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.

Monday, 12 March 2018

Southport conference

Once again, sadly, illness has prevented me from attending Liberal Democrat federal conference - not to mention the expense. Lord Street, Southport, was once reckoned to be the richest in the UK. Things have probably changed with the decline in the fortunes of south-west Lancashire, but prices for B&B were still eye-watering last time I looked.

I have still to digest the reports from the conference, but it looks as if (a) inspiration has been drawn from the charismatic leadership of Justin Trudeau in Canada; (b) there is a reaching out to the people for whom the new Old Labour leadership has no real concern (as opposed to exploiting); (c) membership power ensured that the "top table" did not have all its own way; and of course (d) the party reaffirmed its policy that the only sane way forward for the UK was to remain in the EU.

On the last point, the media seized on Vince's "blaming" old white men for the Brexit vote. I am sorry that he followed the media error, following the rather crude Ashcroft opinion polling, of lumping all over-65s together. I would separate out that post-war generation which experienced the best of the recovery but none of the trauma of war.

However, Brexit was just the first section of the speech. To put it in context, here is the speech in full.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

More on Churchill and the European community

Barnaby Towns, a former adviser to William Hague, links the cinema release of The Darkest Hour to Winston Churchill's view (and that of later Conservative leaders) of Britain within Europe in an article in the current New European. He writes:

Brexiteers fondly quote Churchill – “We are with Europe; but not of it” – but don’t mention that he wrote these words in 1930, for an American magazine. In fact, wartime and post-war Churchill set the tone and precedent for a different conception of the British national interest in Europe.

From Churchill’s May 1940 offer of an indissoluble union with France, the text of which declared “France and Britain shall no longer be two nations,” through his support of Britain’s application to join the European Economic Community in 1961, pragmatic realism defined his approach.

In 1950, Churchill warned of “disadvantages and dangers of standing aloof” from Europe, stating that the opposition was “prepared to consider, and if convinced to accept, the abrogation of national sovereignty, provided that we are satisfied with the conditions and safeguards”. Critical of the Labour government for spurning the European Coal and Steel Community, the EEC’s forerunner, Churchill welcomed the 1957 Treaty of Rome establishing the Common Market, saying “we genuinely wish to join”.

It is interesting that in that speech on the Schuman plan (to set up the ECSC), Churchill also tackled the question of pooled sovereignty.

To win the war we agreed to put our armies under S.H.A.E.F., a great Anglo-American organisation that was for the tactical and limited purposes prescribed. No one would ever have suggested that General Eisenhower should have had the power to say what units of the British Army should be suppressed or disbanded, or how they should be raised or remodelled, or anything like it. All these remained questions within the control of the autonomous sovereign States which were willing to agree to a larger unity for certain well defined functional—I use the "functional" because it is coming into use—functional purposes. Surely, this is one of the points we could have urged, and even have made conditional upon our agreement to any final scheme.

It is simply darkening counsel to pretend, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman did, that by participating in the discussion, under the safeguards and reservations I have read, we could have been committed against our will to anything of this nature. I would add, to make my answer quite clear to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, that if he asked me, "Would you agree to a supranational authority which has the power to tell Great Britain not to cut any more coal or make any more steel, but to grow tomatoes instead?" I should say, without hesitation, the answer is "No." But why not be there to give the answer?

Churchill's analysis highlights the chances we missed to help form the direction of the European Community, perhaps even the Treaty of Rome itself, from its earliest beginnings. Even though we joined late, we helped shape its recent development and we could still be a positive force within the EU if only this reactionary government would see sense.

Gas price vice - the EU dimension

The current Private Eye reports that cross-channel flows of gas stopped last week because regulators in France prevented French traders from selling gas to Britain in order to preserve their own stocks. This would have been in contravention of the EU's principle of the free movement of goods. The Eye says "similar French behaviour 14 years ago caused the European Commission to rap them over the knuckles, and it was supposed to be a thing of the past". It occurs to me that the UK has been too soft in asserting its rights within the EU, expecting to be wet-nursed by the Commission. France would not have stood for such treatment if the positions had been reversed. It does not bode well for gas supply in Donald Tusk's putative Free Trade Agreement.

Friday, 9 March 2018


It is probably too much to expect that the announcement on the White House lawn in the early hours signals the beginning of the end of the sixty-eight-year Korean conflict. However, it does ratchet down the nuclear tension. Hawks in Washington warn that there have been false dawns before, but surely they must concede that the dictatorship in North Korea has never gone this far before.

Two factors must have pushed President Kim into the prospective historic talks with the US President. Firstly, behind-the-scenes pressure from China. Secondly, the prospect of ending UN sanctions. The poverty, peaking in episodes of starvation, of the common people has not cut the icy attitude of the family dictatorship in the past. However, the latest roster of sanctions has clearly threatened the very functioning of the state.

So it looks as if President Kim is ready to concede - after enough caveats wrung from President Trump and his southern neighbours in order to save face - that nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula be put beyond use.

Over one thousand United Kingdom servicemen lost their lives in the Korean war which broke out in 1950. There were also long-term physical and mental traumas. We had joined the US in a coalition under the UN banner, which would not have come together if the Soviet Union had felt able to attend the critical security council meeting and wield her veto. We were forced to borrow to finance our continued military expenditure, which was otherwise being wound-down after the world war.  That debt burden hung over the 1950s and 1960s.

The Korean war stopped in 1953, but reached only a truce. North Korea is still technically at war with South Korea. My initial euphoria at watching, live, the South Korean delegation on the White House steps, similar to my viewing of the breaching of the Berlin Wall, is therefore excusable, but there is a long way to go.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Gas price crisis heightened by government complacency

The recent Arctic surge across Europe drove wholesale gas prices to levels not seen for many years. Britain was then hit by the snowfalls resulting from storm Emma hitting the cold air over these islands, increasing the demand for gas. National Grid was forced to issue its first deficit warning for eight years, threatening to hobble British industry.

The situation was foreseen by The Guardian and Private Eye magazine last summer. Decisions taken then by Centrica and by the Conservative government's refusal to listen to expert opinion calling for a continuing gas storage facility mean that not only was Centrica (and down the line, British consumers) held to ransom by gas traders but also that these price hikes could recur next time there is a "beast from the east". The Conservative government's answer will clearly be to increase shale gas exploitation.

In defence of women's privacy

Liberal Democrat MP Wera Hobhouse feels compelled to bring in specific legislation to penalise "upskirting". Vera Baird from the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners is quoted as saying that legislation as it currently stands “is far from clear as there is no specific offence”.

I remember, from before the CPS let alone PCCs, when police were far more ready to use the common law to prosecute men who would invade women's privacy. The tool then was a mirror attached to footwear.

It shows how reluctant the authorities are to use the common law these days, but also how much more complacent the police are about offences insulting to women.

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Why does Baron Hain not retire gracefully?

News comes from South Afrcia that Peter Hain, former MP for Neath, has taken up a special adviser rĂ´le with, after the Guptas, probably the nation's most notorious business family.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Gavin Williamson misspoke - but covered his tracks

Europhobes and Americophiles have long maintained that it has been NATO alone which has preserved the UK's security since the last World War. That is disputable, but impossible to refute. However, the Defence Secretary went further yesterday claiming that the EU had nothing to do with keeping the peace in Europe since the war, that this was all down to NATO.

His only excuse is that he is too young to recall the days before the expansion of the EU, when both Spain and Portugal were dictatorships, when Greece suffered a coup allegedly inspired by NATO apparatchiks, or when Turkey (a NATO country) invaded Cyprus (a protectorate of a NATO country).

Someone in government must have had a quiet word with him, because the Hansard record has been softened. It is a grey area, but to me this goes beyond editing "to remove repetitions and obvious mistakes but without taking away from the meaning". At least we know that the official government line is not completely anti-EU.

(In reply to an earlier question Williamson had said: " we cannot outsource Europe’s defence to the United States" . This is interesting in view of UK's dependence on the USA for the Trident programme.)

Not so much a big stick after all

Sajid Javid's statement in the House yesterday must have come as a relief to those running leafy suburbs, having read the trails referred to here.

He still has not addressed the difficulty of those of average income and below in obtaining a home of their own.

Monday, 5 March 2018

May government wields a partial big stick over housing

Peter Black, who knows more about these things than I do, has not commented on Sajid Javid's threatened diktat over house-building, so I shall tentatively venture an opinion. This government's record on aid to home ownership shows a partiality to the larger conservative constituency. It has done nothing to ease the borrowing shackles which prevent councils building homes directly. All that Javid's proposed measure will achieve is to put pressure on green belts and green wedges, where private builders foresee the greatest profits. Ironically, there have already been warning voices that most of the councils affected are Conservative-controlled.

The Trump tariffs

Perhaps I am thinking too simplistically, but surely if car and white goods manufacturers benefit from cheaper steel from across the Canadian border, will not tariffs push up end-prices? If so, will Trump's fans be so enthusiastic?

Sunday, 4 March 2018

What the EU does for people with rare diseases

The EU has the might to rise above the economic liberal assumption that if a drug company cannot make serious profit on drugs to treat rare diseases, then the disease is not worth treating.

The EU provides funding for patients’ organisations that connect patients, families, policy-makers and healthcare professionals. European laws have created incentives for researchers and companies to develop treatments, or what are known as ‘orphan drugs’ for rare diseases. To exchange information and provide support on complex or rare diseases that require highly specialised treatment and a concentration of knowledge and resources, the 2011 EU Directive on Patients’ Rights in Cross-border Healthcare established European Reference Networks of healthcare providers across Europe.

The Norway solution

Leaving the EU but joining EEA or EFTA is very much a second-best response to the 2016 referendum in my opinion. However, it would seem to solve the Irish border conundrum, as well as protecting UK industry and farming, if this article is to be believed:

In the north-western corner of Europe, cross-border mobility and trade is flourishing between Norway and Sweden. More than 25,000 people commute to work over the border, and the countries are among each other's most important trade partners. One is an EU member; the other is not.

The efficiency and smooth running of the border may therefore seem surprising. The explanation lies in a combination of cultural preconditions and legal arrangements between the two countries. The question then arises: could these Norwegian-Swedish border arrangements serve as a model for other parts of Europe, such as post-Brexit Ireland?

Norway and Sweden have large cultural similarities, including each being able to understand the other's language. The countries were even united between 1814 and 1905. Even though this union was dissolved, the countries continued to cooperate and have shared laws. In the 1950s, they entered a passport union together with the other Nordic states Denmark, Finland and Iceland, which allowed ID-free travel between these countries.
Norway and Sweden thus have close ties, characterized by a high degree of trust. This is indicated by the fact that several of the border crossings in the sparsely populated areas along the 1,630km long border are unattended.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

The EU and sustainable development

For all Theresa May's fine words, there is doubt whether trade deals struck outside the EU would encourage sustainable development. One senses that Liam Fox's department is desperate to sign deals, any deals, in order to keep the Brexiteers' promise about UK's improved global reach. Virtually all the advances made in social and trade policy, including many which the two big parties claim credit for. There is no guarantee that the UK under this government will make progress on those fronts without the EU's boot behind it.

For the EU's latest on thsi front, see

Friday, 2 March 2018

Memories of South Ealing

Sitting here in my snug back room with a wintry scene outside, I have suddenly started remembering names and faces from fifty-odd years ago. I know what the immediate trigger was - staring at a blank crossword grid, the words of a lecturer on my first computer course came back to me: "If you are not problem-solvers, then what are you doing here?" It was one of the two male lecturers, either Lionel or the only one whose name I cannot remember, and the only one with a pronounced London accent. The others, Jacky, Gill (Jill?) and Lionel spoke RP and were probably all ex-teachers. I recall Jacky saying that the company had learned from experience that it was more effective to train people with an aptitude for teaching to program than to train computer experts in the art of teaching.

I have found links to Leo computers and hope to expand on this posting later.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

A present from the Department for Transport in time for St David's Day

Railfuture Cymru passes on the information that:
The transfer of rail services to the Welsh government has taken a significant step forward with the laying of a draft order in Parliament.
The draft order was laid before Parliament yesterday (28 February 2018) and will, subject to approval from MPs, Lords and the Privy Council, devolve the procurement and management of Wales and Borders franchise train services within Wales. This follows detailed discussions between the Department for Transport and the Welsh Government on how powers will be devolved to Welsh ministers.
The agreement also takes into account the fact that many of the franchise services operate on both sides of the border between England and Wales and includes safeguards to protect all passengers using these routes. Rail Minister Jo Johnson said: “This is a positive and significant step in the franchise devolution process and is an example of the effective cooperation between the UK and Welsh governments.
“The devolution of these powers delivers on recommendations made by the Commission on Devolution in Wales and demonstrates the commitment we made as a government in the 2015 St David’s Day Agreement.”
Welsh Government Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Transport Ken Skates said: “I welcome this recognition of the extensive nature of the cross-border services – and services wholly within England – provided by the Wales and Borders franchise and the need for appropriate accountability for rail operations on each side of the border.
“It will be important for devolution of funding for Network Rail to be delivered in the future and I will continue dialogue with the Department for Transport to that end.”
As well as continuing with present franchise funding arrangements, the UK government will also provide an extra £125 million towards upgrading the Valley Lines, part of the Welsh Government’s metro project in South Wales.

Roger Delgado

Today is the centenary of the actor who was not only the first Master in Dr Who, but before that a stalwart of the BBC Drama Repertory Company. Even on the radio, he tended to play villains or foreigners, as in this production from 1953.

I cannot claim to have known him, but I did at least pass him in a road in Kew in the 1960s after I had been doing some research in the locality.

A biography was published earlier this year.