Thursday, 28 February 2019

Today in History

Feb 28  1854, Around 50 people meet in a school house in Ripon,
Wisconsin.  As opponents to slavery, they decide to create their own
political party that later would become the Republican Party.

Wednesday, 27 February 2019

Who is this "we" that Mrs May is talking about?

In the Commons yesterday, as part of her statement on the withdrawal agreement, the prime minister said:

Parliament gave the choice to the people. In doing so, we told them that we would honour their decision. 

The Referendum Act did not give power to the people. Referendums in this country have traditionally been  advisory, not binding, and the 2016 vote was no exception. (Indeed, as a fellow-Remainer has pointed out, if it had been made binding the Electoral Commission could have negated it because of the massive breaches of electoral law on the part of the various Leave campaigns, not to mention a few alleged infringements by Remain supporters.) It was Mrs May's predecessor, a man about whom dispute rages as to whether he was the worst prime minister ever or merely the worst since Anthony Eden, who virtually confessed that he had no policy of his own other than to be re-elected, that man Cameron who pledged to abide by the result of a vote in which those who had the most to lose were not allowed to take part.

Lies about the Lisbon Treaty

There is a thorough debunking of an anti-EU screed which has been going the rounds on Facebook (and presumably Twitter). The trouble with these things is that they contain just enough plausible content (especially if social media recipients are exposed to the Daily Express and the Daily Telegraph) to make the rest easier to swallow.

It would be unnecessary duplication to reproduce the whole of anotherangryvoice's refutation (not a mere rebuttal) but I would like to add a positive note to a couple of items:

7. No trade deals (absurdity)

The threat that the Lisbon Treaty somehow rules out Britain's future ability to make trade deals is absolutely absurd because this isn't some future threat, it's the actual current state of affairs.

The EU Single Market is the single largest trading block on the planet which gives it enormous power to craft trade deals to its own advantage. All of the individual states that decided to join made the decision to give up their ability to make their own trade deals in return for access to the Single Market and the advantage of pooled negotiating power.

Repurposing the actual current state of affairs as a terrifying future threat is an extraordinary tactic, and it just goes to show how gullible people can be that the tens of thousands to have shared this nonsense didn't even notice that they were being directed to fear the introduction of what is actually the norm, and has been for decades.

8. No trade tariffs (absurdity)

This is basically just a reiteration of the previous point to present the current state of affairs as a terrifying future threat. Trade tariffs are decided communally by the EU. If it didn't work like this the Single Market and Customs Union couldn't exist in their current form.

9. No trade quotas (absurdity)

Another reiteration of the same idiotic effort to present the current state of affairs as a terrifying future threat.

The EU has the power to achieve favourable trade deals and to walk away from those which do not meet its standards. For instance, Canada was forced to back down over the relaxation of farming standards and "star chamber" secret courts to resolve commercial disputes which she originally wanted included in her deal with the EU. The USA was obstinate in sticking to its demands over food production in the other transatlantic trade negotiation and the EU told Trump what he could do with them.

Although the European Commission
  has the power to negotiate free trade agreements on behalf of the member states, [...] the final decision is in the hands of the individual governments [including the UK's]. EU free trade agreements are approved by qualified majority, though unanimity is required in cases that include trade in services; direct foreign investments; audiovisual and cultural services; social, educational and health services; and intellectual property. [Full article here.]

The EU is also positive force in  assisting developing nations through trade.

Tuesday, 26 February 2019

Rail nationalisation in Wales

Following the purchase of Cardiff Airport (which we taxpayers could have retained for next to nothing on council reorganisation in 1995), the Welsh government has been offered the Valley Lines real estate by Network Rail. The sale is expected to be completed by late September.

Two questions come to mind:

  • is the Welsh government expected to take on any part of the Network Rail pension scheme?
  • could this lead to a takeover of other internal routes, such as those in mid- and north Wales?
It could be argued that our government could hardly do a worse job of management than Network Rail whose poor cost control was a contributory factor to the GWR electrification being truncated. However, the future management structure and choice of head will have to be carefully chosen to guarantee that it will work for the public good.

Monday, 25 February 2019

Two Middle Eastern dictatorships launched

On February 25th  1954, a revolt by the army forced Syrian president Adib Shishakli to flee the country. On the same day, Gamal Abdel Nasser became the prime minister of Egypt as Mohammad Naguib, the figurehead of the revolt against British occupation of the Canal Zone, resigned.

Russian expansionism must be taken seriously

Sweden is concerned; she has just reintroduced compulsory military service. This report from France 24 shows that Estonia also has reason to be fearful.

Sunday, 24 February 2019

Exposing an EU fraud cost whistle-blower his job - but he still supports the EU

Since Robert McCoy exposed the corruption within the EU's Committee of the Regions, beloved of Plaid Cymru, anti-fraud measures within the EU have been tightened up. He is still fighting for the compensation which he feels is his due, but at the end of the Channel 4 News report he is still firmly of the opinion, in spite of his personal travails, that the UK should remain within the EU.

Dirty money: Mrs May should be grateful to the EU

Much has been made of the fact that if the ERG has its way, the UK will leave the EU without the latest directive against money-laundering being imposed on us. However, it appears that the EU has been kind to London, which some commentators have described as the dirty money capital of the world. Earlier this month, the Commission published "an expanded blacklist of 23 countries it believes are failing to address a high risk of money laundering or terrorist financing". As the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) blog points out, this blacklist carefully restricts itself to "third countries", i.e. those outside the EU. Estonia and possibly Luxembourg should be in the frame, but so also the UK which in terms of sheer volume of money flowing is the biggest sinner.

So leaving the EU without a deal will enable the UK to continue the lax regulation begun by Gordon Brown and continued under the Conservatives, but will also render us liable to be fingered in a later update of the EU's blacklist.

Friday, 22 February 2019

The May-Barnier deal is not much better than crashing-out

but the government will not admit it.

Last Wednesday, the leader of the Scottish Nationalists in the Commons asked "the Prime Minister if she will make a statement on the economic impact of her Government’s proposed deal for the UK exiting the EU.". The session was enabled by the Speaker as an Urgent Question, but perhaps "overdue question" would have been a better description.

It was almost inevitable that Mrs May would delegate this embarrassing matter to a subordinate, not the Chancellor, but a junior minister at the Treasury. Mel Stride responded with a comparison of the May-Barnier deal with "no deal", a comparison we have heard virtually daily from Mrs May herself, but not the answer to the question Mr Blackford put. The Speaker gently rebuked Mr Blackford for turning what should have been a follow-up question into an oration, but the SNP leader's verbosity was understandable in that he put on record the basis for his concerns:

The specific question I asked was about the economic analysis that the Government have done on their deal. It is quite clear from the Minister’s answer that the Government have done no analysis on this deal. [...] Economists are clear: the Prime Minister’s deal is set to hit GDP, the public finances and living standards. Analysis published by the London School of Economics estimates that

“the Brexit deal could reduce UK GDP per capita by between 1.9% and 5.5% in ten years’ time, compared to remaining in the EU.”

The National Institute of Economic and Social Research has warned that “if the government’s proposed Brexit deal is implemented, then GDP in the longer term will be around 4 per cent lower than it would have been had the UK stayed in the EU.”

Bank of England analysis states the UK Government’s deal will raise unemployment by 4% and inflation by 2%.

The Government cannot claim that their November document covers their deal. Let us look at the facts. Page 17 of the Treasury analysis looks at the modelled average free trade agreement and states:

“As such, it does not seek to define or model a bespoke agreement.”

But the Prime Minister tells us she has a bespoke deal. The Treasury analysis continues:

“This scenario is not indicative of government policy, as it would not meet UK objectives including avoiding a hard border” in Northern Ireland.

There we have it in black and white: the Treasury analysis conducted last year does not account for the Prime Minister’s deal. So, I say to the Government, where is the analysis? MPs continue to be expected to vote on the proposed deal without the Government explaining the economic consequences. That is the height of irresponsibility.

 The rest of the session was disappointing as the minister stonewalled effectively and few honourable members made sufficiently forensic enquiries. 

Thursday, 21 February 2019

Fears for South Africa

Yesterday's South African budget statement has done little to assuage the fears of international investors. The nation has run out of the credit she gained from achieving racial equality under Nelson Mandela and the mini-boost achieved by the replacement of Jacob Zuma by the more market-orientated Cyril Ramaphosa. Much of the trouble has been caused by corruption, an all too common symptom of a previously disadvantaged group taking over the reins of power. Typical of the pattern of politicians dipping into public funds without investing for the future has been the state electricity supplier, Eskom, with the resulting power outages shown on BBC television this week.

The South African concludes: "Given that the government are determined to stand by Eskom – without meeting a full bailout package – Mboweni and his team aren’t likely to convince Moody’s that things will only get better." It will be some time before the South African economy will regain its top spot on the continent recently lost to Nigeria.

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Shamima Begum

The Liberal Democrats have issued a suitably liberal statement about Da'esh's poster girl from east London. I agree that if she chooses to return to the UK, then she should face trial. However, just because she has become a media darling (both the Times and the BBC making much of interviews with her), there is no reason to spend taxpayer's money on bringing her back. She should be treated no differently from the hundreds of other British supporters of "the caliphate". I do wonder about the child, too. He may be as innocent as any new-born now, but what will be the effect of being brought up in his formative years by a mother who is seemingly unrepentant about her years as a terrorist groupie?

However, the institutionally xenophobic Home Office's response is way over the top. In precipitately cancelling her UK citizenship, Home Secretary Javid has at one blow broken international and British law and upset the Bangladesh administration in his blithe assumption that Shamima had dual citizenship. The BBC reports that the first the relevant Bangladeshi minister knew that his nation was expected to take her in was from broadcast media. His understandable response was that she was UK's responsibility alone and that his government had no intention of accepting her.

Home Secretary Javid must be hoping that the Netherlands, homeland of the baby's father, will be prepared to take the child and its mother in. Otherwise, his Department will face another costly and almost certainly losing court battle.

Tuesday, 19 February 2019

The cold war starts here

There were occasional infelicities of language, the pile-up of dead bodies with no apparent consequence was barely credible and the appearance of the House of Lords chamber (the temporary home for the Commons in 1945) has come into question, but Channel 4's Traitors captured in its first episode the mixed emotions in England of the end of the war in Europe. There was the spirit of optimism for the future on the part of those welcoming a reforming Labour government, the sense of betrayal on the part of Conservatives at the rejection of Winston Churchill at the ballot-box and the American suspicion of the new order in Britain. All that and rationing, too.

To those who queried whether celebrating Labour party activists would really sing The Red Flag in public, it should be pointed out that the anthem was regularly sung at the close of Labour conferences with no embarrassment (and probably with little thought to its violent implications) from the time of the party's foundation until the Red Rose revolution. (With the eclipse of New Labour, the anthem has regained its prominence.)  In parliament, the speech by the newly-elected middle-class socialist looking forward to a revolution in public services and to better housing for all rang true. Screenwriter Bash Doran no doubt mined actual Labour addresses put on record at the time. The series is clearly intended for distribution in the US and it will do no harm for our cousins to understand the desire for a better life, after a devastating war, which drove the Labour vote. That mood will surely not be lost on those young Americans who nearly got Bernie Sanders onto the Democrat ballot in 2016. As a former general secretary of the party, Morgan Phillips, once said in an epigram taken up by Harold Wilson, "The British Labour Party owes more to Methodism than to Marxism".

The welfare revolution of 1945-50 also owed something to liberals with a large and small L. Liberal William Beveridge wrote the blueprint  in a report commissioned by the wartime coalition government under Winston Churchill. Churchill was a former Liberal who gave a liberal-minded Conservative education minister, R.A. Butler, a free hand in reforming secondary education. It is probable therefore that Liberals as well as Conservatives keenly felt the loss of Churchill, especially as the Liberal party election strategy carefully avoided attacking him personally. The US of course saw only the rejection of a great war leader.

In 1946 (a year after the period in which Traitors opens) Churchill, a life-long anti-Communist, was to give his famous "Iron Curtain" speech in Fulton, Missouri. It was to fall on fertile ground. Churchill who had worked with leading Labour figures in coalition was able to distinguish between the democratic socialists of the UK and the "Marxist-Leninist" (i.e. Stalinist) state socialists in the USSR, but such fine distinctions would have been lost on Americans exemplified in Traitors by the OSS operative Rowe (a compelling performance by Michael Stuhlbarg). I was hardly old enough to appreciate such things in those days, but I do recall the scornful newspaper report (probably in the Express) that a congressman had been alarmed by Mr Attlee opening a Labour conference with the greeting: "Comrades!". With the release of government papers later, we were to learn that the Americans felt that we were an unreliable ally and therefore refused to continue the war-time cooperation over the development of nuclear weapons.

In her introduction to the series in Radio Times, Bash Doran quotes executive producer Eleanor Moran as thinking that "there was a decent show to be set in the British civil service after the Second World War. It was an incredible time in our history and it had mostly been overlooked." As someone who joined the civil service in 1960 when there were still colleagues in the office who had been there pre-war, I agree.

Monday, 18 February 2019

Frightening developments on the sub-continent

India has taken extreme reprisals against Pakistan for the part the Islamic republic is alleged to have played in recent violence in Jummu & Kashmir. As if to compensate, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has today promised a $20bn investment to shore up Pakistan's economy. There is a grave danger that these two Commonwealth nations could become embroiled in a Hindu-Muslim conflict, which has implications for these communities in the UK. There are also economic implications if India goes to war. One hopes that the UK government - and possibly the Palace - will work behind the scenes to reduce the tension.

He spoke truth to power

There will be more complete obituaries of the great back-bencher Paul Flynn, so I will add just two sidelights. He was a long-standing fighter for the liberalisation of our illogical drug laws, along with Liberal Democrat Chris Davies.

He was also one of the earliest MPs to write his own blog, and an amusing and insightful one it was, too. Originally called "lions led by donkeys" if I recall correctly  (or possibly "dragons led by poodles", the title of one of his books), it was later revamped with a regrettably more conventional title. I see he was still contributing to it in July of last year, though he was becoming increasingly frail. The first entry of the re-launch sums up his wit and his attitude to politics.

Sunday, 17 February 2019

Second only to Bernie Madoff

On 17th February 2009, US federal agents raided the banking offices of the Stanford International Bank. "Sir" Allen Stanford  (the title was conferred on him by Antigua) was charged with operating a massive Ponzi scheme, second only in its extent to that of Bernie Madoff, and convicted three years later.

Stanford had sponsored a number of cricket events in the West Indies. So far as I can discover, none of the prize money was awarded, or returned if it had been awarded.

Saturday, 16 February 2019

WTO Rules

Found on Facebook, from an unknown author who has clearly done his or her research.
Right, let's tackle this WTO thing, because it's pissing me off.
1/ If we end up solely on WTO rules, then we need a hard border in Ireland. That risks peace, stability, and the Union. Plus we don't have any time to build the infrastructure required. Like, nowhere NEAR enough time. And there aren't any "alternative arrangements", I promise. They don't exist. There isn't a single border in the world that has any. And that means a hard border.
2/ If we rely on WTO rules for trade, then we need to apply tariffs to imports. And expect that other countries will apply tariffs to our exports. That makes things more expensive for us to buy, and makes our businesses less able to compete. Not really sure how this is a win.
3/ If we decide we're not going to apply tariffs to imports at all, then we lose all leverage for negotiating future trade deals. What on earth would we offer them?? We've already given them free access to our market.
4/ If we decide we're not going to apply tariffs to imports at all, then we destroy our own producers - why would you carry on trying to run a farm produce business when the market is flooded with much cheaper products from abroad?
5/ If we decide to only reduce tariffs on products from the EU, then the Most Favoured Nation clause (WTO rules) kicks in - this says that you can't offer more favourable terms to one bloc, and not everyone else. So - no tariffs from the EU, means no tariffs from anyone. See points 3 and 4.
6/ If you were looking forward to getting your bendy bananas back, then tough shit; this rule didn't come from the EU (no matter what Boris told you), it came from the WTO - specifically, the Codex Alimentarius. So, no change there. Except now bananas are extortionately expensive, because, well, tariffs.
7/ If you're relying on the idea that there's an obscure WTO rule that says we can just carry on trading with the EU on the same terms we have now for 10 years, then tough shit again - this isn't correct. The "rule" is Article XXIV of the GATT, and is specifically an allowance for deviating from the MFN (see 5) because you and another bloc are working towards implementing your bilateral trade deal. It requires an end point - a fully thrashed out trade agreement. It is specifically NOT a clause that comes into play when you decide to drop out of a trading arrangement.
8/ If one of the benefits of "going WTO" is that we can make our own rules, then I can understand that. We could decide, unilaterally, that it's too expensive for us to produce electronics with an earthing wire, so we're not going to insist on that anymore. Cool. But then we can't sell our products to our closest trading neighbours. We want to sell stuff to the EU, we need to follow their rules. Except now we don't get a say in what they are.
9/ Having a "world trade deal" sounds quite attractive - quite romantic. The idea of Britain going out on her own, bravely forging links with faraway lands - it's quite appealing. Except trade doesn't work like that. There's a gravity towards your closest neighbours - proximity is important. I'm more likely to sell something to France than I am to Australia - I can get it there quicker, for example, and for a much lower cost. There is no nation on earth - none - that have prioritised trading with distant countries instead of those geographically closest. We're about to be the first - which will involve a pretty brutal lesson in the realities of logistics.
10/ If we go WTO, then we need to check goods coming into our internal market - including those from the EU. We don't have the infrastructure to do this. Nor do we have the staff. Nor the time. Plus - and this is deeply ironic - once we leave the EU, the pool of people from which we can recruit to do this essential work becomes much, much smaller. Do we have enough vets to perform the necessary checks on livestock coming into the country, for example? No. Where do we normally recruit them from? The EU. Ah, shit.
11/ A No Deal exit was never on the cards during the campaign. It is simply all that is left, once logic and reality strip away all the lies that we were told about Brexit. No, German car manufacturers haven't been knocking on Merkel's door demanding a trade deal with the UK. No, the EU doesn't need us more than we need them. No, we don't hold all the cards. None of that was true. It was never going to be true. But rather than facing up to reality, the rhetoric has just become more and more extreme. If you're dealt a bad hand in a game of poker - if the river turns against you - you don't HAVE to go all in. There are other options. You don't need to claim that was what you intended to do all along.
All of this - all of the above. That's what Donald Tusk was talking about. People who either ignored the above, or didn't even bother to find out about it - but sold us Brexit anyway. The people who - even now - print banners that say "LET'S GO WTO!" as if it's the easiest thing in the world, and without consequence.
Forty-nine days to go.
Just forty-nine.

Key Brexiteers in the House of Commons are pushing the line that we can immediately embrace free trade which is going to mean cheaper goods and food because we do not have to impose EU tariffs. Very enticing - but read 3) and 4) above for the full implications. 

Friday, 15 February 2019

CAT has a new web-site

Go to for more.

Thursday, 14 February 2019

Early end of A380 production not a disaster, but could be a warning

The Airbus super-jumbo was launched at a time of confidence in luxury air transport but economics has forced a truncation of its production programme. (Simon Calder on BBC Business this morning pointed to the absence of A380s on the most popular route in the world, London to New York. Its profitability is guaranteed by business travellers who are more concerned about frequency than the travel experience.) This is similar to the story of Concorde, but I would guess that the A380 has overall been more successful than the joint French/UK enterprise. Certainly, production will continue for another two years, and Airbus's profits (up 30% in 2018 over 2017) have not been affected.

Airbus has a nine-year backlog of orders. The A350 has been very successful, ironically contributing to the loss of enthusiasm for the A380. So Broughton will be in business for some years to come, but will it be at the same level of activity? When Airbus introduces its next new model, will it produce the wings in Wales or tool up in one of its factories in mainland Europe?

Labour's leaders: fake history

The ignorance of back-benchers is bad enough (Kate Hoey and Sir William Cash continue to spout that the EU is undemocratic) , but that of the second-in-command of the opposition party is inexcusable. John McDonnell subscribes to the myth that Churchill  "shot the miners" when it was refuted by documentary evidence a long time ago.

Even without that, Churchill's record is that of supporting British citizens, no matter what their status. Indeed, the charge that can be levelled against him is that he felt that non-Britons were, to use a Kipling phrase, "lesser breeds without the law".

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Just about the only things the UK did better

Mrs May, in her statement to the House yesterday, sought to imply that our rights would not suffer outside the EU, indeed might improve:

there are a number of areas in which the whole House should be able to come together. In particular, I believe that we have a shared determination across the House not to allow the UK’s leaving the EU to mean any lowering of standards in relation to workers’ rights, environmental protections, or health and safety. I have met trade union representatives and Members on both sides of the House, and my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary is leading work to ensure that we fully address all concerns about these vital issues. We have already made legally binding commitments to no regression in these areas if we were to enter the backstop, and we are prepared to consider legislating to give these commitments force in UK law. And in the interests of building support across the House, we are also prepared to commit to asking Parliament whether it wishes to follow suit whenever the EU changes its standards in these areas. And of course we do not need to automatically follow EU standards in order to lead the way, as we have done in the past under both Conservative and Labour Governments. The UK has a proud tradition of leading the way in workers’ rights whilst maintaining a flexible labour market that has helped deliver an employment rate almost 6 percentage points above the EU average.

Successive Governments of all parties have put in place standards that exceed the minimums set by the EU. A Labour Government gave British workers annual leave and paid maternity leave entitlements well above that required by the European Union. A Conservative-led Government went further than the EU by giving all employees the right to request flexible working. And I was proud to be the Minister for Women and Equalities to introduce shared parental leave so that both parents are able to take on caring responsibilities for their child—something no EU regulation provides for.

When it comes to workers’ rights this Parliament has set a higher standard before, and I believe will do so in the future. Indeed we already have plans to repeal the so-called Swedish derogation, which allows employers to pay their agency workers less, and we are committed to enforcing holiday pay for the most vulnerable workers—not just protecting workers’ rights, but extending them.

It seems to me that the prime minister is scraping the barrel here. It is one thing to say that the UK government can pass social legislation without the EU directing it, it is quite another to believe that it is likely to do so. One notes the weasel phrase "prepared to consider" in the above passage. One also recalls the kicking and screaming before government finally obeyed directives against ageism and excessive working hours.

You are probably doubtful about my links to Liberal Democrat answers to the question: what has the EU ever done for us? So here is one to the latest SNP case.

Tuesday, 12 February 2019

A greener future for Port Talbot steel?

It is great news that our local university (well, Swansea University does have a campus in Neath) is participating in research to make steel-making more carbon neutral. BBC has the story.

Monday, 11 February 2019

Pension exploiters

My first reaction to the widely-trailed suggestion that the Conservative government might send to gaol people who mismanage pension funds was "I'll believe it when I see it". One should recall the promises Mrs May made from the lectern in Downing Street when she took over in Number Ten, promises which have not been kept. The fact that the pensions pledge was made by someone who is no stranger to the mismanagement of funds in their care (see Private Eye reports on Tony Rudd, his wife and their daughter) must also cast doubt on the government's true intentions. However, I believe there is a verse in the Bible about sinners being blessed who have repented. I hope that is the case, and that the move is more than a ploy to get Jeremy Corbyn and the unions to agree to a deal for withdrawal from the EU.

There is another pensions scandal that the DWP and the Treasury should tackle, one that is perfectly legal: the creaming off of pension money in the form of management and other fees. What is worse is that only a minority of fund managers publicly disclose their costs, according to Gina Miller - whose company does do so. Even if Brexit had not appeared on the horizon to spare money-managing fat cats from tighter financial regulation in the EU, along with Ms Miller's campaign to prevent it, they would have loathed her for her True and Fair campaign.

Sunday, 10 February 2019

Brexit hurts our friends as well as ourselves

It is bad enough that Brexiteers seem to have adopted the old Millwall slogan, "no one likes us, we don't care". There is something to be said for the return to the conditions of the 1940s that the hard core yearn for, in that the reduced sugar and meat diet of post-war rationing would do wonders for our physical well-being. (I remember what it was like, so I could cope; I wonder how many of those who happily trumpet "we survived the war, we can manage Brexit" could do the same.) But in dragging the UK down, they are taking our friendliest neighbours with us.

The obvious case is that of the island of Ireland where both rail transport and power supply have become so integrated that even under the May-Barnier withdrawal agreement financial rearrangement is going to be costly, introduce duplication and inevitably cost the public.

Denmark and the Netherlands are also affected. In both cases, agriculture plays a large part of trade between our nations, and agriculture attracts the highest tariffs. Our economic is more similar to the Netherlands than to other European nations, with the result that bi-national working by Unilever and Royal Dutch Shell (to quote the largest examples) has been easy.

The Dutch have for long been the friendliest of European neighbours. (They even lent us a king, once.) We have a similar wry sense of humour and I have yet to meet a Dutchman who did not speak beautiful English. There is also a lot of trade between us.

Beyond the trade in goods and services, another difficulty is raised by Brexit. Under EU rules, medicines and medical appliances gaining CE approval in one EU state are certified for use in the other 27. That has enabled the reduction of bureaucracy which will have to be reintroduced. Unless we get a trade deal, and a very soft one at that, there will also be shortages when we actually leave.

As revealed in Liberal Democrat Voice, Dutch health minister Bruno Bruins reported to his parliament "that after checking all UK-sourced supplies, health people have identified at least 50 products that cannot be sourced anywhere else; and that 50 are the products that are vital in treating life-threatening diseases and conditions, hundreds more are crucial but not life-threatening. It turns out that plenty of US producers have used UK registration for the EU market; all those products would lose that registration in case of a No Deal Brexit (the outcome British hard-line Brexiteers await the best of all worlds from; they’ll settle for nothing less).

"Up to 20 years ago, Dutch high street pharmacies (both family shops and affiliates of brand chains) still had the ability to produce equivalent medicines if the imported supply got interrupted; but that ability and those back-room workshops have almost totally disappeared. So if the import from or via the UK gets interrupted, patients are cut off immediately without a possibility of a domestic surrogate."

Saturday, 9 February 2019

More of "what they said then"

People want looser connections with parties

Parties are fundamental to a parliamentary democracy. The political party is the only vehicle capable of aggregating the interests of different voters and groups and providing a coherent policy platform. So political parties have a future, but they have work to do to catch up with 21st century voters.

The days of mass membership political parties are over. People want looser connections with parties. That's why we need to offer people the option of being registered supporters, connected but not tied into everything the party does. I also believe that people will be more willing to get involved with parties on single issues rather than across the board.

Parties also need to change how they behave. That means ending the "yah-boo" culture of the House of Commons, and being grown up enough to admit it when we agree. It also means being realistic in our promises to voters. In the long run, people only feel let down when a policy fails to meet the hyperbole used at its launch.

And we also need to change the way political parties look. At the beginning of the 21st century it is no long a man's world. Neither is it a white man's world. Our parties must reflect modern Britain if they are to represent and govern modern Britain.

The challenges are significant - but they are fundamental to the health of our democracy.

- Theresa May, then shadow leader of the House of Commons, was writing in Unlock Democracy magazine of Autumn 2006.

Friday, 8 February 2019

David Davis used to be a traditionalist on referendums

Jeremy Wright, the Culture Secretary, was at it again on Thursday, repeating the tired old line that the electorate had been handed the decision on the EU in 2016 and had overwhelmingly voted in favour of "out". Therefore parliament was duty bound to achieve that end, whatever the consequences, and there was no need to consult the public again even if their mood had changed.

For the record, I welcomed the Liberal Democrats' call for an in-out referendum back in the 1990s when the sniping at the EU had already reached fever-pitch. I was sorry that the bar for a referendum was set high in subsequent party manifestos. On the other hand, I accepted the British tradition that referendums could only be advisory, that the final decision rested with Parliament and felt that, while a large vote in either direction required the government's attention, nothing less than a reversal of the two-thirds majority in favour of Remaining in the 1975 referendum should have caused the government to think again about membership. (And, yes, I agree that the very narrow majority in the 1997 referendum was hardly a ringing endorsement for Welsh devolution - but then again the question on the ballot was too simplistic.)

In my brief research for this piece I came across the 1996 Report of the Commission on the Conduct of Referendums. The summary in the foreword states:

The principal message of our report is this: 

  • referendums cannot provide a panacea for major political problems; but they can significantly assist governments before controversial legislation is introduced, and they can give greater legitimacy to new policies after legislation has been enacted. 
  • referendums need offer no threat to Parliamentary sovereignty. It is open to governments and Parliament to set up all referendums by primary legislation or, alternatively, to enact a generic Referendum Act as a statutory basis for the conduct of a series of referendums. 
  • previous UK referendums have been successfully held without formal guidelines; but the varied character, in particular, of possible future referendums underlines the importance of establishing guidelines, accepted by all political parties, which will ensure consistency of administration in their conduct and maximize confidence in the legitimacy of their results 
  • there is a strong case for the independent handling of at least some elements of the conduct of referendums, especially if the Government is committed to a particular result. Hence our recommendation of an independent statutory commission or, alternatively, the placing on an electoral commission, if it were established, specific responsibilities for the conduct of referendums.

What triggered this post was the revelation on Facebook that David Davis, former Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, was also once of this view. I do not know whether my Facebook friend had scoured Hansard for just such evidence of a U-turn, or whether he came across it by accident in research on failed attempts to introduce elected regional assemblies to England. Anyway, here are the key excerpts from Mr Davis's contribution to the debate on Labour's 2002 proposals:

Let us deal with the major problem with the Bill. The Deputy Prime Minister [John Prescott] says the Bill will bring about more democracy, but, in a democracy, voters have to know what they are voting for. They need to know what the choice is, to use his own word. For that to happen, the proposition has to come before the vote, but with the Bill, it will be vote first, proposition afterwards. The Bill proposes that referendums should be held without voters knowing the structure or powers of the assemblies for which they are asked to vote. 

There is a proper role for referendums in constitutional change, but only if done properly. If it is not done properly, it can be a dangerous tool. The Chairman of the Public Administration Committee, who is no longer in the Chamber, said that Clement Attlee—who is, I think, one of the Deputy Prime Minister's heroes—famously described the referendum as the device of demagogues and dictators. We may not always go as far as he did, but what is certain is that pre-legislative referendums of the type the Deputy Prime Minister is proposing are the worst type of all.
Referendums should be held when the electorate are in the best possible position to make a judgment. They should be held when people can view all the arguments for and against and when those arguments have been rigorously tested. In short, referendums should be held when people know exactly what they are getting. So legislation should be debated by Members of Parliament on the Floor of the House, and then put to the electorate for the voters to judge.
We should not ask people to vote on a blank sheet of paper and tell them to trust us to fill in the details afterwards. For referendums to be fair and compatible with our parliamentary process, we need the electors to be as well informed as possible and to know exactly what they are voting for. Referendums need to be treated as an addition to the parliamentary process, not as a substitute for it.
As it stands, the Bill [...] asks people to vote for proposals that are unspecified, untried and untested. I would have relished the opportunity to debate the details of regional assemblies, but, clearly, the Deputy Prime Minister is not ready to have that debate. It is simply wrong for the Government to come to the House and act in this way. If they do, how can we trust them when it comes to the referendum? Major constitutional changes justify the use of referendums because the constitutional rights of our citizens are owned by the people and not by politicians. However, it is important that referendums are not misused simply as a snapshot of volatile changes of opinion, perhaps as a result of pressure of Government propaganda. That is why Donald Dewar and John Smith used to talk about the settled will of the population.
The concept of settled will is that of an idea that has taken root in the minds of the people, has resonance in their daily lives and is a stable part of the way in which they think the country should be run. Because referendums are supposed to reflect the settled will of the people, we need to have thresholds below which they do not carry the day.

I have added some emphases.

Thursday, 7 February 2019

Europe is back in the line of fire if nuclear weapons treaty is torn up

EU planners are worried about the mutual withdrawal of Russia and the United States from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty of 1987.

The signing of the INF Treaty in 1987 led to the removal and destruction of nearly 3 000 US and Soviet short-, medium- and intermediate-range nuclear-capable missiles stationed in or aimed at Europe. The EU has called on the US to consider the consequences of its possible withdrawal from the INF for its own security, the security of its allies and that of the whole world. The EU has also called on both the US and Russia to remain engaged in constructive dialogue to preserve the INF Treaty, and on Russia to address the serious concerns regarding its compliance with the treaty. NATO considers Russia to be in violation of the INF Treaty, and the alliance has called on Russia to return urgently to full and verifiable compliance with the agreement. Any redeployment of intermediate-range missiles will put Europe once more in the line of fire of strategic nuclear weapons. If the INF Treaty is abrogated, Europeans will be faced with stark choices all carrying inherent security risks, including engaging in a deployment race with Russia, or refusing re-deployment of US missiles on European soil, potentially leaving European countries exposed to Russian intimidation. Efforts over the next six months will focus on preserving the INF Treaty against all odds.

Europe includes us in the UK - and a significant part of Russia.

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Why all those blocks of private flats with anonymous owners are springing up in London

"Money laundering through real estate transactions integrates black funds into the legal economy while providing a safe investment. It allows criminals to enjoy assets and derived funds having camouflaged the origin of the money used for payment" writes C├ęcile Remeur for the European Parliamentary Research Service Blog.

There is more here.

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Curry-house meeting

Today is the fifteenth anniversary of a meeting in an Indian restaurant in Swansea between Martyn Shrewsbury, John Marek and Ron Davies. Perhaps now is the time for the nature of the discussion to be revealed.

Monday, 4 February 2019

Refugee support: the full facts

No photo description available.

The Full Fact organisation gives a simple guide to spotting misinformation on-line:

Full Fact is an objective organisation. Its foundation was suggested by the libertarian Brexiteer, Peter Oborne, but owes nothing to any particular party or viewpoint.

Sunday, 3 February 2019

It doesn't matter any more?

Before the Beatles there were the Everly Brothers, the New York girl groups and ... Buddy Holly. Famously, when the Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, the first question John Lennon asked was, "Is this the stage Buddy Holly played on?". Growing up on Merseyside pre-Beatles (these were not to hit me until I was in London in my first employment), I took to Holly more than any of the other breaking acts from America and I was not alone. The monitors' room at Oldershaw Grammar was always a noisy place. The only time I can remember it being reduced to silence is when "Peggy Sue" started up on our radio. Bookending that memory is one from the summer of 1959 when I was scoring for the school cricket team and "It doesn't matter anymore", his posthumous hit started playing at the same time as my mate Graham went out to bat. After four 4s his innings came to an end and the record finished. Both lasted just over 2 minutes. Holly's tracks were always short, but intense.

The deaths of Holly, "Big Bopper" Richardson and Richie Valens 60 years ago today were personal tragedies. They were also needless. It is ironic that we are remembering the plane crash at Clear Lake, Iowa, a week after another hastily-arranged plane hire came to a bad end in poor weather. Holly's death was an even greater tragedy because he was still developing as a recording artist, experimenting with backing and different source material. He had written most of his previous hits (though his producer Norman Petty was wont to claim a co-authorship credit), but Paul Anka was responsible for "It doesn't matter anymore" and the Bryants the B-side, "Raining in my Heart". Who knows what he would have gone on to achieve? Even so, his influence was great.

It was also symbolic. As Don McLean has said, although the news of the 1959 crash triggered the writing of  "American Pie", the message of his classic hit is not merely mourning the loss of three musicians but also of American innocence.

Friday, 1 February 2019

Magistrate court closures

I am indebted to The Secret Barrister web-site for an authoritative insider's view on the Ministry of Justice's selling-off of local courts. Joanna Hardy of Red Lion chambers writes:
Recent figures reveal half of all Magistrates’ Courts have closed since 2010. Those pursuing local justice are increasingly finding that it is not very local at all. Courts are being consolidated and warehoused into larger centres spread out across the country. Community justice now needs to hitch a ride to the next town.

The benefits of justice being dispensed within a local community are keenly felt by those involved. For better or for worse, defendants can sometimes lead difficult, chaotic lives. Someone who is addicted to alcohol or drugs is unlikely to make a cross-county trip by 09:30am. Someone dependent on state benefits might not prioritise a peak train ticket to their court hearing if they are budgeting to feed their children. Their delays will cost society money. It might cost complainants and witnesses their time and a considerable amount of anxiety. If a defendant does not turn up at all then stretched police resources may be diverted to locate them. The community suffers.

Victims and witnesses might also struggle to make an expensive, time-consuming trip to a far-flung court. Those with childcare or employment responsibilities might not be able to spare an entire day to give evidence for twenty minutes. In some areas, the additional distance may cause witnesses a real discomfort and unease. There have been suggestions that some courts are so poorly served by public transport that witnesses and defendants could end up inappropriately travelling together on the same bus.

The benefits of local justice are clear in the day-to-day running of our courts. In some local cases, police officers still attend bail hearings. Put simply, they know their beat. They know the shortcut alleyway behind the pub, the road that is notorious for teenage car racing, the park where trouble brews. Their local knowledge helps to improve the practical decisions of the courts and to keep society safe.

The neighbourhood officer joins a long list of local benefits. Youth defendants attending a courthouse in their community can go back to school or college after their hearing. That preserves a shred of stability during a chaotic time. Probation officers sometimes know repeat offenders from earlier court orders or programmes. That helps with continuity of services including mental health, drug and alcohol treatment – often being coordinated by a GP down the road. Magistrates themselves are regularly drawn from the immediate geographic area. A community problem emerging at a particular football stadium, pub, school or street then attracts a consistent approach and a local focus.

I would also add that the shame of being brought up before the beak in one's own locality must be a deterrent factor, though admittedly not so much now that the local press cannot afford a designated court reporter.

The MoJ would no doubt respond that the buildings they are selling off are from an earlier era, do not take account of new necessities such as security and are impractical to adapt. For me, the drawbacks of centralisation outweigh the cost of rebuilding.