Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Anniversary of a naval battle. And an arms race

It was an arms race with no winners but plenty of losers.

One hundred years ago today, the British Royal Navy, supported by Australian and Canadian ships, came to blows with the German Empire’s High Seas Fleet in the North Sea. The moment is being marked by ceremonies around Britain today, commemorating what in this country at least is called the Battle of Jutland.

On the British side, it cost a little over 6000 lives, on the German just over 2500.

Its outcome? At best a stalemate. Getting on for 9000 lives for minimal achievement.The German fleet never challenged the Royal Navy again, and it was prevented gaining access to the Atlantic. It wasn’t, however, destroyed as a fighting force and the British had to keep it bottled up for the rest of the First World War.

HMS Invincible discovering she was sadly vincible
The battle was the culmination of a naval arms race between the two powers. Throughout the nineteenth century, Britain had wielded the most powerful naval force in the world; the emerging power, Germany, wanted to close the gap and come up to at least 2/3 of British strength. In the first decade or so of the twentieth century, there was a frenzy to build more ships, embodied by no one so fully as by German Admiral Tirpitz and eventually the man who became First Lord of the Admiralty in Britain, Winston Churchill. The excitement even infected the wider population – “we want eight and we won’t wait” was a popular slogan in Britain, referring to the number of Dreadnoughts, the newest and deadliest battleships, the country felt the Royal Navy should have.

In the end, the cost of the race was ruinous. And the results, as both sides discovered a century ago today, was inconclusive. An arms race cost a fortune and produced little, though at least it gave employment to shipyard workers. One can’t help feeling they might have been better employed elsewhere.

Roll on a hundred years, and isn’t “make America great again” the expression of just the same desires as “we want eight and we won’t wait”?

What’s changed is that, if we thought the naval arms race was unaffordable, today’s equivalent is far more costly still. When it comes to nuclear weapons, and all the other toys the military want with them – drones and the latest generations of aircraft and ships , the prices have become nothing short of eye-watering.

What stays strictly the same, however, is that if ever they came to be used, the result would be just as inconclusive. Many losers, no winners. And, sadly, if the showdown turned nuclear, there’d be far more dead than 9000.

With little likelihood of anyone being around to celebrate the centenary.

Sunday, 29 May 2016

Brexit backers: careful what you wish for

This week’s Observer publishes the results of a survey of economists, 88% of whom agreed that leaving the EU would damage the UK economy. 

The newspaper rightly points to the surprising degree of consensus among experts who usually thrive on tearing each other apart. Their agreement is encouraging, though I wish I could free myself of the suspicion that getting things right is as uncommon among economists as is agreement.

What I found more interesting was the views of the small minority of economists who believe Brexit would benefit Britain. One of the leading members of this band is Professor Patrick Minford of Cardiff University, a solid supporter of the kind of economics favoured by the most fervid of free market ideologues. Here’s what he has to say about the damage being done to the UK economy by the EU, and I make no apology for quoting him at some length:

Manufacturing is a declining industry in the West: it is uncompetitive for obvious reasons, because we have emerging markets like China that undercut it so massively. What is left is in specialised, high-tech and niche areas. In our economy we have largely let market forces take effect, with generally favourable results for employment and growth; as a result we have let manufacturing go where it was essentially uneconomic. That has not happened to the same extent on the continent. As a result we find there a great deal of protectionist pressure. The EU is accordingly a customs union: for raising tariffs externally on manufactured imports, so that prices are kept up inside the European Union for manufactures. In addition to tariffs the European Union protects manufacturing through quotas in certain areas like textiles, but mainly through informal agreements (as in cars) and anti-dumping measures. Anti-dumping operates both through explicit duties and more generally through the threat of levying them, which results in importers raising their prices instead.

Let’s be absolutely clear. What he’s saying is that the EU holds Britain back because it takes action to protect people, specifically wage earners, against the effect of an unbridled free market. The EU tries to take action against, for instance, dumping of cheap products in Europe by nations such as China.

Chinese steel production: crucifying European competitors
You might think, for instance, of steel. Chinese steel is produced to lower quality standards than European. Chinese workers’ incomes are held even lower than our own. Many feel that the EU ought to protect our workers against the dumping of a sub-standard product, made cheap by brutally restraint on wages. 

Not it seems David Cameron and George Osborne, who blocked such moves. 

Nor, clearly, Patrick Minford who feels that this is a matter of letting “market forces takes effect, with generally favourable results for employment and growth.” That’s a view that will be received with interest by the steel workers in Wales and England who recently learned that their jobs were going. “Favourable results for employment”? Meanwhile, growth in Britain remains anaemic. When are we likely to see the “favourable results … on growth” from preventing the EU taking action against unfair competition?

We need to get this right. Going with the views of Patrick Minford and voting for Brexit means ensuring that the dreams of Conservatives are realised: the free market is allowed to trample unhampered over the rights of workers. Or rather, a market that isn’t even truly free: it’s being blithely manipulated by economies like the Chinese who don’t have the slightest concern for British or other European workers.

The EU tries to prevent that; the Minfords, the Camerons and the Osbornes work to block it. Pulling us out leaves us completely at the mercy of these characters. As it leaves us at the mercy of powerful trading blocs utterly uninterested in protecting British rights.

Is that really what we want?

Above all, is that what Brexiteers in the British Labour Party, aligned with the Minfords of this world, really want? They claim to speak for workers’ rights. Minford shows they’re acting to undermine them.

Friday, 27 May 2016

Obama and Peace. And what comes next

Do you remember when Barack Obama won the Nobel peace prize?

It was in October 2009. His inauguration as US President had taken place the previous January. He’d barely got his feet under the table, had hardly begun to feel his way into the job, had yet to achieve more than the already considerable feat of getting elected into that office despite being partly black.

“What’s the peace prize committee up to?” most of us wondered, “usually they honour people who’ve actually made some major contribution to peace. Are they issuing prizes for potential now, then?”

Seven years on, it’s the prize committee that looks smart, we their sceptical critics who look foolish. Insight, they showed, and above all foresight. Obama has done far more for peace, and above all far less for war, than has become the norm for Presidents since the end of the Second World War.

It’s true he wanted to go blundering into Syria, missiles blazing, but he had the good sense to be talked out of that. He kept his intervention in Libya to a minimum. He did all he could to pull troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq, and resisted the temptation to put more in, able to rise above the simplistic pursuit of quick fixes by military means for which Dubya Bush – and, indeed, Tony Blair – so naively fell.

He’s also shown an ability to break free from a toxic mindset. Most nations have fixations with certain issues on which they find it practically impossible to change their view. In the US, the most significant seem to be a conviction that no black can be fully the equal of a white – indeed, for many, that blacks can’t come close to equality, that force is the best approach to foreign policy, and that the widespread possession of guns protects society, instead of being the principal contributing factor to a world-leading murder rate.

Obama has shown the first of these obsessions to be wholly false, just by being who he is. The third he has never ceased to combat, even in these, the dying months of his presidency. And for the second, he has shown that the US can do better by befriending some of its enemies, without denying disagreements, than by maintaining an aggressive stance towards them.

He became the first sitting US President to visit Cuba since the revolution. The US may have a long list of grievances against Havana, and many may even be justified, but an open door leads to more hope of progress than a closed one – if only because you can talk through it, negotiate through it, even argue through it.

He recently visited Vietnam too. There’s plenty wrong in that country, above all the repression of opposition to the regime and all the usual paraphernalia of autocracy: censorship, excessive surveillance, denial of human rights. But the longest war the US has fought, and the first it has lost, achieved absolutely nothing but death and destruction in Vietnam. It’s good to see other attitudes being reinforced.

Of course, there’s a paradox: Obama’s gesture of peace towards Vietnam took the form of authorising the sale of arms to the nation… Still, it was a gesture that would cement a growing friendship, and suggests a growing trust.

Finally, Obama became the first serving US President to visit Hiroshima and the Peace Park, monument to the first of only two times that atomic weapons have ever been used. We need to remember, when we cry about the weapons of mass destruction, that the US alone has used them in anger, killing over 140,000 people immediately in Hiroshima (others died later of diseases caused by the bomb). To set some perspective, 2014 was a peak year for terrorist deaths – they reached nearly 33,000 around the world.

Barack Obama with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe
with the A-Bomb dome in the background
The Peace Park is one of the most moving places I have ever visited. It maintains a powerful sense of peace, but also of sorrow, even of awe, at what was done there. A prayer bell stands as a symbol of the horror that any faith must have feel at the atrocity booming mournfully when another visitor sounds it; nearby are glass cases full of paper cranes (the birds, not the construction plant – don’t be silly) in memory, initially, of the girl who started making them in the ultimately vain hope that it would prevent her death from leukaemia, and now in memory of all the victims of war; and standing over all, visible again and again as one wanders the paths, grim and awe-inspiring is the A-bomb dome, the strange building that somehow remained standing though choked with rubble (which has been left where it fell) while all the people inside it were killed.

Now Obama has been there, as the official representative of the nation that wreaked the destruction. And in that hallowed place, he spoke of his hope for a world that would ultimately free itself of nuclear weapons. Not probably in his lifetime, he told us, but eventually, as long as we keep pushing towards that goal.

Oh, yes, he’s a worthy recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. He hadn’t shown it in his actions back then. But he has completely justified the faith of the Prize Committee.

Now we face the prospect of his successor being Donald Trump. The man not of the open door, but of the wall between peoples. The man who wants to make American great again, with a subtext of violence, domination, intolerance.

I don’t think he’ll be bothering the Nobel Peace Prize for their attention at all.

Monday, 23 May 2016

The nature of tragedy: a political illustration

Tragedy is most visible in the individual, not the mass.

Imagine a larger-than-life figure, impetuous, courageous, strong – though he fought for that strength, having been an invalid in childhood – who won the acclaim of his nation when, with no previous military experience, he led US civilian levies known as the Rough Riders up a Cuban hill under intense Spanish fire.

That was Theodore Roosevelt. 

Despite being an enthusiastic, even voracious, hunter he once spared the life of an undersized bear that was offered up to him as a victim. That left a legacy that we still feel today: the Teddy Bear, created to commemorate the event.
The event that gave us the Teddy Bear
One of his closest friends was William Howard Taft, a man who gave up his cherished position as a judge to become Governor-General of the Philippines, a US protectorate as a result of the same war with Spain in which Roosevelt took part in Cuba. In time, Roosevelt became President and decided he couldn’t do without the support of his friend. He recalled Taft to Washington to be his Secretary of War.

Roosevelt, who’d originally assumed the presidency following the assassination of his predecessor, William McKinley, won re-election handsomely in 1904. But on learning of his victory, he made a mistake he would later regret: he announced he would not stand for a third term (legally possible then), believing like Washington, Jefferson or Jackson, that no one should hold that office for more than two.

He did have someone to hand the Presidency on to: his close friend and confidant Taft. Roosevelt groomed him for the office, overcoming his own growing desire to stand after all. But he stuck to his word, stood back, endorsed Taft and helped him win the nomination and then the election.

This was the last time that their party, the Republican Party, held a strongly liberal position. Both Roosevelt and Taft were committed to what Teddy called a “square deal” for the little man. They would fight huge, over-powerful corporations, or equally overbearing unions, breaking up their easy or even corrupt relationships with politicians, in the hope of making US government serve the many and not just a few.

It’s hard to believe that this is the same party whose presumptive nominee for President today is Donald Trump.

As well as their reliance on each other, both men also depended on a less well-known figure. This was Archie Butt, military adviser to Roosevelt. He became an intimate of the President and his family; he also developed a close relationship with the President’s other confidant, Taft.

When Taft became President himself, he asked Archie Butt to stay on. Butt, after some minor difficulties in adjusting to the much slower and more prudent pace at which Taft worked, became increasingly close to his new boss. It was, it seems, hard not to like Taft, with his transparent honesty and deep loyalty. To be fair, he also got a lot more done than one might expect from his relatively quiet style.

Taft suffered three serious blows while President.

The first was when his wife, Nellie, suffered a stroke within a few months of their moving into the White House. That deprived Taft of the constant support and guiding hand which had moulded his career over many years. Indeed, she now needed help and support herself, as she struggled to learn to speak again, and to play again some role as First Lady.

It was hard on Taft, but he soldiered on.

Archie Butt helped Nellie assiduously. He found her if she wandered off in a crowd, helped her out in conversations with people, generally made sure she was properly looked after.

The second blow came when Roosevelt returned from a year’s big game hunting in Africa. He had not at all given up on politics, and it quickly emerged that he strongly disapproved of many of Taft’s actions. From a supporter of his old friend, he began to turn into an adversary. Finally, as the Republican Party set out to select a candidate for the 1912 Presidential election, Roosevelt became the first former president to challenge for the nomination and, what’s more, to do it against a sitting president of his own party. The old friends had become bitter enemies.

Again, Taft fought on.

The antagonism between two men he admired was tough on Butt. Who would we side with? It was a question Roosevelt wanted answered too, and he sent his daughter Alice to tell Butt “to get out of his present job.”

Butt didn’t. The First Lady needed him. So did the President. As Roosevelt began to make inroads into Taft’s popularity, Butt shared his depression and strain. Indeed, it eventually became so bad that when Butt offered to cancel a planned holiday in Europe, Taft told him he wouldn’t think of it. He must go, and at once, to recover during the short time before the start of the primaries, still a new institution then.

So Butt left.

Taft took beating after beating in primaries that left Roosevelt firmly as front runner for the nomination. Butt, following the results, decided the President needed his support. So he cut his vacation short and booked a place on the newest, fasted ship returning across the Atlantic.

That was the Titanic.

The third and tragic blow to hit Taft was the loss of Archie Butt, in the North Atlantic, on 15 April 1912. With 1500 other passengers on that ill-fated ship.

Then the President wept.

Friday, 20 May 2016

A mark of our times: the password bane

Have you read Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell’s brilliant, harrowing and entertaining account of his time in the International Brigades in Spain’s Civil War?

At one point, he talks about the tricky problem of passwords.

The difficult passwords which the army was using at this time were a minor source of danger. They were those tiresome double passwords in which one word has to be answered by another. Usually they were of an elevating and revolutionary nature, such as Cultura – progreso, or Seremos – invencibles, and it was often impossible to get illiterate sentries to remember these highfalutin’ words. One night, I remember, the password was Cataluña – heroica, and a moon-face peasant lad named Jaime Domenech approached me, greatly puzzled, and asked me to explain.

Heroica – what does heroica mean?’

I told him that it meant the same as 
valiente. A little while later he was stumbling up the trench in darkness, and the sentry challenged him:

’Alto! Cataluña!’

‘Valiente!’ yelled Jaime, certain that he was saying the right thing.


However, the sentry missed him. In this war everyone always did miss everyone else, when it was humanly possible.

Passwords are not quite so dangerous these days but, sadly, they are ubiquitous. Far from concerning only the military, they affect us all. And the worst of it is that we have so many. Every card has its own, doesn’t it? And don’t you dare forget it. Have you ever stood at a supermarket till, at the head of a long queue, racking your brain for that number you’d completely memorised and, naturally, never written down, while the display points out you’re on your third and last attempt and the other shoppers are all looking at you with undisguised disdain and impatience?

Nor is it just cards. You have PINs and code for every on-line service, computer, tablet and, of course, phone.

Mobile phones are a wonderfully convenient invention. Now people I don’t want to talk to can catch me more or less anywhere I go. I no longer have to wait to be home to be hassled by somebody trying to sell me insurance I don’t want.

It’s also wonderful that phones will even update their own operating systems, and even do it overnight if you like, so you don’t have to pay any attention to them while they do it.

Unfortunately, that’s when the password curse hits you.

Oh no! What a nightmare.
Because since the phone has restarted, it won’t accept your thumb print any more. So this time you have to remember a passcode you chose, an immensely memorable string of numbers which has now completely slipped your memory and which, naturally, you didn’t write down.

The birth and death year of some historical character you couldn’t forget? No, that was last time. The first eight figures of pi? No, that was the time before. The Avogadro constant? No, you have no idea what that even is.

So you end up staring at a screen that is entirely unmoved by your fury and exasperation but simply keeps dumbly demanding the same lost code. Appalling. Especially as you know there’s no way around it: there’s no one to ask, no help to solve the problem, no escaping the dilemma that you either remember the code eventually or you’re stuck.

It’s not as bad as in Homage to Catalonia, since nobody shoots at you, accurately or inaccurately. But if it’s not that bad, the mobile phone and its humble passcode still provide one of the great banes of our lives today.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Vladimir Put in his place by Eurovision

So let me get this right.

The Eurovision song contest, one of the frothiest and least significant of competitions around the world, has actually got the Russians riled? Even though everyone knows the result is politically fiddled, with the Russians among the main manipulators? Are they perhaps upset because the Ukrainians outmanoeuvred them?

It seems the issue is that the winning Ukrainian song was about the deportation of the Tatars from Crimea in 1944. Crimea was part of Ukraine until two years ago, when the Russians moved in with armed force. Invited, they naturally assured the world, by locals, but then, how many invaders claim to be invited by the invaded?

That difficult moment back in 2014 has left what I suppose one can only call bad blood between Ukraine and Russia. So one can imagine that getting up Russian noses might well have been a pretty significant motivation for Ukrainians to sing that particular song.

As it happens, however, at the time to which the song refers, Crimea wasn’t part of Ukraine at all. It was Russian territory, as it had been for a long time. Russian claims to the Crimea are, to be honest, quite difficult to deny; it’s the use of saboteurs and tanks to enforce them that’s harder to swallow.

What’s more, back then, in 1944, Russia wasn’t even under the control of the present allegedly democratic regime. The Soviet Union was at the summit of its power, still led by its iconic dictator, Stalin. His regime in Russia, alongside Hitler’s in Germany, had been one of the two great totalitarian powers in Europe for a dozen years, and World War II, then raging, had been largely caused by their antagonism.

Tatars loaded into cattle trucks for their deportation
Ah, so reminiscent of scenes from Germany at the same time...

In driving the Tatars out of Crimea, Stalin was merely engaging in yet another act of totalitarian brutality. Totalitarianism flows from a sense of belonging to a movement powered by some force far greater than mere men: history itself for the Soviet Union, the destiny of a people for Nazi Germany, but it can equally be some religious or other faith in different places at different times.

If you represent the force of history, you can’t be doing wrong. So treating an entire ethnic group like the Tatars as disposable is perfectly justifiable, and driving them out made perfect sense to Stalin, whatever their suffering and their losses. This particular act of ethnic cleansing affected 230,000 people, of whom probably about 100,000 died.

Most of us these days take a dim view of such behaviour. It’s not generally regarded as compatible with the highest standards of democratic values. And the present Russian leadership likes to claim it wholly conforms to values of that kind.

So here’s the question: why on earth would they be offended by a song that denounces a regime under which Russia too suffered abominably for several decades? After all, Stalin wreaked more killing on the Soviet Union than Hitler did on Germany, partly no doubt because he had longer.

Unless, of course, there’s real hankering to get back to that kind of regime again. Might Putin be not quite so committed to democratic principle as he likes to maintain? Does he perhaps long nostalgically for a state in which he was, after all, a leading functionary of its most repressive institution, the KGB?

Ah, perish the unworthy thought.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Do women clog up supermarkets?

It’s a well-known fact, or popularly accepted prejudice – the two notions are synonymous – that women, through their tendency to natter endlessly with each other, are the main reason why shopping clogs up, turning the process into a sluggish, nerve-grinding, exasperating nightmare.

What’s certainly true is that there are two schools of thought towards shopping. One views the experience as essentially pleasurable: the retail therapy school, I suppose. The other sees it as a strict necessity, to be borne because it can’t be avoided, but to be completed in the shortest possible time. Retail utilitarians, you might say.

I may have been too heavily influenced by my own strict and wholehearted adherence to the latter school when I tended to associate it more with men, and the former more with women. So when I turned up at the fish counter in that fine establishment made available to the British supermarket-goer by Mr Sainsbury, I was delighted to see only one person there before me, and he a man.

Surely my wait would not be long, I surmised.

And I couldn’t have been further from the truth.

It seems that the man ahead of me had decided to prepare a paella for his “mate” who was coming to visit him and had expressed a taste for that iconic Spanish dish.

Paella. It may be to your taste or it may not.
Either way, it takes a long time. Sadly, mine too, apparently
“He’s quite a cook himself, and I want to show him that I can make something good to eat too.”

When buying food it strikes me that the best thing is to just buy the stuff and go. If you have to talk about it, surely that should only be to ensure that you’re buying the right thing, if you need any reassurance on the matter. Explaining your motives? Isn’t that more appropriate in the presence of a counsellor than a fishmonger?

To my horror, this particular fishmonger seemed genuinely interested. Well, either that or he was an excellent actor. Could anyone possibly really want to know about some stranger’s first excursion into the hardly inspiring realm of paella preparation?

“Will you be cooking this indoors or outdoors, then?”

It turns out that, much to his regret, it would be indoors. “I was tempted to buy one of those gas-jet outdoor stoves, but can one justify the investment for something you’re only going to use a couple of times a year?”

I couldn’t say. But I was hoping was that he’d spare us the full business case.

“Of course, I did think about using the barbecue but, you know, you’ve got no control of the heat, do you?”

By now he’d decided on some of the ingredients he needed.

“I could do with some scallops.”

The fishmonger pointed at a bowl with a small number still left.

“Will you take all of those?”

“Could you weigh them, please, and tell me how much theyd be? I’m also trying to work to a budget here.”

It turned out that the price was bearable, so he had a second weighing including all the stock available, and decided budget would extend to cover the lot.

“And now some cod, please.”

The whole piece? No, this time we were beyond our budgetary constraints. The fishmonger cut the piece in two. Were we taking the bigger piece or the smaller?

Sadly, at this stage I’m unable to remember which he went for. An anaesthetising numbness had seized my brain and, devoted though I am to faithful recording history, I can no longer provide this vital detail of the unfolding Paella saga.

“Thanks very much,” he said cheerfully, picking up his two packets and getting ready to leave.

“Oh, prawns!” he exclaimed, “do you have any prawns?”

They were in a bowl prominently displayed in the ice-decked case. But the fishmonger, the soul of courtesy towards a client, merely pointed them out without making any remark about his apparent blindness.

“I’ll have half a dozen.”

Now it was the fishmonger who suffered an attack of momentary blindness.

“I’m sorry. I just can’t seem to find the price tag. It’s vanished.”

They were both staring bemusedly into the case, so I couldn’t resist intervening.

“It’s not that price tag there, is it?” I asked, “the one stuck in the ice next to the bowl of prawns? The one marked ‘prawns’?”

It turned out to be the right tag. The fishmonger weighed and priced the half dozen.

“Oh, I don’t know, I’ll take the lot,” said the customer.

Finally, the three packets had been sealed and priced. The customer had carefully looked through the display case and clearly decided there was nothing else he needed. He picked up his bags and started to move away.

“Have you got the San Miguel to go with the paella?” asked the fishmonger.

Oh, Lord. There followed another long and highly-informed conversation on various beers, their respective qualities and their greater suitability, or not, to accompany paella. The worst of it? It was clearly mutually fascinating to both participants.

So gone are my prejudices about women in supermarkets. Next time, I want to be in a queue with women who know what they want to buy and get on with buying it. Served, I hope, by a woman behind the counter who resists any temptation to inquire into their motivations and drinking habits.

The worst of it? I’ve never liked paella. And I’m not fond of San Miguel either.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Time saved, more time to waste

It’s naïve, but I can’t help feeling impressed by the way technology is constantly being harnessed to save time.

Although it’s been around a while now, I’m still delighted with contactless payments in shops. You don’t even have to insert a card into a machine any more, or even enter a PIN, far less sign a piece of paper. Brilliant.

“I can’t get over how quick this system is,” I told the woman behind the till as I paid for some shopping I decided to do before seeing a GP this morning. I was a bit early for the GP, you see, so it made sense to get the purchases out of the way beforehand.

“Very quick,” she replied, “though unfortunately they haven’t speeded up the system that prints your receipt, and we have to wait until I can give it to you.”

It was a good point. We were able to have a brief chat about the weather, as one does, at least in England, while we were waiting for her system to make up its mind to spit out my receipt.

That left me a little thoughtful. The time gained by using the contactless service was as nothing compared to the time it took for the transaction to complete. The whole experience all seemed rather pointless, set in that context.

The thought was underlined still further when I headed off to my GP’s surgery, only to discover that he was running late (and how unusual is that when it comes to GPs?) So any time I might have saved in the shop would only have served to get me more quickly into the GP’s waiting room, killing time until he could see me. Saving time so I could get started on wasting time a little more quickly.

The whole experience put me in mind of a story I once heard about an American businessman in North Africa chatting with a Bedouin trader who regularly crosses the Sahara.

“I can get from one side of the desert to the other with a camel train in under a month,” he announces with pride.

“A month?” exclaims the businessman, “I can cross it in a couple of hours by plane.”

“Yes,” says the Bedouin, “but just what do you do with the time you save?”

Sure this isn’t the right way to go?

So technology continues to impress me. But I have to admit that the efficiency of one machine can be undermined by the inefficiency of another. And ultimately the whole thing depends on the efficiency of the human users of these exciting systems, and I’m not sure it’s progressed particularly over the centuries.

As the Bedouin said, it isn’t the time our machinery saves us that matters, it’s the use we find ourselves able to make of it…

Sunday, 8 May 2016

From 8 May to 23 June: a link which shows what matters

Seventy-one years ago today, something remarkable happened. Remarkable for Europe, or at least the Western bit. Remarkable even for the rest of the world, since it kept getting sucked into European quarrels.

What happened on 8 May 1945? The Second World War in Europe came to an end. That moment marked the end of centuries of conflict, constantly erupting anew, ever since the Roman Empire collapsed.

Field Marshal Keitel signs the military surrender of Germany,
ushering in seven decades of peace in Western Europe
Take the last three centuries. In the 18th, we got the War of Spanish Succession out of the way, only to see the outbreak of the War of Polish Succession twenty or so years later and, blow me down, a decade after that, the War of Austrian Succession.

Tired of this succession of wars of Succession, we next had a go at a war based on the passage of time – the seven-year war. After all, the thirty-year war in the previous century had been such a good lark, and this one packed in almost as much excitement in a much shorter time. It was also the first world war waged by the European powers, with major theatres in India and in North America (where the locals called it the French and Indian war).

We also had some impressive colonial conflicts, most notably between the British and the same Americans, with the French joining in to give their rivals across the Channel a bloody nose (which they successfully did).

Little more than ten years after that, we got stuck into the Napoleonic wars which managed to last nearly a quarter of a century and cover pretty much the whole of Europe, right out to Moscow.

That left people tired for a while, but we still managed some colonial battles within Europe – notably the Austrians in Italy, with the French getting involved. Meanwhile, the Prussians, beginning to exert their new-found power, fought the Austrians, the Saxons, the Danes – basically anyone who seemed in their way.

Which led neatly to the Franco-Prussian war. That meant France losing territory to the German Empire which, to add insult to injury, was proclaimed in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles. The bitterness made inevitable the First World War (which was far from the first) forty years later; it didn’t get sorted out, so the Second World War broke out to wrap up the loose ends twenty years after that.

Those two wars were so close together that a great many fought in both. One of my grandfathers was in the artillery in World War One, taking an injury that gave him bother for the rest of his life; in World War Two, he was back in service but in the Fleet Air Arm, though serving on the ground, since he was too old for combat.

My other grandfather spent two years in gaol in the First World War, in company with Bertrand Russell among others, for refusing to fight. In the Second, however, as a Jew he felt he had to do what he could against Hitler, and joined the Air Raid Precaution service.

Through most of my childhood, I fully expected that when I reached adulthood, there’d be another conflict of this kind in which I, like my father and his father, would be called on to take part.

Well, it didn’t happen. Seven decades on from that remarkable day in May 1945, France, Britain, Austria, Italy, Germany have managed to remain at peace. Unheard of. Unprecedented.

Why is it so important for the rest of the world? Well, look at what happened in WW1 and WW2: so many other countries found themselves sucked in. Even those that remained neutral were affected by the disruption the world suffered, many having to impose rationing on foodstuffs and other essentials.

A French friend of mine was four when he saw his father for the last time. The Gestapo called to arrest him in 1940. The family never heard of him again.

He told me that story soon after the Euro was introduced. With tears in his eyes, he said that he would never have believed before that he would use the same currency as them, over there – gesturing towards the Rhine, just a few kilometres from his front door. He said it with a relief so strong that it bordered on joy. The Euro represented to him the latest brick in a wall between our nations and war – a wall built by tearing down the one that had previously separated the nations themselves.

That’s what we tend to lose sight of when we debate European construction in Britain. We talk about trade, or the movement of production and jobs, or immigration. We sadly don’t talk about all the good that has come from the longest period of sustained peace our countries have seen.

Make no mistake. The European Union is merely the expression of the efforts we have made over seven decades to secure that peace. To put an end to that long, dreary, destructive and bloodthirsty succession of wars that have afflicted us.

If on 23 June Britain votes to leave the EU, be under no illusion, it will be turning its back on all that painful work of peaceful construction.

Think of the bombing of Coventry or Dresden, of the extermination camps, of the Battles of Passchendaele or Jutland or Cassino or the Bulge, of the A-bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and ask yourselves: is that really such a smart move?

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Disaster avoided, but success is still to work for

In the end, it didn’t happen. 

Predictions of a Labour wipeout in yesterday’s UK local elections weren’t fulfilled. The reports of Jeremy Corbyn’s execution by a disdainful electorate turned out to be premature at least. Labour lived to fight another day.

It wasn’t for any want of wishing. A great many people were longing for his crushing rejection. Sadly, a disappointing number of them were in leading positions in the Labour Party.

In local councils up and down England, seats were being contested that were last fought in 2012, something of a high point in Labour’s standing in the councils. Even yesterday morning, the BBC was reporting the likelihood that the party would lose “dozens” of seats. In the end, the number was 23 – so just short of two of those dozens. They won 1291, which is just short 108 dozen. So they came close to a historic high.

A point not made as loudly as it might since the elections is that, if Labour clung on to most of its gains from the surge it enjoyed in 2012, the Conservatives were able to advance little from their lamentable levels of that year.

In Wales, they lost one seat leaving them one short of half the total, but still very much the largest party in the principality.

Labour’s worst result, of course, was in Scotland. A nation that Labour once dominated has now gone over massively to the Scottish National Party. Labour’s historic defeat there was still more strongly underlined yesterday when it was overtaken by the Conservatives, a party that went into decline in the 1950s and has led a rump existence north of the border for half a century.

There’s no denying the seriousness of the blow. On the other hand, it’s no bad thing to see Labour gradually being weaned of its dependence on Scottish votes. Especially with the still strong likelihood of Scotland separating from the United Kingdom, Labour needs to learn to win in England.

Which takes us to the best of yesterday’s news: London. We’ve had eight years of Conservative rule in the capital, and by Boris Johson, perhaps embodies pure privilege with all its arrogance and entitlement more than any other. Yesterday Labour has won both the Mayor’s office and the London assembly back – electing as Mayor Sadiq Khan, the son of a bus driver, educated not at Eton and Oxford, but at a local comprehensive (state) school and the University of North London.

Sadiq Khan, son of a Pakistani bus driver, new Mayor of London
Symbolically, the victory is most important for being the first time a Muslim has become Mayor of a major Western city. That’s significant for two reasons. At a global level, it matters because it shows Muslims everywhere that the extremists are wrong, that we are at last beginning to reach a place (despite the Trumps of this world) where a Muslim can pursue the most exalted of careers.

It also makes an important point about the value of immigration.

At a more local level, the Khan win shows that a racist campaign need not succeed. Khan’s Tory opponent tried to brand Khan a companion of extremists, playing into the racist narrative that any Muslim, merely as a Muslim, must be suspect in the Western world. That slur was massively rejected by an electorate that gave Khan the largest personal vote ever received in British history. There had also been a last-minute attempt to smear Labour as anti-Semitic, which may have cost the Party votes in the capital with its relatively large Jewish community. Khan has made it absolutely clear that he holds no such views, and it was encouraging to see him winning in spite of the attack.

So, overall, where do we stand? As Jeremy Corbyn put it, Labour hung on. Obviously, hanging on is nothing like good enough. We have a long way to go to unseat the Tories. That will only happen when we learn to do better than in the past, rather than more or less doing as well. However, yesterday’s results were anything but disastrous. They form a good launchpad for improvement.

Certain things have to happen now. The Party has to learn to take on the Tories far more effectively. Above all, it must learn to stop its own infighting. In that context, it’s sad to see two Labour MPs point out in the Guardian that they were wrong to nominate Corbyn for the leadership. Corbyn is the Labour Party leader; attempting to replace him would be distractive and disruptive; it would almost certainly fail since the membership massively backs him. So – get on side, focus on the real opponents and get the Party moving forward – for the country’s sake, as well as our own.

Yesterday shows we can do it. With a government that is destroying the health service, education, even the police, we know it’s time. Let’s now find the will.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Fresh fruit and vegetables, from someone else's allotted work

Nothing beats organic vegetables, and there’s no better way of guaranteeing that they’re truly organic than to grow them yourself.

Or, if you’re like me and can’t bear the idea of gardening, then nothing can be better than having someone in your household who thinks the most marvellous way to relax at weekends is to go and weed, dig and plant on an allotment.

Well, to do it with a friend of hers.

Well, two allotments really.

Well, two plus a third smaller one.

All this, apparently enjoyable, effort means that there are today at least two Luton husbands who have a fine source of high-quality fruit and vegetables for most of the year. I’m delighted to be one of them.

All it costs in return is that we occasionally have to shovel large quantities of horse manure into bags and haul them to the vegetable beds on our wives’ allotment(s). And occasionally to dig a hole or two, to plant... well, plants. Or sometimes trees. The making of such holes I regard as holy work, and from such holiness will, in time, come apricots. Pears. Apples. Plums. Virtue finds its reward in fruit.

My holy work, allotted and done.
Just a few years left until we reap – literally – the rewards
What amazes me is how educational the experience of working an allotment turns out to be. I came home on Sunday, from my own rather more limited form of entertainment – badminton – to find both our gardeners tinkering with a powerful and daunting looking piece of machinery which they’d got in bits on our carpet.

I say tinkering but I have to admit that it would be far more accurate to say they were expertly assembling it.

‘It’ in this instance turned out to be a petrol-driven strimmer. A strimmer, in case you don’t know, is a machine that can be drawn along the sides of a flower bed or a lawn – or a vegetable plot – and, using a pair of viciously rotating plastic threads, free it of any unwanted growth. There is, fortunately, no such thing as a Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Plants, or such a device would certainly have been banned.

Fiendish device
My engineering skills are limited to understanding that you climb into a mechanical device, insert a key into the ignition and turn it, after which by some extraordinary miracle, you can move off and travel, with speed and efficiency, to your destination. Or at least to the first traffic jam on the way to that destination.

So I was impressed to bits to find these two friends competently putting together threads and shields and handles and a motor, until they were ready to fill a miniature petrol tank and put the strimmer to work. Which, apparently, it did to their immense satisfaction. Leaving me full of admiration for their mastery of mechanics.

Not so much of economics, of course. Add up the price of tools and plants and seeds and other products, and the cost per vegetable starts to mount up. Add in the opportunity cost of their time on the allotment, and I suspect that you’d find the produce was significantly more expensive than what you get in a supermarket.

But, oh so much better tasting. And better for you. So, if they’re enjoying the work, I certainly won’t complain.

Just as long as my involvement is kept to the present minimum, and my role is limited to eating the produce and expressing my (sincere, heartfelt) satisfaction.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Might the word be mightier than the nuclear missile?

It’s a commonplace of British foreign policy that the country needs to “punch above its weight.”

With constant repetition, the idea has seeped into received wisdom, becoming one of those obvious truths we all accept without question. But questioning it badly needs.

To start with, the expression comes from boxing. In most sports, injuring an opponent can lead to a sanction by the referee; indeed, if the injury is deemed to be deliberate, the sanction may be serious, even career-limiting. The aim of boxing, on the other hand, is to cause deliberate injury to the adversary, as quickly as possible, and decisively. It’s hard to see how that can even be classified as a sport. And doesn’t a national goal become suspect precisely for being drawn from a metaphor drawn from it?

In any case, a boxer who kept boxing above his weight would be bound, ultimately, to come up against an opponent who would be undeterred by any cleverness or technical proficiency the fighter showed and would simply use his superior weight to crush him.

As it happens, that isn’t a bad parallel for British defence policy. When British politicians talk about the British punch, they’re mostly talking about the country’s nuclear weapons. They’re impressive when it comes to potential to do incalculable damage to the world. But compared to the arsenals of the United States or Russia, they’re trivial. If we fell out seriously with Russia, we’d soon discover that punching above our weight was a terminal occupation. As our (relatively) puny force was met by their overwhelming might, we’d just have to time to ponder the error of our ways before oblivion.

This last week I was in Madrid and at one point wandered past the British Council headquarters. A fine, even palatial building. It’s the centre from which the Council runs a series of mostly educational initiatives: teaching English, making books available, laying on shows or lectures, all with a British theme.

We don’t do anything like as much of that as we ought. To pick a sporting metaphor from outside the boxing ring, we’re not playing to our full strength. Britain can make cultural contributions to the world that are impressive. Making an impression, that is, in a much more pleasing way than a Trident missile could.

A Trident missile, and the British Council building in Madrid
Which really projects power most effectively?
Curiously, according to their accounts, the income of the British Council globally was £972m in 2014/15. Within this total, just £154.9m came from the British public, down by 5% on the year before, in line with stated government policy to keep reducing its investment in the cultural body.

At that rate, it would take Britain around 645 years to spend the amount the government plans to spend on Trident over just ten years. But if the government estimate of £100bn for Trident is an underestimate, and the true figure is closer to £167bn as has been claimed, it would take rather over a millennium to spend as much on the British Council as on those weapons of mass destruction.

Whose use would spell our own destruction.

Whereas the work of the British Council might extend and deepen international affection for its home country.

Strikes me that even simple financial expediency should favour the intelligence over the Council over the punch, however weighty, of the Trident system…