Channeling George III

Three days after the polls opened, results are in for the 2021 elections to the Scottish Parliament. Unlike previous elections when a diversity of policies brought in a variety of parties, this result—and the tactical voting that led to it—split along independence vs union lines.

Pro-indy parties—72 seats (3 more)
SNP: 64 (+1)
Green: 8 (+2)

Pro-union parties—57 seats (3 fewer)
Cons: 31 (n.c.)
Labour: 22 (-2)
Lib-Den: 4 (-1)

What is decisive about this is not just the numbers. The Conservatives made opposition to any referendum their main policy and repeated it ad infinitum. Both the SNP and Greens had other policies, starting with dealing with Covidm but clearly stating their intention to call a referendum during the term of the parliament (i.e. by 2026).

Though the unionists are spinning away big-time that this is not the time to choose, that the SNP received no overall majority, that the SNP ‘only’ received 48% of the vote, the smell of fear and sense of desperation from them is in the air. And, as the NYT says, Boris and the Tories being implacably against any referendum, let alone allowing Scotland to become independent is putting up backs among people who are not SNP voters but resent being told what to do by a distant and largely unsympathetic Westminster.

It has become a question of democracy. A majority of 15 in the Scottish Parliament were elected on the pledge to ask the people whether they wanted independence or to stay in the union. To refuse that begs the question how the Scottish people could ever achieve that if electing such a majority in their parliament is not enough. The idea that we would need over 50% of the 650-seat UK parliament to approve it is ludicrous, not least because only 57 of those MPs are from Scotland (almost all SNP). The Tories used a 52%-to-48% UK vote to leave the EU, even though 62% of Scotland voted to stay. With Scottish seafood exporters to the EU now being crippled by red tape, circumstances since the 2014 referendum have changed dramatically.

If American readers were to imagine if California wanted to secede but the other 49 sates were all Republican and wanted to retain CA for their own purposes and much of the Central Valley produce lay rotting at the border as a result. If any union is being held together by mutual agreement becomes one held together by coercion, the question becomes not whether but when it will fall apart.

As Boris’ great hero Churchill once said:

“This is not the end; it is not even the beginning of the end. But it may be the end of the beginning.”

Unfortunately for all of us, Boris Johnson is no Churchill, displaying little of either his steadfastness or his vision. Rather his style has been characterised by what has been described as “a vacuum f integrity”. Seen from a Scottish perspective, he seems less to be channeling his hero than George III, who caused the first fragmentation of the English Empire. Boris is bidding fair to go down in history as being similarly instrumental in causing the last.

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The Maine Line

Like it or not, America is a great country with a massive influence on both the peace and the future of the world. Though their institutionalised two-party system may seem simplistic to Europeans, it has generally served them and their democratic principles well. Then came Trump.

He did not invent venal hostility between the two parties—that dishonour goes to Newt Gingrich with his bind obsession in discraditing Bill Clinton and, by extension, the Democrats. Republicans did their level best to derail Obama’s efforts to bring in a sensible and fair health care system and generally carry the Reaganomics banner that all government is bad, especially when it comes to taxing the rich.

For four years, Donald Trump, with enthusiastic support from Senate Leader Mitch McConnel put this policy on steroids. Many people, watching Biden’s energetic unrolling of all that, thinks the worst is over. That may be. But most Republicans have bought in to Trump’s big lie that the election was stolen and are using every means they can think up to prove him right. A shrewd observer of all this is journalist Heather Cox Richardson, who, despite being holed up in a scenic corner of Maine, nonetheless has her finger firmly on the pulse of her nation. She writes a daily blog that takes few prisoners. Europeans interested in crisp doses of US political reality should consider the $5 for a month’s subscription most worthwhile. What follows is a sample of her work.

By a vote of 216 to 208, the House of Representatives passed a bill to grant statehood to the District of Columbia. The measure would carve out the area around Capitol Hill, the White House, and the National Mall to remain much as they are today, but the rest of what is now the District would get one representative in Congress and two senators. About 712,000 people live in Washington, D.C., only about 37.5% of whom are non-Hispanic white.

Republicans are furiously arguing that this is a naked power play on the part of the Democrats, for D.C.’s inhabitants are presumed to be Democratic voters. In response, those in favor of D.C. statehood point out that the Republican Party, quite famously, admitted six states in twelve months between 1889 and 1890. They were not shy about what they were doing. The admission of North Dakota, South Dakota (they split the Dakota Territory in two), Montana, Washington, Idaho, and Wyoming, Republicans said, should guarantee to the Republican Party a permanent majority. (They were so blatant that they convinced a number of Republicans to turn against them.)

But today’s vote to admit D.C. to the Union is not quite the same as the power grab of the 1890s for the simple reason that Washington, D.C., in 2021 has a lot of people in it. Republicans pushed for the admission of their six new states as quickly as they did because they knew that the 1890 census would reveal that the new states did not have enough people in them to become states (unlike Arizona and New Mexico, which did have a lot of people, but those folks supported the Democrats).

In contrast to that push to create states purely for political power, today’s D.C. has people in it. A lot of them. It has more people today than Vermont… and Wyoming, one of the states the Republican brought in in 1890.

—Heather Cox Richardson, April 22nd 2021

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A Shower of Sham-Shanti Shamen?

A debate has opened up whether, instead of vaccinating secondary pupils, the UK should send more Covid vaccines to India, in the light of the alarming and growing spread of Covid there by over 400,000 new cases each day. While the humanitarian impulse to consider such action is laudable, nobody seems to be holding the Indian Government to account for the priorities it followed that led to this lamentable state of affairs.

Despite warnings from them in March, four of the scientists said the Indian federal government did not seek to impose major restrictions to stop the spread of the virus.”

—Reuters, May 1st 2021.

28 Millions of largely unmasked people attended religious festivals and political rallies that were held by prime minister Narendra Modi, leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata party and opposition politicians. Tens of thousands of farmers, meanwhile, continued to camp on the edge of New Delhi protesting Modi’s agricultural policy changes.”

—The Guardian, May 1st 2021.

Both issues point to poor management by the Indian government, for which they should be roundly condemned for negligence, at the very least. But thee is at least one area where there has been a wilful neglect of their people’s welfare in the cause of militaristic aggression which runs counter to the most basic teachings of Hindu religion, not to mention the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, the most famous and most influential of their teeming peoples.

“Non-violence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man.”

—Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi

Narendra Modi and his government do not seem to be familiar with this. In the last fiscal year, his government budget of $338 billion spent $29 billion on health. That may seem a lot, but it constitutes just 2.1% of the total budget. Spread over India’s 1,326 million people gives just $22 per head. As a contrast, from a budget of $1,442 billion, the UK allocates $293 billion, or 20.3%—equivalent to $4,507 per head or 200 times India’s spend.

Fair enough” you might say. “India is a poor country that can’t afford to spend on a scale that the UK can.” Nor true.

Take defence. Britain prides itself in being a global power that “punches above its weight” and spends $68 bn each year to prove it. It deploys nuclear weapons. It boasts spiffy new aircraft carriers, with one about to deploy to the Far East. At $15 billion per annum, it is the world’s second-biggest arms exporter. India must surely be third-rate when it comes to that. Not a bit of it.

At $71 bn, India’s defence budget is LARGER than the UK’s. They have 1.32 million in their active armed forces, plus another 0.8 million in reserve. The equivalent figures for the UK are 135,444 active and ~30,000 reserves. So, let’s try to get our collective heads round this: while the UK allocated 4.7% of its budget to defence and 20.3% to health, India allocates 2.1% to health, while spending TEN TIMES that on defence? Does anyone wonder why their hospitals are overwhelmed. Yet the UK sends £100 million to India in aid each year.

It doesn’t stop there. Over the last decade, India has spent $60 bn on arms. They have a nuclear programme and an estimated stockpile of 130 warheads (i.e. comparable to the UK). The have a space programme costing $2 billion each year (three times the UK’s space budget).

The fact that the UK is not hauling Modi and his Bharatiya Janata party over the coals for pouring money into armaments while starving their health service of funds could have anything to do with two statistics above being in some way linked, could it? Remember Robin Cook’s “Ethical Foreign Policy”? Surely a $60 bn shopping list would have no influence on the attitude of the second-biggest arms exporter in the world…would it?

“The Defence Ministry’s role is not used for diplomatic or soft targets. Soft methodology is normally used in political or diplomatic channels. The Defence Ministry is the hard way.”

—April 21st 2017
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Speaking Loudly & Carrying the Wrong Stick

“Speak softly…and carry a big stick” —Harry Truman on US Foreign Pol;icy

On April 14th, President Joe Biden announced that by September 11th the United States will withdraw the remaining 2,500 troops in Afghanistan. After 20 years, in which 2,488 Americans died and another 20,722 were wounded, this supposed ‘punishment of terrorists responsible for 9/11’ has cost almost as many lives as the 3,011 who died on that day—not to mention $1,000,000,000,000.

For all their military muscle, America seems singularly ineffectual in applying it for long-term effect. After flexing such muscle to good effect in two world wars, they now seem to think a 12-guage is the best way to dispatch a bumble bee. Their record of success in brush-fire wars since Korea has been poor, especially considering post-war administration, once shooting stopped.

In lesser conflicts, where subtlety and cultural sensitivity might have helped, not only is America’s track record appalling, but their insistence on knowing best, on not learning from others makes the British Raj seem the acma of enlightened reason by comparison.

Despite principled statements against colonialism during early days, from 1823’s Monroe Doctrine, the USA has held a conviction that action is justified in interfering where its interests seem under threat. Not content with United Fruit dominating Central America or detaching Panama from Colombia to facilitate building the Panama Canal, it was soon practicing heavy-handed interference beyond the Americas.

The Kingdom of Hawaii was subsumed to ease access to China, where the US was as active with legations and missionaries as colonial empires in exploiting markets, importing labour and in bringing down the final Qing dynasty. The US created the Spanish-American War, fighting a repressive colonial war in the Philippines and running Cuba as an offshore Las Vegas. The latter eventually led to Castro and Communism on their doorstep. A century on, they still retain Guam and Puerto Rico as colonies, not states.

Post-WW2 hegemony and “Reds-under-the-beds” paranoia of the Cold War excused interference anywhere by posing as global defender of democratic freedom. Yet actions by the CIA and ‘special advisers’ fostered resentment, and not just in  Samoza’s Nicaragua, Pinochet’s Chile, the Shah’s Iran or Nguyen’s South Vietnam. Not only did this tarnish America;s image but none of those regimes survived.

The USA seems arrogant enough to pursue their interests around the globe by force where they can ad subterfuge where they can’t. Patience and humility do not appear as tactics in their global playbook. This places their pride and faith in their armed forces as their main foreign policy tool. In this, they are formidable, and little different from Russia.

Following the WW2 diktat of being “fustest with the mostest” the ‘shock and awe’ deployed in the Second Gulf War got the job done in record time. Their ability to slice and dice Saddam’s formidable Iraqi forces was impressive. But Iraq is the only example since Korea when the enemy dared to stand and the Pentagon’s high-tech toys had full reign.

In every other conflict, America’s formidable force has been chasing shadows at great cost and to little real effect. Congress and the Pentagon invariably spin results to justify the $718bn annual defence spend. However, victory is not about munition loads or body counts. By those measures, America lost its War of Independence.

Victory is determined by long-term results achieved. Were American forces only ever engaged in Gulf War type conflicts, they would prevail and Pentagon profligacy would be justified. However, conflicts over the last 70 years in which America has been involved have failed to secure victory, even if the military conflict was won. It started in Korea, where unconventional tactics by the Chinese PLA almost destroyed the US 2nd division, despite formidable logistics and airpower.

This worsened in the decade of the Vietnam War, when everything short of nuclear weapons were thrown at the Viet Cong and Saigon still fell to them in 1975. Confidence that helicopters, firepower and air superiority would avoid what had happened to the French ten years earlier proved ilusory. However, what made victory unattainable was how Vietnamese people and culture were treated in a manner bordering on racist, which domed what was essentially an occupying power. “We had to destroy the village in order to save it” pretty much sums up the futility.

This impotence of military might in the face of a sullen, if not hostile populace has been the downfall of American deployment ever since. They have constantly been frustrated by Mao Tse Tung’s adage that “the guerilla smins amomgst the people as a fish swims through the sea”.

And so it was: Marines in Lebanon in 1982; 25,000 tropps in Somalia in 1992. Neither achieved anything beyond casualties and resentment. At first, 2003’s Second Gulf War was a military tour de force, erasing Iraq’s armed forces in 48 hours. But then fighting continud through the occupation for the next eight years. Even where the US let others put boots on the ground and only provided air support: anti-Ghadaffi rebels in Lybia; anti-Assad rebels in syria; anti-ISIS Kurds in Islamic State, the places remain vortexes of human tragedy, along with Iraq and Afghanistan, where imminent withdrawal will precipitate similar vortexes.

President Truman’s wise adage seems forgotten. If America insists on interfering around the world, it will need to learn the use of some subtler device than their ‘big stick’, because ot palpably does not work. While the Pentagon and CIA may be necessary to make America secure, it is in dire need of a third, more subtle tool that is not American multinationals, whose approach is too steeped in American culture and values.

America’s pride in its military muscle is shared by its friends and Allies. But elsewhere, its preparedness to use it has caused resentment, which is exacerbated by US corporations who ket their culture ride roughshod over local sensibilities. Though CIA activity usually manages to keep below public radar, the mere fact of its presence does not help. What is needed is a re-thinking of the Peace Corps, but without the clean-cut cultural ignorance that makes you think they are all Mormon missionaries.

Thoough many Americans actually descibe themselves as “Italian-American” or “Korean-American” their awareness of cultural roots, or even language,  is usually minimal. But, if languages—especially non-European—were more integral to school education and “gap years” in the appopriate country were encouraged and augmented by an Erasmus-style university student exchange, a significant part of the American public might gin insight into cultures other than (and equally valid as) their own. The presence of so may young Amricans abroad would go far in reducing resentments. It’s much harder to dislike a country when you have friends there. America is a country built by people from all over the world. It’s time to tie it back into the world.

American culture does encircle the world, and there are many who would either participate in or emulate it. But they are greatly outnumbered by the millions who resent the manner in which it throws its considerable weight around. But, worse than that, is the blatant exploitation of the money-trough supplied to Iraq and Afghanistan by American multinationals like Schlumberger and other directorships of Rumsfeld, Cheney et al. Neither state was sufficiently advanced to be yanked into the 21st century in one step and America was too impatient and ill-informed to adjust its intervention accordingly.

It wasn’t always so. Post-WW2, the Germans were advanced enough to take the Marshal Plan and rebuild their country, without it being modelled on Macdonald’s. MacArthur was enlightened enough to guide the Japanese into doing their version of the same. How can as advanced a country as America have forgotten so much in those seventy years?

America itself has not been threatened since The Alamo in 1836. Far from being plucky underdogs, within 12 years, they gained two giant states (California & Texas), plus five others annexed by the Union at Mexico’s expense. What the Pentagon frames as ‘defense’ is actually projection of self-interest anywhere they choose. If you’re going to spend the equivalent of the entire UK government budget each year, would it not be sensible to spend it on ‘weaponry’ more effective to the task and—heaven forbid—much cheaper? Such as a New Peace Corps, heritage language initiative and global Erasmus schenes.

Scrapping a couple of carriers or air wings would provide funding. Avoiding 20 years of another Afghanistan should provide at least $1 trillion.

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Qui Docet Magistros? *

(* Who Teaches the Teachers?)

The AS Report

Despite the cacophony of political hounds baying for Nicola Sturgeon’s blood for “misleading parliament” over Alec Salmond, they did squeeze in a debate about education in Scotland on the last day before it broke for the May election. Audit Scotland’s Improving Outcomes for Young People Through School Education report looked at improvement since 2014. That was when Nicola Sturgeon staked her career on closing a glaring attainment gap between pupils from the least deprived backgrounds and those from the most deprived. Even before Covid muddied educational waters last year, scant progress had been made. The proportion of school leavers achieving five or more awards at level five differed from 82.7% in least-deprived areas, to 46.5% in most deprived. This gap of 36.2% remains uncomfortably large.

Audit Scotland’s reports generally offer resolutions to problems highlighted. Unfortunately, those are often boilerplate flannel: they sound good, but their vacuousness permits ministers to suck teeth, sound stern and promise action. However, little happens, public gaze moves on, and all concerned keep their jobs for another cycle.

In the case of this report, Audit Scotland thinks the Scottish Government should:

  • ensure a coordinated policy response within and across government when planning to improve longer-term outcomes
  • promote the importance of the different pathways, qualifications and awards available to young people with parents, carers, politicians, and the media”
  • “councils should work with schools, involve young people and parents in planning and help schools build their data analytical and quality-improvement skills

It is hard to find substance in such fluent ‘Bureaucratese’. To a non-educationalist, it sounds like a counsel of perfection. Educators and politicians alike seem reluctant to learn from educators elsewhere. Occasional media coverage highlight PITA scores showing a Scottish decline. But analysis of leading to action to improve seem absent.

The Rest of the Iceberg

Four areas of China deliver PISA scores shaming all other 78 participating education systems. In fact, the most disadvantaged pupils there out-performed average pupils elsewhere. Only Singapore come close. Seven years ago, alarm bells were already ringing here. Scotland had already lost its historical edge of which it had long been proud. In 2016, even within the UK, comparing results a decade before (source NFER Education Briefings ISBN 978-1-911039-34-1):

  • England had the highest percentage (12 %) of top performing students in science, despite scores dropping from 515 to 512
  • Scotland had 8% of top performing students in science, its score dropping from 512 to the OECD average of 493
  • England had the highest percentage (11 %) of top performing students in maths, despite scores dropping from 516 to 512
  • Scotland had 9% of top performing students in maths, its score dropping from 512 to 497
  • England had the highest average reading score at 500, up from 499
  • Scotland’s average reading score had dropped from 499 to the OECD average of 495

Commenting on this, University of Edinburgh Professor Lindsay Paterson said: These mark the worst news for Scottish education in my 30-year career.” John Swinney, at the time only seven months in post as Cabinet Secretary for Education, agreed, declaring “radical reform is needed.”

So, in May 2017, John Swinney launched The Pupil Equity Funding, which was to be “additional funding, on top of the existing almost £4.5 billion invested in school education annually.” The Scottish Government paid this to councils by ring-fenced grants, to be allocated directly to individual schools, as designated by them. There was no latitude for councils; they were simply conduits.

Six years further on and PISA scores remain disappointing, to say the least, as evidenced graphically by these charts on performance over time on each of the three main measures.

(Insert Reading chart)

Where the Buck Stops

Despite high-minded speeches and good intentions, it is hard to see the sad story told by those charts as anything but failure. Responsibility for not just a failure to improve, but clear backsliding must be laid at John Swinney’s door. BAD enough that other countries have improved, relative to Scotland BUT Scotland has been unable to keep pace with its own past performance. A number of factors seem to have contributed:

  1. John Swinney’s three predecessors (2007-15) barely served 2 years each, and so failed to make impact beyond the “revolutionary” Curriculum for Excellence, which disrupted teaching patterns without notable improvements.
  2. Labour predecessors (1999-2007) negotiated the McCrone Agreement (May 2000), boosted teacher salaries and career options, but secured little in return
  3. Teaching unions—EIS; SSTA; AHDS. Despite McCrone discussion with them revolves around pay and conditions, with little on improving education.
  4. PPP/PFI The £9bn capital spending spree councils indulged to rebuild school estate 2000-2007 were presented to them as “the only game in town” and have siphoned off an ever-larger portion of stagnant budgets for 30 years.
  5. A fall in revenue funding in real terms. Secondaries fell from £7,145 to £6,880 per pupil. Primaries fell from £5,411 to £4,984. John has been complicit in acceding to this, so his party loyalty bears some of the blame.
  6. A growing disparity between haves and have-nots, mirrors disparity in parent involvement and encouragement. This pushes the attainment gap wider, despite education authorities seeking to close it.

John Swinney is conscientious. He must read Audit Scotland’s critical reports.  Yet he seems little disturbed by Liz Smith MSP, the Opposition Spokesperson of Education, who should be his nemesis with ammunition like that to fire. Although she does put in the hours, she spends them on much else beside education.

Pedagogy, not Demagogy

Though no seasoned educationalist, this writer served 18 years on an education committee, while attending four school boards/councils each month, met with head teachers and hired five of them, and feels qualified to comment. That experience leads to suspicion that there is a cosy conspiracy that afflicts education here in Scotland that goes something like this:

  • Teachers do not  just teach. They are also youth social workers, are burdened by inclusion, GIRFEC and other buzz words. Their disciplinary options have been curtailed, while pupils wax ever more vocal about their rights, often backed up by unquestioning parents
  • Motivated parents badger the school and blame teachers for children failing to make academic progress. Many other parents regard school as nursery to keep their kids occupied so they can work/socialise/relax.
  • Education Scotland and the SQA suffer from ‘silo mentality’: only illuminati such as they can develop policy.
  • Politicians fixate on positive publicity. In the absence of positive results over which to crow, Plan ‘B’ is to invent some nifty initiative and throw money at the problem. The £4.1bn education budget of 2014 became £4.5bn…but only because of a ring-fenced Pupil Equity Funding.
  • Media and voters who follow it are equally complicit. They demand sound-bite reporting, with simplistic analysis. Announcements with large numbers of £000s attached are preferred. Follow-ups to see how it worked are rare.

Eclectic incantations and endless acronyms among priests of educational policy meshes nicely with superficial reporting and scrutiny. Education is trapped in a vortex of politicians, educators and unions more concerned with £ signs and not getting their jotters than sending well equipped kids out into the world. Even health, where they “follow the science”, is not treated as the political plaything that education is.

So, what to do, besides throwing more money at the problem?

The solution may be found in Swinney’s own nomenklatura. His main civil servant, his “Director-General Education, Communities and Justice” is Paul Johnston. That title makes sense. Each school is (or should be) a hub for their community. Once, there were all kinds of meetings, societies and activities there. That was before PFI contract “bean counters” drove them away by charging an arm and a leg for access.

Forcing contractors to return schools to their communities would be a start. But it is not enough. Most Scottish councils are too small to run education well, especially when government ties their hands with ring-fenced funding. If region-scale is good enough for the a-political NHS Health Boards, it should be good enough for large a-political education authorities. Such bodies could handle a large degree of autonomy to adapt policy to local requirements, while still conforming to examination standards.  

Within them, a good deal of autonomy could be devolved to the cluster, if not the school level, taking a leaf from the private schools’ book, being guided by a small board supervising operational running, financing and, for the benefit of all, integration into its community.

There will be protests of unfairness, of the affluent disadvantaging deprived communities. But shackling together in comprehensive schools did little to advance anyone. After decades of trying to level the playing field, it is timeto ditch centralised diktat and put schooling back where it belongs: in the community. The Africans were right: “It takes a village to raise a child”.

Miners were once regarded as deprived communities. But many miners had as strong and vocal ambition to educate their children well as any middle-class matron. Given the chance, so-called ‘deprived areas’ could lead the way to giving vocational education the pride and prominence it enjoys in Germany. Our middle-class fetish to send everyone to university, earning qualifications nobody can use may be misusing talent we can scarce afford to waste.

Scottish universities and schools were once the envy of the world. They achieved that without any national curriculum or pedagogues in Education Scotland trying to cram ebullient young minds through a standard template as entry to a homogenising meat grinder.

What if we made schools pro-active, not just nine-to-four factories? What if we involved local people with skills and experience to share? What if we let the community and school decide if they needed disclosure? What if we put the local library in the school and saved money? What if teachers became more than data deliverers? What if schools included adult ed?…replaced community centre?…showed films…shared sports facilities?

Would this not turn the school into a social centre and give the community the idea that it is theirs—they ‘own’ it. Think of the money this would release from libraries, community centres, sports fields, etc. that could be ploughed into education. It would change the school from an alien craft from a distant planet that swallows children and where any adult is a suspect intruder. Think what benefit could be had by all on the 220+ days when pupils are not in school. The present gross underuse of facilities is reason enough to question the present system.

Would there be security issues? Yes, but there are big security issues now. If people feel ownership, will they not look after things—and quickly shop those who do not? Look at Denmark, where inequality is much less and people feel part of society. The Danes enjoy a high standard of living and are rated the happiest people on the planet. Look at California, where waves of Asian immigrants arrived from Laos, Vietnam, Korea or India with very little. They qualified as “deprived”. But they found no Pupil Equity Fund for them. What they did find was jobs and businesses. Then they dinned the importance of education into their children, few of whom now qualify as “deprived” by anyone’s standard.

And if we look at the four areas of China with stratospheric PISA scores, the deprived as well as the affluent kids are eating our lunch in economic, as well as educational, terms. Why? Because the community behind them believes in what they are doing and swing in behind the educators to make it happen. We in Scotland can look at deprivation or curricula or exam results all we like. We need to re-think the basis of education. As long as we let educators and unions and politicians put our kids in a bell jar, they risk cultural—not just educational—asphyxiation.

Once Covid releases its baleful grip, we should put John Swinney on a plane and get his eyes opened. As reliance on internal bureaucrats, high-sounding initiatives and drunken sailor scales of dosh are distraction; they are not cutting it. Reliance on them will just grease our slide further down this slippery slope toward failure we are on.

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The Better Part of Valour

There is a glossary of terms in Appendix 1

A year later than planned the UK Government published a strategic paper Global Britain in a Competitive Age’ On its heels, came a supporting paper Defence in a Competitive Age, which revamps the armed forces to achieve this. Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace commented: This Defence Command Paper ensures our Armed Forces are threat-focused, modernised and financially sustainable. Our military will be ready to confront future challenges, seize new opportunities for Global Britain and lay the foundations of a more secure and prosperous Union.”

Making UK armed forces more nimble to deal with technical aspects of conflict in the 21st © is a laudable goal. But such focus begs the question: with whom will such  conflicts occur? For Britain to have a global role in which it “punches above its weight” (as ministers are fond of saying) requires analysus of threats needing to be met, not bluster about ‘global Britain’ as PR to justify Brexit. Otherwise, “repurposing” armed forces may be delusional, if not downright dangerous.

Consider conflicts since Britain’s former stance as a superpower came down around Eden’s ears with Suez in 1956. From EOKA on Cyprus and Mau-Mau in Kenya through to Sierra Leone and Afghanistan, the bulk of deployment has been against unsophisticated, elusive enemies in “brush fire wars”. Conventional conflicts were always against second-rate powers, like Argentina, Serbia, Iraq and Syria. And in most cases, the effort was American-led and we could lean on their technology. Whether the streets of Belfast or the wastes of Helmand, most effort was dogged infantry actions. Where Britain excelled was in special forces: the SBS on West Falkland; the SAS in the Iraqi desert.

Not only has major conflict alone against superpowers (i.e. Russia or China) is insane. Even following an American lead is questionable. Which puts Trident, or its replacement, in the dock as impractical, as well as immoral. It is no deterrent if you regard Armageddon as self-defeating. The four boomers and their MIRV cargo have cost billions and been useless in every conflict in which Britain has been involved. Another 60 warheads to add to the 180 already in storage is squandering more money for yet another new wardrobe for the emperor.

Emasculation of the rest of the RN is being contradicted by the apparent surge in investment in surface ships. The two carrier will be joined by more frigates to bring the number of ocean-going escorts to 25. This number will be required to supply an adequate protective task force around each carrier deployment.

But will such deployment make any sense? The USN runs a dozen carrier groups, each built around a Nimitz-class super-carrier (100,000 tons: 50% larger than the Queen Elizabeth class), with 40 bases around the globe to operate from. Each deploys an air group of 60+ aircraft, including specialist AWACS and electronic counter-measures. To the RN’s two Albion class amphibious assault ships (19,000 tons) and four marine battalions, the USMC fields eight Wasp class (41,000 tons) and thirty marine battalions. The USMC alone has twice as many active personnel as the entire British Amy and a budget bigger than Britain’s entire defence budget. Despite government flag-waving bluster, Britain is simply not at the races when it comes to global muscle.

And, speaking of the British Army, which has taken by far the brunt of the fighting and casualties since WW2, reduction to 72,000 active personnel begs the question of how it can continue to be an effective and literal front line when Britain’s global—as opposed to national— posture remains unclear. Vague reference is often made to the “Russian threat” or Chinese violation of human rights. But, with 150 tanks, taking on 319,000 Russian regulars with their 15,300 tanks seems rash. Britain raised barely a whisper over Russian strong-arm action in Chechnya, Crimea or the Donbass. Taking on a 1.4 million-strong  People’s Liberation Army is military lunacy. Technology and training may be key to defence, but cannot bridge such disparities. In more limited conflicts, like Iraq or Afghanistan, American “Shock and Awe” led coalitions, of which Britain played a minor part. Even here, leading-edge technology and training offered poor defence against motivated guerrillas or amidst hostile civilians.

To put all this in context, thee are five basic levels of conflict in which Britain might find itself involved:

  1. All-out Global War involving superpowers would find Britain’s nuclear arsenal an irrelevance that would simply make the rubble bounce as mankind obliterates itself.
  2. Regional War (e.g. the two Gulf Wars) would be beyond Britain’s capacity to wage alone, so would be led by NATO or the USA, who would direct forces. Even if Argentina were to re-occupy the Falklands, Britain would be incapable of repeating the 1982 success alone.
  3. Brush-Fire Wars  modelled on French intervention across the Sahel or the Paras in Sierra Leone, propping up the forces of a friendly minor power is within planned capability. Yet this begs the question why you would bother. The French are resented as still acting like a colonial power. Britain’s trivial intervention in the Syrian civil war (some sorties by pairs of RAF Typhoons from Cyprus dropping a couple of 1,000lb Paveway bombs) did more to stir up Muslim resentment than help Syrian rebels.
  4. Special Ops is where Britain might make the most effective contribution. Beside the SAS and SBS, the Marines and possibly the new Ranger Force are capable of highly effective, low-key intruder operations. Yet, by definition, none of the ‘big ticket’ forces (boomers, aircraft carries, MBTs, APC,s, strike aircraft, etc.) are any use to small, covet teams.
  5. Home Defence which is what this should be all about. GHQ, surveillance and the proposed cyber-security are a necessary part of this, as is a UK-based army around the size proposed. But projecting Britain’s forces globally means this basic element is neglected. North Sea oilfields are virtually unprotected. When the Russian carrier group built around the Admiral Kuznetsov appeared in the Moray Firth a few years back, it was detected well inside UK waters by  fishing boat. Britain had scrapped the £4bn Nimrod LRMR replacement and the nearest RN unit of any size was a frigate docked in Portsmouth.

Despite a declaration by the UK government that it wishes to increase Britain’s influence on the Asia/Pacific region and will be sending a carrier group thee, the purpose of this is unclear at best and delusional at worst. Intervene in technically under-developed Myanmar to prevent people being butchered by generals usurping democracy is beyond Britain’s ability, carrier group o no. Intervention in Northern Mozambique, Tigre, Yemen, let alone Syria, are well beyond British forces—present or planned. The days of British global gunboat clout are long gone.

Even the ability to support global action is being hollowed out. In the Falkland War, all fifty C-130 Hercules transports in the four squadrons of the Lynham Transport Wing flew over 500 missions to Ascension and beyond. These aging workhorses are to be replaced by Airbus A400M Atlas. With only 22 are on order, another Falklands, or anything like it, would be impossible from logistics alone

If Britain were to focus on the mutual defence of Europe though NATO, an army reduced by another 10,000 and its seven divisions merged to four could make sense. Formation of a four-battalion ‘Ranger’ regiment, plus a reinforced 16th Air Assault Brigade provides a respectable rapid response force in such a role.

If the morally indefensible and militarily useless nuclear ‘deterrent’ were cut, rather than augmented, conventional defence could be properly funded. Trident, plus the four Dreadnought class boomers to carry them cost £49bn to build—more than Britain’s total defence spend in a year. The government claims it must “reserve the right of nuclear retaliation in response to acts of aggression, including chemical and biological and even cyberattacks.” Events over the last half century have proved this wrong.

Discretion, not hubris, is the better part of valour.

Appendix 1: Glossary

  • APC = Armoured Personnel Carrier (carries infantry, currently in Warriors)
  • AWACS = Airborne Waning and Control System
  • Battalion = a force of soldiers, usually around 600 strong
  • Boomer = nuclear-powered submarine, armed with multiple nuclear-tipped missiles
  • C-130 = four-engined Hercules long-range transport aircraft
  • EOKA = Ethniki Organosis Kyprion Agoniston—Greek-Cypriot guerrillas
  • F/A-18 = McDonnell-Douglas Hornet main USN shipboard fighter aircraft
  • F-35B =  Lockheed-Martin Lightning main RN shipboard fighter aircraft
  • GHQ = General Headquarters—Britain’s cyber-warfare centre
  • LRMR = Long-Range Maritime Reconnaissance
  • Mau-Mau = Kenya anti-colonial guerrilla force, led by Jomo Kenyatta
  • MBT = Main Battle Tank (currently Challenges)
  • MIRV = Multiple Independently targeted Re-entry Vehicle
  • NATO = North Atlantic Treaty Organisation
  • Nimrod = obsolete LMR aircraft of the RAF, based in the 105-s Comet jet.
  • RAF = Royal Air Force
  • RN = Royal Navy
  • SAS = Special Air Service
  • SBS = Special Boat Squadron
  • USMC – United States Maine Corps
  • USN = United States Navy

Appendix 2:  Overview of proposals in Defence in a Competitive Age

Royal Navy. This is the arm that seems to be favoured for their ability to deploy globally, if sometimes requiring the support/permission of friendly nations. The plan here involves:

  1. A new “Multi-Role Ocean Surveillance capability” will be acquired, tasked to deal with protecting critical national infrastructure, such as undersea cables.[4][5]
  2. Hunt-class mine countermeasures vessels and Sandown-class minehunters will be replaced by autonomous minehunting vessels
  3. A Bay-class landing ship will be converted to a forward-based littoral strike role for the Royal Marines.[5] The Royal Marines themselves will form the core of a Future Commando Force.[1]
  4.  Type 83 destroyer will be developed to replace Type 45 in the late 2030s.
  5. Two Type 23 frigates will be retired early, before an increase in numbers with the introduction of the Type 26 frigateType 31 frigate and Type 32 frigate.[1]
  6.  Harpoon will be retired and replaced by the interim Surface to Surface Guided Weapon; the Type 45 destroyer will also receive upgraded air defence weapons.[5]
  7. The “next generation of subsea systems” to replace the Astute-class fleet submarines will be developed and enter service in the 2040s

British Army

The British Army will be reduced in establishment, to 72,500 regular personnel by 2025, with no change in reserves.

  1. 79 Challenger 2 Main Battle Tanks will be retired, with the remaining 148 upgraded to Challenger 3
  2. The planned Warrior upgrade will be cancelled, and instead the vehicles will be retired upon the introduction of Boxer in the mid-2020s.
  3. £250 million will be invested in Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System (GMLRS)
  4. £800 million will be invested in a new automated fires platform.
  5. The Infantry will be restructured into four new divisions.[1]
  6. A new four-battalion Ranger Regiment will be formed, from the Royal Scots Borderers; 2nd Battalion, Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment; 2nd Battalion, Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment; and 4th Battalion, The Rifles The new regiment will sit within the Special Operations Brigade – formed from redesignation of the Specialised Infantry Group.
  7. A new Global Readiness Force will be formed, consisting of a newly formed 1st Combat Aviation Brigade, and 16th Air Assault Brigade, the latter of which will be reinforced by a further infantry battalion.
  8. The British Army will be re-organised into 7 self-sufficient Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs) – two heavy, both affiliated to 3rd Division, two light, one deep strike, one air maneuvre, and one combat aviation.
  9. The 1st and 2nd Battalions of the Mercian Regiment will be amalgamated.[5]
  10. A Security Force Assistance Brigade will be formed to assist and train partner nations.[1]
  11. Manning will increase in the areas of electronic warfare, air defence, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)

Royal Air Force

£2 billion will be invested over the next 4 years, into the Future Combat Air System.

  1. The Boeing 737 AEW&C “Wedgetail” order will be reduced from five to three.[5]
  2. The Lockheed C-130 Hercules fleet will be retired by 2023.[5]
  3. The order of 48 Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II will be increased. However, the 2015 commitment to procure 138 F-35s is not referred to. On 23 March, the First Sea Lord estimated that the final fleet will total between 60 and 80 aircraft.
  4. 16 Protector UAVs will replace the current 9 Reapers.
  5. All Tranche 1 Typhoon fighters will be retired by 2025. The remaining Typhoons will be upgraded
  6. The Hawk T1 aircraft will be retired by 2025.[1]
  7. £200 million will be invested in enhanced electronic warfare & signals intelligence capability. £6.6 billion will be invested into space over the next 4 years

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All Men Are Created Equal?

Because of a need to forge millions of disparate peoples into a coherent country, history was simplified: the North won that war and subsequently freed and emancipated former slaves, before readmitting states of the conquered Confederacy back into the Union. This is all the post-bellum history that gets talked about. But echoes of the ante-bellum South still dog US politics today.

But recently, a Maine-based journalist, Heather Cox Richardson, has chosen the opening of the trial as a cue to revisit some little-known, shoddy US history in her daily Letter from an American who are black feel American society still does not offer them a level playing field and equal rights. What follows below is a verbatim and unedited transcript from her writings. It’s long (over 2000 words) and seen entirely from a US perspective. But the read, and the $5 monthly sub, are both worth it for those who track the huge influence exercised on politics elsewhere.

_____________________\

Letter from an American, March 26th-28th 2021 by Heather Cox Richardson

On March 25th, Governor Brian Kemp of Georgia signed a 95-page law designed to suppress the vote in the state where voters chose two Democratic senators in 2020, making it possible for Democrats to enact their agenda. Among other things, the new law strips power from the Republican secretary of state who stood up to Trump’s demand that he change the 2020 voting results. The law also makes it a crime to give water or food to people waiting in line to vote.

The Georgia law is eye-popping, but it is only one of more than 250 measures in 43 states designed to keep Republicans in power no matter what voters want.

This is the only story from today because it is the only story historians will note from this era: Did Americans defend their democracy or did they fall to oligarchy?

The answer to this question right now depends on the Senate filibuster. Democrats are trying to fight state laws suppressing the vote with a federal law called the For the People Act, which protects voting, ends partisan gerrymandering, and keeps dark money out of elections.

The For the People Act, passed by the House of Representatives, is now going to the Senate. There, Republicans will try to kill it with the filibuster, which enables an entrenched minority to stop popular legislation by threatening to hold the floor talking so that the Senate cannot vote. If Republicans block this measure, the extraordinary state laws designed to guarantee that Democrats can never win another election will stay in effect, and America as a whole will look much like the Jim Crow South, with democracy replaced by a one-party state.

Democrats are talking about reforming the filibuster to keep Republicans from blocking the For the People Act.

They have been reluctant to get rid of the filibuster, but today President Joe Biden suggested he would be open to changing the rule that permits Republicans to stop legislation by simply indicating opposition. Republicans are abusing the filibuster, he says, and he indicated he would be open to its reform.

The story today is not about coronavirus vaccines, or border solutions, or economic recovery, because all of those things depended on the election of Joe Biden. If the Republicans get their way, no matter how popular Democrats are, they will never again get to direct the government.

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signed his state’s new voter suppression law last night in a carefully staged photo op. As journalist Will Bunch of the Philadelphia Inquirer pointed out, Kemp sat at a polished table, with six white men around him, under a painting of the Callaway Plantation on which more than 100 Black people had been enslaved. As the men bore witness to the signing, Representative Park Cannon, a Black female lawmaker, was arrested and dragged away from the governor’s office.

A scene that conjures up a lot of history.

Voting was on the table in March 1858, too. Then, the U.S. Senate fought over how the new territory of Kansas would be admitted to the Union. The majority of voters in the territory wanted it to be free, but a minority of proslavery Democrats had taken control of the territory’s government and written a constitution that would make human enslavement the fundamental law in the state. The fight over whether this minority, or the majority that wanted the territory free, would control Kansas burned back east, to Congress.

In the Senate, South Carolina Senator James Henry Hammond, who rejected “as ridiculously absurd” the idea that “all men are born equal,” rose to speak on the subject. He defended the rule of the proslavery minority in Kansas, and told anti-slavery northerners how the world really worked. Hammond laid out a new vision for the United States of America.

He explained to his Senate colleagues just how wealthy the South’s system of human enslavement had made the region, then explained that the “harmonious… and prosperous” system worked precisely because a few wealthy men ruled over a larger class with “a low order of intellect and but little skill.” Hammond explained that in the South, those workers were Black slaves, but the North had such a class, too: they were “your whole hireling class of manual laborers.”

These distinctions had crucial political importance, he explained, “Our slaves do not vote. We give them no political power. Yours do vote, and, being the majority, they are the depositaries of all your political power. If they knew the tremendous secret, that the ballot-box is stronger than ‘an army with banners,’ and could combine, where would you be? Your society would be reconstructed, your government overthrown, your property divided… by the quiet process of the ballot-box.”

Hammond believed the South’s system must spread to Kansas and the West regardless of what settlers there wanted because it was the only acceptable way to organize society. Two years later, Hammond would be one of those working to establish the Confederate States of America, “founded,” in the words of their vice president, Alexander Stephens, upon the “great physical, philosophical, and moral truth… that the negro is not equal to the white man.”

Illinois lawyer Abraham Lincoln recognized that if Americans accepted the principle that some men were better than others, and permitted southern Democrats to spread that principle by dominating the government, they had lost democracy. “I should like to know, if taking this old Declaration of Independence, which declares … are equal upon principle, and making exceptions to it, where will it stop?” he asked.

Led by Abraham Lincoln, Republicans rejected the slaveholders’ unequal view of the world as a radical reworking of the nation’s founding principles. They stood firm on the Declaration of Independence.

When southerners fought to destroy the government rather than accept the idea of human equality, Lincoln reminded Americans just how fragile our democracy is. At Gettysburg in November 1863, he rededicated the nation to the principles of the Declaration and called upon his audience “to be dedicated… to the great task remaining before us… that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

The United States defeated the Confederacy, outlawed human enslavement except as punishment for crime, declared Black Americans citizens, and in 1867, with the Military Reconstruction Act, began to establish impartial suffrage. The Military Reconstruction Act, wrote Maine politician James G. Blaine in 1893, “changed the political history of the United States.”

Today, as I looked at the photograph of Governor Kemp signing that bill, I wondered just how much. Since the Civil War, voter suppression in America has had a unique cast.

The Civil War brought two great innovations to the United States that would mix together to shape our politics from 1865 onward:

First, the Republicans under Abraham Lincoln created our first national system of taxation, including the income tax. For the first time in our history, having a say in society meant having a say in how other people’s money was spent. Second, the Republicans gave Black Americans a say in society.

They added the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, outlawing human enslavement except as punishment for crime and, when white southerners refused to rebuild the southern states with their free Black neighbors, in March 1867 passed the Military Reconstruction Act. This landmark law permitted Black men in the South to vote for delegates to write new state constitutions. The new constitutions confirmed the right of Black men to vote.

Most former Confederates wanted no part of this new system. They tried to stop voters from ratifying the new constitutions by dressing up in white sheets as the ghosts of dead southern soldiers, terrorizing Black voters and the white men who were willing to rebuild the South on these new terms to keep them from the polls. They organized as the Ku Klux Klan, saying they were “an institution of chivalry, humanity, mercy, and patriotism” intended “to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States… [and] to aid and assist in the execution of all constitutional laws.” But by this they meant the Constitution before the war and the Thirteenth Amendment: candidates for admission to the Ku Klux Klan had to oppose “Negro equality both social and political” and favor “a white man’s government.”

The bloody attempts of the Ku Klux Klan to suppress voting didn’t work. The new constitutions went into effect, and in 1868 the former Confederate states were readmitted to the Union with Black male suffrage. In that year’s election, Georgia voters put 33 Black Georgians into the state’s general assembly, only to have the white legislators expel them on the grounds that the Georgia state constitution did not explicitly permit Black men to hold office.

The Republican Congress refused to seat Georgia’s representatives that year—that’s the “remanded to military occupation” you sometimes hear about– and wrote the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution protecting the right of formerly enslaved people to vote and, by extension, to hold office. The amendment prohibits a state from denying the right of citizens to vote “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

So white southerners determined to prevent Black participation in society turned to a new tactic. Rather than opposing Black voting on racial grounds—although they certainly did oppose Black rights on these grounds—they complained that the new Black voters, fresh from their impoverished lives as slaves, were using their votes to redistribute wealth.

To illustrate their point, they turned to South Carolina, where between 1867 and 1876, a majority of South Carolina’s elected officials were African American. To rebuild the shattered state, the legislature levied new taxes on land, although before the war taxes had mostly fallen on the personal property owned by professionals, bankers, and merchants. The legislature then used state funds to build schools, hospitals, and other public services, and bought land for resale to settlers—usually freedpeople—at low prices.

White South Carolinians complained that members of the legislature, most of whom were professionals with property who had usually been free before the war, were lazy, ignorant field hands using public services to redistribute wealth.  

Fears of workers destroying society grew potent in early 1871, when American newspaper headlines blasted the story of the Paris Commune. From March through May, in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War, French Communards took control of Paris. Americans read stories of a workers’ government that seemed to attack civilization itself: burning buildings, killing politicians, corrupting women, and confiscating property. Americans worried that workers at home might have similar ideas: in italics, Scribner’s Monthly warned readers that “the interference of ignorant labor with politics is dangerous to society.

Building on this fear, in May 1871, a so-called taxpayers’ convention met in Columbia, South Carolina. A reporter claimed that South Carolina was “a typical Southern state” victimized by lazy “semi-barbarian” Black voters who were electing leaders to redistribute wealth. “Upon these people not only political rights have been conferred, but they have absolute political supremacy,” he said. The New York Daily Tribune, which had previously championed Black rights, wrote “the most intelligent, the influential, the educated, the really useful men of the South, deprived of all political power,… [are] taxed and swindled… by the ignorant class, which only yesterday hoed the fields and served in the kitchen.”

The South Carolina Taxpayers’ Convention uncovered no misuse of state funds and disbanded with only a call for frugality in government, but it had embedded into politics the idea that Black voters were using the government to redistribute wealth. The South was “prostrate” under “Black rule,” reporters claimed. In the election of 1876, southern Democrats set out to “redeem” the South from this economic misrule by keeping Black Americans from the polls.

Over the next decades, white southerners worked to silence the voices of Black Americans in politics, and in 1890, fourteen southern congressmen wrote a book to explain to their northern colleagues why Democrats had to control the South. Why the Solid South? or Reconstruction and its Results insisted that Black voters who had supported the Republicans after the Civil War had used their votes to pervert the government by using it to give themselves services paid for with white tax dollars.

Later that year, a new constitution in Mississippi started the process of making sure Black people could not vote by requiring educational tests, poll taxes, or a grandfather who had voted, effectively getting rid of Black voting.

Eight years later, there was still enough Black voting in North Carolina and enough class solidarity with poor whites that voters in Wilmington elected a coalition government of Black Republicans and white Populists. White Democrats agreed that the coalition had won fairly, but about 2000 of them nonetheless armed themselves to “reform” the city government. They issued a “White Declaration of Independence” and said they would “never again be ruled, by men of African origin.” It was time, they said, “for the intelligent citizens of this community owning 95% of the property and paying taxes in proportion, to end the rule by Negroes.”

As they forced the elected officials out of office and took their places, the new Democratic mayor claimed “there was no intimidation used,” but as many as 300 African Americans died in the Wilmington coup.

The Civil War began the process of linking the political power of people of color to a redistribution of wealth, and this rhetoric has haunted us ever since. When Ronald Reagan talked about the “Welfare Queen (a Black woman who stole tax dollars through social services fraud), when tea partiers called our first Black president a “socialist,” when Trump voters claimed to be reacting to “economic anxiety,” they were calling on a long history. Today, Republicans talk about “election integrity,” but their end game is the same as that of the former Confederates after the war: to keep Black and Brown Americans away from the polls to make sure the government does not spend tax dollars on public services.

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No Life on Mars

On Tuesday, BBC4 broadcast two excellent Horizon documentaries from a few years back. An hour of “Mars: A Traveller’s Guide” from 2017 at 9pm followed by an hour of “Mission to Mars” from 2012/13at 10pm. Given that, fifty years ago, all we could see of the planet was a fuzzy reddish dot through a wobbly telescope, the scale and depth of visuals, quite apart from understanding in geology, geography, chemistry, atmospherics, etc. etc. was astonishing. It lifted the viewer literally into another world.

The opening commentary spoke enthusiastically about the first to land on Mars was alive today, and the programme would tell them “where to land and how to live”, with all the engaging conviction of the Disneyland tour guide. This was triggered by last month’s successful landing of NASA’s Perseverance rover, already adding to the billions of images we now have of the planet. Coming on top of the entertaining and scientifically plausible film The Martian and all our varied fixations with the Red Planet since Schiaparelli’s ‘canals’ triggered H.G. Wells “War of the Worlds” space amateur and scientific enthusiasts have seen colonisation as simply a matter of ingenuity and time.

In the cause of advancing science, expeditions to Mars make sense. But they are a dead-end. Mars is a dead world, closer to our Moon in its bleak inhospitability, with an atmosphere  0.6% as dense as our own, with polar ice caps that are not water but dry ice (CO2) because it gets as cold as -125degF there. As the planet has only 1/10th the mass of Earth, it has lost almost all the atmosphere and water it once had. This makes the idea of “terraforming” into a habitable world a futile prospect, even if the necessary technology were developed.

If mankind were serious about colonising other worlds, we should ignore Mars and concentrate on Venus. The reason we don’t is, being shrouded in dense, acidic clouds, it provides few visuals and therefore doesn’t make good copy. But we ignore it at our peril. For, should another asteroid, such as the one that wiped out the dinosaurs, strike Earth, we will need a habitable alternative. We need our world to offer open air greenery to survive long-term. Given the cabin fever we are all suffering necause of Covid, livinf in cramped pressure domes and walking in space suits, Mars isn’t it.

Because of planetary alignment, a round trip to Mars will take three years, not least because it is 50 million miles further out from the sum. Venus, on the other hand,  orbits three times faster than Mars, giving many more alignments to work with. It is also only 25 million miles closer to the sun, halving the theoretical distance to travel.

But, quite apart from planetary logistics, we need to focus our best science on terraforming Venus into somewhere we could inhabit.

The basis and urgency for this longer-term and less media-savvy-approach lies in what we are doing to the planet we already inhabit: Earth. While Greta and a growing swathe of concerned people are urging everyone to ‘go green’ and some progress is being made by more enlightened governments, global warming has not been stopped, let alone reversed. Venus holds a lesson for us I n this, which we are yet to take seriously.

Ever since the Soviet Venyera probes started exploration in the 1960s, Venus may seem an even less hospitable world than Mars. Being Earth-sized, it has retained a substantial atmosphere. However, pressure on the surface is over 90 atmospheres (equivalent to 1,000-metre depth in the ocean) and a scorching 450 degC, whipped by gale force winds of 90% CO2. Lead would melt and life would seem impossible.

But, it was not always so. Some believe Venus had oceans and (possibly) life, as ‘recently’ as a billion years ago. But, as the sun grew warner, the oceans boiled away, water vapour creating a greenhouse effect, which released carbon from rocks . The resulting CO2 amplified the greenhouse effect, which ran away, giving the approximation to hell we find today.

Dealing with this may sound a daunting prospect, but the technology required to reverse developments on Venus towards making it habitable are close to those we need to develop a technical antidote for global warming on Earth: massive carbon capture on a planetary scale, releasing oxygen into the atmosphere as a by-product.

There will be no planting of trees or other living carbon sinks on Venus until the temperature is brought below 50 degC. There are organisms on Earth that tolerate massive pressure, such as the works that inhabit the Black Smoker hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor. Whether they could be bioengineered to withstand 450 degC to produce oxygen from CO2 seems a long shot. But if Venus’ clouds could be engineered to reflect much of the sunlight, if terraforming machines that  bound atmospheric carbon back into the rocks were built on the Moon and dropped onto the surface to work over centuries, Venus’ decline might be reversed.

This sounds—and is—fantastical, but so was powered flight to Julius Caesar, or space travel to Napoleon, or the iPhone to Alexander Graham Bell. The point is, the way we are going, we will need to pioneer such technology to deal with our self-made problems o Earth. And if we fail here, Mars will be no lifeboat for us. It will be several billion years before the Sun expands as a red giant and warms moons of the gas gieants, like Titan or Europa, into habitable worlds. Meantime, where else is there, but Venus?

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Fire-arm-ageddon?

A huge swathe of Americans have a love affair with guns. Despite having spent two decades enjoying their wonderful country, I met few such people, nor Republicans, KKK, Proud Boys or anyone with NRA membership. They exist in some number. They enjoy the same rights and freedoms as any American citizen. Whether that should include owning guns is a matter of debate.

But I dispute their insistence that guns are a necessary part of American life and they cite the Second Amendment—the one that says “…the right to bear arms shall not be infringed” as justification.  What they don’t cite, in the bit before that, written in a time when redcoats threatened and actually burned Washington, “for the maintenance of a well trained militia, the right to bear…etc.” despair at their attitude distresses me, not because I aspire to tell other countries how to shape their culture. Britain tried that; it was called “Empire”, but we have learned better—at least most of us have. What bothers me most is the sheer self-contradictory palpable nonsense the gun lobby uses as justification” “if guns were outlawed, only outlaws would have guns.” 

The USA has more guns than people (1.2 per person), resulting in over 38,000 homicides (14,000) and suicides (24,000) by guns each year. Those numbers would wipe out everyone in my county in three years. The USA has TEN times as many guns per head than Iraq, TWENTY times more than Syria (and 25 times more per head than Britain). The only gun here I have seen in the 28 years back in Scotland belongs to an old mate. It is a shotgun he uses on pheasants pillaging local farmers’ crops.

Forget that the US has six times the UK’s population. US rate of death of all types from guns runs over 12 people per 100,000 population, sixty times the UK rate of 0.2. I make no case that the UK is in any way  ‘better’  than the US. But why are enlighten and humane people over there (of which there are many) not bludgeoning myopic NRA members and Trumpista Republicans over the head with such stats until they see sense and the slaughter is bought down fro outrageous to acceptable?

And don’t just compare with the UK; it is no outrider. The rest of Europe, Canada, East Asia and even the Middle East, for heaven’s sake, are all markedly better than the US on this measure. How can anyone in a supposedly advanced, wealthy civilisation tolerate gun deaths that ranks them with the Third World, mafiosi or Tong gangsters?

It was just  as well that the Capitol police were as passive as they wee on January 6th when the mob stormed in. Had they used their firearms, there is every chance that enough of the mob had brought the arms they have a right to bear with them. That would have been a bloodbath and such a shock, an Armageddon of democracy that would have taken decades to heal.

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Trump: Democracy’s Kryptonite

The reappearance of Donald Trump as the darling of the recent Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Florida is making a lot of people uneasy, and not just because they had enjoyed  whole month for the first time in five years not having to thole his erratic daily outbursts. To give Trump his due, he has carved a profile more outrageous than any sensible politician would have dared to. As America is rightly proud of being a free country, that is his right. As is the oblivion that should have followed.

The sad (and alarming) thing, however, is that a large number of political minnows in the Republican party have kept their wagon hitched to his star, even after his ungracious departure from office. It is not just Senator Ted Cruz (R TX), who is delusional: daft enough to see not just a second Trump presidency, but his destiny as Vice-President. Governors and legislatures of states across America’s ‘Red Center’ are falling over themselves to thwart Biden’s effort to clamp down on a virus whose threat Trump denied, even as deaths soared past half a million—more Americans than died in wars across the 20th century.

Anathema to Trump’s return is not about political differences. Any democracy worth its salt must be able to handle that. Despite high-profile posturing by Trump and his acolytes about ‘patriotism’, ‘freedom’, ‘founding fathers’, ‘foreign perfidy’, and so on, any study of Trump’s record shows him as concerned with democracy as Genghis Khan, being fixated with his status/power and enhancing his wealth. To secure those, no-one is secure from being thrown under the bus.

Example 1: US Department of Justice under Trump loyalist Attorney General William Barr declined to investigate, let alone prosecute, Trump’s Secretary of Transportation, Elaine Chao, even after that department’s inspector-general asked for a review of  “a misuse of her office”. The inspector-general found repeated instances of Chao using her office to benefit Foremost Group, a shipping company run by Chao’s sister. Also, Chao is married to former Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who led the Republican charge to avoid endorsing wither of Trump’s impeachments. (Source: heathercoxrichardson@substack.com

Example 2: Trump operated his administration alone the lines of a dictator, firing anyone who disagreed with or contradicted him in public. Brookings Senior Fellow Kathryn Dunn Tenpas refers to the group of most influential advisers outside the Cabinet as the president’s “A Team.” By the time he left office, Trump had fired 60 out of the 65 hires—a casualty rate of 92%. In fact, 27 of the 60 “A Team” departures (45%) have turned over twice or more. These are the people who actually run the country, but were stymied by Trump’s fickle and partisan whims.

Example 3: Senate hearings about the January 6, 2021, attack, heard of “serious lapses in the protection of the Capitol”. It appears those lapses originated with Trump appointees in the Pentagon. Washington’s National Guard is under the control of the Defense Department, overseen by Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy. The Commander of the D.C. National Guard, Major General William Walker, told the Senate that, in response to a request from Mayor Muriel Bowser. Walker requested approval for the mission from McCarthy on January 1st. McCarthy’s approval did not come until January 5th, when events were already unfolding. In what Walker saw as an unusual move, McCarthy withheld approval to deploy the Quick Reaction Force to respond to civil disturbance, without the approval of the Secretary of Defense.

At 1:49 pm, then Chief of the U.S. Capitol Police called Walker to say the Capitol had been breached, indicating “a dire emergency on Capitol Hill”, and requesting immediate assistance of as many guardsmen as could be mustered. Walker immediately called the Pentagon for approval to move, but officials there withheld approval for over 3 hours. Once allowed in, the National Guard deployed in 20 minutes. But by then, plenty of damage had been done—not least to democratic process. Trump’s man at Pentagon placed unprecedented restrictions on National Guard deployment, preventing it from responding to the crisis at the Capitol and its threat to a smooth transition of power in a timely fashion. (Source: heathercoxrichardson@substack.com

That Trump should reach the White House was more a credit to America’s ability to break fresh ground with the unexpected. That he behaved like a bad-tempered bull in a douce political china shop was a lesson to all who thought the founding fathers created perfection in the Constitution. That Trump drove a coach ad horses through convention should be a clarion call to guard against repetition of egregious abuse.

By himself, Trump poses little danger any more. But, backed by Republican fellow travellers, drifted so far from their democratic roots that they will sup with the devil for a thimbleful of power, abuses of privilege, such as above for another term, will drag America down to a cod democracy, on a moral par with Venezuela or Russia.

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