December 21, 2012 7:03 pm

The Diary: Matthew Engel

There’s nothing like a British Christmas, says the FT columnist, as he takes stock of the country’s politics in 2012
An illustration of a Christmas tree by James Ferguson©James Ferguson

Over the years I have spent this season in exotic places from Calcutta to California – on every continent, I think – and can confidently say that there is nothing like an English Christmas. That is not a compliment.

This is a country that now knows nothing of other Christian festivals, from Annunciation to Whitsun. But Christmas has become fetishised into a cargo cult, and it would be easy to imagine it was the same elsewhere. But it isn’t. Other countries celebrate the day itself but it is not the focal point of the year.

Wherever excess is involved, we assume it started in the US. In fact, an American Christmas is much calmer, thanks to the charming distraction of Thanksgiving a month earlier, and the work ethic which means that by Boxing Day it is all over. The most irritating American custom is the hey-look-at-me mega-light displays outside suburban homes. These have now crossed the Atlantic, but only recently.

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Matthew Engel

I am not Scroogeing here: I like eating and drinking and company and laughter and parties and prezzies and time off as much as anyone else. I love the Great Silence of the day itself. What I dislike is the way Christmas looms on the horizon like a shadowy iceberg from September onwards (“Ooh, can’t do that before Christmas, guv”); the way organised families have the whole thing mapped out in October (“What are you doing for Christmas?” “Haven’t a bloody clue.”), and the way pubs are crammed with people drunker than oneself from mid-November.

The crucial change came in 1974 when New Year’s Day was made a bank holiday in England and Wales. Before that it was a working day, though many people (in that long-lost era of timid management) simply failed to turn up. The government decided to recognise reality.

The unintended consequence was the creation of a new reality, whereby the days between Christmas and New Year became a de facto quasi-holiday as well. The two-week dead zone that resulted put all the more pressure on the preceding months.

Among George Osborne’s many excuses for the lack of growth have been the two extra royal-related holidays of the past two years. I dare him to mess with the real productivity-wrecker.

. . .

The charm of horse racing in the British Isles is the huge number of racecourses: 27 in little Ireland, 58 in Great Britain, all different, quirky, full of character, with unique problems to solve for horses, jockeys and those of us that enjoy the sport’s intellectual challenge.

Until this week the second number was 60, and that had actually risen by one over the past three decades, which was quite miraculous given that most of the tracks are used for fewer than 20 days a year, and racing is declining anyway. But the best of them are destinations, attractive enough to sustain them as potential days out.

This was never true of either of the two fallers, Hereford (where racing dates back at least 241 years) and Folkestone (114 years). I mourn them: I’m like that. And Hereford being my local track, I went on Sunday to say farewell, though not a very fond one. In a beautiful county, Hereford racecourse was the ugliest place: the facilities were grim, the viewing difficult, the attendance pitiful. I can’t remember ever backing a winner there, a record I maintained to the end. My only memory of Folkestone is being at the very back of the stand and getting drenched even there, because the rain was coming in horizontally.

Now neither garden-of-England Kent nor horsey Herefordshire has a racecourse. There is some talk that the two casualties may not be dead, but sleeping. Waste of time: they should start again elsewhere. I am sure some hard-up farmers would love to offload a few hundred acres to create far more lovable and efficient successors. They might draw the crowds.

. . .

No doubt other FT writers will be doing end-of-year retrospectives of the financial markets. So now for something different: a review of 2012 on the political stock markets.

On the London exchange, shares in David Cameron drifted downwards all year, amid fears that management was somewhat unfocused. The other blue chip in the Conservative sector, Osborne, fell still more sharply, as investors grew weary of feeble results and even feebler excuses. Boris Johnson shares had a bull run all year but investors should be aware of this firm’s potential for disaster.

Ed Miliband made quiet gains all year then leapt upwards following a well-received report to the annual meeting. Nick Clegg engaged in a vigorous end-of-year sales pitch to reclaim lost market share. But the shares are available for buttons and no one is buying. Vince Cable advanced stealthily.

Michael Gove backers have enjoyed strong gains but should now take profits owing to this company’s tendency to over-publicise and overreach itself. Anyone holding Jeremy Hunt should sell at once. (Analysts have flagged up the risk that the health secretary may at some point be asked a question about the health service.)

On US markets, Barack Obama was buoyed by strong end-of-year results that averted the threat of a hostile takeover by Romney Inc, which was agitating for a more profit-centred strategy. Long-view investors have begun to nibble at the possibility that Bush and Clinton, two family-run firms long since taken private, may return to the market before 2016. Given this dynastic trend, bold investors might consider Malia and Sasha Obama, now run as subsidiaries of the parent company, with a view to a potential jackpot circa 2048.

In the eurozone, Hollande shares plummeted after flotation while Merkel remained rock-solid. Counter-cyclical utilitarian stocks, such as Monti, paid dividends in 2012. However, the main interest in 2013 could be a comeback for the boom-and-bust share Berlusconi. The main attractions here are the non-financial perks offered to major shareholders. However, serious investors should not be seduced by the hope of invitations to bunga-bunga parties.

Matthew Engel is an FT columnist

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