The Ruth, The Whole Ruth & Nothing but The Ruth

Today’s Prime Ministers Questions did nothing but compound the outrage I already felt over the manner in which any chance of debate on the effect of Brexit legislation on devolution was last night filibustered into oblivion my the government. When John Bercow ejected Ian Blackford for insisting on a vote during PMQs and the whole SNP group followed him out, Tory accusations that this was “a stunt” added insult to injury.

The whole tasteless affair had me fired up to blog about it. But, fortunately, before I got far with my fizzing response, I came across a much more powerful and measured piece from Ruth Wishart. She is a doughty, dependable and insightful observer of the Scottish scene and I thoroughly recommend that you read her piece.

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Blonde Ambition

Thought I am far from the first to see major similarities between the ever-ebullient BoJo and The Donald, there is much more to be learned from the pair of them about modern politics than the PR value of a prominent thatch of golden locks. Though widely diverse in background, they have each taken to the rise in sound-bite journalism and the decline in stoically noble professionalism in politics. They are as far from Churchill and FDR as the National Enquirer is from the TLS.

But politicians are products of their times. Edward I is rightly seen as the founder of the successful English state—even thought the Welsh and Scots of his time might raise furious objections. As with fashion, sport or business, the day-to-day of politics is shot through with conventions, in order to function smoothly. Which gives rebels a chance to break fresh ground, whether it be business suits for women or introducing the back flop to the high jump.

As Mayor of London Boris turned breaking the mould into his calling card. Whether introducing Boris bikes or waging a war on /bendy buses’, he made a point of being consistently in the Evening Standard’s front page. That the Standard isn’t read outside London was irrelevant because the movers, shakers and voters he wanted to reach all lived within commuting distance. Since the Brexit issue came along, Boris has surfed it like a pro, cultivating popularity with juicy misdeeds, rascally enough to attract press but not sufficiently outrageous to derail his career by getting his jotters.

Similarly, The Donald was brought up by his tycoon father to value the ‘Art of the Deal’—and not to be too squeamish who got hurt in the process—provided it wasn’t you. The sheer space of America created the snake oil salesman, trading on the naivety that comes from isolation. But Donald and his ilk realised that the ever-increasing complexity of modern life created similar (but much more lucrative) opportunities to hoodwink existed among city dwellers.

But BoJo and The Donald share much more that a thatch of blond hair, a bottomless well-spring of chutzpah and a neck-less-wrestler build that male me glad they were never opposite me as prop forwards in the rugby scrum. Though each would doubtless protest high moral standards in all their (frequently abrasive) dealings, both have exercised highly elastic interpretations of acceptable behaviour when it advanced their ends.

BoJo’s disarmingly buffoonish demeanour conceals a tactical shrewdness in calculating the degree of outrage he can get away with. He was elected President of the Oxford Union by downplaying his Bullingdon Club credentials and masquerading as a Social Democrat. When he wrote for The Times, he fabricated quotes, including one from his own godfather, a famous archaeologist.

As a journalist in Brussels, he was one of the greatest exponents of fake journalism“, Chris Patten on BJ’s stint reporting on the European Commission for The Daily Telegraph 1987-94.

The Donald’s fortune was started by his German immigrant grandfather, who made a bundle out of  the Klondike gold rush and augmented by some hard work and shrewd dealings in building housing in New York City, mainly in Queens. When The Donald took over in 1971, he switched into redeveloping skyscrapers in Manhattan. This proved to be  as good a move as his later investments in Atlantic City casinos would prove to be bad.

The latter would prove to be the stuff of legend, other rich investors like Carl Ican, po-faced legal teams and tortuous financing of a dizzying array of company names.  Despite plastering the Trump name all over  properties he owned (and leasing it to many he didn’t), he managed to walk blameless from the collapse of the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino that left hundreds of contractors and suppliers stiffed and 1,300 employees out of a job.

The lynch-pin of all his businesses was supreme belief in himself and his ability to strike stupendous deals in a one-to-one environment. During the ‘Greed-Is-Good’ 1980’s, this worked for him. Indeed Rolling Stone magazine claims the iconic figure of Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street was modelled on The Donald. While self-belief and selective aggression give clear advantages in business negotiation, the moral dimension plays less of a role, partly because it is less in the public eye than in politics.

But even his private life shows the same flexibility of morals. He met his first wife, Ivana (a Czech model in New York for a fashion show) by offering to get her a table at Maxwell Plum’s Upper East Side restaurant. She said to the rest of her party: “‘The good news is, we’re going to get a table real fast. The bad news is, this guy is going to be sitting with us.’ ” They married a year later. But The Donald had a well documented history of infidelity. One of the women with whom he was unfaithful was Marla Maples, whom he regularly spirited away to Atlantic City and eventually become his second wife. That lasted less than 4 years before he met Slovenian model Melania Knauss, during New York Fashion Week. As he recalled “I went crazy, I was supposed to meet this supermodel but I said: ‘Forget about her. Who is the one on the left?‘”

I do receive Holy Communion…but do not ask God for forgiveness“.  —Donald Trump

Although there are clearly huge differences between our two blonde subjects, what is most revealing are their shared characteristics of self-belief, shamelessness and an ability to read the times and act accordingly  to further their own self-interest. Western culture has traditionally praised the hard-working, self-effacing, principled hero, whether in a film like High Noon or Barack Obama’s humanity or Princess Diana’s charity work. But we are in a new politics for the 21st century. The idea of Lord Carrington resigning as Foreign Secretary for misjudging Argentinian intentions in the Falklamds seems quaintly Victorian.

Like  Kim Kardashian, who realised that, once you are famous, you don’t actually have to do much to stay famous, our twin sons of different mothers on either side of the pond have twigged that in politics:

  • media is king for anyone building a career
  • media loves controversy, especially among recognised names
  • controversy need not be profound (and thus career-threatening)
  • populist positions need not be intellectually sound or even consistent
  • positions can change because media memory is short

It could be said that people like BoJo and The Donald don’t play by the rules. But there is no common agreement on what the rules are—and  unwritten conventions change over time anyway (see Lord Carrington above) and the above bullets may be the new code of conduct. Perhaps our brace of egotists are simply early and effective exponents of what will chatacterise politics in the future: easily recognised, teflon ego-ed media magnets with more incommon with rock stars than sober-suited pillars of the community..

“And the megalomanic shall inherit the earth…”

 

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We’re On the Way

Regular readers will know, I am no fan of London’s offering in airports and the services they provide. Fresh from yesterday’s Commons mauling over Northern & GoVia’s inability to run a railroad, UK Transport Minister Chris Grayling will barely have time to change his shredded shirt before he’s thrown to the lions again today, this time to argue for approval of a third runway at Heathrow.

It’s fair to say there has been some dithering over this, not least because BoJo (ever on the qui vive for a headline) threatens to lie down before the bulldozers. The arguments are complex but what is clear is that air traffic is expanding and Heathrow can’t cope with what it has now. But the problem is not just one of landing slots. Heathrow may be the worst designed airport on the planet, a Heath-Roninson affair of tacked-on afterthoughts that exposes transferring passengers to quarter-hour bus rides through its entrails. The M4/M25 is a car park, the Tube takes forever and guards on the Heathrow Express yell at you foe being on the worng train. Look at any modern airport (Atlanta Hartsfield or Amsterdam Schipol) to see how this should work.

It is fair to say that alternatives are not easy to find. Gatwick lies on the ‘wrong’ side of London to service the North. Stanstead has capacity but poor links to the Midlands and West. The main argument for Heathrow seems to revolve around its use as a hub and sees itself competing with Frankfurt, Copenhagen and Dublin in this regard.

Dublin?!!

Yes, Dublun. Some tine ago, Ireland noticed all those vapour trails from transatlantic airliners crossing their skies. Their government invested £2bn modernising the airport, including a second terminal. They are about to invest a further £300m in a second runway. This is not just Irish pork barrel usung EU money. They worled out they were 500km closer to major American airports and could slice an hour off the flight time to any of them. Iceland has been doing this for years but Keflavik can no longer compete with Dublin’s facilities and selection: some of the most competitive fares to the US are on Aer Lingus via Dublin.

Astute readers may have noticed the absence of my usual shilling for Scotland in this piece but here it comes. Despite Heathrow arguing it is best placed from serving the North, recent Commons studies show third runway benefits are limited to the Southeast of England. Currently, most Scots flying to the States must go to Heathrow, faff about for 2-3 hours, then find themselves flying over where they started from, but half a day later.

Like Ireland, we are on the way there. What if they could fly direct? What if there were an air hub in Scotland to rival Dublin or even Schipol? A full-scale international airport on the carse between Airth and Larbert would be easily accessible from all over Central Scotland and lie at the heart of the ScotRail EGIP project and the M9/M80/M876 complex. Glasgow, Edinburgh, Falkirk and Stirling would lie 20 minutes away. Poky second-rate EDI and GLA, with their ludicrous competition with each other, would be obsolete. Instead of the odd flight to Newark that Edinburgh offers, Dublin flies seven major US cities and offer border pre-clearance to speed arrival in the USA. Scotland lies even more favourably than Dublin on the key Great Circle routes to America’s West Coast.

GreatCircle

Great Circle (Red Line) Is Actually Shortest Distance to USA West Coast

Instead of wasting £16.5bn trying to shoehorn another runway into the traffic mess that is West London, a full-scale airport could be built at Airth for a third of that. Instead of LNER and Transpennine shlepping Scots south to Manchester and Newcastle to catch planes, more Northerners would find it easier to reach Scotland and same time catching flights there by avoiding the chaos of Heathrow,

Of course, Home-Counties-fixated Tories are unlikely to see the advantages for all in this. Perhaps it would take an independent Scotland to capitalise on the future the way the Irish are already doing.

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Our Clowns Are Back

SOS Puffin is a volunteer project sponsored by the Scottish Seabird Centre which started in 2007. It aims to bring under control the invasive plant tree mallow which had taken over the islands of Craigleith and Fidra, threatening important populations of nesting puffins—small seabirds known as “Clowns of the Sea” and locally as “Tammy Norries”.

Since 2007, John Hunt has organised and led 165 trips to Craigleith and 88 to Fidra with up to 11 other volunteers at a time spending a day clearing the plant. Known locally as ‘Bass Mallow’ the plant is a giant relative of the geranium, growing over two metres tall with a woody stem thick as a cucumber.

Originally thought to have been brought from the Mediterranean by lighthousekeepers on Bass Rock, it was grown for its large soft leaves— an emergency reserve of toilet paper against the supply boat being held up by storms. In its second year of growth it flowers, showering prolific numbers of small black seeds.

Eaten by birds, these were carried to nearby islands. That was not a problem until native rabbits there were wiped out by mixamatosis, whereupon it got a hold, especially on soil-rich Craigleith and the flatter parts of Fidra—both former rabbit warrens more recently colonised by puffins.

Puffin&Mallow

Puffin Among Young Mallow

Ten years ago, with puffin numbers falling, it was realised that by growing in dense stands and favouring loose soil at the mouth of each puffin burrow they were ‘prison bars’ preventing entry and even restricting where puffins could land.

John recruited a veritable army of volunteers (now 650), engaging Tom Brock (SSC) and Colin Astin (Seafari) to support and transport squads of volunteers outside the summer nesting season. Armed with loppers for the large plants and strimmers for the seedlings, John would lead each RIB-load of 12 to tackle a new stretch of vegetation, following his multi-year plan.

By 2010, the fully-grown stands were gone and they are now dealing with odd remote clumps and the army of seedlings that return each season from the millions of seeds still in the soil. Rabbits that have reestablished themselves on Craigleith are helping.

PuffinGroup

Given Space, Sociable Puffins Gather in Groups

Though the puffins are never likely to thank John, the sight of ranks of them lining the cliff tops as they socialise again is reward to many. The mallow-bashing season is over for another year but if you catch him in the street, be sure to thank him on Tammie Norie’s behalf.

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Buoyant Scotland: Drowning UK?

This same week that Nocola Sturgeon agreed with the EU that the UK was running out of time to avoid a disastrous Brexit, the Sustainable Growth Commission (SGC) published their report on Scotlamd’s economic future. As compared to the argument made four years ago in the run-up to the referendum of September 2014, this 354-page  analysis is  more hard-headed and plausible: it makes no assumptions about oil revenues propping up the economy; it assumes we would keep the £ for a decade. Commission chair Andrew Wilson pin its introduction said:

(A) prospectus that recognises the transitions that are required between the
inherited starting point and the creation of the sort of country we seek to be. A clear sighted and honest exposition of how to make this transition orderly is the very least that should be expected by those we seek to convince.

A noble ambition that the subsequent pages try to fulfill. Immediately, unionists of all parties sought to discredit the arguments deployed, with Brexiteers managing to keep a straight face arguing against the same principles of sovereignty argued here that they themselves deploy endlessly to justify the UK leaving the EU.

Tories in particular argue that Scotland, despite its overwhelming 62% vote to remain in the EU, would be best off in Britain and out of the EU because 60% of its trade is with the former and only 16% with the rest of the UK (rUK). Their argument is we will all benefit being out of the EU. But let’s  let’s examine that trade more closely. Britain’s five biggest trading partners are shown in Fig. 1.

UktradeTop5Figure 1: UK Annual Trade in £bn with Top 5 Partners (Source HMRC)

So, it’s not just Scotland; 60% of the entire UK;s trade is with  the EU, qith whom it runs an unhealthy trade deficit of 114% with the biggest three. In contrast, of all  UK ‘regions’, Scotland runs the healthiest overseas trade surplus, as shown in Figure 2. Note that the the UK trade deficit is concentrated in the ‘economic powerhouse’ of  Southeast England.

UKtrade17
 Figure 2: UK Regional Overseas Trade Balance (Source:HMRC)

It would appear that in the other 40% of Scotland trade that is not with UK, it does very well—much better than the import-addicted Southeast. At $.8bn, the USA is Scotland’s top international export destination. Together with Netherlands, France, Germany and Norway, it accounted for £12.1 billion (41%) of international exports from Scotland. Excluding oil and gas, the food, drink and tobacco sector (£8.9bn), the financial services (£8.6bn) and the wholesale sector (£8.35bn)

Turning to that 60% of trade Sotland enjoys across our tariff-free border with rUK. The £46.6bn in exports do not quite match £51.1bn in imports. But a 10% trade deficit is so much healthier than the 114% that the UK runs with its main EU trading partners (Fig 1),. The argument from Brexiteers that that the EU will be forced to keep any tariffs low to avoid damaging their best export markets must also apply to the English border.

Although the SGS follows UK government practice of excluding oil and gas revenues from Scotland’s figures, any balanced discussion about Scottish trade must take this major sector into account. In 2014, plunging oil prices undermined economic arguments for independence. The knock-on effect also hit the services Industry, especially around Aberdeen, further curtailing growth in the Scottish economy.

Today, the reverse applies. Oil prices are above $75, North Sea production is rising–and the service industry with it. Scotland consumes a small fraction of oil and gas it produces. Last year, Scottish oil and gas exports added £17.5bn to exports, giving the country almost £100 billion in total exports and a healthy trade surplus.

However persuasive this Report from the SGS may, unionists are already losing the economic argument for Scotland to remain in the UK on the basis of trade alone. On the global ocean of trade, Scotland is buoyant, while England is drowning. Our partnership with England may have once been glorious—and profitable for both. But since Little Englander Brexiteers threw their partnership toys out of the pram, there is no sensible reason left why Scotland should still cling to a drowning partner, especially with a current trade balance shown in Figure 3.

ScoTradeCht

 
Figure 3—Scotland’s Trade Balance 2016
 By rejecting the EU, our English cousins have left us no sensible choice but independence. We have little to lose and much to gain by staying the pragmatists for which we Scots are famous

“The EU market is eight times the size of the UK market”, highlighting the immense potential for Scotland’s exports, but at the same time, the importance of staying in the single market.

—Keith Brown MSP, Cabinet Secretary for the Economy, Jobs and Fair Work

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Mugged by Moggmania

I have a terrible confession to make: I think I like Jacob Rees-Mogg. Believe me, this comes as a shock to me more than to any reader of this blog (who must be broad minded to still be reading it). Logically, this change of heart makes no sense. Jacob and I are chalk and cheese. He is a very English, upper-middle class, privately-educated, Tory, Brexiteer Catholic monarchist Unionist married father of six; I am none of these things. Other than language and number of legs, we have nothing in common. Watching his contributions to debates in the Commons, I had dismissed him as a standard-issue, bool-moothrd denizen of the snug Home Counties.

Well, it seems I was wrong.

Yesterday, he intervened in a Commons debate about a private member’s bill. He cited Hansard with the fluency of a man who had written it in support of his contention that only the government may ask parliament for money. I normally deplore jobsworths who hide behind dusty documents to make their case. But Jacob made it with such lucid clarity, while being both gracious and generous with interventions that I found myself watching in admiration. Though I disliked his contention, I found myself conceding that he was right. This was most unsettling.

Then today, he appeared as Guest of Honour on BBC2’s Daily Politics. Despite having a clip shown of him as an insufferably precautions 12 year old, he acquitted himself with both dignity and conviction in discussions: he defended his Catholicism against a probing Jo Coburn; abortion against an outraged Jo Swinson and his hard Brexit stance against a Cambridge don. So what; any politician would have stood their ground.

But it was how he stood his ground that impressed. Precise and articulate, he made his views clear without being didactic. He listened and acknowledged other views without being condescending. Most importantly—considering the weasly way the average politician avoids answering—he came across as sincere, not defensive and someone with conviction in his strong beliefs. The most telling of all was it during the link with the new Mayor of Sheffield, Magid Magid. It would be hard to imagine someone more alien to Jacob than a 28-year-old black Somali refugee muslim from the Green party and I expected this to be a hurdle at which he would fall.

Not a bit of it. He went beyond simple recognition and congratulation to establish a rapport of obvious enthusiasm for the changes Magid hopes to make in Sheffield. This was no Hooray Henry, given to snapping fingers at waiters. This was no Sloan Ranger, easily out of their depth in a multicultural metropolis. The man displayed intelligence, articulate wit, graciousness, depth and subtlety in measures that I had seriously underestimated. Should he chance to read this, I offer my fulsome apology for such a mistake.

The sole remaining negative thing I have to say about him is that I regret is likely progression to greater things in politics, if just because I hold diametrically opposing views to his on just about anything—even as I relish the elevated quality of debate.

 

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Boardroom Banditry

Over thirty years ago, the London Stock Exchange (LSE) switched from traditional face-to-face share dealing to electronic trading that helped it outpace competitors and become a magnet for international banks. The City jumped from the 19th Century into the threshold of the 21st and a long way since a broker named John Casting listing prices of commodities at Jonathan’s Coffee-House in 1689. Trading has since grown to over £5bn per day; powered by the febrile financial hub of Canary Wharf, the LSE has leaped from 19th please to be among the world’s top three markets.

There is a cogent argument that it was the key stage of boosting the British economy out of the doldrums that beset it in the 1970s and pave the way for two decades of steadily growing prosperity. There is also a cogent argument that it produced the 2008 Financial crash. And, considering developments over the last decade since, it also spawned recent headline-grabbing financial train wrecks captained by Fred ‘The Shred’ Goodwin at RBS, Phillip Green at BHS and Philip Green (no relation) at Carillion. Each calmity from which executives stroll away rich make those of us not on their boardroom gravy train wonder just who is looking out for Joe Public. In all such cases, the workers, suppliers and small investors are the ones who take a bath, if not lose their shirts.

We are not talking about unintended consequences here, as when a new computer hedge program runs out of control and causes wild market fluctuations.  Nor is this about tough and/or changing market conditions, such as those sinking Maplin Electronics, Toys’R’Us or Mothercare as viable concerns. In those cases, directors and managers broadly exercised their best (if flawed) judgement, but were swamped by market conditions, such as the internet’s effect—first on the High Street and, later, even on giants of retail.

What we are discussing here is pure, selfish greed and abuse of power to satisfy it. Once the shock waves of the Big Bang dissipated, some clever people started exploiting the new opportunities offered. The end of fixed commissions and fast electronic trading were just the thin end of the wedge. Bowler-hatted  ‘something on the City’ gave way to brash boys in bright braces, who found Mergers and Acquisitions, currency speculation, market manipulation and pension fund plundering offered far richer pickings. And, as  scrutiny was still exercised by the bowler hats, something of a lawless frontier ensued.

While it was only a matter of a few Young Turks bagging themselves a few thousand by having the cojones to follow their hunches, small harm ensued. But the braces brigade were overtaken by heavyweights hunting for big game. Much snapping up of small fish by big fish ensued. The first major example of fiscal indigestion was Robert Maxwell had to plunder £1/2bn from his Mirror Group’s pension fund in 1991. A quarter century later its fund (and its pensioners) are still in trouble. Next year, the stakes got higher. Britain tried to keep the pound within the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM—forerunner of the Euro). George Soros bet against the pound so forcefully that on ‘Black Wednesday, the UK admitted defeat. The pound left the ERM, having cost the Treasury £3.3bn, much of which had landed in Soros’ bank account.

Through the ’90’s, while Sid did get a little richer by buying shares in BA, Ngen, BT, RailTrack, etc, the already-rich did even better, thanks the legal and accounting firms whose creativity with accounting wheezes and offshore tax havens made their clients both rich and grateful. Benefiting most from such business were the ‘big five’ accounting and consulting firms, viz:

  • Ernst & Young.
  • Deloitte & Touche.
  • Arthur Andersen.
  • KPMG.
  • PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Every FTSE100 (i.e. major) firm in Britain had its books audited by these firms—at a cost of millions each year. But who was checking on these ever-cosier relations? Companies House simply registers firms; the CBI only represents British industry; the Financial Services Authority lasted 2001-2013, replaced by the Financial Conduct Authority was set up to avoid another 2008 crash. Few boardroom bandits have been brought to book by either—especially considering their beefy 3,800 staff and hefty £430m budget.

There might be some argument that the 2008 crash happened before their watch. And indeed the excesses of junk mortgages, toxic fiscal bundles and acquisition over-reach (as when the RBS python tried to swallow an indigestible ABN-Amro) all smack of a lawless frontier. But even after major corporate corpses like Lehman Brothers litter the landscape, the big five did not change their cosy practices—nor has the FSA/FCA seen any urgent need to make them.

Which makes the latest series of dubious accounting causing fiscal train wrecks all the more reprehensible. In each case, both the board and the auditors have been complicit in creating and concealing accounting practices that—while technically legal—violated most sensible, if not moral principle. Unless you happened to be a boardroom benefactor Phillip Green drained £580m from BHS over his 15 years in charge, then sold it in 2015 for £1. It rhen went bankrupt, with a loss of 11,000 jobs and a £500m hole in its pension fund.

Now this month, Carillion, holder of 450 lucrative Government contracts, including Birmingham’s new hospital, goes into liquidation. Executives are still receiving £450,000 salaries, plus bonuses in the most egregious example of draining company assets by those whose responsibility is to safeguard them. To quote a Carillion insider “For any other organisation, this kind of activity would be gobsmacking. For Carillion’s directors, this was business as normal“. Auditors KPMG signed off the accounts as healthy less than three months before. This collapse leaves almost £1 billion in debt, more than £500m of pension deficit. It puts 19,000 employees and 30,000 unpaid subcontractors out of work..

There is the usual wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth by parliament and regulators alike. A damning report from a parliamentary select committee does not mince words, condemning the practices that led to this. But, as with BHS and RBS, nobody in the cab of the train when it wrecked will even have their pay docked. Two years after BHS, Phillip Green hasn’t even barred from being a company director. Rather than another select committee buried in the bowels of Westminster, such practices need public exposure and serious repercussions for silk-suited wide boys who are taking the public (not to mention employees, shareholders and suppliers) for a ride. What rhis needs is:

  • A Business Standards body with swingeing powers. It should be staffed with a balance of laymen and professionals, plus experienced directors.
  • Swift and brutal powers to remove (if not reversing) bonus awards, all outside of board control and guided by long-term fiscal performance
  • Eye-watering fines for accountants who fail to sound alarms when they should
  • Funds from above  sources to be used to publicise good practice and broadcast the misdeeds of shameless miscreants
  • Consideration that any bonus (and part salary?) be paid in company shares
  • A ban on politicians serving on boards —and vice-versa
  • Permanent exclusion from directorshipd for the worst cases (r.g. Green)

Such steps may not redress damage already done to public trust in board members by the behaviour of a greedy few. But they may inhibit the sleazier aspects of the ‘Big Bang’ and so drag capitalism in Britain out of the morass into which it has sunk. Curbing the excesses of a rich-list-bias and resurrecting a free market accessible by all might restore Joe Public’s faith in putting his shoulder to the common weal. And benefit us all.

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Forget the Free: It’s the Land of MONEY

America is an amazing place. The country is huge, blessed with spectacular scenery, bountiful resources and a diverse population sharing a can-do attitude. So, to speculate on its imminent demise may appear counter-intuitive, if not downright perverse. The 20th century was clearly the American century. They powered into prominence just as European prestige eroded through internecine wars, social upheaval and fragmenting empires. Exploiting abundant space and resources, they brought the world new wealth, bigger toys and new ways to enjoy both.

But there is a lesson for them from exactly a century ago. In 1918, the British Empire was at its greatest extent; Germany lay defeated; the Royal Navy bestrode the oceans; British ships and factories dominated world trade. But, within a decade, a General strike, a stock market crash and a persistent Depression laid its economic weakness bare.  A half -century of relative decline followed, leading to the inflation, unrest and stuttering econony of the 1970s.

A hundred years on, senior politicians in America do not see their globe-straddling behemoth standing in similar danger of decline. Why should they? That century brought relentless innovation: mass production; industrial farming; movies and television; computers and chips; fast food and microwaves, satellites and smart phones. America is still setting the pace with  Amazon, Google, Facebook, Uber, etc. With Trump now playing trade hardball with their main competitor China over steel and intellectual property, everything in the American garden it Is lovely. Isn’t it?

If you buy into President Trump’s bluster, it might seem so: illegal immigrants stemmed; Assad’s chemicals blitzed; ‘Little Rocket Man’ brought to the peace table. But look deeper. Stocks are down 15% from their peak at Christmas. The leading stocks are not the Exxon,/GM/Intel/Boeing-type production titans of yesteryear. Today’s success stories don’t actually make anything tangible. Small economies like Singapore or Switzerland might prosper on service alone.. But consumption-hungry giants like the US can’t afford to import all their cars, clothes, electronics, appliances, and other pricey consumable. Even their $678bn arms exports don’t balance imports worth $2,400bn . Add this to a decade of budget overspend and America’s yawning $12,000bn debt charm (= $35,000 per head) should have fiscal alarm bells ringing off the wall. This dwarfs Britain’s $10.4bn owed in 1918—even allowing for inflation that was “only” $3,600 per head. Let’s be clear about this: the self-proclaimed “fiscally conservative” Republican party, who blocked every attempt by Obama to spend more, passed a budget that will add $1,500bn to the debt each year and Trump hailed it as a victory.

Such an insane Financial posture might be sustainable, were the Chinese appetite for US Treasury Bonds to continue forever. But it won’t. They buy them for the same reason oil sheiks snapped them up in the 1970s oil crisis. But once the Gulf States developed their own investment options (hotels, tourism, infrastructure, airlines), they switched to these more profitable returns. The Chinese will soon do the same. Now that Republicans control Senate, House, Presidency and heartland states, they are now rolling out undiluted neocon policy with the fire-and-brimstone fervour of Evangelicals dispensing salvation at a revival meeting.

This policy is not subtle. It consists of cutting taxes—basically the Reaganomics of 30 years ago. The argument is that tax cuts stimulate business investment, creating more jobs and wealth for all. Sounds plausible. Reagan blew a budget surplus proving this did not work. Bush tried it 15 years later and was forced to raise taxes, despite his “read my lips” campaign promise. Early this year Trump signed into law the latest round of tax cuts, slashing corporation tax from 37% to 222%, plus some sweet giveaways to the rich. Regular punters do benefit to the tune of £1,132 per household—but these soon expire.

All this ignores not just last-century history but recent experience. Republican-run Oklahoma cut state taxes four years ago— and is now all but bankrupt, Civic services are understaffed. Schools close one day a week to save money. Kentucky is in a similar mess for similar reasons. Arizona bought off a popular strike by teachers with a 20% raise, Governor Ducey plans to fund this through a 1% hike in sales tax—a regressive move that hits the poorest hardest. Eroding the quality of general education is the economic equivalent of eating your seed corn, especially when you hope to complete in (if not lead) this 21st-century information economy.

America does have top notch universities. But few can afford the their fees. At any time there are just 564,000 students at “Ivy League” universities. Meantime, there are 2,220,300 citizens in jail—and 1,140,000 police busy putting them there. In this increasingly dysfunctional society 142,000 people die from opioid overdose, 33,636 are killed by firearms; 32,479 die in traffic accidents and 44,965 people take their own lives. For all its riches and opportunities, is there not something disturbing about any society where one in every 20 deaths is not from natural causes?

Statistics that shocking are not those of a stable society. One that embraces risk can tolerate a level of guns or drugs or ghettos behind them, provided opportunity for betterment is available to all. But things are coming adrift. Not only are the world’s “huddled masses yearning to be free” no longer welcome, but universal belief in the American dream of success by hard work and merit, no matter how humble their beginning, is wearing thin.

The original Founding Fathers’ vision of a classless, egalitarian society is fading. Class defined by wealth is replacing it.. The ‘Upper Middle’ class (Europeans would call them ‘rich’) are monopolising prosperity. They live in gated communities, leafy suburbs or lake/golf-course-studded tracts. They drive shiny new SUVs. They pull down six-figure salaries. They retire into affluence, move to the sun belt, take cruises—and book their children’s ticket to the same comfortable life by funding the $100,000+ it takes to get an Ivy League degree. The other 75% live in another part of town, in older bungalows behind chain-link fences, where guard dogs bark and there are more liquor stores than trees. Once, such barriers mattered little: but now they have become hard to climb. Ambition and hard work don’t cut it any more and that poorer 75% are losing faith in having access to the American Dream.

“In the USA, the top 10% of families (those with over $942,000 in assets) control 76% of its $79 trillion in personal wealth. Families in the next 40% account for another 23%, averaging $316,000 per family. That means the remaining half of the US population controls just 1% of the nation’s wealth.”

—Congressional Budget Office

As the party of the rich (and of those who aspire to be), Republicans are crowing over their long-promised tax rollback. These seem either oblivious or insensitive to the average American—especially the young—struggling to pay the rent (or, if lucky, the mortgage), who average, $137,063 in personal debt, much on over 20% credit card rates. They may be too busy to wonder why anti-abortion action has precedence over social programs, or why aircraft carriers are funded while medical insurance is not, or why Trump should woo the NRA Convention while school shootings remain commonplace. But they do wonder what’s in it for them.

In Washington and in state capitols across America, Democrats and Republicans are eyeballing each other with partisan political venom. This is unfortunate. If ever America needed visionary, non-tribal leadership while its principles and cohesion were both under threat, it is now. But their institutionalised two-party system does not have the flexibility and their politicised presidency does not have the objectivity to produce such of figure. The present circling  of the wagons by the rich not only betrays all that America once stood for but risks alienating the majority. Then the unrest that produced Selma and anti-Vietnam protests may seem trivial by comparison. Progressive major states like California and New York are mad at this reactionary neo-con agenda gripping the country. Nobody (besides Israel) likes the  damage all this is doing to American prestige and trade among friends and allies.

Mid-term elections due in November may provide a wake-up call. But Senators and Congressman are deeply entrenched in this ossified system where money again plays a pivotal role. So they will go back to more ritualised battles and constipated legislation. The real story how American overthrew institutionalised dictatorship of the rich while a once-great democracy languished may have to wait another century to be fully appreciated. Unless another Loncoln comes along to lance the boil.

 

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Summer of Love: 50 Years On

Yes, I confess it: I am old enough to remember the Summer of Love when the 60s really got into their stride and 19-year-old idealists (as I then was) found a world of button down suits fixated with material wealth and the Cold War far less beguiling than an alternative mantra to “tune in, turn on and drop out” . Though this held less appeal on the grey, dreich streets of Edinburgh, beside the sun-speckled waters of the Golden Gate, it made far more sense.

Fir the unquestioned epicentre of this counterculture was San Francisco, already known as a wacky melting pot of cultures and ideas. The beat generation of Kerouac and Ginsberg had already colonised the City’s North Beach. But hippies favoured cheap rental of ornate Victorians in Haight/Ashbury, and bred Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplans, as well as a lively drug culture the media referred to as  Hashbury or Psychedelphia. It was also close to Golden Gate Park, where the resulting influx  camped out on Fremont Hill, which is still known as Hippie Hill and a focus for the annual 4/20 dope smoker gathering to this day its legalisation.

This month, I spent a long weekend in San Francisco again. April is a beautiful month to visit this, my favourite city. Cities around the world offer a cornucopia of Charms, but none stack up to San Francisco’s livability. Gorgeous vistas of waterscape bettering Edinburgh or Lisbon abound; imaginative architecture beats Boston or Berlin; culture is rich as Paris or Vienna; business dynamic rivals New York or Shanghai. For quality of life in a first-rank city on a human scale, it is only rivalled by  Munich or Barcelona.

But what I love most is the sheer exuberance of the dense housing, the cultural melting pot (and hence cuisines) like no other, all enlivened by a civic and political awareness that would put any capital to shame.

For five days, I bounced around the city’s tight-knit 49 square miles from Lands End to North Beach; from the Presidio to SoMa. Despite intervening half a century,  character and vibrancy have not skipped a beat. New are the dark-windowed coaches gliding techies from their City life to make more billions for Facebook and Google and Apple down in nearby Silicon Valley. The social resilience of the City still derives from its many lively local centres, as if it were a dense collection of villages, rather than sprawling suburbs. Whether Noe Valley, the Marina, Glen Park or the Mission, each has a ‘high street’ of shops with character (retail chain outlets are rare) and social centres like cafes. The mild climate, a dense streetcar/bus network and nightmare parking means the population interacts in droves. Proper dim sum from numerous carts is still available in Chinatown. You can still browse City Lights bookstore or run into Ferlinghetti in North Beach. Soma still buses with the myriad Studios, ateliers and galleries of a lively art scene. The Mission buzzes with myriad Central American restaurants but in the middle of it, on Valencia, is the best Italian deli in town with Ravioli made by angles.

So, ( as the Scott Mackenzie song goes) if you go to San Francisco, by all means do the standard tourist shuffle: visit Fisherman’s Wharf, take the ferry to Sausalito, drive down crooked Lombard Street and ride the cable cars. The once derelict waterfront is now a linear park with historic streetcars and fabulous views across the Bay to Marin, Alcatraz, the Oakland Hills, etc.

But, if you really want to know this beautiful city, take the N-Judah out to the Avenues and find the sprawling Botanical Gardens in Golden Gate Park, with its myriad plants from the seven Mediterranean regions of the world—and if you can’t find a memorable lunch among the restaurant lining the street car line, you’re not trying. Or take the J-Church and enjoy the spectacular view of downtown as it struggles up Balboa park and hop off at 24th to explore the heart of Noe Valley. If you really want to see how San Franciscans live, ride the J a little further—to 26th and enjoy Chloe’s restaurant; to 28th to get java’s up with the locals at Marths’s cafe; to 30th for a great breakfast at Toast.

Or hot the bus to the intersection of Haight with Ashbury and try to tune in, turn on and drop out, even though it may be Half a century too late. The nice thing is that none of the locals will bother you. Doing your own thing is an old San Francisco tradition—and yet another reason why I so love the place.

Will bother you

 

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Grand Masters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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