Monday, 29 June 2015

Greece and the EU: who's been betrayed by whom?

It seems that Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, feels betrayed by the behaviour of the Greek government.

The purpose of a union is to create something that is greater than the sum of its parts. By pulling together, the nations of the European Union agree to work together, giving up some of their individual freedom of action, because they believe that in joint effort they can achieve more.

Within the Eurozone, the bonds are even closer, since the countries have given up control over their own currency, a major sacrifice when it comes to combatting financial difficulties.

Part of the bargain is that if any constituent of the Union gets into trouble, the Union as a whole rallies round to help. Now, following the financial crash of 2008, five EU nations, all within the Eurozone, were particularly harshly affected. These were the so-called PIIGS: Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain.

Several years on, all but Greece seem to have weathered the worst of the pressure. That’s not to say that they’re doing well. No one in the Eurozone is doing well. It’s stagnating as a whole,but that’s a not unexpected result of the austerity economics it has imposed on itself. Austerity cuts people’s spending power, so demand goes out of the economy and, as day follows night, the economy fails to grow.

Greece however is in a far worse state than the others. The EU, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank, clubbed together to provide it with funding and to buy it some debt relief, but only at the cost of an even harsher austerity programme than the other nations underwent. As a result, unemployment rose to one in four of the workforce and, far from growing, the economy has shrunk by a quarter. A catastrophe.

Instead of banding together to help its weakest member out of the mud, the EU has inflicted on Greece policies that could only drive it far deeper still. While its membership of the Euro denies Greece the classic solution of devaluing its currency, as Larry Eliiott explains in The Guardian.

Guardian photograph from Athens:
graffiti expressing increasing anti-Euro feelings
So the EU has achieved precisely the opposite of what is intended in a Union.

The result is that it now looks increasingly as though Greece will, as long feared, have to leave the Euro, and perhaps the EU too, if only to have any chance of working its way out of the mess it’s in, with even a shred of dignity left to it.

Make no mistake about it. It would be extremely painful for Greece if it came to that. But it would be a disaster for the EU and the Eurozone. Greece is the first test of the capability of the Union to stand by a member that is in real trouble. They’re on the brink of failing that test. That inevitably raises the question “what is the EU for? If it can’t even rescue a relatively small member from penury…”

Angela Merkel enjoys a high and deserved reputation for her statesmanship. But it is she, and Germany more generally, that has led the campaign to inflict the harsh regime on Greece which it is now rejecting. If she can’t magic some solution out of the chasm in front of her at the moment, her legacy may be that of the leader of Europe who saw the experiment of union founder.

Larry Elliott’s article calls what we are facing now a “Sarajevo moment”. The assassination of the Austrian Archduke in Sarajevo in 1914 initially seemed to be a relatively minor event in a distant place. But within weeks it had engulfed the whole of Europe in the torment of the First World War.

The exit of Greece from the Union might be another minor event, but it will be a critical step in causing the EU project to start to unravel. The Eurozone will have shown that it is incapable of solving a problem within its membership. And the EU will have shown that it can’t look after its constituent nations.

Those of us in Britain who want the country to remain a member of the EU will find our arguments for staying in weakened in the run up to our promised referendum. And Eurosceptic movements in other European nations will also gain momentum. The impact on the Union could be lethal.

Someone has certainly betrayed the ideals of the European Union here. But, Mr Juncker, I’m not sure it’s Greece.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Things you might watch – if in one case, not for long...

Turn’s worth watching, partly for the acting – it’s great to see Billy Elliott (well, Jamie Bell, who played him in the film) turn adult, give up dancing, take up spying and move 250 years back in time. But the pleasure of Turn is mostly in the story: it’s fascinating to learn how George Washington ran a spy network called the Culper Ring in New York City, then under British occupation, on lines that ought to gain at least the grudging approval of modern spy operations. He was concerned for his agents’ wellbeing, keen on keeping their communications secure, and only pressurised them to keep the information flowing.

Intelligent military intelligence, in fact.

The series has the merit of sticking quite closely to the known historical facts. It’s not as good as the book on which it’s based, Alexander Rose’s Washington’s Spies, which draws on close research and talks about more aspects of espionage in the American War of Independence than Turn. Even so, the TV series takes its structure from the record, so in broad lines and occasionally in detail, sticks to it with some degree of faith.

Jamie Bell as Abraham Woodhull,
lead agent of the Culper Ring, in
Indeed, it’s at its least good when it diverges from history: in an attempt to give the series more of a soap feel, it takes some liberty, for instance adding a love triangle where there was none, between Jamie Bell’s character, his wife and his lead female agent: in reality, the female agent existed but was ten years his senior and in a perfectly good marriage, while he married only later. What it does well is to avoid a simple black and white distinction between supporters of the American or British causes – in fact, one of the most attractive characters is John André, the British spymaster, a historical figure involved in one of the iconic moments of American infamy, who was regarded by most who met him as charming and witty.

It’s that degree of fidelity to the record that also makes Vikings watchable. Here the issue is less historical fact, since it’s not even known whether the central character, Ragnar Lothbrok, ever existed outside legend. Myth or history, the tales of Lothbrok at least provide a framework for the series, as the history of the Culper ring provides one for Turn. That somehow makes the stories told more plausible, and therefore makes it easier to suspend disbelief.

Ragnar with his first wife, the shieldmaiden Lagertha
Travis Fimmel and Katheryn Winnick
Nor does the series whitewash the brutality that was the hallmark of Viking raiding. Even if it cuts it back considerably, there is more than enough violence for anyone likely to be put off by its depiction. For example, there was a particularly vicious form of Viking execution by torture called the Blood Eagle; while it doesn’t happen as often in the series as it did in reality, it does happen once – be warned.

That being said, the series also puts into play a series of extraordinary characters who are a delight to follow: Ragnar himself has boldness and ingenuity that are not completely proof to failure (he has his share); Floki is almost as cunning as the god Loki his name conjures up, as well as wild to the point, occasionally, of lunacy; Ragnar’s first wife Lagertha is strong, courageous and straight; Athelstan is a monk captured by the Vikings in a raid on the monastery at Lindisfarne who finds himself sucked into their way of life (an early case of Stockholm syndrome, one might say, but these Vikings are from Norway not Sweden); even Ecbert King of Wessex is a well-painted study in deviousness, intellectualism and fascination with a past greatness (that of the Romans).

Gustaf Skarsgård as Floki in Vikings
Fascinatingly wild, to the point of craziness
In order to keep the series going, it again resorts to some soap-like devices – inexplicable failures of communication sustain misunderstandings or unjustified suspicions to fill a sub-plot or two – but overall it relies on the original story for some remarkable plot twists and a generally compelling narrative.

As for Revenge, it was highly entertaining for the first few episodes. The backstory is that a man has been betrayed by his friends at the top end of business and framed for collusion with a terrorist outrage. Particularly bitter is that one of those who sold him was the woman he loved, and who apparently loved him as strongly.

The best part of two decades later his daughter Amanda is back in the Long Island Hamptons, haunt of these gilded individuals, under the assumed name Emily, ready to wreak her revenge. She has the means because an internet billionaire (Nolan, much the most entertaining character), owes his fortune to her father, and has given her half of it. In the first few episodes she uses her resources and her intelligence to start destroying her enemies in ways that are brilliantly ingenious and devilishly effective, but then alas the series starts to decline and, to a far worse degree than the other two, descends into pure soap.

Emily Van Camp as Emily and Gabriel Mann as Nolan in Revenge
His is the only consistently entertaining, if not wholly believable, character
So we get characters who change character or, even more often, allegiance: he was intent on killing her before she killed him, there was nothing but intense hatred between them until, lo and behold, in this week’s episode they’re working together (usually against the ones we’re sympathising with). Love simulated for the purposes of revenge becomes real, without much plausibility and only in order to create tension that might otherwise be lacking. And ruthless, effective killers, fail to finish off adversaries when it would rather shorten the series if they did.

Reasonable entertainment if you’ve nothing better to do but, believe me, by the end of season 1, you have to be able to find better things to do.

Friday, 26 June 2015

Be careful who you admire: he may have a shady side...

We all, though men perhaps more than women, have a tendency to feel respect for the war hero. It may be slightly grudging respect, if we’re basically anti-war, but there’s something slightly appealing about those who show boldness, cleverness and success on a battlefield.

Napoleon. Wellington. Lee. Grant. Rommel. Patton. Remarkable men, somehow, whatever their faults.

Sometimes, though, it makes sense to look a little more closely. Take, for example, this unusual individual from the US Civil War.

He was, arguably, one of the finest cavalry commanders the world has seen. Interestingly, he didn’t really use cavalry as cavalry. As Bruce Catton points out, in his American Heritage History of the US Civil War he:

…used his horsemen as a modern general would use motorized infantry. He liked horses because he liked fast movement, and his mounted men could get from here to there much faster than any infantry could; but when they reached the field they usually tied their horses to trees and fought on foot, and they were as good as the very best infantry.

His innovative use of the arm was probably down to his having had no formal military training – he’d never been taught to think in the old terms. In fact, he’d had little education of any kind. Following his father’s death, he’d taken charge of his family at seventeen – at least as effectively as he later led soldiers in battle: he became one of richest planters in the country.

That word planter is a first clue to his identity. Yes, he was on the Southern side of the Civil War. That shouldn’t be altogether surprising: the Confederacy unfortunately had more than its fair share of effective generals – had the Union had a few more, the war might have been over a little more quickly with fewer dead.

Unusually, and again admirably, he joined the Confederate army as a private, despite his wealth. However, when he offered to pay out of his own pocket to equip his unit, his superiors moved him up the ranks rapidly, so he became one of a tiny band of individuals to have travelled the whole route from simple soldier to general.

Sherman said of him that there would never be peace in Western Tennessee until this dangerous opponent was dead, which is certainly a measure of the respect in which his opponents held him.

What made him so effective? He explained his approach in terms that are frequently misquoted. We can turn again to Bruce Catton, who tells us than in his view:

…the essence of strategy was “to git thar fust with the most men.” Do not, under any circumstances whatever, quote Forrest as saying 'fustest' and 'mostest'. He did not say it that way, and nobody who knows anything about him imagines that he did.

So we have a name. This remarkable man was Nathan Bedford Forrest, who gave his name to he eponymous hero of the film Forrest Gump.

If you saw the film, you may remember that Forrest was not quite so attractive a figure as I’ve painted so far. He may have been an effective and charismatic leader, but his military prowess seems to have drawn on a deep reservoir of violence. He originally went into business with an uncle of his, who had a quarrel with some brothers and was killed in the ensuing fight; Forrest shot two of them dead and knifed two others.

Nathan Bedford Forrest
Effective maybe. But not particularly nice
And it gets worse.

I said he was one of the wealthiest Southern planters. But not all his money came from his (slave-manned) plantations. He was also a leading slave trader.

During the war, there occurred an event which has never been fully clarified. Forrest won the Battle of Fort Pillow, at which some 500 union soldiers died, in particular black soldiers, white soldiers from Tennessee fighting on the Unionist side though the state was Confederate, and deserters from the Confederate side. Were they killed during the fighting or after it was over? Wikipedia quotes a letter from a Confederate:

The slaughter was awful. Words cannot describe the scene. The poor, deluded, negroes would run up to our men, fall upon their knees, and with uplifted hands scream for mercy but they were ordered to their feet and then shot down. I, with several others, tried to stop the butchery, and at one time had partially succeeded, but General Forrest ordered them shot down like dogs and the carnage continued. Finally our men became sick of blood and the firing ceased.

Bruce Catton stresses that it has never been finally established that a war crime took place but it’s hard to feel sure that none did. Especially given that after the war, Forrest became the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

A salutary lesson for all of us who have a sneaking admiration for men of Forrest’s exceptional and self-developed ability. It’s all very well being good at what you do, but it matters what you do with it. Brilliance in the pursuit of the atrocious really doesn’t have a lot to commend it.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Luci's diary: training and the garden run

Lucis Diary. This strange activity called training’s such fun, or at least the treats are. And the nightly garden visit. And just who’s being trained. 

June 2015

The number 2 human keeps training me.

It’s wonderful – I just love it. There are about four things he wants me to do. I think I can just about cope with learning four things. He calls on me to do them and, because I can see he wants to feel he’s achieving something, sometimes I look at him as though I’m confused and it’s terribly hard, until he shows me what he wants – lie down, stand up, wait, or whatever. Sometimes I just do them anyway. Either way, I get a treat every time.

Fantastic. Money for old rope. Not that I have any use for money, of course. Or old rope either, come to that, but hey, I didn’t invent the expression.

I have to say that one of the things did take me a while to master: lying down. The word of command sounds like “plotz”. God knows why. “Wait” – well it’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? “Stand” – yep, not a big problem either. But “plotz”?

It turns out it’s all down to human number 1. Misty the cat explained it all to me. She’s from a place called Alsace, where he comes from too, apparently, and “plotz” is what you say in Alsatian when you mean “lie down”.

How on Earth was I supposed to know that?

And – do the humans take me for an Alsatian? I’ve met Alsatians and let me tell you, there’s a bit of difference. Mostly in scale.

Anyway, Misty also says I ought to have more pride. Stand aloof from all this training business. Not be pushed around.

“We animals need to lay down some ground rules to the domestics.” That’s what he calls the humans. He reckons that letting them train us is accepting their rules instead. He may be right.

But.. but… there are treats at stake…

OK,  this is the Plotz thing, right?
So where's my treat?
I have to say the other day he got the treats out and I automatically went and did the plotz thing, before he could even ask. Just stronger than me. I thought he’d see through me and realise I was a jump ahead of him, just doing it for the treats, but he didn’t. He was pathetically pleased about it. Told Number 1 when she got home. Got her giggling.

So no harm done.

The other thing I like is the nightly garden run. It’s a little ritual we have now, number 2 and I. He doesn’t like it, but she always makes him do it.

“Does Luci need to be taken out?” he always asks.

“Yes,” she always replies.

Perhaps she ought to give him a treat so he gets it and learns to stop asking.

They seem not to have grasped that I use the cat flap. If I need to do my business, I pop out and do it. So this nightly outing’s just a a bit of fun. Some quality time number 2 and I can spend together before going to bed. I sniff around the flower beds and the vegetables, which is good, and he stands around looking pained and saying “go on, Luci, have a pee.”

He tries to make it sound quite affectionate, even though I can hear the exasperation building in the background.

Sometimes I force one out just to put him out of his misery. Other times I push him to see how long he can stand it, until he finally goes back in. Either way, it’s always amusing, and a good way to wrap up the evening.

Sets me up nicely to go jumping around the bed when they’re trying to get to sleep. They seem to think that’s adorable, which is just a joy. Personally, if someone behaved that way when I was trying to sleep, I’d just bite him. But then – I’ve got them well trained.

Even Misty thinks it’s funny that they put up with it.

Monday, 22 June 2015

Best avoided: standing on chairs and austerity politics

You’re at a concert but your view of the stage is blocked by the heads in front of you. So you stand up on your chair. Brilliant: now you can see. You’ve gained an advantage over the rest of the audience.

Hey! How about standing on my chair? I'd get a much better view...
Until, that is, everyone else starts standing on their chairs too. At which point the view’s as bad as it was before – and now you don’t even have the comfort of being able to sit down.

That’s called the fallacy of composition. It’s the belief that because something is in the interests of an individual, it’s in the interests of a whole community. It’s most vividly illustrated in what Keynes called the paradox of thrift. Saving may be great for an individual, but if everyone starts saving more, then the amount spent across the economy goes down; firms start to lose money and lay people off; incomes go down; and saving, which is proportional to income, also goes down.

So everyone saving leads to less saving.

It’s even worse if one of the bodies saving, or at any rate spending less, is government. Thrift by government does away with capital projects and reduces employment, particularly at the low end of wage scale, where people spend a greater proportion of their income. That depresses demand and drives more companies into difficulties. Growth stutters or may even turn into recession.

That’s what happened in the States after the great crash of 1929. President Hoover tried to balance the books and watched the country sink into increasing depression. In 1932, he was replaced by Franklin Roosevelt, who followed a policy of deliberately spending for growth; by 1937, he’d turned the economy round. But he too was prone to the thrift argument, so then he tried to rein in government spending – and took the country back into recession.

That is the danger in Britain now. We have a little growth. Now we need to stimulate it, to make it sure it’s sustained. The government, however, is proposing to do exactly the opposite – to cut further. If it delivers on its dire promise to take £12bn out of the benefits bill, it will take £12bn out of spending, and the effect on the economy may be devastating.

An argument can be made to say that it’s immoral that some people, on the top rate of benefit, may be on £26,000 a year – more than the median earnings in work. But taking their payments down to £23,000, as now proposed, only takes another £3000 a year out of the economy for each of those households. The economic damage may far outweigh any moral satisfaction anyone might feel.

Benefits cuts don’t just hurt the recipients. They hurt all of us. And with all the other cuts proposed, they will hurt us even more.

What’s the alternative?
  • A great deal of tax is uncollected, especially corporation tax. Getting it collected won’t be easy, but why should we expect government to do only what’s easy?
  • There is probably room for some small increases in tax at the top end of the income scale: these are people whose wealth has grown astronomically since the crash, while at the other end living standards have fallen.
  • Establishing a more generous level of minimum wage – the living wage – and enforcing it would allow us to start reducing tax credits. If it’s applied for migrant workers too, it would put an end to the use of immigrants to undercut local wages.
  • And why are we so worried about debt? Interest rates are practically zero. There couldn’t be a better time to borrow moderately.
All of this would allow us to prime the pump of the economy. With growth secured once more, tax revenues would start to rise, simply because more people would be earning and spending. There may be a need for some cuts anyway, but on nothing like the scale now being proposed: smaller cuts and rising revenue would give a much more sustainable means to improve economic performance.

That, however, means freeing ourselves from the paradox of thrift. It means understanding that sometimes governments have to spend to save themselves from debt. It means ending our reliance on austerity to get us out of a hole which, as Greece shows, it only makes deeper.

When the Tories came to power in Britain, they kept using a phrase which was crass in its over-simplification but struck a chord with many voters: “the country has maxed out its credit card.”

It was nonsense because it ignored the ability of a government, unlike an individual, to increase its revenue by spending more. So in answer I suggest we adopt a slogan against austerity which is just as simple and direct – and actually has the merit of being true.

“If the roof’s leaking, fix it. Don’t burn down the house.”

Certainly gets rid of the problem of the leaky roof
But is it the most judicious way?

Saturday, 20 June 2015

The Labour leader and the Greeks: it's not the answer that matters, it's the question

Last Wednesday, one of the BBC’s flagship programmes Newsnight hosted a debate between the four candidates for the Labour Party leadership, made vacant when Ed Miliband stood down following his crushing defeat in a General Election on 7 May.

One of the questions from the audience was whether getting a budget surplus was the most important economic objective for the British government. That was a great question, especially in a week in which we moved closer to the wire on Greece defaulting on its debts and possibly being forced out of the Euro, if not the European Union itself. The crisis has been caused by the rest of the Eurozone, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, all insisting that Greece continue to pursue austerity policies to reduce its deficit and ultimately its debt.

Jeremy Corbyn was the last candidate to get onto the ballot for Labour leader. Any candidate needs 35 MPs to back him; he got 36, the smallest number of the four, and it’s known that some of those nominating him wouldn’t actually be voting for him: they wanted him in the running just to ensure a wide-ranging debate, and Corbyn certainly does that, since he comes from the traditional Left of the Party. His answer to the question was an unequivocal “no.”

The most important thing, he said, is to ensure our community has a health service, has an education service, people are decently housed and young people have abilities to go into work and develop themselves.

Then the question was put to Liz Kendall. She was only elected an MP in 2010, making her the least experienced of the candidates, as well as (just) the youngest. She’s personable, apparently likeable, articulate and intelligent – all four qualities that one would regard as pretty much the minimum requirement for any politician, but this is the Labour Party where we’ve just gone through five years with a leader who was outstanding on intelligence and, I suspect, likability, but had a terrible tendency to blunder and mess up in communicating those qualities.

Kendall’s also a woman, and it’s time Labour had a woman leader.

So what did she say to the question?

People didn’t trust us on the economy and with their taxes. I believe in strong public finances, because, you know, unless we balance the books, live within our means, and get the deficit and debt down, we can’t do all the things that we’re passionate about like tackling inequality and homelessness.

Well, the passion I like. But that emphasis on strong finances? Isn’t that just more of the austerity rhetoric?

The sad thing is that austerity seems to be the consensus position across most of Europe today. Consensus can be good, naturally. A consensus emerged in Europe in the first part of the twentieth century that women should have the right to vote, and in nation after nation, a terrible abuse was tackled and done away with. But consensus can also be stifling and deeply damaging, as was the case, for instance, with the generalised view that the European powers had the right to carve themselves out empires from the poorer areas of the globe.

When it comes to austerity, the case of Greece rather seems to run counter to the received wisdom that its good for you. Five years on, the economy has shrunk appallingly – by a quarter – and 26% of the workforce has been thrown out of its jobs. And there’s no sign of a return to growth and therefore of any real progress towards solving the problem of indebtedness.

Gavin Shuker, our local MP, chairs a meeting with Liz Kendall
So when I heard that my local Labour Party had invited Liz Kendall to come and talk to us this afternoon I popped along to hear what she had to say. I met her outside, and she gave me a beaming smile and shook my hand; I wonder whether I was ungracious, because when she told me “I’m Liz Kendall” I couldn’t help myself replying, “I know, I recognised you.” I hope she wasn’t offended, since she was, as expected, pleasant, personable and apparently likeable.

Of course, she probably forgot the whole event within minutes in any case, but I still don’t like to be brusque.

That, however, didn’t stop me putting the question I’d come to ask her: what was her view of austerity economics, particularly given its apparent failure in Greece?

Well, I had a fairly firm expectation of how she’d answer. She’d already told us that she was a “fiscal conservative” and believed in “sound finances.” And indeed she assured us that:

We have to live within our means and get the debt and deficit down.

Certainly, that is the view espoused by most fiscal conservatives, including those in the present Conservative government.

She rammed the message home with a comment specifically on the Greeks:

They need to stick to their commitments.

Interesting. I can’t help feeling that if the answer is chucking one in four of your workers out of work and shrinking your economy by a quarter, then someone’s asking the wrong question. And I’m not sure that I want that to be happening at the top of the Labour Party.

Personable. Likeable. Intelligent. Articulate. A potential woman leader. Liz Kendall’s all of those things.

But the one I want to vote for? I’m afraid not.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Curious bicentenary

Two hundred years ago on Monday of this week, 15 June 1815, which back then happened to be a Thursday, the Duchess of Richmond held a ball in Brussels.

As well as guests of other nationalities, many elegant British visitors to that city attended. They had come to the Low Countries in the wake of the Duke of Wellington’s army, or they had fled there from Paris, where they had been celebrating the fall of his nemesis, Napoleon, the previous year – right up to the time that the Emperor had reappeared in France and effortlessly eased his way back into power, less than three months earlier.

The ball was a glittering affair, but with a painful ending. When disturbing news reached Wellington, he asked the Duke of Richmond whether he had a map. Soon after, Wellington, staring at the map, exclaimed “Napoleon has humbugged me, by God; he has gained twenty-four hours' march on me.”

One of the guests at the ball, Katherine Arden, wrote that “on our arrival at the ball we were told that the troops had orders to march at three in the morning, and that every officer must join his regiment by that time, as the French were advancing… Those who had brothers and sons to be engaged openly gave way to their grief, as the last parting of many took place at this most terrible ball.”

Napoleon had sent forces to a crossroads, appropriately named Quatre Bras (four arms). Control of the crossroads meant he could move either east towards the Prussian forces under Marshall Blücher, or towards the Anglo-Allied forces under Wellington. The latter, still trying to protect his right wing, had made no move to defend the crossroads, but fortunately some of his Dutch troops had taken it on themselves to take up positions there.

As a result, when Napoleon’s Marshall Ney reached the crossroads he found them held, however lightly, and decided to postpone an attack until the morning. But the allied side reinforced their position overnight.

As a result, when day broke on the Friday, two hundred years ago from Tuesday 16 June of this year, the first fighting was more nearly balanced than might have been expected. Technically, the day was a victory for the allies, since the French left the field. However, Wellington realised that the position was untenable and pulled back to positions he’d scouted previously, along the ridge of Mont St Jean, not far from the town of Waterloo.

British infantry at Quatre Bras
in the “square” defensive formation against cavalry
In the meantime, Napoleon had engaged Blücher and his Prussians at Ligny. This time the victory was technically French, since the Prussians withdrew from the field, one of the reasons Wellington felt obliged to retreat from Quatre Bras. But the Prussians retreated in good order, more than ready to fight again. One of the strengths of the Prussians was the training of their staff officers. It made the Prussian Army devastatingly efficient, the main reason why, despite its defeat, it could reorganise and move towards Waterloo within 48 hours.

By contrast, poor French staff work sent Napoleon’s marshall Grouchy, to “follow” the Prussians, whatever “following” meant.

Two hundred years ago from our Wednesday 17 June, the Saturday of that week, Wellington prepared his positions at Waterloo. He complained that he had “an infamous army, very weak and ill-equipped, and a very inexperienced Staff.” But, in the small hours of the next day – he was up at 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. – he sent a crucial letter to Blücher, assuring him that if he could send one army corps in support, he, Wellington, would stand and fight at Waterloo.

Blücher’s number 2, Gneisenau, was far from convinced that they should trust Wellington. But Blücher insisted they send three corps.

Two hundred years ago from Thursday 18 June, the Sunday of that week – there was no respect for the Sabbath – Wellington commanded 68,000 men, only 25,000 of them British (many of them actually Irish), 20,000 from the King’s possessions in Germany (the British King was also Elector of Hannover), a further 6000 Germans in the King’s German Legion (exiles fighting in the British Army) and 17,000 Dutch-Belgians.

Facing them were 73,000 French commanded by Napoleon himself. He took a leisurely approach to the day, breakfasting well, assuring his officers that the Prussians would need at least two days to reorganise, and once more ordering Grouchy to keep pressing them from the rear.

The ground at Waterloo was sodden, and Napoleon waited some hours for it to dry under the sun. Oddly, no one seems to know exactly when the battle began. The first shots were probably fired at the end of the morning or soon after noon. But the battle made up in ferocity for the delay in its start, and within a few hours Wellington was under acute pressure: at about 4:30, a farm at the centre of his line, la Haye Sainte, fell to the French and his position was fatally weakened.

He desperately needed the Prussians to arrive, but as he told the story, “the time they occupied in approaching seemed interminable. Both they and my watch seemed to have stuck fast.”

However, at much the same time as la Haye Sainte fell, the Prussians were already joining the action. The small numerical advantage of the French was wiped out by the arrival of these 50,000 fresh men. And Grouchy, trying to follow his orders, never showed up with his 33,000.

Prussian troops investing the village of Plancenoit
Just in time, from Wellington's point of view
Less than a week later, Napoleon abdicated for the second and final time. Reactionary regimes were established in France, Prussia, Russia and Austria. The fall of Napoleon is strangely ambivalent: he was a military dictator who had undone whatever gains the French revolution had made, and even went so far as to try to reintroduce slavery; on the other hand, with him out of the way, the cause of social progress in Europe was set back for decades, including in Britain. 

Militarily, Britain pulled off a brilliant piece of spin, painting Waterloo as a national victory, although only just over one in five soldiers on the allied side was British and the majority were German.

Britain became the pre-eminent world power for the best part of a century, but that disguised a much more dangerous truth shown by Waterloo: the rise of Germany, under Prussian leadership, as far and away the most effective military force in Europe.

Waterloo. Quite a day. With strange and complex results.

Enjoy the bicentenary!

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Luci’s diary: finding out how much fun travel can be

Lucis Diary. Shes discovered the delights of travel. And the joy of the car – which takes you somewhere great whatever direction it’s travelling. 

Late May 2015

Travel – wow – it’s just great!

Now, I didn’t always like the car. Got to admit that. My number 2 human even had to clean up a bit of – well, how should I put it – regurgitated material on one of my early trips. But I soon learned to enjoy it. 

The thing is that it takes you to nice places.

The humans find me a bit odd, because I’m always so keen to jump into the car, at the end of a walk as much as when we set out for one. But, hey, it makes sense. I like the places we go to walk, and I like home. So obviously I like going either way. And because the car always takes me walking or home, I like the car.

On the other hand, you can get too much of it. We had hour after hour the other day. By the end, frankly, I was getting a bit fed up. But then we turned up in this most fantastic place. It’s in Yorkshire, and I’ve decided that Yorkshire is God’s own County. I’ve decided that because it sounds good, even though I don’t know just what a County is, let alone God. Still, there’s nothing you can say about Yorkshire that I’d think was too nice.

First of all, you can walk, and walk, and walk. We stayed in a place called Malham. There’s grass all over the place. With loads of new things for me to get to know – sheep, for instance, and rabbits – and lots of crows to chase. Wonderful.

And there’s lots of water

Water – such fun when it behaves and stays still.
Well, of course I already knew about water. I’d seen it in my bowl, where it’s useful but a bit dull. Then you get it in other places where it isn’t dull at all, but nasty and tricksy. Streams, for instance. The water never stops moving. It tugs at you. It swirls at you. You can’t trust it at all.

Well, near Malham’s there’s this great place. It’s called the Tarn. That’s a patch of water that behaves itself like it should: it sits still. So you can go in and jump about and have fun. And, boy, it’s fun. What a blast.

And back in Malham itself, there are other great places. Pubs, for instance. Where they actually want dogs to come in. Fantastic. There was a character in one of them who decided that what he really, really wanted to do was share his meal with me. He gave me half his hamburger. See what I mean? God’s own county.

Now that’s what I call a friend
We had such a good time in Malham that I was really happy to get back into the car. That surprised the humans again – “if you like this place so much, how come you’re happy to go somewhere else?” They’re a bit slow sometimes.

Look, the car took me somewhere I really liked. So it was obviously going to take me somewhere else I
’d really like. What’s so hard to understand?

And I was right! We went to Scotland, and there was a small human in the place we stayed. Wow. I really like the small ones. And this one kept trying to train me, which meant doing things like sitting down or coming over to her. Those were things I wanted to do anyway, but training means you get treats for doing them. Fantastic. It was wonderful getting her to do what I wanted.

But there was more water. Another kind. So big. Salty too – no fun to drink. And, wow, does it move. Worse than a stream. It has these waves, right, and they break on you. You might be sniffing at the water, and one of them sneaks up and makes this great, cracking noise right over your head before drenching you.

And that isn’t the worst of it. It chases you up the beach! Appalling.

Still, we had fun all the same. A good trip. Really liked the people. Really liked the food. Really liked the places. Why, to be honest, I even quite enjoyed the water, though it was a bit scary at times.

And then: joy! We got back into the car. And we went home! Magical. Amazing. 

The car’s just fantastic.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Magna Carta: we can all celebrate the anniversary, even if we don't all understand it the same way

Anniversaries are the moment when the present chooses to reinterpret the past to suit its purposes.

800 years ago, on 15 June 1215, England’s leading landowners met at Runnymede, on the Thames, to the West of London. To hold land was, at that time, to hold huge power – it was, indeed, the only road to power. Land produced rent and, out of that rent, the owners could fund small armies, personally loyal to themselves.

The Magna Carta Monument at Runnymede
On that day, they met to cut down to size one of their number. They had all accepted that it was important that one should have authority over all of them but, though he might hold the title of King, they didn’t feel that was something he ought to let go to his head. He had to remember that he was ultimately just one of them, and he maintained his pre-eminence only with their consent.

The holder of that position in 1215, King John, was weak, and his peers, the barons, took advantage to extract concessions from him about just what a King might or might not do. They wanted rights guaranteed in writing, over his signature. In particular, they denied him the right to act against them at will, and they insisted that any of their number only be convicted of a crime if tried by a jury of his peers.

No free man shall be taken, imprisoned, disseised [dispossessed], outlawed, banished, or in any way destroyed, nor will we proceed against or prosecute him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.

To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay, right or justice.

The words “his” and “peers” are important in this context. The barons weren’t concerned with the rights of women. And they weren’t interested in “the people” – they were interested in their peers. 

But the present imposes its own interpretation on the past. What happens if you extend the meaning of “free man” beyond the narrow ranks of the barons? Then the Great Charter (literally Magna Carta) becomes a statement of basic rights of all Englishmen (and possibly Englishwomen).

By the seventeenth century, the view was taking hold that the English had always enjoyed certain liberties, but they’d been trampled on by foreigners forcing their way into the country (echoes of our own times). In this case, the foreigners were the Normans who conquered the place in 1066. This is a view which conveniently ignores the fact that the English – Anglo-Saxons – had themselves been invaders only a few centuries earlier, when they’d usurped the lands of the Celts.

In this view, what the barons obtained from John was a restatement, or reinstatement, of those primordial English rights. And Englishmen everywhere began to demand that they be recognised, including those fine Englishmen who set up the colonies in North America. When their representatives met in Congress in 1766 to protest a new tax imposed on them from Britain, the Stamp Act, they called on the authority of the Great Charter:

The invaluable rights or taxing ourselves, and of trial by our peers, of which we implore your Majesty’s protection are not, we most humbly conceive unconstitutional; but confirmed by the Great Charter of English Liberty.

Sadly, George III took a more jaundiced view of the Great Charter, and refused his loyal subjects in the thirteen American colonies the protection they required, losing their loyalty in consequence, and, after a disastrous war, the colonies too.

The tradition, however, persisted. Nearly 750 years after the signature of the Charter, Franklin Delano Roosevelt assured us in his 1941 inaugural:

The democratic aspiration is no mere recent phase in human history. It is human history. It permeated the ancient life of early peoples. It blazed anew in the middle ages. It was written in Magna Carta.

Five years later, in his “Iron Curtain” speech, Winston Churchill declared:

We must never cease to proclaim in fearless tones the great principles of freedom and the rights of man which are the joint inheritance of the English-speaking world and which through Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, the Habeas Corpus, trial by jury, and the English common law find their most famous expression in the American Declaration of Independence.

The Great Charter itself
And then we get to David Cameron. He told the anniversary celebration at Runnymede:

Why do people set such store by Magna Carta? Because they look to history. They see how the great charter shaped the world, for the best part of a millennium, helping to promote arguments for justice and for freedom.

Sadly, he also declared that “here in Britain ironically, the place where those ideas were first set out, the good name of human rights has sometimes been distorted or devalued.” This is his justification for trying to repeal the Human Rights Act, which guarantees the Charter’s rights, and others besides, for every one of us.

The view that this is the spirit of the Charter may be ahistorical, but quite a few of us rather like it. As did Roosevelt and Churchill.

Cameron, it seems, disagrees.

As I said. Anniversaries are moments when we respect not the contemporary significance of events, but the significance that we draw from them today. Cameron, I suppose, has a right to his own. It’s just sad that it has to be so idiosyncratic.

Not to say more than a little worrying.

Friday, 12 June 2015

Matrimonial duties may include more than you thought

Somewhere or other, though I can’t remember in which film, Woody Allen says that one of the worst things a woman can say to a man is “taste this, I think it’s off.”

Of course, that isn’t the very worst thing a woman can say to a man. That is traditionally regarded as being the question, “is it in yet?” It could have come from a Woody Allen film, but it’s far older. It has no doubt been around since mankind – and womankind in particular – learned to express an opinion.

Curiously, it was only last night that I discovered another of the more delightful things a man can be told by a woman.

“Eww… it’s disgusting… look at this horrible insect that’s landed on my hand,” said my wife, as she stuck said hand under my nose.

“Err… yes… not the most appealing of creatures. Perhaps you should throw it out of the window.”

“Eww… can you take it?” Then, without waiting for an answer (perhaps because no answer I could be expected to make was likely to be satisfactory), “there… thanks.”

So now the disgusting insect was on my hand.

Of course, all that required was for me to get out of bed, walk over to the window, and shake my hand vigorously outside. Twice, because disgusting insects seem to be particularly tenacious: they slacken their grip with reluctance.

Did the Lord explain about insect-related duties?
I’ve frequently said that there are two crucial jobs we’re called on to do with barely any training: management and parenting. I’ve now decided to add a third: marriage. Down the generations, there’s been much talk about matrimonial duties. It tends to focus on exactly what a woman should or needn't do to keep her husband satisfied, or at least civil, and the debate is far from over. However, I've never heard it argued that such duties ought to include taking on your hand the disgusting insect currently lodged in your wife’s. 

Well, I can assure you that after thirty years, I’ve learned through direct and involuntary experience, that they certainly do. No doubt, for all Woody Allen's misgivings, they also cover tasting things that might be off.

Something the young might do well to prepare for as they plan their lifelong rosy romance.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Have the Tories converted to anti-Imperialism? But stayed true to the idea that the rest of us should pay?

The Conservative Party has always been the party of Empire, rejoicing in the grandeur of Britain’s imperial past. So it takes some courage for that party, of all parties, to turn its back on that juicy part of our island story.

Before, however, we get carried away with admiration for this refreshing change in viewpoint, we should bear in mind that they probably don’t realise that’s what they’ve done.

In his annual speech at the Mansion House in the City of London, the Chancellor of the Exchequer this year announced his commitment to keeping the government budget in surplus. Not just on his watch but, with legal backing, for all governments to come. That sounds like common sense, doesn’t it? Stop borrowing – sounds like good housekeeping. Wipe out debt – got to be liberating.

George Osborne
In his Mansion House speech, he disowned Britain's imperial tradition
Curiously, though, it’s the opposite of what, for Tories, put the Great in Britain. Which was the building of an Empire and becoming a world power. 

When the process started, at the end of the 17th century, the British national debt was pretty much zero. But by 1763, the end of the Seven Years War when Britain won pre-eminence in India and North America, the debt had grown to £123 million – £21 billion in today’s terms.

Now that’s not much compared to the current British national debt, which is £1.56 trillion. However, today’s figure represents 82% of GDP; the figure in 1763 represented an eye-watering 156% of GDP.

By the end of the Napoleonic Wars, when Britain had won undisputed world leadership, the debt stood at 237% of GDP.

It seems it was by incurring debt that Britain became Great. At least in the terms Tories understand greatness, equated with dominance over others. Interestingly, the worst setback to Britain’s growth as a global superpower, came when it tried to reduce debt.

From 1765 onwards, Britain decided that it was time that the colonies it claimed to be protecting in the Seven Years War, should help it defray some of its expenses. Over the next five years, it attempted to impose a series of taxes on its North American possessions. But that only led to increasing bitterness among the colonists, flaring up into first resistance, occasionally violence, followed by open war in 1775 and a Declaration of Independence in 1776.

Finally, in 1783, Britain’s attempt to reduce its debt on the backs of the North Americans, led to its definitive loss of the colonies. And at a cost of £250 million, to boot – over twice the amount of the debt in the first place. 

Ironically, this was the result of attempting to do the exact opposite – reduce debt – or, in other words, to pursue the very policies of their Tory successors today. The policies championed by George Osborne. 

It’s strange how attempts to make brutal reductions in national debt can backfire – adding to the debt, while at the same time denying the nation success in achieving its goals.

On the other hand, many of us on the left are glad to see the end of Empire. It did little for the common people of Britain, and was often gained at the price of their sacrifice – if the colonised peoples suffered most, the poor of Britain were frequently not far behind in undergoing privations imposed by imperialism: they provided the foot soldiers for the forces on which it rested, and for the industries that kept them operating.

You might think that as a result we ought to be pleased by Osborne’s decision to take the anti-imperialist route of reducing national debt, instead of the road to national greatness that traditionally involves incurring more.

The trouble is that one thing will not have changed, between the phase of growing Empire and Osborne’s latter-day conversion to anti-imperialism. Between Tory drives to incur debt or to reduce it. To extend British power or to reduce it.

It will, as ever, be the ordinary citizen who will foot the bill for their policies.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

After Scotland and Turkey, do we all have to become nationalists?

What a joy it is to see a people, saddled with a centralising, increasingly autocratic ruler, turn out and vote to stop him gathering still more power to himself.

That’s what happened on Sunday in Turkey. The HDP, generally described as “pro-Kurd” – the difference from a Kurdish party is that the HDP, under its co-Chairman Selahattin Demirtaş, wants to extend its appeal beyond the Kurdish 20% of the population – took enough seats in the general election to deny the ruling party a parliamentary majority. Suddenly, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the former Prime Minister who had moved to the symbolic office of President in the hope of turning the post into something with real executive power, has to go back to the drawing board.

Selahattin Demirtaş of the HDP
which put Erdogan firmly in his place this weekend
So an essentially nationalist party, albeit one that has decided to broaden its appeal outside its region, has, without coming even close to winning the election, made such a breakthrough as to transform the political atmosphere.

Of course, that’s a phenomenon we know sadly well in Britain too. Here, as in Turkey, a nationalist party representing one part of the nation, has won a sweeping victory in its own region, Scotland. The Scottish National Party has reduced, for now at least, the previously dominant Labour Party to only one seat. And, like the HDP, it has found a way to articulate a message that is more than nationalist – indeed, its leader, Nicola Sturgeon, has emerged as a more committed evangelist for moderate social democracy than anyone the Labour Party has found in recent years.

That’s not to say that everyone in the SNP is particularly nice. I had this from a supporter, probably a member, on Twitter the other day: “…your [Labour’s] demise in rUK [the rest of the UK, without Scotland] is also assured. You have as much future as the UK – none.” It’s intriguing that someone can take so much gloating pleasure from the notion that the rest of the UK has no future – a prospect that would cost us dear, but gain him nothing.

Incidentally, that is the classic definition of envy: delight in harm to someone else, for its own sake. So when it comes to the politics of envy, this statement perfectly expresses it.

Nevertheless, it does seem that in its majority, and at the top of the party, the SNP manages to offer a real alternative to the traditional, rather monolithic and uninspiring parties that have dominated the scene for so long. Like the HDP in Turkey. It’s true that the SNP remains entirely nationalist – Scottish, where the HDP is simply pro-Kurd – but it does seem as though nationalist politics might, at the moment, be quite an incubator for social-democratic or liberal thinking.

Sadly, nationalism is also an incubator for far less agreeable things (perhaps rather like my Twitter acquaintance). The far-right, xenophobic, homophobic United Kingdom Independence Party is nothing if not deeply nationalistic. So is the Islamophobic, authoritarian Front National in France. Like the HDP and the SNP, these are parties that are gaining support and upsetting the excessively comfortable political arrangements that suited our leaders in the past.

The uglier face of nationalism:
Marine le Pen of the FN in France, like Nigel Farage of UKIP in England
Does that mean if we want to see some change, we have to choose nationalists of the left or right?

How dismal the prospect would be if the answer to that question were yes. Because, and again my SNP-supporting adversary seems to make the point, it doesn’t take much for a nationalist of the left to flip into something pretty hateful and little different, in brutality of outlook, from a nationalist of the right.

Which means that we need to find that flame that lights up the HDP and SNP and light it in our old, non-nationalistic parties of the Centre-Left. The next few months are going to be crucial in Britain, to see if we can pull that trick off with Labour. But we need to see it happen in a great many other countries too.

In the meantime, though, we can at least celebrate the result in Turkey. it doesn’t matter that the HDP has nationalistic roots. At least it has given an increasingly autocratic politician a bloody nose.

To be fair, one even has to have a little sneaking admiration for Erdogan himself. For the moment, at any rate, he seems at least to have accepted the people’s verdict. There are plenty of countries – Russia for instance – where that couldn’t be guaranteed.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Too soon to write off Labour. If we learn our lessons

There seem to be frequent reports at the moment of the death of the British Labour Party. I’m inclined to consider them greatly exaggerated.

Listening to a recent programme on the BBC – What’s Left, chaired by the Observer’s Andrew Rawnsley – I was amused to hear speakers declaring the 2015 results the worst for Labour since 1918. Two of the panel were Labour MPs, the rest journalists or academics. Even the MPs shared the doom-laden view.

It just feels way over the top to me. Certainly, it was a lamentable result. We were beaten, and still worse, we weren’t even able to prevent David Cameron and his Tories winning an overall majority – right up to polling day, the opinion polls were suggesting he would at most emerge as leader of the biggest single party in parliament, only able to cobble together a minority administration. Instead, he took a small but working majority.

So it was lousy. But the detail suggests things were less dire than the prophets of doom claim. Perhaps I should say, like to claim.

Labour’s share of the vote was actually up on 2010. By only 1.4%, it’s true, which is anaemic, but that was marginally more than the Tories managed – they only increased their share by 0.8%. That still left them 6.5% ahead of Labour, which is certainly a sound defeat, but hardly catastrophic.

The biggest failure of Labour was to protect its Scottish heartland. From 40 seats in Scotland, it feel to just 1. Hugely damaging. On the other hand, overall it lost only 24 seats – in other words, outside Scotland it added 15 seats to its tally. With Scotland still heading inexorably for independence, Labour was going to have to wean itself from its reliance on Scotland in any case. The fact that it has been able to increase its number of seats in England and Wales is a necessary step towards guaranteeing its long-term success.

And let’s not forget that Labour hadn’t put itself in the best possible position to win. Ed Miliband is principled, insightful and probably great company. But he’s virtually unelectable: he’s accident-prone, constantly making disastrous gaffes, and with his lieutenant Ed Balls, apparently unable ever to get off any fence. They would repeatedly dodge the hard questions, preferring to appear a little Tory to Tories, a little socialist to lefties, and convincing nobody.

Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt, Liz Kendall
Will one of them turn Labour's fortunes round as the next leader?
Peter Mandelson rightly points out in today’s Observer that, under their leadership, they failed to answer such opportunistic policies as Chancellor George Osborne’s proposal to devolve more authority to local government in the North of England. That was a policy Labour should have adopted before the Tories, but it failed either to adopt it or to respond to it. The result? Losses to the Tories in the North, another heartland area, including Ed Balls’s own seat, and deep inroads by another adversary, the far-right UKIP.

If despite these self-inflicted handicaps, Labour could still improve its standing outside Scotland by fifteen seats, and marginally improve its popular vote, what could it do with a more effective, more dynamic and, above all, more assertive leadership?

It strikes me that this is no time to throw one’s arms up in despair and talk about defeat on a historically unprecedented scale. Instead it’s time to take stock sensibly of where we stand, without understating the scale of the debacle but also without ignoring the more reasons for encouragement. And make sure we never again saddle ourselves with leaders so hopelessly out of touch with the needs of the day.

Because if we shoot ourselves in the foot like that again, then we would indeed be in serious trouble.