Saturday, 17 March 2018

South Africa this week

New president Cyril Ramaphosa seems intent on pushing through a change to the South African constitution which would allow expropriation of land. This is a policy executed by force in Zimbabwe which turned the country under Robert Mugabe into an international leper. One trusts that wise counsel will prevail.

Jacob Zuma has been charged with corruption and the French defence giant Thales could well be indicted also. So far, there has been no mention of other arms companies in connection with the scandal involving also the late Joe Modise, the South African defence minister at the time. Thus BAE may be off the hook, and along with them Labour MPs who were ministers in MoD and the FCO when the deals were struck.

The criticism in the Republic of Baron Hain continues. This article links his new partners to corruption in Zimbabwe.

Friday, 16 March 2018

Nick Tregoning

Nick, who died earlier today, was a great companion, quick wit and fighter for what he believed in. This led to a split with the Swansea and Gower party when he recognised and warned against an attempt to hijack it by a person driven purely by personal ambition. In the end, he was proved correct but in the meantime the Aberavon and Neath party were glad to welcome him in order to maintain his Liberal Democrat membership.

He was also a good source of gossip about the workings of the party, but did his stint in making Welsh conferences work. Outside politics, he was a keen amateur theatrical and one trusts there will be fulsome tributes and reminiscences from his colleagues.

We had lost touch over the last few years, initially because of a job that took him to West Wales and latterly because of increasing ill-health. We may never know the nature of the illness which intermittently incapacitated him and which presumably was the ultimate cause of his passing. I only know that fate has robbed us of someone who still had so much to give.

LEO - some computing history to be preserved

From a joint press release issued this week:

The Centre for Computing History, a major archive, hands-on museum and learning centre in Cambridge and the LEO Computers Society, a group passionate about the promotion of the world's first business computer (the Lyons Electronic Office - or LEO - from the 1950s), today announced a new partnership that will work to protect a wide range of heritage objects that are currently at risk.

The direct connection between the two organisations lies in the social and tech history that they both focus on. The LEO Computers Society is committed to getting these British room-sized computers of the past greater recognition as game changers in the development of computing in the UK. The LEO is already recognised in the Guinness Book of Records as the first business computer in the world but its story remains less well-known than it should be. The Centre for Computing History recognises just how important these 'giant brains' were and, following a successful exhibition held at the Centre in November last year, realised how much important documentation the Society has about this key moment in history. They immediately sought to make sure the archive is protected for the long term.

There is more here.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Trump tariffs

There is a useful background briefing from the EU members research service. Some facts and a historical perspective stand out for me:

Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, as amended (19 U.S.C. §1862), authorises the US Secretary of Commerce to conduct investigations that seek to determine the effects of particular imports on US national security. If such an investigation finds that those imports threaten to impair national security, the US President can take action to adjust imports. Since 1963, 26 investigations have been initiated, of which eight found potential security threats and five resulted in presidential action. The most recent investigation dates from 2001 and concerned imports of iron ore and semi-finished steel. It did not find a threat to US national security. According to the Section 232 investigations, the US imported around 30 % of its steel in 2017, and 64 % of its aluminium in 2016 (this figure rises to 89 % for primary aluminium, i.e. not recycled). The Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE) has calculated the size and origin of US imports of steel and aluminium for 2017 (in terms of value). In the case of steel, total US imports amounted to US$29 billion, and the top 5 foreign sources were the EU (US$6.2 billion), Canada (US$5.1 billion), South Korea (US$2.8 billion), Mexico (US$2.5 billion) and Brazil (US$2.4 billion). For aluminium, total US imports amounted to US$17 billion, and the top 5 sources foreign sources were Canada (US$6.9 billion), China (US$1.8 billion), Russia (US$1.6 billion), the United Arab Emirates (UAE) (US$1.3 billion) and the EU (US$1.1 billion).
The Trump administration bases its decision to impose tariffs on steel and aluminium imports on national security concerns. Under WTO law, countries can indeed invoke national security to justify trade restrictions: the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) contains security exceptions in Article XXI that permit WTO members to deviate from the agreement’s rules in specific cases. So far, countries have rarely invoked these exceptions and the WTO has never had to make a ruling on it (though recently there have been a few instances in which Article XXI GATT was brought up, including a dispute between Qatar and the UAE).

Wednesday, 14 March 2018


That is how responsible people budget: first, they work out what they can afford; then they decide what their priorities are; and then they allocate between them.
(From the Chancellor's statement yesterday)

So there we have it. Not decide what the basic priorities are and then work out how to obtain the money to cope, but sense what your conservative constituency will volunteer in tax and dole out accordingly. Even within his narrow brief, the chancellor has his priorities wrong - for instance, why are we spending so much in the US on a Trident replacement, when we cannot guarantee the safety of a political refugee on the streets of one of our great cities?

The chancellor made much of GDP growth figures, both actual and forecast:
The economy grew by 1.7% in 2017, compared with the 1.5% forecast at the Budget, and the OBR has revised up its forecast for 2018 from 1.4% to 1.5%.

But, as several opposition speakers pointed out, on both counts those figures put the UK at the bottom of the G7 league table. Moreover, as I have pointed out previously in this blog, our growth has been lower, and predicted to continue to be lower, than in the rest of the EU while inflation last year was the second-highest in the Union.

Both Mr Hammond and the former chancellor made much of the fact that at long last the day-to-day government deficit has been eliminated. Much of the credit for that is owed to David Laws, the coalition's first secretary to the Treasury and perhaps his target would have been reached sooner if it had not been for needless tax concessions to the top earners and to the banks.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018


Yesterday was Commonwealth Day. I would have missed the fact but for the BBC's taking the opportunity to broadcast more pictures of Meghan Markle (she attended the annual service in Westminster Abbey accompanying the Queen and other members of the royal family). At a time when the government is anticipating the European family, one would have thought that they would have given more prominence to the Commonwealth. We may have to rely on their goodwill.

And what is being done to counteract France's charm offensive in India? We did not wrest control of India from the French 250 years ago, only for us to lose economic influence there now.

Corbyn was right to raise Russian economic influence

but chose the wrong time to do it

We are all familiar with the way in which huge fortunes, often acquired in the most dubious circumstances in Russia and sometimes connected with criminal elements, have ended up sheltering in London and trying to buy political influence in British party politics—“meddling in elections”, as the Prime Minister put it. There have been more than £800,000 of donations to the Conservative party from Russian oligarchs and their associates. If that is the evidence before the Government, they could be taking action to introduce new financial sanctions powers even before the investigation into Salisbury is complete.

The whole question of Russian investment, especially of "hot" money, in the UK needs looking at. Further, the suggestion that money is channelled to MPs (on all sides of the house) from Russia through third parties - consultancies and commodity traders and so on - should be investigated. 
However, Jeremy Corbyn was rightly criticised - not least from his own side of the house - for linking the subject at such a sensitive time to the Salisbury nerve gas attack.

Perhaps an honourable member could raise it at an adjournment, if neither the government nor the back-bench business committee sees fit to allocate time to it. One can understand the official opposition's reluctance to air the malign influence of dubious inward investments in the City, since the doors were opened to them during the Blair-Brown years. Private members who wish to mount such a debate will find ample briefings in back editions of Private Eye.

On another matter which was raised in yesterday's questions on the prime ministerial statement, Labour's Chris Bryant was wrong when he asked:
can we just stop Russia Today broadcasting its propaganda in this country?

while  Conservative Crispin Blunt was surely right:
while I support all the measures the Prime Minister will take against the Government of Russia if the situation turns out to be as we all anticipate, will she try, as far as is possible, to ensure that British society, in its widest sense, can continue to be open with the people of Russia so that the virus of truth and openness can do its work on that regime?

It is surely better to increase the exposure of the Russian people to an objective view of world affairs rather than censor any broadcaster here. There may be a case for looking at Russia Today's access to the parliamentary estate, however.