A Testing Time for Democracy

With Brexit and Trump testing the resilience of democracy on both sides of the Atlantic, will it cope with a possible fiscal fallout should either fail to address imbalance in wealth?

Much to the annoyance of Young Turks with no memory of the 20th © or of TV before The Simpsons and reality shows, older people are still prone to musing wistfully about the “good old days” when life was better. It is true that such ‘buftis’ often lack any social media skills or even the smartphones on which to display them, and so miss out on gifts of modern life . But sometimes they are right. The benefits to civilisation of gunpowder, machine gums and ICBMs are, to say the least, a matter for debate. On a similar vein, have resent frenetic social and financial developments made the world a better place?

Social and financial developments are more subtle in their impact, but just as pervasive in their effect, Among these, political systems have evolved to govern such advances. Though they still have adherents, neither Dictatorship (of which Monarchy is a hereditary variant) nor Communism offers a viable form of government, acceptable to its people. So, with exceptions of the strange hybrid of China and some grubbier corners of the globe, Democracy has become dominant, even though it may be, in Churchill’s prophetic words “the worst form of government—apart from all other forms of government”.

Given rising standards of living over the last couple of centuries of those living under Democratic rule, it deserves some praise. But, because of its present role as “the only game in town”, scant attention is paid to its drawbacks, let alone its vulnerability. In one respect, it is no different from Monarchy, Dictatorship or Communism, in that it relies on a belief in its rewards and authority. If it fails in either,  the result is revolution.

Revolution may not come as pitchforks and torches descending on the palace.  In Portugal, the Soviet Union and Zimbabwe, scarcely a shot was fired. Only belief in “the system” running the country by the bulk of its people will resist and see off attempts at radical change. The foundation stone of such resistance is a constitution—or, in the case of fuddy-duddy states without one like Britain, long tradition having a similar effect. This provides both authority and common cause as long as citizens believe in it. But when constitution is seem as constipation, history shows instability, then misfortune for all follow: Weimar Germany; pre-civil-war Spain; Allende’s Chile. Currently Venezuela—an ostensibly rich democracy—is sliding down this slope.

Pillars of Western democracy, such as Britain and the USA, are considered immune to any such disruption. With centuries of political stability and increasing affluence behind them, why would any significant part of their population feel disaffected enough to cause unrest? The British union of 1707 led to 250 years of profit and prestige, right up to 1945. America fashioned a rich superpower out of boundless space and eager immigrants, using civics and wealth as common cause: widespread belief in the Constitution and the American Dream. This found its peak in the period after WW2. There was reverence, not ridicule for Kennedy when he said “ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country”.

Shocks from oil prices and the Vietnam War dented nut did not damage America’s belief in itself. Britain, on the other hand, underwent a traumatic transformation under Callaghan and Thatcher. The miners’ strike and Toxteth tore British social fabric deeper than Watts did in the States. The Reagan boom years and military prowess displayed in the Gulf Wars restored Americans’ belief in “the system”. British faith was restored later with the salary and property boom around the millennium..

Boom times both sides of the Atlantic ended in the financial crash of 2008 when a witches’ brew of opaque financial derivatives, irresponsible lending, “Master of the Universe’ hubris and sloppy oversight laid several major financial institutions low. The British public was landed with eye-watering bills to clean up the mess. It was in the resulting austerity that cohesive belief in the system—in equality of opportunity and fairness on both sides of the Atlantic started to erode. In America, Joe Sixpack had pulled down $30 an hour building autos in Detroit, bulldozers in Ohio or airliners in Seattle found Toyota, Komatsu and Airbus had eaten their lunch. In Britain, from Cleveland to Coventry, British ex-miners, ex-steelworkers, ex-factory hands, etc found themselves on the economic scrapheap. On Canary Wharf or Wall Street, P45s fell on a few minions while board member and CEO carried on, remuneration unscathed. Fred Goodwin might have said ‘sorry’; Philip Green sweated a Parliamentary Committee easily. Both laughed all the way to the bank.

IncSpread

Comparison of UK Incomes, by Decile

With incomes now differing by a factor of nine, even after tax, the stage is set for the two horsemen (we can’t afford four)of the economic apocalypse: Brexit and Trump. The former being driven by a privileged Home Counties few using disaffected ex-workers in the North as democratic pawns. It is an unholy alliance that may drive Britain into an economic river-of-no-return and polarise the population in a rift that tears acoss party lines. Both repentant Remainers and hard-line Bexiteers are disowning a government that appears to speak for fewer and fewer people. Brexit is now inevitable. But the ‘Brexit Dividend’ appears to be, id anything, economic damage to a wide swathe of people, most of whom were not rich to start with, This bode ill for peace and stability.

But potential civil unrest here will be dwarfed by what is going on in the States, two years into Trumpdom out American cousins are digging themselves into a political feud worthy of the Hatfields and McCoys. America has long lived with an institutionalised two-party system and massive wealth disparity. As long as a generous amount of bi-partisan agreement mitigated the former and everyone believed they had a shot at rectifying the latter, things happened that benegited all. It wasn’t Trump who invented blinkered partisanship. But he has developed it into public entertainment in the style of a wrestling match or reality TV show. The recent political circus made of the (supposedly apolitical) appointment of a Supreme Court judge was largely of Trump’s doing. But, since the Democrats chose to engage in the debate with the same mid-wrestling absence of restraint and dignity means their chances of sweeping next month’s mid-terms are doubtful, even with outraged women incentivised to vote.

But, whatever the outcome, constipation in politics will we dwarfed by the effect of constipation in social mobility. Even before Trump came to power, weallth disparity in the States made  Britain’s factor of ten inequalities seem positively minicule. The chart below shows wealth distribution by single percentile in 2016—before Trumpr’s tax breaks boosted the wealthy even further.

USwealth

Wealth Distribution in the USA by Percentile

Were this $94.2 trillion distributed evenly over America’s 124 million households, each would have a tidy $760 million to bequeath the kids. But the lower 50% average $11,000 or under 1% of the wealth. In gact, the tip 1% owns more than the bottom 90%combined: a worker must toil for a month to earn what a CEO is paid in an hour,

What the media both sides of the Atlantic fails to realise (and therefore to cover) is the great mass of ordinary people, possibly even a majority, who are appalled by what has happened to those who represent them. They see them turning into self-absorbed, dogmatic pit bulls; many are repelled by the whole shooting match. In prosperous times, this might not have mattered. But people harmed by Trump’s tax break for the rich or by Brexit fallout will start looking for scapegoats.

This is dangerous.

Whereas monarchs could lop off dissenting heads, fascists could wheechle them into forced labout and communists could cattle truck them off to some KGB gulag east of Tomsk, dissent in democracy is a ticklish thing. It is never hard for politicians to pull the wool over the public’s eyes. Indeed it is a brave politician who risks his/her career by being honest. Present politicians on both sides of the Atlantic mostly lack such moral candour. So, when frustration with ineffectiveness of a vote between party rent-a-quotes makes more people angry and frustrated, them—Constitution or no— watch out.

Without a Constitution to check its government, the British have, until now, relied on  good sense and fair play among MPs to find tolerable solutions. Thatcher broke the mould on this but May is exploiting what has never been exploited outside of times of war; the almost untramelled power available to her. It will need no more than a botched Brexit with no deal for the degree of disgust outside of political and media circles to boil over into something very un-British and very ugly.

To some extent, the Americans have it easier. There is still faith in the Constitution and its ability to handle aberrations as crassly insensitive and partisan as Trump. The fist line of defence is the Legislature—but it is being as tribal as the President. And, now that the Judiciary, in the from of the Supreme Court, has been stuffed with two Trump appointees. as check  on White House demagoguery must be in question.

Americans are even more pecuniary than the British.  As long as Trump’s claim to have boosting jobs and manufacturing holds, then the broad population can keep believing the American Dream is theirs,. But, should the ‘trickle-down’ effects of last year’s tax cuts for the rich not compensate for the massive budget deficit they imply by growing the economy and spreading the wealth, then a narrow rich elite will get even richer and the vast majority get poorer. Should that majority ever conclude the much-vaunted Constitution does not protect them and has become the tool of wealthy lawyers protecting their super-wealthy clients, this could get ugly. If Trump’s luck does not hold then the Constitution will mean no more than it did to those fomenting the LA riots of the 1990s. And once faith in any democratic system collapsess, it is a long, hard, impoverished road back. Ask any Venezuelan, or Zimbabwean.

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Our Future Begins Here

Those of you who were off broiling yourselves on some distant beach this summer will no doubt have taken along a couple of juicy potboilers to while away the hours on the lounger. If so, you would have missed three ‘good reads’ that have appeared and which, taken together, pretty much pose the question of what will become of Scotland. For once, this is not a Mexican stand-off between Indy and non-Indy tribes but they pose a more fundamental debate, one which no-one seems to want to have.

The key document, published early this month is “Delivering for today, investing for tomorrow: the Government’s programme for Scotland 2018-2019” Snappy titles are not Holyrood’s forte (we’ll call it SGPG for short). But the Executive Summary does contain some lively intentions, including:

“We will make it our mission to steadily increase annual infrastructure investment so it is £1.5 billion per year higher at the end of the next Parliament than in 2019-20…On current estimates that would mean around £7 billion of extra infrastructure investment by the end of the next Parliament.

Were this to come to pass, there is a strong likelihood of it triggering  an economic boom, much as Roosevelt’s New Deal dragged the USA out of the Great Depression in the 1930’s. There are two questions that must be answered before knowing whether such good intentions pave the way to Scotland’s heaven or its hell: 1) Where is all that money coming from and 2) Which infrastructures will receive that level of investment? For the first any benefit will be offset if the money used us diverted from other, essential services and investment; for the second, though the construction of popuar swimming pools and community centres may win votes, it does little to boost GDP.

The second document, which gives a context within which the is SGPD operates is the Sustainable Growth Commission’s Report of May 2018 (SGCR). Part A of the report considers the performance of the Scottish economy, set in the context of the global and UK economy and assesses the potential for improvement. It sets out principles for a new Scottish economic model and long-term policy strategy. The approach is to grow GDP by focusing variously on productivity, population and participation (inclusive) growth. The central argument is that Scotland should be seeking to emulate the performance of the best small countries in the world, rather than sticking to its current position as the best of the rest of the UK.

This position is reinforced by the third document, Wealth of the Nation, (WotN and a deliberate reference to Adam Smith), published by the David Hume Institute this month (September),  It puts Scotland’s productivity in an international context, where it fares much less favourably than in comparison with the rest of the UK. Some definitions:

  • GDP (Gross Domestic Product) = income generated in a country over a year
  • Productivity = GDP, divided by the total number of hours worked
  • Value added = a much trickier thing to measure per worker than the hours worked

By these raw  measures, Scotland (and, for that matter, the UK) is not doing well. To quote WotN and show one of its charts:

Scotland’s productivity over the last fifteen years has been largely stagnant and has under-performed, compared with many other European countries.”ScotProd

Scotland enjoys a low unemployment rate and its workers already work a high number of hours. Meanwhile, its working-age population is shrinking. This means that productivity growth will be of central importance to future increases in Scottish incomes and living standards. This is compounded by two decades of the Scottish Parliament focusing on social, rather than business priorities in its legislation. Though nobody would question the social value of hours worked by social workers or NHS staff, the extent to which they increase the actual wealth of the country, as compared to a farmer or oil worker, is less clear. It is not simply a question of services versus goods production—financial services contribute prodigiously to national wealth— but not all employment contributes the same “value added” per hour worked. The series of case studies within WotN suggests ways in which such questions can be addressed in Scotland. The turnarounds in the case studies involved:

  • focus on the evidence, (Scottish public bodies dwell on intention, not outcome)
  • consensus and collaboration, (multi-body working is rare or superficial)
  • credible and strong institutions, (work done by juniors who are not empowered)
  • focus on skills (time served does not mean experience and, even less, qualified)

The SGCR emphasises Scotland has very significant comparative economic assets and advantages, in terms of natural resources, the education and skills. Yet, median income of the group of 12 small advanced economies is 14% higher in GDP per head; a
gap of £4,100 per person. To redress this, two fundamental lessons are clear: Scotland must become more engaged, not less, in the global and European economy in order to boost growth. And the opportunity to contribute to, and benefit from, that growth must be more widely shared—as in those countries.

Will the EGPG achieve this? Consider the suite of bills that form the backbone of the programme:

  1. Budget Bill
  2. Biometric Data Bill
  3. Census (Amendment) Bill
  4. Consumer Protection Bill
  5. Disclosure Bill
  6. Electoral Franchise Bill
  7. Female Genital Mutilation Bill
  8. Non-domestic Rates Bill
  9. Scottish National Investment Bank Bill
  10. South of Scotland Enterprise Agency Bill

While not every piece of legislation can be a barnstormer, much of the lists are re0treads from last year with a whiff of populist grandstanding thrown in. The promise of funding a mental health worker in each high school sits badly with a promise made last year to fund extra staff that were never provided.

With the exception of the one on an SoS Enterprise Agency (which will do little beyond shore up damage from decline in Borders knitwear and atrocious transport options along the Solway coast), there is nothing to make Finance Ministers in Ireland, Denmark or Singapore quake in their Gucci loafers at the impending appearance of a Scottish tiger on global markets. And none of these bills come near the inspirational. There is certainly nothing that can hold a candle to even the Land Reform Bill in terns of social impact.

So, if we do see “£7 billion of extra infrastructure” materialise in the life of this and the next parliamenst, the probability it will be in the shape of a myriad pork barrel projects with plausible social cover but little leverage to boost the economy is high. If Messrs Mackay, Hepburn and Ewing were worth their ministerial salt as Finance, Business and Tourism champions, respectively, we might all wake up in 2026 with a world class global hub airport, or the Aberdeen/Ventral Belt triangle electrified, or a world-beating renewables sector, or a Munich-quality transport system for our constipated capital. Infrastructure vision on that scale could light a roaring fire under our national productivity.

But ah hae ma doots…

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Reasoning with the Reivers

On Wednesday, I was down in the Borders and lucky enough to hear Mike Russell MSP speak on the vexed topic of Brexit to a crown of over 200 at Selkirk’s Victoria Hall. It will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that it stands full0square against Brexit. But it was inspirational to hear lucid and cogent arguments supporting such a view coming from someone clearly on top of their brief.

Despite their history of fierce reiving, today’s borderers live peacefully in their unspoiled towns and prosperous farms, proud of local traditions and politically conservative. After presenting a pragmatic evaluation of where we stood vis-s-vis the guillotine poised over next March 29th, and presenting practical approaches to the dilemma ensuing, he did not get an easy ride on questions—some of whom would not have been out of place playing the Ettrick Shepherd or a character in The Dandy’s Black Bob.

To Mike, the whole Brexit debate is too important to be deformed by party politics, Joining the EU was as instrumental as any other factor in bringing Britain out of the severe economic doldrums of the 1970s. Apart from the issue being obfuscated by being caught up in internal wrangling within the Tory party that has gone on for 40 years, a key reason why we are facing Brexit lies with the over-55s, whose votes to leave overwhelmed a significant surge in your voter participation who anted to stay. But the over-55s are not the ones who will have to live with the damage to GDP which will result.. That there will be damage is agreed by every objective observer and is not simply another ‘Project Fear’, as ardent Breciteers claim. The only way to prevent or reverse such damage is to stay in the Single Market.

Remaining in the Single Market has been the compromise position sought by the Scottish Government over the whole two years of largely fruitless discussion that has taken place to date. Failing this, there needs to be a Free Trade agreement, along the lines of that forged with Canada. The third and least desirable option is to follow the Brexiteers strident argument and simply be bound by World Trade Organisation rules. But this last means, effectively, walking out with nothing, i.e. the ‘Hard Brexit’ that most people—including the EU itself—fear. Originally, Westminster decried this option. But now it seems to be considering it likely, due to the difficulty in getting agreement on the “Chequers’ white paper that so many Tories have publicly decried.

There is much talk of second votes, either in Westminster or even a referendum. There is scant chance of that. What is most galling of all is that, in two years, no evidence at all of concrete advantages accruing from Brexit have been presented. All of the talk of new trade deals could be pursued without having to leave the EU.

The practical issues that need to be clarified, Mike asserted, revolve around three items:

  • People
  • Regulation
  • Money

In terms of people, Scotland is more dependent on a healthy flow of workers than England. We hire many foreign nationals in our Food &Drink, our Tourism and our Health sectors. Some 80,000 people in the Highlands alone are nearing retirement and need to be replaced. One in four researchers in Scotland are EU citizens.

On regulation, almost 98% of current legislation is both good and useful, but it is EU-based. It will need to be brought into Scots Law—a massive task.

And, as for money, the scale of capital investment made possible by the European Investment Bank (mostly as catalysing seed funds that brought in other investors) has already dropped to zero. A replacement source of funding is not obvious.

Mike answered a whole series of questions that ran the gamut from virulent EU skepticism through indifference to a total Europhile. But, while he was clear in articulating his (and the Scottish Government’s) position that staying in the EU was the preferred option and one the country had clearly voted for, the chances of achieving even the next-best position of staying within the customs union looked poor and were diminishing by the day.

 

 

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Aggression As Entertainment

For some retirees, the amount of time now on their hands is a curse. But, for me, it is a blessing. Now I can indulge my weakness for film. Between the re-runs on sundry TV channesl and my DVD collection, my cup runneth over. Last week, BBC2 ran a series of cult British WW2 films, all of which I remember seeing at my local cinema as a boy. Leaving aside nostalgia for Pathe News, a cartoon and 6d for an ice cream as well as the ‘main feature’, the shift in social context and audience expectation was glaring.

In Which We Serve, The Dam Busters, Dunkirk, The Cruel Sea, Ice Cold in Alex, Reach for the Sky, etc are all fine films, distinct in the stories they tell. But they have much more in common, using violence, hardship and a common enemy almost never seen to bind a war-torn populace together with a sense of purpose in the trauma all had shared. The Americans were doing the same with Sands of Iwo Jima, Bridges at Toko-Ri, Run Silent, Run Deep, etc. On both sides of the pond, they satisfied both a civilian curiosity what had been done in their name and a mawkish venting of pent-up hostility towards a common enemy few had seen. Even in the films themselves the enemy rarely appeared as more than faceless targets or corpses.

By the 1970s, fim had moved on. Ass well as using colour, some showed a brutal enemy all too starkly (Sessue Hayakawa as Col Saito in Bridge on the River Kwai or Jose Ferrer’s Derra Garrison Commander in Lawrence of Arabia). This was carried over into serious attempts to portray a balanced view from both sides, as in Battle of Britain, Tora, Tora, Tora! and even Waterloo. In his brutal Cross of Iron, Sam Peckinpah pushed this so far that Nazis were heroes and the Russians faceless cannon fodder. A parallel development was the introduction of humour (Krlly’s Heroes) and satire (Catch 22) to broaden appeal and make more mordant commentary. But, though the one-sided moral simplicity of earlier films was gone, the violence inherent in war seemed justified ‘for reality’.

Outside the genre of war movies, violence seemed restricted to noisy and unrealisticrirefights, whether in Westerns or Police dramas. Clint Eastwood changed this almost single-handed with Leone’s ‘Spaghetti Westerns and the Dirty Harry franchise. Because of Vietnam (and clunkers like Green Berets), war fell out of favour, but violence didn’t. Sly Stallone and Scwarzenegger brought military mayhem into civilian life with the Rambo and Terminator franchises, which opened a whole series of violent, weapons-laden film franchises that continue to this day, such as the Marvel Comics, Star Wars, Hulk, Mad Max, Jurassic Park, Kill Bill, Lethal Weapon, Predator or Transporter spin-offs. Unlike James Bond or Men in Black, all take themselves seriously enough to be confused with reality.

In so many filmd made recently, violence is standatd and very much a part of the appeal, as calculated by the producers. Over three dozen films have grossed over $1bn worldwide and half od them are from violence-oriented franchises listed above. For every Toy Story, there is a Battleship. The phenomenon is not limited to cinemas, where access is controlled. Adding a massive DVD market, with video streaming and game tie-ins, the relative exposure in the population down dwarfs the popularity of cinema in its glory days.

So what?

Violence in general and war in particular used to be something only a fraction of the population ever experienced. Cinema changed that in the interwar years but those post-war b/w we started with restricted violence to a war environment where it was clinically restricted to circumstances far from the everyday. That has changed. Modern film violence seems almost willfully framed within circumstances very close to our lives, such that the threshold of horror most people use to distance themselves from it is eroded. It has become a commonplace part of our entertainment; why then, should it not become a more common part of reality?

The transition can be traced to the scene in Rambo, where he shakes off his police pursuers in the forest. The whole film to that point had been building sympathy for Stallone’s character—a Vietnam special ops veteran struggling to find a life who is hazed unnecessarily by small-town police. In reality (or were it a 1950s film) Rambo’s character would have slipped through the woods and disappeared. But that he stayed, furiously building lethal traps for his pursuers taps into our modern, more revengeful attitudes.

Blockbusters like Avatar are violent, but of the old school. Beautifully done, their surreal creativity transports us literally worlds away from reality. But the slick brutality of Tarantino or the everyday brutality of The Sopranos, immerse us in a dog-eat-dog morality becomes an integral and unavoidable part of life in a way  the almost prissy exposure in small doses of the 1950s never could.

Many people leading balanced lives will not only cope with this but broaden their mind by appreciating the creativity and entertainment value involved. But, when it comes to those less socially integrated, such as loners, criminals or even children, the increasing incidence of fatally unhinged, if not actual terrorist actions, might be traced to exposure to unjustified and gratuitous violence being peddled in the name of entertainment.

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This Scuppered Isle…

…this plot, this ream, this ignorance. Apologies to the Bard, but these times in which we live are, to quote the Chinese curse, “interesting”. For, thanks to the identity crisis among our English cousins caused by Westminster’s fixation with centralisation and inability to distinguish between England and Britain, the fifth-largest economy in the world is about to commit economic hari-kari. Regular readers will know this blog was always skeptical about the prospects for Brexit. But recent developments indicate the future may be scarier than even our earlier pessimism. Three recent developments point to this:

  1. Tory backwoodsmen are restless. Reinforced by Davies and BoJo, the Rees-Mogg natives scent blood and are gathering strength.
  2. Barnier, Junkers & others in the EU are suddenly sounding conciliatory, which can be taken to mean they see a hard Brexit as likely and they the damage to EU economies.
  3. May is off in Africa, showing a shapely ankle above kitten heels, as if trade with that continent could compensate for loss with Europe. Exports to South Africa and Nigeria make up half the £14bn we export there. Even doubling this 2% of UK exports is trivial, compared to 43% or £274 billion (out of £616 billion total exports) to the EU.

Given we have until the end of October to come up with a deal when we have not been able to scrape together any consensus in Britain over the last two years, the runes look bad. Look for the following milestones on the slippery slope to economic limbo:

  • September: look for more trade puffery like May;s brief African safari as various cabinet members add to their frequent flier miles.
  • October: To increasingly strident interventions from the backwoodsmen, Dominic Raab gets increasingly frenetic in negotiations with EU.
  • November: Negotiations continue past deadline with May becoming involved and a ‘ Modified Chequers’ agreement is reached and announced with much fanfare.
  • December: Rumbling of revolt from Tory back benches threatens vote to block Government adopting the agreement without parliamentary approval. DUP support this as Ireland border issue not resolved. This causes May to send out feelers to other parties to support the agreement reached, else there is no deal at all.
  • January: SNP and Lib-Dems announce support for May and opposition to any attempt to derail the modified Chequers agreement. Such bedfellows causes more Tory MPs to rebel and means Corbyn fails to marshal his troops into a coherent position, for the same reason.  Some senior Labour MP;s follow Frank Field in resigning the Labout whip.
  • February: After weeks of debate, speculation and fake news, a Commons vote on an early day motion by Bill Cash, veteran Eurosceptic Tory MP for Stone, blocks the Government’s intention to sign the agreement by 3a 10 to 301 vote. Most EU countries have by now indicated they will accept the agreement but Italy, Austria and Hungary are holdouts.
  • March: Desperate negotiations by May’s government fails to make converts to reverse the decision taken by Bill Cash’s motion. The EU holdouts are persuaded to agree to accept the modified Chequers agreement but the month ends in stalemate ad Britain leaves the EU under article 50 to operate entirely under World Trade Organisation rules.
  • April (not necessarily 1st, but it might as well be): Theresa May resigns the premiership. As the arch-Brexiteer who wished for this, BoJo becomes party leader and, in a whirlwind campaign based on personality and popular sound-bites reminiscent of the Trump campaign of 2016, wins a May election amd so lands the job of prime minister with a majority of 56 against a fragmented Labour opposition.

Far-fetched? Possibly. Excessively negative? Hopefully. But if anyone can honestly tell me that 2 1/2 years ago they foresaw any of the countdown to catastrophe we have been experiencing since, then I would love to hear their version of what will transpire over the next eight months.

Either way, would the last one to leave please turn out the lights?

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Symbol of Empire

Today, 22nd August, marks the centenary of the launch of “The Mighty Hood” from John Brown’s shipyard in Clydebank. In an era of massive Royal Navy battleships, most of which had been born on the Clyde, this one was a whopper—a source of immense pride to the Bankies who built her and the nation at large. H.M.S. Hood was the modern peak of refinement in battleship. design promoted by Admiral ‘Jacky” Fisher during his seminal stint as First Lord of the Admiralty; a battlecruiser. Though carrying eight of the same massive 15-inch guns arming the latest Queen Elizabeth class, she could move them, her 1,715 crew and all 48,000 tins at destroyer speed of 32 knots or half again as fast as her WW1 battleship sisters. The idea was she could out-gun anything that could catch her and elude anything big enough to sink her.

Completed too late to fire a shot in anger in WW1, she proved to be the perfect PR tool for the interwar British Empire. While an almost bankrupt Britain scrapped most of the Home Fleet, demobbed the Army and  embraced the popular notion that the Great War had indeed been “The War to End All Wars”, the notion of Empire and Britain’s pivotal role at the economic heart of it was reinforced bu new developments like radio and long-range flying boats that bound new colonies like Tanganyka, while making the older ones seem closer together.

A crucial part of this was the World Cruise. Usually undertaken by a senior member of the Royal Family, on several occasions, the Admiralty contributed one of its capital ships on such ‘showing the flag’ missions. Hood was by far the most effective and impressive. Her sheer bulk and 856 ft (263m) length simply dwarfed anything in colonial ports. She was the largest ship to pass through the Panama canal at the time, barely scraping through with a foot to spare on either beam.She and the massive base built at Singapore between the wars became the twin symbols of the modern and enduring British Empire, about which just about all the British from char lady to Churchill were proud.

But both shibboleths were cons, whose weaknesses few people knew and those in power never admitted. This modern Tory claptrap about “Britain punching above her weight” is an old chestnut that dates from this era. When war did come again in 1939, the imperial bluff would be called. Britain was (with the honourable exception of RAF Fighter Command) woefully under-prepared. The inadequacy of the Army’s training and equipment was shown in May 1940, prior Dunkirk. But it was not until in 1941, two events six months apart demonstrated the hollowness of the two pillars of awe upon which Britain’s imperial power rested. Space does not permit  relating how two Japanese divisions bamboozled Percival’s 50% larger force at Singapore and dealt the British their worst defeat. Ever.

But six months earlier, the Royal Navy had a comeuppance almost as bad. Early in the war, the German Kriegsmarine fought a clever war, stretching the RN’s resources thin to cover shipping lanes sprawling round the globe. As a result, when their newest battleship Bismarck sortied in May 1941, there were only two capital ships at Scapa that might intercept it before it got lost in the boundless storm-tossed Atlantic. Hood, along with Britain’s newest H.M.S Prince of Wales (ten 14-inch guns) sailed and intercepted at dawn in the Denmark Strait. Bismarck also carried eight 15-inch guns and was better built and armoured. Everybody seemed pleased at this, convinced it would turn out well—this was, after all Britain’s newest AND Britain;s best, “The Mighty Hood”.

A year before, Hood had been “modernised’. This was a four-month stint in dockyard when all the 6-inch secondary battery, submerged torpedo tubes and old-fashioned AA guns were removed. Experimental UP projectors replaced them. Much equipment like pumps, radio, radar and generators  were replaced. all this lightened the ship bu over 1,000 tons and the plan had been to upgrade deck armour from 2-3 inches to 7 inches as protection against the then-new threat of bombs. But, such was the urgency of war, this was never done.

DenmarkStr

Denmark Strait: Bismarck enters from te top; Hood & Prince of Wales lower right

In this action, Hood, built as a battlecruiser, was deployed as a battleship.The tactics of both British ships was to work together on parallel courses, at first close the range with the enemy and then turn on the bean to open the arc of fire of the rear turrets. In the diagram, the lower dotted line is the rough path followed by shells when fire was opened at 05:53 at a range of over 10 miles. At that point, Bismarck is about 30 degrees off Hood‘s starboard bow so only her two forward turrets  (‘A’ and ‘B’) are firing. That also means that, because of the 10 nile range a d the steep trajectory to cross it,  almost any hit on Hood will plunge onto her deck, not her relatively strong side armour. An early shell from Bismarck does hit her boat deck amidships, near the mainmast. This starts a fire in the ready-use ammunition lockers of the new UP projectiles.

Just after the order is given to turn to port and bring the aft turrets to bear, another shell plunges near the mainmast, penetrates the deck armour and several decks before exploding. The explosion reaches the magazine of ‘X’ turret, still full of 15-inch shells and cordite charges. These explode with such force that the 120-ton X turret is blown 100 feet into the air, the ship’s back breaks. Driven by four still-churning propellers, that after quarter of the ship drives into the remaining part, whose bow tilts up with the impact and all is concealed by a boiling cloud of smoke, steam, sea water and debris.

When it settles, H.M.S. Hood is gone, along with 1,713 sailors who never know what hit them and much of the Royal Navy’s mythical omnipotence at sea. As a symbol of Britain’s fall from power, it was bettered only by an ignominious fall of Singapore by early 1942. As a military blunder, it does not rate with the stupidity of the Charge of the Light Brigade or crass overconfidence of Isandlwana. It was a calculated risk to use the wrong tool for the job. But the admirals making the decisions (Pound, Holland) should have known better. A quarter century before,  Beatty had made the same mistake at Jutland. He lost two of his six-strong squadron to magazine explosions by charging into accurate German gunfire. He was lucky not to lose a third.

The Bankies were rightly proud to have built such a magnificent ship. But the British Empire Hood and they served so well often did not merit such quality of material and people at their disposal. Lions were led by donkeys at sea, as well as on land.

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Moose Turd Pie

In my early years, I suffered the same pheromone-driven need to chest-butt my buddies. Part of this was to tell each other salacious jokes. One of those was about a logging camp isolated deep in the Canadian forest. Their cook gets invalided out, which forces the lumberjacks to take turns staying in camp to cook for themselves. None of them are any good at the job, but a convention is soon agreed that, whoever complain gets the job. One guy is stuck for weeks, despite cooking worse and worse meals. But nobody complains. In desperation, he goes into the woods, collects a pile of moose turds and bakes them into pies. The lumberjacks return, dig into their steaming pies and the first one to take a bite stops in mid-chew. “Damn me!” he exclaims “but this tastes just like moose turd pie!” Then a pause. “It’s good though!”

This decades-old chestnut came back to me while watching PMQ repeats on BBC Parliament. Each week, Corbyn re-hashes the same high socialist outrage. Why does he do this? Why would anyone with intelligence and decades of experience blunder into the same political cul-de-sac week after week?

And then it struck me: despite palpable government weakness, if Corbyn brought down Theresa May, he would find himself hobbling in her kitten heels. He would be assaulted by a plummeting pound, a hostile Europe, a deranged America, a Chinese juggernaut, all wrapped around a rock-hard deal-less Brexit knuckleduster, leaving exports floundering and the economy sputtering. In short, he would have made himself the cook. So, his weekly lumberjack with a mouthful of moose turd pie performance, may show a subtlety that none have heretofore expected. Despite appearances of outrge, he is not, in fact, complaining; he is praising, .

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To End All Wars

This week we had another series of news items reminding us of te centenary of yet another WW1 battle—this time the Amiens offensive when the Allies finally had success in breaching German lines on the Western Front and rolling them back an appreciable distance. While I would be first to acknowledge the courage, hardship and sacrifice involved, the manner of reporting made me uneasy. For a start, it was superficial: no mention of numbers involved or casualties,  of devastating artillery barrages, of overwhelming tanks and aircraft deployed, of depleted armies, of fraying national morale. “Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it” is a mantra to live by, but there was precious little by way of lessons in the news reports.

Within four months, we will be celebrating the centenary of the Armistice, at which the British Empire grew to its greatest extent ever. Except it wasn’t the end of the war. The revolution rolled on in Russia and Britain sent troops to help the Whites; the Turks fought a bloody war with the Greeks around the Aegean; the victorious Russian Reds lost a war to the Poles; defeated Germany was made so poor by reparations that chaos and the weak Weimar Republic set the stage for Hitler and World War, Part II.

Thankfully, we have managed to avoid WWlll (so far) because most agree it would be the end of civilization, of not life on this planet. But if news coverage of WWl centenaries are anything to go by, we have not learned much.

From ancient times through the Middle Ages, warfare was commonplace. Each group/tribe/city state would develop bny forcing its will om (and plundering the goods of) its neighbours. There was no law but that enforced at spear-point. That changed with the development of the nation state. China, the Moghuls, Incas and Zulus all made stabs at this but Europe developed this furthest by the 18th century. Political stability and economic growth within each state led to competition and oftrn large-scale, sustained warfare between nations for global supremacy. The global Franco-British colonial wars of the 18th century, the Napoleonic Wars can be seen as precursors of WWl & ll.

But, just as the writ of law being extended throughout a country ended internecine strife and forged nation states, so the writ of international law (and the threat of nuclear Armageddon) has forged a global community of some 200 nation states, living in comparative peace with each other.

The question is, how illusory is this? In theory, disputes are taken to the United Nations for resolution. But the truth is that its writ is weak and little respected. Those with clout (Russia in Ossetia, Crimea, Ukraine, Syria; USA in Vietnam, Panama, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan; China in Tibet, Paracels) regularly ignore the UN when it suits. And while nation states continue to coalesce (exceptions like Sudan notwithstanding) an the same be said for out global family of nations?

What brought nation states together was a common culture, identity, language, leadership and—dare to say it—a common threat, usually another nation seen as a threat. Germans feared the Russians; Russians feared the Mongols; Danes feared the Swedes; English feared the French; Scots feared the English; Poles feared everyone.

So will it take a Wellsian invasion of tripos aliens wielding death rays to make us all get along? Because the runes are not good. Most citizens have poor insight into  neighbouring countries, let alone those with a different alphabet on the other side of the globe. Brush-fire conflicts break out erratically (Saudi Arabia invades Yemen; India eyeballs Pakistan; Venezuela eyeballs Colombia; ISIS shifts from Iraq to the Sahel). Western democracies are plagued by having to play to inward-looking electorates. REak nuschief-makers like Putin have a much freer hand.

Perhaps the best catalyst for global harmony in the 21st century the way nation-states fostered national harmony in the 18th and 19th, is some form of disaster that affects everyone and that everyone will have to combat jointly to solve. The best candidate for that is global warming. Sea levels are rising and only rare countries like Nepal and Liechtenstein can shrug ‘so what?’ Iy may take losing the Seychelles, Bangladesh and half of the Netherlands before everyone takes it seriously.

But, bad though it may become before we reverse it, it’s better than WWlll.

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Third World Gateway

For my sins, I use Edinburgh Airport  (EDI) often. It rates well above root canal treatment on my list of painful experiences. What is particularly galling is that millions in investment have only made the place worse since a blog here on December 17th 2016 called “Fleein‘” discussed designs of various airports and awarded EDI “nulle points”.

Now serving 14m m passengers, it was already cramped and poorly laid out when present owners Global Infrastructure Partners (GIP) bought it from BAA eight years ago, “investment” seems to have meant “pour money into boosting retail and parking income; infrastructure and long-term planning can wait.

The contrast could not have been starker when I flew to a real airport last month Easyjet flies EDI-MUC (Munich) daily (and are habitually late). The outward leg contrasted EDI as a crowded retail mall with a runway attached with the expansive, modern ease of MUC. Munich is twinned with Edinburgh; you’d think they would pick up some ideas. But airside departures at EDI is crammed with retail outlets and waiting passengers but almost devoid of signage for either departures or gates.

EDImap2

Layout of Edinburgh Airport.

The map above is inaccurate. Actually, Gate 1 is five date (1A-1E), none of which have jetways, nor do all gates beyond 12, all of which involve an extra 250m walk down a long, blank tunnel through a construction area.

Arrival at MUC is a pleasing contrast. Up the modern jetway within 4 ,imutes of reaching the stance, you wait 30 seconds at passport control before following signs though spacious halls for “S-Bahn”, buy your EUR11 ticket. Withinn 15 minutes, you are sitting in a train and in 30 more you’re in the city centre.

MUCmap

Layout of Munich Airport

Note the modular design of Munich, with parallel runways and jetways at every gate for ease of boarding and deplaning. It is an integral, logical design that owes nothing to Heath Robinson and everything to German efficiency.

But if the flight out provides contrast between the slick operation at Munich and the cheapskate kludge that is Edinburgh, the return is much more stark. Leaving Munich is as  swift and well signed as the arrival. But last month, Edinburgh was a nightmare.

They recently switched international arrivals from the cramped space at the West end to a new grey barn at the East end. In so doing, they had damaged all six of the recently introduced passport scanning gates. As a result the half-dozen Border Force posts are overwhelmed. Fifteen minutes of waiting on the plane for a bus to arrive turned into another 20 standing in the bus waiting to get into the new barn, followed by a half-hour of snaking the length of the overcrowded barn six times before having your passport checked.

We had landed a half-hour late but that had become 1 1/2 hours by the time we picked up our bags. And, as if to add insult to injury, that pushed the time well past 11:30pm so that we had to pay night bus fares to get into the city.

Don’t just compare Edinburgh to Munich. Take any reasonably comparable city—Dublin or Lisbon or Barcelona. They all offer modern, spacious, efficient gateways to their country that are both businesslike and welcoming. Edinburgh is neither, being operated primarily as a GIP cash cow on an infrastructure shoestring worthy of some fly-blown dictatorship. This is not Kampala, nor Ulan Bator. While being touted as “Where Scotland meets the World“, a more accurate slogan for Edinburgh would be “Where visitors to Scotland meet the Third World.”

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Balls Bounces Back

You have to grant Ed Balls creditl he’s a man who lives up to his name . Who else has bounced back from setbacks to re-invemt himself so often? From Mr Yvette Cooper to Gordon Brown Treasury wonk, to Leeds MP, to Strictly contestant, he has repeatedly relaunched a career as needs required with a resilience that deserves credit. Last Sunday, he sprang back into public prominence with a new series on BBC2: Travels in Trumpland.

His brand of smooth-talking Blairism finds few friends these days among the wilder-eyed Corbynistas that is the politburo of the People’s Front of Islington, so an enforced sabbatical from front-line politics seems a sensible call. To explore the hinterland that is Red State America is both timely and shrewd.

Timely because just about every media source in the UK had fallen into an indignant line behind The NY Times, LA Times, Washington Post, etc in deriding the Presidency of The Donald as somewhere between ridiculous and disastrous, possibly both. Yet, while the Democrats foam impotently, nobody is proposing any credible antidote to Trump”s leadership. And, yes, leadership it is. Just because the Washington establishment, Beltway bandits, feminists, minority leaders, unions and sophisticates are mainlining valium to head off conniption fits does not mean Trump is unpopular with the people—just the nomenklarura. Europe needs to start listening to a wider America, and not just the usual suspects.

Ed Balls is shrewd because he dives right in to a bottomless Trump heartland of whose existence even half of America is barely aware. Steering well clear of politicians and suits, Ed went straight to the folks who see themselves as down-home custodians of what ‘Murca’ is all about. From truck drivers to lumberjacks to a Korean vet shooting beer cans off his front stoop, these are the people you find at rodeos, county fairs and gun shows. They keep Rottweilers behind chain-link fences in aluminum-siding bungalows in small towns you’ve never heard of: Wickiup AZ; Townsend MT; Arklow PA; Fredricksburg TX. Few are well off. But all believe in the American Dream—and that it could work for them.

So whether at the Rednecks with Paychecks festival in Texas or Jim Slaughter’s Wrestling Gym in Alabama, Ed gets cosy with the 50% of Americans, about whom we know little. This is because they don’t have passports—and wouldn’t visit us if they did. They don’t watch PBS and don’t feature in middle-class films/TV churned out by Hollywood. Many used to vote Democrat but Trump captured them in droves by telling them what they want to hear and not worrying about actual delivery. Ed’s program is no standard documentary but a selective set of chest-butting bouts with this under-reported, salt-of-the-earth society.

BallsBruiser

Ed Balls Gets in Character as ‘The British Bruiser” in Mumford, AL

And, to his credit, he doesn’t pussyfoot around; he questions how they can believe in Trump when he is often whimsical and contradictory. The answer seems to be that Trump has tapped this huge swathe of people with Disney-esque blind faith in America’s culture and intrinsic superiority—provided people have “life liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (US Declaration of Independence). It is similar to disaffected British industrial workers who voted for Brexit, but on a more massive scale. always suspicious of slick politicians in suits, they love Trump’s way of cocking a snook at the establishment, even though he wears the most expensive suits of all.

Ed deserves credit for exposing this powerful feeling gripping half of America that we (and most Democrats) struggle to understand. Such was the conviction of all those Ed interviewed that, despite his hard questioning, the foundations of a second Trump term were plain to see.

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