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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Continental Car-Rail

This week saw the launch of the Caledonian Sleeper’s new fleet of carriages for use on their five overnight Scotland-London routes. After the pleasant but antiquated stock Serco tool over from First ScotRail four years ago. This fleet represents the 2017   £150m investment Serco made to revamp the Caledonian Sleeper, with en-suite cabins and double beds, They wee originally due to come into service a year ago. With airports increasingly crowded and inconvenient, traveling overnight saves a day each way, compared to daytime services, as well as the cost of a hotel.

Good though this improvement might be, thee is further opportunity they might consider that will exist even after Brexit—continental services. When the Channel Tunnel fist opened in 2007, there wee airy promises made to justify the £5.8 billion spent that it would benefit all of Britain. Indeed, there was one train a day that would its way from Waverley to the original Waterloo Chunnel terminal. Bit this took seven hours and was soon cancelled. Since then, all further investment has gone into the St Pancras terminal and the HS1 line through Kent.

While it would be an undoubted economic boost for Scotland to have a direct TGV link to the Continent that London enjoys, even the HS2 link to the Midlands stands in doubt. Buy Scotland should not despair. Half of family holidays from Scotland taken on the Continent involve taking a car and the subsequent two-days-driving-plus-ferry to each your destination, whether it be Bilbao or Barcelona, Florence or Venice. Each of these destinations is about 1,300 miles away—or over 24 hours of driving, quite apart from time spent on rests, sleep and ferry.

What if you could do it all in a day, enjoy the journey and arrive rested?

The terms of the franchise under which Serco operates the Caledonian Sleeper are entirely up to the Scottish Government. Were they to show some far-sighted initiative, Scotland could have its own link with the Continent that would not only ease  travel abroad for Scottish families and turn a profit but would provide a conduit to lure Continental families to holiday in Scotland with their car. It would require the co-operation of the English Network Rail, the Chunnel and SNCF but they would each be interested in revenues from under-used resources. Apart from access contracts with them, we would need:

  • Expansion of the existing Caledonian Sleeper franchise to include this
  • Car-rail terminal facilities in both Central Scotland and Southern France
  • Three additional fast sleeper trains with vehicle flatcars.

Together, these would provide a daily car-rail service between a Central Scotland terminal somewhere easily road-accessible, like Ratho or Mossend and a Southen France terminal somewhere like Arles or Nimes. The outbound train would depart early evening to allow time to drive there and avoid evening rush hour and travel fast non-stop to just north of London, taking about five hours. It would avoid London terminals and join the NS1 line north of the Thames crossing at Ebbfleet, reaching the Chunnel before 2am and so run through it when thee is little traffic. Skirting Paris about four hours later—again before rush hour—it would take the Lyons line, then the Rhone valley to arrive at Arles after  1,000 miles before noon the next day. There would then be a half day for drivers to reach Bilbao, Barcelona, Florence, Venice etc. by evening in the 5-6 hours it would take to cove the remaining 200-300 miles left.

CarRailMap

The reverse inbound trip would operate to similar timings in reverse, arriving with a 6-hour turnaround time before repeating the journey. This means just two trains could operate the service at a pinch. Clearly Spanish, Italian and Southern French families, daunted by present awkward logistics would then find it easy to bring their car to tour Scotland and provide a secondary market. A train would consist of five sleeping cars, eight enclosed vehicle flat cars, plus a lounge and a dining car. All this is within the 775m length requirement. This would transport up to 30 families in 4-bed suites, saving the £300 each way for petrol and ferries, quite apart from accommodation costs. Assuming this charge would be competitive as a ticket price 50% above this ($450 per family one-way), given the time and stress saved, a 75% loaded train should gross revenues of £25,000 per round tip.

Were the initial service to prove successful, a further terminal at Perth to serve North-East and Highland markets. A second Continental terminal around Munich would not just open up Central European destinations in an arc from Prague through Vienna to the Dalmatian coast but open access to a further market of visitors wanting a driving tour of Scotland. In all cases, the concept of a fast overnight arrival that allows time for driving at both ends would be the USP. While family car holidays would be the main target customer, other small groups and even foot passengers would find such a service.

Key also is that this must be a fast, if not express, service that does not stop between terminals. Unlike the present London sleeper, which dawdles deliberately so as not to arrive too early, the Continental Carr-Rail would match East Coast 225 service to London and fit with TGV slots beyond. This might require electric motive power—especially in light of the emissions that each trip would be saving.

Of course, this requires a full business case to be made before it could become more than a pipe dream. But, along with many other good things, Brexit is likely to foul this up.

 

CalSleeper

 

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Haven on Earth

Throughout its history, Britain has been driven by global commerce. Even the socialism of the Atlee years were a sensible antidote to private railway, coal, steel, shipyard and health industries on their last legs. Commercialism really got a modern shot in the arm under Thatcher. The two decades of boom that followed could be justified by the broad reach of the prosperity thus generated.

For all its image of dusty reserve, Britain has been an enthusiastic member, if not actual leader, of the charge towards commercial exploitation ever since Europe broke out of the Middle Ages with the Renaissance. Elizabethan privateers led to exploration and colonisation, which led to trade, industry and empire. None of those would have succeeded on the scale they did without complete disdain for the human rights and equality given prominence these days. ‘Progress’ appeared to benefit everyone, even if those benefits were spread unevenly.

After dabbling with socialism post-WW2, post-imperial Britain hit its capitalist stride in the two decades following the City’s ‘Big Bang’. Although never egalitarian, wealth spread as broadly across the country as it ever had. Modern homes, new cars and foreign holidays became the norm; North Sea oil repaid the National Debt, kept taxes low and lubricated the world’s fifth-largest economy. Senior public servants secured hefty pay hikes that were dwarfed by inflated salaries and bonuses of boards and CEOs but neither triggered recriminations.  Even lefties embraced the change in the shape of Blair’s New Labour.

Then came the financial storm of 2008. Though many global companies were humbled, none of the executives involved suffered more than opprobrium and ineffectual cross-examination from politicians with insufficient experience to outmaneuver them and find where the bodies were buried. There was a tacit understanding that large institutions were “too big to fail” and that minor players like stockholders, SMEs and employees would survive. To a large extent, this turned out to be true. But the senior executives, already schooled in high salaries from piratical practice did not adjust to the austerity being visited on the less fortunate.

Creative tax avoidance did not begin in 2008. In fact, tax havens like Jersey, Isle of Man Bermuda and Cayman Islands became that with the blessing of pot-WW2 UK governments for their own purposes. But public exposure of Fed Goodwin’s £8m bonus from a baled-out BS or Philip Green’s retention of half the £750m he siphoned off the BHS pension fund before it went bankrupt are just the tip of a very lucrative iceberg. Not only has inequality of income between the better and worse off widened appreciably in the last decade but some very rich have become past masters at not even paying the resulting whack due to the Treasury on their hefty earnings.

Prime among techniques deployed is non-residency. Those citizens not domiciled in the UK need only spend more than 183 days each year abroad to be considered a foreign resident and tax-exempt. HMRC will also consider ‘ties’ like family and home ownership in the UK. But they do not consider company ownership as a tie. The March 17th  of The Times ran a 4-page article exposing that, of Britain’s 98 billionaires, 28 are no linger resident and half of those left since the financial crash. Such people  may own UK companies—joining 6,700 citizens who, among them, control over 12,000 UK companies from offshore havens. Almost 2,000 of those are registered in one modest office block in the Cayman Islands. Non-resident owners avoid paying the 38.1% income tax on dividends, as well as the 20% capital gains tax on the sale of shares. Since the financial crash, the total number of tax exiles has risen 16% to 210,000.

Even HMRC has no idea how much revenue it loses from this and must therefore be made up from punters not rich enough to elude the taxman in such style. Estimates for Monaco, the top non-British tax haven after Switzerland, are £1bn in lost HMRC income. That alone adds £43 to every UK resident taxpayer’s bill. To give you some idea of scale, the top half-dozen Monaco ‘residents’ are worth more than the entire £45 million annual UK defence budget:

  • Jim Ratcliffe (~£21 billion, founder of Ineos)
  • David and Simon Rueben (~£15 billion)
  • Andy Currie (~£7 billion)
  • John Reece (~£7 billion)
  • Eddie and Sol Zakay (~£3 billion)

If that’s not enough to get readers all steamed up, many of these people have been knighted—including Stelios Hajl-Ioannou who founded EasyJet but was resident in Britain for only four years and John Whittaker, a construction boss worth £2.2 billion who runs 230 UK companies from the Isle of Man.

But, most egregious of all, as UK citizens our tax exiles are free to fund political parties and movements in a country where they do not live, A 2009 bill that would have banned large offshore donations received royal assent but has never been enacted by the Tories who have been in government ever since. There is more than a whiff of turkeys and Christmas here. On that decade, £4.4 million have been donated to parties by our 28 ‘non-residents’. £1m of that went to the Tories just before the 2017 General Election, half of it from Lord Ashcroft in Belize. £798,900 has gone to the Tories from the Monaco-based Reubens listed above, along with £487,000 from Virgin-Islands-based Richard Branson. No wonder, when asked, the Tory Government deemed the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009 to be “unworkable because tax status is confidential” Aye, right.

It is obscene that some of the super-wealthy think it us fine to avoid paying UK tax. It is even more obscene for people living in tax havens overseas to be funding politics”. —Dame Margaret Hodge MP, Public Accounts Committee Chair

“It’s a very common thing nowadays. British people who have a tax problem because they have a high income are setting up their residency in different counties.” —Kensington wealth manager Mariam Schroeder

 

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It’s the Society, Stupid!

Lead item on newscasts and front pages of newspapers are currently dominated by knife crime. Politicians are falling over themselves to declare that a 50% increase  is an emergency that needs to be addressed swiftly ad on a par with terrorism. Prime Minister May and Chief Constable Cressida Dick fall out over whether this is related to falling police numbers or not. And everyone—quite rightly—bemoans a senseless loss of young lives because almost all victims are under 20 years of age.

While the outrage may be understandable, neither the context nor any broader remedy seems  to attract much attention. Knife crime and deaths relating to it have been growing for some time. But, until it spilled out of poorer inner city areas inhabited largely by black people, it seldom made the front page. Even when it did, the fact that almost al victims wee young black males was suppressed for fear of appearing racist. But when incidents in one weekend involved females and non-blacks and occurred in suburban Bromley and Manchester, the media and politicians were all over it like a rash.

But the debate has been entirely a bun fight about policing. While Theresa May is wrong  to play down, if not deny any correlation between declining police numbers and increased knife crime, this is like arguing how best to bandage a knife wound when we should be discussing how to avoid any such wound happening in the first place. You only have to examine what lies behind the “Black Lives Matter” movement in the USA to realise that having (largely white) police trying to keep the peace in largely black ghettos where both sides carry not knives but guns results in escalating alienation which leads to a fragmenting society.

As long as we talk of solving knife crime solely in terms of policing, we are learning nothing from our American cousins. Seventy yeas ago, Britain was a class-ridden, but racially homogeneous society. WE have made much progress in disarming the class war. But the influx of Commonwealth citizens that made us as racially mixed as America has created a different set of social fault lines. And while well intentioned equality laws may have resulted in a racial mix of faces appearing at all levels of civic life, urban tracts in London and post-industrial cities further north are no more integrated than Harlem, South Chicago or Watts, People living thee are only tangentially involved in the mainstream. Those who find a way to leave do so—and seldom come back.

“What we have here” as George Kennedy’s character said to Cool Hand Luke “is a failure to communicate”. Young black guys in Tower Hamlets ate given no more role models to follow locally than Boyz N the ‘Hood. Despite the best efforts of school or church or single parent, teenage testosterone is a powerful drug when you’re trying to find yourself. And if the model you are presented with is a hard man gang member carrying a knife who deals some drugs on the side so he always has stash and cash, that’s where testosterone will most likely lead them.

What seems to stand in the way of addressing the root of all this is the societal shift that we must engage professionals trained in psychology and social work to do so. Without meaning any slight to those dedicated to providing such services, if farming or industry operated with the same success rate, we would all be starving and out of a job. To be fair, austerity cuts and people’s reluctance to pay any more taxes mean they will be seriously under-resourced anyway. The average social worker case load over 50 means. This is stretching them so thin they might as well be using Elastoplasts to cure brain haemhorrhage.

Our grandparents may have been tough and self-reliant but a side-effect of modern life and its booming service industry that we think in terms of rights and entitlements. Just as we expect mechanics to fix our cars, we expect the NHS to fix our bodies and politicians to fix our social problems. The complexity of fuel injection is put in the shade by the intricacies of eye surgery. But both are a doddle, compared to fixing society..

So, while media and politicians collude to give the impression that a ‘silver bullet’ sound bite can solve major societal problems, the reality is that a disjointed society, whether by race, class or affluence (and Britain suffers from all thee) can’t. They will not only be unable to benefit from the talents of all its people. The disaffected segments who do not feel they have access to and inclusion in opportunities of the mainstream will create their own, under-resourced and less sophisticated subculture, and most likely will involve weapons.

As we have let this develop over decades, it will take comparable time to address. We should not have let the Windrush generation simply fend for themselves; we should not have let Harlesden or Brixton become mostly black or Salford or Ealing become mostly South Asian. The genius of America a century ago (recently lost) was that it swiftly moved immigrants on from their initial ghettos by making them all feel American and their children indistinguishable from Mayflower descendants, other than by surname.

Not only will it take time but real town planning around community, not just drawing circles for developers to exploit. It will take the British (especially the English) to become more inclusive and outward-looking. It will take moving people (as well as investment and jobs. It will take councils not treating social/affordable housing as other than a branch of social work. It will take politicians to be more honest, pragmatic about the issues and not exploit them like some publicity bandwagon to jump on. And it will take the media to stop dumbing-down the stories to a blizzard of sound bites, forgotten as soon as next week’s sensation surfaces.

Otherwise, fragmented local societies will continue on the paths they are on, the media spotlight will move to the next story and young people of similar background will continue to die in unacceptable numbers.

 

 

 

 

 

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Blockheads Dancing on Pinheads

I apologise. Normally this blog tries to ring the changes, tries to be informative and even entertaining, as well as highlight the heavier political issues of the day. But less than five weeks to go to Brexit and nobody yet has any clear idea what will happen on March 29th. The Westminster parliament is as divided as the country a to the right solution. Barring some Churchillian leadership magically appearing from the shadows in ou hour of need, there is every sign that both Labour and Conservatives are fragmenting, rather than consolidating around one clear and plausible idea.

That there would be heated debate after such a 48-to-52 split as the 2016 referendum was predictable, even necessary. But, instead of staying out of the negotiations and adopting a coordinating role where Theresa May could include other parties and had the moral authority to bang heads in her own, she kept cards close to her chest, undermined successive Brexit minsters and hatched an unacceptable deal in secrecy and too late. Had her Labour opposition risen to the challenge, done their homework on how the EU works, sounded magisterial and closed ranks around a plausible alternative, then 65 million Britons would not be threatened by an economic disruption on a scale unknown to any of them.

Westminster, which has long touted its civilised combination of democracy and tradition, has singularly failed to resolve this crisis, What is worse, the British media, so used to its conventions, is feeding its audiences a populist partial story, as if Britain wee the wronged party and the othe 28 EU members were the villains. The flurry of motions, amendments, defections and plots surrounding Westminster have been the focus of reports and the impression given that if, by some miracle, harmony were to break out at Westminster, all would be well. If, by an even more unlikely miracle, Theresa May’s “Deal” were to cone back from the dead and its crushing 100+ defrat, that might be true.

But every other offer under discussion assumes that Britain can dictate to its soon-to-be-former colleagues. Nobody id liyrning to the absolutely consistent message from Brussels. Thought hey rehret being brought to this pass and they deprecate the economic disruption this will cause their members, the EU ain’t budging. Yjrot position:

  • Backstop? Can’t be fudged, shortened or terminated unilaterally
  • Delay date? No point if Britain offers nothing new that they agree on/
  • New deal/compromise? No: this one took ages and has many concessions already

The only agreement Westminster was able to find—that they would take this Deal if the Backstop were altered—is doomed. Not only was it not clear what alterations would be acceptable to the British, but it completely ignored the unwavering position of the Irish (backed bu the whole EU) that the Backstop, as given, was the only way to guarantee the Good Friday Peace Agreement. Theresa May’s attendence Sharm-el-Sheik this weekend was both a fool’a errand and window dressing to mask her helplessness.

It should be touching that so many MPs are searching their conscience about what they should do. Some are backing the Cooper-Letwin Amendment; some argue for a People’s (i.e. second) vote. It’s all too late. MPs are so immersed in their own self-importance, convinced Westminster runs the world, that none seem to realise the impotent irrelevance of all of their efforts. Shiploads of British goods are already at sea with superceded customs forms. MPs might as well be medieval churchmen, debating the number angels that can dance on a pinhead. Meanwhile the British public are being hoodwinked by a story of intransigent foreigners we’d be better off without. Nowhere are the huge benefits the EU has brought to the Continent—let alone to Britain—being highlighted, much less the real puzzlement and sorrow why Britain would want to isolate itself  from friends to resuscitate a dead imperialist dream.

Five hundred years of civilisation later, we appear to have developed only to the point where Brexit debate is blockheads dancing on pinheads—to the despair of the people whose interests they are thereby ignoring.

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Torysaurus Rex

We live, as the Chinese curse goes, in interesting times. On the endless chaos of Britain proving itself incapable of finding an acceptable posture for its place in Europe, any coherence in its posture in the world has gone begging.  Whereas, a century ago, the known world sat up and took notice of what Britain did, this latest farrago may prove to be the swansong of Britain as a leading nation.

Adjustment to decline is never easy and a hundred years of decline is bound to leave scars on the national psyche. But some parts of British society do better than others. Academia and culture have made impressive transitions; youth had an outward outlook that would astonish their great-grandfathers; business—especially financial services—have gone global.

Other sections of British society have struggled to move from Rule Britannia to today’s modest reality. Prime among these are Westminster and the politicians inhabiting it, who beat patriotic chests to get themselves elected. This phenomenon is concentrated among the Tories and nowhere more so than the modern incarnation of the High Tory.

They once confined themselves to glaring out over their Lincolnshire estate, sporting ostrich feathers on their vice-regal helmets or murmuring over letters in The Times as they sip whisky-and-soda in the clubs of St James. Sporting the right school tie allowed one to run the ‘Empah’ with a nod and a wink to the right people. But, in the intervening century, tectonic plates in society have shifted. Brash upstarts who’ve never seen the inside of a public school now deal squillions in The City, Parliament is overrun with tradesmen and suffragettes and one can’t find domestics without falling foul of immigration laws. Bur The City’s ‘Big Bang” of thirty years ago was just a pop-gun, compared with the debilitation following the fall of MacMillan’s Cabinet of Etonian relatives though that odious Profumo affair.

High Tories prefer a traditional, hierarchical society over utopian equality and holding the traditional gentry as a higher cultural benchmark than the bourgeoisie and those who attain their position through commerce or labour.” —Andrew Heywood

But, though plebian upstarts like Heath and Thatcher usurped their traditional dominance, the High Tories lived on in the shape of the ‘backwoodsmen’. Typically representing a true-blue seat on the shires. They fought entry into Europe, bayed ‘betrayal’ any time disarmament was mooted and were loyal supporters of Britain “punching above its weight” in world affairs. They were also a thon in the side of every UK Prime Minister who sought closer relations within the EU, even as former colonies sought their economic futures everywhere but the mother country.

Their demise has often been declared since the post-Profumo decimation of their influence—as when Thatcher led the Tory party into harsh commercialism and Cameron wrapped the party in the more empathetic ‘Compassionate Conservatism’. But they lived on, encouraging Thatcher’s hand-bagging of Brussels and hounding Major into body-swerving the Euro. But their finest hour came when they badgered Cameron into going to the EU to demand concessions and then forcing a referendum on membership when he failed. The campaign was so emotional nobody bothered to define what ‘ending membership’ actually meant.

The subsequently victorious Leave campaign was led by members like Boris Johnson and Jacob Reese-Mogg, supported by would-be members like Liam Fox and Michael Gove. The latter fell away when it looked like the Brexit favoured by High Tories was an uncompromising hard one that would cost their Cabinet jobs: no customs union; no free market; no free movement; no backstop to secure an open border in Ireland.

So, the remaining true High Tories have circled their wagons in the shape of the (facetiously named?) European Research Group (ERG), chaired by Rees-Mogg. Not wanting to be a member of the European Union is a credible position to take. Neither Switzerland nor Norway are members. But they wisely recognise they must accommodate the economic heavyweight on their doorstep and have strong ties that allow trade to flow between them. The ERG will have no truck with such lily-livered compromise. They want Britain to stand tall in the world as it once did, free of all fetters and striking deals wherever it suits.

Were this Edwardian Britain, bestriding the world as an economic colossus (or were it USA or China, today’s equivalents) this would be plucky, but plausible. But the ERG appear oblivious of today’s reality—that, instead of dominating world trade, Britain accounts for only a few percent of it. Not just the USA and China but rising giants like India’s 1bn, or Brazil’s 289m, or Indonesia’s 260m people now dwarf Britain. They can out-produce and out-consume medium-scale Britain and make the world of trade a very chilly place for a country no longer famous for making much of anything.

High Tories do not accept this. While they are entitled to their opinion, the fact that they dominate the ERG and that, in turn, controls one third of all Conservative MPs is a recipe for national disaster. While Thereesa May has made a pig’s ear of bringing Britain together on a coherent Brexit position and has not been helped by an effectively leaderless Labour Party, the fact that no other formulation of a deal is acceptable to the EU at this late stage and the ERG show no sign of accepting a backstop in any permanent form, means they are clamping the steering wheel of the British jalopy and steering it towards the No Deal cliff edge looming on March 29th.

Which is a shame. Because, on top of Honda pulling out, Airbus and Toyota withholding investment and chunks of The City decamping to Frankfurt, Paris and Dublin, a whole flock of economic chickens will come home to roost, even after the lorry jams at Dover are cleared. People will get angry. They will lwant scapegoats and need not look far to find them. It will not be a time for dinosaurs to be caught wearing a Old Etonian tie.

 

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