Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Pip pip, toodle-oo; its just not cricket

If ever there was a misleading title to a post, this must be it. This is not about cricket at all. Neither is it about Bertie Wooster. Instead it’s a most ungentlemanly rant.

Readers may recall that I had railed about the behaviour of US Congressmen towards Akio Toyoda here. Something similar has now happened with British MPs and Kraft. This growing trend of activism by politicians towards business is dangerous.

What happened yesterday was this. Kraft was “summoned” to appear before the House of Commons’ business, innovation and skills committee (let us lightly pass over the delicious irony of the words skills and innovation being featured in the same sentence as MPs !) Unlike the brave Toyoda-san, Irene Rosenfeld, Chairman of Kraft ducked this one and sent Marc Firestone Kraft’s head of corporate and legal affairs. Marc Firestone, as far as I know, is a US national. He is not a subject of Her Majesty and British MPs have absolutely no right to behave as they did with him. You can read an account of the select committee hearing here. I happened to listen to snippets of the hearing on BBC Radio yesterday. Marc Firestone was virtually in tears and the bullying by the MPs was downright scandalous.

The problem relates to Cadbury’s Somerdale plant near Bristol. Well before the affair with Kraft, Cadbury had planned to close this factory. During the very public wooing of Cadbury, Kraft unwisely announced that it would not close the factory in a dumb move to get public support. After the deal had been done, Kraft announced that it would close the factory after all, saying that it had not known previously how far advanced the Cadbury closure plans were. Kraft clearly did a mistake, and was blatantly at fault. But the crux of the matter is this – it has done nothing wrong legally.

It is irrelevant to this argument whether Kraft was right or wrong. The British Parliament has no right to demand anything of Kraft US. Sure – it can proceed against Kraft UK. It can certainly action against British nationals, if they have done anything illegal. But other than that, it has no business calling foreign nationals and bullying them.

Unlike Toyoda san, Irene Rosenfeld chose to duck this, but for the wrong reasons. If she had upfront stated that British MPs had no right to demand anything of her, I would have applauded. Of course, saying such a thing would be a PR suicide. Instead she chickened out quietly. That would equally haunt her as a PR disaster worse than if she had come. Some readers of this blog know of an alternate person she could have sent, who I believe would have acquitted himself a little more credibly. On second thoughts, he would never have come; knowing which battles he could win and which he couldn’t. Would love to see some comments on this from those who know him.

This growing political interference with businesses needs to be condemned. I could mouth some obscenities. But then , although the sun has set on the British empire (maybe the MPs haven’t noticed it as yet), some of the glories of British culture are alive and well in the Commonwealth. The British MPs behaved like boors with Marc Firestone. I will express disapproval in a more British way. Pip pip, toodle-oo ; its just not cricket old chap.