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Insurance: 180 years of the often good, sometimes bad and occasionally downright ugly

One of the great joys of 2020 was being asked to contribute to the series of historical reviews to commemorate 180 years of continuous publication of Post Magazine, now known as Insurance Post. Researching, interviewing and writing several articles for the ambitious series was a wonderful way of escaping from the turmoil of a blighted year.

The final article in the series was a review of the chaotic years of scandal, losses, fraud and eventual reform and reconstruction at Lloyd’s in the 1980s and 1990s. This was a period that I experienced first hand as editor of Insurance Age (from 1982) and then Post Magazine (from 1986) and immersing myself in it for a few weeks brought many memories flooding back. It was also an opportunity to speak to many people who were involved in the market then and I am grateful to them for giving me so much of their time and sharing their recollections and insights.

Insurance Post kindly let me share the final article more widely: it can be downloaded here.

The other articles I contributed to the 180th anniversary series during the year were:

War & Terrorism in the 19th and 20th centuries – charting the impact of war and terrorism on the British insurance market and its contribution to the major conflicts of the last 150 years

Post-War Corporate Collapses – including Fire, Auto and Marine, Vehicle & General, Equitable Life and Independent

Tackling Arson – including the notorious 1920s Fire Raiser Leopold Harris and his 1990s counterpart Peter Scott

19th Century insurance Frauds – some of the most colourful and gruesome frauds ever perpetrated

Other articles in the series looked at the revolution of direct insurance and the topsy-turvy years of rapid expansion and merger mania that swept loss adjusting – Part 1 and Part 2

David Coleridge: guided Lloyd’s through the storm

David Coleridge, who was chairman of Lloyd’s for two tumultuous years in the early 1990s, passed away on Boxing Day, aged 88.

Those two years, 1991 and 1992, saw Lloyd’s caught in the perfect storm of poor – often corrupt – underwriting practices, huge losses from disasters and natural catastrophes and the chaotic unravelling of the notorious LMX spiral. Lloyd’s was staggering towards the brink of collapse and it was Coleridge that bought the market time and laid the foundations for its revival under his successor, David Rowland.

He was born in Bombay (now Mumbai) on 7 June 1932, the son of a wealthy cotton broker and a descendent of the poet Samuel Coleridge Taylor. He was an avid collector of first editions and vintage volumes of the poet’s works, the most famous of which was The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. That story of a seafarer battling his way through massive storms offered a parallel to Coleridge’s time in the chair at Lloyd’s.

After education at Eton and national service he joined a Lloyd’s broker before moving to Sturge in 1957. Over the next 20 years he built this up into the largest underwriting and members’ agency at Lloyd’s and steadily become more involved in the governance of the market.

He succeeded Murray Lawrence as chairman just as the storm broke over Lloyd’s. The July 1991 annual meeting saw the full fury of Names, many facing bankruptcy and personal ruin as Lloyd’s reported huge losses, turned on the market’s bosses. Coleridge, who had paid his own losses just the day before the meeting, bore the brunt of this anger. For six long, highly-charged hours he stood at the lectern answering every question, suffering every insult and sharing in the pain of those whose wealth was being destroyed by Lloyd’s. It was a personal triumph and, in the view of many, created sufficient breathing space for the work to start on saving Lloyd’s (This story was told in my recent review of the period for Insurance Post’s 180th anniversary series).

By the autumn of 1991 he had recruited David Rowland to head up a Task Force with a brief to review everything, including the cherished unlimited liability, and, crucially, the capital structure. When this reported the following year, with its radical proposals to introduce corporate capital, Coleridge was initially hesitant but he eventually recognised that Rowland’s proposals offered the best hope of saving the market. He also realised that it would need a new man at the helm and stood down as chairman at the end of 1992 with Rowland taking his place.

Coleridge was approachable and patient with anyone he believed wanted to listen to what he was trying to do to turn the market round. He was brutally dismissive of those he identified as the market’s enemies.

Rowland is often, rightly, credited as the man who saved Lloyd’s but without Coleridge there would have been no Rowland era. Indeed, there may have been no Lloyd’s to save.

He remained one of the dwindling band of individual Names at Lloyd’s to the end of his life.

• This tribute was first published on the Insurance Post website on 29 December.

The world of work has changed: Let’s stop fighting it

For well over a quarter of a century we have been talking about how technology will revolutionise the world of work, liberating people from the rigid routines of commuting, the need to live near city centres, fixed office hours and excessive travelling. It hasn’t happened. We’ve automated plenty of things but have never really got round to addressing the way we work and the culture of presenteeism that underpins it.

The Covid-19 pandemic has shaken that world to its foundations but we are expending enormous amounts of energy trying to rebuild it. Why?

Of course, governments and business organisations will take the short-term view and panic at the sight of deserted city centres and empty trains but this is essentially a very short-sighted view.

People who can work from home have proved that it can be done and that productivity does not suffer. Indeed, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests productivity actually improves once people are not spending hours commuting, socialising after work or merely sitting at desks trying to look busy just to impress their boss.

We have embraced Zoom, Teams and other platforms in a way that has made people wonder why they used spend so much time travelling – often overseas – for face-to-face meetings that can easily be conducted virtually.

The work/life balance for many people has improved enormously and they are not going to let that benefit that go without a fight. One point that seems to have been too casually brushed aside in the panic to get people back to city centre offices as schools return is that with children out of the house many people will actually find working from home even easier. There is also the fear of travelling on potentially crowded trains, very understandable given the number of people who do not wear their masks and the propensity of trains to be one of the prime sources of infection in normal winters.

It’s not for everyone
Let’s not for one minute kid ourselves this change millions around the world have found one of the welcome side-effects of the pandemic is comfortable for everyone, or without its disadvantages. Many people do not live in places where it is easy to work from home. They may feel lonely and isolated or be at stages in their careers where the close mentoring and support available in a structured office environment is invaluable to them. We need to focus on solutions that involve hybrid working patterns, enabling people to make the choices to suit them. HR departments are going to have to develop a new suite of outreach skills to ensure that everyone is supported properly.

Governments and local authorities are in full panic mode about the damage to city centre businesses. So they should be. Not because people do not want to go back but because they do not have the right solutions. We are entering a phase of what economists call creative destruction and we need to embrace it, not fight it.

City centres are not going to return to what they were. That means businesses will fail, railways that relied on over-charging commuters will struggle and commercial property prices will slump. That is the destructive phase and governments need to step in to support those most hurt, the small businesses like the sandwich shops, bars and street food vendors.

Massive potential
The creative phase has massive potential.

People working from home will not want to sit in their houses all day, every day. They will want to meet people, collaborate and socialise with others. Some of that will be done back at their old offices – so they will need to be re-purposed to support collaborative working – but much of it will be done locally. This is one of the big opportunities we must seize: the opportunity to revitalise the struggling high streets of suburbia and provincial towns. Grants to help small businesses relocate from city centres would be a good start.

There is also a real opportunity to tackle social mobility and diversity. If people are not forced to move near city centres for work, often spending a huge proportion of their income on living costs, then businesses can recruit people from anywhere in the country. Where you live will no longer be a constraint on where you can work. There is a great opportunity in this for imaginative employers.

No-one pretends creative destruction is an easy force to manage but embracing it could bring great benefits and finally deliver that revolution in the way we work that has proved so elusive.

A publishing milestone: 180 years of innovation

Today marks an auspicious day in the world of publishing as it is exactly 180 years since Post Magazine first appeared on Saturday 25 July 1840. This was just seven months after the introduction of the Penny Post and it was the first publication anywhere in the world to be sent by post – hence its name – although it was always dedicated to covering the insurance market. It therefore ranks among one of the most significant commercial innovations of the nineteenth century as millions of specialist publications are still sent by post everyday.

This publishing innovation was the brainchild of John Hooper Hartnoll, editor of the Kentish Mercury. It was a bold move back in 1840 to create a magazine devoted to insurance that would be sent by an untried postal system. Sir Rowland Hill’s Penny Post replaced an expensive postal service that would have made any publishing venture economically impossible. It cost 8d (3.5p) to send a letter from London to Birmingham and 11d (4.5p) from the capital to Liverpool. The new system cut that to 1d (0.5p). On the front of that first issue, Post Magazine summed up the opportunity it was exploiting – “Remarkable Application Of The Reduced Postage”, it declared.

The first issue of Post Magazine with a Penny Black

Among the many adverts in the modest eight-page publication that Hartnoll produced from his office at 3½ Wine Office Court, just off Fleet Street opposite the Cheshire Cheese hostelry, was one from the Independent West Middlesex Assurance Company boasting “IMMEDIATE BENEFITS OFFERED to the PUBLIC. Life and Fire Insurance Rates reduced to 30 per cent. Per Annum Lower than any other Office”. The icing on this particular too good to be true cake was the promise of “A liberal commission allowed to Solicitors and Agents”.

Big advertising budgets, generous commissions, lower rates: all of these are familiar hallmarks of frauds and corporate collapses in the insurance industry right up to the present day.

The Independent West Middlesex had been founded just four years earlier by a doctor, two lawyers and a fourth gentleman who had a reputation as a smuggler. Obviously, a sufficient number of solicitors and other insurance agents were attracted by the promise of high commissions because by December 1840 it had taken almost £250,000 (over £25m at today’s values) in premiums. Having given a quarter of that back to the greedy agents, the four directors split the rest between them and fled the country.

We have no record of whether Hartnoll was ever paid for this advertisement but this early brush with fraud inspired him to dedicate the publication to exposing many other scams over the next 30 years of his editorship. That robust independence has been a hallmark of Post over the generations, a model followed by many other specialist publications. The full history of Post can be found on its website.

Insurance Post today: front cover of the current issue

Today, it is known as Insurance Post and is still covering the insurance industry.

This publication has been part of my life for almost 40 years, having edited it, re-launched it, laid the foundations for its events and awards programmes and I still write for it today. It is a privilege to have played a small part in such a great publishing story and to have worked with so many fantastic people along the way.

Telling the WW2 story of the Little Ships of Jersey

This week I should have been in Jersey taking part in the re-enactment of the rescue of the demolition crews and troops from St Malo in the middle of June 1940. Of course, the pandemic knocked that on the head.

Instead of a full re-enactment, yachts from St Helier Yacht Club staged a sail past around the harbour at St Helier led by Fiona (pictured in St Helier harbour), one of the 20 little ships from Jersey that answered the Admiralty’s plea for help in 1940. This was covered for the BBC by Robert Hall, a network correspondent who has been in Jersey for the duration of the pandemic and he kindly asked me to provide some context for his report.

BBC report on the 80th anniversary of the evacuation of British troops from St Malo by the Little Ships of Jersey, broadcast on 15 June 2020

The last-ditch rescue of the demolition teams was part of Operation Aerial, the largest element of the evacuation plan that swung into action after Dunkirk. When Dunkirk fell on 4 June there were still around 160,000 British troops, 25,000 Polish and Czech troops and almost 30,000 civilians who still needed to be rescued from France as the German forces swept through the country. During the rest of June they were brought back to England through ports along the Normandy and Biscay coasts. St Malo was one of those ports.

Over 20,000 troops had been evacuated from St Malo and as the Germans approached the demolition crews were sent in to do as much damage to the port facilities as possible in the time that was left. The problem was how to get them back as large ships were by then potentially in range of German guns and planes. This is where the 20 Little Ships of Jersey came into their own.

• This story, along with many others, some never previously published, will be in my book Bring Them Home: Churchill’s Second Miracle of Deliverance. This is almost complete, although this week’s broadcast has prompted more people to contact me with their relatives’ stories: I am very grateful to them and will weave as many of them as possible into the narrative.

More about Operation Aerial and my book

Routine is vital: We’ve got form on that front

I was very impressed by an interview on BBC News yesterday with journalist and presenter Joan Bakewell. She spoke about the importance of creating and sustaining routines while we sit at home, isolated from everything we consider normal.

Bakewell is 86 and explained that she had been unwell for some weeks before the coronavirus started its deadly progress in the UK. As it emerged as a threat she asked her doctor what she should do and was advised to self-isolate. She took this advice and so already has several weeks experience.

She stressed the importance of creating routines and sticking to them, including exercise, reading, taking up new hobbies and generally keeping busy in as structured a way as possible. It was persuasive and very pertinent.

I have worked for myself for nearly seven years and have long got used to working from home. From the start I eschewed the novelty of sitting around in my pyjamas all day. Get up, get dressed, have breakfast and start work has worked well for me. Never let yourself slide into having lazy day. By all means give yourself a day off but do it with a sense of purpose. I have run my life that way with a degree of success. It might help others now facing that challenge suddenly and unexpectedly.

The British have some interesting form in maintaining routine in the face of adversity. I have found a couple of stories in my many researches for my books.

One is told in Fighting for the Empire, the story of my wife’s grandfather, Thomas Kelly, a doctor in the Indian Medical Service.

In 1904 and 1905 he found himself in a remote province of Persia fighting an outbreak of the plague that was threatening to get out of hand. It was a desolate place and a very dangerous job. The famous Swedish explorer Sven Hedin arrived while Kelly was battling the menace of the plague. He was accommodated at the British Consulate (pictured) and could hardly believe the British determination to maintain certain standards and routine. Only a few weeks before an angry mob had attempted to burn this building down.

“Six Englishmen, without ladies, were staying in Seistan, and with them I spent nine memorable days. Englishmen have a knack of making themselves at home in whatever part of the world their lot may cast them, and even here in this wretched Nasretabad they lived much as in London. They did not come unshaved to luncheon in the great saloon, and at dinner they appeared in spruce attire, with starched shirts, dinner jackets, and patent leather shoes. And then we sank into the soft armchairs, and took coffee, with prime cigars, and, while the gramophone reminded us of the divas and tenors of the great world, whisky and soda were served, and we talked of Iran, Tibet, and the plague. We were in high spirits; and it was difficult to believe that all the while the angel of death was roaming about in search of his hapless victims.”

In the book on the evacuations from France in June 1940 I am currently writing there is the story of the playwright Rupert Downing and his escape from Paris to a port near the Spanish border on a bicycle. This took the best part of two weeks as he and a female colleague battled through the hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees fleeing the advancing Germans.

Downing was especially proud of his attempts to maintain some sort of standards – “some thread of tradition, custom, civilized habit, whatever you like to call it”. Having packed his shaving kit he was determined to make use of it every day, even when it meant crouching by a cold stream as dawn broke. It was an objective he proudly achieved.

These things matter in times of crisis and stress. Perhaps we can learn from them and from Joan Bakewell.

Stay safe.

Let’s make sure we cast BAME actors in authentic roles

Laurence Fox’s ill-informed comments about the appearance of a Sikh soldier in the gripping World War One drama 1917 sparked a debate about the need for more roles for actors from a wider range of ethnic backgrounds. Some of the responses raise the spectre of lazy casting undermining the authenticity of the BAME story in British society.

Let’s take WW1.

Of course, there were Sikhs fighting on the Western Front. There were many Indian regiments – Sikh, Muslim and Hindu – deployed in all theatres of the war. They were, however, separate regiments and not integrated with British Army regiments. The appearance of a Sikh soldier in a lorry carrying white British troops probably wouldn’t have been out of the ordinary, although one could quibble that he would have been in a slightly different uniform. He would have been quickly returned to his own unit, however.

Had he been wounded he would have been taken to a separate Indian Field Ambulance and would not have been treated in the British Field Hospital shown in the closing sequences of the film. The separation of the medical facilities with the Royal Army Medical Corps running the hospitals for British (white) soldiers and the Indian Medical Service running those for Indian soldiers was inefficient and part of what we would now call the institutional racism endemic in the British Empire.

An Indian Field Ambulance in Mesopotamia in 1916

It was not until the latter stages of the war that Combined medical units were formed but even they still had separate Indian wards, a division that continued into the Second World War. It took another battle to allow highly qualified British nurses to treat the Indian soldiers in these Combined hospitals so that they received the same quality of care as their British Army counterparts. All of these facts are evidenced in my book Fighting for the Empire, the story of an Irish Catholic doctor who joined the Indian Medical Service and fought the worst consequences of this institutional racism. Doctors who chose to serve in the IMS were often looked down on by their supposed colleagues in the RAMC and dismissed as “Sikh fellows”, the implication being they had in some way gone native. That was the reality of early 20th century British attitudes to race even when BAME soldiers were laying down their lives for the Empire.

There are some great stories to be told about the heroism of soldiers from different ethnic backgrounds. A handful even made the breakthrough into the mainstream British Army, the most outstanding being the black professional footballer Walter Tull. He was actually commissioned as a second lieutenant and was killed in France in March 1918. All through his career as a footballer and as a soldier he had to fight discrimination and prejudice.

Where does this leave the film industry?

Quite simply, it needs to keep hold of authenticity. The response to the legitimate complaints about the lack of substantial roles, at least in historical films such as 1917, should not just to be to cast a few more BAME actors in a way that masks or blunts the struggles they faced. It must be about authenticity. Anything less will do all of us a great disservice.

Great to see the All Party Insurance & Financial Services Group flourishing

I am delighted to see that the All Party Parliamentary Group on Insurance & Financial Services is going from strength-to-strength in its new partnership with the Chartered Insurance Institute and with former insurance broker, now Tory MP, Craig Tracey at the helm.

It is nearly 30 years since I helped launch the group as part of an initiative by Post Magazine. The mission was simple: to improve communications between the insurance industry and Parliament which were then at a low ebb. A series of major pieces of legislation had gone through over the previous three or four years that had adversely impacted on the insurance industry and it was frequently the target of unjustified criticism by MPs and ministers. Those were the days of huge Tory majorities (nothing changes) and recruiting Labour MPs to get the group established was a real struggle but we got there with the help of Muriel Turner, a Labour peer and former trade union official in the insurance industry. She persuaded Labour MPs it was worth supporting and it has never looked back.

The group has tackled a wide range of issues over the years and played a significant part in the formation of Pool Re, the introduction of equalisation reserves, securing compensation for people miss-sold home reversion plans and getting tougher action on uninsured driving. It also played a major role in finding a solution to the challenge of providing insurance for flood-prone properties, which led to the creation of Flood Re.

Tracey: former insurance broker at the helm of the All Party Group

Craig Tracey is only the fourth chair of the group in those thirty years, the others being Sir Robert McCrindle, John Greenway and Jonathan Evans, all Conservatives. He was recently re-elected and has a strong panel of fellow officers to support him, including some new faces.

Lord (David) Hunt (Con), Co-Chair
Barry Gardiner MP (Lab), Officer
Sir Peter Bottomley (Con), Officer
Rob Roberts MP (Con), Officer
Christian Wakeford MP (Con), Officer

Access to insurance has been a key theme for the group recently and it will be returning to that with its first public session of the year:

• Monday 30 March – Access to Insurance: Improving consumer access to protection for people with disabilities and long-term health conditions – 5pm to 7pm, Committee Room 5, Palace of Westminster

It has also booked two further public sessions before the summer recess:

• Monday 4 May – Topic tbc – 4.30pm to 6.30pm Committee Room 5, Palace of Westminster

• Monday 1 June – Future Skills across Financial Services – 4.30pm to 6.30pm Committee Room 5, Palace of Westminster

Tracey is also keen on reaching out to members across the UK to set up surgeries, as part of improving the engagement between Parliament and the profession. It will be interesting to see what comes of this bold initiative.

The group is now on Twitter – @IFSAPPG – and says it will be using it to share relevant news items and for live tweets about events and meetings it holds.

Anyone wanting further information about the group and its activities should contact:

Shayne Halfpenny-Ray
Secretariat, IFSAPPG
Chartered Insurance Institute
T:  +44(0)20 7417 4417
M: +44(0)79 2041 0368

The many dilemmas of Labour’s leadership

As the Labour leadership election moves into its next phase with the five surviving candidates looking for support among constituency parties and affiliated groups, everyone with an interest in the long-term health of British politics should take an intelligent interest in the outcome. Doing so exposes some serious dilemmas.

I am viewing this through the prism of a Liberal Democrat who has always believed the party – and its predecessor – should plant itself firmly on the centre left of British politics, seeing many in the Labour Party as natural allies on issues of progressive reform but parting company with them over the role of the state. From that perspective, it is disappointing that Clive Lewis fell at the first hurdle. His advocacy of electoral reform was very welcome but it now seems unlikely that any of the other candidates will embrace that essential step towards modernising our democracy.

What of those who are left in the contest?

It does look, at this stage, to be shaping up as a contest between Kier Starmer and Rebecca Long-Bailey, although Lisa Nandy and Jess Phillips are both running vigorous campaigns. Emily Thornberry appears to be the rank outsider.

There are plenty of people, especially Liberal Democrats I speak to, who think that Long-Bailey would make Labour unelectable. I tend to agree with that analysis. This is taken to be a good thing. Of that, I am not so convinced.

First, we need a credible opposition that looks electable in order to keep the government on its toes. That applies whoever is in power.

Second, the idea that another far left Labour leader would clear the centre ground for the Liberal Democrats, especially with the Tories led from the right, seems to be a complete fallacy.

If this was true why did the Lib Dems do so badly in the recent General Election? The centre ground was wide open, yet they failed dismally. We know alot of the blame can be laid at the door of the ill-conceived Revoke Article 50 policy but fear of a Corbyn government also had a large part to play. The Liberals do not fare well when large numbers of people fear a left wing socialist government.

British voters recoil from the prospect of a genuine left-wing Socialist government.

The scenario was similar to the 1980s. The Tories were led from the right by Margaret Thatcher and Labour had two successive leaders from the left – Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock. The Liberals were joined in the centre by the high profile Social Democratic Party. The result was three elections of relative failure and frustration for the Liberal/SDP Alliance and later the Liberal Democrats.

It took the resurgence of Labour under John Smith and Tony Blair to create a political climate in which the Liberal Democrats could flourish nationally. Without a Labour leader that could be easily demonised as a left wing monster, moderate voters felt safe in voting for a centre party rather than swallowing hard and taking cover by voting Conservative. Our polarising electoral system constantly forces people into such unpalatable choices.

Jo Swinson naively played to this dynamic during the campaign by appearing to be more hostile to Jeremy Corbyn than Boris Johnson, although she would have been dammed if she did and dammed if she didn’t, such is the difficulty of fighting from the centre when Labour is led from the left.

It will be better for the health of British politics and the future of the Liberal centre ground (which I make no apologies for caring about) if Labour opts for the dull common sense offered by Starmer over the left-wing purity of Long-Bailey. As the 1990s and early 2000s proved, a Liberal Democrat resurgence does Labour no harm as it takes votes from the Tories.

Revoke Article 50: the folly of policymaking by petition

There is still a vigorous debate raging in Liberal Democrat circles about the Revoke Article 50 policy that Jo Swinson and her team unwisely thrust to the forefront of their campaign and which cost them dear in terms of lost votes and seats.

One of the frequent justifications advanced by those still vainly defending this policy is that it had wide support among the general public. The only evidence they can produce for this claim is a single petition on the UK Government and Parliament website that attracted 6,103,057 “signatures”. This prompted me to reflect on the value of online petitions which are now commonplace, with many of us constantly urged to sign them.

This petition attracted considerably more than the 3,696,419 votes the Liberal Democrats received in last month’s General Election and shows the folly of being seduced by the large numbers some of these petitions quickly attract. Online petitions are created in haste and all too easily signed in haste with little real thought given to the subject, its implications and consequences, let alone any potential complexities. This one is a case study that proves all of those points.

It is badly worded. Leaving aside the poor grammar, it makes endless assumptions about the state of the Brexit debate in the middle of last year, the shift – or otherwise – in public support for Brexit, the likelihood of a second referendum and completely fails to address the question of “what next?” if Article 50 was revoked.

Clearly, many people clicked to sign this petition without giving it a moment’s thought. It appears the Liberal Democrat leadership did the same. I doubt very much whether there were ever six million people who really believed in Revoking Article 50. Interestingly, some earlier “Revoke Article 50” petitions on websites such as attracted only a few hundred or a few thousands signatures. This should have prompted Swinson’s team to pause before adopting this as their showpiece policy for the General Election.

Obviously, some hard core Liberal Democrat supporters believed it. Perhaps some Labour supporters believed in it too but there it ends. It was naive to believe otherwise.