to be a long time in politics. But nothing quite prepares
you for the news blackout that is two weeks in the Cuban sunshine.
Granma, the Cuban government newssheet, emerges when paper supply permits,
usually with rivetting pieces on Bulgarian fish prices and the latest
American outrage. The UK general election did not rate a mention although
the latest ideologically sound exploits of Glasgow City Council featured
So with some anticipation, I opened my British “imperialistic comic” to
reconnect with Blighty on the BA flight from Havana to London to learn of
Mr Blair's latest landslide.
The position he now finds himself in arguably bears some similarities to
the early challenges of the legendary Fidel.
In a country where “marketing” translates literally from the Spanish as
“propaganda”, Snr Castro has proved himself the master of clarity of vision
and radical change. Like all radicals he enjoys a controversial image. The
countryside of Eastern Cuba is tidy and tropical with an active, educated
and remarkably patriotic population. In a nation where the average income
is £20 a month, they are well fed, optimistic and emanate a sense of
community. The poverty is palpable but every front door is ringed with
flags or stones spelling out messages of revolutionary patriotism and
defiance. By the way in the Baracoa, the air is also scented with the heavy
aroma of the Che Guevara chocolate factory – highly recommended.
The struggle has been bitter but Cubans are clear about the positives as
well as the negatives of Castro's absolutism. Investment in education and
healthcare has placed Cuba well ahead of its Caribbean neighbours.
Back with Mr Blair, the mandate for change is clear. How disappointing
therefore to read that the first of his financial services pronouncements
is to set up yet another review of regulation. This field is better tilled
than a Cuban banana plantation. What are we hoping to discover? An exotic
fruit or a lost Atlantis with its own perfect consumer protection?
Since 1987 when the regulatory regime was established – and long before –
a series of worthy and appropriately worried civil servants guided by the
good and the great, have been charged with poking, prodding and tweaking
the FSA framework and its harem of regulatory bodies.
Alongside this there has been additional – but not fresh – legislation
certainly in the pension arena every five years since World War II. None of
this has delivered the holy grail of “consumer confidence”.
None of the reviews or elaborate legislative cats cradles has removed any
of the previous accumulation of rules. The simple unifying propaganda of
Snr Castro is less intellectual but has delivered more fundamental change
in less propitious circumstances than those enjoyed by the democratically
elected Mr Blair.
For example, the early signs from stakeholder pensions, the disappointing
volumes, reinforce this need for fundamental change. Well-mannered
exhortation to defer consumption and save isn't working. Consumers are
mystified by the how as well as the why. The voluntary framework fails
timidly to address the legacy of the past and offers little hope of
creating a financially and socially robust savings climate. Snr Castro by
contrast has used his grasp of the state to drive his own imperatives via
compulsion and he has done this in a relatively simplistic, albeit painful
Mr Blair, perhaps, has something to learn from this – it is time to use
mandate to deal with decades of equivocation to simplify our regulatory
regime and articulate the choices starkly to consumers. History will
absolve you, Mr Blair.
John Cowan is group sales director of Scottish Amicable Financial Services.