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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The Coronation of Clown Prince Boris

Most normal people are fed up with the ferrets-in-a-sack natutre of the Brexit debate and are rapidly approaching a similar degree of annoyance with the angels-on-pinheads sideshow of the Tory leadership contest. The combination of a flawed parliamentary system of government with a media fixated on its esoteric nuances. The general public seems not only disenchanted but embarrassed by how irresolute and laughable this makes their country seem to foreigners, especially the Europeans that many see as having caused this in the first place.

Whatever your position on the EU, you can’t be pleased with this situation in which we find ourselves. Whatever Theresa May and he ministers ought to have done with the time they had since the June 2016 decision to leave, remaining options are a lot  bleaker than the mob jostling for her job would have you believe. Ever since she announced she was standing down, debate has centred on the possible successors which, at one time, had numbered a baker’s dozen which, at the time of writing, have been whittled down to six.

But the bizarre debate held on Channel 4 last night (June 16th) was not only inconclusive in showing any clear, shining leadership but was rendered surreal by the absence of the “clear front-runner”, Boris Johnson, who was represented by an empty podium. While the media did their best to gloss over this glaring omission, this was the latest in a number of cunningly effective ploys by the Boris camp to bypass convention and win my a landslide, no matter the effect that may have on the future of 67,000,000 people.

In stark contrast to his 2016 campaign, Boris has been smart enough to gather a team of professional to run his campaign and (even more importantly) listen n to them.

His upper middle class origins and education at Eton and Balliol College were pretty standard Conservative qualifications. But his shock of blonde hair and disarming affability not only got him elected as President of the Oxford Union but helped deflect criticism during his journalism career with the Times, Telegraph and Spectator. He was sacked for falsifying a quotation and his articles from Brussels were meat and drink to a growing Eurosceptic sentiment among the Tory right wing that evolved into the European Research Group. Activities verging on buffoonery which concealed a formidable intellect and ambition gave him a high profile of a real character and iconoclast in a world if increasingly grey suits.

He parlayed this into ousting Ken Livingston as Mayor of London, where he pursued a colourful career that veered between controversy and success. Why many—even those n his own party—were appalled by his flamboyant approach, his profile increased until he became well known nationally as a leader of the Leave campaign in 2016. His ambition to replace David Cameron as PM being thwarted by Michael Gove’s betrayal, his tenure as Foreign Secretary was mixed. While displaying charm and affability, his dislike of detail and tendency to shoot from the hip made his star appear to wane and he took the opportunity to resign from the Cabinet when May presented her ‘Deal’ on the excuse that  it was not robust enough.

Being smart enough to realise that mere affable boyishness had taken him as far as it could. Although he appeared to drop out of high profile media coverage, he started to assiduously cultivate support among Tory MPs and gather an election team to shore up a more substantial approach to the denoument he felt was looming about Brexit, This was a formidable crew and one he deferred to when positioning himself.  The team consists of:

  • James Wharton—Campaign manager a Conservative MP until he lost his northern seat in 2017. A Eurosceptic whose private member’s bill for a referendum on our membership of the EU which Cameron’s government was forced to support before – it was defeated in the House of Lords. Wharton deserves credit for the basic competence of the Johnson campaign this time round.
  • Lee Cain—Press officer Cain worked for Vote Leave. His long experience means that he is considered to be an important adviser on strategy to the candidate. His is a familiar face on the “Burma Road”—the warren of media offices behind the press gallery in the House of Commons.  Cain is a former Foreign Office special adviser
  • Carrie Symonds—Girlfriend (but more than just that). She’s the daughter of Matthew Symonds, one of the three founders of The Independent, and Josephine Mcaffee, one of the newspaper’s lawyers,. She was head of broadcast at Conservative Campaign Headquarters, where she worked for eight years.
  • Sir Lynton Crosby—Campaign and polling adviser He ran Johnson’s (successful) campaigns for mayor of London in 2008 and 2012, also helped David Cameron win his surprise election victory in 2015.  His best-known saying is “throwing a dead cat on the table” – his way of describing a distraction that diverts journalists from discussing something unhelpful to his campaign.
  • Gavin Williamson—”Chief Whip” one of the organisers of Theresa May’s leadership campaign in 2016. He has been pursuing an “inevitability” tactic with the Johnson campaign. As a former chief whip in May’s government, Williamson knows a lot about the importance of counting in politics, and a lot about the foibles, interests and soft spots of the 313 Conservative MPs.

Anyone paying attention to this campaign will have noticed a very different Boris. Not only has Carrie persuaded him to change his hairstyle and lose some weight but the brash and gaffe-prone Boris of yore is nowhere to be seen. Instead of fabricating quotes as a journalist, waging war on bendy-buses as Mayor and getting prisoners in Iran into deeper trouble by misstating why they were thee, the silence has been deafening. Despite the press corps camped outside his house, they get nothing from him. The silence itself, amplified by nightly TV reporting has kept him in the public eye without his saying a word. That’s what a good campaign team can do for you.

His sweep of the first ballot on Thursday, with 114 against his nearest rival’s 43, seemed inevitable. But declining to join the other five in Channel 4’s debate has the mark of genius. He stayed aloof from what seemed an esoteric set of arguments and none of his rather fanciful assertions of how Brexit could be achieved by October 31st came under scrutiny. The most the debate established was that Rory Stewart was stronger candidate than expected. But by voicing a pragmatic  position on Brexit, he will not gain supportfrom the bulk of Tory MPs who are in a lther about leaving the EU asap.

By agreeing to appear in the BBC debate on Tuesday 18th, Boris ensures that more of his rivals will already be eliminated by the second ballot that day and hew will be left to question  just how practical his sketchy position might be. He will enter the contest that is his to lose late enough to appear a shoo-in, no matter his performance. Even his rivals appear to concede they are scrambling for second place beside Boris in the ballot of 160,000 party members during July.

Whichever of the other five achieve second place, they will be confronted with an unbeatable combination of Boris’ affable persona, his higher profile across the country and his doughty Eurosceptic credentials that will go down a storm among elderly white male Britannia-nostalgic Tory membership such that the question will be largely about the scale of his victory.

Which is sad. Because his triumph may be short-lived. PM or no, he will be faced with the same intractable Commons arithmetic, the same unyielding EU stance and the same economic penalties from crashing out without a deal and the same terror of a General Election to reshuffle the cards that torpedoed May’s premiership.

And all that’s before he gets round to the daily bread-and-butter of running a country of 67,000,000, most of whom now deeply mistrust those who created the mess—their elected representatives have made. Boris’s election team is currently playing the system like an old violin. But who is the team of competent advisers who can do as good a job for the country, even if Boris, like Ronald Reagan is smart enough to stay out of the way as a figurehead and just get on with the job. His record as London mayor does not bode well nd this is a much harder job.

Uneasy loes the head that wears a crown.”

—William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part II

 

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Selective Centenary Silence

Last week it would have been difficult to avoid high-profile commemoration of D-Day’s 75th anniversary last Thursday. But it is interesting what the British State chooses to commemorate and those it studiously ignores. Ordinarily, a centenary is an even-higher profile event, as the marking of various milestones of the First Wold War permeated 2014-18.
Actually, 2019 is strewn with centenaries for a whole series of events that shaped the world in which we live even more than the bloodbath of the Western Front. But you will not find them commemorated, largely because we British got it horribly wrong and the world has been coping with ramifications ever since. But none of them will feature on the nightly news.
Firstly, there is the Treaty of Versailles, signed on 28 June 1919. In it, the British and French humiliated the Germans, carving large chunks of territory out of the country, stripping her of all colonies and imposing reparations that led to hyperinflation, economic collapse and a political vacuum filled by a democratically elected Hitler on a promise to restore pride to 80 million Germans, albeit for evil reasons. The Second World War can be seen as the second half of a conflict that the Allies singularly failed to truncate after what turned out to be an inconclusive “first half”.
Second came the dismemberment of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the gluing together of Croat, Slovene, Serbian, Bosnian and Kosovar provinces into the Kingdom of the South Slavs o Yugoslavia. We all know how well that went in the 1990s, creating a series of humanitarian outrages about which Europe remains embarrassed.
Third came the parallel dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire into Turkey and a blizzard of states in the Middle East. This carve-up was codified by the Sykes-Picot Treaty, named after two senior bureaucrats who had never been near the place, much less understand its ethnic demographics. and With its eye on oil, Britain created a flock of dependent fledgling Gulf states: Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Emirates. As the Royal Navy was switching to oil from coal, this ensured BP (then state-owned) got its fingers deep into important oily pies. The less important parts, they divvied up with the French, taking Palestine as a “Protectorate”, which became a global flash point even before they pulled out three decades late. The French took The Levant, know known as Lebanon and Syria. These have taken it in turn to be global flash points, like some macabre tag-team.
A humiliated Turkey (see first point above) took it out on its minorities, creating a genocide against Armenians and Kurds in their remaining Eastern provinces and starting a war against the Greeks living in their Aegean provinces. Although that element has since subsided into mere venal hostility, Cyprus, already stolen by the British from the Ottomans in 1878 has become a proxy for Greek/Turkish enmity and remains divided to this day. Meantime, the Sykes/Picot carve-up of the ancient “fertile crescent has produced more full-scale local wars than the rest of the planet put together.
And, fourthly, anyone puzzled why Putin’s Russia should take such a cynical and hostile stance against Britain objecting to intervention in border states like Chechnya and Ukraine cannot be aware of this centenary of British intervention in Russian Civil War on the side of the Whites. Royal Navy bombardment from the Baltic, a division landed at Archangelsk and another with RAF support in the Kuban, followed by two decades of ostracism of “Socialism in One Country”, then the Cold War have left a bad taste in Russian mouths.
So, while it may be entirely right to commemorate those sacrifices made by many in the cause of Peace and Freedom, it would behoove Britain to also look at the complete pig’s ear that its hubris as “The Empire Upon Which the Sun Never Sets” made of the post-WWI world. Bad enough, had it simply snaffled ex-German colonies to paint pink and retreated into splendid isolation a la USA.
But, bankrupt as it was, it took upon itself the role of the World’s Policeman, under the pretext of protecting its extensive trade. But those many pivotal decisions then taken in 1919 were uniformly misguided and many consigned large parts of the planet to a century of global unrest the blame for which can be laid at Britain’s door. It is perhaps understandable that none of these slow-burning disasters receive any acknowledgement a century on.
But those who do not lean from history are condemned to repeat it. And, as the present Tory government cuts bonds with Europe, builds aircraft carriers and Trident subs and talks big about “punching above our weight in the world”, they might consider the track record a century ago when the Royal Navy was a force in the world and consider whether Germany or Japan’s peaceful, non-hectoring stance might be more appropriate stance for a second-rate power in the 21st century.

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Charity Chiefs—Paragons or Parasites?

Ten years of austerity have put the squeeze on public spending, especially among councils. With any increments being soaked up by the NHS and ballooning demands on Social Work, much of the social burden had fallen on the so-called ‘Third Sector”, the bulk of which are registered charities. These organisations cover a huge range of types, from church organisations, through food banks and specific advocacy like Shelter or Matie Curie to full-blown businesses like council ALEOs. Almost all depend on unpaid volunteers to survive and do go work, constituting a major asset in our social fabric.

But as the demand on their services has grown, the standard of professional management required to run them has also grown. This has meant compering in the commercial marketplace for paid staff. And, similar to ballooning compensation to senior management in both the commercial and public sectors, the Third Sector has followed suit. This generally does not apply to the bulk of Scotland’s 45,000 voluntary organisations, including 27,300 charities, over 90% of which employ no staff and are run by volunteers.  But some 130,000 are employed in the Third Sector. Some larger charities seek to be fugal with their money, but others employ staff—especially at executive level—at what they euphemistically call “competitive rates of pay”.

Chief executives at FTSE 100 companies average salaries top £4.9 million per year – 28 times the average charity chief’s salary, while NHS bosses at top hospitals can expect to earn at least £400,000.

Top earning Scots earn substantially less than their English equivalents, however, the highest paid in Scotland is Stuart Earley, SSPCA chief executive on a salary of £185,000. Laura Lee, executive in charge of cancer charity Maggie’s Centre, earns over £110,000 Bosses at Quarriers, Capability Scotland, Scottish Autism and SAMH are all on wages around  £100,000. Given that average Scottish wage is £26,000, rising at barely 1% each year, and that the poor give proportionally more to charity than the rich, charity bosses receiving generous raises to their already adequate remuneration is unfair, if not an insult. The number of staff at Scotland’s biggest voluntary organisations on a basic salary of more than £60,000 rose by 26% in three years.

The body that represents the charity industry in Scotland, the Scottish Council of Voluntary Organisations (SCVO, itself a charity) believes the level of pay afforded to key charity staff and chief executives “should reflect the requirements of the job”. It has over 60 paid staff, two of whom are on more than £60,000 each.

England’s Charity Commission censured a Hereditary Beast Cancer Helpline for spending only 3% of its £900,000 income on its professed aim. Overall, it is estimated that less than 70% of funds raised were spent on charities’ aims, with the largest (>£100m) charities falling to just 60%.

In case you think Scotland is leading the way on this, consider in England there are more than 168,000, whose collective income is above £75bn. The top five earners there are:

  1. David Mobbs, Nuffield Health. Salary over: £780,000
  2. Paul Holdom, London Clinic Trustees. Salary over: £390,000
  3. Jeremy Farrar, Wellcome Trust. Salary: £394,00
  4. Simon Cooke, Marie Stopes. Salary over: £370,000
  5. Michael Anderson, CIFF (UK). Salary over: £360,000

Oh, and as for the Office of the Scottish Charities Regulator itself (OSCR), it cost us all £1.7m last year, including £80,000 for the Chief Executive, Lindsay Montgomery CBE. So, even if you give nothing to charity, 25p of your money goes there each year.

 

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A Perspective on D-Day

June 5th saw extensive ceremonies around Portsmouth, followed by further ceremonies in Normandy on June 6th itself to mark the 75th anniversary of the Normandy landings when Western Allies stormed ashore at the beginning of a year-long drive to defeat Nazi Germany. Amazingly, some 300 veterans of Operation Overlord—all in their nineties— attended, many crossing in a specially  chartered ship to recreate their epic voyage and even two ex-paras who jumped with modern comrades from a fleet of C-47 Dakotas assembled for the purpose.

These veterans were rightly given pride of place and the memories of the 2,499 Americans, 1,564 British and 359 who died that day were accorded all honours, along with them. My dad drove his Sherman ashoe with 4th Armoued Brigade on D+1 and I am eternally grateful that he lived to tell about it. The reasons for and the success of the largest air/sea/land combined ams opeation the world has ever seen need to be remembered. Those who gave and those who risked their lives that we all might live in a better, more peaceful, more prosperous world deserve our thanks and to be remembered for what it cost them.

All that said, I have a couple of bones to pick with those who organised and scripted the event. Though the armada of ships and planes carrying 157,000 left from ports and airfields all over southern England, it was not a British affair. If the five divisions that stormed the beaches, two were Ameican and one Canadian. Of the three airborne divisions dropped inland to delay German response, two ere American. It was an international North Atlantic operation, but the ceremonies focused entirely on British armed forces and there seemed to be no sign of our American or Canadian partners. This seems a shame.

But more disturbing was the total absence of any mention of our Russian allies. That they were not present seems fair enough; they were not involved in the D-Day landings. But they most certainly were involved in the defeat of Nazi Gemany and deserve at least a passing mention. To put things in perspective, the eight Allied divisions of 157.000 men who assaulted Normandy in 1944 were opposed by four German divisions of 42,000. Well dug in as they were, the 91st, 352nd 711th and 718th Infantry Divisions were weaker second-rate formations, with only the 352nd having three regiments. Although formidable first-rate formations like 21st & 116th Panzer, Panzer Lehr and 2nd & 12th SS Panzer divisions would be thrown into the fray, they arrived piecemeal and devastated by relentless Allied air strikes.

Just two weeks after D-Day the Soviet Amy unleashed Operation Bagration on the Eastern Front against the German Army Group Centre’s four armies of 42 divisions of 840,000 men, 116 tanks and 3,450 field guns holding the key sector barring the direct road to Germany. Against this force of troops seasoned by three years of fighting, the Soviets launched 1,670,300 men, 3,841 tanks, 1,977 assault guns and 32,718 guns, rocket launchers and mortars in the four Belorussian ‘Fronts’ (Army Groups). The German position was not helped by Hitler ignoring the threat here and moving mobile reserves south to cover Rumanian oilfields.

Using rapid thrusts of Blitzkrrieg learned from their German opponents, the Russians sliced open the German lines, encircling and destroying 4th Army around Vitebsk and the 3rd Panzer Army in the marshes to the North and driving the dregs of  2nd and 9th Armies across the Vistula to Warsaw and over the borders of East Prussia.

DestrnAGC

Operation Bagration—The Destruction of Army Group Centre, June 1944

The German army never recovered from the materiel and manpower losses sustained during this time, having lost about a quarter of its Eastern Front manpower, exceeding even the percentage of loss at Stalingrad—about 17 full divisions or four times what the Allies dealt with on D-Day.

Since D-Day would have been either impossible or  a disaster without three-quarters of German strength and most of their best formations being tied down in Russia, it would have been nice to have given our other key Alliy a mention.

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The Poem Is Mightier Than the Gun

My California friend Jeanne Watson has penned many fine, eloquent poems over the forty years I have known her. But none touched me as this one did, capturing as it does the anguished despair of most Americans at the excessive power of the NRA-led gun lobby there who distort the 200-year old Second Amendment  to the Constitution to justify the proliferation of assault rifles. The result is an apparently endless series of abuse of such weapons on people as innocent as children.

 

THE FELLED AND THE FALLING

In my dreams children are running,

rivers of children slipping by boulders,

falling into canyons, not like lemmings

for their strange survival, they are

running from death. From a wall of

death, from holes in walls fixed

with neat circles holding guns of every

type. They are running from

their parents’ souls that their parents

might forget. Because they are children

they imagine this as a possibility.

Where did we leave the notion

of defending one’s country, to

adopt aggression towards our offspring?

 

Genocide is an ugly word.

But it is our word now.

We have turned on our own

laying open each shooter’s wound of emptiness.

To have power over life is the force

that keeps them alive, children in

heaps at their feet.

 

 

Sixteen bullets

in a young man is beyond what it

takes to bring him down––naked

hatred. At least let us speak the truth.

Who, really is the perpetrator?

When did our children become objects

for venting our insanities, our rage?

 

If Sandy Hook could not stop us, as

did Lot’s wife becoming salt, if that crack

in the earth could not have ended

the NRA’s holding aloft the fate of our

children, what might we hope for?

 

JCWatson

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Bowling for Brexit

Neither the most inventive writer, nor the most learned historian could ever have come up with the script for an opéra bouffe, such as has played out at Westminster over the last few years. In good Pantomime tradition, the lead was played out by a woman, more manly than any in her fractious household—yet thru were her undoing.

Over the 24 hours following Theresa May’s announcement that she would step down as Prime Minister, the flood of unctious praise for he character and resolution came in from a gamut of politicians, many of whom had spent the last three yeas trying to trip her up. But these soon dried up as the media circus went into overdrive to second guess who would be he replacement. They had plenty from whom to choose.

While this may do wonders for nightly news viewer numbers and newspaper circulation, it appears to be a futile  distraction from reality. For, much though the British chatteratti like to busy themselves interpreting various bird entrails abound the Westminster bubble, they have so far excluded four factors that will determine the outcome, not just of Tory kingmaker process, but also the future of the United Kingdom. These are:

  1. European Election 2019 results
  2. The Conservative Party members who will select a new PM
  3. European Union reaction to the results.
  4. Post-Brexit economic future

On the first factor,  results of the European Election shocked many. In the other 27 members states the centre alliance lost ground to a mix of smaller parties. Both Merkel and Macron have their work cut out to deal with domestic fragmentation. Nobody will have much time to keep focusing on Brexit. In Britain, Tories and Labour alike suffered catastrophe, losing 13 of 17 and 8 of 18 MEPs, respectively., The Brexit party climbing over the corpse of UKIP to elect 29 on 32% of the vote. Pro-EU Lib-Dems, Greens and SNP all did well, tallying almost 40% of the vote among them and arguably winning for Remain. Conservatives are already declaiming that this shows an urgent signal to deliver on Brexit and assuage anger shown. That seems too simplistic as avid Leavers and Remainers are much less common than parties claim. Most voters seem disgusted by the indecisive cacophony coming out of Westminster for months and were looking for a way to take their overly self-important representatives down a peg or two.

S

The problem posed by the second factor is that these results mean most MPs—especially Tories— are running scared. Whoever winds up being the final pair of candidates to lead the Tories must be avid Brexiteers. To get shortlisted by MPs, they will have to out-boast Farage in virulent euroscepticism AND distance themselves from May’s ‘deal’, seen as a weak-willed compromise that caused all the trouble in the first place. BoJo ad Gove are the most likely winners of the 3-week first stage. Then July will be taken up by membership voting. And since the 1670,000 members are mostly older white males keen on a no-deal Brexit, the resulting winner will be geared up to take on Farage where he lives.

Problems are compounded by the third factor. By the time the UK has a new PM, not only is Parliament in recess but the whole structure of the EU is on flux while they also take their vacation and haggle over the composition of a new Commission. Even though Westminster reconvenes in September, it is short-lived as recess for party conferences lasts into October. Even if the new PM were serious about negotiating a deal, it will not jappen because:

  • thee is no time left before October 31st
  • the EU has been consistently clear the May ‘deal’ is NOT re-negotiable
  • the selection process will ensure any new PM prefers a ‘No Deal’ anyway

There will, of course, be some window dressing of wanting a deal, or even holding out the possibility of a “people’s vote” referendum to appear statesmanlike and discomfit Corbyn. Remain parties and even a late-conversion Labour may posture in Parliament for debates and motions but a Brexit-minded PM can parry all such attempts—at least until it is too late. The default is still leaving with no deal.  the reality is that the Europeans, while preferring a proper deal, will be too preoccupied with their own internal affairs, too reluctant to risk fragmenting unanimity by re-opening negotiations and tired of British inability to put their house in order to even contemplate any extension. The idea that they will follow our wishes because no deal hurts them as much as us is delusional: they have too many other things at stake.

Which, altogether,  means a >90% chance of a No Deal Brexit on October 31st.

Which means Nigel and BoJo (or whoever is in the Tory hot seat) will be happy. But not for long. Because just about anyone in Britain numerate enough to understand its economy (which does not include the two gentlemen mentioned) will tell you of the negative impact such a Brexit will have. From the Bank of England to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, this fourth factor has been studiously ignored or dismissed by Brexit supporters. But the truth is that the 60% of UK trade that is with the EU will be disrupted in the short term. As for other countries, WTO terms are not automatic, so there will be various delays while even these terms are settled. And, as for lucrative FTAs Liam Fox has come up with Faroe Islands and five others so far. The idea that China, America, Brazil or Indonesia will go out of their way to cut UK (65m people) a better deal than the EU (240m people) is delusional.

Because they will be terrified of an outcome similar to these elections, whatever luckless Tory leader caries us into a no deal Brexit like a bowling ball down a gutter, will avoid all talk of any General Election. Buy, eventually, June 2022 will roll around and we may see the demise of the once-powerful Tory party as it circles a few remaining wagons around Cheltenham, Guildford and Tunbridge Wells to reminisce of past glories and empires lost.

EUelecShare

Change in Tory and Labou Share of Vote in European Elections—Source:BBC at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-48403131

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It’s The Economy, Stupid!

Bill Clinton knew a thing o two when he coined this phrase a quarter century ago to bolstwe his (successful) campaign to be US President.  Times may have changed bit the appropriateness of the phrase has not.

Today’s Sunday papers are full of the shrill cries of various Brexotees smelling blood at next week’s European election of the back of polls indicating that 62% of people would support a ‘No-Deal’ Brexit, just to put everyone out of this never-ending misery. Given the complete and apparently endless hash both those in charge and those opposing them have made of the three-years-and-counting process, this should not be surprising.

But, meanwhile, outside of the media and politics hothouse, the other 99% of people have been trying to run their lives and make ends meet. Instrumental in making ends meet are th nusinesses that provide jobs and—especially—manufacturers who make things to export so we can afford the fruit and fridges we import. The media mayhem has said little about them, but they are distinctly not happy. “The Manufacturer” magazine reports:

  • 71% of UK manufacturers say Brexit is damaging strategic-planning and business prospects
  • 64% say Brexit will cause chaos for the manufacturing sector
  • 55% say the government could do more to promote exports

While many job- and export creating companies are rooted in their communities and not even contemplating leaving, warning signs from some without such commitment are growing ominously. Bombardier in Belfast, Honda in Swindon, Nissan in Sunderland are all pulling out. British manufacturing made Dyson’s £12bn personal fortune but he’s moving to SIngapore to make it bigger. Meanwhile, CrossRail is £3.4bn over budget and major infrastructure like Hinkley Point, HS2 and Heathrow expansion are all on hold. Job growth is in Amazon warehouses or on a moped for Deliveroo.

But if that’s what firms deeply invested in machinery, bricks and mortar are doing, how much easier for financial Young Turks of Canary Wharf to move whee the lucre leads. Major foreign financial institutions like JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, Mitsubishi and Sumitomo have already spent over £1bn of what some consider wasted money preparing for a No Deal Brexit. But many such institution chose Britain as an English-speaking foothold in the EU. Dublin, Frankfurt and Paris are already booming as smaller institutions move to stay within the EU.

Most flexible of all are the currency markets. Like bookies, they are famously cold-blooded about profit above all else, Here the runes are not good. After the UK£ plunged from $1,50 to $1.30 after the 2016 referendum decision to leave, in the two weeks of May alone it dropped further form $1.31687 to $1.27045 and from EU1.17553 to EU1.13777. That’s a 4% hike in costs for foreign holidays and imports alike. At that rate, the £UK would become worthless before Christmas.

The 62% of people polled by the Sunday Times as wanting a No Deal Brexit asap must have heard some of the clamour from CEOs, professors, economists, right up to the Govenor of the Bank of England that it would damage Brtain’s GDP by as much as 10%.  And, far from countries queuing up to sign trade deals, as promised by Leave, Liam Fox has been able to sign off only six, none of them with major economies.

Media and party fixation with bills at Westminster is now veering into angels-on-pinheads territory.  Who is doing the day job of looking after the economy? Brexiteers keep stressing Britain has the world’s fifth-largest economy. It soon won’t have.

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Makes Me Cross Rail

Even the casual visitor to London must be aware of its sprawling public transport network. The world-famous backbone to this is the London Underground, universally known as ‘The Tube”. Latest in its many extensions is the Elizabeth Line, also known by its working title of “Crossrail”. Scheduled to be a £14bn project, due to open to the public late last year, it has quietly transmogrified into a £17.6bn project, now due for completion “between October 2020 and April 2021”. The reasons given are software and safety.

The economic benefits of all this money are listed as

  • £42bn benefit to the UK economy
  • Better links between the capital’s major commercial and business districts – Heathrow, the West End, the City and Canary Wharf
  • 55,000 full time jobs and 75,000 business opportunities during the construction of the new railway.

What they don’t say is that 95% of such benefits accrue to the London metropolitan area—their 10.4m people already the richest region in the UK (average salary £35,303) leaving 5% of diddly squat for the other 56m Britons (average salary £27.875).

CrossrailMap

Overview of Ctossrail. Note that major non-London stations like Manchester Picadilly, Cardiff Central or Edinburgh Waverley are nowhere on this map.

It’s not that Crossrail is a bad idea,  linking the atrociously served Heathrow airport with  Paddington, Bond Street, Centre Point, Smithfield, The City and out past Stratford is a visionary link that fills a transport gap. But its execution is another example of UK Tory Government fixation with farming out huge public projects to the private sector. Though the collapse of the £5.4bn Carillion giant in January of 2018 was not the sole cause of Crossrail delay but its contribution of the Paddngton Integration component further muddied already murky waters.

Carillion’s collapse two weeks into the year, and then just two week’s ago Crossrail’s latest admission that the line will need £2bn more to be completed”. (New Civil Engineer, Jan. 2019)

Rather than trains at 5-minute  intervals planned to run from December 2018, trains at 10-minute intervals are planned for Spring 2021, with the Bond Street station not due to open until later. While major projects of such complexity can be expected to run into problems, the reason for the delay is given as safety, especially the software control of signalling. Given that Crossrail over its central portion consists of two opposite tracks in tunnels with no branches and that even the DLR has been running for decades without even dives, this must count as the flimsiest of excuses. The tunnels are finished; the track is laid; most stations are complete, despite having to be show-horned into some of the most expensive real estate in the world.

Perhaps most galling for the rest of us is the scale of the cost increase. £3.6bn is seven Scottish Parliament buildings, four Edinburgh tam systems or three Queen Margaret Crossings. Add that in to other eye-watering London projects since the millennium alone, such as:

  • Portcullis House—£235m (includes £1/2m for rented decorative fig trees!)
  • Heathrow airport expansion—£18.6bn
  • Extra runway at Gatwick airport—£7.4bn
  • HST line to the Chunnel—£1.9bn
  • St Pancras refurb for Eurostar—£800m
  • Houses of Parliament refurb—£3.5bn

Even leaving aside major pre-2000 projects like the Jubilee Line, the Millennium Dome, renovation of  most London train terminals, etc., that’s a round £50bn spent on London infrastructure alone, or about £5,000 for every Londoner. That’s five times the entire budget of all 32 local authorities in Scotland, who can’t even afford to build a mile of road, let alone an airport.

It is natural for investment in a capital city may be higher than elsewhere. But when the only significant infrastructure investment elsewhere is in essential schools and hospitals and little that will boost local economies and address some of this chronic imbalance, it is time to ask whether the Imperial Capital is siphoning off a lion’s share of the Imperial Budget and further skewing the income imbalance at the root of the provincial unrest behind Brexit Fever, Scottish independence, the mythical Northern Powerhouse and much else in the ex-industrial former heart of Britain.

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The Other Island

In 834 blogs, a similar number of newspaper columns and over 25 years engaged in politics you will find little mention of Ireland. This is not because of indifference to that beautiful island or to its fellow Celtic people and the culture with which they have enriched the world, especially the USA. The reason is that, since becoming an adult in the sixties with an active interest in current affairs, the venomous thread of The Troubles saddened me on a regular basis until influential people finally managed to see out of their respective bunkers and, encouraged by supportive neighbours, signed the Good Friday Accord twenty years ago.

In speaking of ‘Ireland’ as a whole, I mean no disrespect to the Republic of Ireland and the responsible and constructive way it did its best to diffuse The Troubles, nor to those caught up in them. But my personal position had always been that there are three nations on the island of Britain bit only one on the island of Ireland. That said, it is none of my business—solely that of the people living on said island. So, for fear of simply stirring it to no purpose, I have shut my face, and kept it shut.

Until now.

Having seen the open border, the growing prosperity and self-confidence of the North coming more in line with the outward-looking, cosmopolitan ebullience of the South, despite DNA-deep intransigence from Assembly members I felt, as many did, real progress was being made. Then came the Derry riots around the 103rd anniversary of the Rising, at which journalist Lyra McKee was shot dead by ‘The New IRA’. They have issued an apology.But any organisation venal enough to use guns in furthering their political ends should learn to shoot straight or disband.

I knew nothing of Lyra beforre April 18th but fully believe and would associate myself with the fulsome praise she received as a journalist and open-minded human being from those who shared her work and young life. Her death was clearly a loss. But in such a loss, I found hope in the way in which all six parties united in clear condemnation of the act as unacceptable in any part of Ireland in the 21st century. Politicians whose utterances normally jar in me like fingernails on a windowpane made heartfelt, diplomatic statements, with which I found myself agreeing. Several hundred residents of the normally recalcitrant Crreggan district where the riot occurred, cam forward with information. The PSNI have desisted from the boots-and-truncheons of yore and tried to work with the community to solve this.

So on this, the day of her funeral, I mourn, along with so many others, the loss of a woman who had already made a difference in her young life but whose brutal death highlights the progress made by two decades of the peace process.

It is not for outsiders like me to say but, perhaps this sharp contrast with such progress and all the many such incidents stretching into history may be the incentive for political leaders, gathered in common grief round Lyra’s grave, may forge a future of peaceful and prosperous sharing of their beautiful island as a fitting legacy for Lyra.

Today may be more hopeful than it appears.

 

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