The End of the End of Empire?

Just over a century ago, at the end of the Great War, Britain bestrode the world. Its rivals in the colonial stakes were either humbled, like Germany, or war-torn, like France. Great chunks of the globe, like Namibia and Tanganyika, were new colonies and others, like Palestine and Iraq, were Protectorates that could be exploited much like colonies.

But it was a shell, a Potemkin Village of brave frontages with little substance behind. Britain was exhausted by four years of war and the financial edge that had led to Victorian and Edwardian prosperity lost to a more dynamic USA. Worse than that, the increasing level of education throughout the empire had triggered a sense of awareness among its citizens that they were not masters of their own fate. The colony displaying the most unrest was the one closest to home: Ireland.

Although Ireland was technically not a colony but an integral part of the United Kingdom since 1801, it stll operated very much like one, with an Anglo-Irish ruling class operating in a manner similar to the nabobs of India and the bulk of the Irish population resenting such treatment, with resentful memories stretching back through the handling of the Easter Rising, the Potato Famine and Elizabethan repression, back to a conquest by the Normans.

Still, it was unexpected when, after civil war, the nearest colony followed the USA in leaving the Empire exactly a century ago. The retention of the six counties that form Northern Ireland to assuage strongly unionist Protestants and their domination of all instruments of the state there lit the fuse on a social time bomb that exploded into the Troubles 45 years later, only being partly defused by the Good Friday Agreement in 1999.

The devolved Assembly at Stormont forged out of that has had a fractious history, not least because it presumed Unionists and Nationalists must sharre leadership. This made for ritual confrontation and frequent dislocation. But, more importantly, it left politicians who wanted to end tribal confrontation out in the cold as “Others”.

This May, things changed. Not because, as the media incessantly banged on about, Sinn Fein won an Assembly election for the first time, but because the non-sectarian Alliance party actually made the greatest advance by far. Even though Sinn Fein has renounced violence and mellowed with time, the DUP has continued as the awkward squad by demanding that the Northern Ireland Protocol;, cobbled together by Boris to “get Brexit done” be scrapped.

But insisting there be not as much as a nominal border between Northern Ireland and Britain means it cannot simultaneously remain in the EU, which means that the “invisible” border with the Republic, an essential element of the Good Friday Agreement cannot continue if the EU’s border integrity is to be retained.

With the most residents of all loyalties keen to have an Assembly address a plethora of concerns from health to inflation, intransigence by the DUP over paperwork is no longer likely to receive much sympathy, even among their supporters. This explains why the party has slid from pole position, losing a quarter of its 28% vote share. Their 25 remaining seats are overshadowed not just by Sinn Fein’s 27, but outflanked by the Alliance’s solid new block of 17, with a further 21 scattered across small parties, including the once dominant Ulster Unionists (UU) and the SDLP.

In other words, things have changed and a log-jammed Stormont is not likely to be tolerated as before. Westminster is perfectly capable of scrapping the NI Protocol unilaterally, but that would trigger a legal battle and even more bad blood with the EU. With “Unionist” being part of the Conservative’s party name, neither Brandon Lewis, nor the PM will be minded to do anything beyond sitting tight on the status quo, and hoping for the best. But that approach has brought them serious decline in Scotland, where they lost a quarter of all their councillors there this month against an SNP government in power for 15 years. They did almost as badly in Wales, where Labour has been running the show.

Boris Johnson and his party may call themselves “unionist”. But their understanding of other nations on these islands is proving to be no more profound than the Colonial Office of yore. Indeed, as any ability to address the “Red Wall”  issues of Northern England, the chances of them talking the more remote nations round seem slim. Burying their political heads in the sand in the face of seismic shifts in the “provinces” is no answer in the long term.

There is unlikely to be any “Border Poll” in Northern Ireland in the short term. But not revamping Stormont to discourage adversarial stances and encourage the less partisan approach of the Alliance will weaken the DUP—the only friends Westminster has left in Ireland—even further and raise the clamour for a poll.

It does not take a visionary to see that the 21st century has seen components of the “United” Kingdom outside England feel themselves more and more like colonies as Conservative governments, steeped in Home Counties culture , have increasingly treated them s if they were.

Clinging on to unwilling possessions long after they should have been released is a trait Westminster has habituated down the years, from the Angevin Empire to the USA to Mau-Mau in Kenya, Communists in Malaya, EOKA in Cyprus and the Troubles in Ulster. The fact that current movements are peaceable does not mean they are not permanent and must not be under-rated.

Digging in with their diminishing local unionist rearguard is likely to repeat the humiliation of losing Ireland a century ago and the diminution of England’s standing in the world comparable to another Suez 1956.

#1018—955 words

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Have Anorak—Will Travel: Morpeth

A month after the Scottish Government took ScotRail back into public control, it would be unreasonable to expect the traveling public to notice major changes. A fares review to simplify (and perhaps lower) the welter of faes is promised, but will take most of the is year to complete.

One benefit passengers enjoy is the fact that almost all trains in scotland are ScotRal. They need not worry which train they board as long as it’s going where the ticket says. Unfortunately, there may soon be an Alice-in-Wonderland corner of Scotland where that doesn’t apply.

Currently, the East Coast Main Line from Edinburgh through Berwick and on to English destinations is the domain of long-distance trains, with the exception of an hourly ScotRail local service to North Berwick. Some trains stopping at Dunbar provid an erratic local service there.

Trains to Dinbar were once all GNER. But there has since been a proliferation of private companies running lomng-distance services, including Cross-Country, LNER, Transpennine and Lumo. The ad hoc arrangement needs to develop into a proper local service. The opening of a station at Reston this May and another at East Linton within a year wll not introduce that. Service is likely to be by long-distance operators and so be similar to Dunbar.

The long-term intention for ScotRail to run a joined-up local service connecting those stations with Dunbar and Berwick is not yet firm. Long-distance trains may not provide the frequency rail travellers need.

An example of such public transport mismatvh already exists at the English equivalent: Morpeth. After having an infrequent local service to Newcastle by Northern and the occasional GNER stop, persistent local lobbying secure more long-distance stops. This seemed like improvement, but local passengers have fallen foul of a major defect in privatisation: service fragmentation.

Long-distance train companies operate ticketing policies like airlines, while local public transport does not. A myriad of ticket types, schedules and fares is used to maximise revenue and wrong-foot competitors to steal their customers by varying “offers”. Just as nobody shows up at an airport without a booked ticket, nor try to hop on a competitor’s flight with that ticket.

Between London and Edinburgh, or even to half-way places like York. Such an “airline” system on long-distance trains permits planning ahead and creates barriers to customers moving to compettors. But passengers on local train services need it to operate like other public transport where tickets are bought on the day and no thought is given to which operator provides the transport: in London, Circle and District lines serve the same stations and Oyster is accepted on any bus.

This disprity is thrown into high relief at Morpeth. Because of a similar situation of a border section of the ECML, what applies there may soon apply to Reston.

The most common ticket sold at Morpeth is to Newcastle. But, as there are six different companies providing the service, not only is the advertised cheapest fare of £2.70 not available on most of them, whichever ticket you buy is not valid on the other five.

This means, for example, you buy a return on Transpennine , intending to return on their 12:06 from Newcastle. Should you miss it, the next five trains will not accept your ticket and charge you a £20 fixed penalty for travelling without a valid ticket. The next service you may use to avoid that is the 16:14—a wait of four hours for the next Transpennine service.

The local operator Northern will often accept you ticket. But it runs aged diesel 2-car Sprinters only every couple of hours because so many long-distance trains use up available “slots.” And, because of their “airline” style pre-booking, long distance companies typically penalise those who buy tickets on the day. As an example, several companies offer a £19.30 single Edinburgh-Newcastle. Buying it on the day will cost you £60 or more. Clearly, this discourages local travel, which typically does not book ahead.

The other disincentive is irregularity. Quite apart from long-distance trains often being delayed en route, timings at Morpeth are worse than Dunbar, being all over the shop. What makes local trains popular and become well-used is a frequent service at fixed minutes past each hour. None of that happens at Morpeth, nor is it likely to at Reston, until ScotRail provides a local service.

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Seasonal Heresy

It is Easter Sunday—the main event in the Christian calendar, despite Christmas having overtaken it in the minds of many. The proportion of those people who regard themselves as Christian has, after decades of decline, stabilised this millennium. This hokds tue despite the drop in church attendance over two years caused by Covid.

Although the Church of England is the more deeply embedded in the establishment, than its Scottish equivalent, acceptance of other beliefs and their tolerance are very similar, such that hostility and enmity between faiths is now a rarity. Tolerance in general has increased. Whereas, fifty years ago, the church’s role in setting and enforcing moral standards was as powerful as it had been in the days of Victorian repression, the sixties and their aftermath rendered their role in civic morals much less evident.

The main media still seeks to acknowledges that it is Easter: a major service is broadcast; biblical sword-and-sandal epics are screened on lesser channels. But coverage of the weekend’s semi-finals, like Liverpool vs. Man City and the Edinburgh derby swamp all else. Far more people attended, watched and got excited by these than all Easter service attendees put together.

It is a basic truth that people do deel a need to believe in something. For centuries, the church was all there was. But, even those who regard themselves as Christians are rarely active and engaged. Even fewer make their church relevant outside their own congregational comfort zone.

This is not to deny there are many good people with civic consciences, who give of themselves outside their own family and friends. But a decreasing proportion of them do so via a church, or even for religious reasons. Although they may follow “Christian morals”, the Church no longer monopolises the moral high ground.

Why is this? Has the Church failed mankind? Has it betrayed itself? Has its activity/inactivity alienated people?

After centuries in an unassailable position at the centre of public life, the Chirch is struggling to retain relevance and resonance in the 21st century. A millennium ago, the Church was all-powerful—not only politically, but in the minds of the vast majority, especially the illiterate masses. The amazing soaring cathedrals; the ornate clothing; the mysterious incantations; its powers of fogiveness and guidance to avoid damnation overawed people into belief and obediance.

But, as civilisation evolved, its flaws became more glaring and counter-productive. Whether it was two popes contesting between Rome and Avignon; disruption of  the Reformation; brutality of the Spanish Inquisition; blinkered persecution of “heretics” like Galileo or “witches”—each showed it flawed and therefore fallible and therefore less wothy of belief. The very latest example is Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church providing unstinting support for Putin’s war on Ukraine.

But, more fundamental is the philosophical clash between the teachings of the Church and modern education, especially in science. This started before Hutton’s geologic unconformity blew Archbishop Usher’s calculation that the world was created in 4004 BC right out of the water. As an unashamedly heretical blog, this is not intended to disabuse fervent Christians of their beliefs. But, for those of us who do not share their convictions, to posit alternatives available to atheists.

The generally accepted “Big Bang” theory that created this universe does not answer what happened immediately before—and where all the matter came from. At first, the Christian “God created the Earth and all that is in it” seems to have the inside track… until you ask where God came from, and what was there beforehand.

The idea of blissful heaven up in the sky and a sulphurous hell below has not worn well in the face of astronomy. Details, such as St Peter controlling pearly gates while over 240 people arrive each second for processing, how you stay sane as an angel, faced with an eternity of bliss are awkward. And do you want to be in heaven when all the interesting people are roasting in hell?

It is more than having credulity stretched by transubstantiation—that a wafer becomes flesh and wine becomes blood. It is the idea that any God can hear, watch over and understand all eight billion of us. And that’s a minimum. What if there are many other planets like us? How is it the massive evil we do is “man’s free will” and not prroof of God’s heartlessness, or even helplessness.

Even among Christians, most don’t take the bible literally, which allows for creative papering over of garish implausibilities found in there. Tales of pillars of salt or Red Sea parting, or multiplying fishes & loaves sit awkwardly in an inquisitive and foensic 21st century mind. But, if the bible is the Word of God how can there be room for fiction, without the whole edifice collapsing?

Attempts to make the Church more “relevant” or “modern” have generally come to grief. Rregular attendees may have been comforted by BBC4 insertion of  verses from humns into their programmes. But, while “Alleluyah” may offer comforting familiarity to some, its relevamce is lost on most of the rest. On the other hand, those who attend infrequently are baffled by new hymns and mumble through them embarassed by their unfamiliarity. Having day centres, youth clubs, elderly outreach certainly adds to the community cohesion already contributed by the church. But they have little to do with the soul and its salvation.

Which begs the question of the soul’s existence and, therefore, any need for its salvation. What if Dawkins was right and we are simply the result of four billon years of random chemical and biological evolution? Why is that not enough for us?  We are past those dark ages when all human life was nasty, brutal and short, when religion was a necessary salve.

Until we find intelligent signals emanating from the Horse Head Nebula, what’s wrong with simply being joyful about being the product of a cosmic Petri dish that got lucky.

Why does a civilisation that put a man on our moon and explained Special Relativity and unravelled the himan genome need an elusive sentient being who offers no proof of existence that would stand up to the simplest scientific proof?

If we could just get the Russians to behave, we could throw away this philosophical crutch that still holds millions in simplistic thrall , as if we were still medieval serfs? Looking back over these 2,000 years, why perrsist in following a belief that has probably caused more war and death than any other single branch of human endeavour.?

#1016—1,091 words

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Roll On Jenny’s Jitneys

At the beginning of the month, ScotRail returned to public control. Its quarter-century under private management had seen improvements in the shape of new trains on many routes and, with support from the Scottish Government,  the re-opening of several rail lines to passengers:

  • Borders line to Tweedbank via Dalkeith and Galasheils
  • Airdrie/Bathgate line with service Edinburgh to Dumbarton & beyond
  • Alloa via Stirling

In addition, a number of stations on existing lines reopened, including Lawrencekirk, Beauly, Conan Bridge, Gretna and Edinburgh Gateway. Work is in progress to electrify the Edinburgh-Glasgow-Stirling triangle (EGIP) and there are plans to reopen the line to Leven and introduce a stopping service to Berwick with new stations at East Linton and Reston.

But, generally, there has been a public sense of dissatisfaction with services and fares. The first franchise was given to First, who ran the trains much as they ran their buses—as a cash cow source of revenue and profits. They did nothing outside of that which the government required of them. The only new services were on those reopened lines described above. It took much local lobbying and persuasion for them to run even four trains a day to Dunbar—25 miles inside Scotland but otherwise served erratically only by long-distance trains to England.

All this in itself would not have been enough to lose First the franchise. But, as with other train operating companies, they raised fares each year by the maximum permitted, yet ran a service of marginal punctuality and reliability, collecting too low a proportion of fares, despite ticket gates being installed at major stations. As a result of this, they lost the franchise to Abelio, a subsidiary of Dutch National Railways (Ns = Nederlandse Spoorwagen) on April 1st 2015.

Anyone who had traveled in the Netherlands would have been delighted at this. Not only are trains there fast, frequent, reliable and relatively cheap, but they are well integrated into the national transport system, with easy connections to bus and tram, plus a stunningly handy station right beneath Schipol airport.

To say the intervening seven years were a disappointment is an understatement. It was not clear to anyone that management had changed. Services and punctuality were, if anything, worse. In fact, the management had NOT changed: the same people who ran the cash cow for First were kept on to run the same cash cow for NS. On average, some £4 million in profit was sent to NS each year.

The situation was not helped by a revolving door of Transport ministers in the Scottish Government—a total of eight just in the time of SNP administrations. That’s an average of less than six months in post for each. So this month, as ScotRail moves back under direct control, what is the eighth Minister (Jenny Gilruth MSP, now two months in post) likely to do?

“This portfolio is an exciting opportunity to shape the infrastructure of our country,.”

—Jenny Gilruth MSP

The immediate pressure from opposition MSPs across the board has been targeting fares as being unaffordable—£254 for a monthly pass to Edinburgh from Kirkcaldy.

Rail travel north of the border is still 20% cheaper than in England. Our Fair Fares review will look at the cost of fares right across the public transport system and how we better join them up.”

—Jenny Gilruth MSP
Transport Minister Jenny Gilruth on the 12:15 to Waverley from Queen Street

But, given the revolving door tenure of the post and the Stalinist loyalty of SNP Ministers, what are the chances that Ms Gilruth will be given the latitude to innovate as her predecessors clearly have not?

Gilruth takes over the portfolio at a critical time as transport is a key driver for reaching net-zero ambitions.”

—First Minister Nicola Sturgeon

Well, that does sound promising. But, if it is just a matter of lowering fares, does that really qualify as a “key driver” or “opportunity to shape the infrastructure” mentioned above? The problem is that similar worthy ambition has laced he statements of seven predecessors. But we still don’t have single-ticketing; we still don’t have even an Oyster-style universal swipe card; we still don’t have timetable co-ordination. Worse, we have Edinburgh Council running its trams and Lothian Buses in isolation and competition for profit, just as Glasgow runs the Clockwork Orange. And let’s not even start on ferries and planes.

Although there is scant chance of this author becoming the ninth Transport Minister, his years of car-less residence in Munich and San Francisco make him to competent to comment on public transport and what remedies might be applied.

Munich has had a single-ticket system, valid on bus, train, tram and underground FOR HALF A CENTURY. It is fast, easy and cheap, meaning a city three times the size of Edinburgh is much easier to access than by car. So public transport is the mode of choice, not compulsion. The equivalent—at least for main cities—is years overdue and must be THE priority.

Then there is the rationalisation of services. Lothian buses starting in Tranent to go to Clermiston is insanity, not just because they clog up Edinburgh city centre. Glasgow still has a suburban rail net, so buses should feed its stations. Similarly, buses from Tranent should feed Prestonpans or Wallyford stations. Having multiple bus routes parallel a train or tram line is inefficient and most certainly not green.

This will require timetable co-ordination. In Holland, try to get from Rotterdam by train to Medemblick and you are told to go to Hoorn. But when you walk off the train at Hoorn, you are confronted with a bus to Medemblick. And the bus back gets you there five minutes before the train passes through. This is not rocket science. But in the 25 years of ScotRail, NONE of this has ever happened here, despite Transport Ministers, their squad of Sir Humphreys, Transport Scotland, SESTrans, Council Transport Services Officials and Uncle Tom Cobley all pulling decent salaries out of the public purse.

And this does not even begin to address some real strategic questions, such as:

  • Why does Scotland have THREE airports in the Central Belt that compete with each other (Edinburgh, Glasgow and Prestwick) when none of them can hold a candle to Dublin or Copenhagen for modernity, facilities, ease of access and choice of destinations?
  • Why does it take three hours in a poky 3-car class 170 “Express” train to get between Glasgow and Aberdeen (145 miles = average speed < 50 mph) when you can drive faster. Tis should be Scotland’s premier route. Trains from Edinburgh to Durham take less than 2 hours for the same distance.
  • And if we are to talk fares, why is it cheaper to buy split, rather than through tickets? As an example, North Berwick to Dundee is £4 cheaper if bought as NB-Edinburgh, then Edinburgh-Dundee, rather than NB-Dundee?

In America, “jitney” is their term for cheap, fast local transport. If the car-mad Americans can do it, will Ms Gilruth break the mould that still offers Scotland a 19th century transport system, but at 21st century prices that the previous seven Transport Ministers bequeathed her?

Or will people continue to use their cars because, though we may spend lots on public transport, it is not a system?

jitney /ˈdʒɪtni/ noun—informal; North American

a bus or other vehicle carrying passengers for a low fare.

#1015—1,192 words

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More Archimedes; Less Aristotle

“Science can amuse and fascinate, but it is engineering that changes the world.”

—Isaac Asimov,

Much has been made in the two years since Brexit that Britain can forge new trade relations with the world. When asked what form these will take, the answer is often “services”. But a century ago, Britain dominated world trade with the product of its factories. “Made in Britain” was a badge of pride and reliability. Our ships and trains moved most of the world’s goods and travellers. What happened?

Although some leading specialists survive (Rolls-Royce in Derby; Weir Pumps in Glasgow), we now buy cars from Korea, trains from Germany and electronics made just about everywhere but here.

Though there is no single reason for this decline from prominence, the largest factor is the embedded disdain in Britain’s social psyche for the engineer. The Royal Academy of Engineering had a focus group to assess the public’s attitudes to their profession. The attendees were asked about their reaction when a young friend decides on their career—accountants, lawyers, doctors, etc. were all seen as positive; an engineer was seen as negative.

This might be explained by our ingrained social history.  While the prodigious achievements of engineering giants of the Victorian age like Thomas Telford and Isambard Kingdom Brunel were changing the world, the people for whom they made pots of money did not regard them as fit for polite society. While a practice on Harley Street, chambers at the Inns of Court or being “something in the City” were all acceptable occupations for scions of old stock or noubeau riche alike, some shoddy shipyard, Yorkshire pit or Mancunian mill were not, however remunerative.

These worlds did overlap, as with the Fitzwilliams of Wentworth House, but the salons of Belgravia were not frequented by those competent with slide rule or theodolite. Which is a pity. Because the decline in Britain’s manufacturing and its present need to import most finished goods can be traced back to this.

This was an era when “success”, whether as Prime Minister or Company chair or Permanent Secretary often involved a public school and reading “The Greats” at Oxford. There is an argument that study of Pliny, Pindar and Plutarch sharpens a mind that can then be applied to almost any managerial task of sufficient status. But I’m not sure any would want to cross a bridge they had just built.

Other countries—Europe and America in particular—were far more pragmatic and regarded those who could design and build things that made money while advancing civilisation were deserving of the acclaim and social status of those who kept their manicures spotless while counting other people’s money or quoting the law at length.

The unfortunate result was that Krupp could make better steel cheaper and Bugatti could make sleeker cars go faster. As engineers were seldom represented on boards, riveted ships were outclassed by welded ships and the North British Locomotive company kept on building the same fine steam engines until it went out of business. From Edwardian times, right into the fifties, underinvestment in R&D was chronic across all industries, meaning British Leyland cars went the way of Yarrow ships and De Havilland planes.

It is not easy to become a professional engineer. Unlike many white-collar professions, you cannot “blague” it or people die. You must have earned a university degree in a hard numerate science or technology subject, gained several years’ experience working in an engineering discipline and, having gain recognition as a chartered engineer (CEng), might gain entry to the Royal Academy of Engineering, regarded as a major professional institution along the lines of the Royal Society and the Royal Society of Edinburgh. i.e. nothing to be sniffed at.

Every technological product—most of which have much value-added and are expensive—whether cars, computers, consumer electronics, white goods, etc., or the aeroplanes, container ships or trucks they were brought in, in fact, all that supports our modern world, has been designed by engineers. As an example, to build a modern mobile phone system, now vital to every other profession, all the components—hand sets, transmitters, networks, masts, power grids, delivery systems, etc.—were all designed by teams of engineers who have revolutionised our lives.

But Britain has a problem. When you ask the average member of the British public about engineers, they immediately think about the guy in a boiler suit who arrives in a van to fix problems with their phone/photocopier/boiler?

He is not an engineer; he is a technician. He will not have designed anything. He will be clever at finding faults and fixing them and to the average member of the public remains an ‘engineer’.

The problem lies with language. At first, there seems no problem in translation. In English, we have engineer/technician.  Other languages seem the same: French: ingénieur/technicien; Italian: Ingenero/tecnico; German: Ingenieur/techniker; Swedish: ingenjör/tekniker. So, what’s the problem?

It was identified in the focus group above and the perception of who wears the boiler suit. Elsewhere (including America, Canada and now the Far East), the distinction between the two terms I as clear as between a dentist and their assistant. And whether in Boston, Berlin or Beijing, an engineer is accorded high social status, professional salary and therefore attracts bright young people to the profession.

There is no reason for British social attitudes to be so Victorian to the point of economic self-harm. Britain has three of the top ten universities in the world for engineering (Cambridge at #3, Oxford at #6 and Imperial College at #7). But it ads only one more in the top 50, whereas USA has almost two dozen, China half a dozen, a couple from each of Germany, Korea, Japan, Italy, Canada, Singapore (!!), Switzerland and Australia.

What is clear is that, while Britain boasts world-class education in a few elite universities, the perception remains that the technical colleges made into universities after a half century, still don’t compete on the world stage in engineering excellence. This may be due to their academic ethos. But, more likely, this is due to Britain’s best and brightest still being influenced by ambitious (but blinkered) parents still thinking reading the Greats the best possible preparation for success, and that engineers are horny-handed types with oil under their fingernails who would show up to their dinner party in a boiler suit.

#1014—1,043 words

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Some War Is More Tragic

After decades of prosperity and relative peace, for the last month, the Western world has suddenly had to adjust to being shocked by the brutality and horror of full-scale war between two modern armies amidst the cities and citizens of a modern nation. Virtually nobody alive today still has memories of this.

It was 77 years ago in the last throes of the Second World War that the he tragedy and futility of war was common knowledge. And in one of the last acts of that war in Europe, one of the most poignant examples can be found. It happened within sight of the small town along the East Neuk of Fife, Had fate been more kind, it need never have happened.

By 1945, coastal convoys suffered few threats. The EN series linking Hull with Belfast and ports between, carrying industrial goods like coal and pig iron were routine. In May 1945, EN491 left Hull and called in at Leven on the Firth of Forth. On the evening of May 7th, five ships sailed from Leven around 8pm to continue on to Belfast, via the Pentland Firth. These were two modern British freighters Avondale Park (2,878 tons) and Weybank (7,368) tons) and three older Norwegian ships Rolfjarl, Selvik and Saeland I, averaging 1,800 tons.

Escorted by armed trawlers, the convoy passed the Isle of May in the dark, around 10:30 pm. Hostilities in Europe had effectively ceased and an armistice, soon known as “VE Day” was to take affect the next day, May 8th. Almost everyone on the ships and those manning shore defences were caught up in the excitement and relief the news caused after almost six years of war.

Those defences included magnetic detection loops strung across the mouth of the Firth of Forth and monitored from Canty Bay on the South shore. The magnetic field  of ships passing over these loops caused currents that could be detected. Before the convoy reached them, an unidentified ship was detected. But, as the convoy was expected and peace was imminent, no action was taken.

The ship was in fact a German submarine. U-2336 had been completed the previous September at Deutsche Werft in Hamburg. Despite her high number, she was not one of the innovative Walther boats but a smaller XXIII-class conventionally powered costal submarine with a crew of 18 and only two torpedoes. Her working up had been interrupted by a collision in which she sank sister boat U-2344, with the loss of 12 lives.

Type XXIII U-Boat

On April 26th under Kapitänleutnant Emil Klusmeier, U-2336 left the 4th Submarine Flotilla in Kiel to begin her first patrol from Larvik in Norway on May 1st. Equipped with a schnorkel, she stayed submerged much of the time. For that reason, Klusmeier did not receive the order issued by Doenitz on May 4th to cease warfare at midnight on May 7th and return to base.

Sneland 1 (Master Johannes B. Lægland) had a crew of 29 and was the commodore ship of the convoy, leading the other four past Isle of May. She had been built as Ingeborg in the German shipyard of Nuschke & Co. AG of Stettin (now Poland) in 1922 but sold three years later to Norway and renamed. The convoy had two small escorts, HMS Valse and HMS Leicester City, both requisitioned Grmsby trawlers of 245 tons, each armed with a 3-inch gun and depth charges. While both were armed with depth charges, neither was equipped with  Asdic or Radar.

She was being followed by Avondale Park. Launched from the Canadian yard of Foundation Maritime in Pictou, Nova Scotia the previous year for the Canadian government but was acquired by the Admiralty and assigned to the Hill Steamship Company of Newcastle. She had a crew of 27 men and 4 gunners under the command of Captain James Cushnie aboard.

SS Avondale Park

Although it was dark and the blackout was still in effect on both shore and ships, Klusmeier, cruising slowly at periscope depth just East of the Isle of May was able to detect the silhouettes of the convoy against a lighter sky to his North. He launched both torpedoes. The first struck Avondale Park at 11:03pm and the Sneland 1 less than three minutes later, both on the starboard side.

Avondale Park listed and started to go down. All but two of the crew were able to launch boats and pull clear before she sank. However, Sneland 1 was rocked by an explosion and went down within two minutes, taking seven of her crew with her, including Captain Lægland.

HMS Valse and HMS Leicester City picked up survivors in the water and depth-charged the area blindly, but Klusmeier and U-2336 made good their escape, returning to Larvik to be finally told that the war was over.

Although, technically, the war was still on, nine sailors died needlessly in those chill waters with less than an hour to go before peace would reign, all U-boats would become scrap, and the armed trawlers go back to fishing the seas around Iceland for cod.

All deaths in war are tragic. But few can have been as pointless and avoidable as those nine at the very threshold of peace. Their remains still lie with the wrecks of the Sneland 1 and Avondale Park festooned with spider webs of fishing nets in 50 metres of water not far East of Kirkhaven on the Isle of May. They are kept company by the other 250 wrecks that litter the seabed in the busy approaches to the Firth of Forth.

#1013—917 words

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This Fratricidal War

After three weeks of the most brutal and extensive war we have witnessed since World War 2, Western media has been reporting extensively on human tragedies behind the lines in Ukraine and Russian state media has been spinning fake news on a scale that makes Trump seem a paragon of honesty. Never has the aphorism “the first casualty of war is the truth” seemed more apt.

It is true that reporting from the thick of the fighting is both difficult and dangerous, but, as neither side seems to have reporters “embedded”—i.e. eating and living with front-line troops themselves, news in the West has been confined to presidential bulletins, defiant statements from talking heads in various Ukrainian cities and the plight of swelling numbers of refugees struggling to leave the country.

Hard news from the front itself is entirely absent in Russian media and reduced to large-scale maps showing red splodges in Western media. Viewers are left in the hands of “experts” theorising why the red splodges do not seem to be growing fast and how plucky outnumbered Ukrainians can possibly be holding off an army five times their size that has already crushed resistance in Chechnya, Georgia and their own Crimea and Donbas regions. What follows is no more than informed speculation but may provide answers unavailable from either of the protagonists.

A Little Background

Russia and Ukraine have much in common, both tracing their origins to Kiev Rus, founded by Viking traders on the Dneipr River 1,200 years ago. Subject to various invasions from all directions, Ukraine in particular has a complex history but was swept up into the Soviet Union a century ago. Along with their Russian brothers, it suffered the German invasion of 1941 and supplied four Fronts (Army Groups) of the Red Army. By 1944, these had swept the Germans out of their homeland, and went on to bring down the Rumanian, Bulgarian and Hungarian Axis allies to end the war at the gates of Vienna.

Despite being kept on a tight leash by Moscow, Ukrainians never lost track of their culture, language and identity, much of it intertwined with those of the Russians. But the opportunity to realise their own state afforded by the collapse of the Soviet Union was seized with enthusiasm.

As might be expected of people suffering centuries of rule by someone else, there were political mis-steps. The 2004 presidential election was claimed to be marred by massive corruption, voter intimidation and electoral fraud. The Orange Revolution deposed Viktor Yanukovych, perceived to be Russia’s preference. He was returned in 2010. Being seen to be too like the Russian puppet Lukashenko in neighbouring Byelorussia, he was, in tun, ousted from power four years later.

Russia’s Putin saw this act as an affront and a hindrance to his plans to cultivate supine neighbours. His response was an invasion of Crimea (ostensibly to protect the isolated Russian naval base at Sebastopol) and sponsor rebellions in the industrial Donbas, where a Russian-speakers majority. The present conflict can be seen as an extension of this policy after a hiatus of eight years.

Russian Forces

From Tsarist, through Soviet times to the present day, the Russian Army could be characterised by two things: 1) massive manpower and 2) unsubtle employment of brute force. And, since the Soviets took on and defeated the best the Wehrmacht could do, they have been wedded to mechanised formations, spearheaded by tanks and supported by copious artillery.

During WW2, units that distinguished themselves were given extra equipment and designated “Guards”. Although the 1st Guards Tank Army was recently re-constituted, current Russian army doctrine is to operate in “Battalion Tactical Groupings” (BTGs), which generally consist of a mixed group of tank and mechanised infantry companies, with attached artillery, signals and support, totalling 800-1,000 soldiers. Estimates made in early 2022 were that they could deploy 170 BTGs, containing around 280,000 front-line combat soldiers.

These are augmented, as in other armies, with a myriad of support troops providing artillery, engineering, repair, supply, rocket, anti-aircraft, heavy artillery, etc. In addition there are specialist combat units, which include speznatz (~SAS), parachute and marine units, all manned by tough professionals. But, though the Russian Army is 1 million strong, with another 2 million reservists, half of the regular army and all of the reserves are one-year conscripts. All males are obliged by law to serve 12 months between age 18 and 27. Unit morale and competence varies with the proportion of conscripts.

While the Russians claim to deploy 16,000 armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs), there is doubt all are both modern and serviceable. Much Soviet-era equipment deteriorated from neglect during the 1990s.

The Russian Army is backed up by a large air force of some 1,200 war planes and 900 helicopters, plus a Navy of some 70 ships.

Ukrainian Forces

Like the Russian forces, originally part of Soviet Forces, much of the original equipment and doctrine were the same. Ukrainian forces also deteriorated from neglect and they gave up a powerful nuclear arsenal in 2004 in exchange for a now-clearly-worthless guarantee from Russia on the integrity of its borders. The ease with which Russia took over Crimea and disorganised the Donbas  was a wake-up call.

At the start of this conflict, Ukraine deployed 196,000 mycg better tained personnel in its armed forces, manning 3,300 AFVs and with 900,000 personnel as reserves.

Ukrainian air power is considerably weaker at 130 warplanes and 50 helicopters and its navy is negligible.

How They Match Up

No plan survives contact with the enemy.”

On War, Carl von Clausewitz

There is a saying among soldiers that victory does not always go to the big battalions—but that’s the way to bet. It is a fair assumption that a lot more people than just the Kremlin bet that way on the Russian Army.

Seen strategically, Ukraine was in a hopeless position, surrounded on three sides by a more powerful enemy in a situation analogous to how the Wehrmacht overran Poland in a couple of weeks in 1939. Indeed, the Kremlin had been pumping out propaganda predicting Ukraine would not resist a Russian invasion and even encouraging its own troops to believe they would be welcomed as liberators from fascist oppression. That this was pure disinformation was only the fist setback suffered by Russian forces invading on Thursday February 24th. The others included:

  1. Dissipation. While some 200,000 troops were concentrated, many more were occupied in other military districts from the Baltic to the Sea of Japan. The Russo-Ukraine border stretches over 2,200 km and the country covers a quarter million square miles. This means barely 10 soldiers per km along the border and the prospect of q per square mile, should they have to occupy it.
  2. Doctrine. When the Russian Army beat up the Chechens, Georgians or Syrians, their BTGs were suited to the myriad small-scale actions against poorly armed opponents involved. The Ukrainians are bigger and tougher, requiring dynamic co-operation among multiple units, in which the Russians have little practice.
  3. Logistics. Although most Russian commanders did not expect the walk in the park Putin was selling, they had not anticipated weeks of tough fighting that burns up fuel, stores and (especially) ammunition, for which too little provision had been made.
  4. Rasputitsa. Although the mud of Spring thaw is part of their military history, the difficulty of off-road maneuver of heavy vehicles explains the 40-mile-log column stuck north of Kyiv for a week.
  5. Ukrainian Tactics. Unlike the unskilled amateurs brushed aside in Crimea in 2014, Ukrainian troops have been studying their mistakes and the unsubtle manner in which Russians tend to maneuver and the most effective way to counter their ponderous use of heavy armour.
  6. Ukrainian Chutzpah. One bitter lesson learned by the Germans from their WW2 foray into Russia was the bitter resistance of people defending their homeland against a merciless enemy and who therefore have nothing to lose. The Russians had apparently forgotten this themselves and are getting a crash course from indomitable resistance by Ukrainians.
  7. Crisp Western Response. Putin cannot have expected timely shipments of modern anti-tank and anti-air weaponry from the West to Ukraine any more than unexpectedly harsh sanctions holing his economy below the waterline. Even his main income from oil and & exports are being throttled off.
  8. Endgame. Having failed to learn their own lesson from a futile decade-long folly in Afghanistan, the two-decade one NATO found there, or the outcome of two Gulf Wars, the Kremlin seems to have given little thought to what happens if the Ukrainians don’t rill over at the sound of the first tank. The way they are currently blindly bombarding civilians means Putin has never heard of Calgacus: “They make a desert, and they call it peace”.

Indeed, it is not easy to see how Putin extricates himself and his country from this super-SNAFU of his own making. And time is not on his side for a variety of reasons:

  • Indiscriminate bombardments—especially by missiles and jets—are expensive
  • Casualties are mounting by the day and already approach the Afghan tally
  • Morale is dropping, specially among units with conscripts
  • Number of body bags (incl. 3 generals) cannot be hidden indefinitely
  • Imminent bank defaults and economic contraction will fuel unrest
  • Absolutely no sign of Ukrainians wavering in their doughty resistance
  • Losses, while not catastrophic, are difficult to explain or justify
Category Losses to Date
Other AFVs1,249
Anti-air Systems34
Estimated Russian Losses After 3 Weeks

Three weeks in and the horror of street fighting has yet to begin. Many Russians know the history of Stalingrad and know this exceeds all other combats for drawn-out, bitter intensity. The Ukrainians are making shrewd use of the weapons sent to them by the West against typically clumsy Russian maneuvers.

Who’ll Blink First?

Given all of the above, it is not easy—short of assassination—to see a quick way out of this. Putin would lose face, and probably his job, if he backed down. Even if he wins he’ll be a pariah, unable to hold down the wasteland his army has created. And even he is not deranged enough to press the nuclear button.

The most likely scenario is a Spring of costly, slow Russian advances wirth decreasing success against stubborn Ukrainian resistance until ordinary Russians are having trouble making ends meet, finding food in the shops and growing even more angry as brother/son/father fails to return home.

Then there will be more people on the streets of more cities than Putin’s stooges can round up and jail. Whether he goes quietly or not won’t matter. I hear St Helena works well in accommodating failed dictators. Let’s hope the Russian people, long betrayed by despot after despot, will finally take a lesson from their Ukrainian brothers, halt this fratricide and re-mould their country into a future of which all can be proud.

#1012—1,812 words

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The Road to Scindy VI—Our Past Is Our Future

The years since the 2014 referendum have seen sporadic debate more on the mechanism and probable success of any further referendum than what it might achieve for Scotland. Because thinking that independence is a goal, an end in itself, is surely to usurp all sense of benefits that might accrue to those who would inhabit it. Just as efforts today to halt, and even reverse, climate change are not to benefit us, but our grandchildren, those are also the people who would inhabit an independent Scotland.

So far, a coherent projection of that future well beyond any referendum has not been forthcoming, not even from the party whose core ambition that should be—the SNP. As a result, the great apolitical majority of Scots—let alone the other nations of these islands—have been variously baffled, apprehensive, disinterested and downright hostile. While there needs to be serious financial projections regarding economy, currency, trade and business potential, such things may answer relevant questions. But they do not stir the blood, nor set the heather alight. But where might we find an inspirational and coherent vision of what Scotland could be, other than England’ sidekick?

For that has been the case for three centuries—so long that the sense of how we differ has been overlain with layers of empire, Dunkirk spirit and conflation of “English” with “British”. Some blame our southern cousins for this, but this is an abdication of responsibility. To quote Renton from Trainspotting: “we’ve let ourselves be colonised by wankers”. Because we have rather lost track of who we are, it is hard to dream of a future we might inhabit that is not as a second-rate partner to England.

Although we would be unwise to live in our past, there is much there of which we can be proud. Few nations of our size have made such an impact on the world, none of which is diminished by our having achieved it in partnership with the English. For that reason, up until the end of WW2, there was scant reason to question our Union from which both nations benefitted. Events over the last half-century have eroded and now removed such justification. Because of their own history, our English cousins may not perceive this. But a skim through Scottish history soon reveals why we no longer feel that way.

A thousand years ago, Scotland formed as a mongrel nation on the periphery of civilisation, a rich mixture of Gael, Brython, Pict, Viking and Angle. Given a half-millennium of imperial hostility from England, we became international, saw foreigners as friends, allies and trading partners. While the English were chest-butting the French over the Angevin Empire, we traded with the Low Countries and Hanseatic Ports, founded villages in Poland, supplied 15 admirals to the Russian Navy.

These contacts gave us the “lad o’ pairts”, who studied at Leiden and brought home culture and learning to soften the hard edge of Presbyterianism that had educated him n the first place. Highland chiefs spoke French,  bringing culture to the glens from an education through the Auld Alliance in France. Veteran from the Seven Years War brought tales of Breitenfeld home from campaigning with Gustavus Adolphus. We were poor, but proud, saw the world and were nobody’s province.

Between losing our monarch and trappings of court, choosing the wrong side in the English Civil War and the Darien disaster, the 17th century was not our finest hour. We entered the Union from desperation—a branch office of an impoverished million against the already prospering twenty million English. But thrift, hard work and ingenuity turned this to opportunity. Glasgow, being two weeks closer to the plantations than the Thames, cornered first the tobacco market, then the art of building fast ships to ensure that speed and then the steel and coal to make the transition to steam. Dundee cornered the jute trade, the Borders woollen manufacture and Edinburgh parlayed education into the Enlightenment.

The population grew, despite exporting people at a prodigious rate in the form of colonists, soldiers and, because of education, administrators and governors throughout the empire. Hardy Highlanders overcame the wilderness of Canada, skilled Lowlanders provided the carpenters and coopers, blacksmiths and boatmen who helped paint the world pink.

While Britain dominated the oceans and the trade across them, Scotland’s people poured into the Central Belt to forge industries that sent ships, cannon, engines and a welter of finished goods around the world. By 1910, Scotland enjoyed that highest per capita GDP in the world. All this change and prosperity did not mean we lost our identity and became “The North British”, as many early unionists would have had it.  We were proud we had our own education church and banks. Hogmanay stayed a big social event. Burns was celebrated. We played golf, not cricket.

But our cultural orientation had been shifted for us. Landowners and aristocracy had adopted an Oxbridge accent to better mingle with their peers down south. This drew our focus toward London at the same time that English belligerence toward the Continent cut off many of long-standing links there. Internationally, we forgot who we were.

Few residuals of that time remain: the common surname “Fleming” echoes when many craftsmen moved here from the Low Countries; you still hear “gardyloo!” (gardez de l’eau) in Edinburgh streets from a time when French aristocrats visited. Much of this is because the English—understandably because of geography—have long regarded European neighbours as threats. This attitude has permeated the Scots psyche, not least through the Napoleonic and two world wars.

But, since the empire collapsed, mirror the decline in British fortune and therefore  importance in the world, the Union has similarly become an anachronism. From once being an integral part of Europe, for the last 300 years, Scotland seized global opportunities offered by Empire. That required channelling our international focus through England and English priorities. Though that worked out well for both countries for years, it is sadly no longer the case. Scotland’s future lies in reclaiming our once-integral role in Europe, letting England pursue the chimera of past glories.

Led by the Conservatives, England has drawn in on itself in the 21st century. It has chosen to reject the ties forged with Europe (and with which Scots were happy) for a mixture of nostalgia and delusion. London believes it can recreate even a shadow of globe-spanning powers it once enjoyed. But it is faced with a powerful America, n ebullient China, a united Europe eight time its size and with a chip on 27 shoulders about Brexit. It no longer has subservient colonies to exploit. It is no longer a manufacturing colossus. And it is rapidly eroding any reputation for calm competence through Trumpian antics by the Johnson administration.

Put to one aside any future within the Union. We must also leave aside the picture of an independent Scotland, painted by Tory and Labour politicians alike, as some kind of  truncated and isolated backwater one tenth the size. As soon as we take off the London blinkers and look at the world as we did 300 years ago, we see we are surrounded by friends and opportunities the somewhat arrogant and egotistic Weltanschauung typical of London need not apply.

For a start, there is Ireland. The first to jump ship from a Union already in decline in 1922, it laboured in resentment and poverty until it discovered Scotland’s medieval stance of pro-active engagement with Europe. Not only has it never considered returning to the Union, even in its darkest days, but it has found a more prosperous formula than empire or jingoism. It now boasts a per capita GDP 30% higher than the UK, Dublin has become a prosperous city, attracting post-Brexit jobs that want to stay in the EU and bosting a bustling airport that puts anything in Scotland to shame.

Look the other way and there is Denmark—same size as Scotland but twice as wealthy and rated the happiest country in the world. And, far from just making excellent butter and bacon, they are also well positioned for the future, being home to the largest wind turbine manufacturer in the world. Try København for a city break: they all speak English and ride bicycles in that most hygge (cosy) and liveable of cities, which has an airport even more impressive than Dublin. And if you want to see how human and effective politics could be, binge-watch a box set of Borgen.

It almost doesn’t matter which northern neighbour you pick, they have much they can teach us in rediscovering the European in each Scot. From Iceland to Estonia, each has a proud identity, but carries no baggage of assumed superiority or behaves as cultural missionaries. Each contributes to the world in trade, in UN peacekeepers, in humanitarian effort, in mutual alliance, in breaking down barriers .

For hundreds of years, Veere (Holland) was dominated by the Schottische Huis, where Scots merchants traded raw materials for finished goods, with the North Sea and frontiers merely inconvenience s to which they paid scant attention. There were similar entrepots from Bruges to Danzig.

Our future lies in the modern equivalents, in supplying energy, which Scotland has in abundance, in marine engineering, in which we still hold a place, in whisky and fish and beef and a whole list of produce for which Scotland is rightly famous.

But we won’t fid it in eighteen-wheelers stuck in the M20 outside Dover because of paperwork… we won’t find it arguing over HS2 or Heathrow’s third runway that brings nothing to Scotland…we won’t find it locked to a lopsided England where real prosperity is glued down in the Southeast where the ruling elite have always been at home.

We are not a lost culture like Cornwall. We are a country that could find it inspiring and prospering niche in the world by thanking our English cousins for all we have done together…then look to our own history, to what Ireland, to what Denmark have achieved, and dream with our feet firmly planted on our own home turf.

#1011—1,691 words

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A Tale of Two Cities

The present brutal effort by Russia’s Putin to bend another sovereign nation to his will is appalling to witness in the 21st century. Unfortunately, history is strewn with such examples of powerful nations using military might to exert domination over weaker neighbours. Despite blatant mismatch, they often justify the resulting brutality by claiming they were themselves threatened. The Low Countries and Poland are two examples in Europe where locals achieved periods of self-determination, often interspersed with dark periods of domination by continental powers from Spain to Russia.

Though little-known, Britain had its own equivalent a millennium ago. After it coalesced as a kingdom in the 10th and 11th centuries, had England been content within its frontiers, history might have taken a different course, especially in the Scottish Borders. Instead, English ambitions in all directions—France, Ireland, Wales and Scotland, had a long-lasting impact on those borderlands involved. What is now a rolling rural idyll along the River Tweed might have become home to two great cities and their hinterlands.

The Merse is the name given to that broad sweep of fertile land from the Eildon Hills to the North Sea, watered by the Tweed and bounded by the Lammermoors to the North and the Cheviots to the South. When the Romans arrived two thousand years ago, they wisely made peace with the powerful Selgovae and Goddodin ensconced in their hill forts. By the 7th century, the Romans were gone and the Kingdom of Northumbria had extended its power all the way to the Forth.

Berwick was founded as an Anglo-Saxon settlement. When Northumbria was annexed by the growing Kingdom of  England in the 10th century, it lay in the area between Forth and Tyne contested by the expanding Kingdom of Scotland. The Merse and Berwick became Scottish after King Malcolm won a battle at Carham in 1018, after which the English became preoccupied with France and their new Norman heritage.

These growing kingdoms were financed by growing trade. Given the difficulty of overland travel, trade was largely a matter of shipping. Scotland, having abundant raw materials like timber, coal and wool was soon trading these for finished goods, wine and cloth with Hanseatic ports and booming Low Countries ports like Amsterdam, Antwerp and Bruges, East coast ports from Aberdeen down to Berwick carried on a trade with the, providing an important source of income to the Scottish crown. During the reign of David I (1124-1153) it was made a Royal Burgh. By 1153, Berwick boasted walls, a mint, a castle, and a hospital. Its Constables included several Lauders of the Bass. Their writ ran south of the Tween to include Ancroft, Kyloe Norham, Belford, Elwick and Tweedmouth, as well as present-day Berwickshire.

With its natural harbour in the broad tidal estuary, Berwick became the most important of these because of the variety of goods produced by the fertile Merse. These goods were floated down the Tweed, as there were no adequate roads. This drove a need for a entrepot on the upper Tweed where these goods could be assembled and stored for transport.

This gave birth to Roxburgh, a bustling town, strategically placed at the confluence of  the Teviot and Tweed. Laid out on the flat water meadow between, it was protected by both rivers and a hill at the narrow neck between. This position on the upper Tweed, together with South Berwick (so named to distinguish it from North Berwick in East Lothian) defined Scotland’s southern border.

Because of a substantial trade with the Continent, both towns grew prosperous ad, together with Edinburgh and Stirling, formed the four main cities of Scotland in the early Middle Ages. As well as mint and merchants, like those other cities, they could afford stone castles. The one in Berwick overlooked the Tweed at the southern end of the walls and now lies under the railway station and the approach to the Border Bridge. Standing on a defensible peninsula between the rivers with Roxburgh Castle was built on the hill guarding the narrow neck between the rivers.

Artist’s Impression of Roxburgh Castle by Andrew Spratt

David I also conferred Royal Burgh status on Roxburgh. Its zenith spanned three centuries between the reigns of William the Lion (1165-1214) and James II (1437-1469). It prospered and was also the site of a Royal Mint, boasting three churches, two main streets, lined with merchants and craftsmen and schools which were run by the monks of Kelso Abbey, across the river.

Roxburgh’s prosperity was exceeded by Berwick’s, leading to border unrest. A succession of raids, sieges and takeovers followed. William I of Scotland tried to pre-empt this by attempting to capture Northumberland as a buffer zone  in 1173–74. After his defeat, Berwick was ceded to Henry II of England., but It was later sold back to William by Richard I to raise funds for his crusade.

Things became even more unstable when Edward I, having conquered Wales, came north with ambitions to similarly subjugate Scotland in 1296, whereupon the long decades of the Wars of Independence regularly interfered with trade, most especially when the English held Berwick during one of the 13 times it changed hands.

English and Scots forces repeatedly captured and recaptured both towns. During his occupation of Scotland, Edward I of England resided at Roxburgh Castle, spending his birthday there. The castle was besieged several times, notably in 1314, in the run-up to Bannockburn.

In these border disputes, the Scots were at a strategic disadvantage. The economic heartland of England lay far to the south, in the fertile fields of Lincolnshire and East Anglia—well out of reach of border raiders and even armies penetrating far into England. The English, on the other have, needed only to cross the border and besiege Berwick or Roxburgh to cripple half of Scotland’s trade and wealth. And each time Berwick was held by the English, Roxburgh started to wither on the vine, even if it remained unmolested itself.

While both towns were in Scottish hands and England was pre-occupied elsewhere, riches flowed. The 150 years of the Hundred Years War in France and the Wars of the Roses blessed both towns and Scotland flourished. But once those were concluded in the late 15th century, the English turned on the rest of the British Isles, whereupon things went pear-shaped for the Merse.

By 1460, Roxburgh was in English hands, followed by Berwick, which changed hands for the last time in 1482 when it was captured by Richard III. As Berwick occupied a strategic location on the coast that could threaten the Scottish Lowlands and be supplied by sea, it was fortified, most notably by Elizabeth I with magnificent city walls that exist intact to this day.

Roxburgh, on the other hand, was abandoned by the English as too isolated. However, since it had permanently lost its port access to the world, it withered and died as a settlement. As virtually all the buildings were wood, there is now barely a trace of the town that once stood between the rivers. A Time Team excavation discovered where the two main streets and many buildings once lay. But all that remains to be seen are some crumbling remnants of stone ramparts that once was Roxburgh Castle, hidden amidst the tees that now crown the hill. And whether Roxburgh could have been another Bruges or Berwick another Amsterdam remains the realm of fiction and imagination.

Berwick’s Medieval walls and Rail Bridge from River Tweed

#1010—1,228 words

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Tsunamis in Global Politics

“Those who do not learn from History are condemned to repeat it.”

—George Santayana

For all their earnest attempts at joint action to deter Putin, there appears to be a belief, however laudable, that international disapproval and economic sanctions can dissuade Putin from the course of action he has clearly been planning for years—the restoration of the Russian Empire.

The difficulty is that most Western leaders are enlightened human beings, brought up in peaceful democracy, where most people were generally happy with their lot and gently rising standards of living that made each generation more comfortable. Most people now pay only tangential attention to national politics and such interest as there is in international matters revolves mostly around holiday destinations.

Western leaders would be better equipped if they absorbed their own history. It seems that every century or so, some despot rises from obscurity on the shattered remains of a once-great country and embarks on a crusade to restore it to greatness, with uniformly disastrous consequences for all concerned. Vladimir Putin appears to be ou despot-of -he-century.

Look back in European history and it is not hard to find precedents. There have been minor figures who had their day in the sun—Charles XII of Sweden; Frederick the Great of Prussia; even Edward I of England—but none achieved continental, let alone global, scale impact. This was partly because their countries were too small, bit mainly because they were not surfing one of history’s great waves.

The wave in question is something of a political tsunami. It resembles the ocean phenomenon in several ways:

  1. It must occur in a large context—a major power, never in some minor state  —(a tsunami does not happen on a lake)
  2. It requires some major event to trigger it— the collapse of a major country (tsunamis are triggered by major shifts in the seabed)
  3. The first indication appears to be harmless—the country appears prostrate, (the sea recedes much further than a low tide and all is quiet)
  4. Combining widespread support with audacity, a despot sweeps all before him (as the tsunami sweeps over the shoreline and far inland)
  5. But, eventually, the despot over-reaches, accumulates too much resistance and falls (the tsumani recedes, leaving devastation)

So, like a tsunami, despots don’t just ‘happen’. Putin is a product of circumstance that was 20th century Russia, and will also be a victim of it.

Consider his two predecessors as global despots: Napoleon and Hitler. Born at another time or place, we may never have heard of any of them. Like Putin, they didn’t just spring from nowhere to invade Russia in 1812 or Poland in 1939. There opportunities were shaped decades beforehand.

In the case of Napoleon, it was the Bourbon kings running a decadent empire that dominated Europe being brought down in 1789 and the subsequent decade of chaos that led proud French people to despair of ever recovering the glory that had been the wellspring of that pride.

When an unknown general ran rings around the Austrians and brought Italy into a struggling France’s orbit, they feted him, made him First Consul and celebrated a decade of victories that had France dominating all of Europe, except Britain and Russia. Then, in 1812, he over-reached himself and straggled home with a tenth of the Grande Armée.

In Hitler’s case, Bismarck had helped the Kaiser build a German Empire that was ground into dust by WW1. After centuries of political chaos in Central Europe, the pride that had engendered was also crushed and the weak Weimar republic that followed as a sickly substitute as inflation and the Depression sapped what was left. Along comes Adolf—hypnotic, decisive, telling them “Deutschland Erwache!” (Germany, Wake up!) and sweeps up votes to become Chancellor.

He then thumbs his nose at the humiliation of Versailles, restores the army and navy, invents an air force and stands up to the “victors” by re-occupying the Rhineland, annexing Austria and facing down Chamberlain and Deladier at Munich to take over Czechoslovakia too. Then his armies took out Poland, Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium and France in less than a year, and with apparent ease. To most Germans, restored to their rightful place in the world, he could do no wrong.

Seen in this context, the story of Vladimir Putin seems almost familiar. Obscure a couple of decades before seizing the world’s attention, it was circumstance and timing that propelled each of them into that position. Putin’s advantage was that, as a KGB operative in East Germany, he knew how the Soviet system worked, including how it was used to deceive the West. The post-Berlin Wall hiatus in Russia appalled many once-proud citizens in the same way the French were in the 1790s and the Germans in the 1920s.

“Cometh the hour, cometh the man.”

—John 4:23

Once in power, he used KGB connections and methods to secure it. Keeping relatively amicable relations with the West through oil and gas contracts, he let the West preoccupy itself with Iraq and Afghanistan while he built links with backwaters like Syria and the new republics of Central Asia.

Having started rebuilding the rickety post-Soviet armed forces, he tested then out in increasing scale, starting in the Caucasus with Chechnya and Georgia. Noting that the West paid scant attention, he escalated, helping Assad crush his Syrian rebels and receiving a naval base in exchange.

But his real aim for a place in history was to restore, not the Soviet Union, but the Russian Empire, which had, a century ago, included Helsinki, Warsaw and Kishinev. The biggest piece missing from that puzzle? The rich, rolling farmland of Ukraine.

In 2014, Ukraine was like a well-meaning naïve adolescent. It had unilaterally given up a massive nuclear arsenal and was enthusiastically enjoying democratic development after centuries of Russian domination. But it also included Crimea, home to Sevastopol and the Russian Black Sea Fleet. The pretext to secure this base was too much for Putin, who took over all Crimea  to do so. And, for good measure, he infiltrated the mostly Russian-speaking Donbas region with unbadged soldiers who posed as partisans against Ukrainian oppression. This tactic of a political running sore became the pretext to foment hostility towards Ukraine and provide cynical justification for the present invasion.

At each stage, like Napoleon and Hitler, Putin milked reawakening pride of a major people fallen from grace and tested the resolve of the rest of the world to stop them. And, at each stage, the world has generally been too preoccupied, too timid and/or too indifferent to react. Which, as in earlier ‘playbooks’, serves to encourage the despot in question to push his luck further.

And here’s the rub. Once on his treadmill, the despot cannot afford to get off. Like Napoleon and Hitler, who had to double down until they bit off more than they could chew. Disaster then follows—not just for the despot, but for the people their Pied Piper has led then to.

At this point, only three days into Putin’s invasion of Ukraine to (in his words) “de-militarise and de-nazify the drug-taking ulta-nationalists who are committing genocide of Russian” it is unlikely that this constitutes his come-uppance, however many of us may wish it. But, what is certain, that he will lead his country into disaster because such a regime cannot ever stop. And there will be some ironic continuity with history in this, as Russia is involved once again in the dénouement.

Just as you can’t pause a tsunami, you can only take comfort from the fact it always recedes. But, like a tsunami, global despots on Putin’s scale always leaves shocked survivors to clean up their mess.

#1009—1,232 words

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