Rule Without Rules

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

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

All that now seems long ago.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Max Hastings, London Evening Standard

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

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

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Greta vs The Red Center

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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In the Hands of the Irish

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

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

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

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

Not if you dig deeper yourselves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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£6.8bn, All in One Basket

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You know what we call aircraft-carriers?



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

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Fankle of Fearties?—Part I

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

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

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

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

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


Source: Scottish Government, Local Govt Statistics 2016-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Costing an Arm & a Leg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





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

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The Ten Commandments of Trumpolitics

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

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

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

Then Donald Trump became US President.

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

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

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

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The Coronation of Clown Prince Boris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uneasy loes the head that wears a crown.”

—William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part II


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Selective Centenary Silence

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

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