Saturday, 31 March 2018

Rehabilitation of injured servicemen

British Legion has announced:
the finishing touches are being made to the brand new Defence and National Rehabilitation Centre (DNRC), a purpose-built centre dedicated to helping Servicemen and women recover from serious injury.

There is more here.

Friday, 30 March 2018

Brazilian shamans even more effective than Dennis Howell*

I am always on the lookout for notable anniversaries to fill these pages, but this one was just weird. On 30th March 1998, two shamans from a tribe in central Brazil were flown to the northern Roraima province to perform a rain ceremony in a last desperate attempt to combat forest fires which had been raging there for weeks. It seems to have worked, because the rains came the very next day.


* For younger readers: Dennis Howell was appointed by Harold Wilson as "Minister for drought" in August 1976 after a prolonged heatwave. His appointment was followed by two of the wettest months on record..

Thursday, 29 March 2018

Worboys' release

I see that the official Liberal Democrat response to the decision made by the High Court yesterday was a wholehearted welcome. Ed Davey said that: "The evidence heard by the Court begs serious questions about how the Parole Board made the terrible decision to release Worboys. The Parole Board process must now be reviewed, so that the difficult balance between independence and accountability can be improved, without any politicisation." It is worrying that it took an intervention by the High Court and a political decision (not to appeal) to achieve a right outcome. But it is even more worrying that other dangerous criminals must have been released by the current Parole Board set-up. It is only because Worboys' crimes were so gross, and because his victims were so determined, that this particular wrong decision was reversed. What about the dodgy decisions which received no publicity until the parolees committed a further violent crime? The suggestion has been made in some quarters that the Board is staffed by airy-fairy bleeding hearts. But one wonders whether there is pressure by civil servants in the police and prisons department to give the benefit of any doubt to applicants, so as to reduce the unmanageable prison population.

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

An affront to democracy


Yesterday’s proceedings in the House of Commons were dominated by examination of threats to informed choice by electors both here and abroad. 

Two witnesses, whistle-blower Christopher Wylie and Paul-Olivier Dehaye, to the DCMS select committee (links here) laid out how they saw big money influencing the US presidential election and the EU referendum in this country. Paul-Olivier Dehaye, mathematician and co-founder of PersonalData.IO, gave evidence as an expert on this subject, as someone who has challenged Cambridge Analytica in the past on their use of such data. However, most attention was on the marathon session involving Wylie, a former director of research at CA. Much of the ground had already been covered by the Channel 4 interviews, but yesterday there was much more corroborative detail. Incidentally, Wylie clarified a point that had been bothering many people - why now? It turned out that he had spent over a year with Guardian journalist Carole Cadwalladr before the story broke, establishing the facts and presumably clearing legal hurdles. What had turned Wylie into a whistle-blower was Donald Trump's victory in the 2016 presidential election. One wonders if he would have been so forthcoming if Hillary Clinton had won, or if the media would have been so interested if someone from the losing side had owned up to dirty tricks.

In the afternoon, Liberal Democrat Tom Brake moved an emergency debate on electoral law with particular reference to that referendum. The bare text of his introductory speech is reproduced on Liberal Democrat Voice, but there were some interesting interventions.


Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab)
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree - I do not think he is suggesting this for 
one minute - that this will have had no effect on the outcome of the referendum?

Tom Brake
The hon. Gentleman encourages me to speculate on a matter to which it is 
difficult to respond. If these allegations, which are unproven, are true and 
£625,000 was spent illegally in a very focused campaign and, by definition, was 
targeted on a very small number of people, it is very hard to say what the effect 
might have been. That is partly what I hope any inquiries might clarify.

To expand on that: while it is improbable that any amount of arguing or nudging would have shifted the firm believers on either side of the EU argument, the margin of the majority was that narrow that the decisions of a small percentage of swing voters could have made all the difference. However, this speculation is a distraction from the main point that electoral law appeared to have been breached, and that personal data had been bought and used in a way not intended by the people to whom it related.


Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con)
Would the right hon. Gentleman not acknowledge that the remain campaign 
spent about one third more on the EU referendum and indeed that the Government 
spent more than £9 million of taxpayers money sending a leaflet to every house in 
the UK promoting our remaining? Could that not be seen as biased in favour of that 
campaign?

But electoral law had not been broken, and while the total spent by the Remain side may have exceeded that by the Leavers, the groups involved were genuinely separate. (Indeed, one of the criticisms of the Remain campaign was that there was no clear single message and leader.)
There were two other notable speeches:


Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab)
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) on 
securing this emergency debate. As Members will know, I have been raising this issue and 
concern in the House for almost 18 months now, and when I first did so I was treated as a 
bit of a crank. Subsequently, however, almost every single allegation that I have used 
parliamentary privilege to put on the record in this place has proven to be correct.

This debate needs to be taken extremely seriously. It is not about who won or lost 
the referendum; it is about the integrity and security of our democracy and 
electoral system. Any of the sceptics who have cast doubt on the nature and quality of the 
evidence of the whistleblower, Chris Wylie, should watch the four hours of testimony 
that I watched today before the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee: it was 
absolutely shocking and astonishing, and it should go to the heart of anybody who 
cares about our democracy.

Mr Wylie laid out clear evidence of serious lawbreaking by the leave campaign: 
not only collusion between Vote Leave and BeLeave, which is the one that has got most 
publicity, but collusion between Vote Leave and some of the other leave organisations, 
including Veterans for Britain, and indeed the DUP. Each of those organisations used 
either Cambridge Analytica - we know all about that, having heard the revelations 
last week about how it illegally harvested the Facebook data of tens of millions of 
people - or Aggregate IQ, a supposedly separate company based in Canada. It is not 
separate at all; it is all part of the same organisation. We know that 40% of Vote 
Leave’s budget was spent on Aggregate IQ and the work that it did. We still do not know 
how AIQ got that data, where the data came from or whether it was legally obtained and 
used.

Mr Wylie provided compelling and credible evidence not only of the collusion 
but of the effectiveness of the targeted advertising campaigns that these data 
companies conduct, based on the data that they have. In the case of the referendum, 
the campaigns were targeted on 7 million voters whom the companies had carefully 
profiled as people whose opinions they could shift. In his evidence to the Committee 
today, Mr Wylie produced a staggering statistic. He said that, in his experience, the 
methods used by Cambridge Analytica and AIQ in this case would have had the 
potential to shift between 7% and 10% of the people targeted. 
Let us not forget that he was and remains a leaver. He wants Brexit to happen, 
but he does not want it to happen based on a fraud on the British electorate. [...] 
Mr Wylie also made a very worrying statement, and I think that this is the 
first time that a connection has been made between Cambridge Analytica and the Russian 
FSB via the work that it did for the Russian oil company, Lukoil.

It must be clear to everyone in the House, whatever their view on Brexit, that the 
powers and resources of the Information Commissioner and the Electoral Commission are wholly 
inadequate. If the Government were serious about getting to the truth by letting the 
commissioners do their job, we would have less of this “what-aboutery” and more action 
and support for the Electoral Commission and the Information Commissioner, in terms of 
their powers and, critically and more immediately, their resources. Mr Wylie has 
been working for many hours with the Information Commissioner, and one of the worrying 
things he told the Committee was that he had had to explain to the officials in that 
office what all this was about. They do not have enough technical experts. They do not 
have people who actually understand how all this works and what has been going on. In my 
view, this guy should be employed by all the global regulators, because he seems to be 
one of the few people who knows how this electoral corruption works, not only in our 
country but elsewhere. There was loads of evidence, for example, about what has been 
going on in Nigeria and in parts the Caribbean. This is not just a problem for this 
country.

[…]

Finally, this is slightly away from the evidence given by Mr Wylie today, I have 
received other new information that also concerns me. Members will recall the dreadful 
murder of Daphne Galizia in Malta last year. At the time she was murdered, I am 
informed that Ms Galizia was investigating Pilatus Bank, which had its assets frozen 
last week owing to fears of money laundering. She was also investigating Cambridge 
Analytica and Henley & Partners, which sells citizenship in Malta, and there are other 
links with the Legatum Institute, concerns about which I raised in the House several 
months ago, and the mysterious Maltese professor, Professor Joseph Mifsud, who is named 
in an indictment by Robert Mueller’s inquiry. All those matters need to be examined 
incredibly carefully, and I want the Minister to give a full and categorical assurance 
that, given the significant British links, the Maltese authorities that are 
investigating such matters will receive the full support and co-operation they need 
from our law enforcement, intelligence and security agencies.

Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green)

Much of the discussion so far has been about the validity of the referendum 
vote itself, but I want to argue that this goes much deeper and wider 
than that single vote, vastly important though it is. The revelations 
by The Guardian, Channel 4 and others over the past few days go right 
to the heart of the kind of country we think we are living in. I argue 
that they demonstrate that current electoral law is woefully inadequate. 
I think they show that the regulation governing our democratic processes 
urgently needs to be updated and reformed. They show, I believe, that 
something is rotten in the state of our democracy.

The combination of big money and big data is overwhelming the chronically 
weak structures that are supposed to protect us against cheating and fraud. 
As others have said, we are trying to apply laws from the analogue era to 
the very different reality of the digital age, and it simply is not working. 
It took the Information Commissioner almost a week to get authorisation to 
get through the front door of Cambridge Analytica, during which time presumably 
the delete button had been pressed a great many times. 
The Electoral Commission, meanwhile, has been investigating claims of the 
misuse of electoral funds for almost a year. Why on earth do we not have rules 
that require donations to be reported in real time, and the same for spending? 
Why do we not have a body with more resources and real teeth? Things urgently 
need to change.

Electoral law is based on two fundamental principles. The first principle is 
that parties and candidates compete on what should be a level playing field 
in terms of resources, which is presumably why we have national and local 
spending limits in elections. 
The second principle is that elections are open and transparent, so parties 
and candidates have to be transparent in their communications with the voters 
and it is unlawful to make false claims in those communications. The allegations 
about the true nature of the relationship between Vote Leave and BeLeave suggest 
that there may well have been cheating when it comes to the first principle, 
and the investigations into Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, and the spending 
of huge sums of money on micro-targeted political advertising based on data 
harvested from voters’ social media profiles, suggest that the second of 
these two principles is also under great strain in the digital age.
Frankly, Facebook’s desperate adverts on the back pages of Sunday’s newspapers, 
just a couple of days ago, suggest to me that it knows that its bubble is bursting. 
We now need to update the law to ensure that people are protected from this social 
media mega-monopoly. Just because the chief executives of Facebook and Google wear 
T-shirts to work and turn up on skateboards does not mean that they are not aggressive 
capitalists, and we need to get a bit wiser to that fact.

The law regulating campaign activity and finance, the Political Parties, Elections and 
Referendums Act 2000, was drawn up almost 20 years ago, long before Facebook or 
Twitter even existed, let alone had any role in political campaigns. It is considerably more 
difficult to ensure the compliance of adverts on social media than the compliance of adverts 
in newspapers or on billboards. Voters simply do not know what is being done with their data 
by a company that, ultimately, wants to make as much money as possible from the 
information it has on each of us. Not surprisingly, the regulators struggle to regulate.

This undoubtedly presents a complex challenge to all politicians, as social media platforms 
overtake the national and local press and media through which we have traditionally 
communicated with our electorate, but without the same level of transparency and scrutiny. 
However, it is a challenge that we must meet. The need for a reprogramming of the way parties 
and campaigns are funded could not be greater. Whether it is donations from Russian oligarchs on 
one side of the House or from former Formula 1 bosses on the other side, people are sick and 
tired of a politics that is awash with big money without proper oversight. I argue that the 
case for state funding for political parties could scarcely be stronger.

To reinforce the message that I am not tribal in this matter, I wanted to include a speech from the Conservative back benches. However, apart from nit-picking interventions, they were silent. There was a stone-walling official government reply from Chloe Smith, but the Conservatives did not seek to divide the House. So the motion, like so many others where the Government side sought to save face by not being seen to be defeated in a vote, passed without dissent.


Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Norman Lloyd again

As well as Hitchcock, Norman Lloyd also worked with Jean Renoir during the latter's working sojourn in America. Terry Teachout has a link to the veteran actor's reminiscence on his work.
Lloyd celebrated his 103rd birthday last November.

Monday, 26 March 2018

How would Britain fare outside the customs union?

The Irish border aside, it seems that Britain is not geared up to a life outside the EU. The following report from the current Private Eye is worrying:


A complaint issued by the European Commission shows how woefully unprepared Britain’s tax authorities are for a post-customs union world.

Brussels reckons that the UK owes it around €2.7bn in compensation for failing to spot imports of Chinese textiles at fraudulently low prices, according to a report from MPs on the Commons European scrutiny committee. Examples given by the Commission included women’s trousers declared at around 3% of their true value to dodge duties that, under the existing customs union, are shared around the EU.

The EC described the UK as “the most significant hub for this fraudulent traffic” run by “organised crime groups”. Worst of all, “in contrast to the actions taken by several other member states to fight against these fraudsters, the fraud hub in the UK continued to grow”.

[…]

Losses to the UK itself will become even more serious once the country leaves the union because, in the MPs’ words, “undervaluation of imports would present a direct loss to the exchequer as customs duties collected by HMRC would be retained entirely by the government”.


Shafted

I would guess that hardly anyone on the Leave side of the 2016 EU referendum actually believed in that £350m per week for the health service which Boris Johnson promised, but other outcomes must surely have disappointed many. Welsh Nationalists who saw independence from Europe as a first step to independence for the nation saw not more powers coming to Wales, but Westminster grabbing back much that was previously devolved. Farmers who saw Brexit as a means of losing "red tape" have heard Michael Gove promising more stringent regulation than in the EU. Fishermen have openly expressed their feeling of betrayal over the postponement of exit from the CFP.

Now we know that floating voters were targeted by Cambridge Analytica and AIQ of Canada. Moreover, the latter was provided with funds in a move which may have evaded election spending rules. So voters were not only lied to and given false promises by the official Leave campaign, they were worked on surreptitiously via social media as well.



Friday, 23 March 2018

Total immersion in Debussy

The oblique reference to La Mer, finished in Eastbourne for rather disreputable reasons, is deliberate. Radio 3 is celebrating the centenary of the composer's death this weekend with wall-to-wall talks about the composer and performances of his music. We were not exactly starved of his music during the rest of the year, but at least we should be able to hear some of his lesser-known pieces tomorrow and Sunday.


Marches and rallies for Europe

Tomorrow there will be various demonstrations up and down the UK in favour of staying in the European Union. The closest to Neath will be the cross-party event, the South Wales Festival for Europe, in Ynysangharad Park.

More details, including pictures from an event last Sunday, are on The New European's web pages.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Dirty campaigning - what is new this time

Channel 4 News has done a great service in exposing the tactics of Cambridge Analytica. The key edition of three was the second one, containing an extended clip of a hidden camera sting. Believing he was speaking to an unscrupulous Sri Lankan campaign manager, a potential client, CA executive Turnbull described how their US arm targeted the 2016 Clinton presidential campaign. Turnbull was frank in pointing out that the aim was not to convert wavering voters to Trump, but to dissuade people who would normally vote Democrat for turning out. Official campaigns, which present the intellectual basis for a party's platform, are not as effective as the unofficial ones which affect the gut instinct rather than the head. The result in 2016 was the "Crooked Hillary" meme, distributed on social media via a myriad of accounts, and its variations.

So what is new, old sweats may ask. Labour is notorious round here for (unattributably of course) assassinating the character of the opposing candidate on the doorsteps as much as promoting their own. One can recall at least one general election in which a party was voted in not so much on the strength of their manifesto but because the outgoing people were so mired in scandal that their traditional supporters were turned away. Coming closer to our own time, Conservatives used assiduously-collected data to tailor attack letters and emails to swing voters in marginal seats leading up to the 2015 general election. And there are allegations of crossing an ethical, maybe a legal, line against Neath's Blue Telecoms.

At least in traditional canvassing, voters know that they are providing information in the context of an election contest. What is new and disturbing about the current scandal is that users of social media did not know that they were providing personal data to political operators.

Also of interest in the examination of what compels people to vote in certain ways is last Monday's edition of The Digital Human. The section on confirmation bias - we hear or see bias in a particular medium (e.g. the BBC) because we are looking out for it - is particularly interesting.

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Trying to follow the funny money

The opposition did follow up on Jeremy Corbyn's accusation of links between Russian businessmen laundering dubious gains in London and Conservative MPs. However, the means chosen - an Urgent Question in the House yesterday - proved unsatisfactory. Unlike a debate, which would allow members to speak at reasonable length expounding evidence, they were limited to fairly simple questions. Speaker Bercow has been increasingly strict in this regard, cutting members off in mid-flow if they transgress. The result was a bland statement from the minister, followed by bland answers to opposition questions and a series of helpful (possibly planted?) questions from the government's supporters.

Even so, there could have been more probing questions. Why did nobody follow up Ben Wallace's failure to answer SNP's Stewart Hosie's question about Companies House?
when will he finally fix the loopholes at Companies House, where to all intents and purposes absolutely no due diligence is done when a new company is registered?
- not to mention the lack of policing of failure to lodge accounts on time.

And why did only one MP ask for legislation to open up the murky area of property ownership? We need a proper debate followed by government action, and soon.


Monday, 19 March 2018

Boom, what boom?

It is sad to see Micro Focus, the epitome of UK's post-manufacturing future, in the same company as Carpetright and Mothercare. All three have seen their share prices fall, the last two after warnings about trading losses and amidst a welter of store closures.

The carpet business has been one of boom-and-bust for at least the last two generations. The usual pattern is of expansion on the back of rising wealth and new home ownership, followed by failure when the country goes into recession. Of all high street retailers, carpet sellers should be least threatened by on-line purchases as buyers will want to see and feel the product before commitment. For Carpetright to be in serious trouble at a time of global recovery demonstrates that the UK is not taking advantage of the general rise in economic activity, despite chancellor Hammond's upbeat spring statement.

Mothercare has been in trouble before (one remembers the closure of a huge store in Swansea's Kingsway), but it looks more serious this time as internet shopping must be cutting into footfall in its shops. This could be the end for a pioneering company, whose growth coincided with that of my own family.

Micro Focus grew shortly afterwards, its founders spotting that micro-computers would graduate from being sophisticated toys to becoming essential equipment for enterprise, and thus would need software to move programs from big central mainframes to PCs. This provided some bread-and-butter during my contract programming days. It is the sort of business which Mrs Thatcher had in mind when she shed no tears over the decline in British computer manufacture, seeing the future for the UK as providing services for machinery made elsewhere. MF's big mistake seems to have been taking on Hewlett-Packard's software services arm, which was not as sound as they were led to believe. However, their current difficulties also suggest that businesses are not investing in new IT systems thus reducing the MF cash-flow. If so, it reflects badly on business confidence on both sides of the Atlantic.

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

Priorities

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

Commonwealth

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

Korea

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 http://trade.ec.europa.eu/doclib/press/index.cfm?id=1803

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.