Grand Masters

The world has no shortage of clever people. And, despite the many obstacles in their way, many of them do rise to positions of power and influence where such skills can be put to good use. Unfortunately, overcoming the obstacles to political success where real power over their fellow citizens can be exercised, requires skill in subterfuge, dissimulation and appeal to the masses. Principled idealists need not apply. The sole exception of Mahatma Gandhi was our product of incompetence at the colonial office, who made a pig’s ear of dealing with Indian nationalism.

The present eyeballing going on between America and several other Powers is being over-egged by a handwringing Western media where tabloid sound-bite journalism has pretty much taken over the asylum. While the airwaves spotter with numbers of refugees/ deaths and/or Chemical/ suicide atrocities, the real story of how the power game is played seems to escape “serious| commentators like the BBC or NPR, let alone agenda-pounding dingbats at Fox, Breitbart or the Murdoch empire.

But even fraught International situations like the Middle East lend themselves to rational explanation of the players’ motives which would go a long way to diminish the chance of world War III. Arabs in general are a proud people—but one that has been pushed around by colonial powers (Britain, France, Turkey) for centuries. That they would have a chip on their shoulder, even without the state of Israel appearing (re-appearing?) In their midst, seems understandable. And That they should have lost the civilisation-leading enlightened in science and social structural of the early caliphs is a loss to all concerned. The siege mentality that characterises Israeli attitudes to their modern equivalents.

Where is it just that bipartisan divide, a lifting of lapels and banging your head by Objective outsiders might solve things. But into the mix comes Shia versus Sunni, who are abrasive in differences as Protestant (once?) was from Catholic. The Truly sad part is how regional powers exploit this for their own ends. Hence Saudi Arabia fights a proxy war in the Yemen, balanced by Iran’s support for Assad in Syria. There is little incentive for either to back off because they perceive this as a chance to increase their regional influence and train the troops, with no real down side.

There is no downside because, though the cold war is technically dead, the so-called Great Powers assume a right to middle and use their veto to castrate any attempt by the UN to act as anything more serious then PC Plod. Despots know this. From Papa Doc Duvalier to Robert Mugabe, they knew they could economically rape their countries three ways from Sunday and know they were to insignificant for anyone who could do something about it to care.

Assad’s Syria ought to fall into this sad fraternity. But geography played its hand. For centuries, Russia has suffered being landlocked. Trapped by the Kattegat and the Bosphorus, generations of Russian admirals have hungered for a warm water port. Having equipped Assad’s dad with hundreds of clanking T-72s to use against the Israelis, the payback started during the 1970s when Tartus became a major port servicing warships of the Soviet Union’s Fifth Mediterranean squadron. One civil war broke out, Assad’s desperation for Russian support meant not only was the base expanded to handle nuclear-powered and equipped ships but a complete modern airbase was established at Khmeimim with two 3,000 m runways.

Which gives Russia more than a passing interest in Assad’s future. It may know make much sense too the sensitive Western public that a half million dead, millions of refugees and use of band chemical weapons can suit any rational leader. But this deadly Game is not being played by Fabian Society rules. Assad knows he can do as he likes to win because Russia needs him and will keep an impotent UN off his back. They also check any serious intervention by the US.

Russia, on the other hand, is a Grand Master at this global game. They knew from the start they had a free hand in Chechnya, Crimea and Ukraine. Een the Americans have neither the reach nor the strength to intervene there. Russia has always been pragmatic and relentless in pursuit of their aims. When, during World War II, Stalin was cautioned about offending Catholics, his rejoinder was : “And how many divisions does the Pope have?

So they will be back Assad to the hilt, because it suits their purpose. Every ambassador and spokesperson will calmly assert no chemical weapons were used, spread disinformation that it was a British plot and play up the illegality of anyone else’s intervention, such as the raid on April 13th. But just because they come across as stony stonewallers, do not think them dumb. They will run rings around Trump’s ever changing circus of newbies.

For it is not just at chess that the Russians produce Grand Masters. Despite much huffing and military puffing from Britain, France and the US, it is not they who are gaining ground in the Middle East, nor even, for all its victories, Assad’s rotten regime, but the Russians.


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A Zuckerberg Born Every Minute

Just about everyone wants things to be run for the good of the public, as opposed to the despotic barbarism abusing it that litters human history. Where we get ourselves into conflict and difficulty is in agreeing on what constitutes the public good in specific circumstances. A very 21st century twist on this conundrum was in evidence over the last two days as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was grilled by US Congress over the security of personal information on social media in general and abuse of access to it via an app by Cambridge Analytics of some 87 million clients’ data in party killer.

The amazingly low level of understanding what social media is and how Facebook works among committee members was, on the one hand, alarming but, on the other, probably illustrative of the ignorance among Facebook’s 2.2 billion users how all the information each user voluntarily provides (up ro 21,000 data points) is actually exploited.

Social media has undoubtedly revolutionise communication among people. In this fragmented and mobile society, the ability to easily post news, pictures, videos, etc. to friends and family instantly at no cost seems a no-brainer and explains the meteoric growth of Facebook into a profitable giant, valued around $500 billion. Zuckerberg may be a Harvard dropout but he is no dummy. The brilliance of his business plan was the steal commercial television’s idea all making their “product” free to users and making their money selling access to those users to advertisers.

Along with Google, Facebook has cornered 60% of advertising revenue on social media: their share was worth $40 billion last year. This helps explain how the sheer price is stable around $160, despite glaring media spotlight and 87 million disgruntled users. Compared to an amateur performance wearing a T-shirt in public eight years ago, a suited & booted Zuckerberg gave a polished performance to Congress–despite some harsh and pointed questioning—showing humility, admitting mistakes, apologising and even appearing to accept the need for legislation to control the whole business.

Sounds good—so far.

But, ah hae ma doots. This is not the first time that Facebook has been lax about the implication and use all the terabytes of data it holds. Each time, they have been suitably apologetic but have declined to alter their business model. As an example, proposals of that users should choose whether to share their data or not or strictly  policing exactly what apps which access user data can do with it have never been seriously considered, let alone implemented. The unofficial Facebook model is “Move fast and break things”. Not a bad credo for a Silicon Valley startup birthing some future gizmo in some garage. But a global giant (FB is used in Burma to hunt Rohinja and in the Philippines to direct death squads) needs to update its mantra.

Contrite thought Zuckerberg appeared, my money is on him laughing all the way back to Menlo Park. Even if Congress learns techno-jargon, it took them years to pass a tax bill and they have shut Government down three times recently by failing to agree on almost anything. They are unlikely to pass any Real legislation in the rest of the year. So Zuckerberg could afford to play nice and promise almost anything, knowing he could go on building his monster without legal interference.

And, as a kind of the insurance policy, Zuckerberg channels some of his personal $69 billion where it will best ensure minimal interference. This year brings mid term elections in November. Republicans are wetting themselves that the combination of and incompetent Congress under their control, coupled with an erratic and unpopular President Will gift the Democrats sweeping gains in both hands. Given that money is a major Factor in America elections, facebook’s $12 billion in  campaign donations (Google ponied up $18 million) Will go far in keeping the Fed’s fingers out of their lucrative pie. Chip in similar amounts being paid to top Washington lobbyists for the same purpose and you wonder if the much vaunted “American system” is fit for 21st century purpose.

The European Global Strategy on Security and Data comes into force next month and will protect EU citizens around the globe. It will protect their data from being “mined” for commercial purposes without their consent.. Zuckerberg may not be a despotic barbarian in deliberately flaunting the public good. But when it comes to social media, tmany more than one are born every minute. And, just like there is an element all the Wild West still apparent in American driving, resource exploitation, town planning and firearms, social media there seems condemned to suffer the same corruption of the meaning of “public good”.

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Brexit Bovver Boyz

“Fog in the Channel; Continent cut off!”

Exactly one year from now it will be too late to overrule what is primarily a Home Counties fixation with the Channel being restored as an antiseptic moat to safeguard English culture. Enthusiasm for Brexit is their worst self-harming delusion since they endorsed giving Charles II free rein as absolute monarch. Although there are many types of Brexiteers banging similar drums, the most successfully siren-like is a small and set of quasi-clones—five senior Tories sharing Oxford, leafy homes/constituencies and a passion for things British (by which they mean ‘English’). Their perorations how great Britain will  be again, once we cast off the shackles of Johnny Foreigner are as pervasive as they are persuasive.

We all know who they are: Billy Bunter’s Brexit Bovver Boyz—a.k.a. “Form 5B”, Obviously Billy Bunter Johnson himself is leader of this jolly jape, if only because  his disarmingly dishevelled  demeanour is more affable than the unapologetic conviction of  his gang of zealot swots. Liam Fox, Michael Gove, Jacob Rees-Mogg and John Redwood. Each has seized a speaking parts in this farrago, and with all the moralising certainty of 17 -year-olds, Form 5B have control—not just of Theresa May but the entire country through dominating the media agenda. It is as if Form 5B had hijacked the school rugby bus for a pubs-crawl and can’t believe how they are getting away with it. No-one demands to see their documentation (whether ID or business case); no one queries supervision (whether an accompanying adult or statesmanship on the scale of Atlee or Churchill). What a beezer wheeze!

Form 5B betrays a typically teenage penchant for heroics, as if they see themselves re-enacting the American Okinawa memorial, onlt with the Union Jack replacing Old Glory and their Saville Row tailoring looking dapperly outsmarting maribe combat fatigues. It is Dunkirk as Waterloo (with a whiff of Zulu), a ghoulish disinterment of the ghost of Empire to be shouldered high again, set to an emotive leitmotif that blends the ‘thwack’ of willow on leather with the clink of bone china or of bell-ringers echoing across  peerless lawns seem through the pristine prism of a perfect G&T.

There is nothing wrong with cherishing such a soft focus visions of England’s thatched cottages across bucolic greens. But, with a serious amount of that same “green and pleasant land” lying within commuting reach of London is under the commercial cosh. Iy is being paved over by the same 21st-century technology that sustains this, the world’s 5th (oops! Sorry, India) 6th-biggest economy, So it makes a poor basis for building Britain’s economic future. Each of Form 5B seem to have snagged an unpaved bit of southern bucolic, so there is consistency in defending it. But the farther you stray beyond their Oxbridge commuter/cultural enclave, the flimsier the connection with Form 5B’s English idyll. It is quite true that Brummies, Scousers, Geordoes, etc. all once built, embraced and benefited from ‘out’ Empire, as much as Jocks, Taffies and Paddies—let alone the home Counties. A century ago, nobody much minded being class-bound, living in a Downton Abbey-style cultural apartheid. Those in charge all spoke the same cut-glass tone—never how the locals spoke. After all, you knew where you stood and Britain being top of the global heap offered financial—if not social—advancement for all.

Were Form 5B preaching to an Edwardian audience from then, they would sweep all before them. Unfortunately, we are dealing with the future, from this point a century later. An analogy even 4th Form might understand: Britain has been playing in the 1st XV. Newer team players have had the temerity to tell veterans how to play rugby, In a huff we leave the team and flounce off to the muddy bottom pitch where the first-years have churned up expecting others to join us and play by our rules.

Britain’s transformation from Kipling-esque colonial masters to an enlightened state has taught us much, not least the value of friends. One key variant on that: rather than waging war every half-century, Europe profits most from lowering barriers and heightening collaboration.  Abandoning our common market of 350 million and any opportunity to influence it flies in the face of self interest, let alone is growing Global Billage. Were Form 5B playing hooky the day they taught how Benelux boomed by not  pretending to be three  autonomous countries? Or how  France and Germany, by burying a war-wagon-ful of ancient rancour, overtook us economically—with no empire, oil boom or special US relation to boost them.

Form 5B argue Britain is a great power being shackled by Brussels. The present parlous state of UK finances (underfunded NHS/military/councils/etc.) is accepted by most. But it was caused by our being a second-rate power, deluded vy nostalgia into believing it is still a first-rate one. Our £1.8 trillion debt was not caused by either the EU or European neighbours. It’s just they make better cars/cheese/appliances/chocolate/spacecraft/etc. then we do. And as a lone 60m-population fish in a 7 billion global ocean, if Form 5B think they can arm-wrestle Li Keqiang into a dynamite deal by the 21st-century UK equivalent of a gunboat up his Yangtze, then they are dangerous, as well as delusional. As our (soon–to–be–ex) German colleagues say “Die sind auf dem Holzweg“. In this brutal, competitive world, for a country to prosper, it needs either a USP, or good friends. Switzerland offers stability and  banking; Singapore offers to–die–for location… and banking. Thought once distinguished, even revered, British banking went down-market into red braces/loadsamoney/oligarch banking. That’s the same kind of banking Caymans/Bermuda/Bahamas do equally well and more cheaply. Such azure idylls have neither nuke subs, nor 12.5 million geriatrics to feed. Guess who’ll win the business. Now the oil income has been squandered, Britain is struggling to find a USP of any sort.

Which leaves friends. Except that, walking out of Europe won’t leave us many. Business has little time for sentiment. Any country with no USP outside the world’s great trading blocs—be it Brazil or Britain—will struggle. Our fearless friends in Form 5B bluster we will forge new deals. Indeed, we may still land a contract for, say, six helicopters with Parador. But don’t expect the next Eurofighter to include any British components. This weal position will weaken further as existing links into Europe atrophy and all those  immigrants keeping our NHS, agriculture, hospitality and other sectors afloat go home.

If Form 5B were just flat caps nodding under horse brasses in the Dog & Duck, or florid whiskrts thundering from wing-back chairs in deepest St James, they might indeed voise the wistfulness many feel at Britain’s decline. But, as a formula for all our futures, it ranks right up there with Canute’s concept of coastal management, ASLEF’s insistence on firemen for diesel trains or the idea that each car required a man walking in front with a red flag. Form 5B fatal flaw is to think they speak for Britain. But they resonate poorly with 75% of Britan. They would take ‘Our Country’ back from the clutches of  Aliens—and hand control control to a Home Counties thinking just as alien. Yet that is all that Form 5B knows…or seems to care about.

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Trading Up

This week saw the first meeting for the upcoming season of NBBC . Who? Well,, it is hardly surprising our far-flung readership might not have heard en NBBC. But even most locals are equally in the dark. Now, before Auntie Beeb get all bent out of shape about a new broadcast rival setting up as the North British Broadcasting Corporation, let me assure them that North Berwick Business Collective is no such thing. It is the latest incarnation of the NB Business Association, which was in turn begat by NB Traders Association, which saw to the commercial success of businesses in the town for half a century.

Regular readers in search of this blog’s usual incisive analysis may feel the topic too parochial for their taste, but beer with us while we argue such an ad hoc collaboration may be the key to successful communities, as opposed to faceless suburbs and fragmenting society.

Back in the days of two-week bucket-and-spade holidays, the old town councils ran the show in North Berwick—and in small holiday towns like it. But the people most concerned with keeping holidaymakers happy where local retailers, who formed traders’ associations to persuade people to visit and entertain those who did. The result was a plethora of seasonal events: swimming galas; garden fetes; sandcastle contests; putting contests; etc. Visitors had a good time; traders made good money; everyone was happy.

The bloom in package jet holidays in the sun scuppered all this. Holiday town high-streets suffered the thing decay all other towns and malls and hypermarkets drained the retail business away. But in the last few years, people have more leisure time and more money to enjoy it. Two weeks in the sun I’m not enough—they want to go skiing, to explore their country, to visit friends/family, to have long weekends to do so. They are also tired of malls that all have the same Clinton Cards and Shoe Fair shops. Once they have done the monthly grocery shop at Tesco and dressed the kids for school at Asda, they hanker for some recreational shopping offering unusual items on a human scale where they don’t have to wander an airfield-sized car park in the rain.

Several Scottish towns have nailed this one: Pitlochry, Peebles, Kirkcudbright, St Andrews and Kelso—to name a few. North Berwick should be up there with the best of them (as could other pretty East Lothian towns like Dunbar and Haddington). But North Berwick already has two key advantages: 1) the Scottish seabird Centre is open all year and attracts thousands, including foreign visitors; 2) a regular ScotRail servers that puts it with them Half an hour obvious centre of Edinburgh. Unusual high-street shops, cafes and restaurants are already succeeding with their “recreational retail” offering. But, because both Scottish Enterprise VisitScotland and East Lothian Council are pretty clueless about this kind of business it succeeds more by luck than design. It could be a whole lot better.

Which is where North Berwick Business Collective comes in—and they don’t need millions to be a game-changer. A reason to visit?—Already have that = SSC. An easy way did get there?—Already have that = ScotRail service. Hard to believe but there is no alluring brochures for the town anywhere, let alone in VS TICs or bedroom packs. Hard to believe but there is no simple visitor guide with map of the town. Hard to believe but historic Scotland three Tantallon and Dirleton Castles as it they were on planets separate from each other and from the SSC and Museum of Flight, who reciprocate the ignorance.

Key to unlock this unnecessary one jam of mutual oblivion is NBBC. By distributing “Come to NB” leaflets across Scotland, they might increase visitor numbers. By running a pro-active social media campaign on top of the website, they will do the same. By welcoming visitors with a map and guide at entry points and in guest packs, they will ensure visitors enjoy all that is available to them and attractions enjoy maximum football. And, by banging a few heads, they might get attractions to benefit from visitors already on their doorstep with such radical notions as multi-access day tickets.

Fanciful? Ambitious? Perhaps. But it would take no more none of four-figure budget, fired up with chutzpah and imagination by a handful of believers to achieve. Some ground work has already been done by others. After the dreadful FirstBus stopped pretending to run bus services in East Lothian, the Edinburgh-North Berwick route has been provided by the clean and reliable East Coast Buses. And they have already cut a deal with the SSC—not for a joint ticket, but to advertise their Day Ticket on SSC member magazine and show the SSC is on their route. Not much…. but a start. It will be up to the NBBC to get better ideas—and run with them to show how the heart can be put  back into our high streets… and, as a result, into our communities.


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Newspeak As Fudge

Connoisseur of Scottish politics will be familiar with the woolly Nrespeak that has become the day-to-day language of politicos, mandarins and wannabes who swim and survive in its murky waters. It creates a world where only opponents make mistakes, commitments are malleable, “progress” can be used as a slippery verb and answers to direct questions always answer a different question.

Providing your own career/hopes/job lie elsewhere, all this can be entertaining. But, for those whose idealism has not been drowned in Newspeak obfuscation gushing from Holyrood and town halls alike, two decades of devolution has not differentiated Scotland from the yah-boo-sucks bear-pit that is Westminster. This is now seems to apply within— As well as between—parties. Take this month’s exchange (reported in Holyrood Magazine) between Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Jobs and Fair Worth Keith Brown (ex-marine, former council leader and non-numpty decent guy) and Holyrood Local Government and Communities Committee chair Bob Doris (long-time Glasgow grassroots street activist, now MSP).

Just the complexity of their job titles hinte that what either of them say may not be as crisp and clear as mere mortals would prefer. It is probably unfair to pick on Keith and Bob (who usually do better) when so many others getting paid £50,000 for waffle exist.

The Gilded Balloon Award for “saying nothing with many ill-defined big words” does go to the two of them for the following guff on City Region Deals. They win jointly for the sheer scale of woolly Newspeak used. It is so woolly, it could as easily be about turnip production or the safe limit on the number of qualified angels permitted to dance on a union-approved pinhead:

The Scottish Government has responded to concerns Holyrood’s Local Government and Communities Committee highlighted about Scotland’s city region deals.In January, the committee said the deals have “significant issues” which must be addressed.

The deals, which have seen a £3.3bn investment in Scotland so far, were extended to Scotland as a partnership between the UK Government, the Scottish Government, local authorities and other partners to boost jobs and grow regional economies.

Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Keith Brown wrote to committee convener Bob Doris.

He said: “The way that growth deals are developed is an evolutionary process. In our on-going engagement with partnerships and the UK Government, we will be mindful of all of the recommendations made by the Committee.

“In particular, we will focus on issues linked to transparency of investment and partnership inclusivity. As we move forward, it will be increasingly important to see growth deal investments as part of a Regional Economic Partnership’s entire effort to achieve accelerated inclusive growth.”

Doris said: “We wanted greater clarity around the pursuit of economic growth by the UK Government and inclusive growth as pursued by the Scottish Government. This has been accepted by the Scottish Government and hopefully the UK Government will soon follow suit to deliver the partnership work we all want to see.

“These economic growth deals have the potential to raise communities out of poverty and transform people’s lives, but only if they are delivered properly. We recognise that city region deals are still in the very early days of their lifespan and our committee will be keeping a close eye on their progress in the future.”

…erm…whit? “…engagement with partnerships…”? “…accelerated partnership inclusivity…”? “…inclusive growth…”? Where, outside of a cosily pensioned bureaucracy, do people talk like that? We;re talking £3.3 billion of public money in City Deals—£638 for each of us in Scotland. If some kind reader could clarify from the above just where all that money will gor—even in general terms—everyone else would be most grateful.

But, as a matter of urgency, hey should also send it along to Keith and Bob, who have clearly spent so much time breathing Holyrood’s febrile atmosphere that they need an urgent refresher course in Plain English—especially the meaning of the word “transparent”.


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Beast from the East

Readers me be forgiven for assuming that the title means I will be banging on about the Baltic weather we have been suffering most of the month. While it can indeed been difficult to find a brass monkey out and about, this blog concerns itself with brass necks more then monkeys. Brass necks and politicians are terms many consider interchangeable. But the leading exponents appear to come from dictatorships, most especially the former Soviet Union.

Before we go farther, let me state I yirld to no-one in admiration for the Russian people and their achievements from Akhmatova to Zhukhov But, be that as it may, their grasp on social politics has barely moved beyond the Middle Ages.

For the Beast from the East in question is Putin’s Russia, whose idiosyncratic politics have this week clashed with those of the West and are brewing into the worst face-off since the Cold War. For the last week, there has been media outrage over poisoning a former spy using nerve toxins developed by Russia. This compounds incidents like businessmen dying in suspicious circumstances and Litvebyenko dying horribly from radiation poisoning.

By 21st century Western standards, such incidents are barbaric and belong to another age. Without wishing to excuse any of this, an outraged eyeball–to–eyeball Mexican stand-off may not be the sensible way to come to a resolution that does not involve nuclear winter. My contention is that we are judging Putin and his Russians by our standards, not theirs.

The first and fundamental point is to realise that, at an international level, Russians are paranoid and also suffer national inferiority complex. Why the largest country in the world with 200 million people who were once the other Great Superpower should feel this way is not immediately obvious. But few in the West have been there, have come to know the people or their history. In this present flap, we are judging Putin and his Russians by our standards, not theirs.

All Europe has suffered invasions. But far fewer in the last millennium, with the exception of the great Mongol invasion of the 13th century when 500,000 people died, hit what was to become Russia harder than anywhere. Unlike Britain, Russia had few natural boundaries. On a regular basis, they would find themselves invaded by Poles, Lithuanians, Swedes, French, Turks so that the only way they saw they could stand up for themselves was as a monolithic state under an autocratic ruler. The Ivans and Peters who forged the harsh rule of the Czars also forged an inward looking Empire from empty Eastern wastes, driven by an oligarchy of   nobles. European countries spanned the world, with individuals contributing and benefiting as much as any landed elite.

It took some time for those European countries to realise that the tortures of the Inquisition, the flogging of sailors, the trading of slaves, the persecution of minorities had no place in modern civilisation. Russia may have absorbed some of this, but not at the same pace, nor with the same enthusiasm. In fact, it could be argued 100 years ago that, while the West had industrialised both manufacturing and the society that ran it, Russia—while achieving the former—it was run by a mediaeval society. There was little by way of a middle-class to link peasants with mobility or to provide a path for the ambitious.

Which goes a long way to explain the success of the October revolution. While several five year plans did drag Russia into the 20th century, a party-based elite replaced a mobility-beast elite but the lot all the average Russian improved more slowly them that of workers in nowhere. More tellingly, a centuries-old habit of obedience to authority played right into authoritarian Bolshevik hands. That Stalin seized power might have been expected. But that he held it with not a glimmer of counter revolution spoke volumes for the ingrained respect the Russian people gave for decisive leadershop.

It was that stoic endurance—rather then any leadership from party or Stalin—that brought them through the worst ordeal any country has have to suffer in modern times. The British are quick to cite the Dunkirk spirit, the exploits of The Few and Alamein. But it was the Soviet Army that beat Fascism—but at the cost of 3 million soldiers, 10 million civilians and devastation of all main cities.

On top of all that, Stalin’s megalomania swallowed up a number of countries behind the Iron Curtain, provoking America into McCarthyism and an arms race whose purpose—as far as most Russians could tell—was to put them in their place and undermined their morals with capitalist materialism, amoral rock music and belittle their earlier success is space would spy satellites and a series of moon launches with which they could not compete. Taking this together with earlier history cited above, national paranoia and inferiority complex is more than understandable.

So when not just the economy but the whole Communist System broke down trying to compete with a richer capitalist West, pride as well as pocketbook took a hit. Because they had no experience developing independent lives, let alone careers, he average Russian had a little clue how to exploit opportunities presented.

But many in the party hierarchy did—which spawned the class of oligarchs no spending their millions in London. They have replaced the party , who had replaced the mobility.

Meanwhile, the bulk of Russians are trying to get by as even professional salaries devaluing by the minute so that a kilo of bananas costs a week’s wages. They witness the superpower for which they made sacrifices disintegrate, lose face and become run by drunken ex–bureaucrats like Yeltsin.

So, when someone with strongman KGB credentials calls for and enfeebled Mother Russia to be made great again, who are you going to well for? Putin stomps on Chechnya for wanting to go it alone? Send ‘em right! He cuts off gas supplies as part of negotiations? That’ll teach ‘em! He stokes up civil war in the Ukraine? They should never have split off in the first place!

So, when the military win Assad’s civil war for him or track down and polish defectors in places like Salisbury Putin is showing that you mess with Russia at your peril and Russia than call again—not to mention Putin standing tall so he will win his up coming election.

His methods maybe nasty, even brutal. What they are popular with most Russians—even the ones with more International prospective. Because Russia shares more than a common Communist past with North Korea. It has also realised that, by painting an American-led West as bent on the country’s downfall, then portraying the present leadership as the only one strong enough to prevent this is as smart a ploy four permanent premiership as you are likely to find.

This Beast in the East has far more to do with securing Putin then any real danger to the West. As long as the oligarchs continue making obscene amounts of money on the LSE, the bear may growl but will forego any use of claws or teeth. Nobody in the West believes the polls that make Putin appear unbeatable; but he is.

However, until Russian society develops its own substantial middle-class, the social conscience, political correctness and squeamishness of media so prevalent in the West will be seen as foreign and hostile in Russia—and strongarm leaders will milk that. Equally, what is regarded as tough but necessary there, we’ll see as harsh and barbaric Not just Putin and the oligarchs, but the bulk of Russians who always have thought differently will wonder what these Western milksops are on about.




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The Greater Dictator

All written as a vision of the future, 1994 was almost a quarter century ago. In this day and age, we may think that in The world is full of evil and uncertainty. But the truth is we are quite sheltered from the vagaries of dictatorship and the evils forecast in Orwell’s dystopian novel. Seventy years ago, Hitler and Mussolini may have been toppled but Franco was still Caudillo and Titp ruled Yugoslavia. We had further odious examples like Duvalier, Mugabe, Pinochet or what Amin yet to come.

But the grand-daddy of them all—Josef Stalin—bestrode an empire stretching from Brandenburg to the Bering Strait and was using newly developed atomic weapons and ICBMs to eyeball America for domination of the world. Three decades of dictatorship in what had become one of the world’s two superpowers made his whims more terrifying to more people then Hitler ever achieved.

And yet, the most effective documentary of this and Stalin’s demise is not a documentary but a black satire from in the venomous pen of Armando Iannucci. ‘The Death of Stalin’. The trailer does not do it justice. Sharper and more penetrating in its observations is the film review from Manihla Dargis in the New York Times on Match 8th. It is not a film for the politically queasy—it is by turns entertaining and unsettling, with laughs that morph into gasps and uneasy gasps that erupt into queasy, choking laughs. Cars rises to the occasion of the excellent writing, with Steve Buscemi (an artist at portraying scheming untrustworthiness—as he was in Fargo) particularly effective as Khrushchev.

Chaplin may have made a good first of sending up Hitler in his 1940 Great Dictator. But this is an is an even better vehicle for Armando Iannucci to exercise his unique grasp on how funny politics can be, especially when it drifts into being overly serious. The Soviet state under Stalin was the most efficiently draconian and merciless a monolith as the world has ever seen. He kept his teeth at the BBC by creating the Alan Partridge character but developed his political satire in The Thick of It, featuring the scathingly abrasion character that lampooned spin doctors in general and Alistair Campbell in particular. his shrewd mix of humour, current affairs and human frailty lead to more such success with the film In the Loop and the HBO series Veep. A 20 minute interview with Mark Kermode gives insight into his approach to this film.

So there is probably nobody better qualified to take on the demise of such a demagogue and portray the structure of fear on which despotism rests by illuminating its flaws and weaknesses by using the penetrating arc light of a scathingly targeted humour.

Guard 1: [hearing Stalin’s body hit the floor with a thud] “Should we investigate…?”

Guard 2: “Should you shut the fuck up before you get us both killed?”

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No Coward, But a Prophet

The last week or two have seen more than the usual chorus of voices demanding ministerial statements on everything from soup to nuts. There have been the usual gamut of talking heads, most appearing to be unknowns too young for that job, bur all briefed to the hilt how to answer any question but the one asked.

Many people regard mealy-mouthed evasion as being the product of 21st century spin doctors. But this is untrue. 77 years ago in Britain’s darkest hour of May 1941 when the British Army was being hustled out of Greece and Libya, when the Bismarck was creating nightmares at the Admiralty, when every ally was prostrate—against all of which today’s travails would seem like midge bites, that quintessential Englishman Noel Coward demonstrated the quintessential sang-froid for which the English are famous by taking time out from the end of the world to lampoon the government in verse that still seems compellingly relevant today.

“We must have a speech from a Minister.

It’s what we’ve been trained to expect.

We’re faced with defeat and despair and disaster;

We couldn’t be losing our colonies faster.

We know that we haven’t the guns to defend

The ‘Mermaid’ at Rye or the pier at Southend.

You have no idea how we grown to depend

In hours of crisis

On whacking great slices

Of verbal evasion and dissimulation.

A nice governmental appeal to the nation

We’d listen to gladly, with awe and respect.

We know that the moment is sinister

And what we’ve been earnestly trained to expect.

When such moments we reach,

It’s a lovely long speech

(never comment or chat

About this; about that)

But a really ling speech

An extremely long speech

An ambiguous speech from a minister.


We must have a speech from a Minister.

We don’t mind a bit who it is,

As long as we get that drab lack of conviction

That dismal, self-conscious, inadequate diction

We find Mr Churchill a trifle uncouth.

His ill-represented passion for telling the truth

Who ‘Eye for an Eye’ and his ‘Tooth for a Tooth’

Is violent, too snappy.

We’d be far more happy

With some old Appeaser’s inert peroration.

We’d give ourselves up to complete resignation,

Refusing to worry or get in a fuzz;

We know that the moment is sinister.

We already said we don’t mind who it is

We’ll fight on the beach

For a really long speech

(not a breezy address

Or a postscript on Hess)

But a lovely long speech,

A superbly long speech

An embarrassing speech from a Minister.

—fro, The Complete Poems of Noel Coward, published by Methuem Drama, London 2011   © NIC Avebtales as heritors to the estate of Noel Cowatd

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Nobbut Muck—Wi’owt Brass

We Scots have got used to London regarding Peterborough as a northern town two stops short of the Arctic Circle. Regular readers may already be bracing themselves for more Union-bashing broadsides. But fear not; it is actually a plea for sympathetic action on behalf of our Northern English cousins, with whom we share much in common—not least exasperation with the Southern English.

Travel beyond commuting distance from the London terminus of your choice and the idea you are still in the same country is hard to sustain. The early church was way ahead of its time when it created two Archbishoprics: Canterbury and York. Leaving aside a couple of brutal civil wars, Plantagenets and Tudors welded together a fairly homogeneous country. But, no sooner were the Scots and Napoleon tamed then empire offered untold riches. Just collect the world’s bountiful raw materials, process them in bulk, then sell then back to said world at huge profit.

That required copious amounts of power. In England, only the northern half had hydri and coal to provide this, so hugely profitable satanic mills built the great industrial cities of the North. Because industry required food and finance, the fertile South did equally well. But this was where social stratification—once evenly spread from Kent to Cumbria–took on geographic dimensions. Manchester and Durham might develop universities second to none but anybody who wanted to become anybody went to Oxbridge, often to study ‘The Greats’ and not some lower-class craft like engineering thatgot your hands dirty.

Success across the Empire was achieved by men (and it was only men) from all corners of Britain. But, governors’ palaces, City boardrooms, Whitehall ministries and the stock exchange rang to me plummy tones of Oxbridge graduate. Northern accents were a rarity. While Britannia ruled the waves, everyone from mil owner to mill worker prospered, sharinga a common sense of purpose from Hampstead to Halifax (although the people of one seldom visited the other).


Boundary between North and South England

After World War 2, such cosy consensus started to unravel. Steam locomotives went out of style; Koreams built ships better and cheaper; Australians strip-mined coal cheaper; Germans built better cars with better steel; Americans innovated chips and computers. All England could come up with was Smash and Clive Sinclair. Things were equally dire across the country in the 70s. But Thatcher’s ‘Big Bang’ put the City on steroids. Which boosted salaries in property, big law firms, big accountancy firms, restaurants—provided that they were within the aforementioned commute distance of the Square Mile. But anywhere above the dividing liner between the Severn and the’t Humber is now lumped in with the Scots as closer to Lapland than to civilisation

For all the hand-wringing about a ‘Northern Powerhouse’, the struggling urban centres ringing Manchester, Leeds where jobs are few, wages are low and prospects are dim. All that is compounded by worsening disparities in health (see last August BMJ). People living in the North aged 35 to 44 our 49% more likely to die suddenly then those in the South. Whether it rates of obesity, or GCSE results, or even the density of Gregg’s outlets, the North comes off worse. As The Telegraph puts it:

London and the surrounding area will keep on booming as Britain’s richest corners pull further ahead of the rest of the country with a GVA growing by 2.2% per year, ahead of the UK average of 1.8%.

North GVAsrars

Comparison of Gross Value Added between Northern regions and London

Successive governments have promised to read dress such imbalance. But investing he promised £500 million in northern transport projects is dwarfed by Crossrail’s £14.8bn or £9bn for the Olympics or £1.5bn for the “super port” in the Thames. As a result, the basic statistic of employment shows and ever widening North/South gap:


Percentage change in employment 2008-2013 (source: NUTS1

The upcoming Brexit will affect manufacturing, on which the North still depends, far more than services, which is the South’s economic flywheel. Unless the North finds a USP such as Scotland’s oil, whisky and tourism to compete with the voracious black hole London has become, this divide will yawn wider. It is already worse than what  once split Germany. It is on track to spawn a fifth nations on these islands.—four to the north of the Severn/Humber divide with 45 million people sharing common GVA, common interest with each other and with their once and future EU partners.

For centuries, the 30 million in the Greater London City State that is the South has always regarded foreign languages spoken across the channel as untrustworthy, with the rest of the British Isles has a handy back yard to exploit. Bit in the self imposed isolation on which the South seems so keen, they may regret treating their northern cousins and go the way of narcissistically self-reliant City states like Constantinople or Venice.


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Brexit: Runners & Riders

Yes, this topic has reached tedium, and far as normal people (i.e. non-anoraks) are concerned. But the whole kerfuffle just reached its watershed, with a slippery slide to conclusion laid out before us like the proverbial patient etherised upon a table. The last week has seen a flurry from the main dramatis personae of this national drama of ours. Rehearsals are over; opening night’s behind us; and, though the ending remains murky, the whole thing is playing out as a tragedy.

Don’t just take my word for it—the most potent arguments pro and con have been deployed with 12 months to go. Compared to the draft legal document tabled by a united EU this week, the ones who started it are all over the place. With a 17 million vs 16 million outcome in the 2016 referendum, this is no surprise. Yet examining the various cases being made, what is striking is that Remain arguments our court hearing and consistent while Brexiteers deploy an emotional spectrum of chaos.

The latter do have form on this. Starting with wild pronouncements like £350 million per week extra for the NHS, they have indulged in implausible assertions: being able to stitch  a trade agreement together in an afternoon; that the Irish border could be dealt with like that between Westminster and Camden. Examine who is leading their charge, and you understand why this is. Theresa May is a steady (i.e. unimaginative) hand who makes heavy weather of leadership.

Squabbling behind her back is a reincarnation of Billy Bunter and his chums. Michael Gove and Jacob Rees-Mogg remain incarnations of the smug swot who wound up gettung scragged behind the bike shed—usually by people like Boris Johnson. Perhaps there determination not to get scragged in the Commons is why they exude political opportunism the way they used to swear. Eachexpounds Brexit like a mantra—but none seem to spend even five minutes in each other’s company to agree what it means. They each believe a 52-to-48 margin constitutes a landslide endorsement. But quite how rejection of European partnership can lead to better trade deals then we already have varies by whichever Brexiteer you listen to. Names, numbers, dates and other specifics are typically absent.

This is poor protection from the heavy guns recently pounding them, none of whom need fret about political ambition any more. Tony Blair, John Major and Michael Heseltine are heavyweights, none of whom have been slavish fans of the EU. Their recent interventions all cogently argued the same thing: that hard Brexit is unnecessary, damaging and rides roughshod over the wishes of half the country. They cite economic sources who all forecast declining affluence the further we push our European neighbours away. There are certainly flaws in how the EU operates. But to see the big picture, the table below pulls together six of the best arguments made recently on either side of the argument,

You don’t believe me? Compare and contrast for yourselves

Theresa Nay Speech at Mandion House Friday March 2nd   Tony Blair Speech at European Policy Centre on Thurs 1st March 2018
Boris Johnson Speech at Coffee House Weds February 14th   John Major Speech to Creative Industries Federation om Thur 1st March 2018
Michael Gove Essay in The Independent Tuesday 20th Feb   Michael Hesseltine “Voices” column in The Independent
Liam Fox “Road to Brexit” speech Tuesday 27th February   Jeremy Corbyn Spectaytor Coffee House, report Sunday Feb. 25th
Jacob Rees-Mogg Reburs John Major in The Expressm Thu March 1st   Phillip Hammond “UK Needs Trade Agreenebt: Tuesday 27th February
David Davis “Foundation of the Future” speech Tuesday 20th February   Carolyn Fairbairn (CBI) CBI Position Speech Sunday January 21st


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