Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Climate Syria And Sense

HRH Prince Charles thinks that it is climate change in the shape of drought that is the root of the problems with Syria.  Many will agree with him in that it seems so obvious.

But what if there wasn't a drought?  If so, what are the problems and how did they arise?

This long and detailed article in "Energy Matters" by Roger Andrews takes a close look at the situation in the last few years in Syria in relation to agriculture and its production.

This extract is from half way:

And if drought wasn’t the cause what was? There have been two historic contributors. First was Syria’s skyrocketing population, which more than quadrupled from 4.7 million to 22.1 million between 1961 and 2012.

Second was Syria’s government, which in an attempt to keep up with population growth encouraged rapid development of irrigated croplands beginning in the 1980s (according to FAO data Syria’s irrigated cropland increased by 70%, from 693,000 to 1,180,000 hectares, between 1990 and 1995 alone, which explains the large increase in wheat production over this period seen in Figure 7).


It is argued that the upsurge of oil prices a few years ago hit the farmers hard both in pumping the water they needed and getting the crops to market.  In short many went broke at a time when other pressures were increasing.

So in the last fifty years there has been a huge increase in population.  The Government attempted to increase the primary resource of food to keep up with it but were unable to increase the secondary and tertiary sectors enough to provide for employment and wealth for the growing population.

Events beyond their control meant that food became short as well.  Then the complex situation led to a collapse in which the latent bodies of extremists took advantage with outside support.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Suez Crisis Mark 2?

For those of us with memories of Empire, our own and others, why Britain is so anxious to send the might of our RAF, or at least the few old aircraft we can manage, into action in Syria is a puzzle.  Syria was strictly a French patch and had been for a long time.

This merry song  from the past, "Partant Pour La Syrie" is a reminder.  It was the unofficial "hymn" of the Second Empire of Napoleon III, aka Louis Napoleon, 1808-1873, elected President of the Second Republic 1848-1852, self appointed Emperor, 1852-1870 when busted by the Prussians, and died in Chislehurst, Kent.

His only son, also Louis Napoleon, died in South Africa in 1879, in action against the Zulu's having attached himself to the British Army to gain the military experience he felt necessary to attempt a future coup in a divided and fractious Third Republic.  He is buried with his father and mother in the Imperial Crypt at St. Michael's Abbey, Farnborough.

The 1919 Versailles Treaty after World War One, made it clear who was who in the Middle East and in the interest of everlasting peace France was allocated spheres in the Middle East, confirming Syria among them.  This is a century ago and a lot has happened since then.  Until the end of World War II, Britain and France were rivals in the Middle East.

The end of that war and the creation of The Fourth Republic brought the realisation that they were going have to work together at least and preferably agree if they were to retain any real power or influence.  The demands of the USA and the activities of the Soviet Union were a threat but there was increasing unrest in the Middle East and Iran for many reasons, not least the creation of Israel.

The emergence of Gamal Abdel Nasser as dictator in Egypt and bidding to be leader of the Arab world became a sudden and real challenge.  "Something had to be done" was agreed between France and England with talks and ideas of plans and this was spurred on by the nationalisation of the Suez Canal in 1956.

There are full Wikipedia pages on The Suez Crisis, Operation Musketeer and General Hugh Stockwell, the general commanding the Anglo-French forces if you want the full picture.  I have my own vivid memories of that period.  Essentially, the alliance cooked up a military intervention intended to take over in Egypt.  The trouble was what was best militarily did not suit the politicians so Stockwell  had to put up with key strategic decisions being made by them.

The troops did well enough in spite of the difficulties but it was something of a botch job.  But that was less than the half of it.  When they went in the world reaction was adverse and serious.  So much so that given a pending Presidential election, the USA ratted on them.  I know that it had been well aware of what was up, stood aloof and then cried shock horror when it happened.

In the summer of 1956 Stockwell turned up at our HQ to talk to our GOC then Major-General John Winthrop (Shan) Hackett.  He had commanded 4 Para Brigade at Arnhem in 1944 and was a, maybe the, leading Parachute expert around at the time and a friend of Field Marshal Montgomery.  It was a private conversation with no notes taken.

He appeared at the door of the office I was working in under the impression it was the General's.  I explained to him in the kind way I had of dealing with generals who did not know their right from their left that it was the other side of the staircase and produced the very Top Secret file on Operation Musketeer for them.

My own reading of it had been a source of wonder in that knowing something of the history and geography of the area it did not make entire sense in terms of a number of issues.  At the end of the meeting  when exiting Stockwell was heard to say "It's a bxxxxrs muddle but we'll have to make the best of it."

Around three weeks later the G3(Int) and I were packed off with a squadron of signals, a company of The Cameronians and a squadron of The Royals to kick up signals traffic on the banks of the Elbe.  I now know, rather later, that this was probably a caper for GCHQ checking out the Soviet's in East Germany.

You will understand from all this that when Cameron et al talk about going forth into Syria and the rest, I am a little nervous and an old twitch starts up.  It is whether or not the result may be another set of blunders and unintended consequences that could be very damaging.

The Suez Crisis was a game changer in which we had to accept and deal with a very different world and one where we were not welcome in many places for many reasons.  Now ISIS etc. are indeed a very nasty group and despite small numbers have been able to cause extensive problems.

So where are the money, the backup and the arms coming from?  We are proposing to strike at the districts in which ISIS do have power and that must mean both civilian casualties and perhaps a protracted campaign.  We really need to hit hard the supporters.  But these are people who trade with us and own much of our property.

We need them because of the level of our debts and liabilities, let alone the inevitable cries to "do something".  There are choices here that are very difficult and complex ones and if we are serious about checking and stopping ISIS it is going to take a lot more than bombs.  Because these forms of extremism have always been latent in the Middle East.

Now they have been armed (French guns?) and financed putting down these groups will be well removed from our ideas of human rights and fair play.  Similarly, dealing with those sent into Europe to commit terrorist acts will be difficult.  It is a mess, Stockwell in 1956 used the term current then, what we might say now is not the same.

But the mess is a lot bigger and more complicated than we are allowed to think.  Emperor Louis Napoleon III was involved with Britain in the shambles of the Crimean War in which neither party appreciated the importance of basic logistics.

There were errors in Italian Reunification; then the fiasco of The Second Mexican Expire, see Wikipedia and the painting "The Execution of Maximilian" by Eduard Manet in the National Gallery, followed by rapid defeat in the Franco-Prussian War again with bad logistics.

Perhaps on his way to a long weekend in the Cotswolds, David Cameron might take time out for reflection at The Imperial Crypt.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Going To The Cinema

Apparently, a cinema advertisement relating to Christmas refers to the Christian prayer "Our Father" but may be pulled because it will cause offence.

In case you missed it:

Pater Noster,
qui es in caelis,
sanctificetur nomen tuum.
Adveniat regnum tuum.
Fiat voluntas tua, sicut in caelo et in terra.
Panem nostrum quotidianum da nobis hodie,
et dimitte nobis debita nostra sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris.
Et ne nos inducas in tentationem,
sed libera nos a malo.

I am led to understand that there may be variations in translation so the Latin might be welcome.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Happy Shopping Day

Next Friday, we are to have what is called "Black Friday" a day on which it has been proclaimed by the media that real bargains not only may be had but should be had.  We shall watch the breathless reports and extensive coverage and enjoy ourselves at the madness of crowds.

Quite how and why this major addition to the marking of the birth of the Christian Christ Child occurred is lost in the mists of the late 20th Century marketing strategies of major retail chains.  It is one of those alleged "ripple" effects, if one starts all must follow.

We have already accepted Christmas trees, lights and booking for lunches before the feasts of All Soul's and All Saints and many have been persuaded that a time of the year with minimum daylight and dodgy weather is just right to travel across the land and indeed continents so it is not a surprise.

This year the fun may be more muted.  The recent atrocities and tragedies will give us a great deal of pause for thought and what we do.  But there are other things.  In many places, the figures for government finances are not adding up.  In the UK Chancellor Osborne has some explaining to do about why the petty cash box is always empty.

In the European Union, Frau Merkel is coming to the point where she reminds us of the Peter The Hermit of 1096 (see The Peasants Crusade) and her helpmeet Juncker the Nicholas of Cologne of the Crusades of 1212.  In short, it is all going to end in tears.

The USA is in the early stages of next Presidential election.  Too often these phases in US politics and government are times when bad decisions are made and worse actions taken.  It is argued that a major reason why the US took so long to recover from the 1930's crash was precisely this and we could be in for a repeat.

Elsewhere the big beasts of economics have their troubles.  The news out of China is increasingly bad, Russia is at war, Japan is fiddling the figures yet again and India has major uncertainties.  There are no safe predictions.

And Santa Claus is banned from Europe on Health and Safety grounds and the problems of emissions from his motive power.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Dirty Washing

When people are predicting future politics and who will be in power it is wise to be careful.  Certainly, many in the media are having a good time with The Labour Follies.  With Ken Livingstone embarked on one of his charm offensives on the subject of mental health and the real world having caught up with Jeremy Corbyn and his ilk it seems to be looking good for Cameron and friends.

Cameron is becoming something of a worry.  He plays the role of a quasi-celebrity looking for the quick and easy media take on any situation.  But in his approach to the ISIS problem and the French situation he reminds me too much of Sergeant Lejaune in the film "Beau Geste", "biting head off snakes" is a typical Lejaune moment.

But like any political leader deeply involved in many matters it is always a risk if you take your eye off what the servants may be up downstairs.  These matters come under the heading of "events" that can see off any leader, or party trying to retain power.  Just ask John Major.

There are the goings on at Conservative Central Office which look if  not messy then a source of real trouble within the party as the big wigs start passing off the responsibility and the blame to anyone they can get away with accusing.  But these are the people within who if not enemies are the friends you really should not be mixing with.

These may be the loose cannons within.  But in a system of modern government that tries to be both centralised and out sourced you will have people who are real trouble and for whom you cannot avoid taking some of the blame.  Because if you have a major public service that is run as a bucket shop and it goes badly wrong then the trouble can be endless.

This glaring example is one.  The story from The Mail features a financier Guy Hands whose holdings now include the Four Seasons Health Care Group which is in deep trouble.  This firm has 470 Care Homes with 20,000 beds and is part of the usual off shore mix of companies with Private Equity involved.  It may be "private" but in essence is a public service entity and the buck stops in Downing Street.

A good deal could be said about what is going on here and it is not alone in the way the elderly and infirm provision is dealt with these days but what did catch the eye was the use of the word "industry" to describe its nature.  "Industry"?  This may well be the way that the financiers and their accountants and consultants see it in terms of money flows.

But is it the word that central and local government politicians and officials use as well?  They may use "service" or such, but if they hand over the running to others do they know what they are doing?  We are told that private provision of this kind is "efficient" and "cost saving", but when the costs include what seem to be massive surpluses for financial and personal reasons who is paying and how?

It is not that public service provision is perfect by any means.  A little over forty years ago I was told one horror story by a Social Services Director in a local authority.  It seemed that in one large Labour dominated town the Queen Bee of the local Big Man (use your skill and judgement) deigned to visit a care home and was displeased.

They were using large expensive heavy duty washing machines and in her view only needed the much cheaper Hoovermatics.  Worse was that they were using expensive hospital style sheets when the thin cheap ones would do as well and they did not need changing more than once a week.  Her husband duly forced through the changes.

You may imagine the consequences in the care homes.  It was not long before the Medical Officers of Health threatened to close them all.  But the Labour Party would not give way on the type of machine.  So homes were filled with churning Hoovermatics.  But these needed extra staff in constant attendance to deal with them.  These were ladies on longer part time hours without permanent contracts.

Came the 1974 Labour Government to power along with a nice new 1975 Employment Act the ladies suddenly had permanent status and with full retirement pension rights.  All this had huge effects on the budget for care homes at a time of cuts and austerity.  The collateral damage on other services was severe.

In 1979 however the local Labour Party were proudly claiming that despite all the serious difficulties they had managed major spending increases in care homes.

This was all a long while ago, but compared to the people we have now in government and the media those people were amateurs.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Fortress Europe

Having been instructed by a passing virus that they are in ultimate control the world has turned in many ways.

The Independent today reminds us of the French Empire of the past and its "heritage" in particular the history of Algeria.  19th Century History and European Imperialism was one subject of study and in the 21st Century too many have forgotten that past.

The time when I became a little closer to this was forty or so years during the 1970's when travelling around France.  As well as some obvious holiday spots a good deal of time was spent inland notably using the many cheap, basic but clean local municipal camp sites in ordinary towns and villages.

A small number of places for unknown reasons had communities of Pieds' Noir, the name given to French Algerians who had left Algeria as a consequence of the bitter Civil War that led to Algerian independence in the early 1960's.  The word was that you have to be careful with them, they were very touchy.

However, on some camp sites, the cheapest and quietest, you might come across tented Harki's, the Muslim Algerians who had supported the French regime and then forced to flee.  They were distinct and certainly separate and unwanted by the locals.  We wondered where they would go in the winter.

We had no trouble.  It was not difficult to make arrangements.  A decade before I had to work with devout Muslims and had learned what to do and not to do.  Also, after a brief stay we would be off somewhere else.  Had I been a resident of the town it would not have been so easy.

Now in France the children of their children have been joined by many others from across the Middle East and they are connected to many others perhaps of their families but also communities across Europe.  Their vision of history for the most part has been given to them by men shaped in a way we could never have foretold.

Over that forty years we have been assured by our leaders that all would be well, that we would become happy, diverse and brothers and sisters in our secular, consumerist, media, celebrity world.  It has not happened and it is not going to happen.

I learned that much from the Harki's and Pieds' Noir of the camp sites and the poorer areas of the towns of France.

The picture above is Saumur, see Wikipedia, it had a very good camp site and swimming pool.  One of "my" old tanks is in the museum there.

Saturday, 14 November 2015


No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; 
It tolls for thee.

John Donne, 1572 to 1631