Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Cuts, Kind And Unkind

In Jane Austen’s “Persuasion”, Sir Walter Eliot, a man of estate and mortgages but reduced income has to be told that “Retrenchment” is necessary. Being a vain and difficult man used to his comforts and especially status he finds it almost impossible to accept before being gently leveraged into it by his close advisers.

They wish to avoid the embarrassment and difficulties that would arise were he to go under. Inevitably, the minor hardships of the family are as little compared to the laid off servants and estate workers. He had to be reminded of what could happen.

If you want to see what could happen soon in UK local government look across the Atlantic at the developing bloodbath in local services in the USA at State, County and Township level. Small town America is going into stasis and in many cases collapse.

Whilst some local services may have become too generous, over blown and over ambitious they were as nothing compared to what the Brown Spendfest did in our own local government.

There are those who are shrieking about “cuts” when there are figures that show that apparently all Cameron, Clegg, Osborne and Cable are up to is to slow the rate of growth of spending appreciably. The suggestion is the “cuts” will relate only to planned growth and not existing services and there is much fine talk of ring fencing etc. In your dreams, baby, in your dreams.

Been there, done that, in that in the late 70’s and into the 80’s I was there. The mad Heath (was anything sane he touched?) reorganisation of the early 1970’s was accompanied by the adoption of over ambitious standards and schemes to prove the worth of all the upset and turmoil.

All the local politicking of the early 1970’s that was involved meant bidding promises going up and up. At the turn of the decade it all had to be put through the various mincers in the next few years.

With regret, I have to say that the situation is far worse today than it was then. This is not only in terms of the gross numbers of increase and extent of activity, it is within the structure of the budgets. To begin with, the relevant pension schemes then, if anything were running a small surplus. There was no need to worry about bailing them out with taxpayer money.

Also, there was not the curse of PFI schemes with their absolute priority on revenues and the way they ratchet up over time. The cost of buying them out is extreme. There were not the hordes of consultants, financial advisers and other sundry hangers on not only taking a handsome cut but with watertight contracts.

In a similar way there were not the numbers of top and senior executives on salary multiples way, way above levels of thirty years ago. Also, there were not senior staff and management contracts with expensive get out clauses and huge inbuilt pension commitments.

We did have a few quango’s that were a nuisance and some regional bodies albeit on a very small scale and doing some useful liaison work. We did not have the huge complex of agencies and other bodies now which need major staff work within the local authority to keep in touch with and to be consulted before any significant decision or funding was needed.

There was far less legislation governing what we did, how we did it, why we did it and how we were accountable for doing what someone or group elsewhere thought might be a good idea or keep some noisy people with access to the media happy. There was nothing like box ticking or hideously complicated legal requirements all with unintended consequences that mire us in confusion and costs.

Employment legislation of one kind or another still imposed restrictions as did the agreed conditions of service for most employees. But these were light years away from those of today and whilst bound by UK law we were not then subject to all the vagaries and notions embodied in European and related laws. Then we could still understand what we were doing or at least make an informed guess. Now, does anybody really know or grasp all that is entailed?

At least we knew where to start and how to do something. It was unpleasant and distasteful for the most part. Also, there were still fixed elements in our budgets that were difficult to reduce or to amend. So a good many of the reductions and adjustments, or retrenchments became the cuts of the time in a number of services.

What should terrify you is that the percentage we had to cut, by my estimate, was less than half of what needs to be cut now. If it can’t come out of the fixed parts of the budget it will have to come out of the services.

Perhaps the message next time you ring the Council will simply say, don’t ring us, we’ll ring you.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Affairs Of State

Amongst the forgotten nooks and crannies of Westminster there is a little place, well a big one, called the Foreign Office. Once it was the Mount Everest of the Civil Service but like the mountain is now a much visited tourist attraction. Also it is strewn with the litter of visitors, liable to cause unpredictable damage and has lost both its mystery and purpose. It has been redecorated recently but we may need to restore it to its former glory of function.

The Foreign Office was one of the first Whitehall departments to assume a more modern form back in 1782. The two separate departments that had dealt with matters in foreign parts, the Northern and Southern Departments were merged into one. It was Jeremy Sneyd, then Head of the Northern Department and former Private Secretary to Prime Ministers, who is regarded as the person responsible.

Sneyd, born in County Cavan and who rode with the Government cavalry at Preston in 1745, was close to Sheridan and his circle. In the past he had paid off Goldsmith’s liabilities to his servants and associated ladies. He was probably the man who arranged the bail outs to some of those worst affected in the Great Crash of 1772. At least it got him a property in Cleveland Row by Clarence House, a handsome estate in Hampshire and an acquaintance with the Austen’s. This is the essential tradition of the FO, insider knowledge is a wonderful thing to have.

However, the bringing together of the opposing elements in handling Britain’s relationships with the world did not mean ending the conflicts. It internalised and disguised them. Many times in the recent past our Foreign Policy, such as it was, lurched from one stance to an opposing idea and from one hasty deal to another that was even more hasty and ill advised.

At least much of the policy was at least our own and as far as possible in our own interests, as the government determined. Posterity often disagrees but history is a moveable feast. From time to time it involved making deals with more or fewer other governments jointly and with respect to their needs. By and large, however, we remained free from permanent set up’s which fixed the ways and means of conducting international relationships.

After the debacle of World War I, this changed. There was now a League of Nations and a growing number of bodies and other organisations to which we became committed. At the end of World War II with now the American’s involved as well as many others the number of international bodies, agencies, treaty commitments and other forms of negotiation and decision increased rapidly and extensively.

By the 1960’s it was impossible to conduct any sort of independent policy. The major constraint was the Cold War need to follow the American’s, but there were others. We liked to claim that we led the way but only like a poodle leads its mistress.

In the 1970’s we bought a ticket to the Great Maze of Europe and since then the only diplomatic triumphs our politicians have claimed are those where they have taken on more binding commitments, membership of this or that at a huge price and giving away both our law and sovereignty to more or less anyone who asked for it.

In the last three years the world has turned. Just as Foreign Policy and Foreign Affairs was relegated to one of the disregarded and last of the interests of our media and under Blair and Brown the least comfortable seat in the sofa of government, we may well need to learn how to do it for ourselves all over again. We can no longer play “Follow The Leader” because we do not have any leaders any more.

But the Foreign Office is no longer what it was. Like the rest of Whitehall it has been hollowed out of its essential past functions and turned into another PR/Management freak exercise meeting targets for sales talks, sales fairs, sales conventions, contact lists media spin circuses and attending meetings on how to keep all our masters happy. The baby that was the capability for analysis of information and intelligence as a basis for policy has been thrown out with the bathwater of real international communication.

One of the main problems this or any government faces is with the radical change in the way the world works, who matters and we our need to formulate and structure a well thought out and effective Foreign Policy. To do that the Foreign Office has to change again and soon. It no longer means churning out reams of garbage based on redundant management and financial theory or fancy fictions about how we intend to make Ruritania our kind of place.

You cannot run a real foreign policy on the notion of added value. Also the Foreign Office is not there just to be a sales office, agency for the latest financial dross dreamed up in The City or a personal service for all those Brit’s who travel abroad and find out the hard way that others have different ideas about personal conduct.

We have a Foreign Office but need a real foreign policy. The present office would not know where to look for or recognise one if it found it. Jeremy, where are you now?

Friday, 25 June 2010

Our German Cousins

One of the byways of history was that in the late 14th Century before he usurped the throne from King Richard II, Bolingbroke, later King Henry IV spent quality time in Lithuania with his supporters during 1390 and 1392/93 helping the Teutonic Knights impose their vision of Christian authority in Eastern Europe. The lessons he learned were put to good use during his revolt of 1399 and later, by his son, King Henry V on his campaigns in France.

During the Reformation there were close ties between Protestants north of the Rhine and Britain. In any case the extent of trade and contact by those in eastern England and Scotland with Northern Europe and notably the Hanseatic League helped shape the future of the British economy. By the 19th Century the idea of a common Anglo-German history had been around for some time. The notion of England being an Anglo-Saxon people conquered and dominated by a greedy French elite was part of the debate.

Most people put the mutual good will of this period down to the late afternoon of 18th June 1815 when Field Marshal Blucher marched his Prussians on to the field of Waterloo to tackle the French reserves and make it impossible for Napoleon to win. It helped to give the day to Wellington and the hastily put together British and Dutch army who had forced a stalemate on the French. Blucher tipped the scales. Previously, The Kings German Legion became a part of the British Army serving with distinction against the American Rebels and in other theatres of war.

It followed the contacts of the 18th Century when the only senior available Protestant with some sort of claim to the throne was the Elector of Hannover who was duly installed as King George I. Historians tend to regard the Hanoverians as something of a comic turn amongst our various sovereigns, but King George III despite being stricken by porphyria, then regarded as madness, was a man of science and the arts.

The arts earlier had gained not simply from German influence but the strong Italian interests they brought with them. This could have some curious twists. Handel who had been at Hannover arrived in England before King George I with a body of music much of which had been derived from his time in Italy.

Shortly before leaving Hannover he had composed some songs in German. One of the tunes was later borrowed to become the melody of “Will Ye No Come Back Again”, something of an anthem to Bonnie Prince Charlie’s attempt to seize the throne and restore Medieval Catholicism to Britain with the added benefit of the more recent Inquisition.

Charlie, the half Polish plus Italian, French and Danish-German man whose tiny tincture of Scottish blood was marginally greater than that of King George II was not a Handel fan but more one for the Vespers, Te Deum’s, and Palestrina which had fallen out of fashion in Britain. Clearly he had no taste and had to go.

The Monarchy became entwined with most of the German elite and their many Kings, Dukes and Princes etc. After the Hanoverians had run out of legitimate male descendants, Victoria came to throne and bore her family by a Prince of the House of Saxe Coburg Gotha, Albert. He was not much liked but respected for his morals, industry and commitment to progress, the arts, education and all that. His Great Exhibition of 1851 was a tribute to British progress.

He did meddle a little but died too young to do much harm as did the Hanoverians but the absence of an Absolute Monarch or Dictator and the authority of Parliament and The City enabled things to happen. With German music, literature and forms of philosophy impacting on British culture the love in seemed destined to go on for a long while. Germany was not united until 1871 and whilst the Prussians had been a threat to the French and Austrians this was regarded as a very good thing in Britain.

But then in the 1890’s Kaiser Wilhelm II arrived at the top in Berlin with a group of cronies with different ideas, chips on their shoulders about Britain and an ideology and belief in German mastery. The British, in the meantime, failing to invest enough in industry and embroiled in too many adventures felt it necessary to buy off the French.

The installation of King Edward VII, a man devoted to the pleasures of Paris, helped things along. Very quickly Britain was tied into to treaties with not only France but Russia of all people that were secretive as to their purpose and in which Plans B and C were wholly absent. This meant that Britain’s politicians had begun to fall out with Germany although those in the Arts and Culture still loved them.

Germany in the meantime had allowed its foreign policy to fall under the sway of the General Staffs of the Army and Navy and also make treaties that were secretive and in the case of hostilities forced issues. Together with military planning that required rapid mobilisation, again with no Plans B or C and no provision for negotiation the result was World War I in 1914.

By its end in 1918 the idea of German closeness was regarded as treason. The Royal name of Saxe Coburg Gotha was dropped in a hurry in 1917 with the arrival of Gotha bombers over London and Windsor was chosen as the new name to the fury of the existing Lord of Windsor who had not been consulted. Quite why Stirling, a much better name, was not chosen is one of those mysteries. Some Northerners would have liked Pontefract but that was too complicated and in any case the castle was a wreck.

For over a decade after 1918 we thought we had stopped them in their tracks. Then because of a flawed electoral system and economic crisis in 1933 a party came into power on a minority vote that was led by another obsessive nutter with a mad bunch of cronies. These National Socialist Workers Party (Nazi to you and me) ideologues under Hitler were determined to change everything and stamp their authority on everybody and engage in wars for the sake of it. The result was World War II and the end of British Empire and a few other things.

Since then whilst the Germans would have preferred to forget the whole thing and get on with making money and telling people what to do, the British have found it difficult to adjust. Unluckily football is a sport that has attracted too much nationalistic nonsense around the world which is used by the media to hype up the interest and add to the income stream and related sponsorship deals. There are too many ghosts at too many feasts.

So on Sunday who do I remember? My uncle who was at Dunkirk? Or Bolingbroke in Lithuania?

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

The Budget - The Real Problem

In all the fuss about the Budget there was something that was not mentioned and given zero attention by the media. It is the extent to which a nation state like the UK is able to control its own financial economy. The answer to that is not much and the risk is that the nation states may start to disappear from the map. See the item below from Tax Justice Network:

What does not get measured does not get remedied

Over 30 years ago the British and American governments launched a massive experiment in opening up financial markets by abolishing exchange controls and de-regulating banking and related financial services. This experiment proceeded in full knowledge that financial markets are riddled with fiscal distortions and shaded in secrecy. Following Gresham's Law, the experiment has led to a vast increase in illicit financial flows and related economic crime. Developing countries have been the principal victims of this process as huge amounts of capital have flowed northwards into the major global financial centres in Europe and North America. Secrecy jurisdictions have played a central role as conduits for these flows; and they have thrived accordingly (80 percent of the top twenty states and sub-states ranked by the CIA by gross domestic product per head of population are classified by TJN as secrecy jurisdictions).For obvious reasons the scale of cross-border illicit flows is unknown and can only be estimated using a variety of available tools, some of which you can read about - in summary form - in a just-released briefing paper by the renowned anti-corruption centre at the Chr. Michelsen Institute in Norway.TJN and our allies have argued for many years that the scale of illicit financial flows and economic crime conducted via offshore secrecy jurisdictions has reached proportions that impact on macroeconomic stability while also undermining law and order, democracy and the welfare of the vast majority of people.


It is almost as if we are trying to live on two parallel planets and the old one is fading out.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

The Budget - There Are No Right Decisions

One of the vanities of the human species is that because of the complexity of its brain it has come to believe that it knows what it is doing and can therefore arrive at decisions leading to actions that consequently are said to be right. The course of human history ought to remind us that this is not something we are very good at as we have lurched from one disaster to another of our own making.

We then often rationalise this away by coming up with notions such as creative destruction or blaming other peoples or other causes. Sometimes the other causes may be correct such as geophysical events over which we have no control. Even then when we insist on building major cities and creating large communities in volatile earthquake zones or next to volcanoes or at or below sea level, in the past we have put it down to whatever passing deity happens to be around at the time.

The present budgetary crisis in the UK is one part of a much wider and deeper human crisis. The scale and complications inherent in this are well beyond the understanding of almost anyone. So few people actually know very much and for those who are obliged to make decisions about this or that the chances of coming to any answer that is “right” are not simply limited but highly unlikely.

The best that can be expected is that in looking at the various options somehow many of the decisions will prove to be the least worst. The difficulty is that we cannot know which they will be and often why they might be the best available.

The outgoing government in terms of its arrogance and dogmatism may well have been the most vain in British history so the budget will literally be a bonfire of the vanities. Because its belief in the certainty of its knowledge and in its own spin doctoring it went on to make huge spending commitments on the basis of figures it had thought up in its own fevered imaginations. Assumptions became doctrines and guesses plans for action with the money found by unlimited credit creation.

So what does the present government “know”? The chaos arising from the constant reorganising and reconfiguring of policies in the recent past makes almost any of the internal information available wholly fictional. The manipulation of basic statistics makes them less reliable than reading the entrails of a sheep and all the target setting and management structures have created a maze where there is no way to the exit once you are in. The mess is beyond belief and it only belief we have.

Out there the major financial organisations do not know how much toxic debt there is or where it is or what effect it will have. They do not really know much about their own accounts continually having nasty surprises. They cannot know what happens next. They have lost control and just follow events.

In terms of tax payments the amount of obfuscation and deceit means they now rarely know where their own money is or for that matter how much of it exists. Yet we have had a government and The City preaching to us that all we have to do to have a wonderful life is to put our trust and incidentally all our money in their sticky hands.

We do not know what the oil producers will do in the coming decade, neither do they. We cannot know what some of the big boys in world politics might or might not do. In the EU the Europeans not only do not know what they are doing they cannot agree what it is they ought to know or why they need to know it. So they just cobble together some financial arrangements and place their trust in fate. God is on sabbatical these days in Europe so this could mean anything.

This is my guide to understanding the budget. There are no right decisions so just cross your fingers and leave sixpence for the tooth fairy.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

England Are Down But Not Out

England might beat Slovenia and in that case they will certainly qualify for the next round of the World Cup. What happens next will be what happens next. In the past I have seen so many teams somehow stagger through a competition or season to do remarkably well at the end despite all the woeful predictions, insults and making hard work of their games.

Algeria were always going to be difficult. Fast, skilful and well coached they have a good record in African competition where they have faced some very useful teams. The USA were going to be big, physical and again well coached. They were never going to be a push over however much the wishful thinkers felt. The Slovenians run and run and have the full range of skills.

Some of the England players are not long out of tricky injuries. Also, it is clear that the FIFA guidance to referees has meant that teams need to be very wary of using some of the heavy mob tactics too often used in the past. To win the World Cup means playing seven games against very fit teams. It means your players have to survive. This entails avoidance of injury and critically too many yellow cards and as few red ones as possible.

At the moment it is in the balance, but looking around the groups there are some class teams who have come unstuck and may not make the next round. There are going to be very few easy victories. It may well be that England do not make it. If so, OK that’s the way the cookie crumbles, so can we all remember that there are other things to worry about?

If necessary and England just have to grind the beggars down then so be it.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Who Broke The Pensions Piggy Bank?

Many public sector retired did not get a pension rise in April 2010 because at the determining point in late 2009 there was no increase in the specified price indexes. The present arm waving and posturing on the subject of public sector pensions may indicate that whatever the inflation rate may be the Con-LibDem Government are about to abandon automatic pension increases in line with any inflation as well as reviewing arrangements for public sector retirements in the future.

Inevitably this will hit the poorer pensioners much harder than the better off and there are far more of them than most people think. The debate has been distorted by the recent emergence of a number of high paid appointments in the public sector and those in schemes where the government has fouled up the pay agreements. In this category a good many people have not only had much larger pay increases than others but many immediately have taken advantage of the laxity of terms to take early retirement and then return to work on a consultancy basis.

The comparison with the private sector omits to say about the scale of the damage inflicted by Labour on private schemes compounded by offering tax advantages to firms to adopt anti-pension policies. This followed on the weakness in the previous government in allowing companies to adopt over optimistic criteria in awarding themselves “holidays” in their obligation to maintain pension funding. None the less Labour allowed the big boys to raid their company pension schemes big time for their own personal financial advantage and too many have done so.

The real problem with the unfavourable comparisons between public sector and private sector pensions is the treatment of the private sector by the last Labour government apart from the select number of big wheeler-dealers who were able to make personal arrangements that Croesus would have envied. There was a period when private sector pensions could give a good deal and in a few cases could compare well with those in the public sector at that time.

There is still a more general problem in the public sector. This has arisen because of the way critical structural problems have been building up since the 1980’s which have been avoided by successive governments and those concerned. The vultures have come home to roost as a small number of informed observers have been predicting. Some have been warning for a decade, others aware of the potential for difficulties for two and some back three to the early 1980’s were flagging warnings about what might happen.

After the crisis of 1976, going into the late 1970’s and beyond, it was clear that a lot of difficulties were going to arise as readjustments and reductions were made. One was that in government and its services centrally and locally there were many older staff in their 50’s. On the traditional basis of “last in, first out” a consequence would be that the redundancies would fall more heavily on the younger ages, often just married with young families. There were other complications as well.

It was in this context that the many of the first deals were made to allow those who did not want to stay to take an early pension. Many did because whilst not being ill enough to draw the sick card they were already beginning to struggle. Others did, notably women, who had elderly parents on their hands to be cared for. For many, looking at the expectation of life at that time and having attended a few funerals already of colleagues who passed away, it gave them the chance of at least a few years to enjoy. Remember, this was a generation who were adults in the 1940’s.

There were people around at the time drawing up certain schemes who did try to explain what we thought should be obvious to the politicians and unions. Quite simply it was that if you created a situation where those retiring would spend twice as long drawing a pension then whether the scheme was funded or unfunded it was going to have major consequences.

So if the contributions etc. stayed the same then the schemes would have to be very temporary, for the period of the immediate crisis only, and the conditions limited. Fat chance as it turned out. In the public sector over the next two decades the schemes became embodied as an essential condition of service, often with extra benefits and easing of this condition or that. Contribution conditions were based on thinking that was at best optimistic.

There has been in some cases a degree of tinkering and readjustments in some schemes but almost always on the basis of past data and wildly optimistic readings of government predictions about economic growth and income flows. Pay and service negotiations commonly meant that amongst the horse trading to make the immediate figures look good this or that would be conceded because the bill would not come in until much later. Moreover the increase in the number of public sector employees after 1997 meant a cosmetic boost to contributions which could not be sustained.

Critically, the expectation of life became longer and longer. To claim that this could not be predicted is plain silly. Not only was there a clear trend line but it was evident that recent medical progress was going to impact significantly on the future numbers. The effect was substantial. Instead of a typical period of retirement for a man to be more often less than ten years after 65, it virtually trebled with early retirement. With women already entitled to retire earlier then it still at least doubled.

Although there has been some tinkering with contributions they have not been anywhere near the sums needed to meet the increased costs. Now the bills are becoming due and at the worst possible time. It is a pity that the situation is such that the logic of restoring the private sector to a healthy state is lost in the panic about the public debt. But in the late 1970’s and early 1980’ there was not much logic in much of what happened. At least at that time the arrangements were in place to allow both funded and unfunded schemes to function in balance both publicly and privately.

Worse still, the funded schemes in the last few years have been strong armed into buying increasing dodgy Treasury Bonds to prop up government spending, broadly speaking The Enron Strategy. Also they have been encouraged to take risks in speculative areas, accruing what is now toxic debt and to go big into commercial property. The balances have been further disrupted by allowing a privileged few to claim totally disproportionate pensions at a very early age.

A decade ago I recall a meeting at which a prominent writer was a speaker who both knew Gordon Brown well and had written about him. When asked about Brown’s position on pensions he referred to Brown’s deeply held Maoist/Trotskyite beliefs that personal pensions were wrong on social and economic grounds. In the latter case this related to his very odd ideas about what was consumption spending. We know what he has done to private pensions and to their incomes on such savings they have.

But why has he allowed the public sector pension problem to escalate in the way it has? Essentially, it was to keep the public sector unions quiet and to keep these voters on board for Labour. Instead of intervening he has let them dig their own graves, almost literally in effect. The calculation he made in 2007 with the markets riding high was that the vultures would not come flapping in for at least another decade when others would be around to taken the blame, possibly a Conservative government.

Balls may have worked out the detail and Blair would have bought the package because he was never a man for detail, except in his own personal financial affairs. But it was Brown who let it all happen and who did the groundwork for the present disaster. He called the date wrong for the time when the bills came in but unless they are very careful the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats will allow themselves to be saddled with the blame.

For the working population of the present their taxes, national insurance and pension contributions will increase to pay for the stupidities of the recent decades. In their ageing future they will pay again by drawing smaller pensions from a retiring age a lot later than those of those who have retired in the immediate past. They will not like it.

And really, it was all so predictable.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Extortionism And A Tale Of Two Pubs

There are two villages not far away that have faced the closures of their remaining pubs. I call them Firstham and Secondham to avoid difficulties, as I often have to say, I have been thrown out of better pubs than this, but that is too long a story.

In Firstham a number of the local population met together and formed a company to buy out the owner, a Pubcorp, in order to run their own pub as they wish. The cost was several hundred thousand pounds and this was raised. The Pubcorp did not want to get into a serious argument because of the publicity threatened and as the company was paying the asking price it was not worth insisting on it being sold for building use.

Why was the Firstham pub loss making? The former publican had been obliged to face financial requirements and payments to meet the financial targets of the Pubcorp. These in turn had been determined by their creditors, notably their private equity shareholders and other interests in far away places.

They had proved far too much and the former publican had left penniless and having lost his savings. With these burdens removed the company could concentrate its attentions on service, prices and facilities. It might own pubs but essentially it is a company that churns its property portfolio.

The consequence was that now the Firstham pub is trading at a profit. Its asset value has improved accordingly and the members of the company are earning a modest but certain return. The pub has become more valued by its community and is seen once more as something which gives returns rather than just taking away.

In Secondham sadly, it is a different story. The Pubcorp involved there is determined not only to close the pub but to sell it for residential use with a covenant slapped on preventing any use as a pub or food and drink outlet. You see, it has others in the general area, miles away, but they want to eliminate potential competition. The Pubcorp has extracted all it can and is taking its profit.

Secondham has lost its post office, rationalised away by the government, its last shop, thank you Tesco and Asda and every other community provision. The last pub is the last to go. The site is being sold to a developer who intends to put up a shoebox development of eight single bedroom flats which will have only parking slots and will look distinctly out of place. Thank you, Lord Prescott of Little Weighton.

They are laughingly described as “social housing” which are to go to a speculator who specialises in single person places for people on benefits. He has a few in the district and is making a wonderful profit from them. Consequently, there is little or no economic activity in the village. Any money coming into the village goes out somewhere else, to somewhere very distant in most cases.

These days we call the Firstham approach “community action” or “social entrepreneurship” and the Secondham experience we regard as unbridled “capitalism” because it seems to follow on from past Capitalism In reality it is the other way round. Firstham is a true form of capitalism in its early form, a few people pooling savings to invest at a degree of risk for the benefit of their locality and themselves.

What is going on in Secondham is something else altogether. The trouble is that we do not have a name that explains the reality of it. I have been puzzling over the issue of words. The trouble with using words or concepts derived from the past is that they come loaded with the baggage of history. What is happening now is new, totally destructive and means that the many are the losers and the very few the winners.

New Labour may think it is “creative destruction” as in the Trotskyism they were weaned on and admired so much when they were cheering on Pol Pot. But it is neither creative nor progressive, it is a tsunami of greed and grab.

So my word is “Extortionism” and I think it works as well as any other.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

A Present For The President

The debate on who or what should occupy The Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square on a permanent basis has been rumbling on for a long while now. In the past my views have dodged about from one to another. Once, like others I thought that something other than famous military people from the past should be given prominence.

In a phase where science was in my thoughts I pondered on a group of Watson, Crick, Franklin, and Wilkins who gave us the key insights into DNA. Then from the past I thought of putting Davy and Faraday back together in the public eye.

Now I have changed my mind completely and believe that the occupants of The Fourth Plinth should be in the historical context of the square and should be two men of the period who we have to thank for one of the great British military achievements of the early 19th Century. They are men who served Wellington, who has monuments a plenty, who distinguished themselves heroically in battle and who deserve our recognition.

Now that President Obama has decided to revive America’s ancient enmity to Britain and to seek to destroy its wealth and capability we are relieved of the need to be polite to them or avoid praising our men who served in the battles against this rogue state of the past and present. When I suggested that he would begin to support Argentina, on cue according to The Telegraph, he has done just that.

So The Fourth Plinth should now be given to first class statues to the two men who burned Washington DC in August 1814, Major General Robert Ross and Colonel Arthur Brooke, standing side by side, their right arms raised and carrying torches in their hands. Ross, pictured above, was the commander of the Punitive Expedition to the Chesapeake following unprovoked American attacks on Canada and Brooke was his Deputy. Ross died in action and Brooke then assumed command.

Ross does have a monument at Rostrevor in County Down, he was an Ulsterman, by the Mournes but Brooke has no memorial in either Ulster, his birthplace as one of the Brookes of Brookeborough or England, he was resident in London and the Isle of Wight where he married a clergyman’s daughter.

This would be a statement, at least, that if America wants to exercise a foreign policy on the basis of ancient feuds, then at least we understand them. Also, when it comes to feuds, if America insists on meddling in the even more ancient disputes in Afghanisation, then Britain could pull out of the war and leave them to it.

As a parting gift we could send a copy of the portrait of General Sir William Nott that hangs in Camarthen for them to look at and wonder. He was one of the very few soldiers that came out of Afghanistan with his reputation intact and one of his staff was the nephew of Arthur Brooke.

President Obama might learn something from it.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Drugs, Addiction, Control And The Lack Of It

Flipping to Sky News last night to pick up the morning paper headlines there was a news item that was frightening for more than one reason. It concerned Mephadrone and the recent debate about its banning. The location was a large chemicals factory in China which had able managers, scientists and others with the facility to create and produce a variety of synthetic chemical products to order for many purposes.

We were told that if one drug were to be banned then it would be very easy to make and market alternatives within a short space of time that would be just as strong and with similar effects. They would be legal until the relevant authorities had caught up with the developments and taken measures to control them.

My impression was that if the factory geared up quickly they could be into the containers and available from those flats down the road within weeks to give you a legal high, just as good, maybe better and cheap enough for a night on your own special planet.

All this is secondary, there are more important issues. One is that the illegal drugs market is now a major and untaxed commercial activity. Another is that the money from this flows into many pockets and places with unexpected and many unhappy consequences. It is largely untaxed but the costs of the “war on drugs” and the levels of public expenditure devoted to it are borne by those who do pay tax.

Those who campaign for the legalisation of these drugs suggest that if they could be regarded as simply another product and taxed and controlled as such it might be possible to avoid a great deal of the damage and social disasters that occur. Their problem is that even if they are right there are so many vested interests of one sort or another in the present situation it will be difficult to achieve it. How much of our vaunted financial industry benefits from big money laundering and tax evasion?

There is a larger problem of addictions however that goes unrecognised and indeed avoided by the media in relation to the relevant substances and their properties. All of us are affected and the costs are borne in many ways.

Currently it is evident that compared to the past many people are carrying a great deal of extra weight. The substances in question are sugar and the several sugar substitutes. It is argued that the packing of these into so many manufactured foods with their addictive effect stimulates the extra eating and weight gain amongst so many people.

There are allegations that the sugar substitutes are worse than the ordinary sugar despite their “low calorie” claims because they are so addictive and because of hitherto unrecognised effects on the human body. Added to the sugars, the processed grains and the industrial meats there are now the other substances routinely added to food products.

They have a variety of purposes, but to stay with the addiction factor there are the many and various food flavourings. In the last four decades the extent and power of these has vastly increased and the chemists are now concerned not with flavour alone but the “come again” element in the chemical design to attempt to encourage the consumer to continue to demand that particular product brand.

There are preservatives, flavourings as such and flavour enhancers very often in combination in a single food product. They can make a sausage filled with offal fats and the cheapest possible starch fillers taste of any meat. That “English Pork” may come from the brain and entrails of a Polish pig reared and killed in a large filthy diseased factory filled out with the leftovers of any grain uses and whacked up with MSG and strong flavourings.

The adverts will tell you how lovely it is, however the actual sausage might be made in a large shed on an industrial estate in England or it might just be packed there but what more do you expect for the price? Then there are the chicken products but that is another horror story.

The Pharmaceutical industry is much more controlled and there are regulators and testing available. There is still a serious debate about many of the side effects and the influence and power of the industry. Across the Atlantic this is much more vigorous and open. One of the major concerns is because of its importance how close the industry is to the politicians.

In the UK where debate is restricted for a variety of reasons Big Pharm is locked in close embrace with the NHS to the extent that a visit to the family doctor will guarantee you one prescription or more because that ticks the boxes. Don’t ask your doctor to tell you what is the cause of your problems because he or she will not know.

Our research and action is almost all aimed at identification, medication and treatment. That about causes does not “add value” or help to increase GDP. There are side effects and there is the risk in a number of cases of potential addiction. This is supposed to be monitored by the doctors but all too often isn’t. It is easier and more profitable to keep writing the prescriptions.

The most dangerous, nastiest, pervasive and potentially health damaging addictive chemical products are delivered by the fragrance industry, uncontrolled, unregulated and uncaring bent on market share, added value and to hell with consumer health. There has been an explosion in use of the synthetics in recent years and their effects have been hugely increased very recently by the introduction of nanotechnology.

This enables quantities to be claimed to be small whilst the dispersal penetration and long life and adherence properties are hugely enhanced. These products are chemically engineered to be addictive and to have instant and addictive impact on the brain. What they do to the lungs in the long term and the rest of the body we have yet to discover.

Much this comes from China and often the chemicals are not what they are supposed to be. Some comes from around the New Jersey turnpike, some from India and places where there are major pollution issues and some from the remnants of what used to be ICI with all the political implications that ensue in the UK.

In many other consumer products it is possible to have an outline of the nature of the content. But the fragrance, deodorant and cosmetic makers are protected by law against any need to declare their content even when fatalities have occurred or where it is clear that people are having severe health problems. The extent to which this industry has now run amok with the attendant health and addiction risks means that just about all of us will be affected whether we like it or not and the price we will have to pay will be greater that those paid in the past for any other addictive substances.

Why is so little heard from the media? Just read the adverts in the papers and look at them on the TV. The revenues arising from the marketing of so many of the above legal addictive products of one kind or another are critical to their existence so you can forget any real debate or coverage.

We humans like our addictions and indeed cannot have enough of them. Anyhow, may I offer you a drink? What’s your poison?

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

The War Of Rooney's Ankle

Around the corner we have a refugee from South Africa driven out by the media coverage of the World Cup. The lady is in a “safe house” that is without TV and emerges only to go to football free venues. In the meantime we are making bets. I have bet that the USA will clatter Rooney’s ankle in the first ten minutes. The other half has bet that he will be sent off. Either way it will not be good to watch so we are putting on a DVD. But the game might be the final straw that finishes the “Special Relationship” that we have endured so long.

It really began in the 1920’s when waves of American film, music, media and ideas backed by big money flowed in unabated and were devoured by ordinary people overcome by the vigour, colour and professionalism of it all. From the 1940’s on and for the length of The Cold War, despite the ups and downs the need to oppose the Communist states and to work together meant that it continued, albeit with the UK the junior partner often ignored, sometimes helped.

We should have realised once the Berlin Wall came down that some difficult choices had to be made. But we were in Europe, becoming ever more entangled and despite the extensive involvement with American business the money flows alone were not going to keep the relationship “special”. The UK governments continued to buy favour with deregulation of finance on the one hand and sending support troops into wherever the Americans wanted to go on the other.

Now none of it works, the USA itself is bust and has a President and Cabinet looking for people to blame for any or all of its troubles. Guess who is coming to dinner? The BP oil disaster has handed them a gift and they are taking full advantage of it. If the hurricane season turns out to be as lively as predicted and some big ones hit the Gulf it could become worse. You did not hear it here first; there are plenty of others who have been suggesting it.

In international finance the troubles continue. There is talk of aftershocks, double dip depression, chaotic collapses here and there and around the individual States of the USA huge reductions are being made in spending, jobs and services. Wall Street is blamed but you must understand that in the Mid West and The Sticks the street stands for all that is bad in unhealthy foreign influence and malpractice.

But from where? London and England of course, where else? The American Irish are blaming London for the economic disaster in Ireland. The American Jewish believe that a lot of the problems in Palestine are down to the old British Mandate and later Suez Crisis. Others watch the films of American Independence where all the rotters speak with Home Counties accents with not a Scot, Irishman or member of the Kings German Legion in sight. If you want a nasty villain pick an English actor.

A lot of American problems are down to increasing difficulty in matching fiscal revenues locally and nationally with expenditure and that problem has hugely worsened with the scale of tax avoidance/evasion via tax havens, many centred on London and its affiliates. A good many companies are having greater difficulties in dealing with Europe and some of that inevitably is attributed to the erratic conduct of affairs in London.

Our performance in Iraq did not endear us to the military and the blundering supply problems in Afghanistan increased pressures on the Americans. The UK could not even deal with its own wounded. As an ally, the UK has become an ally who cannot be relied on and the politicians who control Defence a liability. In the War On Terrorism, the Americans are convinced that a good deal of the trouble arises from the lax and incompetent conduct of relationships in London. If you want to start looking for where the terrorist planners are you just need to take the Central Line.

When Cameron’s cuts begin we will all be squealing but there will be effects felt in the USA as well. Some of the most expensive and disastrous shambles in our government computer services involve American companies and if there is a major crackdown on all this the pain will be felt in America. It is difficult to see how any cuts in Defence can be made without affecting one American company or another. Anything involving hardware, software, consumer goods, entertainment and many financial services will have an effect across the Atlantic.

We will not see a war as such but the beginning of a continuing and deepening attrition of relationships. There are elections pending soon in the USA and it will not be long before President Obama begins his re-election campaign. He took over in a bad situation and it is not improving anywhere near fast enough. Also, the USA needs to mend fences in many places, South America for one. If Argentina needs to be made a friend what concessions to their feelings might be made?

But to come back to the blame game, within the USA then Wall Street will be getting its full share, but watch the companies involved, do I hear Goldman Sachs, lay off the weight of it onto their foreign partners and subsidiaries. For other blame the USA will avoid some obvious people to complain about. They cannot afford to offend either China or Russia and some other powers. Britain is the most likely one to get the sucker punch when American politics turns rough.

And it might all start with a nasty little media spat about Rooney’s ankle.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Robert Burns, Elephants and Tourists

Rolling into London by train on Saturday on a too warm day as we passed over Borough Market there was a large item of recent graffiti saying “Sack Cameron”. Well, that did not take long, although it might have been sponsored by Ken Livingstone.

We thought we would try our luck in the time in hand to see if The Embankment Gardens was clear enough for a sit down. One good shaded spot is under the statue of Robert Burns.

This time as well as the memorials there were beasts of a kind to look at, in aid of the charity for saving elephants across the world. The Statues are being made and sold in the cause. In the picture above the one on the left is staring up beseechingly at Burns and they are all wearing boxer’s shorts and gloves whilst he is looking down with half closed eyes wondering what the hell to make of it.

When we were sitting there chewing through our picnic all the tourists were giving their full attention to the elephants. There was none to given Burns or any to the other memorials apart from Sir Arthur Sullivan further along. It may well have been the lovely graceful nymph draped around his plinth that caught their eyes rather than Sir Arthur. Burns may well have felt some resentment about this.

The memorials in the Gardens have been put in more or less at random. There is no theme or pattern but as it has occurred to those in charge at the time. So just along from Burns is a fine one to Wilfred Lawson one of the major figures in the late 19th Century Temperance Movement. His is adorned with the words “Charity, Peace, Temperance and Prudence”. I wonder how many Burns would have agreed with.

There is a large memorial then to the first Lord Cheylesmore, Henry Eaton, again a major 19th Century military and political figure. A High Tory his family made their wealth from broking in China silks. He married a lady called Charlotte Harman. Burns adjacent to a Harman connection, what next?

A modest memorial to Henry Fawcett is easily missed. Another major 19th Century figure, an economist and polymath who was interested in progressive social reform. He was also one of the leading proponents of Women’s Rights. Burns may have gone along with the economics.

Not far away is a fine memorial to Robert Raikes, the founder of the Sunday School movement, referred to in the time of Burns who was contemporary to him, as Ragged Schools. The educational situation in Scotland was very different to that in England at the time, much to the advantage of many Scots. What Burns might have thought is an interesting question. It is a pity they never met.

Closest to Burns and again under his eyes just visible in the elephant picture above is a fine small memorial to the First World War Camel Corps, a forgotten force that faced severe challenges and who were precursors to many of the later special forces. It is another one that is without much meaning to any of the tourists.

Robert Burns died tragically young, so were are left with only the memory of a younger man. Had he been given an extra forty years, what then? He would have seen the expansion of Sunday Schools into the Elementary School movements. The first developments of the Temperance Movements would have been taking place along with all the many religious revivals.

The growth of Empire and exploration would have brought a great deal of new learning. There was new music, new literature, new science and new politics. What might he have made of it all? Would he have joined one branch or other of the reformers? Or like others might he have become in old age a defender of the established order?

Would he have had a memorial then raised on The Embankment for the tourists to ignore in favour of a charity sales pitch?

So “To An Elephant”

We find ourselves in foreign place,
Fat Chieftain of the Elephant race,
Amongst them all we take our place,
Poets, pachyderms in gloves and shorts,
We neither have a hint of grace,
In any of the tourists thoughts.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Curtains For London?

An intriguing contrast was in this mornings light reading. One was the current edition of World Archaeology and the other a press release from Thames Water. The archaeology had a major item by Brian Fagan (see Wikipedia) on ancient remains in Turkey, all the many and various peoples and their forms of civilization that were there once but are there no longer.

Also, there was an item on the Maya culture in the Americans and their advanced use of water systems, also long gone. Add to that an item on the Cro Magnons and the ebb and flow of their population movement in the long eras of pre-history which had a lot to do with water one way or another.

All of this had a great deal to do with water supplies and use and the critical nature of this basic resource. In short, no water, no civilisation and usually no people. It seems that in our Atlantic Isles we can no longer supply our population, notably in the London area from the natural sources of fresh water we demand. We have found it necessary to use the energy hungry and costly process of desalination to secure our supplies.

Moreover, the energy source referred to is Biodiesel. At present more and more UK land is being taken from food use to grow the crops for “bio” fuels. At the same time our Balance of Trade figures are getting worse by the year. If this goes on, it can only end badly, as it has done so often in human history.


Mainland UK's first-ever desalination plant was opened today to provide "seriously water-stressed" London with a much-needed back-up supply to use in the event of a drought. Powered by renewable energy, the Thames Gateway Water Treatment Works, at Beckton in east London, will, when required, turn a mixture of seawater and river water from the tidal River Thames into high-quality drinking water for up to one million Londoners.

Today's official opening, by The Duke of Edinburgh, marks the latest addition to Thames Water's long-term measures to ensure it can meet the demand for water. The ongoing replacement of London's leaky Victorian water mains has helped cut leakage by more than a quarter in the past five years. But that progress on its own is not enough to ensure London will have enough water in a drought. The capital is classed by the Environment Agency as "seriously water-stressed", which means that demand could outpace supply in a long dry period.

With climate change threatening hotter, drier summers and an additional 700,000 people forecast to move to London by 2021, the new water works will be available to help provide the capital's supplies for the future - whatever the weather. The key treatment process in desalination is reverse osmosis, which involves forcing salty water through extremely fine membranes. This tried-and-tested technology is used at 14,000 water treatment plants across the world and has kept crews on Royal Navy ships refreshed for decades.

However, while most reverse osmosis plants have one or two stages, which yield around half of the source water as drinking water, the £270m Gateway works is the world's first-ever four-stage reverse osmosis system, yielding a far more efficient 85 per cent.

The works will only take in water on the outgoing tide, when it is a third as salty as normal seawater and so requires less energy to treat it. Martin Baggs, Chief Executive of Thames Water said, “People may wonder why we're equipping 'rainy' London with a desalination plant, something more often associated with the Middle East, southern Europe or ocean-going liners. But the fact is, London isn't as rainy as you might think - it gets about half as much rain as Sydney, and less than Dallas or Istanbul.

Water is an increasingly precious resource that we can no longer take for granted. "Our existing resources - from non-tidal rivers and groundwater - simply aren't enough to match predicted demand in London. That's why we're tapping into the new and limitless resource of the tidal Thames, fed by the rolling oceans beyond, so we can ensure our 8.5 million customers have enough water in future in the event of a drought.

"The 2005/06 drought was too close for comfort, with only a very wet May saving the day, and we never want a repeat of that. It highlighted what we already knew: additional water sources are needed, as well as a lot more work on reducing leakage, to be sure we have sufficient supplies long-term.

"This new works is a major advance in desalination technology and in UK water resource management. Running it on biodiesel, derived from materials including used cooking oil, will also help us tread as lightly as possible on the environment, on which our core business depends."

David Bland, Chairman of the Consumer Council for Water’s London and South East Region said, "Notwithstanding the obvious cost of building and running the plant, CCWater warmly welcomes the opening of the Thames Gateway Water Treatment Works. The security of the water supply for all users, in all circumstances, is our absolute over riding priority, and this plant will contribute significantly to that assurance at times of the greatest risk to supplies.

"It is a major investment by Thames Water which, alongside the vital programme to reduce leakage in London by replacing the Victorian water mains, will reassure our increasing population that the most essential commodity is constantly available. We congratulate the company on the completion of this facility, a first in mainland Britain."


So how many more desalination plants are we going to require and at what cost? Just how much bio or other fuel will be needed? Does nobody understand that sometime very soon something has to give?

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Hot, Cold, And In Between

Many of the science and all that stories in the newspapers are nicked from Science Daily dot com and too often mucked about and misinterpreted by unpaid interns for easy reading. Here for a change is a full item from last year. Global Warming and Global Cooling, take your pick, is a complicated business.

Researchers have largely put to rest a long debate on the underlying mechanism that has caused periodic ice ages on Earth for the past 2.5 million years – they are ultimately linked to slight shifts in solar radiation caused by predictable changes in Earth's rotation and axis.

Researchers from Oregon State University and other institutions conclude that the known wobbles in Earth's rotation caused global ice levels to reach their peak about 26,000 years ago, stabilize for 7,000 years and then begin melting 19,000 years ago, eventually bringing to an end the last ice age.

The melting was first caused by more solar radiation, not changes in carbon dioxide levels or ocean temperatures, as some scientists have suggested in recent years.
"Solar radiation was the trigger that started the ice melting, that's now pretty certain," said Peter Clark, a professor of geosciences at OSU. "There were also changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and ocean circulation, but those happened later and amplified a process that had already begun."

The findings are important, the scientists said, because they will give researchers a more precise understanding of how ice sheets melt in response to radiative forcing mechanisms. And even though the changes that occurred 19,000 years ago were due to increased solar radiation, that amount of heating can be translated into what is expected from current increases in greenhouse gas levels, and help scientists more accurately project how Earth's existing ice sheets will react in the future.

"We now know with much more certainty how ancient ice sheets responded to solar radiation, and that will be very useful in better understanding what the future holds," Clark said. "It's good to get this pinned down."

To make their analysis, the researchers used an analysis of 6,000 dates and locations of ice sheets to define, with a high level of accuracy, when they started to melt. In doing this, they confirmed a theory that was first developed more than 50 years ago that pointed to small but definable changes in Earth's rotation as the trigger for ice ages.

"We can calculate changes in the Earth's axis and rotation that go back 50 million years," Clark said. "These are caused primarily by the gravitational influences of the larger planets, such as Jupiter and Saturn, which pull and tug on the Earth in slightly different ways over periods of thousands of years."

That, in turn, can change the Earth's axis – the way it tilts towards the sun – about two degrees over long periods of time, which changes the way sunlight strikes the planet. And those small shifts in solar radiation were all it took to cause multiple ice ages during about the past 2.5 million years on Earth, which reach their extremes every 100,000 years or so.

Sometime around now, scientists say, the Earth should be changing from a long interglacial period that has lasted the past 10,000 years and shifting back towards conditions that will ultimately lead to another ice age – unless some other forces stop or slow it. But these are processes that literally move with glacial slowness, and due to greenhouse gas emissions the Earth has already warmed as much in about the past 200 years as it ordinarily might in several thousand years, Clark said.

"One of the biggest concerns right now is how the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets will respond to global warming and contribute to sea level rise," Clark said. "This study will help us better understand that process, and improve the validity of our models."

The research was done in collaboration with scientists from the Geological Survey of Canada, University of Wisconsin, Stockholm University, Harvard University, the U.S. Geological Survey and University of Ulster. It was supported by the National Science Foundation and other agencies.