My colleagues in the office know that “I don’t do lunch”. I have a quick snack and keep going. Yes I know it’s bad for you, but it keeps me thin and allows me to focus on my working day without interruption.
I made an exception for the excellent lunch held at that Grande Dame of quintessentially English hotels, The Queens Hotel in Leeds, last Friday. I’m glad I did, as it offered great speakers and company – yielding a fascinating conversation about maintaining strong principles regardless of the impact they could have on your professional life.
It was the annual Yorkshire Variety Club lunch, and it was the last event our friend Bobbie Caplin OBE will help to arrange. He has volunteered his services to the Variety Club of Great Britain for 50 years, helped raise millions of pounds for disadvantaged children in Yorkshire ( for which he was awarded his OBE), and at the age of 78 is finally stepping down. He asked us as his guests to the farewell lunch, along with his friends BBC Leeds presenter Liz Green, who as always was chippy and full of humour, former Next chairman Sir David Jones and his wife, Leeds North East MP Fabian Hamilton and a brilliant surgeon– who I won’t name as I quote them later in this post.
It definitely lived up to expectations and was a great lunch. Bobbie was on form, seated at the top table, and our party had a fun time swapping stories. Fabian has just returned from the UN in New York where he represented Parliament, and listening to him speak of that great city reminded me I must return. I haven’t been since my knee operation, as the thought of walking instead of running Central Park seemed anathema. But I’m up for a challenge, so why not make walking Central Park (and liking it!) one of my New Year’s resolutions?
The lunch’s first speaker was Sir Sherard Cowper Coles, a career diplomat who has formerly held the positions of British Ambassador to Israel, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. His last job saw him act as the Foreign Secretary’s Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, a role he was given extended leave from after suggesting that coalition forces should conduct talks with the Taliban. He is such a well-known figure that he was given the fictional accolade of helping Mark Darcy free Bridget from a Thai prison in Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason.
The newly ennobled Lord Dannatt, former head of the Army, was the second speaker. He received considerable criticism when calling for better equipment for British troops when in post, and for taking the role of defence advisor to the Conservative party last year after he left the forces. The then Prime Minister Gordon Brown refused him a life peerage last year and scuppered his ambitions to take on a ministerial role within the Government.
If you glance over the biographies of both Sir Cowper Bowles and Lord Dannatt you will note that they have achieved positions of the highest authority, stood up for what they believed in and spoken out bravely and controversially. As a result they seem to have paid the price for being outspoken.
So I asked this question of the surgeon at our table: “Is there an “establishment” of the most powerful, yet anonymous, people in this country? All men in grey suits, who club together, closing ranks against anyone who dares to cross them?”
“There certainly is and you can’t beat the establishment”, said the surgeon dryly.
“Tell me about it”, I replied. And anonymising the main details, I mentioned a case we had taken over from an impeccably well-connected firm of solicitors a few years ago.
On that firm’s written undertaking to pay our fees and send us the files, we went ahead with the case. After a few weeks we discovered from some of the files that there was a serious fraud taking place. We had no choice but to immediately withdraw from the case following professional advice from our governing body. We also had no choice but to immediately report what we had found to the authorities, or commit a criminal offence in not doing so.
Nothing further happened, it all got quietly ignored. However the firm involved refused to honour their undertaking to pay us. Why was that? Because we didn’t ignore the fraud and pretend it wasn’t happening? Or that we shouldn’t have reported it, and then would have been equally guilty of the offence of not doing so? We were left with the choice of sustaining a large debt or suing them. We sued them for breaching their undertaking, and after a bit of bluster, they paid.
“Bang goes your OBE” interrupted the surgeon.
“You cannot be serious” I laughed with a mock American “John McEnroe” voice.
“Oh I am”, he said. “You sued them, embarrassed them. They will want payback and they will get it from their friends in high places.”
“That only happens in John Grisham novels”, I replied laughing.
Overall, I prefer to think that is the case and that deals aren’t made over a quiet drink in a private member’s club. But can I, or anyone else, ever be sure?
So what type of person are you? Someone who holds their head up high, and says and does what they think is right? Or someone who is more concerned with the wider impact of their thoughts and actions, and who measures everything they say or do in case it affects their future prospects and standing?
I’m proud to write this blog. I know I have thousands of readers in very different parts of the world, including Iran, China, all over the Middle East. Sometimes I wonder why on earth they read it, but I still keep writing and remain true to who I am.
I would like to say thanks to you Bobbie. I’m sure all of Yorkshire joins me in thanking you for all your worthy efforts and hopes you enjoy your very well earned retirement. You for sure, can hold your head up high.