Archive for the 'Guest slot' Category


Symbols for our time

Tuesday, November 28th, 2017

In an age of hashtags, social media campaigns, lit candles and all the rest of it, it is easy to sneer. Such narcissism. Gesture politics is castigated as the last word in pointless posturing, mainly designed to make the politician – rather than the persons at whom it is aimed – feel good. “Action this day. Not words or images” – as Churchill did not say.

But symbols and gestures do matter. Done right – an image, a simple action, wordless – they can sum up a cause, express anger, help heal a wound or set an example. They often bring a touch of the sacred to pedestrian concerns. They can inspire action. They can make us pause and reflect and remember. They often transcend boundaries. Symbolic gestures – and the rituals which often accompany them – form part of the rhythm of our story, whether personal or collective. So here is my list of some of the most important – and beneficial – symbolic gestures of recent times – and two which should have happened – and why they matter.

1. The Queen bowing after laying a wreath at the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin in 2011 and then opening her speech in Dublin Castle with Gaelic. A minute’s silence and a few words helped bring a full stop to a long, troubled relationship in a way which had been unimaginable for so long. And it was precisely because of who did it that it mattered. There are many others which could have been chosen: Martin McGuinness and HMQ shaking hands and smiling, Cameron apologising unreservedly for Bloody Sunday. But royalty’s enduring appeal and power is fundamentally based on the way it can both express and transcend the work done by here today/gone tomorrow politicians. For those who care about Anglo-Irish relations, it was a genuinely moving moment.

2. Mandela attending the rugby World Cup final in 1995 and shaking hands with the Afrikaner captain. Nothing better exemplified what Mandela said about wanting to unite the country. Nor his emotional intelligence in reaching out to something that mattered to South African whites – sport – and which had long been used by apartheid’s opponents to exemplify that community’s isolation.

3. Pope John Paul II praying at the Wailing Wall in 2000. The Catholic Church had earlier formally apologised for its attitude to Jews. But the sight of the frail Pontiff praying – and seeking forgiveness – at one of Judaism’s holiest shrines made explicit and human what had been previously set out in archaic and ornate language few ordinary people would read.

4. Playing the American national anthem at the Changing of the Guard after 9/11. A small thing but to Americans in London at the time it felt like someone reaching out to hug them. Look at Bill Clinton’s response to a British journalist at the time to see what it meant.

5. Vietnam veterans protesting in Washington by throwing their medals over the barriers designed to keep them out. When those who had fought and won medals threw away what had been so hard won, so hard fought for, it brought home like nothing else how toxic that war was to the US’s very best idea of itself.

6. The decision by Emmett Till’s mother in 1955 to have an open casket showed America the reality of racism: the beaten and bloodied body of a 14-year-old, unrecognisable as the child he was. There was a faint echo of the “Am I not a man and brother?” coins of the anti-slavery campaign two centuries earlier. This – a man in chains, a child pulped – is what your ideology means.

7. Mitterand and Kohl holding hands at Verdun in 1984. Nothing better symbolised the hopes of a Continent for no more war.

8. Willy Brandt falling to his knees at the gates of Auschwitz in 1970. He expressed the shame and sorrow of a nation both as his nation’s representative and as a German who could justifiably claim to have been a good German during the war.

9. Mrs Thatcher turning up, impeccably dressed, not a hair out of place, walking to the podium at the Tory Party Conference in 1984, barely hours since the assassination attempt on her and while others were still being rescued. Before even saying a word, her mere presence – defiant, angry, determined – symbolised democracy’s resistance of those who would use violence to impose their will.

10. “Liberté Egalité Fraternité” emblazoned at Wembley Stadium 3 days after the Bataclan terror attacks in 2015. Sport again. Using the emblem of the attacked nation. And a reminder that the French are, au fond, family. The image of the statue of Marianne draped in the French tricolore at the end of the march after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015 could also have been used. But that was a nation speaking to itself. This was one nation reaching out to another.

And the two which should have happened.

• After the furore caused by the Danish cartoons, they should have been published in full by every outlet in the free world. Free speech needed its “I am Spartacus” action. Saying that you believe in freedom of thought and speech is no good if you fear exercising it. Understandable why no one newspaper did so. But this was a time when solidarity and collective action really was needed. Instead we got demos and apologies in 2005 and murders and outrage in 2015.
• Aung San Suu Kyi’s recent speech about what has been done to the Rohingya was a missed opportunity to speak out with moral clarity about the evil done to the innocent. It was a speech by a politician. Not the speech of a leader who knew what it was to suffer human rights abuses.

Plenty I’ve left out. Over to you.



Compounding the problem

Monday, September 18th, 2017

Picture credit : Wikimedia commons

It is said to have been Albert Einstein who called compound interest “the eighth wonder of the world”, and at this time of the year when some 400,000 fresh faced students are about to set off to university for the first time, they and their parents would be well advised to study what he meant.

Thanks to the application of compound interest to their student loans, this year’s new students will be faced with truly awesome debts, of a size which few of them have troubled to contemplate.

With maximum fees of £9250 per annum being applied by many universities, and a living allowance of £4193, on graduating after three years, including interest will already owe £45452. Those on four year courses (such an engineering and modern languages), and those studying in London will owe more.

If they are then lucky enough to get a job earning £31,000 per annum (more than the typical starting salary) repayments of £900 will be made in the first year, but interest of £2772 will have been charged and their debt will have grown by a further £1872. A real high flier with a salary of £41,000 will repay £1800 per annum (or £54,000 over the next thirty years) without having made any dent in their debt.

In fact you will have to be earning £51,800 per annum just to be covering the interest each year and stopping the debt getting even larger, and at that income, your total repayments (in other words what you will have paid to go to university) will be £83,160.

At the other end of the scale, those whose income never exceeds the repayment threshold of £21,000 per annum will accumulate debts of £279,455 over the thirty year course of the loan, and quite who will then be responsible for this debt is unclear, although one way or another it will eventually fall on the taxpayer.

Of course those who after graduating engage in further study, perhaps a masters degree and then a PhD may emerge from education with much larger debts, typically around £100,000. Suppose someone then pursues a career in academic science, where starting salaries for junior researchers are often quite low, even for those with higher degrees; if their salary remained under the £21,000 repayment threshold for ten years, they would owe £279,000. If they then obtained a really high flying job, the repayments might be large, but so would the interest accumulating each year.

Take an imaginary example of someone in that situation being appointed Vice Chancellor of Reading University on a salary of £261,000 per annum. They would repay £21,000 per annum, but the interest charges would be £17,000, so that their debt would diminish by a mere £4,000. It would be touch and go as to whether even at that salary they would ever repay their full debt, even though they would have repaid some £420,000 .

All of this assumes, that inflation (to which the interest rates are linked) remains at 3.1%. Some of us are old enough to remember interest rates of 10%, but thanks to the impact of compound interest, even a modest rise in inflation will make all of the above figures even more frightening.

In the meantime, I can only suggest to prospective students and their parents that they start refreshing their memory as to how Einstein’s eighth wonder of world is calculated.

Dr Barry Monk

The author is a consultant dermatologist who went to university at a time when all fees and living costs were paid for you.


Lucian Fletcher on the latest Northern Ireland assembly poll

Thursday, February 2nd, 2017

Arlene Foster’s personal ratings fall through the floor, but the DUP will bank on fear of a Sinn Fein First Minister to keep their position as lead party in Northern Ireland Assembly

The first LucidTalk opinion poll ahead of the 2017 Northern Ireland Assembly election has been published and one of the most obvious headlines is just how few people are planning on switching their first preference votes, despite the calamitous collapse of the Stormont Executive.

The DUP is down to 26%, just three points lower than they received in 2016. Sinn Fein is at 25%, up one.

This poll will be immediately pounced upon by the DUP and will adorn leaflets all over Northern Ireland as they seek to hammer home their message: “Vote DUP or the Shinners get First Minister”.

In fact, leaving aside the joint nature of the OFMDFM, the current boundaries make it highly unlikely that Sinn Fein will get more seats than the DUP unless they are well ahead in vote share.

The main Opposition parties UUP, SDLP and Alliance are all seeing a small uptick in their poll positions but not to anything like the extent that they would have hoped for, given the reasons for this election.

The leadership approval ratings are interesting. Arlene Foster, former First Minister, is at 22%. The most popular leader is Alliance chief Naomi Long, at 52%. All other party leaders enjoy ratings in the 40s. That the DUP remain as the lead party suggests that the St Andrews amendment over the nomination of First Minister is acting as a firewall for DUP support.

Respected unionist political commentator Alex Kane has also suggested that this race for the First Minister being so ‘close’ on this poll could shift some voters to both the DUP and Sinn Fein. There are more polls to come before the election, which could give some indication as to how far this descends to the usual orange/green headcount.

There is more analysis to be done in terms of transfers. Indications are being hinted at by LucidTalk that there is evidence that some people are more willing to vote tactically against the Executive, rather than along community lines. If the Greens and Alliance rack up decent totals in their weaker areas, so all their transfers are at full value, this could help UUP and SDLP. That final seat in most constituencies might end up being swung for one of the smaller parties. But without a move away from the DUP to UUP to a much greater extent than this poll suggests, the damage done to the DUP will be little more than a flesh wound.

I would suggest that the UUP and SDLP will be quietly devastated by this poll. The mud is being flung at the Executive, the DUP in particular, and is sticking, but most voters are so tribal that they just don’t care. The over-riding feeling is to beat the other side. Corruption is not seen as being quite so bad, as long it’s on ‘our side’.

One staunch unionist told me last week that the money thrown at ‘community halls’ by the DUP’s Paul Givan was well-deserved because ‘the Shinners gave loads to the GAA before’. This mindset is really difficult to grasp from Great Britain. We find it shocking. But this cynical self-interest or ‘cute hoorism’ is something that people in Ireland (both in NI and the Republic) really understand.

So what are my thoughts on the politics from this poll?

I think the DUP would end up somewhere around the 30 (key Petition of Concern number) mark, SF a few back, UUP and SDLP both losing seats with the SDLP worst off. Alliance will probably hold on to their 8 and others will lap up a few.

As I say, it might all look a little better for the SDLP and UUP once transfers are taken into account, but I wouldn’t be holding my breath.Both the UUP and SDLP have internal discontent issues. An election in these circumstances which produces nothing tangible for them could be disastrous.

Lucian Fletcher

Lucian Fletcher is a long standing contributor to PB who lives in Northern Ireland.


The EU referendum: An attempt to analyse the in-play betting

Monday, June 27th, 2016


Michael Dent the creator of, a site which tracks and graphs betting prices on political events, looks at the EU Referendum in-play betting

At 11:36pm on June 23rd, just before the first result was declared, the market was just short of 90% confident of a Remain vote. So much for markets knowing best – the market was wrong, and staggeringly confident in its wrongness.

So how did we get from there to settling the market for Leave? What follows is an attempt to analyse five hours of in-play betting. Of course, it is highly speculative, and it’s easy to create a narrative with perfect hindsight, so comments are welcome!


When early results indicate a possible surprise event, the market is stubbornly slow to adjust. We saw it in the general election last year, when even after the shock exit poll it was possible to get excellent odds on a Conservative majority. And we saw it again here.

As results rolled in, suggesting that at the very least it was much closer than previously assumed, you could almost hear the excuses – that these must be freak results, that they did not represent a trend. But a trend of Leave over-performance against the parity model was indeed emerging, particularly by Swindon’s declaration. As a result, there was value to be had on the Leave price.

I think a bold gambler starting the night with a neutral position would have built a position on Leave here. Bets placed during this phase could have yielded a 200-500% profit.

Animal spirits

At 1:56am, a period of almost an hour of relative stability in the betting market turned to severe volatility for the next 90 minutes. The market moved fast and sharply. Within 45 minutes we had an astonishing three distinct crossover events.

During this period, I believe individual results moved the market far more than they should have done, magnified by animal spirits and confusion as gamblers were hypersensitive to any result that appeared likely to change the narrative.

Our smart gambler would have compared each result to her parity model at this point, and realising that the individual results did not signpost a significant change, would have stuck to her hypothesis, aiming to top up her position at the best prices. A more risk-averse gambler might well sit this period of volatility out and just watch the data, and no-one would blame him!


From 3:20am, the market began to accept a Leave outcome.

Our smart gambler had made her money by now and would have eased up on the betting. A risk-loving gambler (or one desperate to cover a loss) can still make some money here – even when the outcome looked pretty clear, profits of up to 30% were still available.

But the risk-reward pay-off was weakening fast at this point, and by the time available profits fell below 10%, any sensible gambler should have been of Leave, and perhaps building a small hedge position on Remain at >10 odds, to protect against a last minute black swan event (when the graph looks like this, anything might happen!)

A word on volumes

I was astonished by the in-play volumes. As PB reported, by 6am on polling day the EU referendum had become the first market on Betfair to surpass £50m in cumulative bets. But by the time the broadcasters called the result for Leave, the total matched on Betfair had more than doubled £113m.

So despite a four month campaign, 55% of all betting was matched in the final 24 hours. On three occasions during the in-play period covered here over £800,000 was matched in a two minute period. Most two minute periods saw at least £200,000 matched. Truly the biggest political betting event ever.


In the chaos of in-play betting on an event like this, a calm head allows a smart gambler to make money. Or to keep their shirt – for me personally, I started the night with a significant position on Remain at 1.55 average odds. By the end of the night, I was able to finish with a small profit. I was lucky.

I shouldn’t have been able to get away with that – I should have lost my shirt. But by keeping a calm head and following Mike & others, I was able to turn a potentially very bad night for me into an OK one.

Michael Dent

Thank you to everyone who followed the betting prices at I apologise for the server crash on 20 June and the fairly slow service during some of the most exciting moments of 23/24 June. We’ll be working on improving capacity for future events. In the next six months we’ll be closely following the Conservative leadership contest and the US Presidential Election.


Four goods and a conclusion

Sunday, June 19th, 2016


Cyclefree says it is notable that few in the Remain camp have sought to make a positive case for the EU.  So let me make some suggestions.  (And no, this gives you no clue as to my vote.) 

  1. The EU as a force for good.

Who knows whether Western civilization will survive a Brexit.  It survived the temporary disappearance of Poland so it can surely survive the departure of a damp island in the middle of the North Sea.  But it is nonetheless astonishing and a source of considerable pride – given the murderous insanity which enveloped Europe in the first half of the twentieth century – that we have a structure which allows states to co-operate and resolve disagreements in a non-violent way and which, however ineptly, incompletely and ineffectively, has helped spread parliamentary democracy across Europe and to countries which had little experience of it.

There was nothing inevitable about this.  Democracy and liberal values have had shallow roots in much of Europe.  The fact that they are spreading, in a way that they did not spread after the first of Europe’s 20th century wars, is a credit to the EU’s efforts.  And this continues to be needed at a time when the countries surrounding Europe are going in the opposite direction.

  1. Federalism is not evil.

The best example of a functioning federal state – a super-state if you will – is the US.  Federalism has Enlightenment roots.  It is an attempt to manage political power in a large geographical area without ending up with totalitarianism or autocracy or chaos.  The EU may be criticised for how it is doing it and whether it is doing it right.  But an attempt to create political structures which help avoid the well-documented problems of recent European history or the examples of the Middle East is surely worth supporting.

  1. Some things cannot be done within countries.

Security.  Climate change.  Terrorism.  Crime.  Not everything respects borders, whether created or geographic.  And so our responses have to be adequate to the tasks.  The EU helps create a mechanism – though not the only one – by which answers can be found.

  1. Size matters.

A large market provides opportunities that a smaller one may not do.  A large fair market may be better than smaller fragmented ones.  A single currency is not obviously a bad thing.  How it is arrived at and managed may be.  But just because capitalism has often caused dreadful recessions, crises and unfair concentrations of wealth and ownership does not mean that the concept is necessarily wrong.

If the euro results in economic changes which result in growth and it this growth is fairly shared (a lot of “ifs” I know) then the EU will have helped create a level of economic security which will surely help sustain the political developments noted above.  And if those economic gains are fairly shared across countries, then this may also help mitigate the movements of people that are causing such angst to some.  If people can find good jobs in Barcelona and Athens and Vilnius they will not necessarily rush to live under bridges in London.

Convincing?  Over to you.  It doesn’t matter anyway because the argument for Remain has not been put in this way and it is far too late now.

So a prediction: some Leavers may vote Leave not because they necessarily want to leave the EU but because they want any Remain victory to be as small as possible.  They want to make it clear that the EU is – as far as Britain is concerned – still on probation.  Or because they want a better settlement.  They expect Remain to win.  If Leave looks like winning it is possible that some Leavers may switch back to Remain.  The casting vote may be different to the one where it does not matter.  I expect a small Remain win but would not be at all surprised by a Leave one.

It does not matter.  This is not a choice between life and suicide.  Whatever the result, Britain will survive and prosper.  It may be a different Britain depending on the choice made but who can ever know what the road not chosen would have led to.

But there are, whatever the result, three enormous challenges for Britain: –

(1) How will it deal with a changing EU, an EU that will largely encompass the Continent.  (2) How – if it leaves – will it also deal with the rest of the world as an independent nation and, moreover, an independent nation without the heft and resources it had until the middle of the last century.  Britain may have an image of itself as a plucky small independent nation but for a large part of its history it had an Empire behind it and both the military weight and the ruthlessness to impose its wishes.

(3) How will it deal with the divides and rifts that have been so painfully exposed within Britain itself: between the prosperous South-East and much of the rest, between the Celtic outer belt and middle England, between those who have benefited from the last 30 years and those who have not, between parties and voters whom they appear to have taken for granted?

These are large tasks and it is not at all clear that our political establishment is equal to any one of these tasks let alone all three of them.

On that note I am off to the Amalfi coast via Porto Venere, Rome and Naples: places associated with Venus, Caesar, St Thomas Aquinas, Caravaggio and the medieval laws of the sea.  Now that is a Europe worth voting for.  Arrivederci.



Cyclefree on Experts v Commoners

Tuesday, June 14th, 2016


Expertise is a valuable skill but one of the problems with experts is that all that knowledge can leave you unwilling or unable to persuade.  If you think, if you know that X is the right answer and yet people persist in not agreeing, it is hard not to feel infuriated, not to feel that some combination of wilful stupidity and/or ignorance and/or bloody-mindedness is refusing to accept the obvious.

And  it is easy from there to fall into the seductive – but ultimately fruitless – trap of attributing malign motives to those disagreeing with you.  And yet the key to the art of effective persuasion or advocacy is listening to your audience, addressing what they want to hear and communicating with them in a way that resonates with them.  Politicians often get this wrong – and bureaucrats even more so – not because the substance of what they are saying is necessarily wrong but because the tone is, because they are not listening to what concerns their audience and communicating in a way that makes sense to them.

How does this apply to those outside Britain – the EU itself, EU member states and others – looking on agog as Britain seemingly heads for exit – despite all the warnings and entreaties of countless experts?

  1. The myth of inevitability.

In life only death is inevitable.  In politics nothing is inevitable.  The triumph of democracy, of liberal values, of “progressive” values (however we define these) are not inevitable.  They have to be fought for, over and over again, and the more we assume that it is self-evident that they will triumph, the less challenge they face, the flabbier we get at answering the question “Why?”  The same applies to institutions.

Successful institutions can be surprisingly brittle and arrogant when asked to justify why they should exist in the form they do.  So when Juncker says that it is not permissible to come to decisions which are outside the treaties, he comes across as legally correct but also irrelevant – the question now is whether the treaties are suitable for the times and circumstances of today, however right they may have been when first conceived and signed.  Above all, it comes across as fearful: fearful that there is no good answer or no answer good enough for the British.

So rather than find a convincing explanation for why the treaties are a good thing now for Britain, the reaction has been – too often – to suggest that this is self-evident, that it is somehow illegitimate even to ask the question, that a “why” is simply not permissible.  The EU is inevitable, it is a good thing, states should not even think of leaving and, if they do, they should be punished, as if they are naughty transgressors.  But states – peoples – are not children.  They can’t be told “Because I say so”.  They can’t be told of the monsters under the bed who will come out if they don’t behave.  They are entitled to answers which are convincing to them.

The EU is not inevitable.  It is not inevitable that it will survive and be successful.  It is not inevitable that it will be valued – or valued enough – by all its members.  There is not just one direction of travel, however much one might like to pretend otherwise.  And if the EU wants to survive with Britain in it, it needs to stop giving the impression that it thinks this referendum a tiresome impertinence, a sort of lese-majeste and more an opportunity to show (not tell) why it is good for us.

  1. Speak Human

Look at the 4 freedoms: people, capital, goods and services.  Which is the odd one out?  People.  People have ties, connections; they belong to families and communities; they bring the promise of future generations and they come with the accumulated history of generations behind them.  They have feelings.  When peoples move, they change themselves, they change the places they leave behind and the places they come to.  They have an impact, both good and bad or a mixture, on  the people in the places they move to.

The person moving may feel free, depending on whether they are doing so voluntarily or because they have to to survive.  The person who finds their home town changed, swiftly and without their consent, may not think of this as freedom but imposition.  People are not just economic units, not just “new citizens”; not interchangeable units like cheese.

And yet this vital pillar of the EU is talked about just like that, as if individuals should simply have to accept movement, with virtually no effective limitations, as a given in order for capitalism to work effectively.  As a price to be paid, in Mr H Benn’s words, for access to a market where profits can be made.  (He might have been a 19th century mill owner talking.) Well, yes, up to a point.

But capitalism’s weakness has often been its failure to recognise the human consequences of what it claims to be economically inevitable, to care about who pays the price and who gets the profits.  And the EU’s seeming failure to understand at any level the concerns which Britain has about free movement, both in terms of control and numbers, has led it to a stupidly rigid approach.  The principle of free movement cannot be questioned said Mrs Merkel.  Yes, it can.  It should be.  But if the principle is good, its practical application should change with the times.

Britain may vote to leave because at some level enough people feel, however stupidly and inchoately and wrongly in the views of the experts,  that an institution nobly set up to avoid people fighting each other to murderous destruction, has changed to one which often seems wilfully and proudly indifferent to the human consequences of its own principles and policies.

My one – undoubtedly pointless – plea to the EU wallahs – should the Brexit campaign win is this.  Resist the urge to view this as vulgar British hooligans trashing refined Continental restaurants.  It may be that.  But it is not just that.

Ask yourself why, after 43 years experience of the EU, a country as long-standing, as successful as Britain has been, a country which has contributed so much to so many over the centuries, even with all it cruelties, stupidities and inanities, a country which has, when it was needed, shown a rare moral courage which helped preserve Western civilization and allowed Europe to reinvent itself, has said “Thanks.  But no thanks.”  Ask yourself, as Cromwell, a man who challenged the inevitable divine right of kings, did: [Is it] “possible you may be mistaken?”



Guest slot: The impact of leaving the EU on London’s technology start up scene

Monday, June 13th, 2016

Union Jack

I have never been political. I’ve never joined any party, and my voting record is patchy. What I do is start technology businesses, and I’m on my third right now. Knowing rcs1000 (he’s an investor in my firm), I asked if I could write a piece for politicalbetting about the impact of leaving the EU on London’s technology start up scene.

Let me start by putting London’s tech scene in context. London has the second largest concentration of technology start-ups in the world, behind only the corridor between San Francisco and San Jose (“Silicon Valley”). Some of these start-ups have been enormous successes (Deep Mind, from my friend Demis for example), many are best known outside the UK (Draft Kings in the US), some are in pure technology (Mastodon C), and others are revolutionizing existing industries (like Deliveroo). In some areas, like FinTech, London is the undisputed world number one: the next generation of financial technology – whether in the Bitcoin space, peer-to-peer FX, or in next generation trading networks – is probably being built in a cheap, un-air conditioned office in Shoreditch or even Dalston.

Why are these firms in London? Like most things in life, there is no single reason. London has a combination of cheap office space, a lot of incubators and venture capital firms, and – most importantly – a very deep pool of technology talent. When we started our current firm we were in a large building full of three to five man start-ups near Old Street roundabout.

There were maybe 150 of these little companies, each paying for a few desks in little rabbit warren rooms. Company names would be printed out and stuck on doors, and when you wandered down the corridor, the names regularly changed – firms would get fabled Series A funding, and move to fancy offices of their own (with air conditioning), or would run out of money. Hiring is by happenstance; you’d hear the Twitter mining company down the corridor was running out of money, and you’d make sure their DevOps person knew there was a place at your start up.

Getting the right people is the most difficult part of any start-up. Agencies are shit. The guy you are dealing with has no idea whether Frank from Loughbrough really knows anything about Erlang, he just wants his commission. The London tech start-up scene is probably – outside of the Valley – the best place to get people to work 16 hours a day in the world. It attracts people who want to build things, don’t mind living in shitty apartments, for low wages, because they want to work for exciting companies, building groundbreaking things. It attracts people who want to say “I was there at the beginning of Google.”

And this is why I’m worried about Britain leaving the EU. Trade is an irrelevancy: our customers (like most other tech start-ups) are global, being outside the EU would make little difference. Regulation is a non-issue: what regulation, beyond having a Health & Safety poster hanging on the back of the door, is there for small tech companies?

But people? People is the big one.

Less than 20% of UK graduates have STEM degrees. Of these, fewer than 20,000 graduate with Computer Science degrees each year. And, if I’m going to be honest, we don’t teach CS well in the UK. Yes, there are exceptions (Cambridge, Edinburgh, Imperial) – but by and large the big European universities do a better job of producing programmers than do British ones. There are other problems: Goldman Sachs and Google actively recruit at Imperial, so graduates from there are much less likely to enter the start-up scene. Graduate European developers are also much more likely to have contributed to open source projects, so you can get an idea of code quality more easily.

London has start-ups because it has people. And it has people because it has one of the most exciting start-up scenes in the world. For the brightest and the best of the 250,000 Europeans graduating with Computer Science degrees, London is a cheap flight or a bus ride away. They come in their tens of thousands. And most don’t make it. But a lot stay. At my firm, we have 14 developers, of which three are British, two are Commonwealth, and the rest are European. (In case anyone thinks our hiring policy is racist, I’d point out that all of management, finance, sales and marketing is British!)

Last week, I asked Pablo, our lead Android developer, what he’d have done if he’d have had to get a visa to come work in the UK. He thought for a moment, and said “Started an Android development shop in Spain… or gone to the Valley.”

Of course, I know that many people will ask “But why not train British developers up?” And we train people up every day. A programmer that joins us will almost certainly only know a subset of the technologies we use: perhaps they’ve never used Postgres, Rexx, or Node.js. Or perhaps they’re not used to writing automatic test suites before code. And even if they do know all these, they’ve still got to learn the way the internal systems work – how the servers are organized, the APIs, the database schema, and the tens of thousands of existing lines of production code. I doubt a new developer produces useful code for at least two months, and they certainly don’t have a positive ROI until they’ve been with us four or five.

If someone needs remedial programming training, or has never written object oriented code before, then – even if they are the smartest people in the world – than that time to positive ROI is going to be a year. And that’s simply not going to work for us. Last year I went without salary for five months because a large customer was slow paying, and an investor didn’t meet their commitments on time. We are constantly on a knife edge between success and bankruptcy.

London’s technology start-up scene is among the most vibrant in the world. And it’s the most vibrant because it attracts the brightest and the best developers from across Europe. It’s worth remembering just how recent this success is. Fifteen years ago, there were a fraction of the number of start-ups. We haven’t yet produced the next Google, but it’s only a matter of time.

But that success needs both an entrepreneurial culture and a concentration of young, hungry, raw talent, fresh off the Megabus from Krakow. If we put up barriers to prevent people coming to work in London’s tech industry, then somewhere else will spring up, and we’ll have missed a historic opportunity.

Of course, I know I’m biased. I know that my business depends on being able to find these people. I know that skews my perspective. But I also know that my developers didn’t have to come here. They could have gone to Berlin or Stockholm, or – if they’re going to fill in a visa application form – Sydney or San Francisco.

We are building the world’s second Silicon Valley. I don’t want to lose that, both for personal reasons, but also because tech hubs like London or the Valley are so rare and so wonderful. 

Tech Founder


Roger reviews the latest EU referendum broadcasts

Sunday, June 12th, 2016

Above the Latest Stronger In PPB, you can view the latest Vote Leave PPB by clicking here

‘Get your facts first then you can distort them as you please’  Mark Twain

Over the last few weeks research companies running focus groups will have been dissecting psychoanalysing and picking to death the innermost thoughts of voters.

When Seth Godin wrote “Facts are unimportant. What matters is what people believe.” This wasn’t meant as a lesson to advertisers on how to hoodwink the public. It was a warning to them that you can’t. Even testable factual statements won’t stand up against what a person believes to be the ‘truth’.

The aim in a binary contest is straightforward. Find the weakness in your opponent and pitch it against your strength. Make the differences simple and clearcut. Lynton Crosby believes that when you’ve identified those your job is done. He’s little interested how the message is delivered as long as it’s clear and oft repeated.

For the ad agency how the message is delivered is as important as the message itself.  There was a radio commercial for a suntan lotion. A man with an English accent rolls out the benefits and as he speaks his accent gradually becomes West Indian. The ‘truth’ can be stretched moulded manipulated and caricatured but it can never be ignored.

The wisdom of the focus groups is known only to the agency and client but we can make an educated guess. The PM now talks of ‘Little Englanders’ and his gaze is aimed squarely at Farage.

REMAIN’s latest broadcast was a display of celebrity from streetwise to genius. Alan Sugar, Brendan Barber, Reeta Chakrabarti, Stephanie Flanders… Stephen Hawking.  And the message a modest, ‘It’s NOT perfect but it’s better than the alternative.’ …..and by implication ‘the great and the good are on our side’.

(Since the broadcast they’ve added 13 Nobel Laureates to the roster. If this doesn’t do it there’s talk of signing the Pope…)

LEAVE is harder to read. As a campaign it seems amateurish but thanks to equal airtime regulations the unevenness of establishment support has been disguised.

They used the same campaign broadcast this week as they did last with diminishing impact. It’s an oddly structured film anyway with the first scene repeated at the end. After the shock effect of its first showing it’s now taken on the look of an X rated home movie.

More significantly the elderly Labour voters at whom it was originally targeted are now comfortably on board and their place taken by different ‘undecideds’. Ones more likely to be cynical of the inflated claims.

Why LEAVE have chosen to do everything in-house is a mystery. Perhaps they believe their simple immigration message doesn’t need finessing and their current polling is impressive.

Whether they can keep the cracks from showing for the next ten days is the big question. Maybe they should have heeded the words of Red Adair. “If you think using professionals is expensive you should see what it costs to use amateurs.”


Roger, who has had a long and successful career in advertising has been posting on PB since 2004