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the Noble Interviews / "Lords" Browne and Howell
Two Lords a Leaping
We meet at a motorway service area, in a chain cafe with its elegant fittings and European themed atmosphere. The handsome, smart-suited men striding purposefully across the well trodden floors, for some reason occasionally looking surreptitiously over their shoulders, are the subjects of my interview today. They shake my hand firmly and sit down opposite me, without first going to the counter to be served. There is an air of quiet certainty, confidence, and authority about them.
DM: Hello my lords.. May I call you Browne and Howell?
Both: Of course, of course, whatever works..
DM: You don't want coffee?
There is a moment's hesitation as they look awkwardly at each other.
LB: Actually, we rather assumed you would be buying.
DM: Ah, of course, how silly of me. Wealthy people don't buy rounds do they?
Both: (chuckling) No, no, of course not.
There is a pause as I go up and queue for a couple of takeaway lattes.
Both: Ta. Thanks.
DM: (resuming my seat) Browne you are the former boss of BP who got out of the hot seat in time to take up a chairmanship at Cuadrilla, the shale gas explorer. How's that going?
LB: Well, to be honest, lately we've been taking a lot of flack for the fracking (titters briefly) and it's not pleasant to be tarred with the same brush as, er, the rest of the main stream energy industry. We are after all experimenting and our ultimate objective is not to serve ourselves but to serve, selflessly, our shareholders (who pay our bonuses) and to keep the lights of the world switched on.
DM: You also hold a "senior advisory role" with the current government?
LB: I can see where you're going with that one but, no, there is absolutely no conflict of interest. I have corporate experience and expertise which the government wants - and I give it to them. It's as simple as that.
DM: Howell you too hold one of these roles?
LH: Yes I do, but as the good Lord has pointed out, it is simply a matter of making one's accumulated wisdom available to the government of the day.
DM: In fact, you are also Chancellor George Osborne's father in law?
LH: Yes yes, but really (sounding vaguely exasperated) what has that got to do with developing policy in a democratic government. All of us, at this level, have gone to the same schools, worked for the same law practices and banks, joined the same exclusive clubs, but that's because we're chums and good mates. You wouldn't expect us to abandon our friends simply because we have acquired high office would you?
DM: No no of course not. I am entirely in sympathy with your predicament. I am simply pointing out what a reasonably informed, literate, and objective observer (granted there are not a lot of these left in this country) might be led to conclude by scurrilous elements of the social networks.
LB: Well the social networks are meaningless of course. The only valid news is covered in respectable national newspapers and television stations. We know this because we and our chums own and control these institutions and impregnate them with our standards and respectability.
DM: Apparently there are some 60 (unelected) "non-executives" like yourselves sitting in various departments throughout WhiteHall and that you Brownie are the overall lead for this group. In fact, you have a desk at the Cabinet Office do you not?
LB: Yes that's true. We represent the cream of the nation's corporate talent and our expertise is assisting these departments to conduct themselves in a more "business like" manner. The importance of this mission is underlined by the size and location of my desk.
DM: Howell, last month your son-in-law announced "tax and planning changes which will put Britain at the forefront of exploiting shale gas". I'm guessing this is in large part down to your own diligent lobbying, but have you no concerns for the water table?
LH: First of all, I do not "lobby". I simply present my expert views when called upon - be it at dinner parties or on the loo as George happens to be passing. Secondly, drinking water won't be affected because, as everyone knows, drinking water is in bottles.
DM: Elsie Walker, from the campaigning group "Frack Off", has been quoted as saying, "It doesn't take a genius or a cynic to realise that those who stand to make a serious amount of money from the success of a particular industry should be nowhere near those who will be making decisions that will influence the future health of that industry."
LB: Nonsense. If I may quote our own Cabinet Office spokesperson, "All non-exec directors declare their interests to their departments to ensure that there is no conflict of interest." I rest my case.
DM: It's been a pleasure Lords.
LH: Likewise I'm sure.
LB: Any chance of another coffee?
© 2013 Deacon Martin