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INSIDE EDGE by John Cowan

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

prominently.

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&#39s 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&#39s 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&#39t 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

way.

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.

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