Friday 31 January 2014

Dog Days

It has been my view that dogs are often stupid despite some natural intelligence, but the reason why may have been locked into the genes from ancient times.

Science has changed my mind because wolves are brighter than dogs it seems according to an article in Science Daily.

My theory now is that as dogs descended from wolves and then became domesticated they were made stupid by long term close contact with humans.

So don't blame the dogs.

Thursday 30 January 2014

A Kingdom For A Groat

The events yesterday were too predictable. The Governor of the Bank of England, an establishment founded by a Scot to bail out a Stuart Monarch, gave a lecture in basic monetary economics in Edinburgh.  Mark Carney, a Canadian, a nation with a great deal of Scottish heritage stated the obvious in formal terms.

This was dismissed by the SNP as being "technocratic", implying that it would be the political wrangling and horse trading that would matter.  The Russians may have given up on Marx and Lenin, but the SNP hasn't.  Down in Westminster a UK government hampered by the need to continue propping up bust Scottish banks continued to blunder around with other matters.

Is it that if the "Yes" side win, the SNP hopes to be dealing with a Labour UK government in 2015?  This might assume that even with independence in train there will be Scottish members at Westminster as part of the Labour majority or influential with a Lib Dem coalition.  Or is there a deeper strategy to somehow wreck Scottish Labour which along with Lib Dem losses give the SNP permanent rule?

One thesis is that an independent Scotland would be one of the richest nations on earth in terms of GDP per head allowing for this or that.  As I recall, so was Argentina in the late 1940's.  Historically, there has been many a rich nation who blew it in the past.  Sadly, it takes discipline, foresight and the careful management of assets to maintain it.

For those who view financial crashes and disasters through a technocratic lens, especially the heretic fringe that like to think in terms of chaos, uncertainty, collapse dynamics and such the SNP is embarked on high risk and dangerous tactics.  This is in the absence of a definable strategy.

Making it up as you go along in order to corral the short term votes is one thing in certain policy areas but when embarking on a global and changing future the currency is another matter.  The choice to be adopted is a major long term and critical element in how the nation will function and work. 

When the Euro seemed a nice idea and according to the Brussels neo-mafia, discussion and political deals would sort out the difficulties as and when they arose the SNP was all for the Euro.  At present the dollar might be an option, but the role of a secondary Panama does not appeal and there are questions about the dollar.

So in order to assure the voters that the pounds in their pockets will not be affected, and that the SNP will force Westminster to its knees in the event of disagreements, it is the UK pound that is offered.  Currently the pound looks healthy because so many others are in trouble.

But what is going on in London, no longer an English city by any standard other than an accident of geography, cannot be relied on for either stability or long term prosperity for most of its population.  The English are in hock to the global corporations and all the foreign heavy money parked in the London offshore network and property.

The pound is a bad bet in the longer term and could be a major gamble.  The Irish punt was tied to the pound between 1928 and 1978 and it put a straitjacket on the Republic's economy and political life.  That kind of "independence" came at a heavy personal cost to the ordinary Irish people.

There is one reason for the SNP's inexplicable stance.  That is for many of its elite and key financial supporters, their money is in the London offshore network of tax havens.  That is their personal assets and fortunes are so much tied to the pound now that there is no way out for those individuals at the present time.

A Scotland with a real Scottish vision for the future would buckle down and manage with care the introduction of its own currency and accept the challenges entailed.  If the assets are there it can be done and should be done.

Bring back the King Robert III Groat; it's market value adjusted for inflation and contingencies.

Wednesday 29 January 2014

See You Later, Dominator

In the Huffington Post in the last couple of days, David Campbell Bannerman, a Conservative Member of the European Parliament, has listed the expenditures of the European Commission on it public relations etc. activities.  His view is that Brussels is out to dominate Europe culturally and we should be wary.

Regrettably the pass has been sold for a long time.  Around 35 years ago at the back end of the 1970's they were at it.  Then it wasn't just culture and identity, it was education as well.  They were certainly looking to tap in to all the educational provision to enable a European dimension to it.

Then I was working; or rather employed, being in the public sector.  The chap in charge of the post room wandered in to ask me if I knew anything about Europe.  Pointing out of the window, I told him it was over there somewhere.  The direction was westerly, but we did not go much on detail those days.

He was told to leave it with me to pass on to whoever there might be a grudge against.  It was a fat bundle of paper and looked like unwanted work.  But soon it was realised that there were freebies to be had and the bulk of the paper was wordy theorising. 

My eye fixed on one thing, however, a week in the valley of the Moselle.  This could mean vineyards, cheap fizz from the area close to Champagne country and the chance to return with a vehicle full of duty free all expenses paid.

Instantly, a Europhile was born. It was a good week in the old monastery at Pont a Mousson with jugs of free wine being handed round at dinner to keep us talking together. We had a dose of culture as well, but enjoyable enough.  There was not much mixing, the French and Germans stayed in their own groups while the Brit's joined in with the Dutch and the Danish; what changes?

The work part was the obligation to write a considered report on the subject and deliberations of the conference.  As a hobby was doing literary competitions "in the style of" knocking out three to four thousand words of high sounding flannel did not take long.  To my delight I was asked to take part in another freebie in Copenhagen, telling the Danes how to organise their systems to mesh with those of Europe.

Sadly, Denmark did not have vineyards, but it did mean an interesting week with some pleasant high level occasions.  What I did learn was that the Danes seemed to be a great deal more efficient and better organised than anyone else.  Whether Europe has changed all that is another matter.

What most people in the UK are not aware of and if anything has been the preserve of the London and Westminster gaggles, is the extent to which Europe has intervened in and affected a wide range of cultural, educational and other national institutions across Europe and in the UK.

It has been going on since the mid 1970's and has grown and grown so that now little is untouched by it if you look hard enough. On the Arts channels there is a great deal of Euro supported programming.  My Europhile time did not last long, a change of job and other things meant moving on.

But when I look at then and look at now, it is easy to see why and how so many in a wide variety of sectors are drawn into and kept on the Euro pay roll, either directly or indirectly.

That is how Empires work and how they dominate.

Tuesday 28 January 2014

Anyone For A Crisis?

For a dose of American cynicism on current money matters there is this link from the Nouriel Roubini site which is host to a number of economic and financial commentators. 

This suggests that whenever a crisis is to hand then so is Citibank the inference being that they are the boys to watch for when it all goes bad.

It was a little while ago since there was a difference of opinion  with this particular bank and it became a bit rough, so I am happy to side with those who have a reservations about the way it does business.

The article is not long and quite readable.  With the division of views at present between the optimists and the pessimists 2014 will be interesting.  The BBC has reminded us that August 1914 was also a time for a financial crisis when the markets were spooked by the War.

On the sketchy information provided there was a question in the mind of how far it was just the reactions of savers that drove the run on banks and bonds or how much it might have been driven by crafty bear speculation.

So if anyone sees Citibank indulging in a bear raid on the markets it is time to pull up the drawbridge.  Perhaps the next  big one might finally do for the European Uncommunity.

Monday 27 January 2014

Past Politics And Identities

When I became eligible to vote in the days before saturation modern media politics was the press and any voluntary action of interest.  The BBC did not do much beyond basic reporting and there was no local radio and advertising was basic and skimpy.

But there was wide interest.  Political parties locally and nationally had much larger memberships and I recall an Attlee election meeting which drew several thousand in the audience who listened.  It was a very different world and a people with different basic attitudes.

For my part and most others what had happened two decades or more before and who was involved was history.  We were interested in the now and the future.  Could the Socialists deliver their promised land?  Could the Tories manage greater freedoms and allow decent social security and housing?  Could either of them reclaim the UK as a great trading power with a real world presence?

Arguing the whys and wherefores of the gold standard, The General Strike of 1926 and the wisdom or not and attitudes of Ramsay Macdonald, Lloyd George or Stanley Baldwin was both pointless and stupid.  Times had changed, the economy had changed radically and the future was going to be very different with all the technological and scientific advances.

By 2015 it will have been 25 years since Mrs. Thatcher left power, a full generation ago.  You need to be over 40 to have any actual memory and over 50 to have an effective political memory of her time in office.  The recent releases of 1983 documents look almost antique and the language is of a different order. 

The internet had not yet been created and the Cold War had ended only months before.  Yet we have people going on about Thatcherism and the events of her time.  Whether or not she got some things right or some things wrong is about as relevant to the present as old copies of the "Punch" magazine, in which a couple of times I had items.

Mrs. Thatcher was keen on the concept of "British Identity".  One reason may have been that she was aware that this was then and before something of an elusive concept.  Certainly when she first began in politics the main London media at the time did have a lot to say about Britishness.  My memory of that period is that the idea was vague, too much to do with Empire and world power and if anything our most immediate concerns were local.

You were British because you were British and might wave the flag and hope for Olympic medals etc. and were supposed to be proud of great projects, many of which never really worked or got off the ground. It was the increasing gap between media message and local realities that led to the growing detachment of the 1960's and cynicism of the 1970's.  I stopped buying British cars they were badly made, unreliable and expensive to run.

Quite what British "identity" we are supposed to have now is a real question.  The train on Saturday into London had about 400 people on board.  Excluding children around half are not eligible to vote and of the other half there were few over 40.  Quite what "identities" they might have is a question.  Very few, I think, would say "British" despite some being of that classification in the Census.

As a statistical sample this was not a good one.  But the more you look around the more you have an older element in the electorate who will either vote as they have always done or not at all. Some of them might say they have a "British" identity but this might be the default option.  As for the younger elements among the voters it is likely to be down to narrow personal financial interest.  What "identity" they might have is likely to be one created for them as a marketing defined segment.

Among many of the electorate it is likely that the General Election will be the equivalent of one of many Awards ceremonies, but this one is for which of the unattractive, unreliable collection of second raters and has been's is worth bothering to vote for.

The signs are that for many, especially the younger voters, it will not be worth bothering at all to vote for thickies who do nothing else but argue about ancient history and things that no longer exist.

We are in the picture above.


Sunday 26 January 2014

Saving For A Rainy Day

On the train clanking out over The Thames, looked up river and saw some cloud formations which looked out of place.  We agreed that it was certainly a very heavy shower.  Then the train was diverted and we were told trees were down.  It seems that we had been looking at a mini tornado.  It was a long late journey home as trains queued along the line that was open.

This was not in the forecasts.  These had told of rain and wind and some warnings of flooding.  So in part they were right.  The trouble was either the forecasters were reluctant to give estimates that might have been sensational with the risks of looking foolish if wrong or their methods did not allow for the extra dimension of weather extremes.

Weather patterns can be variable in the short term as well as the longer term.  I am hesitant to use or even suggest "climate" because that is now a provocative word in debate or discussion.  In North America and other places the weather has become more extreme one way or another.  From history, and that is sketchy at best. we know it happens and has happened often enough in one place or another.

One feature of interest is the large blocking weather system that has been off California for some months now leading to water shortages.  The assumption is that it ought to go soon.  But that is not certain.  Could it stay for months or for a run of years?  We do not know enough about the past, other than from archaeology to know of any precedents for certain.

One puzzle in the mind is what the populations of California might have been in the past.  Now it is said to be close to forty million.  Yet in 1850, the figure, that might be well short was less than a million.  What figures might it have been in the past?  Given that it has been such a rich and fertile land why did the population never seem to be enough to enable an ancient civilisation or two or more to exist?

We are aware from other parts of the world that a change in rainfall patterns that are prolonged can have a catastrophic effect on water supply, the land and the population that can be maintained.  In the Indian sub-continent in the past monsoon failures over continuous years have led to depopulation of the districts affected.

When I studied history in the past and read of empires and civilisations lost, or upheavals, breakdowns in kingdoms or persistent conflict it was all about power, politics or religion. Weather patterns or climate were little mentioned, if at all purely incidentally as part of the background.

There was not much attention given to economic factors, all too often, which can be a mainspring in the motives of power seeking.  Given that so much was known about Emperors, Kings and potentates and their statues and building sprees, it was not difficult to assume that other things were necessarily of little or no significance.

What exactly would be the economic effects of years of the current weather conditions in North America?  What if these do materialise elsewhere in a failure of the monsoons?  Also, there are other heavily populated areas vulnerable to radical weather changes.  In minor areas, such as the northern part of mainland Britain, serious deterioration in weather conditions have had major political effects in the past.

The one certainty is that the human population of the globe is almost entirely unready to deal with these, assumes that they cannot happen in the immediate future or that governments can and will be able to deal with them by printing more money.

Down the ages one regular feature of human behaviour is the willingness to play games and gamble.  At present we are taking one huge gamble on being able to cope with anything the weather can choose to do.

Friday 24 January 2014

Booting Up The Memory

It was a wet winter in the 50's, not as bad as the present one but the clouds and rain seemed to be ever present.  We had a fixture at Woolwich against an Army College side at the Artillery Barracks and it was going to be in steady rain with a stiff cross wind and on a very heavy pitch.

After the kick off we had a promising line out near to their 25. We had good ball out to the fly half and he put a kick into open field close to their line for us to have a go.  Their full back was too quick, just plucked the wet heavy ball out of the air and belted it sixty yards down the pitch.

This kind of thing carried on.  Any time he was near a ball he kicked us all the way back.  When we did get a break he was not just hard to beat but simply too fast. When he had the ball in his hands we had to be quick to cover and tackle. 

It was not the regular plodding back in constant retreat against the other side, it was turning into a rout.  Very soon we decided to close the game down as our forwards were equal to theirs.  So for the rest of us it was a long cold wet afternoon just trotting from one scrum or line out to another and trying to avoid letting their full back get anywhere near the ball.

We kept the score down to a respectable defeat.  At least we were given a decent meal afterwards and were donated a few buckets of beer as impoverished students with thirst issues.  That some of us were ex-service helped

They were quite apologetic. Apparently they were a man short and a chaplain who happened to be around had volunteered to play, he said he was a full back so they lent him a shirt more in hope than anything.  There was something familiar about him that we could not quite place at first.

In The Telegraph today in the Obituaries I saw one that kicked in the memory of that wet and miserable afternoon.  The chaplain clergyman who took the shirt to help out the opposition team was Gerry (J.G.M.W.) Murphy of Trinity College, Dublin, the British Army XV, The Barbarians and Ireland.

Other than the rugby and that he was a chaplain, I did not know of his overall background and career.  But as now one of my interests is who might have met who or been connected in an unexpected way it adds to the collection.

He is a good man to remember and honour in his going.  But I wish it had been a fine frosty day with a firm pitch and we had been able to run the ball.  We might just have given him more trouble.

Thursday 23 January 2014

A Man's A Man

It is Burn's night on Saturday with the usual festivities.  The plans went less well at Highgrove in Gloucestershire, home to Charles, Prince of Wales, where the bash at £135 a head drew no takers triggering a price cut down to £55.  Even this seems a lot for haggis and neeps and a dram or two.

But he who pays the piper calls the tune. Somehow, Highgrove does not seem to be quite the right place for a recitation of "Tam O'Shanter, A Tale.", even if a free opportunity to talk to the trees might be on offer.  The celebration of Burns will be world wide, notably in the USA, where those of Scots descent are still numerous enough.

As small events are often the triggers for bigger things it gives scope for debate about which might or might not be.  For my money when a Nesbitt family was among the first European settlers in Kentucky this was the beginning of the end for the First Nation people's hegemony over the rest.

They called the territory Ayr County after their homeland.  So another option of history could have been Robert Burns going West to become an American pioneer as opposed to a literary one. It is fascinating to think of what might have been if Burns and Daniel Boone had got together.

Burns had at one time thought of going to Jamaica as an overseer.  Quite where and to work for whom is a question.  Could it have been in the Trelawney Parish?  There were plantations owned by Scots families.  He went as far as Greenock on The Clyde and then wisely gave up the idea returning home.  Greenock has that effect on some people.

It was very hard in Scotland at that time in the aftermath of the major 1783 Icelandic Laki Fissure eruptions which impacted so badly on agriculture and its associated economic activities for a number of years afterwards. Burns finished up as a public sector worker in The Excise, essentially a travelling tax inspector, a job which gave him some interesting perspectives on human nature.

The picture above is of the Accrington Pipe Band, some sixty or so years ago.  Then very many towns and cities in England had a pipe band provided by their Scottish community, but no more.

Essex was especially strong, having taken in a lot of Scots migrants.  Many of today's Essex girls are the grand or great grand daughters of Scots who worked on the land and in the factories.

They will have forgotten this heritage, though, Saturday will just be an ordinary weekend boozing opportunity.  And I doubt whether there has been a mention or hint of Burns in their education.  He is lost to all of them.

But I hope to be passing his statue on the Embankment on Saturday and will raise my cap to his memory.  The dram or three will have to wait until we get home as driving has to be done.

Wednesday 22 January 2014

Wandering Thoughts

It started with a question about how the boundaries of the property where we live originated in that they did not make sense.  That was soon dealt with because of how the first building on the site came to be.

But it was who the man was and where he came from.  It was from The Lakes in old Cumberland, from a minor landed family, but crucially one of the hunting fraternity.  The connection was soon made to Sir Wilfrid Lawson, Wiki, an interesting and leading figure in the 19th Century House of Commons.

He too was an avid huntsman and grew up when the notable John Peel, with his coat so grey, was a major figure in the area and famed beyond.  One of the major hunts in the area was the Blencathra.  A link to their web site was provided by a contact and it has some fascinating history.

In one part of it there is a reference to a common type of person in the 19th Century the hunting parson who spent a lot more time with the hounds chasing foxes than with either his books or his parish.  In that age one of a major, if not the major, events in week in the Parish was the sermon at the Sunday Service.

Some clergymen prided themselves on their own efforts, many wrote some of their own but made use of others.  A good many I suspect took their sermons from one of many books of these published for that purpose.  It did save a deal of time and trouble just to read out something already thought good or at least to revise it for local consumption.

This quote from the web pages of the hunt gives an example from the disposal of the estate of a deceased Vicar.

“Now,” said the auctioneer, “ we come to the library; there are seventy volumes all told. Sixty-nine of them are sporting books, which look as if they have been very much read, and the seventieth is a volume of “Blair’s Sermons,” as good as new."

The name Blair inevitably made me twitch and the man was soon found to be the Rev.Hugh Blair, a long and hefty Wiki, a redoubtable intellectual of The Scottish Enlightenment whose Sermons were a major work in their time. 

Alas, in the matter of the Ossian business he failed to spot the fraud but to quote Wiki; "He was described as amiable, kind to young authors, and remarkable for a harmless, but rather ridiculous vanity and simplicity."  That sounds familiar.

The path took another direction when having learned of the significance of the Rev. Blair it appeared that Jane Austen may have made more use of his sermons than simply whiling away the long hours reading instructive texts.  It is suggested that they provided the structural moral back drop to her stories.  The post by a Miss Sneyd was intriguing given that this family was around in Hampshire at the time. 

I already had a question in my mind having been looking at the digitised Hampshire local press for that period about entirely different matters.  Looking at the nature of some of the text, the clarity of exposition and some of the actual events and stories, I wondered if Jane was a regular reader of the local press.  It all looked a bit previous, as James Hunt might have said.

The uncomfortable thought that might have me hounded from the web is that Jane, as well as being a highly intelligent and able lady, learned and literate, may have been one of the supreme cut and paste artists in the written word.

The web is a great place if you don't mind spending time.

Tuesday 21 January 2014

Lions And Donkeys Or Leaders And Led

A post on the Army Rumour Service web site led me to the BBC item on the characterisation of the British Army during World War One as lions led by donkeys.  The article is a debunking of ten beliefs of the war that have been become common place in recent decades.

The linked article is short enough and clear in making its points. In spite of the intention to avoid this subject until much later in the year, this week there was cause to change the mind.  The National Archive has digitised a number of the War Diaries of some of the units and they are available to view or download.

It is a while since I was going through some of these at Kew, then the Public Record Office, now the National Archive.  It was a costly and time consuming business to go, call up the records and read them, despite being free to enter and look.  Photocopying was not cheap and some not allowed because of the delicate state of the documents.

Now it can be done at home, at leisure and very cheaply given that the broadband links and computer are already in place.  There is still the question of what you are looking at.  The writers of the diaries were different men in a different time and the nuances and meaning of the terse phrasing are not of our present language structures.

Also, it is often almost a technical wording that needs some expertise to fully understand.  Some historians I feel do not fully grasp the essentials of what is there.  Having been in the Army and although mercifully never in battle conditions, I did spend a great deal of time out there in the field doing what might have to be done.  That included keeping the Divisional Log, the basis of any diary or reporting.

A great deal of debate is about officers and men.    Again you have to go back to the realities of the period.  The officer corps was not simply aristocratic.  As well as their younger sons making a military career there were many others from the lower ranks of the county and minor landed classes.  In all of these was commonly a long military or naval tradition.

That they had been to public schools or equivalent on the whole meant that they had a substantial basic education.  Also, they were likely to have done time in the school Army Training Corps.  Then there is the bit rarely mentioned.  For most, nearly all of them there was the experience of field sports, rushing around the countryside becoming familiar with "ground" and using guns.

This was not the case with the modest number of those who had some higher level day secondary education.  The great majority of men had only a handful of years experience for the most part in Elementary Schools of variable quality.  Physical training was usually basic drills on a small school yard. 

There were numbers of men who had studied further after school and many of these became warrant officers (senior NCO's) and sergeants because they were capable of dealing with the paper etc. as well as doing well as soldiers.  In the later years of the war some of these men were commissioned as the manpower crisis worsened.

The officers in 1914 were broadly of three levels.  Junior officers who were leaders of men but did not make decisions, field commanders of companies, battalions/regiments and at brigade who made decisions within a determined framework of operations, and senior staff at Division, Corps and Army who issued the general operation orders.

The Army then was relatively well trained with high standards of marksmanship and with a lot of field experience around the world in small wars.  So at the level of field commander it was very capable.  The junior officers and men were professional and also capable.  The senior staff knew how to fight small mobile wars but not large scale continental wars.  They had to learn on the job.

As the war went on the old professional Army was lost, but among the field commanders were many men of experience and still capable.  The junior officers suffered heavy losses and became increasingly junior.  The senior staff had to direct a war for which the Army had neither been prepared or equipped and without experience of the logistics on this scale.

The politicians who had started the war proved unable to come to a way of stopping it and there was no other major world power to intervene to knock heads together.  The USA was busy with elections, making money and regarded the matter as one to stay away from until 1917.
The critical difference between WW1 and many others is the relatively static nature of the fighting in the trench warfare  This meant that in many ways it was a far more bureaucratic war than others, so there is a much bigger paper trail at all levels. 

Also there was almost a permanent infrastructure behind the lines in which more time was spent than in the trenches.  The reason for this is quite simple.  After very few days of action a typical unit could be exhausted, even if casualties were light.  The 24/7 nature of time in the trenches was not sustainable for long.  My memory is that ten days out there of constant movement and work with little or no rest left you shattered.

One period of the war typically is less mentioned than others and that is the Great Spring Offensive of Spring 1918, also known as the Ludendorff Offensive (see Wikipedia for summary) when for a short space of time the Germans had an advantage.  The assault south of Arras succeeded.  The Germans nearly made it to the coast. 

But Arras was held and the Germans became exhausted and ground to a halt.  This left them both exposed with major salients and vulnerable to counter attack.  The rest of 1918 was a story of Allied advance and gradual attrition of Germany both in the field and in the factories.

What is not said was that to some extent the British were aware and ready.  In one part of my download above, is a report by the GOC of 3 Div (The Iron Division) to Army about a trench raid by the Germans on 13 Bn Kings Liverpool in mid February 1918.  It is clear he knew what Storm Troopers were, that there was a general awareness of the dangers of any German assault and was deeply worried whether the British could handle it.

One matter that has to be allowed is that because of modern technology and facilities it is now far easier and less time consuming to go through much of the detail.  And it is the detail that can tell us so much more than we knew in the past. It has become possible to track very many men individually, who they were, background and the rest and this in itself tells another part of the story.

Again, it was the politicians who started the war who had little or no idea of what might happen.  For the UK it had been a century since our last major continental war.

Monday 20 January 2014

Looking for A Job?

At the end of the 1940's my father's uncle offered to fix me up with a job at the Municipal Tram Sheds.  He averred it was steady work for life and the chance even of a pension if I was good enough to work in the office, say dealing with the work sheets or repair listings.

My mother was reluctant, not because of ambition, but because she distrusted my attitude to powered vehicles.  Already there had been one or two problems.  In any case she believed, to the uncles disdain, that buses were the future.  When the council finished with trams not long later it gave her great satisfaction.

The companies my parents worked for are now long gone as are their products and services.  Indeed in that town a huge proportion of the then firms and jobs have gone, never to return.  I often wonder what happened to my old friends who worked in them.

For the uncle's generation, trams were the new high tech' gear with all the electrical and machinery and the rest.  He could not imagine that they would go so quickly and so extensively. His father had worked in the wonders of the new steam powered ships spending his life as an engineer in the boiler room.  His mother's father was a mariner in the late age of sail, blessed with new navigational equipment.

As it was so shall it be.  Naked Capitalism has a short piece on the future of jobs and trends.  It is chiefly concerned with the impact of new technology on a range of occupations with a special regard for robots etc.  This is linked to a much longer article on which the piece is based in the Economist this week discussing the rates of change in a discursive way.

In the decades since the 1940's the one certainty has been the degree to which Government's both fail to understand and fail to prepare for the radical changes likely to occur in the structure of both the economy and employment in general and within sectors.  That an existing work force will demand protection and subsidy is understandable. 

If it gets it then the government will be investing in the past to claim growth in the future.  Certainly, there will be growth in terms of the money go round.  But what will be more likely is a gradual and damaging attrition in the sectors that should be providing the jobs of the future.

More dangerous it that there can be serious malinvestment in that economic activities that have been large scale recently and in the immediate past become the templates for how the government spends for the future and supports such private action that is similar.

It you look at the situation in the European Uncommunity you see precisely this on a continental scale.

Sunday 19 January 2014

Water Water Not Everywhere

In his own blog, in The Guardian of 13 January and The Sunday Mail today, Sunday, George Monbiot has discussed the recent flooding and argues well that much of the present travails are man made.  As so often the policies and regulations of the EU, the European Uncommunity play a major part.  These are made worse by the inadequacies of the Agriculture and Environment Department, DEFRA.

In Westminster, DEFRA is not one of the top posts, dealing with things we take for granted, such as food, water and the land.  Most of its work is an agency function for the EU and other international bodies and internal agencies, to whom it is happy to allow the dirty work to be done, much in the way that a rich landowner or land corporation leaves it to the tenants.

Politically, if anything, it is a backwater, to use a word, where those who run it are usually going nowhere and often going or have gone out of favour.  It is also almost a part of the job specification that the less you know about the relevant work the better.  Labour had Margaret where my caravan has rested Beckett who did not lose the plot but never realised that there was one.

The present boss, Owen Patterson, is on course to make Margaret look like a top graduate from the Royal College of Agriculture.  But the Monbiot article sticks to the point he is making, the flooding and how what happens upstream and in the headwaters are critical to the amount and nature of flows down river.

He is careful not to extend and complicate the debate in order to avoid complicating and extending the issues.  He is right to do so and barely hints of a broader, long term and more difficult set of policy problems, those involving our water supplies for the future and in the long term.

We have had in very recent times, not simply flooding when there are wet spells, but actual water supply shortages and risks where there are long dry spells.  What this means is that for some time now the overall management of water supply and what has to be done and how has been on the political back burner.

If a major crisis does occur it is not something that can be fixed short term, or covered by importing in a hurry and at great cost.  We could be in real trouble.  There would not just be the disruption to industry and commerce.  Given the fraught state of many urban areas there are real risks of violence and failures of social control.

The existence of clean, generally available and ample water supply plus drainage is very recent in our history.  It was not until the late 19th Century that is came to our urban areas and in some rural and other places as late as the mid 20th Century.  I grew up with people for whom the water supply was a modern miracle and married in a village still without main drains and on a main road.

Now it is all taken for granted and assumed that it is something that takes care of itself or is left to a few experts to deliver. Meanwhile DEFRA encourages the maximising of immediate run off of rain water and the government does little or nothing to deal with storage, supply maintenance and increase while wildly promising to build millions of houses for the many millions more in the UK who expect as much water as they want at minimal cost.

In general most of us resent actually having to pay anything for water supply, I mean it falls from the sky doesn't it and we do not want it in our own back yard.

Friday 17 January 2014

Banking In The Shadows

In a routine speech with the earnest look, raised voice and pointing fingers Ed Miliband has promised to do for the bad banks, break them up and we shall all live happily, or not, ever after.  Shares promptly fell adding to the problems of many public service pensions funds.

It seems he is talking about the banks we can see but that world has many and various banking institutions few of them based in the UK.  Even banks which we might assume to be based here may well not be if you look hard at the structures.  There is a great deal more that we do not see than we do.

More to the point one of the major areas of concern is the world of shadow banking and by inverse logic it may be that world that is the real one where credit is concerned.  Vox has a long article on Shadow Banking which is a difficult and complicated read.  The Conclusions below may not help you much but need to be weighed against the naive simplicities of Miliband speak.    



Thanks to the safe harbour rules, a shadow bank can hold risky illiquid assets and earn full risk premia with funding at the overnight repo rate. In what is essentially a synthetic bank, repo and collateral swap haircuts act as market-defined capital ratios.

Liquidity transformation across states and entities has procyclical effects.

It enhances credit and asset liquidity in normal or boom times, at the cost of accelerating fire sales in distress. While any reform to the shadow banking funding model should take into account its favourable effects on asset liquidity and credit in normal times, the associated contingent liquidity risk is not at present controllable (nor is it well measured!). There is an academic consensus that a balance has to be struck (Acharya et al. 2011; Brunnermeier et al. 2011; Gorton and Metrick 2010; Shin 2010).

Appropriate tools are also necessary to align capital and risk incentives in banks and shadow banks (Haldane 2010). Security lending may also undermine Basel III liquidity (LCR) rules.

At a time when all lenders seek security, questioning the logic of safe harbour provisions may seem unwise. Yet at the system level, it is simply impossible to promise security and liquidity to all. Uncertainty on the stock of pledged assets may create a self-reinforcing effect, feeding a frenzy among lenders to all seek ever-higher priority. This is already taking place, and is ultimately unsustainable at the individual and aggregate level.

Finally, it is questionable whether the highest level of protection should be granted to collateralised lenders, and to shadow bank funding, over all other investors. For all these reasons, regulators and the wider society need to make an informed decision.


To make matters worse there is the question of whether much of the financial sector is now a criminogenic culture.  Rowans Blog by Rowan Ashworth-Davies this week says it is.  Personally, it is possible that barely anyone in either Parliament or government have much if any understanding of the way it works.

And Miliband has far too many in his party too involved to allow him to do anything more than make a cosmetic touch to a handful of the easiest targets.

Thursday 16 January 2014

Rock Around The Fracking

The hirsute Marquess of Bath of Longleat House, once a tabloid media favourite for the interesting life he led when younger, had retreated to his lair, or perhaps wine cellar, for some time.  He has emerged now as the hairy monster of the west of Wiltshire claiming that the mineral rights under the soils are part of his inheritance and heritage.

The Marquess was once much attached to popular music and especially the rock and roll form of it.  But the Thynne's had long been keen on the entertainment cultures of their times, notably the actresses.  The Thomas Thynne who was a major political figure in the late 18th Century was close to Richard Brinsley Sheridan and his circle.

He wants his share of the fracking loot to be had as Longleat is now a commercial tourist and agricultural business.  He is not alone, persons, if not ghosts from the past are also returning to claim ancient rights to this and that.  This has been spurred on by new regulations etc. that have prompted the Land Registry to ask that all be recorded properly for posterity, or taxation, or costs or other liabilities.

Many people who have bought the freehold property of their dreams in that lovely rural location are finding that they are not just liable for Council Tax, but also repairs to the village church, regardless of their beliefs, identity or ethnic group.  The long, complicated and messy history of legal property rights and ownership in Britain has claimed more victims to the small print.

Wearily, it has to be said that historically, we have been here before.  When the coal industry expanded rapidly, mineral rights were at the heart of the developments.  Owning them gave wealth to some, but ruin to others where the rights led to investment where there was little or no saleable coal to be had when you got to the seams.

Similarly, railways and a host of other major projects needed Acts of Parliament to go ahead despite opposition to those with rights.  When the opponent was politically powerful they might prevent or change the plans, which accounts for some of the odd routing of railways of the past and places where mining did not happen despite rich seams.  It is said that Oxfordshire is one such place.

Since the mid 20th Century and the creation of what is laughingly called the property owning democracy there has been the major shift from leasing and renting into freeholds. In the legal rush around many solicitors etc. there has been laxity and haste in dealing with the fine print or explaining the detail.  Hence the use of the word "messy" above.

As a result many people who think they own the land and all it has in their freehold will find that somebody else does.  This could be a cause of a lot of trouble.  Also the "free" in freehold may not be as free as you think. 

The government promise to local councils that they are guaranteed their cut is a device to ensure that they are on the side of the frackers when push comes to shove, notably where people have bought former social housing.

The Gadarene rush to frack is to be expected given the UK's present financial and economic position.  Just as the overhang of the debt arising from the wars against Napoleon and the Prince Regent's devotion to The Arts meant mining coal and iron wherever possible in the 19th Century and then building railways to stimulate the booms (and busts) we do need a lot of money fast.

My position is quite simple.  Indeed the economic case to frack seems overwhelmingly strong, tempered by some reservations on the costing.  But we need to be mindful of the environment and all that and take the greatest care not to spoil things.  Also we need to ensure a fair distribution of the riches but that does not mean benefits.  The new wealth may keep property prices rising forever and a day.

So I am definitely in favour of some fracking in locations where the best yield and advantages are to be had.  Subject to one condition.  I do not want any drilling within ten miles of where I live, just in case, and because of course the environment and heritage.

Perhaps a start could be made in Hampstead, Hyde Park and Chipping Norton.

And when will the cost of filling my car tank go down?

Tuesday 14 January 2014

The Meerkat Of Badenoch

Danny Alexander, our Coalition Chief Secretary to The Treasury, has come up with an unexpected wheeze that apparently flies in the face of sense or reason. 

He has proposed that the UK Government should guarantee the whole of the current UK loan book and that any possible Scottish portion is not an issue in the business of the coming Referendum. 

Alex Salmond with his typical reflex reaction claims that this strengthens the Scots negotiating position, but it might be quite the reverse.

Danny is the Member of Parliament for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, it might be suggested that he has a special interest in the matter given the political risks to him in the coming series of votes. 

He argues that a clear statement and policy on the matter is of major importance to the financial markets and their confidence in the pound etc. Well, he would, wouldn't he?  But there is more to it than that. 

If the new UK were to insist on some part of the historic debt, all those wars and the booze, betting, bonking, benefits and borrowing society that recent Scots got us into, then going to the new Scotland there would be endless discussion with concessions etc. to be made on a raft of matters.  If there is no transfer of debt then the new UK does not need to make concessions in other areas.

Danny could have taken away Alex's bat, leaving him to face the bowling with whatever might come to hand.  If the fracking does go ahead the new UK will not need Scottish oil.  If fracking goes ahead elsewhere there will be an effect on oil prices.  The EU in the parts that do not frack may want the oil, but if the new Scotland goes into the EU then it will surrender any independence it has and probably be obliged to join the Euro Zone which means losing control over its own budgets.

What the international markets may then make of new Scotland's credit rating is something that cannot be forecast.  If new Scotland does go in for large state spending as promised then this may not be good. 

But those wanting a new Scotland imply that borrowing on any scale should not be needed.  There has been the blithe assumption that it can rapidly build up a sovereign wealth fund on the Norwegian model.

Figures that appeared in the media recently suggested that this amounts now to a million kroner per citizen.  That does sound a lot but at ten to the pound that is one hundred thousand, again seemingly a lot until you run the figures. 

It is about five to ten years of benefits to some families.  Perhaps around ten or a few more years of old age pensions.  Then put in the medical and other ancillary things and a hundred thousand is not much these days.

All this assumes existing population figures.  Is Scotland to be for the Scots or is it to be a relatively open state?  The SNP say that it will be both.  Is this in conflict or does this mean that what those voting think of as being Scots will not be the Scots of the future?  This is a minefield for debate and in shaping future policies.

All depends on the relevant economies holding up and moving on from the recent crash.  Even given that it seems that the next few years is going to be messy, uncertain and there is a lot that can go wrong and some of it will. 

Just over 600 years ago, in another age of turmoil, a leading figure in all the strife was Alexander Stuart, The Wolf of Badenoch, son of King Robert II, who rests in the Cathedral at Dunkeld.

In comparison, Danny is more like the Meerkat of Badenoch. Not far away on Friday 8 April 1870, an Alexander Salmond, out on a fishing trip on the Tay was murdered by poachers out to steal his catch.

Has Danny mugged Alex?

Monday 13 January 2014

Best And Worst Prime Ministers

Recently there has been more doing about best and worst Prime Ministers.  It is not a simple matter.  You have to look at what was going in their time, what challenges there were, how they were managed and then the outcomes.

As so many issues offer options in which there are no "right" decisions, only ones with apparently less problems, it gives plenty of scope for debate.  All too often, of course, events and the out turns mean that the option that looked the worst would have been the best choice.

Back in the summer of 2010 I took exception to Sir Alec Douglas-Home being slated for one of the very worst.  At the time in 1963 I thought he was not a good choice.  But with the benefit of the years, hindsight and a lot more information, my view changed radically, so I repeat:

"Apparently, in a poll of a number of historians Sir Alec Douglas Home, who had been the 14th Earl of Home before disclaiming his peerage and becoming a knight when appointed Prime Minister in 1963, was voted 11th out of 12 (the last being Eden) and therefore one of the worst two Prime Ministers of recent times.  I wonder who these historians were; perhaps they should have had a closer look at the detail?

As someone embroiled in the Suez Crisis in 1956 I can agree that Sir Anthony Eden deserves one of the lowest listings although he involved us in only one bad war unlike Blair and Brown.  His health problems as well as his temperament meant he should never have become Prime Minister.  It was not simply bad succession planning it was the total lack of it.

In dealing with Sir Alec, however, he is one of the very few leading politicians about whom sporting metaphors can be used with any truth.  He played cricket as an amateur for Middlesex and the MCC in an era when there were many fine cricketers in the game, professional and amateur.

He was never an academic or needed to be.  His devotion to cricket and other sport did not go well with high honours given the time involved.  Nevertheless, Sir Alec became one of the reliable work horses of politics.  He was trustworthy, knowledgeable, astute and unfailingly courteous.  Given a job to do he would do it. 

Also he had contacts in all classes and always knew a good man to talk to.  Running a major estate requires skill and The Borders had a range of key Scottish industries that related closely to the local agriculture and economy.

Essentially, he played a straight bat, was a good man to go in when the wickets were falling and as a stock bowler kept the opposition’s runs down; which is precisely why the Conservative’s put him in as Captain of the team in October 1963. 

It was when Harold Macmillan’s government was scoring ducks and Butler looked to be losing his nerve again, as he had done in 1940.  Douglas-Home took control and made them buckle down in the field, bowl tight, and dig in behind the crease.

Macmillan had been betrayed by the Profumo scandal and had mishandled the issues involved.  He had suffered rejection by De Gaulle over Europe.  His Cabinet was in increasing disorder and the economy was beginning to blow fuses after his 1958-1960 spending.  The Right were in anguish over the loss of Empire and world status and the Left were mesmerised by the Soviet mirage. 

The Centre had grasped at Keynes ideas from the 1930’s to give some sort of basis of policy but had not realised that in the context of the 1960’s the changes in structures and money systems meant that inflation and other disruption were the consequence.

Amazingly, Douglas Home got his team back in the game.  They lost the 1964 Election by very little when in 1963 it seemed that the Conservatives could be looking at another 1945 wipe out. 

Labour took 317 seats with 44.13% of the vote and the Conservatives 304 with 43.40%, the actual margin being only 203,000 votes overall.  A little more time and another Budget and Douglas Home could have won the election.

He did this despite being on the end of personal media vituperation and nastiness that was almost unparalleled in modern British history.  The BBC was taking a terrible revenge for the Conservative decision to allow commercial television to compete for audience and attention and compromise its monopoly.

What he did lack was a pretty face, media experience and a salesman’s manner.  His slightly shy, brusque, but determined stance echoed Attlee’s but this was now the TV age and Douglas Home was far from being the camera’s friend.  Attlee was lucky to have missed TV.

Also, the age of the gentleman amateur was departing.  When Douglas Home said with a wink that when trying to work out economic issues he used a box of matches it did not meet the age.  Probably, he knew a lot more about practical affairs than most.  Wilson played the expert technocrat and his party played their parts in this way.  They claimed that they knew how things worked and so how to manage them. 

As a statistician Wilson was fascinated by all the charts and lists of figures.  The snag was that most of them were unreliable and needed analysis and careful thought.  Wilson and his followers did not do that; they did decisions on the immediate figures.  We all know where that kind of approach can lead us.

In the out turn Douglas Home’s matches may have been a better guide to working out economic policy given the catastrophic course of the Labour administration of 1964 to 1970.  He had only a year and never had the chance to be a Prime Minister in the full sense of the term.  His worst mistake was to promote Edward Heath but it is likely he had little option.

He did not get us into bad wars, he did not break the economy, he did not ruin half the population, he did not provoke a boom bust, he did keep us in touch with world affairs and he did maintain a decency and balance that we have all forgotten. 

After he resigned the Conservative leadership he returned to be a very capable Foreign Secretary under Edward Heath.  There has not been a better man since.  So we could never vote him one of the best Prime Ministers, but he was far from being the worst.  Given choosing Sir Alec Douglas Home as Prime Minister against some of those since or before, then I would vote for him. 

Certainly, I would be happy to see him at the other end of the pitch if I came into bat as last man in with ten to win, an hour to play and a failing light.

Not least, he was a Borderer of Nesbitt descent."

If only he was available now.