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CBI apparatchiks should spend overseas holidays this year pursuing the locals with open phrase-books, polishing up their foreign language skills, rather than lolling on the beach. Director-general Sir Digby Jones has delivered a harsh judgment of “could do better” on the declining propensity of the British to study languages, knowledge of which he said was crucial to the UK economy.

Never one to miss the opportunity to bash the French, Sir Digby dismissed the tongue of Voltaire and Zola as “no longer a world language”, but endorsed Spanish and Mandarin. Anxious to discuss his comments, Notebook called the CBI, imagining it would be a linguistic melting pot. However, a request to speak to the press office delivered in rusty Spanish was met with incomprehension. A second attempt, in Mandarin, fared no better. This was a black mark for the CBI, given that many big foreign organisations deal confidently with calls from monoglot Anglophones.

By reverting to Sir Digby’s native Brummie, Notebook extracted the information that the swashbuckling knight “only speaks English, the global language of business”. An official said: “His view is that while his generation got by on English, young people need to learn foreign languages for the 21st century.”

This is a curious perspective, given that the propensity of foreigners to learn English has never been greater and that other lingoes are as riddled with English loan-words as a Swiss cheese is with holes. Moreover, the strong position British business has achieved internationally is thanks to colonialists and businessmen generally untutored in foreign languages, other than those spoken by long-dead Romans and Greeks.

Similarly, none of CBI’s four top brass hats boasts a languages degree in their online biographies. Maths-related disciplines, also promoted by Sir Digby, are better represented. Deputy president David Arculus has an MA in engineering science and economics. Sir Digby himself has a degree in law, a subject where arithmetic is needed for calculating eye-watering fees.

Declining interest in learning languages may therefore suggest that, contrary to CBI claims, such knowledge is increasingly superfluous to Brits who want to get ahead in life. The tendency of youngsters to study mushy “modern” subjects would meanwhile look more like a market failure had John Sunderland not risen to the dizzy heights of CBI president after studying social sciences.

Interests in conflict

Lord Drayson is taking his first statesmanlike steps as defence procurement minister, leaving behind the questionable dual role he once occupied as a Labour donor and boss of Powderject, a medical company with valuable government orders. In “picking winners” in UK military technology he will be expected to show the impartiality for which Labour ministers are noted. A draft list of favoured innovations, obtained by Notebook, includes:

The Powderject carbine. Infantry frustrated with the temperamental SA80 rifle will welcome this weapon, which uses medical technology to “inject” a bullet painlessly. The enemy must roll up his sleeve or drop his trousers first so a sterilising swab can cleanse the target area.

The Drayson Industries shell. Producing mild shock and awe, but no human damage, this shell is too weak to do its intended job. In this it resembles batches of sub-strength TB vaccine recalled by Powderject in 2002. The shells do however produce a loud report, relieving Royal Navy gunners of their traditional duty of shouting “Bang!” during mock firing exercises.

The Beansman battlefield radio. Replacing the troubled Bowman system, the Beansman makes inspired use of two empty beans tins connected by string to transmit vital orders and intelligence. It was invented by a seven-year-old communications wunderkind, whose relationship to Lord Drayson is unclear.

Gate dismay

BA customers are facing a hellish summer as lossmaking Gate Gourmet, its supplier of in-flight meals, negotiates with striking employees. Schedules have returned almost to normal but passengers due to travel in coming days expressed continuing anxiety. “I’m terrified they’ll settle the dispute,” said one transatlantic traveller, “If that happened, BA would give me an in-flight meal, instead of food vouchers to exchange for wholesome sandwiches. I can’t bear the glutinous gravy.” Other passengers feared the return of chilly bread rolls and sachets of mayonnaise prone to splurging. Businesses in any industry with strong cost-down pressures will reflect that cheap contracts with suppliers can explode in their own faces just as messily.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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