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.


Posted in Politics | Tagged | Leave a comment

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.


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.




Posted in Commerce, Transport | Tagged | Leave a comment

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


Posted in Commerce, Politics | Tagged | Leave a comment

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.






Posted in Community, Politics | Tagged | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Commerce, Politics | Tagged | 1 Comment

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.


Posted in Commerce, Politics | Tagged | Leave a comment

Theatre of the Absurd

East  Lothian Council Annual Budget Meeting, Town House, Haddington, Tuesday February 12th, 2019

It’s a bit like a cross between an Oberammergau pageant and an accountants’ convention, but one that costs punters (in our local case) one quarter billion of out hard-earned cash. I refer to the annual ritual farce of the council budget meeting. In Scotland, it happens in 32 venues with more or less the same Punch & Judy formula. Vital as the meeting is in fulfilling democratic requirements, it is timed while everyone is busy working and structued to least appeal to (and therefore involvement of) the public. For audience engagement, it is easily beaten by the most amateur of Am Drams.

To be fair, the context is already obfuscated. An extensive piece of Newspeak, produced by the Scottish Government called “Scottish Budget 2019-2020: Equality and Fairer Scotland” sets this tome. A number of highly-paid Sir Humphrey-plus-minions clearly spent much time crafting this. But if someone gleans any hard data from its earnest verbiage, please let the rest of us know. It is ambitious (but woolly) posturing and no recipe for joined-up thinking with councils.

Before it gets to a council budget debate, first the UK budget must be set, which now happens in Autumn. This then triggers an unholy scramble in the Scottish Government to then decide its own allocations from the pot given.  This gives councils (who get 75% of their money this way) little time to plan and approve a budget and set Council Tax (the other 25% of council income) in time for implementation om April 1st. It’s like geriatrics passing the ball down an attacking rugby line in slo-mo.

At the meeting itself, politics rears its ugly head. Even when councils are run by the same party as the Scottish Government, a pungent mix of political ambition and parochialism gets in the way. Councils resent going cap-in-hand for 3 in every 4 pounds spent. Government guards its central control jealously, so that it can enforce policies and claim achievements. There was once talk of “Parity of Esteem”, but that turned out to be spin. Had the Greens bot held the minority SNP government’s feet to the fire, councils would have seen a decrease this year. However, additional ‘burdens’ (i.e. required services) gave councils no option where to spend what extra they did get.

In Scotland’s fastest-growing council, East Lothian, the basic grant (no strings attached) actually fell 0.1%. A £5,476,000 rise in “Specific Grants” means the council has no choice where to spend them. By raising council tax 4.78%, an extra £3,625m 000 gives ELC a war chest of £248,116,000.

That sounds a lot. Until you consider almost half (£102,507,000) goes on schools, an obligatory service growing fast as families move into the county. Half of what’s left (£67,121,000) goes  on Social Work—again obligatory—as retiree numbers swell. Twenty years ago, ELC Social Work spent just a fifth that. This leaves a quarter of the war chest to squabble over for the myriad other services. Granted, you can do a lot with over £70m. But such are the demands that pips squeak as soon as you try to stretch this to cover everything else.

The resulting debate was not quite two bald men arguing over a comb, but it came close. Instead of speeches of visionary ambition, rival parties spent their time disparaging each other. Tories cosied up to Labour and got some scraps in exchange for support.  Both whaled on the SNP, as if local members were responsible for their Holyrood colleagues. SNP whaled on Tories, as if local members were responsible for their Westminster colleagues and tried to out-left Labour in concern for the vulnerable.  Nobody commented on the Lab-Con alliance, which is quite common across Scotland these days.

Meanwhile, bizarre and desperate measures to stretch the money lurk in the budget detail. Despite growth swamping the county and developers circling like sharks, Planning had its budget cut by 13% (£231,000). A spurious “Transform Ways of Working” item is to magic £600,000 in savings from staff. An optimistic “Change in number of chargeable properties (i.e. more homes to tax) finds an extra £3,625,000. Scary is a net increase in debt of over £130,000,000. Most desperate of all, a cool £3,000,000 is being drained from reserves. This is to be paid back next year. Ah hae ma doors.

And yet (to keep the Tories onside) the Roads budget had an unheard-of 50% boost to £7,500,000 and Corporate Policy (not what you’d call a “front-line service”) jumped by 10%. Because the county is desperately short of affordable housing, most welcome was a significant effort to build council housing by investing rental income in new builds, raising rents steadily by 5% and pushing housing debt towards its legal maximum of 40%.

Despite this being THE public forum to defiine  services across the county, virtually no-one outside council members and staff attended the 2-hour session. Can’t say I blame them. As theatre, it lacked substance, let alone appeal. The script was rubbish; the actors unrehearsed; indignation shown was transparently artificial and tribal politics dominated. It was so blatant  any casual observer could have scripted the debate from previous meetings. simply warming up the leftover abuse.

Altogether unedifying, considering its importance. But, should there be any hard-core anoraks who want to see the full details of all this, the papers are available as PDF downloads here.

Posted in Politics | Tagged | Leave a comment

One of Ours

Across Britain these days, there is political friction on every hand. But one thing most people would agree on is a dislike of Donald J. Trump and his performance after two years as US President. People find him variously rude, unpredictable, egotistical, bigoted, un-statesmanlike and abusive. This is particularly true of the Westminster establishment, who are used to touting a ‘special relationship’ with the US. This is ironic. Trump actually represents the logical continuation of the mercantile imperialism that made Britain Great and continues to motivate hard-line English Btexiteers to this day.


Consider if he were time-warped back to various seminal stages of British history. He would take to them like a duck to water. In the Middle Ages, the brazen audacity with which 3m English sought to dominate 14m French under the Angevin Empire comes right out of his shell-company property empire playbook. The chance to break all the rules and plunder a lumbering Spanish empire in the 16th © meant he  would have out-pirated Hawkins and Drake to be Queen Bess’ favourite.

Once real empire-building hot underway, there would have been no holding him. Never one to brook opposition, he would have been sabre-rattling for Camperdown to beat up the Dutch and seize New York and The Cape to open new markets; he would have, to have a world war with the French in 1756 to seize Canadian fur and the riches from French possessions in India; he would be front and centre developing ports like Bristol and Liverpool, kitting out ships with beads for Africa, exchanged for slaves for America, exchanged for tobacco and cotton back to Britain. Nice little earners all that a contemporary Donald would be quick to exploit.

But it would be in Britain’s Victorian heyday when he would really have come into his own. Not content with being simply an exploitative mill owner or railroad baron, he would have made a great Sir Bartle Frere starting the Zulu was o sacrificing Gordon at Khartoum to nab the Sudan. But his shining achievement may have been fomenting Opium Wars that brought down the ancient Chinese Empire and founded money machines that became Jardine-Matheson and HSBC..

After Britain’s Edwardian swansong, Trump would have felt less at home. There was little money to be made in ex-German colonies, declining shipyards and the unholy mess carving up the Middle East that Sykes–Picot made. The selflessness, diplomacy and patience required are simply not on The Donald’s radar. Which goes some way to explain the present mismatch between British expectations and Trump’s actions.

But that should not detract from the recognition that Donald J. Trump represents a very modern disciple of the shrewdly pillaging greed that drove Britain to greatness, right down to the smart suits, creative justifications and bombastic language by means of which lesser mortals wee cowed. We should be less precious: like it o not, he’s one of ours.

Posted in Politics | Tagged | Leave a comment

‘OMLET—A Tragedy in Three Acts

by Bard Brawl


(a dark clearing, deep in the Bois de Boulogne)

WAROLD HILSON (puffing on a pipe): Let oos join yer cloob and you kin forget all that daft froggie nosh and coom t’ noomber ten fer soom  Theakstons an’ sarnies.

GENERAL DE NEZ-LONGUE: Je m’en fou de ton ‘application’. Va t’en!

WAROLD HILSON (knocking his pipe out on a tree that starts to smoulder): Flippin’ ‘eck! Can you tell me the bus to Huyton…or stand me cab fare so I can break this to the lads?

GENERAL DE NEZ-LONGUE: Franc-ly M’sieur, I don’t give a dime.


ADMIRAL HEAD TEETH (erect in the prow of a dinghy with “Moaning Clod” scrawled across the stern in crayon): We shall join them on the beaches; we shall join them in the fiends; we shall join them at the tills. England expects every man to get his booty.

WAROLD HILSON (scrunched uncomfortably in a Dannimac): ‘Ang on!; Ow do we know the lads down the Stoat and Spittoon will wear this?

ADMIRAL HEAD TEETH (turning disdainfully) They’ll be fine once the Costa Packet is stocked with Watney’s and the Germans retreat from the beach towels. This yachtie is not for turning. Now, set sail for Carrefour and our Dunkirk spirits!



(a WW2-era fort, poking out of  mudflats om the Thames estuary. A portrait of Churchill with Homburg, cigar and Tommy-gun is peeling off the dank, concrete wall, along with a 2022 calendar. A more recent photo of Bill Cash has many pin-holes and three darts sticking out if it.)

SIR RODNEY-RODNEY FRRENCH-MANCHOT OBE KGB (in Bermuda shorts and mismatched flip-flops) Prime Minister, I’m afraid the Minister of Energy has not returned from his fishing trip.

MARESA THAY: (staring down at her feet) Yes, I do think pumps really suit me.

SIR RODNEY-RODNEY FRRENCH-MANCHOT: As Principal Secretary, I must point out, short of eating what’s left of the Cabinet, there is nothing for dinner, nor has there been since we sold London to the Estonians and the last seven million disgruntled Britons took Irish citizenship. The only egg is on our faces.

MARESA THAY (turning one foot to gain a better look): I really like the kitten heels. I don’t then tower above my subjects.

SIR RODNEY-RODNEY FFRRENCH-MANCHOT: Shall I patch the inflatable so you can row across and pitch your Brexit deal one more time before the candles go out, ma’am?

(Silent pause, then fade slowly to black)


Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Great Bullshit Train Wreck

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction.” —Harry G. Frankfurt, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, Princeton University

The world has always been a complicated place. But, until this century, few know much about what went on in the next town, let alone another country. The internet, affluence, cheap travel and smart phones have, in theory, changed all that. Trade, travel and media are all global: Apple and Amazon make Standard Oil look a pygmy; people visit New York for the weekend; California wildfires are headlining BBC News before local fire trucks can uncoil their hoses. We are all world citizens now, right?


We actually seem to be living a societal update of Desmond Morris’ seminal book “The Naked Ape” . Because our social habits and standards don’t seem to have kept pace with the torrid pace of globalisation of society in general. We buy Zimbabwean mange-tout and Colombian coffee with no clue about the circumstances in which they wee produced. We vacation in Tunisia or Phuket, gleaning nothing about their culture. Almost none of our high-tech toys and appliances are made in a country we’ve ever visited, let alone in our own.

There is a major question just how fragile and/or sustainable such a global society might be. But a more fundamental question is whether it is really functional in the first place. Society’s increased sophistication, the perceived shrinkage of the once-vast globe, the miraculous power of our devices and the ubiquity of media create a comforting impression of a world at our fingertips. Nobody, whether government, business or media, has any interest in disabusing us of this. But it is delusional.

Whereas even fifty years ago, the vast majority of people knew little, were aware of that, but wee nevertheless content with the relatively simple life to which it led. People knew their place and, because of a tight society surrounding them, were soon reminded of it, should they forget. But, as society became looser, as people moved about, their identity was boiled down into databases and credit scores. Beyond those, you could create who you wanted to be. While this freed many individuals to find their metier, it also created wide latitude for politicians, businesses and opportunists to fabricate a public image that bore little relation to the truth. The 21st century did not invent bullshit—but that’s when it came of age.

With control of modern media and people’s belief “if it’s on the telly, it must be true” allow tin-pot dictators from Mugabe to Kim Yong Un to survive indefinitely. By projecting a strong-man image that appeals to the Russian psyche, Putin leads his country with an authority that can sweep the corruption in and mismanagement of that great country out of public view. Venezuela, Nigeria, Syria, Iran, etc. are minor examples of the same liberal distribution of bullshit to the masses.

But, surely, this does not apply to the advanced and sophisticated West? It didn’t use to. say what you like of their politics but Thatcher and Blair, Bush and Obama developed and practiced a recognizable set of principles. Channel 4’s  recent series tried to determine the great leaders of the 20th century. There was quite a selection from which to choose: Churchill or Ghandi; Mandela or FDR. Admiration for and faith in such people exists even today.

But, with us already a fifth of the way into this century, such heroes are lacking. Because somewhere around the millennium, we became global citizens and institutions of all stripes cranked up the spin to compensate for the increased sophistication. And, with a myriad of TV channels, Facebook and databases huge and refined enough to track everyone’s purchases, honest brokers are drowned out by a cacophony of spin doctors.

The ever-more-furious pace of our global lives (c.f. Alvin Toffler’s prescient Future Shock from the 1960’s) weakens societal roots, driving a compensating need to believe in something constant. Movements and prophets gain adherents. But, whether the Atkins diet or UKIP, their human origins lead to disillusion. Which leads to cynicism. And that gives an opening for real bullshit;

“Only 13% of people trust politicians to tell the truth, down from 21%, while 82% think they do not tell the truth, up from 73%”—The Guardian

This is not confined to politicians. But, because so much is at stake, because a no-longer-deferential media holds them in the public eye and because the now-cynical public requires impossibly angelic behaviour, evasive arrogance becomes the posture of choice. “Let me be clear about this” now prefaces bullshit as sure as dark follows sunset.

As long we were dealing with relatively minor mattes like train punctuality or projected costs for a new power station, this was regrettable, but hardly catastrophic. Even Churchill and FDR were guilty of being economical with the truth. But they knew what the truth was and did not lose their moral compass. But the last two years have seen developments. In Europe, despite the EU having brought decades of peaceful growth and comfortable lives to 300 million people, cynicism and xenophobia have brought a swing to the right in Poland, Austria, Hungary and Italy. The great hopes of Macron’s giddy ascent have been lost in a sea of abrasive gilets jaunes protests. Even Mutti Merkel’s long stabilising influence is ending.

More seriously, two years of Trump have left the American establishment utterly baffled and still unable to cope with the first American President who doesn’t act like one. From Pelosi on down, a Congress steeped in traditions and legal niceties is unable to cope with a man living on ego and arrogance, honed by decades of winning deals by bullying, ignoring conventions and, where required, bullshit. “Never explain; never apologise” is an aphorism that might have been invented for Trump. But “Baffle ;em with bullshit” would apply equally well. The CIA’s guiding principle for its covert operations of plausible deniability has been adopted by their boss with a vengeance.

Horror-struck Americans, whether Democrats or intellectuals o salt-of-the-earth citizens still don’t realise how well fearmongering about floods of lawless Mexican immigrants and Muslim terrorists or Chinese trade pirates plays among the rednecks and rich Republicans who voted him in. And, because America is still (but only just) the world’s biggest economy, they can ignore the damage being done to America’s international standing—at least until he completes his second term. Which he will. What kind of train wreck he will leave is unclear. Nobody has had the ego to run a great country on bullshit before. Trump’s base can’t see across the Potomac, let alone across oceans, to see the damage being done

Which brings us to Britain. Brown and Darling deployed bullshit in modest amounts to justify their splurging public money to bail out banks whose geed had sunk themselves in over their heads, without Fred the Shred or any other red-handed-guilty banker up by their thumbs. Cameron and Osborne deployed comparable amounts to justify imposing austerity on regular punters, while the Philip Greens sat it out on their yachts at Monaco. And, under pressure from the bolshy euro-sceptic prima donnas in his party, he ushered in three years of political self-immolation now coming to a head today (Jan 15th).

From the outset, the passive assumptions from Remain was swamped by clamouring alarm bells from Leave: we were being swamped by thousands of sponging migrants; we were suffering heinous iniquities under foreign laws; the NHS could be boosted by billions being squandered by Brussels bureaucrats. What grains of truth there might be were inflated to bullshit dimensions that Remain never bother to deflate. Boris, Gove, Fox, Davis—pick any you like. They were all guilty of simplistic Brexit visions, now seen to be bullshit. But they were never called on it.

That, however, set a precedence, hugely complicated by May’s horrible misjudgement about what the 2017 General Election might bring. It brought a political straitjacket, eased only by serial incompetence by Corbyn’s leadership. Carnage among a succession of Brexit ministers taught May that the easy exit promised by Leave would be anything but.  And so two years of frantic negotiations with a disappointed but resolute EU was kept under strict wraps and the waiting British public fed a diet of reassuring non-statements that led to today’s political train wreck—a humiliating defeat. on a scale not seen at Westminster since Ramsay McDonald got thumped in 1924.

No doubt, May will seek to continue after this. She will put on a brave face, try to get the EU to shift and maintain the dignified consistency she has managed to date. But it is a dead parrot, no matter how much she nails its feet  to the perch. And the bullshit involved in pretending otherwise continues to scupper any chance that the cynicism now rampant across the British public will make whoever has to sort out a future for them out of the impending Brexit train wreck will have their work cut out to be believed, let alone successful.

bull·shit (NOUN) [ˈbo͝olˌSHit]
  1. stupid or untrue talk or writing; nonsense.
    rubbish · balderdash · gibberish · claptrap · blarney · guff · blather
Posted in Politics | Leave a comment