Archive: credit crunch

A Useful Fiction coverHave you noticed that there is a lot of introspection about devolution just now? I suppose it underlines the fact that devolution is a process rather than a settlement that everyone is still looking at how to tweak it. Maybe it is just the newness of it. The Scottish Parliament is very young as these things go, just ten years old. As such, there is inevitably a sense that we haven’t quite got it right yet.

Mind you, you can never get it “right”, in the sense that everyone will be happy. Westminster is as well-established as they come, and yet people are constantly suggesting reforms from every angle imaginable. That has, of course, gained even more momentum in the past year or so, particularly with expenses scandals and the like.

So it is only natural that people should be wagging their jaws about devolution all the time. But the chat has seemed particularly intense of late. The SNP are having a National Conversation, while the other major parties have thrown their lot in with the recently published Calman report.

I guess you can put a lot of this down to the fact that the SNP are in government. That was an epoch; completely new territory that demanded introspection. What are the reasons for the SNP being in power? Unless it is an anti-Labour vote (which, to be fair, is highly likely), it may be because people are unhappy with the constitutional situation as it stands. An SNP government is perceived to be a major step towards independence, even if a number of major hurdles remain.

The tenth anniversary of the Scottish Parliament is also a good excuse to look back on how devolution has panned out so far and to work out how to refine the system for the future. All of this has been a useful hook on which to hang Patrick Hannan’s latest book, A Useful Fiction, of which I recently received a copy to review.

But that is largely a marketing device. The tenth anniversary of devolution is barely, if at all, mentioned. Meanwhile, thoughts on the Calman Commission feel as though they have been slightly shoehorned in, rushing to mention it lest the book feel out of date by the time people get round to reading it.

But the book could not have been written six months ago. Indeed, the sheer amount of important events that actually happened in the past year or so (chief among them the credit crunch and the collapse of RBS and HBOS) become quite clear as you read the book. For that reason, it probably will feel out of date by the time many people get round to reading it. But that is the peril of writing a book about current events, especially a process as unpredictable as devolution.

Mind you, not all of the book is about current political events. That is simultaneously the book’s main strength and its main weakness. On the one hand, it ensures that the book isn’t completely preoccupied with political points that are very salient in 2009 but will be fish wrapper come 2010. On the other hand, any politics geeks who read the blurb and expect to be able to immerse themselves in interesting constitutional arguments will be disappointed.

While the second half of the book focuses very much on the politics of devolution, it takes a while for the book to reach that point. Much of the front end of the book is preoccupied with more general points about national identity. I spent a lot of my time thinking, “well there’s plenty about cricket, rugby, the meaning of flags and other cultural issues; but not much of the politics I was looking for”.

That is not to say the early part of the book is useless; far from it. These reflections on Britishness and the nature of national identity are fundamental to the subject, not to say interesting to read about. But I did feel as though the book was taking its time to deal with the questions I was seeking answers for.

But when the book does move on to ask these questions, answers are few and far between. In his review of the book, Will Patterson said that A Useful Fiction is a book for moderates, which is a good way of putting it.

It is not exactly to say that Patrick Hannan constantly flits cowardly around the middle ground. I did raise my eyebrows from time to time in the course of reading this book. But after making an interesting suggestion, he often fails to commit it. The reader feels almost like the victim of a practical joker who looks like he is passing you something only to snatch it away as you reach out for it.

This left me finishing the book feeling as though I had read an interesting book, but one that lacked any central themes or arguments. It makes me wonder what Patrick Hannan sat down to write the book for, other than to set out an interesting collection of thoughts on Britain’s constitutional situation.

Nonetheless, I would say it is well worth reading A Useful Fiction because it is an interesting collection of thoughts. It certainly provided me with some fresh perspectives and Mr Hannan is an engaging enough writer.

But if you think you’ll want to read it, I would hurry up before it gets overtaken by events.

The Europe-wide picture

The consensus seems to be that, Europe-wide, it was a good election for the centre-right. It certainly seems as though the governing centre-left parties have taken a bit of a battering, while voters seem content with centre-right governments.

Those of a socialist persuasion may well feel disgruntled. In the midst of an economic crisis which they say was caused by the excesses of capitalism, voters seem to have lost faith in socialist parties’ ability to deal with it. The far left also took a knock. On the other hand, the Green grouping is the one grouping (aside from non-aligned) to have increased its representation in the European Parliament.

Interestingly, despite the fact that apathy was the clear winner of the election across the EU, the main Eurosceptic grouping was almost totally wiped off the map, with the exception of Ukip. Perhaps domestic issues are the cause of this. But if 2004 was the breakthrough year for Eurosceptic parties (which led to the formation of the Independence / Democracy group), 2009 was the bump back to earth. As thing stand (and no doubt they will try to woo more MEPs on board), Ukip alone now account for almost two thirds of the grouping.

The main UK parties

The UK-only picture was rosier for Ukip, but only slightly. This year will be remembered for the fact that they finished 2nd ahead of Labour. But they would be deluding themselves if they believed this was because of a rise in support. Their increase in the share of the vote was a pretty titchy 0.3 percentage points. Indeed, they gained fewer votes than in 2004, and got just one extra MEP despite the huge collapse in trust of the major Westminster parties.

In a lot of ways, the UK picture as a whole is surprisingly static. Yes, there was a massive drop in support for Labour. But none of the major parties were in a position to capitalise, so everyone apart from Labour just shuffled up a bit. In the circumstances, the Conservatives ought to be pretty miffed that they lost votes and increased their vote share by just 1 percentage point. It doesn’t exactly look like a party with the momentum to take a Westminster landslide.

The Lib Dems, who arguably weren’t hurt nearly as much as Labour and the Tories by the expenses scandal, managed to reduce their share of the vote, which almost no other party did. Of course Labour’s share decreased. Plaid Cymru’s UK-wide share decreased, but their Wales-only share went up. The only other party to reduce its share of the vote was the Scottish Socialist Party, which has cemented its place in history by being consigned to it.

The BNP

The BNP made a different kind of history by winning two seats, which became the story of the election. It was probably inevitable that people would “blame” proportional representation for this. But the simple fact is that PR doesn’t vote fascists in — fascist voters do.

6.8% is not an inconsiderable share. Almost a million voters decided to put their cross next to the BNP on the ballot paper, and they didn’t do so by accident. Gerrymandering them out of existence will only exacerbate the problem.

That’s not to say that the closed party list system used for European Elections isn’t flawed, because it is — deeply so. But the corrupt First Past the Post system would only further increase the anger that people feel at being disenfranchised by the political system.

In a lot of ways, the BNP’s “success” is pretty unremarkable. In 2004 they were the sixth most successful party. This year, they were still the sixth most successful party. In the region where Nick Griffin won his seat, the North West, the BNP actually got fewer votes than in 2004.

The BNP only got seats because Labour’s collapse was so dramatic, and those former Labour votes went to a large variety of smaller parties. 11.3% of votes went to parties that weren’t among the top eight, compared to 8.3% that went to other parties in 2004 (and that was in the days of a relatively strong Respect party).

The BNP didn’t gain seats because they caught up with those in front. They gained seats because others joined the queue behind them. Despite still having five people in front of them, the BNP effectively moved closer to the front in relation to the entire queue — just because more people joined behind them.

Nonetheless, any attempts to ignore or belittle the BNP’s success, or to gerrymander it away, should be condemned. It is important to understand why people would come to vote for a fascist party, because that is the best way of defeating the ideology.

Luckily, YouGov have done a good job at finding out (more detail here). And — surprise surprise — it seems that BNP voters are mostly racist. That rather undermines the idea that people voted for the BNP just as a protest vote. With so many potential protest parties, why choose BNP? I guess they were at the top of many ballot papers, but that oughtn’t gain them so many votes. No, people vote for the BNP mostly because they are racists.

In difficult economic circumstances, people often turn to fascism. It is totally misguided to do so though. One potential plus side of the BNP gaining a couple of MEPs is the fact that the spotlight will now be shone on them, and people will see just how rotten their ideology is.


I will look at the Scottish results in a separate article

Yesterday, for the first time in a while, I took a trip into Kirkcaldy’s main shopping centre, the Mercat. I’m very familiar with the first set of shops that meet you from the entrance. I passed them all many, many times on my way to work at the late, great Woolworths.

This opening corridor is a very strange looking place now. The entrance to Woolworths lies at the end of the corridor, facing the entrance to the Mercat. It is the first thing you see as you enter. This alone makes the shopping centre feel dark and desolate. Instead of a bustling Woolies, there is now a large grey shutter, unflinchingly shut.

What is now striking about this section of the Mercat is the fact that so many other shops have shut since Woolies closed down. In fact, when you look at it, there is barely a shop between the entrance of the Mercat and Woolworths that hasn’t been badly affected by the recession.

At the entrance, on the left, is The Officers Club. This briefly went into administration just before Christmas. But a number of stores were saved, including Kirkcaldy’s. This is actually one of the few success stories of the Mercat’s recent past.

Opposite The Officers Club is The Works. This has been in the Mercat for a while. The only problem is, it used to occupy a much larger unit with two floors. The new Works is probably a third of the size. It occupies the slot that was vacated by Bookworld a couple of years ago.

The old home of The Works was filled over Christmas by Calendar Club, a makeshift shop that was only there for a couple of months. Today the unit lies empty.

Next to it lies the former home of Internacionale. This has become empty since Christmas. Presumably they have moved into the Mk One unit at the other end of the shopping centre.

Further along, we come to Passion for Perfume. This is another chain which unravelled in the run-up to Christmas. Today, it’s just another grey shutter left permanently down.

Opposite lies an empty space which is presumably a unit which has been vacant for as long as I can remember. This is next door to Card Factory which has also recently closed down. the Original Shoe Company, a JJB Sports subsidiary which was recently put into administration. Now the only thing on display there is the windolene smeared all over the entrance.

At the top of the corridor, next to the former Woolies unit lies the entrance to an actual JJB Sports. Ironically, this is actually a relatively new shop. It fills a unit that had been empty for a while. It was extensively renovated to accommodate JJB Sports. The shop itself is upstairs, residing directly above Woolworths. I reckon around 18 months was spent building just above our shop (and they were quite noisy about it at times too).

Then, mere days after JJB opened, rumours about its seriously poor health surfaced. I think it, just about, remains open. But I hear it is absolutely dead. I am not surprised given than you are presented with nothing but an escalator when you go through the entrance.

I have heard that JJB were actually reluctant to move in. I am told that the Mercat paid for all of the renovation work themselves. If that is true, they must really be kicking themselves. Not only did they build it for a shop that has been on its knees ever since it opened, they could now take their pick from about half a dozen empty units.

This is a stroke of bad luck really. Once you turn the corner past Woolies, the situation is not quite so bad. But the impression you get as you walk through the entrance is that the Mercat is half dead. Almost every store along the way has been affected by the credit crunch, the only exceptions being Greggs and HMV.

It may put people off proceeding further than Woolies. The whole place feels so dark and empty now. Instead of bright shop lights, you are presented with shutter after shutter. The contrast to twelve months ago could hardly be greater.

(With apologies to dad, from whom I nicked this post’s title.)

It’s no secret that the Scottish media is going through a particularly tough time at the moment. In a sense, the past decade or so can probably be described as one long tough time. Job cuts have been piled upon job cuts. With sales plummeting, advertising revenues shrinking and the uncertain world of new media, the credit crunch is simply the icing on the cake.

Just yesterday it was announced that seventy jobs at Trinity Mirror will go once production of the Daily Record and the Sunday Mail merges into a single operation. That amounts to a quarter of editorial staff.

The state of the Scottish press was one of the subjects discussed on Newsnight Scotland yesterday (from 18:07). BBC Scotland’s business and economy editor Douglas Fraser (himself a former Herald journalist) noted that when The Herald and the Sunday Herald did something similar, more people requested redundancy than the Herald Group was actually looking for. On his blog he wrote:

It doesn’t say much about working at those heavier titles to find management has even more voluntary redundancies than they had wanted.

It’s worth remembering also that last year staff at those newspapers held strikes in protest at cuts. But it might not be just the Herald group of newspapers which has become a more difficult place to work. Costs at all newspapers are constantly being cut, but the newspapers are churning out just as much content as before. If anything, they are producing more content as a result of the 24 hour news cycle, and the need to keep websites constantly updated.

Today I have received an email informing me that North Lanarkshire Council has (presumably accidentally) published details of shortlisted candidates for the role of Head of Corporate Communications and Marketing. The job went to Stephen Penman, who used to be deputy editor of the Sunday Herald.

I am reluctant to elaborate too far further in case it annoys any of the people concerned. But the list has been published publicly, albeit without forenames, so you may be able to join the dots. My informant seems certain that the list contains a number of big names from various newspapers and public affairs firms.

No doubt the job of Head of Communications at a local council tends to attract candidates with a background in journalism and public affairs. But the calibre of these applicants is quite striking. There is an Associate Editor for the Scottish version of a major UK-wide newspaper; Group Content Editor for a major Scottish newspaper group; possibly Group Political Editor for a national newspaper group and a columnist for a Scottish newspaper. There is also at least one person, and maybe two, who currently work for private sector public affairs / PR companies.

Whatever you make of it, it has spurred someone to email me. He says: “Considering these names there is a rush to get out of the dead tree press and the private sector and into the safe harbour of the public sector.”

It’s pretty clear that the Scottish press is in turmoil just now. With devolution, there is more politics going on than there used to be, and it is the media’s job to keep on top of it. But ever since devolution, Scottish papers have increasingly struggled to make ends meet in the face of the internet revolution. The government is stronger, but the media is weaker — and that’s a dangerous situation to be in.

It seems likely that this town ain’t big enough for both The Scotsman and The Herald. Many see it as a foregone conclusion that both papers will be dead before long unless something radical is done. Recently Stewart Kirkpatrick, former editor of Scotsman.com, wrote a blog post on what such radical action may look like.

With the latest news coming from Trinity Mirror, it looks as though Scotland’s main tabloid newspaper will similarly struggle. It seems as though even in the best case scenario for the Scottish media, a lot more jobs are going to go and the Scottish press is going to be a lot weaker.

First of all, apologies to anyone who became sick of Woolworths when I published eight posts in a row about it. As you will have seen, “normal” service is on its way to resumption. Anyway, it was good to get it all off my chest, and is at least cheaper than seeing a therapist.

When I started writing this series, I thought I was going to end up with four posts. I ended up writing nine posts, and almost 10,000 words. I have a few final thoughts before I shut up about the subject for good.

A lot of people who have spoken to me about Woolworths have blamed the credit crunch and / or the government for the demise of Woolworths. As my posts have outlined, I think that is a gross simplification of the matter. If you look at the archives of newspapers you can see that people have seen this coming for a while, credit crunch or no credit crunch.

No doubt the staggering deterioration in the economy from October onwards accelerated things a lot. But there were fundamental problems with Woolworths, partly because it was burdened by almost 100 years of history which made it difficult to evolve.

A lot of people said they felt sorry for the way “they” were treating us. I couldn’t find it in myself to be angry (although that was admittedly made easier by the fact that I was planning on leaving anyway). No-one planned on the business failing. As for the administrators, it is their job to recover as much money from the situation as possible. That can mean being pretty ruthless and it cannot be an easy situation to manage.

A lot of customers asked me questions as though I had some kind of magical insider knowledge. When I said I didn’t know what was happening some people would say they thought I was being treated badly. I usually said, “I don’t think they even know what’s happening themselves.” I don’t know if they did know, but I imagine events were pretty fast-moving.

The reality was that I would have had a much better idea of what was happening if I stayed at home and watched the news. Lots of customers would come in and talk about what they had heard on the news, probably not even realising that we were totally unaware of whatever development had come about. It was unfortunate that things happened that way, but I doubt it can be helped.

The more I researched the history of Woolworths for this series of posts, the more I came to the conclusion that it was actually a fundamentally good business — or at least had the potential to be a good business. But throughout its history it has been maltreated in various ways and it ended up battered and bruised, limping on until finally keeling over this year.

For instance, the British arm of Woolworths was always more successful than its American parent. But until 1982 it sent most of its profits back to America. The Kingfisher years were, if anything, even worse.

Kingfisher failed to find an identity for itself and Woolworths was demerged in 2001. Under Kingfisher the stores had begun to crumble. Worst of all, just before the demerger Kingfisher sold all of Woolworths’s property, meaning that the new company had to lease it all back from landlords. Woolworths had crippling rent bills for the rest of its life. Woolworths still had huge takings, but it was brought down by massive overheads.

Arguably, the main beneficiary of the situation was B&Q. Kingfisher, rich having sold all of the Woolies property, continues to own B&Q to this day. But it was Woolworths which originally had the foresight to buy B&Q.

Home improvement and DIY was a big thing for Woolworths by the 1980s, as you can see in this advert from 1980. The products featured are almost entirely DIY-oriented.

Certain that DIY was a growth area, then-chairman of Woolworths Geoffrey Rogers bought the then-fledgling B&Q. The DIY offering in Woolworths was watered down to make way for B&Q. This might be one major reason why so many people cite Wilkinson as the store that replaced Woolworths.

Although Woolies appeared to have lost its way in the later years, there’s no doubt that most people had a real affection for the store. I saw lots of great blog posts during the final few weeks:

And some nice nostalgic offerings from more major news outlets:

Now, sadly, the shutter is down for good.

It's now staying shut

By the time I started working for Woolworths, the company was pushing its in-store ordering system big time. In Summer 2006 The Big Red Book was launched to encourage customers to make use of the ordering facility. As sales assistants, we were always encouraged to offer to order any items that weren’t in stock.

Unfortunately, the ordering system was, in my view, a customer satisfaction minefield. The system was slow, clunky and difficult to use. Worse still, the majority of times I checked for an item, it wasn’t in stock and it wasn’t available to order (latterly, it was actually a surprise if an item was in stock). Customers would often raise an eyebrow and say, “I thought you were ordering it because it wasn’t in stock.” No such logic in the Woolworths system. And the flat £4.95 charge for home delivery simply wasn’t worth it for smaller items.

The catalogue also raised customers’ expectations about what they could find in store. A customer would browse the catalogue at home, and expect to be able to find every item they wanted in store. Not so, of course — that’s why they produced a catalogue in the first place. But there were a lot of disappointed customers.

During my stint at Cumbernauld there was a problem soon after the price of pic ‘n’ mix increased. It was still being advertised in the catalogue at the lower price, and the customer demanded to be charged the lower price. I know of at least one other similar incident with another product. The company seemed to forget that producing the catalogue meant they couldn’t really increase any prices.

The Big Red Book experiment was an inept attempt to beat Argos at its own game that was doomed to fail. I have heard that the experiment was ultimately an expensive disaster, and that the ordering system was one cause of the stock availability problems. The catalogue was scrapped in late 2008 (but not before the company had already produced not one but two Christmas 2008 catalogues), but the damage had already been done.

The whole adventure is ironic given that Woolworths was an early player in the catalogue store format with its Shoppers World chain. Woolies gave up on it in the 1980s. Maybe if they persevered they would never have had to worry about Argos.

Smarty-pants analysts like to point out that retailers need things like catalogues and high online sales to survive. But where is Poundland’s online ordering system? I notice also that I can’t buy my food shopping on the Aldi and Lidl websites. Yet these three stores are all in rude health, and are expanding as though the credit crunch never happened. That’s because they focus on providing goods that customers want at low prices — not producing costly catalogues.

It’s highly notable that those currently well-performing stores are all value retailers. Once upon a time, Woolworths would have been seen as a value retailer. Somehow it took its eye off the ball. Woolies was neither a place where you would be sure to find value-for-money bargains, nor a place to buy high-quality goods. Instead, it uncomfortably took a path in the middle — a retailing no man’s land.

In fairness, the launch of the WorthIt! brand was a good stab at offering value-for-money products, and the value was indeed often impressively good. Unfortunately, this sometimes seemed to be at the expense of the main range of products.

For instance, you could always find a better range of stationery in WH Smith (even if it was more expensive there). But alarmingly, the range at Woolworths seemed to get worse since I started working there. Of course, some products had to go to make shelf space for the WorthIt! range. This meant that I could buy sets of WorthIt! notepads that were undoubtedly excellent value for money, but they weren’t quite as good as my preferred kind of mini notepads that disappeared from existence.

Meanwhile, can you believe that latterly we did not sell such basic stationery equipment as a tape dispenser? I only realised this because a customer asked me if we stocked them. I instinctively said yes (of course we do!) only to lose the spring in my step once I had led my customer to the stationery area, realising that I had not seen one in yonks. Boy, did I feel like an idiot.

There were few signs that the product range was going to improve from 2009 onwards. Among the last new products that arrived was a dummy CCTV camera. This must have been designed to be put on sale after the Christmas period, the tell-tale sign being that they came in with half price stickers plastered all over them when they were not yet half price.

Unfortunately, at full price these plastic pieces of crap that literally did nothing (the only feature of this plastic, fake CCTV camera, was a blinking LED) sold for well north of £20. Customers did not touch them with a bargepole, even when the store-wide discount sat at 90% off on the final day.

Most of our remaining stock

There they are on the bottom-right of the above photograph along with a million and one WorthIt! laundry hooks. These were among our unsold products after the shutter went down for the final time on Tuesday. In fairness to the laundry hooks, they probably sold fairly well. The only reason we had loads left was because the distribution centre sent us way too many. By that time, crisis mode was well under way, and clearly the distribution centres’ only aim was to get rid of all the stock, just chucking stuff on cages and waving goodbye.

Another of the final new products to arrive was a set of four crocus vases with crocus bulbs. Not a bad product in and of itself. The problem was that the packaging was shockingly bad. There was next to no protection for the individual vases, meaning that they rattled around inside the box, clattering against each other. This sometimes damaged not only the vases but the bulbs as well (which just sat loose on the top of the vases). If a box was dropped, it was curtains.

Worse still, the boxes came with a huge display window. Not so unusual, except for the fact that it wasn’t so much a window as a massive hole in the box. Unprotected by any kind of cellophane covering, it didn’t take too much jiggling for a vase to “accidentally” fall out of the box. A shoplifter would have had a field day with these, simply being able to inconspicuously reach in, grab a vase and pocket it.

The packaging was so poor that the whole lot ended up being scanned off the books. We took the surviving vases out and sold them separately, sans crocus bulbs, for 30p each. But what a load of money that must have gone down the drain, and all for some thoughtlessly bad packaging!

One question that many of my friends have asked me over the past couple of months is, did I see it coming? For many, it was a shock that an institution like Woolworths could even be in mild difficulty, never mind on the brink of going out of business. But the honest answer to their question was: yes, I did see it coming. And I wasn’t the only one.

What was shocking was the speed with which it did happen. I thought everyone involved would at least give Woolworths a chance over Christmas. But the depth of the trouble to hit the High Street was even greater than I had imagined, and Woolworths was essentially given its last chance in mid-November.

I was first aware of the possibility of Woolworths getting into financial difficulty being raised in early 2007. Everyone was paid to come in for an hour to attend a meeting. If memory serves, we were basically told to ensure that standards were kept high and that displays were set up how they should be. During this talk the possibility that Woolworths might go out of business was brought up.

Back then, it seemed like a distant possibility. Nonetheless, it didn’t take me long after I started working for Woolworths in July 2006 to wonder if the company might be in a spot of bother. For the entire time I worked there, our shop never had working air conditioning — and I know that ours wasn’t the only one. Apparently they couldn’t afford to fix it. Temperatures were almost unbearably high during the summer, and I frequently overheard customers mentioning the terrible heat inside the shop. That seems to me at least one possible reason why footfall may have decreased.

Meanwhile, the fact that it took six weeks for my name badge to arrive, and the fact that I never received a uniform was a sign of, if not financial problems, at least incompetence somewhere or other in the chain. (I did have a uniform, but my Woolworths polo shirt was the one given to me on the first day which I believe was my manager’s old one. I didn’t kick up a fuss because it did the job just fine. I never got a fleece though!)

Meanwhile, we ran out of basic supplies, in my view, alarmingly often. It wouldn’t surprise me if other shops ran out of stuff from time to time. But we completely ran out of carrier bags at least once and had to resort to using bin liners (a scenario which was repeated when things unravelled in December 2008). Perennially we lacked tissue paper with which to wrap fragile goods. We also often ran out of the paper we needed to make temporary price labels.

When I started I am sure we had five (or maybe even six) Piccolink “guns” — the hand held stock management devices. These reduced in number over time until at the end we had just two — and they were both broken. These devices were almost essential to do our job, and the shortage was the source of much frustration.

For a couple of months after the Christmas 2006 period, supplies of stock seemed to completely dry up. The stockroom looked pretty empty and certainly in my department we started selling the dregs of the inventory in the stockroom. At first I thought maybe it was normal for just after Christmas. But when more experienced colleagues told me they had never seen the stockroom so empty, the signs pointed to the fact that the company was facing difficulties.

After a relatively benign 2007, sales fell off a cliff throughout 2008. My workload was noticeably lower in 2008 than it was in 2007. When the credit crunch worsened that summer, I began to think it was more likely than not that Woolworths would fall victim. Things were bad for the company anyway, but if things became bad for the economy as a whole as well it was difficult to see a way out.

Any notion that top management stuck its head in the sand should be dispelled. Even though on the surface Woolworths didn’t change much, there is no doubt that they were looking for a solution. Unfortunately, they came across the wrong solutions.

It is too easy to blame the demise of Woolworths on the credit crunch. Although High Street retailers are undoubtedly feeling the effects of the current economic situation, a good business can still survive with little problem. Sure, in a more benign time when credit was more available, Woolworths would have found it easier to borrow more money to survive another year.

But unmanageable debt — all £385 million of it in Woolworths’s case — will come back to bite when times are tough. In a way, Woolworths was lucky that the past decade or so was so benign. It was given the benefit of the doubt by the favourable economic environment.

Obviously things unravelled quickly in November. It became clear that Woolworths was in talks with Hilco, a company that specialises in turning around distressed retailers, to sell the retail arm of the business for £1 and offload a significant chunk of the debt. That was a sign of extreme desperation. Woolworths was looking to get rid of its core retail business by any means, in the hope of salvaging the more profitable businesses Entertainment UK and 2 entertain.

In the end, the banks refused to back such a deal, opting instead to recover their money. The retail arm and Entertainment UK both went into administration on 26 November 2008. From a business point of view, it was a shame that a profitable, successful business like EUK had to be brought down along with the shops. That had a more-or-less direct consequence on another major retailer, Zavvi, which relied on EUK for all of its supplies.

The disappearance of Woolworths also means the disappearance of other well-loved brands. Children’s clothing brand Ladybird has a history and involvement with Woolworths stretching back to 1934. It became exclusive to Woolworths in the 1980s and was bought outright by the company in 2001.

Meanwhile, the historic toy brand Chad Valley has also fallen victim. Like Ladybird, Chad Valley has a long history going back to 1860. Chad Valley withered on the vine in the 1980s, but Woolworths bought the name in 1991 and it became the store’s own brand toy make. Administrators are hoping to sell both brand names, and I would have thought the chances of these brands surviving in some form in the future are high.

Another Woolworths brand might not be so sorely missed. The WorthIt! value range was a recent addition, only launching properly in 2007 after a trial period. I think it made a good name for itself, particularly in affordable electronic goods. The likes of WorthIt! kettles and WorthIt! microwaves flew off the shelves.

A lot of WorthIt! products were cheap and nasty though. It was difficult to suppress the giggles when WorthIt! toilet seats were returned because they cracked under the weight of enormous bahookies. I would have thought a sale of the WorthIt! brand is less likely, given that it was pretty much intrinsically tied to Woolworths, right down to the punning name.

Given that the news and most of everyone’s thoughts on current affairs are currently dominated by the problems in the global financial system, it is easy to let relatively minor things like a by-election slip your mind. But when I turned my thoughts to the upcoming Glenrothes by-election and politics in general a few days ago, it struck me that the political narrative is quite different to the way it was, say, a month ago.

It’s funny. When the credit crunch was only a moderately bad pickle, Gordon Brown seemed like an incompetent, bumbling fool. Now when it is full-on, sirens wailing, women-and-children-first time, that has changed.

He is not quite a god, but people are no longer questioning his leadership all the time. People have noticed that he seems more confident. He certainly seems to have a spring in his step. He has even been cracking jokes! And people laughed at them!

When it was only Northern Rock that had gone belly-up, Gordon Brown was regarded as an idiot. Now they’ve all gone belly-up, he is a genius! I am being facetious, although Jeff has pointed out the conflict of interest that is at play here.

Because while it was cheesy and I didn’t like it, the “it’s no time for a novice, ZING!” line worked. It made you think about who else might be in charge and no matter how bad you think Gordon Brown is, in a lot of ways it plays into the conservatism that is part of human nature. Better the devil you know.

There has been some talk about an apparent rebound in Labour’s popularity. Anthony Wells adds a significant note of caution to that.

It’s been suggested that Labour’s polling boost is confined to its heartlands. That would usually be bad news for Labour. But if it’s true that Labour’s boost is amplified in Scotland, that could potentially bring them right back in the hunt for Glenrothes.

I imagine SNP activists have always approached this by-election believing they have a fight on their hands to win the constituency. But they will surely be hugely disappointed if they lose.

For one thing, this constituency must have been on their radar anyway after they won the roughly analogous Fife Central seat in last year’s Scottish Parliament election. Then the SNP spectacularly won the Glasgow East by-election. This by-election came at a time when Labour were at their lowest ebb.

The ‘dithering’ image that Labour have built up over the past year or so was not helped much by their apparent decision to delay the by-election for as long as possible. And their choice of date (only recently announced, but rumoured for a long time) of 6 November looked an awful lot like they wanted to bury the bad news under the aftermath of the US Presidential election. They might as well have just written “we’re gonna lose!” on their election literature.

But now the decision to delay is looking a bit smarter to me. It’s really interesting because I think previously the general view was that the UK as a whole had fallen out with Brown in particular, but Scotland fell out with Labour as a whole. And the SNP’s honeymoon period in the Scottish Parliament made that double trouble for Labour. Now it looks like all of those trends may be reversing somewhat.

The rebound in Labour’s popularity and the renewed confidence in Gordon Brown’s leadership bodes well for Labour. Then there is the fact that, as Anthony Wells pointed out, there is little space for opposition parties to grab many headlines at the moment.

Of course, there are still almost four weeks to go and a lot can happen in that time. And the fact that the SNP still have a great chance of winning Glenrothes, ostensibly a safe Labour seat (no matter whether or not the SNP took Fife Central last year), shows how far Labour have fallen.

Nonetheless, today I think Labour have a much better chance of winning Glenrothes than they did, say, a month ago. And according to this blog, the bookmakers have moved away from an SNP win recently.

If you haven’t read my previous post explaining what I’m trying to do here, feel free to take a look.

In this post I will set out the thinking behind my views on Scottish independence.

For what it’s worth, I think within a couple of decades the idea of the independent nation state will almost be completely alien. In a lot of ways, it already is. In an increasingly globalised world, countries are increasingly defined not in terms of their own peculiar characteristics but in terms of their relationships with other countries.

For instance, we think of countries as being members of transnational organisations. Countries are usually members of organisations such as the EU, Nato, the UN, the Commonwealth, any number of free trade blocs, special relationships… I could go on.

I have never heard it suggested that the SNP, or supporters of independence as a whole, would wish to do away with Scotland’s membership and / or use of such transnational institutions and agreements (though I’m aware that the SNP is opposed to membership of Nato — just making the point that it’s not the principle of such institutions that the SNP objects to). Nor should they. But unquestionably each of these in some way limits the independence of any country that signs up to it.

So what makes these institutions good (or at least tolerable) while Westminster is so bad? What I struggle to understand about the independence supporter’s position is why there is seemingly no part for Westminster to play in any plans for Scotland’s future.

To bring us back on to common ground, I should point out that my views are almost certainly driven by the same motivations that drive the feelings behind support for independence. Notably this would be the principle of subsidiarity, which means that decisions should be taken at as local a level as feasibly possible. As such, I would support an extension of the Scottish Parliament’s powers in many areas.

But it seems to me unreal to believe that there can be no role for Westminster; that there should be no reserved matters. One thing that is pretty neat about the UK is that most of it is made up of Great Britain, a relatively conveniently-sized island. It is certainly not too big to be adequately governed. It would seem quite silly not to take advantage of this geographical reality.

There are surely areas where the economies of scale trump subsidiarity. Foreign policy and defence might be one area, although I understand that many supporters of independence would find this difficult to swallow after the Iraq War (though a lot of people in the rest of the UK find the Iraq War difficult to swallow as well.)

National disasters could be another area. For instance, the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak which affected both Scotland and England with Cumbria, right on the border, especially hit hard. In such a crisis situation, if the government had to place certain restrictions, or even emergency legislation had to be passed, it would be more efficient (and less costly) for there to be just one government involved rather than have to set up meetings so that you could get multiple governments to agree to a solution.

I’m not saying that it would be impossible for multiple governments to agree. But it would surely be efficient enough to make it worthwhile for there to be a UK-wide system in place. And having two governments involved would only double the chances of there being a cock-up, there is the danger that there will be crossed wires and so forth.

Of course, we are in a bit of a crisis at the moment. Alex Salmond has made much about what an independent Scotland maybe might have possibly been able to achieve. This is mostly fantasy talk though, because we have no way of knowing how an independent Scotland would have coped (meanwhile one of an independent Scotland’s blueprints, Iceland, is facing quite acute difficulty at the moment — sorry for straying off the fluffy consensus-seeking territory there!). I suspect Salmond is only using the crisis to advocate independence, but as leader of the SNP that’s his job.

But there has been plenty of hand-wringing among commentators about how difficult it has been to get world leaders to agree on the best way to tackle this global crisis. What if some kind of major crisis hit the former members of the UK and the leaders got into a stalemate? You can say we have that in this globalised world anyway and there’s nothing we can do about it. But creating even more failure points is hardly a constructive way to approach this.

So that is, in brief, the thinking behind my view on the constitution — how I see powers being distributed between Westminster and Holyrood. I’m delighted to see that Adopted Domain has already written his take on this, and I think our viewpoints are quite similar. A good start!

So what was the top news story on Friday? Of course it was the Olympic opening ceremony. Doh! Silly me!

But what else was in the news that day? An output editor on the 6 O’Clock News BBC News at Six, Katy Searle, had a tough job picking a story.

So what else? The housing market and the strains of the credit crunch continue to claim a good slot on the Six. Today’s repossession figures are startling and on another day, could easily be our lead story.

For those of you who look beyond our shores, strong pictures of fierce fighting in the disputed region of South Ossetia will be explained and analysed. Not a natural story for the Six? With Russia threatening a robust response, it’s right to be in the show.

So apparently a war in Europe “not a natural story for the Six”. And on top of that Katy Searle feels the need to justify the possibility that the story will even be in the programme! That is despite the fact that this important story was listed behind the “credit crunch”, a “news” story that is now a year old. Jesus. Does the BBC really believe people are this stupid?

Do people tune in to the news to watch the news, or do they tune in to the news to watch highlights of a ponced-up dance routine which they can also catch earlier in the day, later in the day and on a relentless cycle on BBCi? Let me sit down and think about this!

It kind of sums up why the 6 O’Clock News has not been a bulletin to take seriously for several years now in my view. Of late is has been shaped to become the “news” for people who don’t actually want to know the news.