Today, journo-turned-Tory-press-guy-and-future-mid-range-PR-bloke Eddie Barnes tweeted an unintentionally hilarious form of words from aparently-still-billionaire Sir Tom Hunter. I guess Eddie thought they sounded wise:
“To conclude, a story perhaps apocryphal, is told of a car industry chief taking a union leader around his factory and noting that his robotic assembly machines didn’t strike. The union man replied: ‘yes, but how many cars do they buy?’ Scotland faces challenges, robotics being gone of them, so I ask: ‘Is independence our biggest priority?’ I’ll leave that one with you.
WHAT? That first sentence is indeed an ancient saw with no teeth left once designed to remind us that workers are consumers too. It cautions us against blindly introducing new systems which ignore the wider social and economic importance of people having jobs. But the second sentence, apparently Hunter’s own contribution, instead of bringing that tale to bear in a Scottish context in fact fails to mention any particular industry or indeed anything which could link the first part of his statement to the second. And in using ‘challenge’, Sir Tom doesn’t let us know if he thinks that ‘challenge Scotland faces’ is good or bad.
Is he saying Scotland’s going to be good with robotics so workers had better watch out for their jobs? If so, that’s the OPPOSITE theme from the cautionary tale. Or is he saying that Scots should be wary of giving humans’ jobs to robots and because that’s a trend across the world we should stop mucking about with constitutional change and get on with stopping those pesky machines? It’s impossible to tell.
But his failure to say where he stands on robots selling training shoes, or provide any examples from Scottish industry which may have informed his opinion, is just a warm-up run-in to the last bit.
“So” (‘so’ what? He hasn’t made any coherent argument which can possibly lead on to a conclusion yet): “I ask; is independence our biggest priority? I’ll leave that one with you?”
Frankly, I’d have preferred he hadn’t. It’s like he’s just said: “Hey, Dave Wottle started slow but finished superfast – it’s not always the early fast-movers who win”. Er, no doubt very wise and true, if a bit hackneyed. But then he’s moved on to his own sparking analysis; “and some Scots athletes wear carbon spikes so as long as that’s all going on any change to our constitutional structure would be a distraction from something or other “.
If you like, you can do a reducto ad absurdum on Barnes’ bonkers Hunter quote. You’ll find that, to the logician, Hunter’s statement is ‘not valid’. That is to say, if you will, that it’s neither true nor untrue because it doesn’t make sense.
But if, like me, your days of turning sentences into mathematical formulae to see if they cohere are long past, you might like to consider another line of thought.
Sir Tom’s made a lot of money and does some good things with it. But when a billionaire says stuff about stuff you can be sure it’s good for billionaires. And even when it’s clear they’re not speaking for personal gain, as to be fair Sir Tom often isn’t, let’s not forget both that billionaires get paid to give money away and that there is literally no reason to believe that they, more than anyone else, know how to turn their personal experience into decent public policy.
A few years ago, a group of billionaires including Sir Tom met up in London with the idea of creating a big foundation led by them which would be funded by DfID and would run projects which would help the least well-off in the world. Someone added up their figures and pointed out that their foundation would take up DfID’s entire budget. In other words, the philanthropists were proposing the wholesale privatisation of a government department. Given that most of the billions spent by DfID go on contracts with private companies, handing the whole taxpayer-funded shebang over to a bunch of billionaires who owned, er, private companies, somehow didn’t seem so cool.
In the US, education policy is literally driven by billionaire businessmen like Bill Gates. They get rich by winning public contracts which they influence the awarding of through being philanthropist Bill Gates. Then they minimise their own tax bills and spend some of that extra income on their own philanthropic hobby-horse. Indeed, international development expenditure across the world is wholly dominated by such billionaires.
So let’s be a wee bit canny when billionaires tell us what’s good for us on the constitutional front; especially when the Tories flag them up as words from the wise.
And let’s expect even of the billionaires we think might have decent intent, that while they’re enjoying fashioning those pearls of wisdom into necklaces for us all, they at least try to think their words through first. Let’s put behind us the days when we lionised the opinions of the rich just on account of their richness.