Neil Bennett | City A.M. Notebook


The Notebook: The point of non-executive directors? Common sense

The skill that can’t be taught


At school, I had an austere but bright-eyed maths teacher called Mrs Macquarie. As well as the delights of matrices and quadratic equations, she gave me an invaluable lesson in common sense. “Once you’ve done the sum and reached the answer,” she would say, “take a moment to see if it looks right. If it doesn’t, go through the workings again.”

It is something I have tried to do ever since – when presented with a decision or a plan, I try to take a moment to see if it makes sense. If not, I go round again.

Fast forward to today and I am privileged to be on the boards of two charities, the Charles Dickens Museum and Chailey Heritage Foundation, a school for children with serious neurodisabilities. In truth I know little about museum management and even less about the educational and medical needs of Chailey’s pupils, but I hope that I bring a measure of experience and common sense to both boards.

It strikes me though that common sense is in very short supply in the world of business and politics these days. The Post Office for example had dozens of non-executive directors (NEDs) over the years. But not one of them had the courage to say: “hang on a sec, are you trying to tell me that over 1,000 of our post masters and mistresses have suddenly become criminals? That just doesn’t make sense.”

Or why didn’t anyone at the cabinet table in Number 10 say in the past few years: “Sorry, this proposal that we pay illegal immigrants £3,000 of taxpayers’ money to fly to Rwanda is completely nuts! Historians in the years to come will laugh their socks off at us.”

I remember when the corporate governance reforms started in the 90s, after the massive fraud and pensions pillaging wreaked by Robert Maxwell, that NEDs were meant to bring in a measure of independent oversight and that crucially included common sense, based ideally on a long career in a relevant discipline. The trouble is that today’s NEDs have become so buried in corporate governance box-ticking that they rarely have time for that critical moment of quiet reflection.

It takes courage and persistence to speak out at a meeting and challenge the prevailing groupthink. That, however, is the essential role of the NED, otherwise they are just furniture. Common sense is not something that can be taught, although experience helps you learn it. Heaven knows we do need more of it.


Climb every mountain


Last weekend I was delighted to be with Dominic Grieve, the former attorney-general, when (I can exclusively reveal) he climbed his final Munro and was duly feted by friends and family.

The Munros are all the Scottish mountains higher than 3,000 ft. There are no fewer than 280 of them, many of them in remote places, ringed with forbidding cliffs and crags. To climb them all is a lifetime achievement. To climb them while building a topflight legal and then political career is outstanding.

Munro bagging is not for the faint-hearted. It requires determination and skill, often in foul weather. Dominic has that in spades, as Boris Johnson discovered when he tried to prorogue parliament and Dominic successfully thwarted him.

I propose that all MPs are sent on a mountain expedition in the Highlands to give them some grit before they direct the future of the nation. Rather like a political national service – and far more affordable than the one dreamt up by Rishi Sunak.


A recommendation:


Glyndebourne Under-30s scheme

There is always a lot of talk about opera being elitist, rarely backed up by facts. For more than a decade, however, Glyndebourne, the opera festival in Sussex, has been doing its bit to break down any perceived barriers by offering seats to the under-30s for just £30. This is one of the great entertainment bargains of the nation but too few people know about it. This year you can choose to see Handel’s Giulio Cesare or Mozart’s Magic Flute, two brilliant productions. Relevant performances start on June 25 – simply go to and register with your date of birth.