Friday 6 June 2014

Qatar, the Shard and the Magisterium

I watched the film The Golden Compass again over the weekend, the movie version of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, which has to be one of the most important children’s books written in the second half of the twentieth century.

I was fascinated to look at their version of London ruled by the so-called Magisterium, which is in the film rather less of a version of the Roman Catholic Church without a Reformation, and more like a mildly religious version of Big Brother.

Their headquarters is a huge skyscraper, towering over the city, an architectural version of tyranny.

Regular readers of this blog (if there are any) will know that I believe that architectural styles don’t just reflect political mores, they actively shape them. If you design buildings that undermine human dignity, or belittle human beings, as the Shard does – then that becomes the prevailing political atmosphere.

Now, here is the link with the news this week. The Shard was the creation of Qatari princes, and there is something of the Magisterium about it – that is, after all, their ruling style. Qatari officials are currently accused of bribing their way to a World Cup in 2022 in 40 degree heat.  This matters because the UK economy is increasingly intertwined with theirs.

The Qataris own a quarter of Sainsbury’s, a large chunk of Barclays and Heathrow Airport. They have asked for priority status for other pieces of UK infrastructure. When we hear about bribery in FIFA (again) related to the Qatar, that is not a small country of which we know little (as Neville Chamberlain might have said), it is a major force in our own infrastructure and business life – and, via the baleful influence of buildings like the Shard, in our political atmosphere and sense of ourselves.

Does it matter that countries like Qatar and China have such a hold over our infrastructure?

I’m not sure, but am not entirely convinced that it doesn’t. Yes, they have to abide by UK laws and standards. Yes, the influx of money is important. But if it matters for the self-determination of Africa that China owns so much of the land, and if it matters that so many businesses in Scotland turned out to be foreign owned – as the No campaign claims – then it certainly matters for the UK as a whole.

The Australian thinker and financier Shann Turnbull argues that we overpay investors by giving them lifetime rights over their investments, when actually they only need returns for an investment horizon of about 25 years – after which the ownership needs to return to local people.

I can’t think of a measure that would do more to shift the inexorable way that the proceeds of investment cascade towards the richest.

In other words, we are paying the sovereign wealth fund of Qatar inefficiently – more than they need to invest in our infrastructure, giving them permanent rights. Qatar and China represent a new kind of capitalism – a free market for the few, and political tyranny for the many.

If we are going to welcome their investment, we need to find ways to make sure we do not also hand over permanent political power as well. Or the Shard really will be the Magisterium building.


Barry said...

Here is one regular reader and long standing too!

Having a blog and wondering how much it is read (I have the same problem with a local blog to which I contribute) is, I guess, a bit like having your books available in libraries or as freely published e-books. Are my words being read? Why don't I hear from my readers? Maybe there aren't any.

This is yet another feature of the strange culture we seem to have got ourselves into. In which we don't really know what is going on.

Anonymous said...

We've no one to blame but ourselves for the valuation system that governs us. That's the root cause of most of the world's misery, including our own.

BruceK said...

I am another regular reader, and as such have to point that you have not been such a regular blogger recently.

Of course you are under no obligation to blog at all, and I am grateful to you for your articles, but if you think the number of regular readers has dropped there may be a link.

David Boyle said...

Dear Barry and Bruce

Thanks so much for your reassurance that there is someone out there, which is v much appreciated! I am aware that I haven't been blogging as much recently, because it didn't seem ethical - or possible really, given the hours - to do so while I was working at the Guardian for six weeks. But I'm back now...

It certainly is strange these days that you have no idea if you are broadcasting to anyone - maybe there was always an element of that - but since there are now so many demands on people's time, you really have no idea whether all your twitter 'followers' are actually paying any attention at all. And then again, why should they?

Anonymous said...

The Magisterium aside, Shann Turnbull's argument is a bit Biblical in its own right in that he is echoing the concept of "Jubilee" in which people can't be permanently dispossessed from the land, but their birthright is returned every 50 years.

It also surprises me that companies don't attempt to buy themselves back from their shareholders bit by bit, and so eventually free themselves from the whip of their masters; it would make my working life more pleasant, at least.