During the 1990’s, our company was involved in projects in the United Kingdom to automate metal packaging plants for improved cost and service efficiencies. The projects took our team far and wide from London to Wales, and from Windsor to Coventry. Marketing missions also took us throughout the Midlands and to Peterborough.
I remain especially nostalgic about the time we spent working at the plant in Flintshire, Wales a stone’s throw from the meandering river Dee. The plant was located in the highly industrialized corridor which straddles both England and Wales. Today, the area is abuzz with multinationals such as Tata Steel, BASF, Air Products, and Toyota operating out of the Deeside Industrial Park. To the nation’s credit, the United Kingdom has experienced steady and stable manufacturing output and now has the eight largest manufacturing economy in the world well ahead of France and within shouting range of Italy.
Despite the frenetic industrial hum of the Deeside Industrial Park the place somehow managed to retain its bucolic charm. After a long day at the plant one could retire to a charming country inn run by an exceedingly hospitable local host for a quiet, cozy repast, and a restful evening. The world of automation seemed very far away indeed. At daybreak, the sweet yet sad coo cooing of doves was a gentle reminder that another day of work lay ahead.
In recalling Coventry, my principal takeaway was the ghastly sight of the ruins of the fourteenth century Cathedral of St. Michael which was almost totally destroyed by a Luftwaffe blitz in 1940. The adjoining new cathedral obviously belies the classical roots of the original and is too modern and gaudy for me to appreciate. And, yes, Coventry too had a charming country inn. In this case, the inn, run by an American couple from Baltimore, was located in a pastoral scatter of land surrounded by grazing animals. The husband and wife team proved indefatigable as they would spring up out of nowhere to interact with guests, morning, noon, and night. The couple’s can-do service attitude was emblematic of my adage that “customers are first.”
IT WASN’T ALL ABOUT WORK
Return visits to the United Kingdom included the obligatory tours of Windsor Castle, Westminster Abbey, Kensington Palace, and the Tower of London. All, exuding with the magisterial dignity that can only come from an adherence to a long and steadfast tradition. London hotels, too, are something to behold. Nowhere on earth can you find a line-up of grand hotels like Claridge’s, The Savoy, The Dorchester, The Ritz, The Connaught, and then some. The old-world charm of these bastions of hospitality coupled with very proper British service is an inimitable combination that accrues to the benefit of guests and visitors alike. At the Connaught, I had an experience that restored my faith in proper service. I normally sport a suit and tie. My wife, in obvious exaggeration, says that I even sleep thus clothed. One morning, I walked into the dining room for breakfast, wearing a tie but no suit jacket – I don’t know what got into me but it was highly unusual for me to have left my jacket in the room. No sooner did I step into the dining room the maître d’hôtel stopped me and said, “Mr. Pupo, can I get you a jacket?” It wasn’t long before my ire subsided and I was pleased that decorum had prevailed. I thanked the gentleman for his attention and proceeded to retrieve my jacket from the room.
Travels in the United Kingdom also took us to Blenheim Palace – the birthplace of Winston Churchill – for social gatherings where I had the opportunity to meet the eleventh Duke of Marlborough as well as the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Margaret Thatcher. The duke was jolly whereas the Iron Lady was no-nonsense.
Knowing I stood a good chance of meeting the duke I brought along my copy of Marlborough as Military Commander by the renowned military historian David Chandler with a foreword by the duke. The book recounts the military exploits of the first Duke of Marlborough as the great commander that he was, most notably at the battle of Blenheim in 1704 where he saved Vienna – with plenty of help from Prince Eugene of Savoy – from a combined French-Bavarian force.
I stood in front of the duke with the book in my hand but behind my back so that he wouldn’t see it. After the normal civilities, I asked, “Your Grace, are you the eleventh Duke of Marlborough?” Now, whether he was putting me on or not I don’t know but he gazed up at the ceiling for a moment and said, “By God, I think I am.” “Your Grace, it is such a pleasure to meet you, would you be so kind as to autograph my book?” At that point, the duke was only too cheerful to oblige.
The duke, it turns out, often rents out the palace for weddings and other events. And, he had plenty of stories to tell in that regard. At one wedding reception, as he tells the story, the duke approached the check-in desk and announced himself. “I’m sorry,” the young lady managing the guest register enjoined, “we don’t have you on the guest list.” “What do you mean you don’t have me on the guest list?” the duke protested, “I own the joint!” After which, he was dutifully whisked through.
At dinner, I had the privilege of sitting next to Margaret Thatcher. We covered a lot of ground but among the many recollections of our conversation her views on the following are most salient: 1) Spanish dictator Francisco Franco – an unsavory individual who nonetheless manned the ramparts against Marxist ideologists thus saving Spain; 2) Bill Clinton – “the first time I looked into his eyes I knew he could not be trusted;” 3) European integration – a mixed bag at best.
As to European integration, lest there be any doubt, from the time Mrs. Thatcher delivered her Bruges, Belgium speech before the College of Europe in 1988, it was clear where she stood on the matter. This, despite recent revisionist interpretations of what might have been in Mrs. Thatcher’s mind; namely, that she would not have opposed the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union. Two brief excerpts from her speech should disabuse anyone of that interpretive fantasy:
- “To try to suppress nationhood and concentrate power at the centre of a European conglomerate would be highly damaging and would jeopardise the objectives we seek to achieve.”
- “I want to see us work more closely on the things we can do better together than alone. But working more closely together does not require power to be centralised in Brussels or decisions to be taken by an appointed bureaucracy.”
And, for added emphasis, in her book Statecraft: Strategies for a Changing World, published in 2002, Mrs. Thatcher pointedly remarked”that such an unnecessary and irrational project as building a European superstate was ever embarked upon will seem in future years to be perhaps the greatest folly of the modern era.”
Later, at the same function, I met Sir Denis Thatcher a successful business man before he met the future Mrs. Thatcher. He was frankly a ball to be with and was full of one-liners. Sir Denis was not just a consort to the Prime Minister. He provided steadfast devotion and sage advice to Mrs. Thatcher despite the torrent of satirical ridicule which he endured at the hands of an unadoring press throughout his wife’s political career.
THE ROYAL TOUR
The capstone of our experience in the United Kingdom was the opportunity to meet the Prince of Wales. As a member of the Prince of Wales Foundation I was an invited guest to Highgrove in Gloucestershire which serves as the personal residence of the Prince of Wales and Camilla Parker Bowles – titled the Duchess of Cornwall since her marriage to the Prince of Wales. The house is surrounded by magnificent formal and wild gardens which His Royal Highness has had a hand in designing. Thousands of visitors come to see Highgrove House and its gardens and all proceeds from the sale of tours and products are donated to needy causes.
The Prince of Wales heads over a score of charities for the needy and disadvantaged around the world but as you will note from reading my essay Service Management Must Come to the World of Non-Profits, two of the Prince of Wales’ charities have run afoul of sound ethical practices.
After a day’s visit to Highgrove we were next invited to dinner at Buckingham Palace were the Prince of Wales thanked all the benefactors and spoke of the Foundation’s work around the world to help the needy. In a very brief and private moment I had with the Prince of Wales and his American handler for the event I made the observation that the Foundation might want to adopt more modern, digital fund-raising techniques such as on-line, if not mobile, giving as I found the current system very stodgy and out of touch with the world of giving in the twenty-first century. I got a polite nod but I was never asked what exactly I had in mind.
The final stop on our Royal tour came on a visit to the palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, Scotland. It is Her Majesty the Queen’s official residence in Scotland and has served as the principal residence of Kings and Queens of Scots since the sixteenth century. At sundown a color guard gave a salute to the gathered as bagpipers filled the air with their haunting, wailing tones.
Holyroodhouse is a massive quadrangle structure with a lattice work of apartments and extensive outdoor gardens. It is a must see for anyone visiting Scotland or with an interest in architecture. Mary Queen of Scots occupied the palace from 1561 to 1567 when she was forced to abdicate. The macabre history of the palace – it is legend that it is haunted by ghosts – include the very real murder of the Queen’s personal secretary, the Italian David Rizzio, by the Queen’s husband Lord Darnley and his courtiers. Today, what appear to be the splatter of blood stains are found on the floor of the Queen’s adjoining apartments.
A short ride from Holyroodhouse took us to the Gleneagles Hotel and Resort in Auchterarder. The Gleneagles Hotel is a marvel of the finest hotel service anywhere. The accommodations, the dining, and outdoor activities such as shooting, golf, fishing, and equestrian events are all five stars. The highlight for me came at the restaurant where liveried waiters offered to bring me a whisky distilled on the year of my birth. I thought to myself, “fat chance!” I was sorely mistaken and pleasantly surprised when the waiter produced a bottle of 1946 Macallan without even having to go to the cellar as he had a bottle in his trolley. About an hour away is the golfer’s mecca at St. Andrews. More impressive, however, are the ruins of St. Andrews Cathedral which dates back to at least the ninth century and the nearby twelfth century castle which stands stoically on the rocky shores of the North Sea.
RETROGRADE OR RESURGENT?
The sun has for some time now set on the British Empire but only if that turn of phrase is meant to imply that the nation is no longer the hegemon which, at its apex, early in the twentieth century, controlled nearly 25% of the world’s land mass. Clearly, the nation will never again be the economic or military powerhouse it once was. Yet, the United Kingdom has a thriving economy: the fifth largest economy in the world in terms of GDP slightly ahead of India – a nation with one billion, two hundred fifty million more inhabitants.
The United Kingdom lost its economic supremacy because it failed to adapt. Born of its own past successes, the nation failed to react to new product and service opportunities by continuing to do things the same old way. The United Kingdom’s decline is best explained by a long adherence to a variety of rigid policies and practices that kept it from adapting to new world realities – few of them having to do with the nation’s industrial or manufacturing prowess per se. Yes, labor unions had a big hand in the demise of the country’s supremacy by stiff-arming productivity improvements on the factory floor but other factors did as well. In a nutshell, these factors had to do with a stubborn unwillingness on the part of British suppliers to get sufficiently close to the customer on the continent of Europe and elsewhere so as to better understand their requirements. Finally, British industrialists were late to recognize that the discipline of engineering – the social media phenomenon of the day – was anything more than a trade.
What does the future hold post a departure from the European Union? In my view, the United Kingdom will be the beneficiary of focusing less on Europe, which is stuck at an anemic growth of less than 1%, and more on the rest of the world. One-on-one trade deals with Asian, North and South American countries could reap huge rewards and is an unstated reason why the Europeans loathe the loss of such an important member state. Economies, sooner or later, adjust to external shocks albeit while incurring heavy transaction costs and the commensurate political uproar.
The economy of the United Kingdom is sufficiently robust and the pound sterling sufficiently stable to withstand any post-Brexit shocks. The United Kingdom remains an inspiration for a streak of independence first demonstrated by the signing of the Magna Carta, the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act, and its defense of the British Isles in the face of the overwhelming forces posed by the Luftwaffe in 1940. Its decision to part ways with the European Union ensures that its sovereignty will be preserved while making the country more competitive on the world stage.
To make all of this happen, of course, the nation will have to rely on a fearless leader with the gumption of a Boris Johnson. As the U.K.’s Prime Minister since July 2019, Mr. Johnson will have to smack down the troika arrayed against him: 1) hard left politicians in his own country, 2) globalists in the world-wide media who scorn the idea of Brexit, and 3) imperial bureaucrats in Brussels who will try every trick in the book to make the point that the nation is better served by being subservient to the whims of the European Union.