Monday, May 23, 2016

The EU Referendum 11 - Don't believe forecasts, believe my, er, forecast

Interviewed on BBC's Today radio programme this morning, leading Brexiter Iain Duncan Smith dismissed a forecast about to be released by the Treasury. The forecast is another dire warning about the economic consequences of the UK leaving the EU. Mr Smith's justification was simple. They did not forecast the crash in 2008 so why should anything they say be taken seriously now?

One little problem. I don't recall Mr Smith forecasting the crash either. So if the accuracy of past warnings is anything to go on, why should his forecast, that the UK will be alright if it leaves, be worth any more than that of people who spend all day analysing economic matters?

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The EU Referendum 10 - 2000 years of history vs B. Johnson

Boris Johnson's latest, headline-grabbing, intervention in the referendum debate has been to compare the EU's unifying ambitions with those of Hitler. He does not directly accuse the EU Commission of building concentration camps, nor has he claimed to spot Angela Merkel donning a sinister black leather uniform and pointing at maps overlaid with arrows. Indeed, he was at pains to distinguish the methods of those running the EU and the Nazis. What makes them comparable, he says, is the aim of unifying Europe which has always ended "tragically".

Humm. Hard to know where to begin on this one. Of course the purpose of his remarks was to make a headline and associate "Hitler" and "EU" in the minds of voters. This is such a disgusting tactic that it is hard to take him seriously any more. Sadly, as he is the MP for my constituency I am stuck with him.

I do agree that when military leaders have attempted to conquer large parts of Europe it has tended to end badly. Equally I assume that Johnson is not saying that all unifications achieved in part or whole by military efforts in the past are tragic and should be undone. If he is then goodbye UK, welcome back the patchwork quilt of tribal areas that predominated (as far as we can tell) for hundreds of years before the Romans knocked it on the head in 44 AD.  And the same goes for nearly all of France, all of Germany, great chunks of Italy, slivers of Spain, etc. These countries emerged often from a constrained merger of peoples speaking different languages and with different cultures. And the processes often were tragic - think of the massacres in Southern France of the Cathars or the expulsion of Moors after the conquest of Andalucia.

What Johnson is expecting us to recall is the attempts in modern times to stamp one authority over the continent. This started with Napoleon, was inherited as an idea by Kaiser Wilhelm I and reached its ghastly apogee first under Hitler and then Stalin. But all this bloodshed and destruction was the result of wars between nation states. In each case there was an immediate military conflict between neighbours which developed into attempts to create a continental system. The EU, in total contrast, began after a terrible war had ended and represented a genuine attempt between ex-belligerents to find a new way of living together. Nothing has ever been done like it before. Countries have gradually surrendered sovereignty deliberately to further the project. Whether it will ever end in a United States of Europe is impossible to tell - I suspect the language and culture differences across the continent are too great for that, and the levels of economic development too far apart to assume that the richer countries will happily subsidise the poorer. But the effort to keep the project moving is entirely worthwhile. It takes Europe ever further from the nation state system that has arguably been a catastrophe. It puts Europe alongside the other great powerhouses of the 21st century - China, the US, India (and perhaps Russia). These states are all sufficiently large and diverse to be equivalent to continents that have come together in unifying projects. China's started a long time ago, even before the Romans popped over the Channel, and India's was forced on it after independence from British rule; but this does not invalidate the main thrust of this argument.

We are perhaps half way through the unification of Europe, a process that started under Rome, fell apart around 410 AD and has been stuttering and stop-starting ever since. It has taken 1600 years for Europe's internal borders to be agreed - can you imagine a war starting now over where a border should be (Former Yugoslavian countries and countries bordering on Russia excepted)? Yet such activity was commonplace and regarded as thoroughly glorious no more than a hundred years ago.

I find it amazing that Johnson was unable to articulate any of this right up to the moment he declared his support for the No campaign. These issues are so fundamental that he surely must always have felt that the EU was similar to a fascist dictatorship. The idea that the EU would move in the direction of an "ever closer union" has been established for years. So why did he not say all this last year? Or if it really came down the details of the settlement negotiated by his colleague David Cameron in February, then how he can be so dogmatic about it? - waiting to see the reuslts of that process can only imply that there was a good chance he would have approved the results, and therefore that he does not in any way at all think that his historical parallels hold water.

It is desperately sad that Mr Johnson, forever looking backwards at some glorious imagined past, has not got the imagination to look ahead and visualise a better future for us all, and has used his fine talents as a genuinely popular and charismatic politician to distort history for a short-term political cause that he does not really believe in.


Monday, May 16, 2016

Own Goal at Old Trafford

Here's one football match that certainly delivered explosive action. Manchester United's final game of the season against Bournemouth was called off when a "suspect package" was found in the stand. Later it turned out to be a fake, used by a security company for training. Oops.Talk about ending the season with a bang. And they've bombed out of the running for the Champions League too. Blast!

Readers! It's not too late for you to contribute to the "make an obvious explosives-related pun about this story" competition. The Editor's in-tray is open and waiting.

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Thursday, May 12, 2016

Trump: the yellow-bellied chicken does it again

D. Trump, a wealthy man who has used his money and celebrity status as presenter of the American The Apprentice  to buy the Republican nomination for President, only really got there by being bold, honest and forthright on the issues of the day. This is the man who will build a wall to separate the US from Mexico.

Now he is apparently back-tracking yet again on his most important pledge, to keep Muslims out of the US.

Not good enough. The American people won't stand for this. The loonier the policies, the better they like it. If Trump can't follow through then he should stand down at once and let a serious candidate take over. Here are some of the ideas that will carry the right man into the White House.

  • Some terrorists have beards. We've all seen them on TV. Ban the unshaven from North American airspace
  • A foreigner once pinched the purse of an American tourist in Bangkok. All foreigners wishing to enter the US to pay a deposit of $1000, refundable on exit provided no criminal charges are pending. Or if the officials say so.
  • A wall to keep out the Mexicans is not enough. They may spend most of the day slumped against the wall outside cantinas wearing huge hats [the Mexicans, not the cantinas: Ed] but they're cunning. We've all seen The Good The Bad And The Ugly. Nothing short of a dome over the entire 48 states can protect America. 
  • Muslims can stay out. For that matter, anyone called Slim is not welcome either. Only a ne'er do well would take such a name. Exceptions: Slim Pickens (is he still alive?), General Slim (ditto), Slim Shady [isn't he a fictional character? Ed],  Fatboy Slim.
  • Global warming is God's way of telling us to make the Arctic Ocean our very own private sea.
  • Parachute Sarah Palin into northern Iraq. That'll send those squabbling bastards back to the conference table.
  • Cut taxes on the rich to zero. In fact, subsidise them. They create jobs and wealth. Tax the poor 100%. Then they'll stop being poor. Everyone wins.
  • Close all National Parks and build giant resort hotels. The rich will love it and everyone else can go swivel on it [er, not sure what this means. Researcher! Ed]
  • Close Detroit. Period.
  • Lower school leaving age to 12. Who the hell needs education to be a burger flipper? Those who can afford it will buy proper education anyway. All the redundant teachers can retrain as butlers for wealthy people.
  • Abolish the two terms limit on being President. Once the right man is in, he stays in. And then passes it on to his son. If money can buy the Presidency then it sure as hell should be transferable, right?

I am on standby for calls from any political organisation.

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Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The EU Referendum 9 - The teams line up

Having trouble making up your mind about the EU Referendum. Why not judge the issue according to the stated views of those seeking to sway our opinions?


Yes No
David Cameron Michael Gove
Jeremy Corbyn George Galloway
Nicola Sturgeon Iain Duncan Smith
Gordon Brown Nigel Farage
George Osborne Boris Johnson
Hillary Clinton Donald Trump
Barack Obama
The CBI
The TUC
Unison
The NFU
Bank of England
Madeleine Albright1
George Shultz2
Head of MI5
Head of MI6
The EU
The NIESR
5 former NATO chiefs5
The IMF

1US Secretary of State under Bill Clinton
2US Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan
3 Well they would, wouldn't they?
4National Institute for Economic and Social Research, a highly respected think-tank even when I was an economics student
5 Source: Daily Telegraph 09/05/16

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The EU Referendum 8 - Whose side are you on, Mr. Smith?

Iain Duncan Smith, former leader of the Conservative and until recently a senior minister in the Government, has spoken against the EU on the grounds that "it favours the haves rather than have-nots".

Now I am really confused. Mr Smith belongs to a party that has always believed that wealth and privilege are good things1. Nearly all of the social legislation that seeks to transfer wealth from rich to poor - pensions, minimum wage, income tax, death duties, national health service, raising of school leaving age to 16 - was opposed automatically by the Conservatives. Some of these policies are no longer contested. But it is really a bit rich [pun? Ed] to see Mr Smith setting himself on the side of the social reformers. If he genuinely believes in redistribution then will he

  • campaign to increase income tax and reduce VAT?
  • maintain and strengthen legislation against tax avoidance schemes?
  • stop wealthy foreigners buying up property?
  • remove the charitable status of "public" schools?
  • indeed, seek to abolish private education altogether, often seen as one of the single most important supporting structures in preserving the wealthy as a class?
  • advocate intervention when major industries, such as steel, are in difficulties (or will such support only be offered to banks?)
 More important, why is he still a member of the Conservative party?

1. With apposite timing, I have been reading Mary Beard's SPQR, a lively history of Rome. There too, particularly in the days of the Republic long before Rome was a global power, it was highly fashionable to hold that only the wealthy should hold political office or be in the Senate, and that their votes should far outweigh the votes of the common people, and indeed for a time only those who could afford to equip themselves were thought worthy to fight in Rome's armies. I don't hold with such views but they certainly have a long life.

Monday, May 09, 2016

The Conservative Party and the BBC

I suppose I have to note, with great sorrow, that once again one of our finest institutions is under attack by people who are motivated entirely by monetary considerations. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, a Mr Whittingdale, [No, me neither: Ed] has previously expressed his view that the destruction of the BBC would be welcomed (by him). He is about to unveil proposals thought to extend Government control and to reduce the output and scheduling flexibility of the Beeb.

Ideological Conservatives loathe anything related to the state (armed forces and the Monarchy excepted, of course). But with the BBC there is a more sinister undercurrent. The Tories receive massive support from a number of media groups with interests in broadcasting. What could be simpler than to reward them by handing them a slice of the BBC's markets in exchange for cash (donations to the party) and continued biased news coverage. If you would like proof, consider the story in The Sun (ultimately owned by a non-Briton) who dismissed Gary Lineker as a " sniping, left-wing bore" for daring to criticise the Government's plans. A fairer paper might have declared its own interest (The Sun / News Corp / Sky TV) and declined to comment.

 The BBC is not only respected globally for the quality of its broadcasting but has over many years been the premier news source for people in countries where freedom was denied. This in turn has been a great advertisement for Britain and British values. Well, we can throw that out, can't we? If the Tories can keep the tabloid press on side then who on earth cares if this diminishes our country? Only a sniping left wing bore could possibly think it matters. Move over, Lineker, there are some people lining up alongside you, sniping equipment armed and ready to bore.