Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Month: February, 2018

Time for Prince Charles to take a giant leap

Last week, a supposedly eminent group of people allegedly met to discuss who should succeed the Queen. No, this is not sacrilegious and they have not been locked up in the Tower of London. We are talking about the Commonwealth.

For readers under sixty, I should explain that the Commonwealth is a group of 53 nations and 2.4 billion people covering nearly one quarter of the world’s land mass. The only common thread is that they nearly all are or have  been  ruled by the Queen.

When I first went to school we spent the morning of  March 12th making  Union Jacks and studying a map of the world largely coloured in red. We then had a half day holiday to wave the Union Jacks and celebrate Commonwealth Day. It was previously known as Empire Day.

When we first applied to join what was then the Common Market in the 1960s, one of the main concerns was that we would upset the sheep farmers in New Zealand as trade with our Commonwealth partners far exceeded that with le continent. Nowadays the Commonwealth is best known for The Games in which entry is restricted to members of the Commonwealth and so the United Kingdom does rather well.

Members of the Commonwealth mostly speak English, play cricket and may drive on the left ( but check before leaving). I like to think that it is a force for good in increasing international understanding but, truth to tell, it has never had much success in persuading recalcitrant members to respect its shared values of democracy and human rights. A public opinion poll a few years ago found  widespread ignorance of the Commonwealth. The lowest levels of support was  in the United Kingdom itself so an incoming monarch might be only too pleased to be relieved of the role of ceremonial head.

The manner of appointment of the  Secretary General  is well defined and has rotated between member nations but there is no automatic right of a future King Charles III to succeed his mother when she finally lays down her chains of office. The Queen has pressed her son’s case but leaked memos suggest that he doesn’t command the same respect and is seen as too divisive a figure.

If I were Prince Charles, I would quietly let it be known that I would step aside in favour of an really eminent figure from another Commonwealth nation. There are five other monarchs and 31 Presidents available as well such respected leaders like Kofi Anan or  Barack Obama, who qualifies by dint of his Kenyan ancestry. Leadership does not always come from the front and if the Commonwealth is to  outgrow its old Imperial shackles, how much better for Britain to accept being  one among equals and rotating the ceremonial role with others.

If the Prince of Wales made this small step, then I hope he would consider a giant leap too. It would be in the public interest if the crown passed to his son, Prince William, when the Queen dies. This would be really tough on Charles as he has spent his entire life as heir apparent but the trouble is that monarchs live so long these days.

In his brilliant Brief History of Humankind, Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari recounts the reign of King Edward I and Queen Eleanor in the thirteenth century. Their children would have enjoyed the best conditions and most nurturing surroundings that could be provided in medieval Europe.  Even so, of their 16 children, ten died in childhood and only three lived beyond the age of forty. The sixteenth child, Edward, survived to ascend the throne but his wife, Isabella of France, had him murdered when he was forty three.

Not so today. The Windsors also live in the lap of luxury and appear to have a strong physical constitution  so there is every prospect that future Queens and Kings will live as long as the late Queen Mother. Indeed, Harari says, it is only a matter of time before medical science conquers disease. Then only car crashes, terrorist attacks and  regicide will take us away. He actually thinks that enhanced super humans and artificial intelligence will have taken over anyway but thats another story.

If I were the Thomas Jefferson of my day, with a clean sheet of paper to draw up a constitution, I would not devise a system based on genealogical descent and divine right to rule until death. Deposition post revolution is still a way off and so I believe we at least need a rule of succession for the twenty first century.

Imagine the scenario. The Queen may live another ten years and by the time he succeeds, Charles will be  80. He rules for 30 years by which time William will be 75 and so on. I may be ageist on this point. The prime of life may get ever later and people who now draw their pensions may still in be in positions of power.

But I think it is time for Prince Charles to fall on his sword. Pass on the crown, Sir, to the next generation so that we model  leadership through a relatively young and  hopefully happy and thriving family. Limit the period of office to 25 years. The marketing department at Buckingham Palace would be delighted and you could carry on talking to plants and  being controversial, which is what you do best.

Published in Newcastle Journal  20th Feb 2018



Farewell Ingvar, were you the William Morris of the day?

Farewell, Ingvar Kamprad, founder of Ikea  who died last week aged 91. Was he indeed  taken away in a flat pack coffin?

I was reading Fiona MacCarthy’s  life of William Morris at the time he died  which was the heaviest tome in my Christmas stocking.  The two events were not connected but both men, in different centuries, changed the way we live.

In Kamprad’s case, it started, as so often, with a stroke of genius. He adapted his uncle’s kitchen table into what become the trademark  MAX  table. Morris designed a simple but elegant  dining chair with a rafia seat, the Sussex chair, which sold and sold. Likewise,  Dyson invented the bagless vacuum cleaner and Wylie the accountancy software package. The rest is history or rather marketing.

Today, Ikea is the largest furniture manufacturer in the world. 10% of Europeans are reckoned to have been conceived on an Ikea bed. The brand with strange Swedish names is popular everywhere. Three people tragically died  in the rush when Ikea opened in Saudi Arabia.

An HND is self-assembly has eluded me.  I am always convinced there is a bolt missing and get to the point of returning it all to the store. But I have learnt  to persevere until the chair, table, bed, chest of drawers comes together.   Assembling the furniture induces a sense of  pride and ownership which is known as the Ikea effect.

When Kamprad’s flagship store burned down in 1971,  he rebuild it as a self service operation, which encourages the shopper to throw more items into the trolley on the long and well defined route around the store  with the obligatory stop for a plate of meatballs .

I have been a regular visitor to the  Gateshead  store since it opened in 1992 – only the second  to be built in this country.  I enter an exciting new world of contemporary design, with clean uncluttered lines at remarkably low prices. It is a colourful, and complete life experience.  There was recently a craze to hide in an IKEA store at closing time and spend the night there.

The store is decked out in the bright yellow of the Swedish flag. Scandinavians jump into icy water straight out of their saunas and have an enviable  uninhibited  lifestyle. They are, dare I say it in these troubled times, European and I want to buy into it.

William Morris had a similar effect on domestic lifestyle in the late nineteenth century. He and his friends, the self styled  Fellowship, started by designing bespoke and beautiful furniture for lords and ladies of the land.  Swaths of oppressive  Victorian furniture were swept aside. As Morris said in one his public speeches “ I have never been in any rich man’s houses which would not have looked the better for having a bonfire made outside of it of none tenths of all it held”.

The fashion for simple craftsmanship caught on among the professional middle classes setting  up house in the London suburbs and spread throughout the world. It embodied an ideal of the rustic and creative workman from whom  flat pack builder is directly descended.

Then  Morris moved on to designing textiles and wall papers  that are still in production today. They grace  my living room right now. Why have Morris’s free flowing designs of flowers and birds proved so enduring? They are quintessentially an innocent English rural idyll  summoning memories deep in our psyche, as Morris’s  daughter put it. I relax when I see a  Morris design in a friends house. I know we are kindred spirits and share the same outlook on life.

Morris was the antidote to the industrial revolution  and a hugely underrated figure. His bearded head  deserves to  be on the £20  note. In his life time, Morris was best known as a poet but he was also a founding father of the  peculiar English variation of socialism. In 1887, he was supporting of striking miners in Northumberland. Morris marched from Blyth to Horton where his speech was “inflammatory without being irresponsible” according to the Newcastle Chronicle. He was dismayed by the dismal living conditions in the North East.

By contrast, Kamprad had right wing affiliations and was accused of being sympathetic to the Nazi party. He later apologised for the mistakes of his youth but maintained his political friendships. Maybe furniture making is really a political act?

Both Morris and Kamprad were contradictory characters. Morris regularly had to answer questions about his own wealth on the soap box. He paid his workers well but never shared his profits or set up the kind of collective enterprise that he espoused. He too was a shrewd businessman who knew how to sell his wares.

Kamprad  made his fortune by undercutting his rivals. He was the 8th richest person in the world but squirrelled his money away and lived as a tax exile. He travelled economy,  bought second hand clothes and took home the salt and pepper from restaurants.  He saw himself as the father figure of the Ikea family and ran the company for 70 years.

Great wealth cannot be easy to live to live with and geniuses can become  deluded over time  but  both   William Morris and Ingvar Kamprad have bought a lot of joy to my home. As Morris once  said “the true secret of happiness lies in taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life”.


published in Newcastle Journal Tuesday 6th February 2018