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The impact of a Tiny error

07/03/2012

Edward Heath, briefly and ingloriously British Prime Minister in the early 1970s, never needed much help in making a fool of himself. Indeed, I have a party-piece of mimicking his mutilation of the French language when Britain joined the EEC (noble and idealistic precursor of today’s sclerotic European Union). Heath was, however, badly let down by a childishly simple copy-editing flub in 1973, though some might say it immortalised him.

The multinational conglomerate Lonrho was run by Roland ‘Tiny’ Rowland, a buccaneering character who regarded law and custom as minor irritants to his development of the company. In particular, company law was always subservient to his autocratic belief that, in the words of Louis XIV, “l’état, c’est moi”. Tiny Rowland was larger than life in almost every way.

By 1973, when he had been running the company for 11 years, eight of Rowland’s fellow-directors had become incensed by his hermetic and mysterious management style, which involved keeping them largely in the dark about Lonrho’s operations and finances. They voted (or thought they had voted) him off the board. Rowland was not going to allow anything so utterly trivial as a majority vote to unseat him. He went to court and lost but took the matter to the shareholders who, at an EGM, overwhelmingly confirmed him in his position. How quaint it was that the dissident directors were led against Tiny by Sir Basil Smallpiece

In an unremarkable House of Commons speech on May 14th, Edward Heath described the extended shenanigans at Lonrho, and its activities, as “the unpleasant and unacceptable facet of capitalism”. Except he didn’t, as “facet” was disastrously mistyped in his script as “face”. Thus a passing indictment of the manipulation of company law, which would have been deservedly forgotten within minutes, was transformed into a headline-grabbing personal characterisation of Rowland himself. Thereafter, he was regularly and gleefully described in the Press as “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. Some maintain that it was the only memorable thing that Heath ever said.

Although he was in many ways a rascal, Tiny Rowland was a generous man. When Laker Airways, Sir Freddie Laker’s visionary Skytrain concept, was destroyed by predatory pricing by the established transatlantic airlines, Rowland immediately gave him free use of an office and a secretary at Lonrho’s headquarters. From there, he plotted his revenge. He sued the airlines for the destruction of his company, which was the precursor of today’s Easyjet, Ryanair, Virgin Atlantic and many other no-frills operators around the world. The airlines settled out of court with the company’s receivers for $50m, and British Airways settled separately with Laker personally for £8m. Freddie was a lovely man, full of fun and anecdote, whom I am proud to have known.

PS: I’ve just seen a clip of the egregious Peter Mandelson (neither my lips nor my typing fingers will form the word “Lord” in front of his name) trying to speak French when he was appointed as Britain’s European Commissioner by Tony Blair in 2004. I’ve tried in vain to find it, and the Edward Heath clip, on Youtube. Both are excruciating.

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