Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Crossing borders

It’s curious how two business trips provided me with two angles on the same issue. With only one conclusion.

On the first trip, I visited a couple of hospitals in New Jersey. To get there, I flew to Philadelphia, which isn’t in New Jersey, so I was a bit surprised. I shouldn’t have been: if I’d been better informed on the geography I’d have known that Philadelphia is right on the Pennsylvania-New Jersey border and the hospitals I was going to were close by.

Nothing more natural, then. My destination was in a different state, but the same nation. And yet, it might not have been. In the early years of the United States, that name was definitely a plural – people talked of “these” United States. Only later did USA become a singular noun, as the federation increasingly subsumed the states.

And yet I suspect that had the states remained separate, I would nonetheless have flown to Philadelphia to reach southern New Jersey. The Americans are pragmatists. Their pragmatism would have demanded open borders and easy travel across them for business.

In the second trip, I attended a meeting of Italian doctors in the Alpine resort of Cortina d’Ampezzo. It’s in the Veneto, the province of Venice, and perhaps it would have made sense to fly there and drive up. Somehow, though, I didn’t feel like doing that and taking the long haul up from the plain into the mountains.

Perhaps I just didn’t like the idea of a plane to a plain.

So instead I flew to a mountain airport, at Innsbruck. That however isn’t even in Italy. It’s in Austria. Hiring a car there to drive to Italy simply wasn’t a problem, though. Indeed, within half an hour of leaving the airport I was driving over the spectacular countryside of the Brenner Pass and crossing the border into Italy. However, I only knew that I’d entered another country because a road sign told me: no one flagged me down, no one checked my papers, no one made any more fuss about that border than about the one between Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

The change in language might have been striking, but not even that was entirely the case. Innsbruck is in the Austrian Province of Tirol. The other side of the border was the Province which has a double name, Süd-Tirol or Alto Adige, with the first, German name, given before the second, Italian one. What was true of the Province was true of the towns, such as Kiens/Chienes, Brixen/Bressanone and several gloriously literal ones, such as Neunhäusern (literally nine houses)/Nove Case (I leave the translation as an exercise to you).

Frozen Alpine lake:
Lago di Landro also known as the Dürrensee
Cortina, though, is just out of that area and into Italian-Italy. Even there, however, there are memories of the long association, and the tensions, with the Austrian neighbour to the north. The hotel where I stayed proudly displayed a portrait of Austrian Emperor Charles I (or actually ‘Karl der Erste’, in German). Not far away there was a memorial to General Antonio Cantore, who met his death while in command of a Division of ‘Alpini’ (Italian Alpine troops), struck down by an Austrian bullet in 1915.

That was during the First World War which brought to an end the Austro-Hungarian Empire he’d been fighting with, as one of its consequences, the detachment of Süd-Tirol from Austria and its incorporation as Alto Adige into Italy.

The monument to General Cantore
at Cortina d'Ampezzo
Today there are, no doubt, still Austrians and maybe even South Tirolese who regard that incorporation as an injustice and would like it reversed. It isn’t going to happen, though. Why bother, after all? If an Innsbrucker wants to visit Sankt Lorenz/San Lorenzo in Sebato, she jumps in a car and goes there. No Alpino division bars her journey. No Austrian sharpshooter is tasked with killing its commander.

It’s rather like Pennsylvania and New Jersey. It strikes me, at least, that things are altogether better that way. Free travel, open borders, easy communication. It feels better than walls and bullets.

That leaves me troubled by one question. Given all that, why on earth has a majority of my countrymen opted not to support the organisation that makes all that possible, the EU, by remaining a member? Why has it decided instead to withdraw and prefer barriers to passes?

And why on earth have the Americans elected a man who specifically wants to build a wall along the southern border, instead of seeking solutions in good neighbourliness and openness?

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Brexit: independence – or the most demeaning dependence?

Trump’s travel ban is a shameful indulgence in toxic Islamophobia. Sure, he seems to be targeting nations not a religion, but don’t be fooled. That’s just a fig leaf to make it less difficult to charge him with religious discrimination.

The ban has nothing to do with security and everything to do with a campaign against Muslims. As the Huffington Post points out, the number of Americans killed annually by Islamic jihadists is 9, only 2 of them by jihadist immigrants. 737 Americans die by falling out of bed, but Trump isn’t planning to make bed rails obligatory. 11,737 are shot dead by another American, and Trump certainly isn’t planning to do anything about cutting back on guns.

The Huffington Post sets the context for us
No, this is another attempt, like the Nazis’ in the twenties, to blame a group for ills you can’t solve and for which you don’t want to take responsibility yourself. It’s the Muslims, dummy, so let’s ban them.

In Britain, we’re not just sickened by Trump’s behaviour but shamed by May’s fawning on him. She held his hand at the White House and wants him to come over on a State visit. Many of us rightly feel this demeans us and makes us complicit in his disgrace.

I chose my words with care there. “Many of us” can rightly feel that way. Not all, though. Many others, shocked by Trump’s behaviour, have to bite their tongue and live with it. If you voted for Brexit, if you support it today, then you contributed to making our craven attitude towards Trump inevitable.

Many who voted for Brexit did so in the name of restoring British independence. That would be particularly true of the far-right party, UKIP – the United Kingdom Independence Party. Ironically, it is the leader of UKIP at the time of the Brexit referendum, Nigel Farage, who became the first UK politician to dance attendance on Trump. He proved so loyal and obsequious to him, indeed, that Trump called on the UK government to appoint him ambassador to the US.

Theresa May found enough courage to resist that call. But now she has become Farage’s rival in the deference stakes – instead of denouncing Trump’s travel ban, she resisted all attempts to get her to speak out against it, until the pressure became so overwhelming that she weakly assured the country:

Immigration policy in the United States is a matter for the government of the United States, but we do not agree with this kind of approach and it is not one we will be taking.

Why is she refusing to denounce Trump in the round terms he deserves?

Because we are leaving the EU. The belief of Brexiters is that Britain, freed from EU control, can establish new trading relationships with other nations that will enable it to preserve its commercial position. No trading partner could be more important than the US.

We come to the US as supplicants in these circumstances. We need the deal. We have to pay the price.

Clearly, part of that price will be to give up on our right to speak out against the abuses of the Trump administration. Others will come along: dropping our standards on carbon emissions or food hygiene (you liked our ban on genetically modified foods from the States? Wave goodbye to it). We have to defer to him in the hope that he’ll look after us. That’s the cost of throwing ourselves into such dependence on the US.

Because dependence is the word.

You thought Brexit would give us independence? The opposite, I’m afraid. We have made ourselves more massively dependent on the US than we have ever previously been in peacetime. Just in time for Trump’s inauguration.

Shamed by May’s fawning on Trump? Anyone with a sense of decency would be. But did you vote for Brexit? You voted to make us bow our heads to Trump.

That may not have been what you wanted when you cast your vote. It is, however, what you got. And, sadly, we all have to live with the unwanted consequences of your choice.

Friday, 27 January 2017

Lesson for Trump: why not try generosity? It actually pays

It’s ironic that generosity and opening up to others can sometimes be as beneficial to the nation offering the gifts as to those receiving them.

Truman and Trump
The Statesman and ... the Donald
The winter of 1946-7 was desperately hard, with some of the lowest temperatures on record. For Europe, devastated by war, that was catastrophic. For the vanquished, inevitably – Germany with much of its urban landscape reduced to rubble and huge numbers of homeless among the worst hit – but victors too were suffering, with Britain still having to cope with rationing and struggling to bear the burden of war debts far beyond its resources.

At that time, Britain was still trying to pretend it could play a world role (echoes of today). It had, for instance, forces still deployed in Greece and Palestine. But Clement Attlee’s government began to realise that it was going to have to take a more realistic view of the weight of its (unlike Theresa May’s) . It warned the United States that it would have to start scaling down some of its military commitments, including in Greece.

The reaction of the Truman administration then in power in Washington was astounding and exemplary.

For better or for worse, it decided that resistance to Soviet influence in Greece and Turkey had to be maintained, and that it would therefore shoulder the burden itself, to the tune of $400m.

Far more to the point, it chose to use the newly appointed Secretary of State George C. Marshal, who chaired the chiefs of staff during World War 2, to investigate the state of the economies throughout Europe and to come to their assistance. This was the start of Marshall Aid. It came to over $12bn, corresponding to ten times that amount today.

Much of the money went to the erstwhile and newly-defeated enemy, Germany.

As Truman put it, “We are the first great nation to feed and support the conquered. We are the first great nation to create independent republics from conquered territory: Cuba and the Philippines. Our neighbours are not afraid of us. Their borders have no forts, no soldiers, no tanks, no big guns lined up.”

We’d have to question just how relaxed countries near the US truly felt. The giant to their North had shown itself perfectly prepared to flex its muscles and use its force to have its way, and they must have been a great deal more suspicious than Truman’s sanguine words suggest. Even so, it was an extraordinary act, to fund a defeated foe instead of taking from it. After all, at the conclusion of the First World War, well within living memory of most adults at the time, an intolerable burden of reparations had been imposed on Germany. That had undoubtedly been a contributing factor to the renewed world war twenty years later.

Marshall aid was an admirable and unprecedented act that deserves congratulations for that fact alone.

It was remarkable for far more than that, though. By allowing Europe to emerge from its ruins, and helping Germany, in particular, become prosperous and successful again, the US guaranteed itself good trading partners from which it too would benefit. It ensured that its presence and influence in the old Continent would remain as strong as ever, at least in the Western areas. Overall, it gave a huge stimulus to the world economy from which all nations, including the US, profited.

Generosity and strategic vision went hand in hand.

Now roll forward 70 years.

Faced with undoubtedly significant economic problems, Donald Trump has decided to use not generosity to advance his cause, but isolationism. He has decided not to try to win the support and trust of neighbouring nations, specifically Mexico, but to wall them off. Where Truman had boasted that Mexicans had needed no fortresses against the US, Trump will build a wall against them.

Trump plans to make Mexico pay for the wall, by taxing imports into the US. In reality, this means that US importers will pay for it. Even so, it will do great damage to Mexico. Far from making it a wealthy and successful nation he is, therefore, taking steps that will undermine its economy and weaken it as a trading partner.

He’s threatening similar action against other nations, notably Germany.

His is the opposite view to Truman’s. He wants walls, not openness. He wants trade barriers, not free business. He wants to take money, not offer it.

Marshall aid was astonishingly successful, stimulating the sustained boom of the post-war years.

It seems obvious that the opposite policy will have precisely the opposite effect.

But then, Trump probably doesn’t waste too much time learning stuff from history. Not even that of his own lifetime.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

The debt Britain owes Gina Miller

The trouble with populists is that they’re always in a hurry.

When they’ve seen that something needs to be done, they want to do it now. They don’t want to have to waste time with the niceties of consensus building and scrutiny – they take so long and delay necessary action. You can see it with Trump in the States: he wants to reintroduce torture as a weapon of policy, and wants to do it quickly, by means of an executive order.

The Guardian quotes Steve Kleinman, retired air force colonel and chairman of the research advisory committee to the High Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG):

“If the US was to make it once again the policy of the country to coerce, and to detain at length in an extrajudicial fashion, the costs would be beyond substantial, they’d be potentially existential. We’ve seen how [torture] promotes violent extremism, how it degrades alliances. We’ve seen how it only serves to provide information that policymakers want to support [desired policies], not what they need,” Kleinman said.

“A lot of these people who weigh in heavily on interrogation have no idea how little they know, [and do so] because of what they see on television,” said Kleinman, who emphasized that he was not speaking for the HIG.

But populists are in a hurry. They don’t want to have to stop to take such annoying and delaying objections into account.

It was always so. Julius Caesar marched on Rome because it was time to do away with the corrupt and inefficient republic. Napoleon launched a coup d’état because it was time to restore order to France and let her be great again. The war clique in Japan in the 1930s did away with the opposition to its rule because it knew it was time for the Empire to astonish the world with its military prowess.

Sadly, a little opposition might have avoided outcomes far worse than the problems they were trying to fix. Caesar’s actions replaced a rotten republic by an Empire which again and again became a bloodthirsty tyranny. Napoleon led France to momentary glory then utter failure, on the retreat from Moscow and the field of Waterloo. Japanese militarists won spectacular victories throughout 1942 and then were forced step by step to the loss of all they had gained and the destruction of much of what they had at home.

Now, one of the things about populists is that they’re often popular. They can frequently put together a popular majority (not Trump, as it happens, but he did win the election despite that). As democrats, we’re obliged to go along with the majority view (or the electoral win, at any rate, in the case of Trump).

But the lesson of those cases is that even when they have popular support, and they’re in a hurry, we should not on any account slacken in our scrutiny of the measures they propose.

In Britain, a popular majority decided in June of last year that Britain should leave the European Union. It was a misguided decision, as the country will discover over the next decade or two. But the decision has been taken and I see little or no chance of its being reversed. Britain will leave the EU.

The process starts with triggering what is known as Article 50. The Prime Minister, Theresa May, decided that she would do so. After all, the people had spoken. As Prime Minister, she could take that step using prerogative authority, a hangover of truly monarchical power, now exercised by ministers rather than the crown.

Gina Miller: staunch champion of British constitutional rights
Any true democrat must therefore be immensely grateful to Gina Miller. She launched a case, later joined by a number of other plaintiffs, demanding that the government should not act without the authority of parliament. She won the case and the government’s appeal against that judgement has now been rejected by the Supreme Court.

By a majority of 8 to 3, the Court ruled that leaving the EU would have a major impact on British laws, and only Parliament can make, change or revoke laws.

The effect on the Brexit process will be nil. Parliament will certainly approve the triggering of article 50. Britain will still take the senseless and self-destructive step of leaving the EU. But at least we have established that government, on major, law-making matters, can’t simply by-pass our elected representatives. It must win their consent to such steps.

That may be slow and dull. It’s horribly frustrating for the hurried populists and their supporters. But, as the examples of Caesar, Napoleon and the Japanese Empire demonstrate, the alternative is far worse.

Trump seems likely to prove the point again over the next few years.

Gina Miller has suffered horrible abuse in social media and the press. Any Brit that cares about the constitutional settlement of the country, and believes that any idea, good or bad, ought to be subject to scrutiny, should be deeply grateful to her.

Thanks, Gina. The personal cost to you has been immense, I know. I salute your courage and principled determination.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Toffee's diary: when Number Two went away

Something odd happened, and I couldn’t work out why, or what it meant.

We were all just fine. That’s Luci my sidekick poodle, Misty our mighty cat, our two humans, and me. That’s – two humans. And then suddenly there was just one. Our number two just vanished. Gone. No sign of him.

No one said anything. It was like they didn’t want to mention it. Weird. After a while, I even started to forget about it. After all, we still had the number one human and she’s the one who understands about dogs and looks after us properly. But it was a bit sad not to see number two anymore, because he’s, well, he’s…

“He’s a wimp.”

That was Misty our cat, who has this way of stalking me when I don’t know he’s there. He was reading my diary over my shoulder, which is pretty sneaky really, and he shouldn’t do it.

Anyway, “wimp” sounds a bit nasty. Our Number Two’s not bad. I’d say he’s a softy, which is a bit sad, but good for us. I mean, there’s no one better for treats. He gives Luci and me treats for having our leads put on, and for having our leads taken off, for reaching the park, for getting back home, sometimes just for being us. If we want an exra one, all we have to do is give him our sad look. That always works.

Besides, no one else lets us lick their face or bite their fingers. Got to be good to have a human that lets you do that, isn’t it? I was sorry that he was gone.

Well, he came back! It was great. Luci and me were jumping all over him and even Misty came out to say hello (he doesn’t do much jumping at people, our Misty).

I decided it was silly not to talk about things, so this time I asked.

“What was all that about? He was gone and all that? And we didn’t say anything about it?”

“Not mentioning the human in the room?” said Misty with the tone of voice he uses when he’s being funny, but I have no idea what he meant.

“Sometimes,” he went on, much more seriously, “people go away. And don’t come back. A long time before you were here, before Luci was even here…” 

He seemed quite sad. I was trying to understand: Luci’s aways been here.

“Before even Luci was here we had a nice dog in the house called Janka. She was fun. Not noisy little runts like you and Luci. She knew how to behave properly to a cat. But then she went away. She’s never come back. That’s why I don’t talk about it when people go away. You don’t know if they’re coming home.”

“So… what happened?”

“For a while there was just me and the Domestics, and I thought that was terribly sad. Until Luci turned up and then you, when I realised I should have been happy when things were quiet. Be careful what you wish for, that’s the lesson I learned.”

“Oh, Misty, you don’t mean that.”

“Huh,” he said, and stalked off. He’s very good at stalking, including stalking off.

Still, he must have been happy to see Number Two back because he went and lay in the suitcase with all the human clothes in.

Misty occupying the suitcase.
But is it really to stop Number Two clearing off?
“That’ll stop him leaving,” he explained.

“That’s good of Misty,” I told Luci.

“Yeees,” she said, in that tone of voice that doesn’t really mean yes, “it’s kind of him to think of keeping Number Two at home for us all. But I think he may have other reasons for doing it.”

“Other reasons? What do you mean?”

“Well, he’s always running the humans down, calling them the Domestics and everything, but he’s a lot more attached to them than he makes out, and there’s nothing he likes better than resting surrounded by their smells. That’s why he likes to climb into their wardrobe.”

It’s true. I’d noticed he did that.

“So… the suitcase… it’s like the wardrobe?”

“I think there’s a bit of that.’

“But that’s not what he says.”

“You can’t always trust what people say.”

“What?” I asked, thinking I was being clever, “not even you?” 

“You’ll have to make up your own mind about that.”

Anyway. It’s fun having number two back. He’s taken us for a couple of walks and there were lots of treats. But there was one boring thing too: he made me put on a coat to go outside.

He calls me “Toughy Toffee” which is right enough. So why does he think I need a coat? Luci doesn’t wear one. He thinks I can’t cope with a little cold? I’m tough. Cold means nothing to me.

Me in my silly coat. And look, Luci doesn’t have to wear one
He’s a softy, but not soft enough, I think. Training, that’s what it’ll take. He’s accompanying me to the class on Tuesday. I’ll start knocking him into line there.

He may be nice, but he needs to learn what being Toughy Toffee means. The hard way, if necessary.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Saying goodbye to the US at the end of the pre-Donald era

It’s the day before the US Presidential inauguration. I’m at the end of a two-week packed stay in the States, full of small but telling experiences in the run up to the country being Trumped, the end of what I suppose we shall have to think of as the pre-Donald era, an era we may shortly look back on with nostalgia.

I’ve always liked the character of Blanche Dubois in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar named Desire. She “always depended on the kindness of strangers” and, when I’m travelling alone, so do I. They’re not always kind, of course, but on this trip I met many that were.

In a Boston museum, I became aware of a woman pushing another in a wheelchair (her mother? I think it might have been). I sped up a little to get to the door ahead of us and hold it for them but, before I even got there, I heard the mother say, “why, thank you,” and when I looked around, she explained, “I see your intention.” I could only tell her I was pleased to have had it correctly interpreted.

In a restaurant, the Italian colleague who was with me on that occasion chose to apologise for a misunderstanding over our order by saying, “I am sorry. We are both foreigners.”

“Please don’t confuse me with Donald Trump,” came the answer.

Both in Boston and further up the coast north of the city, I could find no one with a kind word for the soon-to-be 45th President. But this of course is Massachusetts, which voted by a nearly two-to-one majority against him. In any case, as my mother pointed out when I told her, she had found it practically impossible to find anyone who had voted for Nixon when she was living in New York in the seventies, “and he was elected twice.”

Later I travelled to Philadelphia, in Pennsylvania which voted for Trump, giving a Republican the preference for the first time since Ronald Reagan. There I visited the hall where a bunch of insurgent liberals gathered back in 1776 and decided they’d had quite enough of British Tory government, just as I have today. It was ironic that it was in the city where Thomas Jefferson wrote the ringing appeal for liberty in the Declaration of Independence, that I first came across open backing of the Trump presidency.

Where the Declaration of Independence was adoptedCould they imagine they were preparing a Trump presidency?
I had lunch in a simple cafe where I had to return to the counter to fetch my meal. The tables were packed close and I must have bumped the man at the next table to mine. I didn’t hear what he said to me but apparently he’d sworn at me aggressively. When I returned, the young women at the table on the other side of mine pushed it aside and invited me to come through that way and not chance provoking the hostile diner. I thanked them.

“Strange things are happening to our country, one of them replied.

It struck me as a neat metaphor of the division in the US, between brutality on the one hand and a degree of tolerance on the other.

Later that day, I was sitting in an alcove of a hotel bar when a mother and daughter (yes, another pair) came in and took the seats opposite me. Most of the time they talked about everyday matters – you know, “well, you can always phone me”, “oh, I don’t want to disturb you, I know how busy you are”, the usual family things – but at the end they came to politics.

“Obama demeaned the presidency,” Mum assured us, “I’ve never seen the presidency reduced so low.”

There was a shocked pause, which struck me as the appropriate reaction to such an assertion.

“You mean…,” the daughter replied, “you expect Trump to raise the standing of the presidency?”

It seemed that was exactly what she expected. “He’ll speak for the nation, and won’t let special interests push him around or buy him off.”

As she was leaving, she pointed out that I’d probably listened to the conversation, and asked my view.

“I’m from the other side of the Atlantic,” I told them, “you won’t find many of us over there who are keen on the Trump presidency.”

The daughter smiled.

“Well, we are,” said Mum, with emphasis. “Friday. You’re going to see. We’re on the way back and not a day too soon. We have a lot to fix.”

Oh, well. That Friday’s nearly on us. Trump and his team start “fixing” things tomorrow. It should be quite a spectacle.

I’ll be watching it from a distance. I fly back on the eve of his triumphal entry to the White House. Back to the relative safety of Britain.

Where can I have the joy of watching my own country embrace its version of Trump: the ghastly retreat into walled-off isolation we call Brexit.

I see nothing to justify my indulging any sense of superiority over our American cousins...

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Brexit, good and hard

So it’s official: Brexit is to be hard, with the UK leaving the Single Market and European Customs Union, as well as the EU itself.

As Donald Tusk, Chairman of the EU Council of Ministers, points out this position, espoused by Theresa May in her speech of 17 January, is “more realistic” than some of the aspirations that had been voiced before. Staying in the Single Market would mean virtually not leaving the EU, while giving up any say in the way it’s governed. Staying in the Customs Union would probably entail accepting the continued applications of certain regulations on Britain that most Brexit voters abhorred.

Theresa May announcing that Brexit will be hard
A hard Brexit certainly seems closer to the wishes of the majority who voted to leave the EU last June.

That reminds me of H. L. Mencken’s view that “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard”.

Just because hard Brexit comes closest to the popular view doesn’t mean that people will enjoy the outcome. It’s the old business of being careful what you wish for. The pain that Brexiters will have inflicted on themselves – and, sadly, on the rest of us too – will only become apparent over the next few years, but it will be no less painful for that.

Friends tell me that Britain is in a strong position in international trade negotiations because we import so much: no one would want to imperil such a lucrative market. My view is that imports principally enrich us. They mean we can buy the goods we want, cheaply. Cheap clothes? Fresh produce throughout the year? Foreign cars or household goods at competitive prices? It would hurt British people far more than those of the producing countries to have to give them up.

Again, I’m told that we can negotiate trade deals with anyone in the world. That’s true. But if anyone thinks it would be easy, they might do well to think again.

The EU has been negotiating with the US over the so-called Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership since 2006. Negotiations are now set to continue until 2019 or 2020 at least. One of the holdups has been that many in Europe regard TTIP as deeply slanted against Europe, or even against the common people of both Europe and the US, in favour of multinational corporations.

If that is a problem for the EU with its population of 550 million, why should we assume that Britain would find it any easier?

After all, in 2003 Britain signed a new extradition treaty with the US. A freedom of information request from 2012 revealed there have been no extraditions of US citizens to the UK for offences committed in the US, though there have been cases of extradition the other way around. It’s hard to believe the treaty’s even-handed.

No doubt Britain can obtain a trade deal with the US. But quickly? And one that is equitable? That seems unlikely.

In any case, the EU isn’t simply about trade or economics, just as the Euro isn’t simply about a currency or finance. At root, they are measures designed to move towards collaboration instead of the centuries-old conflict between European nations, always damaging even when it didn’t explode into outright war. Nations that profit from trade with each other, and even more nations that even trade in a common currency, are far less likely to fall out.

Brexit says that Britain wants no part of this. It fears the consequences of remaining in the EU more than it values the benefits of peace and a slowly, painfully emerging collaboration that it embodies.

Why does it fear the EU so much?

Again, May made the answer clear. Britain insists on having control of its borders back. It must be able to limit immigration across the borders, including immigration from the EU. And yet, is there any serious evidence that such immigration is causing us harm?

The answer is clearly no. Proportionately fewer immigrants than native-born residents draw on benefits or are imprisoned for offences. The vast majority work, allowing services to keep functioning, and pay taxes that more than outweigh what it costs Britain to have them here.

So what’s the problem?

We’re up against the essential issue of xenophobia. There is an inherent tendency to dislike outsiders. Their food is different and it smells different. They speak another language, which I can’t understand, on streets that I regarded as my own. Worst of all, since they are often highly motivated individuals, they may work harder and better than I do. So they take what I felt was my job, work I regarded myself as entitled to, by birthright.

It’s true that they may also work for a lower wage which depresses the earning power of the native born. But that’s easily fixed, as Jeremy Corbyn of the Labour Party has pointed out: we have to put regulation in place to ensure that unscrupulous employers can’t use foreign labour to undercut domestic.

That measure wouldn’t mean leaving the EU. But a majority of Britons want to leave. Like the EU or the Euro, it seems the motivation isn’t economic but political: a dislike of foreigners as foreigners, particularly if the foreigner may be rather better at what they do.

That’s a base motive. Base motives seldom lead to good outcomes. Now we know that the outcome is going to be hard Brexit.

The people have voted. Seems they’re going to get what they chose. Good and hard.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Down Memory Lane. A frighteningly long way

It was with some pride that I realised, in my thirties, that I remembered events in my life that had happened twenty years earlier, even though I had been practically adult at the time. It felt like a sign of growing maturity. But then, some years on, it struck me that I was talking to my sons about thirty-year old memories, and remembered how, at their age, I’d been shocked when my parents had talked about such things. With my conscious mind, I knew it was possible to remember things that old, but something deeper in my being simply couldn’t adapt to the notion.

This morning I boarded a plane for a destination which brought back a fifty-year old memory. Fifty years. Half a century. It makes me feel like a living history book. Only history measures matters in fractions or multiples of a century.

The destination was Philadelphia – or Philly, as I’m assured I should call it – and I was last there when I was fourteen. Practically half a century, since in two weeks I shall start a year of boring all around me by asking them whether they’ll still be sending me a Valentine, birthday greetings, bottle of wine.

My parents were living in New York at the time. I travelled to Philly with my then girlfriend’s family. They were artists and they were taking us to see an exhibition at the Philadelphia Art Museum. Only one canvas sticks in my mind: it was the first time I’d seen a “white-on-white”. The artist – for such, I was assured, he was – had gone to considerable trouble to screen print white paint onto a white canvas.

White on White: profoundly meaningful. Right?
Callow, uncouth youth that I was, I couldn’t bring myself to take this seriously as a piece of art. How shall I put this? Translating a fine old Anglo-Saxon expression into more clinical terms – I don’t want to shock, after all – I was more inclined to view it as extracting the urine.

Of course, fifty years on I’ve become far more sophisticated in my appreciation of art. Today, I fully grasp the concept that behind such a piece of work lies a great mind, a fount of insight, generating a message of complexity and power.

It’s just, sadly, that I still don’t grasp it.

It’s fun to be back in Philly, half a century on. The place where the colonists first declared they’d had enough of their British overlords. It’s a sentiment with which, as a subject today of the descendants of those same overlords, I entirely sympathise.

In fact, it was a little odd, when I made my way into the plane, to discover that the greeting message was being spoken in a British accent. English, indeed. Home counties, even. I’m told it’s an accent, like the Scottish one back home, that’s trusted out here.

My advice? Be less trusting. I know people with that accent who have my confidence but plenty, sadly, who don’t – many of them in government.

I shall enjoy my brief stay here. Even if it does remind me of how old I’ve become. Still, as I always say, there really is only one way of not growing old.

That’s to die young. That was never an attractive proposition. In any case, it’s a great deal too late for me to adopt it.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Brexit: a veritable chorus of muddled thinking

Some people were upset with me when I recently mentioned that the Brexit movement seemed dominated by muddled thinking. ‘Condescending’, they found my comments, not to say snobbish, prejudiced and dismissive.

Well, let me confess that I’m as muddled as anyone.

It seems to me that the entire subject is dogged by, shot through with, submerged under muddled thinking. That’s for a simple reason: no one has any idea of what the implications of Brexit are.

It’s easy to say “Brexit means Brexit” but what could possibly be more dismissive than that? When it comes down to it, we in Britain are going to have to tackle the details behind such a casual slogan. On that detail, there’s nothing but muddle.

A recent report by Gavin Shuker, our MP in Luton South, opened my eyes to some of the issues I’d lost sight of but which we shall need to address in leaving the EU. 

The United Kingdom has devolved much political authority from the centre to its constituent nations, most of all to Scotland. But when that happened, certain areas of responsibility weren’t even discussed because they had already been delegated to Brussels, to the EU. An example would be agricultural matters, covered by the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

After Brexit, those powers will be repatriated to the UK. But where will they go? Will they be handled by the central government in London? Or will they be transferred to the devolved governments in the constituent nations? Has given anyone even given thought to the matter?

Agriculture: when “we” take back control, who will that “we” be?
Westminster – or Westminster, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast?
In any case, what’s going to replace the Common Agricultural Policy? Farmers are already getting organised. They want to see all the CAP’s subsidies maintained. In other words, they want the British government to go on paying them once they stop receiving them from the EU. That’s not to say that they’re not prepared to adapt to Brexit. They’d be prepared, you  may not be surprised to learn, to accept a lot less regulation than the EU tended to impose.

Those subsidies are paid for out of taxes. So there might be some outside the farming community who would take a rather different view. For my part, I’d be happy to see the subsidies continued, but I’d like the health and environmental regulations at least maintained. 

Things are no easier in the industrial or service sectors. Luton depends heavily for employment on the car industry (Vauxhall) and the airport. Can we count on similar guarantees for Vauxhall as were offered by the government to Nissan? Those guarantees persuaded the company to keep to its plan of producing a new model in Sunderland, North East England. It’s clear that other car manufacturers would like similar treatment. But can everyone be offered the same sweeteners? And if they were, wouldn't companies in other industrial sectors demand them too? 

So will Nissan turn out to be a one-off?

And what about aviation? Britain is currently covered by the European Common Aviation Area agreement. Other non-EU countries are signatories to it, such as Norway or Serbia. Nothing stops us coming to an arrangement with it too, though that would mean continuing to accept EU rules in the area. But is anyone making this a priority? 

Shuker didn’t mention this problem, but one that strikes me as important is fisheries. That’s principally because there has been real EU success in that area: fish stocks that were seriously threatened before are now recovering. But British fishermen are frustrated with the constraints EU regulation put on them. Do we want more cod wars? Do we want to go back to over-fishing again? Do we want to roll back that significant achievement?

There are huge numbers of other measures that need to be agreed and taken.

Only last week, the British representative to the EU, Sir Ivan Rogers resigned. He had warned the government that negotiating all the details associated with Brexit could take as long as ten years. That wasn’t information the government wanted to hear, so he went.

However, when we think about just the issues I mentioned above – who gets the powers repatriated from Brussels, how do we deal with farmers’ subsidies and regulation, how do we agree a fisheries policy, what do we do with the auto industry, how do we sort out aviation – and add that these are just a few of the myriad matters to deal with, ten years doesn’t sound like an exaggeration.

It’s been reported since that there is serious disquiet among the civil servants handling the negotiations with the EU. They feel there are too few of them and, as Rogers’ case demonstrates, their advice isn’t listened to attentively enough.

Too few people. A government that believes it can forge ahead without listening to expert advice. Far more extensive and far more complex issues than we or the government seem to be allowing for.

I don’t know about you, but that sounds like muddled thinking to me.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Luci's Diary: Christmas. And is Toffee growing?

The last few weeks have been just great.

Two of the young humans came to see us, and that’s always fun. They’re very good at playing with dogs. And for a couple of days, two other people came and stayed too. It was glorious! Six people in the house! Oh, laps galore, everywhere you looked! Our young puppy Toffee and I had a whale of a time. They call this season Christmas and a lot of humans make a fuss about it – not just my humans but others too – so I’m all in favour. Let’s have lots of Christmas. It’s fun.

One thing about having Toffee around is that I’ve learned to eat a lot faster. There was a time I could take my time over meals, have a bit now, leave it for a while, go back and have some more. The worst that might happen was that the cat Misty tried to eat some of it, but I always found that a run at him with a few barks was enough to drive him off.

Doesn’t work with Toffee. When she gets her nose in a bowl, that’s it. The nose doesn’t get withdrawn until the bowl’s clear. What am I saying, clear? The right word’s clean. Not a speck of food to be seen. You can bark as much as you like, it doesn’t do the slightest bit of good. Running at her’s no use either. I mean, you could jump up and down if you felt like it, she wouldn’t see you anyway, with her nose that far inside a bowl.

“She’s like a magnet,” I heard one of the humans say, and the other one agreed. 

Now I don’t know what a magnet is but I gather it’s something pretty sticky, and once Toffee gets stuck into food, she stays stuck. Like she’s glued. Can’t be shifted. I saw human number 2 try to take a bowl away, but she kept following it, sucking up the last few crumbs just as he was trying to save them.

So I eat fast. Get my food finished before she’s finished hers. Because as soon as she’s gobbled hers down, she wanders over to see what she can find in my bowl. And you know what? I can’t stop her. She’s not much bigger than a bag of treats, but she’s got drive like other dogs have fleas. When she turns up at my bowl and pushes her nose in, I just back away. I can’t explain it, it’s just stronger than me.

Still, it’s not all bad having her around. It makes walks more interesting. It’s good to have the company.

Walks can be more fun with company
Besides, we often do a lot of playing. She likes to chase me. That’s fine. I’m happy to be chased when it’s by something as small as that. Besides, there’s no way she’s going to catch me. When I take off, I show her a clean pair of heels, I can tell you. She doesn’t give up – she keeps trying, I’ll give her that – but she doesn’t get close.

That’s great. We have some good fun together. And it spares me having anything to do with other dogs – big, noisy, smelly things, I think they are, full of strange smells and threatening motions. Not that it bothers her: she just runs up to them, jumping up and trying to lick their faces, saying “like me, like me, like me.” Some of them seem to, though I must say I’d find that kind of thing annoying.

Anyway, I just hang back a bit, well clear of any other dog, and wait for Toffee to finish. Then she can play with me again. Which gives me another chance to show her how much better I am at it than she is. As I streak away from her.

Though sometimes I get worried: she is getting faster.

There’s a bit of an argument between the humans about that.

“She’s barely growing,” says number 1, “she’s going to be a teacup poodle.”

“Nonsense,” says number 2, “she’s doing just fine. She’s put on hundreds of grams since we’ve had her. I think she’s developing a bit of an Eiffel Tower syndrome.”

I don’t know what the Eiffel Tower is, but apparently he thinks she’s going to be enormous. Now number 1 knows more about dogs than number 2 – a lot more – but what if he’s right? Is Toffee going to be bigger than me? Will she start catching me when she chases me in the park?

It doesn’t bear thinking about. What would I do?

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Shooting the messenger

People tell me it’s commendable to speak truth to power. My inclination is to scoff in reply but then I’ve lost a couple of jobs by irritating powerful people with unwelcome truth. Generally, power isn’t interested in hearing the truth – what it seeks is confirmation.

This week the UK’s ambassador to the European Union, Sir Ivan Rogers, resigned. This highly-experienced diplomat, an expert in dealing with the EU, had warned the government that it might take ten years to finalise British separation.

Sir Ivan Rogers:
the messenger shot when he told the truth to power
That feels like the kind of judgement he’s qualified to make, and the kind of information a government negotiating Brexit needs. It wasn’t what Theresa May wanted to hear. This being a time when experts are regarded as unnecessary at best, and at worst a positive hindrance to the fine things that the Trumps and their ilk want to do, Rogers had to go.

The problem for May is that she has to walk a fine line in the Brexit negotiations. Many in her party or its voter base would like to remain in the EU or, if they have to leave, do it on terms that maintain as much as possible of the benefit of membership – they favour what’s known as “soft Brexit”. They support that position even though it comes at a price, in particular giving up some of the control over immigration which was the objective of a great many Leave voters. She’s working to keep those soft Brexiters on side without losing the hard ones, who want to get clear of the EU and all its works.

So far, she’s done a good job on that political front, holding the two wings of the centre-right together. She’s done it by refusing to come down clearly on either side of the fence, by being all things to all men. It could all end in tears, when she has to make a definitive choice, but she’s a skilful opportunist and she’s riding her current wave of popularity masterfully, hoping no doubt that it’ll take her far enough that the crunch, when it comes, won’t be too painful.

Things could not be more different in the ranks of the main Opposition Party, Labour. Ironically its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, seems as disinclined as May to state clearly where he stands. Officially, the Labour Party backs the Remain position, and its spokesperson on Brexit, Keir Starmer, has been promoting a soft Brexit: he accepts the people’s decision to leave, but wants to retain as much as he can of the trade and tariff system that comes with membership. Here, on the other hand, is what Corbyn said in his New Year’s message:

2016 will be defined in history by the referendum on our EU membership. People didn’t trust politicians and they didn’t trust the European Union.

I understand that. I’ve spent over 40 years in politics campaigning for a better way of doing things, standing up for people, taking on the establishment, and opposing decisions that would make us worse off.

We now have the chance to do things differently. To build an economy that invests and works for everyone across all our nations and regions.

Labour accepts and respects the result of the referendum. We won’t be blocking our leaving the European Union, but we won’t stand by.

At first sight, this doesn’t seem to favour either side of the debate. But, reading between the lines, words like “we now have the chance to do things differently” suggests he rather backs Brexit than the contrary. That’s awkward for him, not just because it conflicts with Party policy, but because it’s known that something like 5 million out of 7 million core Labour voters are Remainers.

I’m no supporter of Corbyn, but I do understand why many in the Labour Party still do – after all, I voted him in his first leadership election. I believe his admirers see in him a man of principle, who has fought long and hard against powerful opposition, for a clearly socialist view of the world we live in and the solutions to its problems. He’s a pacifist who utterly rejects nuclear weapons, he’s firmly on the side of the poor and downtrodden, speaking out forcefully against cuts in benefits and in favour of greater investment in healthcare.

It seems to me that his supporters feel that if only this message could be communicated to voters, they too would see how obviously true it is and would come flocking around to back Labour under his leadership.

Unfortunately, when I see Corbyn dodging and weaving on the Brexit issue, speaking in code and in hints, I see a man who is trying to trim, to hide his true colours and hang on to some at least of his support. That’s exactly like Theresa May. It’s also exactly like Tony Blair, regarded by most Corbyn supporters as a monster of mendacity: ‘Blairite’ is a favourite term of abuse for Corbyn opponents even if, like me, they abhor Blairs appalling behaviour. There are times when I feel that, despite the obvious difference in policy, in political behaviour Corbyn is no breach with the Blairite past, but Blair’s worthy heir.

The difference is that Blair was good at it, as Theresa May is still. She may be all things to all men on Brexit; Corbyn, by trying the same trick of balancing on two stools, is managing only to fall between them. The result is disastrous for Labour and for all those whose livelihood depend on it. The Fabian Society, one of the organisations that first founded Labour, has published a report analysing the dire state of the party and warning that it could fall to below 150 seats at the next election, the worst result since 1935.

That seems a far from implausible warning. I recently wrote about the poll position of Labour now and at the equivalent point of the 1992-1997 and 2010-2015 parliaments. Here are the figures completed with the results at the election that followed:
Poll standing
Election Result
1992-1997 20% lead Victory wih a 10% lead
2010-2015 3% lead Defeat with a 7% deficit
2015-date 7% deficit

Labour is less well placed today than it was in either of those previous parliaments. In both those cases, its result in the election was worse, whether in victory or in defeat, than the polls suggested. The worst news of all is that even the 7% deficit today is only the result of a single poll (the most recent); in others, the deficit is far greater.

Len McCluskey, leader of Britain’s largest union and one of the architects of Corbyn’s second leadership victory, warned recently that if the poll position didn’t improve, Corbyn would have to consider his position. That’s code for “resign”.

You can see where he’s coming from, can’t you? After all, Corbyn promises to do far more for the poor and the working class than the much-maligned Blair ever did. But Blair delivered far more than Corbyn’s likely to. Why? Blair got into government. Corbyn’s far from well-placed to equal that feat.

But his supporters don’t want to hear that. They hammer me for suggesting it on Twitter. And within the Labour Party, they’re the ones in power.

Power, I’ve observed, doesn’t want the truth told to it. It wants to hear what it wants to hear. And, as Sir Ivan Rogers shows, it’s happy to shoot the messenger otherwise.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Forgetfulness of things past

The thing about Tweed is that it never goes out of fashion. Of course, you might think that was because it was never in fashion in the first place but, hey, that doesn’t make the statement any less true.

I’m deeply attached to my fine, old Tweed jacket.

I say old because it is old but, to be fair, it was probably old when it was new.

And by “attached” I don’t mean I’m sufficiently fond of it to wear it. Every year or so I go through my wardrobe picking the clothes I never wear and chucking them out. Or rather, this being England where the only thing in constant growth is poverty, not chucking them but recycling them through a charity shop.

Each time I carry out this culling exercise, I come across the tweed jacket and I think, “I shouldn’t get rid of that one. I should wear it a bit more”. It’s a thought that comes with a pang of guilt, since each time I realise that I haven’t worn it, even once, since the last time. It continues to hang in my wardrobe, seemingly immoveable because I’m no more prepared to part with it than I am to put it on.

Today I was preparing an expense claim and realised I’d mislaid a train ticket. Whenever this happens – and, alas, it happens more often than I like – I always check through the breast pockets of all my jackets, since that’s an obvious place to stuff a ticket which you’re going to need at a barrier in a short time.

What prompted me to look in the tweed jacket I can’t imagine. There was no chance the missing ticket would be in a garment I hadn’t put on for years. But what I did find was something even better, a discovery that opened a door to a trip down Memory Lane. Except in my case Forgetfulness Lane is far more apt.

I found two boarding card stubs (remember when airlines used to have those? Before you could use a phone?) They were for a flight from Paris Charles de Gaulle to Barcelona, one 12 November. The outward flight was at 7:30 am.

The last time I lived close enough to the airport at Roissy to catch a plane there at 7:30 was 1998. We’re talking about a trip that happened up to two decades ago (you might spot the fact that my seat was in the ‘no-smoking cabin’ which certainly dates things a bit).

The trigger for a flood of memories.
Or in my case none at all
Sadly, I have no memory of the trip at all. Which seems a pity, since Barcelona is one of my favourite cities.

Was it the 7:30 start? In November? Maybe it was sheer trauma that led to my memory failure. A kind of act of mercy by my psyche. Particularly as I notice from the return stub that I flew back the same day, on the flight that left just before 6:00. I can only have had about six hours in the city itself, making it an experience to bury rather than relive.

What can have possessed me to wear tweed to Barcelona? It’s true that it’s cold in November. Even so, the Spaniards dress so well. Was I trying to make a point of my Englishness, it being a profoundly English tradition to wear that quintessentially Scottish cloth?

Lots of fascinating questions. Speculating on the answers is almost as pleasurable as reliving the lost past. It’s a kind of non-nostalgia.

For Proust, it was the taste of a Madeleine cake. For me, it was the rough feel of tweed. Of course, for Proust the experience triggered an avalanche of remembrance of things past. In mine, it merely reminded me of my forgetfulness.

Where I have the edge over Proust, though, is in my succinctness. He used a million and a quarter words on recreating his memories. I’ve taken fewer than 700 on the failure of mine. 

A small mercy, dear reader, to be thankful for.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Happy 2017

1861 was a lousy year for the United States.

It started with southern States tumbling over each other to get out of the Union. Then in April civil war broke out. That was followed in July by the inexplicable conversion of the major Union victory at the First Battle of Bull Run into a catastrophic Union defeat (though it should be said that the notions of ‘major’ and ‘catastrophic’ would have to be significantly revised later in the war).

It’s no surprise, then, that on 31 December diarist George Templeton Strong wrote:

Poor old 1861, just going. It has been a gloomy year of trouble and disaster. I should be glad of its departure were it not that 1862 is likely to be no better.

155 years on, I feel we can safely echo Strong’s words. Particularly as 1862 turned out not only to be no better than 1861 but was, in fact, considerably worse. A feat 2017 is likely to repeat with respect to 2016.

The year just ended was one where many people, tired of the consensus that has predominated since the Second World War, decided that building bridges was no longer the way to go and we should have some new walls instead.

In June, the British people voted to turn the Channel once more into a moat rather than a mere waterway. Those who knew the sixties and seventies will remember the troubled times in which a former imperial power struggled to find a new vocation. By joining what became the European Union, Britain seemed to find one: no longer merely a diminishing force in the world, it would be a major contributor to the emergence of the Continent as a world power.

In deciding to leave, it has chosen to go back to the time of its decline. Those were the days when Britain was regarded as the sick man of Europe, plagued by poor productivity and constant strikes, where only the wealthy could enjoy a good restaurant meal or a holiday abroad. The nation steadily sank through the economic league table, with Italy at one point celebrating il sorpasso, the moment when its economy overtook the UK’s.

The EU turned that around, but it also opened the doors to immigration from Continental Europe. Those arrivals continue to play a vital role across the British economy, in the health service, transport, farming and catering. Such, however, is todays fear of the outsider that most voters preferred to give up on the benefits of EU membership in the hope of controlling immigration. Ironically, the hope is likely to prove vain. The loss of benefit, however, will be real.

The American vote, however, was far more significant than Britain’s. It’s sad, though constitutional, that the victor took nearly 3 million fewer votes than his adversary. Donald Trump’s lack of a popular mandate is, however, going to have no impact on the way he exercises power in a democracy.

He’s the wall-builder extraordinary. Not that the one he promised, along the Mexican border, is likely to be built. Even if it is, he’s already made clear that much of it will be fence. But that’s part of his style: he feels he can make any promise he wants, without being bound to deliver – presumably, he has convinced himself that his intentions are pure and, in our post-truth society, honouring his word matters less than getting into a position in which he can mould it as he feels it needs.

His principal concern seems to be to make a friend of Vladimir Putin and an enemy of China. Whatever he does with physical walls, he has a metaphorical one in mind which will include Russia on his side and China firmly on the outside.

Aleppo: handiwork of Trump's pal Putin and his mate Assad
Putin has shown himself to be a strongman and supporter of strongmen, such as Assad in Syria or his new-found friend in Turkey, Erdogan. It’s telling that Trump wants to be associated with that club, perhaps because he also rather likes the homophobic, patriarchal and autocratic views it represents. If so, the US is going to become a considerable less pleasant place to be if you’re gay or a woman (how long will abortion remain a right?) and a great deal more unpleasant for African Americans, Hispanics or Muslims.

Meanwhile, we’d better hope that his attitude towards China represents another promise he has no intention of keeping. If he sticks to the collision course he’s plotted so far, the Trump presidency risks being not just bad but terminal.

Oh, well. George Templeton Strong survived 1862. He got through the end of the Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination. He saw the US reunited and prospering. We too may need to keep our nerve and nurse our patience and wait for better days to emerge in the future.

It happened for Strong, so it could happen for us.

In the meantime – happy New Year!