Saturday, 10 December 2011

Two Speed Europe

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David Cameron’s use of the veto in Brussels this week may be the beginning of the end of the UK’s full involvement in Europe. In truth we have been uncomfortable bedfellows with our European friends. Like a badly arranged marriage there has been a very uneasy relationship where we seemed to do nothing more than tolerate each other. While we appreciate each others arts and cultures, there is a void between the two beyond appreciation. We are an island race insular and cut off from intricacies of European life. The notion of Europe as an ideal super state with a single currency ruled by Germany and France from Brussels sits about as easy with the average Brit as rule from London by a UK led Super state would fit with them. Cameron, by using the veto, may be taking a risk by putting the UK outside the room while the important talks about the way forward with a European super state take place. The erosion of British sovereignty and British interests has been taking place since the UK joined Europe. From a British point of view it is hard to see what being part of this European community has given the average man on the street. This is the reason why there will not be a referendum on the issue of the UK staying part of the community. I personally don’t think this will ever happen, in fact there is more chance of the UK leaving by steps such as those taken by David Cameron this week.

The truth is though that the major political parties in the UK are not too concerned about the average family in the UK. They never have been. The Tories shut the mines, closed the steelworks and crushed the heart out of communities up and down the land. We are now reliant on importing huge amounts of coal and gas from our European friends. The Labour party ruled during what should have been an opportunity to grow a new Britain, prosperous and forward thinking, but instead chose to waste this huge potential and become a gluttonous and lazy government more intent on taking us into needless wars, bank deregulation and over spending in the public sector with no real improvement to public or community life. The Liberals are so keen on getting in power they would jump into bed with anyone just to taste it. At present, it is clear they will do anything to retain a seat at the right hand of power. 

The Conservative led coalition government have a mountain of debt left to clear brought about in part by the previous administrations lack of control on a banking sector it let free. Now the world is being controlled by banks and trading rooms don’t believe for a moment these dogs will be brought to heel or put back on the leash. Like it or loathe it the only way forward will be an uneasy alliance with the financial sector until the books are balanced. Greece has gone bust, Italy and Spain are on the brink, Ireland has severe austerity measure which include a VAT rate of 23%, France could teeter if Italy fails to pay its debt. Europe is a house of cards with many of the foundation cards removed or crumbling.

In the UK somehow we think we are detached from this. The English channel acting as a separator of the reach of European combustion. But we are not. However, if we leave Europe what will really happen. Will Europe cease trading with the UK overnight  or even over a period of time, months, years, decades. I think the answer is it won’t. Europe still wants trade. We import more European goods than we export. Even though UK exports are at an all time high to Europe. Would we stop taking European goods. Would Europe stop taking British built goods. The answer is of course not neither would make financial sense.

So what would we lose and what would we gain? There is a crude expression which says it’s time to shit or get off the pot. We do need a referendum because the ideal of Europe sold to us in the 70’s is far removed from this monolithic, lumbering and non-working folly of the 21st century. The Euro as a currency clearly is filled with flaws. Just one of these being many the countries who signed up for it not being in a financial position to actually qualify for it in the first place, because they lied about their financial strength in order to qualify. The truth is if the super state succeeds (which I doubt) Germany will rule the roost with France as their whipping boy and all the rest as their lackeys'. Will we ever have a government with the strength to return the question of the UK’s attachment to Europe to its people. Regardless of the outcome of that vote, were it to happen, I don’t think so. So what we will have will be a two speed Europe with the UK now in a position of lessened influence, regardless of the spin from Downing St. Though I know why Cameron used the veto. This is why European integration does not work for Great Britain. It really is time to shit or get off the pot.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

The Ghost of Christmas yet to come…


The ghosts of Christmas past, present and future are coming back to haunt retail outlets in our high street, or so it would seem. Three years ago I blogged about the depressing future facing retail, especially the world of book sales. The landscape today is not overly different from the clanging chimes of doom of three years ago. Some may say things have worsened but this is not overtly true. Things have shifted from the high street to online, though even here the furore of the arrival of eBooks has actually been slower to start than those who forecast the end of the paper book would admit.

What is clear though from a simple and unscientific test is that local bookstores are lacking constant footfall. The general consensus is that business is happening in waves rather than continually throughout the trading day. While stores rush to get in bed with eReaders as shown by WHSmith’s smart move to align with Kobo, some of these flirtations have been nothing more than a quick fumble in the back seat of a car. It is interesting to see that many Waterstones branches have ditched their eReader corners in their stores. Not a permanent dismissal of the technology since James Daunt’s arrival, but a move to pave the way for their own eReading device which surely must be on the way soon. The investment required to build from the ground up is huge as Amazon will testify. The question is though, even if Waterstones do announce a dedicated eReader, how is the supporting mechanisms going to enhance shopping in the store? What is Waterstones going to do to align the in-store shopping experience with this technology? Waterstones has experimented with a number of eReading devices from Sony to Eleonex and failed. Unless this question is answered they will be throwing good money after bad.

There are some simple, low cost things stores like WHS and Waterstones could be doing to make purchasing eBooks in-store a seamless reality. The fact is unless these stores educate consumers to purchase eBooks from the stores they bought their eReaders in; they are doomed to long term failure. Brand loyalty can only stretch so far.

WHS move with Kobo is smart as there is a dedicated store linked to the purchase of the eReader much like there is with the Kindle and Amazon, but this does little to increase in-store book sales. One may argue that these will erode and diminish over time, so is it a retrograde step or are there plans afoot to address store and brand loyalty with eBook and eReader purchases.

In this heated rush to get caught up with the excitement of ‘new’ technology are we also losing focus on the fact that traditional paper books still make great gifts, paper books provide hours of entertainment and are incredibly cheap (on the whole) when looked at the entertainment value they bring. eBooks offer the same value and often at a reduced price from their paper compadres but spectacularly fail as a gift. Again this is something books stores could capitalise on and easily redress.

In 2012 our high streets will face the toughest year ever and more empty retail outlets will occupy what was once prime space. The publishing industry and retail really does need to get to grips with the arrival of electronic books and find ways to integrate them into our retail space and not just our virtual retail space. For bookstores to remain on our high street there needs to be (as uncomfortable as it may be for some stores) a marriage of old and new book formats. If there isn’t it may take more than Kobo and James daunt to save what few book stores remain trading?