Why Does America Keep Shooting Itself in the Foot?

The United States of America: World’s Richest Country; Leader of he Free World; Land of the Free; etc. Who would dare meddle with it? Yet it does have enemies: Iran; Russia; North Korea; Venezuela. China is a rival, but more of a trade partner than an enemy. But the most persistent and baleful challenge to its hegemony and future prosperity is America itself.

This was not always so. In its first century as a new nation, it was brashly aggressive, acquiring vast territories from Spain, France, Britain, Mexico and Russia, as well as the natives, by stealth bribery and outright warfare. As those countries all had similar empire-building ambition, hostility was short-lived. The threat of Spain trying to reassert control of its former colonies led President Monroe to issue his Doctrine in 1823, that:

“The United States will not tolerate a European nation colonizing an independent nation in North or South America. The United States wull consider any such intervention in the Western Hemisphere to be a hostile act.”

This anti-colonial stance stemmed not only from their own experience, but also from an early sense of destiny that the USA was the natural leader of both the Americas and emerging democracies. In the 1895 Cuban rebellion against Spain’s harsh rule, the US sent the battleship USS Maine to Havana to protect American citizens threatened by rioters but the ship was sunk by a still-unexplained explosion while at anchor. Spain’s brutally repressive measures to halt the rebellion were graphically portrayed for the U.S. public by several sensational newspapers engaging in “yellow journalism”—the original “fake news”.

Spain announced an armistice and a new program to grant Cuba limited powers of self-government. But public outrage against Spain persuaded the U.S. Congress to issue resolutions that declared Cuba’s right to independence, and demanded the withdrawal of Spain’s armed forces from the island, In addition to Cuba, the US had a long interest in China—initially economic but then spiritual as churches sought converts among China’s millions. The Spanish colony of the Philippines were eyed as a potential base. This is when ambition and economic gain subsumed better intentions.

As well as an American fleet sinking the Spanish Caribbean squadron and Teddy Roosevelt storming San Juan Hill, a fleet to do the same to the Philippines first required a coaling station and the independent kingdom of Hawaii was first taken over by US commercial interests there. The Philippines were duly conquered. But, instead of handing over to the rebels, as public interest forced then to do in Cuba, the US seized the islands as a coliny, trigggrting a brutal continuation of the rebellion that cost many lives on both sides before it was repressed.

It also signaled an end to America’s idealism and coming of age as a colonial power, like the Europeans it had so long derided. Hawaii did become a state in 1957, but Puerto Rico and Guam continue as colonies to this day. The hiving-off of Panama from Colombia as a supine host so the Panama Canal could be built reinforced this new, assertive posture.

The next cycle of self-delusion came in WW1 when America, now grown into a major power, made a decisive entry into  the war and influenced the subsequent peace through Wilson’s pet project of the League of Nations. But the mindset that it was Europeans who were always at war and that America should not pull their chestnuts out of the fire led to an isolationist stance that the Great Depression and recovery though the New Deal only reinforced. But America remained expansionist, with companies like United Fruit making the Caribbean an economic colony. In 1935, top Marine, Major General Smedley Butler  wrote a book titled “War Is A Racket“, in which he described and criticized the workings of the US in its foreign actions

But, isolationist or no, the US objected when Japan invaded China, which it now felt fell into its own spheee of interest. Mounting economic pressure culminated in an oil embargo on oil-poor Japan, effectively giving them the stark choice of a humiliating withdrawal from China or seizing the oil assets of the Dutch East Indies for themselves.

The direct result was the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, for which American indignation was barely justified, given the scale of provocation and Japanese fetish about ‘face’.

Brave and copious though America’s contribution to WW2 was, at the Yalta conference towards its end, Churchill was unable to convince Roosevelt of Stalin’s iron will and Machiavellian ambition post-war. The result was a sense of betrayal and hostility to Communism as a new enemy among Americans, fanned by Senator McCarthy and witch-hunts against “un-American activities”. The Chinese revolution, the Berlin Airlift, the Korean War and the French debacle in Indochina only served to underscore the urgency and rectitude of this stance.

This led to lost opportunities, such as a refusal to support the Viet Minh who had cleared the Japanese out of Indochina, were moderate in their Communism and looked to the US as an anti-colonial power. Instead, the French were given copious arms and support to defeat them, the toughest and most effective guerilla force the world has ever seen wa created and all the lessons learned by the French studiously ignored in subsequent debacle on an even gander scale called the Vietnam War.

But propping up the corrupt regime in South Vietnam was not the only way America squandered its moral capital. Covert CIA operations propping up similar regimes from Nicaragua to Chile to Iran all failed. Muscular support for NATO ensured friends across Western Europe. But an unbending support for Israel lost it a similar number across the muslim world. Though leading the First Gulf War did much to repair such hostility, the over-reaction to 9/11 that resulted in a costly and unsuccessful occupation of Iaq, followed by a costly and unsuccessful occupation of Afghanistan, has frittered much of the resulting status and good will away.

The net result is that—even before Trump and his erratically blowhard foreign policy came on the scene, America’s fiends wee largely limited to prosperous Western democracies, while the bulk of the Third World saw their influence somewhere between overweening and insensitive and prefers the less didactically intrusive approach taken for decades by an ever more influential China.

But why should this be so? Why should the greatest economic powerhouse the world has ever seen keep “punching under its weight” in the world? The answer is two-fold.

  1. Bidness. The US became an economic powerhouse through untrammeled free markets—and persuading others to do the same. Much American foreign policy is diven by business, whether it was Dole in seizing Hawaii, United Fruit in the Caribbean, Kaiser Steel in supporting the UK in early WW2 or Haliburton in rebuilding post-war Iraq. This is all made possible by:
  2. Congress. Although technically a representative democracy, there was typically more turnover in the Soviet Politburo than in Congress.  America elects no-one to the House (and certainly not the Senate) without serious funding. Much of this comes from Political Action Committees (PACs). These are largely driven by business interests—insurance companies promote private health; auto manufacturers oppose emission regulation; arms manufacturers oppose defence cuts. As if this were not enough, most Congressmen and Senators have little foreign experience and little incentive to acquire any as they must focus on their domestic support and the funding to cultivate it.

While these two factors are too simplistic to provide all the reasons why America is consistently less well thought of in the world than it deserves to be, addressing both would go a long way to rectify the shortfall.

The root cause of both is the American electoral system, which gives money too much influence, giving incumbents too much job security (see previous blog “Constitutional Constipation). It is these self-same people in Congress, who would have to approve any such change, that puts this firmly into the category of “turkeys voting for Christmas“.

So, don’t hold your breath.

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Constitutional Constipation

America—regarded by many (especially Americans) as the world’s greatest democracy—is rightly proud of its Constitution. Forged at a time, before either the French or the Russians did away with them, when monarchs ruled the world it was a clarion call to the rights of individuals and the restriction of the power of rulers.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” —The Declaration of Independence

Pretty heady stuff at a time when Louis XIV was scalping his people to sustain the opulence of Versailles and the British were busy building an empire policed by conscription and press-gangs on class and slavery.

Something to be proud of, then—especially when it took thirteen struggling colonies of barely two million, clinging to the edge of am unknown continent, and turned them the world’s richest country of 350 million people. The concept of “rights” continues to this day, with states fiercely defending theirs against federal authorities and cities fiercely defending theirs against state authorities. As a result, enthusiasm for and participation in especially local democracy has remained strong, as evidenced by state propositions and healthy public attendance at city council meetings.

As part of all this, the American system of government, hinging on a deliberate three-way balance among the Executive (President), Legislature (Congress) and Judiciary served the country well for a quarter of a millennium. Things were not always noble (as when McKinley was bounced into the Spanish=American War and colonialism, after having championed the cause of oppressed peoples) or above board (as when Johnson got the country entangled in a major war in Vietnam, without ever admitting it was). Until recently, despite the electoral system having been invented when candidates rode horses around a trackless countryside the country on horseback and handbills wee the only medium. Developments like the telephone, newspapers, radio, automobiles, aviation, television and now the internet have revolutionised campaigns in ways the Founding Fathers could never have envisaged. But the biggest influence has been money; lots of it.

Spending on political campaigns in America dwarfs anywhere else. The 2016 Presidential election cost $2bn. The 2018 Mid-term (i.e. Congressional ) election cost twice that. That’s $43.64 for each actual voter in an electoral cycle, and far more than any other country. Efforts to set limits on spend have been quashed by the Supreme Court as it would “curtail freedom of speech”. As a result, these days, only rich people get elected, with billionaire Donald Trump the latest exemplar.

It’s democracy, Jim—but not as we know it.

There are strong arguments against the institutionalised US two-party system that dominates American politics (see The Hill and OSU Origins), which discourages reason and co-operation (known as “bipartisanship”).

So, now that this electoral jalopy has creaked down the road for over 240 years, is it long overdue to trade her in for a modern model? At the risk of a verbal lynching by outraged Americans civic purists, here are proposals to provide a democracy fit for the 21st century, and which would cost them (as they might say) “a whole bunch of money.

  1. Take the President out of politics. France, Germany, Ireland, etc. have Presidents who are above politics and can represent the while country, much as the Monarch does in Britain. His/her election thereby becomes less partisan and the bizarre Electoral College consigned to history.
  2. Re-think Congressional Districts. In all but the six states entitled to only one representative (AK, DE, MT, ND, VT, WY), introduce STV proportional representation. All states entitled to single-digit representation would be a single Congressional District. The 13 states with double-digit representation would be split into a minimum number of districts. This would increase state awareness and minimise gerrymandering.
  3. Introduce severe caps on campaign spending, in part by outlawing use of broadcast media (TV, radio, internet) advertising. Possible free distribution of one election address and limited Party Political Broadcasts in proportion to poll standing.
  4. Revamp Senate to mirror representation: States with 1-9 representatives receive one senator (elected by FPTP); States with 10-19 representatives receive two senators (elected by STV);States with 20-29 representatives receive three, and so on. (75 senators in all).
  5. House Majority Leader forms a government and chooses a Cabinet; most Presidential powers transferred here. House Minority Leaders leads the Opposition ad selects a Shadow Cabinet.
  6. Elections for all seats would be held once every four years.
  7. Consideration should be given to pursuing the 100-year-old idea of dividing California into two states around the latitude of San Luis Obispo.

Outrageous as such proposals may seem, consider other examples of counties with executive presidents—Maduro in Venezuela, Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Putin in Russia—and consider if this is the kind of political company the USA wants to keep. Then consider that just about every other pillar of democracy—from Western Europe to Canada to South Korea, to India to Australia—practices some variant on the above. And, finally, consider the advantages that would accrue to the American people, whom the system is supposed to benefit:

  • No more interminable (and expensive) Primaries
  • Ability for a broadly popular candidate to win over narrow partisanship
  • Opportunity for smaller parties to break REP/DEM hegemony
  • Opportunity for minorities to break the ‘white hair in a suit’ older male cabal
  • Demise of PACs, millionaire funding and ‘Beltway Bandits’ influential cliques
  • Obligation on Congress to actually DO something ad not bicker & filibuster
  • Enhanced representation of State, as opposed to business interests
  • Increased focus on the candidate and undermining of incumbent strangleholds

This may be much too heady for traditionalists/purists. But, with Trump behaving like a bull in a china shop with the niceties of convention that once made the present system seem fit for purpose, popular anger among the huge non-political majority may require change. For, as the Declaration of Independence also says:

“…whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

 

 

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Rule Without Rules

Many political observers, and a large chunk of the public, are variously bemused, shocked and outraged by the leaders of the two main anglophone countries on either side of the Atlantic. Rather than being “Leader of the Free World” where “huddled masses yearning to be free” find welcome, America has upset more nations in the last three years than when LBJ ran a full-scale undeclared war in Vietnam. Likewise, the legendary stability of Britain—and of its “Mother of Parliaments” has displayed more indecisive neurosis in those same three years than in the decade prior to Thatcher’s iton rule.

In part, this is due to leaders holding office before those thee years. In America, the affable Clinton, the folksy Bush and the urbane Obama lulled Americans into thinking their institutionalised two-party system was perfrct and neede d no change. In Britain, the bookish Major, the ebullient Blair and the smooth Cameron played a similar role in soothing feathers ruffled by Poll Tax riots. The Commons resumed its arcane pleasantries to which no-one, besides anoraks in some late-night TV wasteland, paid much attention.

All that now seems long ago.

We should be grateful to the Trump & Boris shoow for waking us all up, for administering a dose of salts to constipated hallowed halls of democracy. Congress—and the Beltway Bandits vampiring a good living from it—were entirely too comfortable inside funded fortresses that made incumbents immovable. They got little donedone beyond ritual dissent. The Commons seldom raised its debate level to the level even of the Lords and pretended not to be under the thumb of government majorities and the baleful power of whips.

Under Trump and Boris, dust, cobwebs and reputations are scattering. A good section of their respective publics are welcome their iconoclasm among the fustier corners of the temple. Various Sir Humphreys jerk awake from slumber.

But, is all this doing any long-term good?

This muscular politics, taking many of its cues from Vladimir Putin, is one that even tin-pot tyrants like Assad, Allende and Mugabe, not to mention exemplars like Stalin and Hitler would recognise. It follows some simple rules that would be laughably simplistic, if the preceding regime and its politicians did not cling to decorum, politeness and convention as tools to confront it. The rules are:

  1. Nothing is sacrosanct, unless it keads to success
  2. Find a popular/patriotic cause—and trumpet it.
  3. Find a section of the population to demonise and blame
  4. Find an foreign enemy to demonise and blame.
  5. Create an aura of powerful determination: L’audace, toujours l’audace, in which the leitmotifs are: “Attack is the best means of defence” & “it’s always easier to receive forgiveness than to obtain permission”
  6. Eschew consistency: keep ‘em guessing with unpredictable behaviour
  7. Say whatever it takes to succeed; just make sure it’s plausible
  8. Never apologise; admit nothing; deny everything
  9. Mould principles and morals to the cause—you must believe them yourself

To say that either Trump or Boris is a tyrant is exaggeration. But don’t be surprised if memoirs from Dominic Cumming or Jared Kushner emerge some day, embedding this philosophy in their received wisdom. That does not, however, mean that they are not driving their constitutional go-karts well over the speed limit and without due care and attention. Neither Prime Minister nor President gives a fig for the niceties of either constitution nor political convention. Selfless appreciation of anything—most especially others—does not even come into it. It takes real chutzpah to be so brutally focussed. But both leaders have it in spades.

Trump started life already in a penthouse with a father worth $8bn and a lifestyle he regards as his due. In New York property and New Jersey casino dealings, he learned how to out-fox opponents by misinformation that would have evinced Sun Tsu’s admiration. He learned early the dictum that the appearance of wealth and powerbegets more wealth and power. Ostentatious display of both became his calling card. And neatly leaving other people in the lurch—as n his failed Atlantic City casino—was just part of doing business. With no-one but family and minions supplying advice, there was no pressure to deflate his ego. With his wealth, running for office was always a possibility. But the brazen certitude, honed in major business deals made him a natural as the forthright, self-made outsider to appeal to masses tired of watching silver-haired suits mumble away their time in Washington.

Boris had a different experience, with similar results. He did not start with a silver spoon. As eldest in a middle-class family, he was zigged and zagged across the Atlantic in pursuit of his father’s career and was lucky to secure a King’s scholarship to Eton on the strength of English and classics. There the swot became gregarious, mixing easily with the other pupils and moving on with several of them to Balliol College, Oxford. There he joined the upper-class Bullingdon Club, mixed with budding Conservatives like Cameron and Gove. But, keen to become President of the Union, he displayed early elasticity of principles by suppressing this from SDP and Liberal students, diving the impression he shared their views. He won. After a stint as a reporter in Brussels, over which he enthused, he lost his job at the Times by fabricating a quote from his own godfather. Moving to The Telegraph, he found a niche in Brussels writing virulent anti-EU columns which stirred up the Euroskeptics in the Tory party to action but which Chris Patten observed included fake news, which John Major spent much time disproving. Although his writing style was well regarded, he was frequently late with submissions and berated staff who published without waiting for his piece. By developing a bumbling upper-class persona, he gained national fame on various TV shows and then as Mayor of London. Holding down multiple jobs, he did none of them to the satisfaction of those who had to clean up after him. Rather, he honed his harmless bumbler image while shifting political stances with shrewd aplomb, culminating worth his being the clear leader of the Leave campaign, which he peppered with ‘creative’ sound bites that seldom stood scrutiny. His gaffes as Foreign Minster may have been deliberate and got him sacked. Other than a fracas with his girlfriend, he kept quirt until Theresa May self-destructed.

“The selection of Boris Johnson … confirms the Tory Party’s increasing weakness for celebrity personalities over the dreary exigencies of politics. Johnson, for all his gift, is not known for his excessive interest in serious policy matters, and it is hard to see him grubbing away at administrative detail. To maintain his funny man reputation he will no doubt find himself refining his Bertie Wooster interpretation to the point where the impersonation becomes the man.

Max Hastings, London Evening Standard

In the case of both Trump and Boris, the personalities are the antithesis of the demure, reliable, if not downright elected representative that most people expect (and usually get) in a democracy. But these two are foxes, each loose in their local polital chicken shed. Their opponents cluck and fuss about the rules, condemning them for cavalier, capricious and confrontational behaviour—as if sowing alarm and confusion among their opponents were not intentional, if not meat and drink to them.

Significant numbers of votes relish the panic these two cause because they believe their own agenda is being furthered. This plays right into the “Rules…what rules?—I make the rules” *formely “Le Roi, c’est Moi) approach both leaders espouse. The resulting success will continue to, as long as either emperor convinces the cheering crowds the clothes are indeed real. But those who choose to live by such political swords should watch for opponents realising that ritual clucking is no defence. Boris stands closest to his Armageddon. If he goads them enough, the opposition parties may just forget their traditional enmity and line up to supplant him with an interim government that either reverses Brexit or, at least, gets a deal first.

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Greta vs The Red Center

Greta Thunberg,, the immensely sensible 16-year-old who triggered mass protests at the reluctance of nations to address looming climate catastrophe, sailed across the Atlantic in a non-polluting yacht to address the UN’s Climate Summit this summer. Her message was impassioned, articulate and clear: we have only a few years to mend our energy-profligate ways before climate change will lead to nature-driven destruction. Her incisive advocacy inspired many to take action. Large numbers of young people showed up for a demonstration outside the UN summit.

We need a concrete plan—not just words” (Greta Thunberg)

But, however articulate Greta’s plea or impassioned the young demonstrators were, the rest of New York, and indeed the US took little notice. This is a bad omen. From the EPA struggles with Big Business forty years ago to the recent Obama administration, the USA had made steady, if halting, progress towards seeing nature as more than a collection of resources to be plundered. A couple of oil crises and loss of total economic dominance in the world has helped focus America’s mind on co-operation on broader issues. But that all seems to have come to a shuddering halt with the election of Donald J. Trump to the Presidency thee years ago.

In a whole series of consensus-wrecking moves, withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord may turn out to be the most ill-considered. Now the Presidential glare has focused on California and its ground-breaking legislation on the environment, most especially on car emission standards.

This s unfortunate. Because since Washington legislators are swamped by PACs and lobbyists well funded by Big Business keen to encourage a light touch in placing any restrictions on their activities, it falls to the state—especially California, easily the most prosperous and dynamic among all fifty—to lead such innovation. And, curiously enough, Big Business does not seem to mind this because where California leads, other states follow and a de facto national standards provides manufacturers with a level playing field.

So, for the last century, California, together with other progressive states like New York, Massachusetts and Illinois have set the pace and the rest of the country more or less happily followed suit. But that was when America’s institutionalised two-party political system was in balance. Since the increasingly venomous 1990s, that has ceased to be the case to the point that these progressive states mentioned have become Democrat fiefdoms. Now that the Republicans hold the White House, it’s payback time. And Donald J. Trump is just the man to do the partisan job.

You may wonder why such a cluster of leading states would not carry the day with their size and economic clout. But Trump has plugged directly in to that part of America little seen by and little interested in the outside world: the Red Center.

The Red Center is an eclectic amalgam of North-East manufacturing states, Mid-West farming states, Southern Bible-Belt states and Wild West sunbelt states. They vote Republican. They don’t like imports. They don’t like immigrants. They regard themselves as patriotic Americans, believing it the greatest country in the world and that everyone else wants to be like them. This justifies American interference in other countries it regards as hostile to this concept as the “World Policeman”. It is a messianic 21st century twist on Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden”.”. And, while there are millions of enlightened citizens who don’t share this simplistic outlook, they are thin on the ground in the Red Center, where environmentalism is equally thin on the ground.

Given the scale, beauty and riches of the country, it is easy to understand hoe Americans developed this sense of boundless potential waiting for the hand of man to release it. While the more crowded states on both coasts have evolved beyond that, it is still the credo of the Sunbelt, especially Texas and Arizona. You may think Los Angeles is the sine qua non in urban sprawl and freeway lifestyle. Buy it is constrained by ocean and mountains.

LA’s 4,800 sq. mile metropolitan area—eight times the area of London—is dwarfed by Phoenix’s  14,600 sq. miles. To put it in context, that’s 25% bigger than ALL of Belgium. It spreads its rectangular grid of streets across the flat, featureless and apparently limitless Sonora Desert. Downtown is a huddle of high-rises, with nobody on the street because of 40degC heat. Otherwise, nowhere is close to anywhere, so everyone drives. The grid of streets are full of vehicles, mostly new, many SUVs the size of minibuses and trucks the size of delivery vans. They are all single-occupant. Commutes of 40 miles are common—but petrol is $3.34 per US gallon (62p per litre).

As if this were not enough to turn Greta’s hair white, the average house size is 2,164 sq. ft. (201 sq. m.), as compared to the UK’s 818 sq. ft. (78 sq. m.). These cost around £300 per month to keep habitable with air conditioning. You’d think that hot desert air would provide ideal laundry drying conditions but there’s not a clothes line to be seen: every house has a tumble-dryer. But many have pools, which each lose about 20,000 gallons of water to evaporation each year. This is on top of millions sprayed on golf courses, sometimes in the heat of day, and all of this water pumped from aquifers and draining the Colorado River dry.

The point of all this being that the 5m inhabitants of Phoenix could hardly be called environmentalists. Even if they wanted to, the place is so spread out they have to drive and the rest of their lifestyle is environmentally unsustainable. Which may be one reason why, like their fellow citizens of the Red Center, they will vote for Trump again in 2020. Because Trump tells them what they want to hear: that jobs can be brought back; that immigrants can be kept out; that it is perfidious foreigners and leftie Democrats that seek to sap America’s vitality and threaten the conspicuous consumption that made America great in the 1950s  & 60s.

One thing is sure: they are not listening to Greta. Even if they wanted to, they could not adapt to anything approximating the curtailed consumption she advocates. With Trump at America’s wheel and an eye on his voters, he will steer policy in a direction opposite to that required by Greta, by science and by reason. With China burning coal and Brazil burning forests, without America’s participation, action on climate change would be ineffectual.

 

 

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In the Hands of the Irish

Growing up with The Troubles was not easy. In the late Sixties, you didn’t have to live in the six counties to feel their anger and grief, their passion and frustration, that sense of walking a long, dark tunnel with no sign of exit. Despite meeting fine human beings among their diaspora, for decades, I avoided visiting the place and could not shake a Pavlovian connection between an Ulster accent and blind bigotry. The breakthrough of the Good Friday agreement let me hope all that was past. But the resurgence of tribal that brought down Stormont 2 1/2 years ago and the divisive poison of the Brexit Backstop has re-kindled fears and despair among many more than just me.

But while Boris Johnson burbles on about how rich we could all be if the Backstop wee simply discarded and Arlene Fraser channels Ian Paisley with chilling accuracy, few in Britain seem to be taking Eire’s position into consideration or reflecting the half of Ulster that seems Eire as a good friend from whom they do not wish to be detached in any way. In part, this is because Shin Fein continue to practice their own intransigence, including not taking seats at Westminster, to which they were elected.

It takes some gall for any non-Irish to propose any solution for any part of Ireland and I apologise in advance should any of this cause offence. But, sometimes, it takes someone owing fealty to neither side and with nothing to gain or lose to not only be objective, but, more importantly, to be seen as such.

At first glance, the opportunity for objectivity—let alone mediation—seems bleak. All the institutions set up by the Good Friday agreement are moribund and the 2017 general election pushed results to parties at the extreme either way. Both SDLP ad UUP were wiped out; 10 DUP MPs wet to Westminster to wield extraordinary power by holding the balance, while Sinn Fein held to its tradition of performing MP duties at home but refusing to take their seats at Westminster. So, entrenchment is dug beeper?

Not if you dig deeper yourselves.

This Nay’s local and European elections threw up some unexpected trends in Northern Ireland. With the Brexit Party not standing there, UKIP had high hopes.. But their performance was as dismal as elsewhere in Britain. The non-sectarian Alliance won an MEP who wound up with more votes than any of the other thee elected. Preference transfers from both ‘sides’ to this middle ground were huge. The Alliance won an unprecedented 53 council seats (to the DUP’s 122 and SF’s 105) to become a force to be reckoned with.

It may be premature to say that the people of Northern Ireland are tired of partisan extremes. But they are certainly moving that way. Given their history of desperate attempts to retain control of Ulster ever since Jamie the Saxth planted the Scots-Irish there, it would take a wheen of optimism to think the dour cohorts behind Arlene Foster might shift their position when their world has never looked so uncertain.

But what about Sinn Fein? Given their loyalty to all things Irish and that a No Deal Brexit is likely to damage a prosperous Eire as much as their own patch.  Was there ever a time when a re-think of their tactics to benefit the people of all Ireland (not to mention friends in the UK and EU) by using powers they hold to influence events. I put to the many patriotic and reasonable people in Sinn Fein to adopt one of the following, depending on which is the most palatable:

  1. Go to Westminster. By sending seven MPs, Boris Johnson’s tissue-thin majority of 1 evaporates: he’s be 6 votes under water. Even with the DUP, his government could be constrained and a No Deal avoided.
  2. Resign en masse. Now. In members are unable to thole the Imperial Capital, go talk to the Alliance, Greens, SDLP, independents, etc. and pick the strongest possible candidate to fight each seat, then cause seven by-elections. With support for the centre ground growing rapidly, weakening unionist influence would be unable to stop this. The seats could not be left vacant for 3 months, so seven new MPs, all with Ireland (both parts)s interests at heart could create an unstoppable opposition to a No Deal Brexit.

Whether there is a general election or a minority government, there should be the opportunity for opposition motions to re-run the referendum, guide the government out of its blind intransigence or ask for assistance from the EU to limit any damage.

But, with the relationship with Eire being both the sticking point and the solution to the present Brexit deadlock, would it not be justice for the Irish both sides of the (non) border to seize the initiative and drive the imperial Brits towards a rational solution for a change?

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£6.8bn, All in One Basket

For the many of us not dazzled by the Boris Johnson “Christmas in July” largesse with the fiscal war chest so carefully scraped together by Philip Hammond in the teeth of austerity, the idea that Britain can suddenly hose money around like the proverbial drunken sailor is cause for deep misgiving. Because when a government—especially one lugging a £1,800,000,000,000 ball-and-chain overdraft—starts buying popularity,  hard times can’t be far behind.

There is no doubt Britain is a great country. The problem is that those running it don’t seem to ‘get’ that it’s not as great as it used to be. Ever since the humiliation of Suez 63 years ago, though clearly eclipsed, successive governments have strutted about “being at the top table“, “punching above our weight”, ” keeping the Special Relationship with the US“, and so on. Regarding science, culture o business, Britain can indeed claim to continue in the front rank. Unfortunately, it also claims a similar rank among the global political and military elite.

This, as embodied in the phrases quoted above, is delusion.

Being in the second rank with countries like France and Australia is no come-down: the former leads the globe in culture, the latter in sport. Tour the rubble of former industrial sites from Manchester to Sheffield to Tyneside to Clydeside to understand what we no longer merit a place in the pantheon of economic giants. Fortunately, it doesn’t take squillions to lead the world in culture, science or sport. But if, in Harry Truman’s phrase, you want to “walk softly, but carry a big stick“, big sticks cost big money these days—money we no longer have.

Even political anoraks have wearied of successive defence reviews, in which a defence budget cheese-pared from 4% to 2% of government spending has been stretched to cover strategic commitments for which it has long been inadequate. A budget of £45bn may sound generous, but it’s less than the interest we pay servicing out £1.8tn National Debt.  Two glaring examples of overstretch have left conventional forces badly underfunded and inadequate for the tasks expected of them. Forget Suez, we could not even attempt a Falklands-scale operation.

The first overstretch is the Trident fleet and its replacement. Forget the whole moral argument about nuclear weapons. If we want to defend our interests from REAL threats (e.g. tanker-snatching in the Gulf) and not some post-Cold-War paranoia, they have to go. The good news is that they are unlikely to be hostages to national disaster.

The second overstretch, to which we have committed only in the last decade, is the deployment of two aircraft carriers. A pivotal defence review 50 years ago decided that Britain should “withdraw East of Suez” and that, therefore, the Fleet Air Arm and its carriers should be scrapped. Reversing this has meant spending £6bn just to build the carriers and another £7.8bn to equip them with F-35 aircraft. Leaving aside massive shore-based requirements like logistics and training, no-one would send such a precious ship to sea on its own. Whenever the US deploys one of its carriers, it is part of a Carrier Strike Group and escorted by an Aegis cruiser, 1-2 destroyers and 1-2 frigates as well as supply and support ships.

The Royal Navy has a problem before either carrier sails. With only 6 destroyers and 13 frigates, they aren’t able to cove their present global commitments adequately. Given a third are always in refit, on R&R or on passage and the RN has no cruisers, even one RN carrier at sea would reduce total capability elsewhere on the globe to 5-6 ships.

Which is where things get dangerous. Politicians have a habit of pressuring the Admiralty to over-commit and the Admiralty has a history of ill-judged bravado against dubious odds, such as at Coronel in 1914 or against the Bismarck in 1941. But, perhaps the most egregious example of imperial bluff going horribly wrong was with the previous ship to carry the name of one of the new carriers: HMS Prince of Wales.

In late 1941, Britain was embattled, U-boats were rampant, the Wehrmacht were overrunning Russia and Japan was making trouble in the Far East. To dissuade the Japanese from any opportunism on Malay tin and rubber, the Admiralty dispatched the new battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the older battlecruiser HMS Repulse. But they were strapped for escorts and sent none. The un-escorted pair were caught by the elite Japanese 22nd Air Squadron off Koto Baru. Both were sunk, with huge loss of life.

As we have chosen to put 930 crew into a single £6.8bn basket we can’t afford to lose , I hope the Admiralty favours prudence over bravado and tells armchair politicians inclined towards puffery where to get off. Because a former Russian Akula class submarine commander, by then Naval Attache, caused a ripple of nerrvous laughter at a reception when he asked:

“You know what we call aircraft-carriers?

Targets!”

PoWsinking

10 Dec 1941—What Comes of Global Bombast on the Cheap

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Fankle of Fearties?—Part I

An article in today’s Sunday Times is highly critical of the present Scottish Government and its penchant for blaming Brexit and Westminster for Scotland’s sluggish economic performance. Is this fair? Compared to the rest of the UK, Scotland is falling behind in retail sales, so Brexit can’t be the sole reason. And, given increased fiscal responsibility devolved recently, Westminster’s share of responsibility for the vibrancy or otherwise of Scotland’s economic health has diminished.

So, after 12 years at the helm, is this SNP government developing and executing inspirational legislation that will make the prospect of independence synonymous with a bright and prosperous future that will showcase us (“in Jack McConnel’s sole ambitious utterance) as “the best small country in the world”? Any explanation, let alone remedy, will be complex. Rather than following the current political fashion of trashing opposing positions and those holding them, a series of blogs will attempt to follow the homely Ameican ex[ession “I’d rather light a candle than curse your darkness” and suggest positive aternatives, starting with the basics at local level.

Aileen Campbell MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government may have her work cut out. One of the least sexy Cabinet posts, it never commands the headlines the way Health or Education or Social Work can. Seeing that Scotland’s 32 councils are mostly run by amateurs, driven by either partisan party politics or a penchant for the quiet life and their CoSLA umbrella organisation sees itself as a councillors’ union, rather than a policy-making body and dynamism is a rarity.

Young as she still may be, Aileen has 12 years as an MSP and eight as a junior minister under her belt, so her elevation to Cabinet Secretary a year ago was no great surprise. As Minister for Children and Young People, she had steered the ambitious Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill through Parliament in 2014. It was virtually the last ambitious pieces of legislation that the present constipated Scottish Government has introduced. At the time, Aileen said “We want Scotland to be the best place in the world to grow up,” Laudable though the sentiment may be, four years later, the jury is still out. As half of her new brief is ‘Communitiies’, whereby the Government means to tackle poverty in Scotland, this can be seen as an extension of her earlier Children’s role. Last month in her new role, she claimed credit for passing the Fuel Poverty Bill, calling it “a massive step in tackling fuel poverty“. But is this strategic progress or populist tinkering?

The real elephant in the room and one on which all her predecessors since John Swinney have failed to make strategic progress since 2007 is local government structire. You may have noticed that major fiscal upheavals are being reported among English councils like Kent. Northamptonshire is facing a £70m budget shortfall and all are predicting swingeing cuts to services to balance the books. Scotland, on the other hand, has been eerily quiet on this. But that is about to change and Aileen will find herself holding a grenade from which her predecessors have, bu doing nothing, removed the pin. The scale of the problem is shown in the chart below detailing income to Scottish councils over the last five years.

LicalGovRev

Source: Scottish Government, Local Govt Statistics 2016-17

Simply looking at the chart highlights the problem, even ignoring inflation and wage rises. Demand for care for the elderly is rising at 8%; social work and chidren’s service are rising by similar amounts. Inflation is running at 2.6%. Public emoloyees receive a 1% annual increase, with promotions and grade creep adding another 1%. In short, over the last five years, councils have been asked to so 4% more work with 4% less money. No wonder the pips are squeaking.

Aileen’s grenade lies in the fact that it is too late to tinker (although her predecessors did not even bother doing that). The only sensible solution is local government reform. This needs to come in four stages of enormity, depending on how much in the way of guts she can muster:

  1. Fiscal Reform. Only 20% of council income comes from Council Tax. If the proportion were reversed and 80% were raised locally (including rates) this would hugely improve local democratic accountability while inhibiting the massive amount of central interference in policy that renders councils little more than government go-fers.
  2. Shared Services. Each of the 32 councils operates their own world of inefficiencies. There is no need for each to have personnel, accounts, payroll, IT, roads, transport, etc. Joint Social Work, Education and other majot services, especiailly among smaller councils, should also be considered.
  3. Less Cosy Careers. Unison might have a fit but the secure jobs and pensions of council workers used to be compensation for modest salaries. That has changed, with Chief Executives earning serious six-figure sums and senior manager not far behind. Competition for jobs and jotters for the dead wood will bring private sector attitudes towards efficiencies and minimise the jobsworth paper-chase that dominates much council administration.
  4. Realise City Regions. The present council map was gerrymandered. Councils are too big to be local and too small to be efficient.  Any objective observer would see Scotland as six regions, based around Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee, Aberdeen, Inverness and Dumfries. Each should run their own major council services, as well as police, fire, NHS and water. Within each, a series of revived burghs could run a truly local democracy with hew staff but key elements like planning and local business.

But even if Aileen were to find the cojones to break ranks and be this radical, would the Nicola’s current government which is displaying few ideas and pussy-footing around as if all it wants is a quiet life, would she find the necessary support for eben the least radical of the above stages?

Trouble is the debilitating emaciation that is happening to English councils from a grossly over-centralised government will be the inevitable fate of the Scottish councils who are showing no initiative themselves to either lobby the minister or come up with their own solution. It is loco government and it will harm local services across the country.

It would be unfair to expect Aileen to drive such radical policies through on her own. But the signs are that compliance with party unity and media-bite lip-service appears to play a greater a role in policy than any long-term vision of achieving a radically better future.

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Costing an Arm & a Leg

Across the board, the NHS is regarded as an institution of which we are justly proud. Its fundamental principle on which it is built is that health care should be based on need and free at the point of delivery. The resulting cost  to the UK public purse is £75.8 billion, of which £11.6 billion spent in Scotland—that’s £2,210 for every man, woman & child living here, each year.

Compared to other countries—especially the USA—that remains something of a bargain. But ever-increasing demands that outstrip its resources mean that its budget is stretched, so much so that Theresa May has promised an extra’ £20 billion for NHS England. While much of the increase in demand can be explained by increasing demands from elderly living longer, ever-more sophisticated (and therefore expensive) equipment and medicines, a good portion is from the population having little idea of actual costs for the services they need. There is no penalty for missing appointments, mislaying medicines, losing equipment or even a

The price of a heart bypass operation ranges from £2,540 to £6,911. The cost of cataract surgery varies between £763 and £1,164.

Supermarkets are in the habit of telling us ‘how much you saved today’ on the bottom of till receipts, so what if we did something similar for healthcare? Doctors could start by printing the price of drugs to the NHS on FP10 prescriptions. This would be easy. The scheme could then extend to highlighting the cost of in-patient care on discharge summaries and out-patient visits on the bottom of appointment letters. Waste in the health service is huge and in part this is due to patients having no idea how much things cost. When prescribing an expensive drug,

When something is given numerical worth, even a nominal one, it suddenly makes it seem ‘of value’. Take the £1 deposit on supermarket trollies and 5p charge on plastic bags. These are simple ways that assigning a monetary value has changed behaviour radically; trolleys get returned and bags reused.

The standard prescription cost in England is currently £8.80 per item. That means that if you take in a prescription that lists several types of medication, you will pay £8.80 for each one. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all prescriptions are free for residents (or anybody who is registered with a GP in that country).

The 46,000 patients being treated for arthritis with the drug Adalimumab cost the NHS £400,000,000 each year. A fully kitted ambulance costs £250,000. To be reviewed on the telephone by a clinician costs £64.59, to receive an ambulance and be treated at home is £155.30, and to receive an ambulance and be taken to hospital costs £254.57. There are examples of abuse:

  • A patient who called 999 more than 700 times in two years. The estimated costs to the ambulance service over a year was more than £110,000.
  • A patient who cost the NHS £10,000 in callouts in a month.
  • A patient who made 238 emergency calls over two months at a cost of £40,000.
  • US visitors used to paying through the nose (just visiting a doctor costs £240) who receive treatment here are astonished that their grateful attempts to pay are refused because the NHS has no mechanism to receive even their card as payment.

This is not an argument to follow the example of the US where people lying on gurneys can be asked to fill out forms and prove that they have appropriate medical insurance before they can be treated. But there must be some happy medium. This needs to be found before the whole system becomes swamped by demand or cost so much that funds will be unavailable for other vital services like schools.

We are in a contradictory situation where, despite major diseases having been eradicated, nutrition improved so that few starve and modern medicine light years ahead of that available 75 years ago, everyone agrees that demands on the NHS will increase dramatically. This is for six major reasons:

  1. An aging population with the elderly making the biggest demands
  2. Burgeoning need for social care and its close relation to health
  3. Growing awareness of and demand for mental health
  4. Changing biosphere breeding super-bugs and weakened antibodies, due to living in more sterile home environments
  5. People using the health service for their bodies the way they use garages for cars
  6. Increased sense of entitlement, no matte how expensive the treatment or how self-imposed the malady, such as botched cosmetic surgery or uncontrolled drug habit

We may achieve a perfect world where all illnesses are treatable at a trifling cost. But we are nowhere near it yet. The treatment costs mentioned above and the demand for them will rise uncontrollably unless the beneficiaries (i,e, you and me) stat owning the problem. That means not only becoming aware of the costs but using the services judiciously as we really were paying for them. Either that, or we will wind up paying for them in our taxes—and still find waiting times stretching out into years.

 

 

 

 

Procedure 2008 Tariff Current Cost
Cataract operation £786 £763 to £1,164
Heart valve surgery £10,199 £7,294 to £9,788
Heart bypass £8,080 £2,540 to 6,911
Hip replacement £5,568 £4,111 to £5,319
Hernia surgery £956 £658 to £1,219
Knee replacement £6,182 £4,695 to £5,788
Major breast surgery £2,386 £1,641 to £2,497
Varicose vein removal £1,063 £752 to £1,376

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The Ten Commandments of Trumpolitics

Some observers puzzle why Boris Johnson exhibits unconventional manners, yet follows a regal progress towards bothering new neighbours in Downing Street. This is because, like other stand-out leaders (Orban; Kim Yong Un; Putin; Mohammed bin Salman), he practices lessons from a simplistic-yet-successful politics playbook for our 21st century that rightly should be attributed to the 45th POTUS.

  1. Never explain, apologise or appear anything other than in full control at all times,
  2. Court your support—the really/wannabe rich, the rigidly religious, the untraveled and under-educated—and speak directly to them.
  3. Cultivate your support by adopting whatever matters to them as policy priorities; speak  to them, as if they represented the entire country..
  4. In doing so, be unconstrained by manners, diplomacy, consistency, taste, convention, or any mix thereof—provided the result appeals to you support.
  5. Inflate prestige and eschew modesty: always appear poised and immaculate; flaunt wealth and power; exploit media fixation with the elite.
  6. Find, demonise (and, if necessary fabricate) external enemies (c.f. Orwell’s 1984) but associate with tough, unchallenged world leaders to appear similar; adopt their technique of denigrating enemies by any means.
  7. Keep your friends close, your underlings closer and your family closest of all. Disregard enemies, critics, opponents and all that they say.
  8. Overreach the powers of your office; this courts publicity, appears decisive and makes critics seem petty and hesitant as they play by the rules.
  9. Make unexpected, outrageous (but plausible) pronouncements, then countermand a few to keep enemies playing catch-up and thre media hungry for more.
  10. Use social media to flatfoot conventional media filter/bias. This achieves direct communication with support to cultivate being “of the people” evades needing to supply the details normally required.
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Playing with Fire in the Oilfields

Ever since the bureaucrats of Britain and France made a pig’s ear of their arbitrary dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire a century ago, the Middle East has been the world’s most recidivist hot-spots for unrest. This might not have mattered and the area’s disputes been a sideshow to major geopolitics, much as the collapse of Spain’s dominion over South America was two centuries ago.
But the disappearance of Turkish rule coincided with the rise of oil as a major fuel powering global economies and the fragility of peace around the Persian Gulf became a matter of constant concern to booming Western economies, dependent on its oil. At first, the British played a lead role, not least because their scattered Empire depended on the Royal Navy and the RN had switched from coal to oil. Saudi Arabia was an ally, Iraq was a Protectorate, Kuwait, Oman and the Gulf States were virtual vassals and the forerunner of BP virtually ran Iran. Post-WW2, growing American global power and an insatiable thirst for oil meant they replaced the British as guarantor of peace in the region.
Not being as adept as the British in local diplomacy, their support for a corrupt Shah prompted the Iranian Revolution and a hostility that lasted the 40 years since. Indirectly, this led to the rise of Saddam in Iraq because his decade-long war with Iran suited US purposes until he over-reached himself, invaded Kuwait and precipitated the two Gulf Wars to clean up the unstable mess, but with mixed results.
Which brings us to today, when Gulf oil that continues to fuel half the world must pass though the Straits of Hormuz to exit the Gulf and reach its markets. US-Iranian were never warm. But, in between debacles like the botched hostage rescue from the US Embassy and the inadvertent shooting down of an Iranian airliner, the forging of an agreement over curbing Iranian nuclear development in exchange or allowing Iranian oil on to world markets had bought a business-like quiet to the region that seemed acceptable to all concerned.

Then Donald Trump became US President.

For reasons he and his advised might understand for internal grandstanding reasons but the rest of the world does not, he pulled the USA out of the nuclear deal, slapped “sanctions” (= a ban on all Iranian oil exports) and precipitated an economic crisis in Iran by removing the main source of income. Whatever you may think of the mullahs’ religion-based regime, this hurts the entire population of 82,801,633 people and fuels a half-century of resentment against Western interference, especially by the USA. Over the last year, sanctions have bitten deeper and driven Iranian reactions to undermine US influence, including support for Hezbollah in Palestine, Assad in Syria and threats to vulnerable tanker traffic in the Gulf.
The Trump-led responses have been inflammatory, to say the least. Recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital incensed all Muslims. Declaring Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organisation was insulting. But the most recent moves of a carrier group and 1,000 men to the area is sabre- (sorry, saber-) rattling of the worst sort. Bluff does have its place in global diplomacy. But it only works if it is credible to the other side.
No-one questions the USA as the world’s premier military power and in possession of the world’s most advanced military technologies. But Iran, with 850,000 servicemen (ranked 14th most powerful armed forces in the world) is no pushover, especially with a sanction-resenting population onside. And before anyone cites the “shock and awe” of the Gulf Wars, remember they took over six months to oganise, were backed by a wide coalition (including Arab states) and involved three massive Army Corps, four carrier groups and thousands of aircraft. And even then, though to military victory was overwhelming, the fractious morass in both Iraq and Afghanistan over a decade later underscore that a military victory is just the tip of the iceberg of any full-scale commitment, such as invasion. And such an invasion would be a major undertaking. This is not pint-sized Kuwait. Iran is 1,500km across, covering 1,648,195 sq. km,—nine times the area of Britain and full of mountains.

Any limited “raid to teach Iran a lesson” is likely to run into stiff opposition and incur serious (i.e. unacceptable) losses. Ian has around 170 fighters and strike aircraft, which, although somewhat antiquated, would match a single carrier air group when supported by SAMs. As for 1,000 troops, a battalion-size force would only be capable of a defensive role when faced with 14 divisions (9 battalions each) and 4 brigades (3 battalions each) defending their home turf.

In short, Trump’s sabre-rattling is either insane or only for home consumption. In either case, it is misguided meddling in the world’s tinder-box and lacks the requisite credibility. No wonder the President is rumoured to have been persuaded to back off any military response to the loss of a US drone and to simply keep escorting tankers in and out of the Gulf. He would also be well advised to stop grandstanding and open negotiations with the Iranians before they feel so cornered they have nothing to lose and feel forced do something insane themselves.

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