Wednesday, 30 September 2020

"No turning back now on HS2"

 That was the headline on a report in the October Railwatch magazine. 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson went to Solihull on 4 September to see a start made on Birmingham's HS2 interchange station. 

One journalist described it as a "secret" visit and surmised that Mr Johnson did not want to confront the vocal critics  of Britain's second high-speed rail line. But The Times thundered "No turning back now as HS2 building work begins."

Mr Johnson told critics of the project: "HS2 has fantastic economic benefits and is also the cleanest, greenest mode of transport. If you want to get from London to Birmingham or from north of the country to London fast, it is far cleaner and a far smaller carbon footprint than by going by car and much less than by plane."

[...]pre-Covid there were more than 170 flights per day into London from various Scottish airports alone. That does not include Birmingham, Leeds and other internal destinations. High speed rail has the potential to replace most of them.

The design specification for HS2 trains includes a requirement for on-train cycle storage to allow for charging of e-bikes. 

All that may be true, but there is no guarantee that normality post-Covid19  will require many physical journeys to be made into London. We have (with varying degrees of reluctance) got used to video-calling thanks to at least a dozen software packages on the market - many of them free for the non-professional user - faster broadband and faster processors in smartphones and desktop computers. Then there is the reduced economic activity thanks to Brexit to consider. 

A straw poll of railway enthusiasts taken when the idea was first mooted came down only marginally in favour of the project. Against the estimated economic benefits the loss of biodiversity including ancient woodland had to be weighed. In London, many homes and a much-loved pub have already been demolished. One suspects that if that survey were taken again today, the Noes would be in the majority. 

There is much less dispute about the value of the northern branches of HS2. The area has been crying out for better trans-Pennine communication and connections with the north Midlands. Yet that part of the project is a later stage and one fears that, Northern Powerhouse or no Northern Powerhouse, HM Treasury will postpone work there or even pull the plug after the London-Birmingham-Crewe line has been built.

By the government's own reckoning, 43 ancient woodlands will be affected to some degree. With no sense of shame, at the same time as Boris Johnson has signed up to a UN pledge to "put nature and biodiversity on a road to recovery by 2030" he threatens to use legislation which has just passed the Commons to overrule the Welsh government and concrete over the Gwent levels.  

Tuesday, 29 September 2020

Double Standards

 So the UK government is continuing sanctions on Belarus formerly imposed by the EU? Now that we are not tied to the trade policies of the EU, are we going to sanction Turkey for gross attacks on civil rights or Egypt's junta for overthrowing a democratically-elected administration?

Monday, 28 September 2020

Lib Dems resolution on BBC is unambitious refers.

Although there were many good things in this motion, I had to vote against because it accepted the  regressive licence fee as the only way to pay for the BBC. The subscription model is not the only alternative. For an avowedly European party, Liberal Democrat policy makers were guilty of ignoring continental models of paying for public service broadcasting. There has been no suggestion that, for instance, Swiss or German public service broadcasters are more partial than BBC or that they fail to support the arts or local communities.

There was only one voice in the debate yesterday pointing out that the BBC's policy of "balance" is not the same as impartiality. In presenting counter-arguments to community vaccination, global warming and membership of the EU, Auntie Beeb gave undue respectability to those cases. Worse, news bulletins refused to expose outright lies by the respective spokesmen for what they were. As many of the licence-fee supporters yesterday stated in support of their case, the BBC is trusted by the majority of the British public and is turned to in times of trouble. I cannot fault the corporation's response to the SARS2/Covid19 emergency, but in political matters I believe it has abused that trust.

Nor was there any criticism in the motion of the bloat suffered by the BBC as other organisations in a privileged position have suffered. There is virtually no check in the continued swelling of executive ranks and only public opinion has put a ceiling on the salaries of the highest-paid performers. There has to be an independent body regularly reviewing staffing such as used to be provided in the civil service by the (feared!) Exchequer and Audit department.

Sunday, 27 September 2020

Universal Basic Income now Lib Dems policy

 I have for some time advocated at least a meaningful test of UBI. Many administrations have dipped their toe in the water, only for the particular venture to be curtailed before any firm conclusions could be drawn. A Christian Science Monitor reporter lays out the history of one such and the logic behind it:

Jessie Golem knows the stigma of poverty. She’s been called a leech and parasite. She’s heard more times than she can count, “Go get a job.”

In fact, she always had multiple jobs. But piano lessons, gigs in dog walking, and a budding photography business – a 60-to-80-hour weekly hustle – left her just enough to pay her rent in Hamilton.

It wasn’t until she became part of a pilot program in Ontario, receiving a basic income supplement of $1,400 a month, that her working life finally came together. “It was really awesome watching my photography business grow,” she says. “I drew up a whole business plan and had a financial projection that I would only have needed to be on the basic income pilot for two of the three years.”

That pilot ended after its first year with a change in provincial government in 2018 – frustrating the centuries-old idea of a guaranteed basic wage that has never taken off beyond limited experiments in the last 50 years. But now that millions of Canadians have experienced what it’s like to lose a job or had hours cut back with no recourse, now that citizens around the world have only been able to find a way forward with a government check, an idea that once lived on the fringe has become more mainstream.

Driving the discussion in recent years are technological disruption and artificial intelligence, as well as structural economic systems behind a global gig economy. The idea faces huge hurdles – from cost to societal disdain for “getting something for nothing” – but the pandemic has born a new group that understands intimately how fragile economic security can be.
Since March, the idea in Canada has been formally endorsed by many groups, from the Anglican Church of Canada to the United Steelworkers, when unions have traditionally worried streamlining welfare into a basic income program could imply a loss of public jobs and services.

A group of Liberal lawmakers called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in a minority government with the leftist New Democrats, to make basic income a top policy resolution at the party’s November convention.

UBI has been a personal crusade of Jane Dodds since she became leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats in 2017. Now it has become party policy at Federal (i.e. UK) level. It is not going to be easy to promote it and our elections team, which has a poor record of presentation culminating in the 2019 general election disaster, will have to work hard and skilfully. We will have to persuade those who are in secure well-paid jobs that this is not a subsidy for scroungers and also encourage those who will, or are likely to, benefit from it to come out to vote.

My personal view is that UBI is a move towards breaking the chains of poverty as advocated in the preamble to our constitution, but that abolishing homelessness has become at least of equal priority in England and Wales today. 

Saturday, 26 September 2020

More than actress


Among the clips replayed during the recent celebrations of the life of Diana Rigg, was her summary of the character she played in The Avengers. The point was, she said, that Emma Peel was just as clever as the men. The same might be said of Miss Rigg herself.

Having found my copy of No Turn Unstoned, I see that I did her a disservice in describing her earlier as a mere "anthologist". Her introductory chapter is a pithy history of drama as well as that of theatrical criticism because the latter almost immediately followed on from the former. The selections themselves are interleaved with the odd editorial comment showing her occasional sympathy with the critic as well as the criticised. 

The idea for the book came, she wrote, from the realisation that surely everyone in her profession must at some time have been given a bad review. So she tapped the thespian network for donations of the worst or funniest reviews. (She did not spare herself; the disgracefully male chauvinist notice of her Eloise is on page 64 of the paperback edition.) 

Sadly, time has caught up with most of her contemporaries who contributed. Annette Crosbie, Frances de la Tour and Judi Dench are happily still with us, though, as well as Anthony Hopkins who drew this criticism (from Clive James? - the text is ambiguous) that his 1971 Coriolanus was
dressed like a cross between a fisherman and an SS man, evoking doggedly a Welsh rugby captain at odds with his supporters' club.

Mixed with the contributions which rolled in are historical examples, clearly the result of extensive research. The classics are here (e.g. Walter Kerr on I am a Camera: "Me no Leica" and Dorothy Parker's "Go to the Martin Beck Theatre and watch Katharine Hepburn run the gamut-t-t of emotion from A to B") but there are also extensive passages from other critics who became institutions.

Mrs Parker really did not like A.A. Milne. In the week after Goodbye Christopher Robin had its showing on UK terrestrial TV, it is timely to relay part of the review of Milne's Give me Yesterday quoted extensively by Diana Rigg:
... My dearest dread is the word "yesterday" in the name of a play; for I know that sometime during the evening I am going to be transported, albeit kicking and screaming, back to the scenes and costumes of a tenderer time. And I know, who show these scars to you, what the writing and the acting of these episodes of tenderer times are going to be like. I was not wrong, heaven help me, in my prevision of the Milne work. Its hero is caused, by a novel device, to fall asleep and a-dream; and thus he is given yesterday. Me, I should have given him twenty years to life.

There are other criticisms which one is forced to agree with, both of plays and of actors. However, most of the actors cited in the book have risen above their bad notices and there is one chapter on musicals etc. which demonstrates how first reviewers can get things spectacularly wrong. Cats, Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Guys and Dolls, The Sound of Music and Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be were all successes in spite of bad notices.
The book is a testament to Diana Rigg's love of the theatre and respect for its history, to her devotion to the Roman faith and to Yorkshire - and her wit.

Friday, 25 September 2020

Thursday, 24 September 2020

The Insys effect

 PBS America recently showed on exposé of Insys, a US company once the darling of Wall Street which put sales ahead of patient safety. While the profits from what was in effect legalised opioid addiction rolled in, investors and stock market analysts did not ask too many questions. One element of Insys Therapeutics' rise which struck me was that, while founder John Kapoor was qualified in medicinal chemistry, he recruited staff, including the most senior, with sales rather than scientific expertise. Indeed, a background in the pharmaceutical industry seemed almost to have been a disqualification. Thus there was nobody in a senior position with sufficient knowledge to query the direction Kapoor was taking the company in. 

It seems to me that something much the same thing goes on in politics. The head man may feel insecure when those under him clearly know more than he does, but more often he wants to pursue his own unwise course uninterrupted by warning voices or legal quibbles. President Trump is the obvious current example,  but the Johnson-Cummings axis comes close. So far, they have not been allowed to go as far as Trump. 

The American system permits the President to appoint whom he or she wills to their equivalent of the civil service. Cummings wants the same sort of power over our civil service because, he says, there is a dearth of specialist knowledge under the present system. How genuine this expression is can be judged by what has happened to the NHS in England. Government has appointed to successive leadership roles (which would normally go to an experienced civil servant or a distinguished specialist) Baroness Harding, granddaughter of a distinguished army officer, but with no specialised knowledge or even a good business record. Further, says Private Eye

A document leaked to the Health Service Journal last week revealed that there is just one clinician or public health expert on the 15-strong executive committee of Dido Harding's NHS Test and Trace but plenty of figures brought in from her own world of retail and commerce.

Wednesday, 23 September 2020

The ripping wheeze which Labour handed to money-launderers

 The Fincen papers emphasise what a bad idea it was for Gordon Brown, at the behest of the Big Four financial services companies, to create Limited Liability Partnerships. They are like the cure which is worse than the disease - if there was a serious disease in the first place. They are overwhelmingly (in the words of a judgment on an earlier London financial scandal) holes in the world for money to go through.

The ICIJ reports:

Danske Bank Estonia was consumed in a $230 billion money laundering scandal.

Newly leaked Estonian police files, including internal paperwork taken from Danske Estonia, reveal the extraordinary steps a tiny division of the Tallinn bank took to serve a shadowy, and highly lucrative, clientele largely from Russia and from former Soviet republics and satellites in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. The documents show that many bank accounts were held in the name of U.K. vehicles, known as “limited liability partnerships,” or LLPs, and “limited partnerships,” LPs
 [the equivalent in Scotland], which had no purpose other than to hide the identity of who really owned the money.

An investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists found that thousands of LLPs and LPs that owned accounts at Danske Bank and elsewhere had been mass produced by only a handful of secretive agencies that registered them at government offices in Cardiff, Wales, and other U.K. locations.

Almost all these agencies, ICIJ found, were run by individuals with personal ties to the Baltic region, often with links to Baltic banks, including Danske Estonia; some agencies helped LLPs and LPs open Baltic bank accounts for their secret clients.

The Estonian police records, obtained by ICIJ’s Italian partner, L’Espresso, reveal that the Danske Estonia bankers — required by law to vet their customers to prevent money laundering — instead ran a secret company on the side that helped set up U.K. LLPs and LPs
 that were designed to conceal the identity of bank clients.

This particular ICIJ report concentrates on the Russia-Estonia-England axis, but there are numerous other examples of LLPs being used as a conduit for dirty money or to hide the true ownership of subsidiearies.

A beneficiary of the ripping wheeze which Blair and Brown dreamed up is - surprise, surprise - Tony Blair.

Money-laundering is not a victimless crime, as Professor Paul Barnes, an authority on financial crime and forensic accounting, confirms:
The individual(s) or the country (and inhabitants) from which the money is stolen are, by definition, the victims/losers, whilst the money is used in the recipient country to support the criminal’s lifestyle or other activities such as drug importation, child sexual exploitation, human trafficking and terrorism and so on, alternatively, invested in property until a profitable opportunity arises.

Much of that property is located in England and Wales, especially in London where apartment blocks scandalously lie half-empty in the midst of a housing shortage. The end-owners are unknown because English law allows them to remain anonymous. 

Opposition leaders need to commit to ending that anonymity and, if not abolishing, then thoroughly cleaning up the LLPs. This may be difficult for Keir Starmer, seeming to project himself as Tony Blair Mk 2, but at least he is not tied to Peter Mandelson (unapologetic about the filthy rich).

Companies House also needs to be given powers to enforce the law regarding registration and operation of England and Wales companies. In particular, the blatant failure to present true accounts highlighted by the ICIJ reports needs to be prosecuted.

Tuesday, 22 September 2020

Political movies

 BBC TV's Talking Pictures recently was devoted to politics in the movies. Tom Brook named as the top films on most people's lists as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and All the President's Men (1976), both classics. However, the latter is more about a success of investigative journalism than about politics per se. Mr Smith is a fine expression of  liberalism (in European terms) but probably unrealistic. Not mentioned in the TV programme, but more revelatory of the processes of Congress, are two fine movies which have also received the approval of Mark Pack

Advise and Consent centres on Congressional approval of a Presidential appointment of a new Secretary of State (foreign minister). It boasts a roster of Hollywood veterans and seems particularly relevant now as President Trump is about to nominate a replacement Supreme Court justice. The Best Man, written by Gore Vidal who had a political pedigree, deals with the run-up to a presidential election and the choice by the current ruling party of their candidate. Both expose political machinations which most of the voting public would not have been aware of, and may still not be now, in spite of the increased coverage by the media. Both could stand showing by BBC as part of its US election coverage.

One fine movie, which I have discussed here before, will not be shown by broadcasters. A Face in the Crowd was a 1957 satire which increasingly looks like a prophecy. An ill-educated drifter is unexpectedly revealed to have a gift of connection with the average man and woman through TV. His folksy persona and populist views, driven by ambition, propel him to the brink of ultimate power. In the era of reactonary political operators who have successfully manipulated the mainstream broadcast media on both sides of the Atlantic, it is clearly cuts too close to the bone.

On the British side, I would recommend two films which have been shown again on TV, Fame is the Spur, and No Love for Johnnie. Both are based on novels and both deal with the compromise of ideals, but for me the latter is the more telling, written as it is by an insider.

Finally, though they were both written for TV and therefore not strictly speaking movies, I would repeat a plea for the repeat of Our Friends in the North and The Detective, starring Tom Bell in a part which could have been written for him. 


Monday, 21 September 2020

The London Laundromat

 It is official - albeit published only by a leak: London is the place to go if you wish to legalise large amounts of money gained through illegal drugs, people trafficking and prostitution. Fewer questions are asked by British banks about the source of funds and there are fewer checks on companies set up here. 

FinCEN Files is based on a leak. Buzzfeed News shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), the people who brought us the Panama Papers, more than 2,100 suspicious activity reports, or SARs, filed by global banks to the U.S. Treasury Department’s intelligence unit, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, known as FinCEN. The U.S. Congress requested some of the files as part of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

The US regulators have designated the UK as a "higher risk jurisdiction" along with Cyprus, notorious for processing the money of Russian oligarchs. Over 3,000 UK companies are inmplcated in Suspicious Activity Reports, more than from any other country. JP Morgan allowed a company to move more than $1bn through a London account without knowing who owned it. The bank later discovered the company might be owned by a mobster on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list. There is evidence that one of Russian President Vladimir Putin's closest associates used Barclays Bank in London to avoid sanctions which were meant to stop him using financial services in the West. Some of the cash was used to buy works of art.  Standard Chartered moved cash for Arab Bank for more than a decade after clients' accounts at the Jordanian bank had been used in funding terrorism. Deutsche Bank, which once held the Irish economy to ransom, is exposed as another culprit. 

Most worrying personally (it is where I bank) HSBC allowed fraudsters to move millions of dollars of stolen money around the world, even after it learned from US investigators the scheme was a scam. BBC Business News this morning recalled that HSBC in the US avoided a criminal prosecution because of a high-level intervention by then Chancellor, George Osborne, himself tightly involved with Russian oligarchs.

Private Eye has reported continually of instances of suspicious financial activity and of lax checks on company formation and reporting in the UK. It is good to have confirmation of these and revelation of the larger picture. It is also good that Companies House maintains a register which is open to inspection by members of the public. But we should not have to rely on specific investigations by journalists or the curiosity of the ordinary citizen to draw attention to dubious companies. Companies House should be given powers to enforce registration regulations at the very least.

For links to more detail, see

Friday, 18 September 2020


I like this, from the Byline Times:

In 1788, the Austrian Army headed east to engage the Ottomans in the Austro-Turkish war.

On the night of 21 September and on the eve of battle, a detachment of Austrian hussars crossed the River Timis, on the outskirts of Karánsebes, in what is modern-day Romania, and made camp.

At some point, they met Romani people selling food, schnapps and wine and, hungry after their advance and noting that there was no enemy in the vicinity, they imbibed heavily in everything available.

The hussars came from the very highest ranks of Austrian society and saw themselves as a cut above the hoi polloi. So, when some hours later the exhausted infantry turned up demanding food and alcohol, the Hussars dismissively told them they couldn’t have any as they’d bought it all for themselves.

A barrel was overturned, a single shot was fired and soon after that all hell broke loose.

In the confusion, many soldiers beyond the immediate friendly fire incident, believed that they were being attacked by the enemy and mistakenly opened up on the hussars, who in turn retreated on horseback through their own camp thinking that they were being attacked by the Turks. As they galloped through the line, the artillery units, believing them to be Ottoman cavalry, opened fire.

Fairly swiftly, the entire army was retreating from itself, while fighting a rearguard – against itself.

The following morning, the bemused Ottomans arrived, ready for battle, only to discover that everyone was dead, wounded or dispersed.

[There seems to be no handy term for such lunacy, but ]

Let me propose ‘Karánsebesism’ – the act of attacking yourself, creating confusion and ultimately defeating your own side for no better reason than that you are drunk on self-importance.

In all truth, the lofty Cabinet of Conservative hussars probably don’t care about the result of the Brexit war. They are less concerned with winning, more bothered about having been seen to have won.

Thursday, 17 September 2020

Planning and preparedness are not dirty words

 Dr Sarah Gilbert on Radio 4's Life Scientific this week explained what led to the lead which her team, in conjunction with AstraZeneca, has taken in producing a vaccine against Covid-19. First, she recognised that, as fellow scientists have been warning for some time, emerging zoonotic viruses like SARS 2002 and MERS 2012 are going to become more frequent and pose a world-wide threat. There needed to be a quicker response than the traditional means of developing vaccines. The result as I understand it was a kind of template, a generalised structure for a vaccine into which part of the novel virus could be plugged.

Secondly, as soon as China published the genome of Covid-19 last January, her team sprang into action in applying their method. The results have been that

clinical trials are currently underway in the UK, South Africa and Brazil. If everything goes according to plan and the vaccine meets all the necessary regulatory standards, it will be manufactured in multiple locations including the Serum Institute in India and made available for use in low to middle income countries. 

Contrast all that with the action of government. There was a wilful reduction in preparedness (and Liberal Democrat ministers have to shoulder some of the blame) from 2013 onward as the emergency stockpile of PPE was cut. Then there was a failure to act for at least six weeks after the genome was released in the full knowledge of what countries in the front line, who recognised the danger of this new SARS infection, were doing to stem it.

One might add that lobbing money to a few Tory-friendly companies with only a vague specification and precious little oversight is not the same as cooperation with industrial concerns with relevant knowledge and experience.

Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Phosphine on Phosphoros?


Venus is still a prominent morning object

Venus as an evening star was known to the ancients as Hesperus and as a morning star, Phosphorus. It is a happy coincidence that evidence of phosphine (three atoms of hydrogen to one of phosphorus in each molecule) has been published by a team at Cardiff University while Venus is bright in our morning skies. The compound exists only as a result of biological (including human) activity on earth, but the possibility that there is something peculiar about the chemistry in the atmosphere of Venus cannot be ruled out. There is only one thing for it: another probe will have to be sent to our celestial neighbour to scoop a sample from those sulphuric acid clouds.

Tuesday, 15 September 2020

The three-court trick

 Earlier, I drew attention to the legal profession's disquiet about the Treasury's refusal to fund the court system in England and Wales to take account of Covid-19. There is a huge backlog of cases pending. The government's response has not been to speed up the court system by applying more resources, but to extend the period by which defendants - not yet convicted, it should be remembered - are remanded in custody by an extra two months.

It is possible to try cases under social distancing rules, but three courts* are required: one for the trial, with the jury occupying the seats normally taken by the press and the public; another with a video link for people watching the hearing; and a third in which the jury can deliberate without sitting too close to one another. It seems that only the most serious cases are going forward under these restrictions. For some others, a virtual courtroom is being experimented with. The jury is still out on this - or rather is sitting at home following proceedings via computer. 

Of course, if the coalition had been bolder in removing more of the imprisonable offences which Blair-Brown had put on the statute book, the backlog would not have been as great. It would still have been there, though, and government needs not only to address the current one but to think seriously about a long-term strategy to cope with emergencies.

*Certain cases in Scotland are heard using only two courts

Monday, 14 September 2020


 The level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere continues to rise in spite of the reduction in man-made CO2 this year. There were hopes that the Covid-19 lockdowns would have at least one beneficial effect, that of reducing greenhouse gases. One reason is that carbon dioxide is a long-lived component of the atmosphere. It has been calculated that, without the intervention of humankind, natural processes would keep the CO2 concentration steady, even tending to reduce it slightly. Human activity is enough to force it to accumulate.

It seems to me that even if we globally cut our carbon emissions tomorrow, positive feedback has already taken hold. A prime example is that of the wildfires currently devastating the north American west coast. Global warming has reduced the annual snowfall in the Rockies. What snow does fall dissipates more quickly rather than its water being released gradually over the following season. Higher temperatures draw water from the soil. Destructive pine beetles are moving further north as the climate warms (pdf here) leaving dry defoliated tree skeletons which act as tinder. More storms mean more lightning strikes, starting fires, which are then fanned by increasingly hot winds, All this is happening naturally, without the intervnetion of thoughtless party-givers or the forest clearances permitted by governments in Brazil and Indonesia.

So it is not enough to reduce man-made carbon dioxide. It is also necessary to increase the volume of carbon sinks. Encouraging scrub, an underrated absorber of carbon, is one way. Almost as good but more eye-catching is tree-planting. Ethiopia has embarked on a massive scheme which should have the added benefit of reducing the effect of floods. The African Union's Great Green Wall also offers hope, though it is proceeding much more slowly than originally planned. There are more examples in Peter Gibbs' report on Radio 4 earlier this year, and in the glimmer of hope provided by the cooperation of three African governments in preserving the gorilla redoubt made famous by Sir David Attenborough

It seems to be a case of three steps forward, but at present at least three steps back. There needs to be a global political change, removing populist leaders who do not listen to scientists in favour of a more progressive set who do.

Sunday, 13 September 2020

EU membership may be on the back burner, but it should not be thrown out

 Stephen Bush (political editor of the New Statesman) opines that neither Ed Davey nor Keir Starmer intend to campaign to rejoin the EU. His logic regarding the Liberal Democrats rings true: that we will struggle to get a hearing on more than one issue in any election campaign. 

Focusing on overturning Brexit makes it harder for the Liberal Democrats to get their points across on climate change, education or social care.

- to which one could add a fair voting system, a policy whose time will surely come again, the electorate having seen what sort of prime minister first-past-the-post voting can throw up. Certainly we should major on ecology, policing, justice, the governance of the UK, education and health, with the emphasis on the last two, especially in England.

Starmer has said that the issue of whether the United Kingdom is in or outside the EU has been settled fro the foreseeable.

There is another reason for Starmer shelving Europe which does not affect us Lib Dems. Brexit divided his party. There is a wide xenophobic strand running through not only traditional Labour voters but also their activists, especially in the trades unions. He wants to recover the "red wall" seats lost to Johnson at the last general election and there are suggestions that he is willing to tolerate anti-European feeling in the party in order to do so.

There is an opposite pressure on Davey. If there is no manifesto commitment at least to creative cooperation with the European Economic Area (which comprises the EU and EFTA, of which we were a founding member), and to rejoin EU if the conditions are right, then there will be a revolt within the party. These conditions of course would mean a clear indication that the majority of British people would be prepared to go along with an application for membership, bearing in mind that the entry conditions would be stiffer than those that met Edward Heath.

The motives for joining in the first place should be remembered. It was not only about giving a boost to the UK economy and thereby arresting - successfully - the rise in unemployment. It was also to ensure that it would no longer be in any member nations's intetest to go to war, because our institutions and economies would become closely intertwined. A common basis of human rights was essential. As the EU developed, it also became - and continues to be - a force for fairer trade with the third world. 

Any UK government of which the Liberal Democrats form the whole or a part should endeavour to further those ends, even if we remain outside the EU. The motivation of the present government is the opposite on practically all counts - not to mention the incentive to make a killing on the fall of sterling on the part of too many of those baankrolling the Tories.

Saturday, 12 September 2020

Railways economic model must be wrong

 Network Rail has asserted that it "cannot afford" to upgrade substandard track. So that means that not only will there be no hurry to reopen the Heart of Wales line after the Llangennech derailment (when will see the report on that, by the way?) but there will also be more Stonehavens. 

Surely any sensible economic model for the railways would penalise the provider of the track and infrastructure for every day of unavailability and reward that provider for maximising the use of a permanent way which can be relied upon? 

Friday, 11 September 2020

Revealed - there was a February this year

 Trump and Johnson like to pretend that they did not realise the danger of Covid-19 until the middle of March, even though the nature of the disease had been confirmed by the WHO in January. China's President Xi Jinping clearly listened to his scientists even if Trump did not do the same. As a recording made by Bob Woodward  (did Trump learn nothing from Nixon's taping??) reveals, in early February President Xi had a conversation with the president of the USA in which he spelled out the risks posed by what was already an epidemic in south-east Asia.

President Donald Trump acknowledged the “deadly” nature of the coronavirus earlier this year in a series of recorded interviews with The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, even as Trump publicly sought to dismiss the disease’s threat to Americans. Recounting a conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Trump told Woodward on Feb. 7 that the coronavirus is “more deadly than your, you know, your — even your strenuous flus.”

This is a further refutation of Trump's assertion that China deliberately kept the world in the dark until the virus had reached pandemic status. It would be surprising if Trump did not pass on the gist of the conversation to his fellow New Yorker in 10 Downing Street. 

Thursday, 10 September 2020

Johnson the M4 vandal

 Arrogant, destructive, careless of our future: those are the terms which immediately came to mind when it was announced that the government in Westminster wants to impose the M4 Relief Road on Wales. It may have been by narrow margins each time, but the people of Wales have consistently voted against the concreting over an irreplaceable wetland for what was, even before Brexit and Covid-19, a minimal gain.

For justification, walesonline quotes Simon Hart MP, Secretary of State for Wales, airily saying: "Our trade takes place overwhelmingly with the rest of the UK and it is vital that it continues to be seamless, safeguarding thousands of Welsh jobs. For all parts of the UK to grow and thrive, products, ideas and investment must continue to flow unhindered."  He offers no specific evidence for growth in Welsh jobs, which in any case would be restricted to a narrow corridor in the south. Saving ten minutes on a journey between London or Bristol and Cardiff would do nothing for growing poverty in mid and north Wales. Hart has even abandoned the figures of billions of pounds in gains which used to be thrown around by the Tories.

The businesses which benefited most from the M4 up until this year were the hauliers taking advantage of fellow-membership with Ireland of the European Union. In severing our ties with the rest of Europe and at the time of writing consistently refusing to conclude a mutually beneficial trade deal with the EU, Johnson's Tories have devastated that business. Irish trade with the rest of the EU will bypass British ports, and Wales will be the worst sufferer. The effect will be to reduce pressure on the M4.

Apart from lobbing large contracts to construction companies which traditionally contribute to Conservative Party coffers, I suspect that the true reason for increasing capacity on the border crossing is to relieve pressure on housing in the Bristol area. Already Bristol commuters take advantage of cheaper housing in Gwent than they could buy in Somerset and Gloucester. The proposed relief road would open up Newport, Cardiff and the Vale to further development for the benefit of jobs on the other side of the Severn estuary.

However, the pandemic has shown that for at least 50% of office workers it is practical, thanks to improved IT, to work from home. Moreover, as public transport restrictions ease, the benefits of Great Western electrification to Cardiff will begin to show. 

None of these arguments will even be considered by prime minister Johnson, who has a history of wasting tax-payers' money on fruitless schemes, both as mayor of London and throughout the current Covid-19 emergency. Uppermost in his mind will be a show of power over a nation of the UK which dares to use the tools which devolution has granted her, while he sees the UK's and his own regard shrink on the world scene, thanks to his misguided petty nationalism.

One trusts that, though his crony cabinet will support him, the growing opposition in the rest of the Conservative party to his petulant would-be autocracy will either remove him or at least prevent this and similar destructive decisions.

Wednesday, 9 September 2020

All composers matter

We are promised a welcome review of "black" classical music on BBC4 shortly.  That it is to be fronted by Suzy Klein, who was not afraid to go into the darker recesses of nationalistic music not so long ago, and Lenny Henry guarantees that the programme or programmes will not be bland. What concerns me is the amount of time that will be devoted to the subject. David Olusoga's history of the African novel was revelatory but an hour was  not long enough. It was difficult to take in all the different authors and there was time for detail on only a few of them. Moreover, it was restricted to former British colonies. There was no mention of Francophone writers, or on novels from Egypt. And surely there must have been some non-white novelists in South Africa?

At least William Grant Still should get his due on BBC TV. He has been the subject of Radio 3's Composer of the Week - twice to my knowledge - but I cannot recall any TV exposure. In addition to his original compositions, Still - along with Ferdy Grofé - wrote arrangements for Paul Whiteman's big band. I would contend that they contributed as much to the "American sound" of movie sound-tracks as Aaron Copland did. 

Tuesday, 8 September 2020

Morality in banking

 There is strong evidence that banks routinely forged signatures on legal documents in order to seize clients' property. This comes only two years after the exposure of the corrupt working of the RBS Global Restructuring Group.

Monday, 7 September 2020

Abbott/Farage swap not on

 As a well-documented Commonwealth citizen who was born to British parents, Tony Abbott can come and go to the UK, and stay as long as he likes. However, because of Covid-19 restrictions, "Only Australian citizens and returning permanent residents and their immediate family members are permitted to enter Australia without an exemption until further notice." So there is a prosaic stop on the gallows-humorous suggestion circulating on Facebook that the UK should swap Nigel Farage for the UK's latest appointment to the Board of Trade.

In any case, the Board itself meets only every three months under normal circumstances, so Mr Abbott need only be in the UK for a few days in each year. His appointment is voluntary and will involve promoting UK trade interests to other countries. This has raised questions not only here but also back home:

Labor frontbencher Chris Bowen said it was "pretty extraordinary" for a former Australian Prime Minister to be promoting the trade agenda of another country. "It's up to the Government to explain whether Tony Abbott, for example, is regarded as an agent of foreign influence under their rules," he said.

Opposition spokesmen here have queried the appointment, too:

Shadow international development secretary Emily Thornberry said Mr Abbott was "the wrong" choice "on every level" and had "no experience of detailed trade negotiations, no understanding of Brexit, no belief in climate change, no concern for workers' rights". A group of equality activists - including actor Sir Ian McKellen and Doctor Who writer Russell T Davies - has written an open letter against Mr Abbott's appointment. It says: "This is a man who described abortion as 'the easy way out' and suggested that men may be 'by physiology or temperament more adapted to exercise authority or to issue command'." "For all these reasons and more besides, this man is not fit to be representing the UK as our trade envoy," the letter adds. Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey said Mr Abbott had "no place in any British government". And the SNP's deputy Westminster leader, Kirsten Oswald, called the appointment "beyond indefensible".

He has also suggested that:
corona-virus lock-downs come at too high a price and that people should be allowed to choose to "let nature take its course" if their elderly relatives get COVID-19.

His sister, who is out gay and in a same-sex marriage, has come to his defence. He is no homophobe, she asserts, and was happy to attend her wedding ceremony. That must mean that he merely hypocritically trades on prejudice for electoral purposes. So that;s all right, then - except that he has also cast doubt on ecological measures. Is that also for consumption in coal-exporting Australia and will he promote the UK's green industries? Or is he there to balance green-promoting board adviser Michael Liebreich

It is hard to see what is in the appointment for either side, except for causing controversy.

Friday, 4 September 2020


One of the reasons for the eclipse of the reputation as a composer of Marie Jaëll (see earlier blog post) must be the rise of that of Cécile Chaminade who may not have been as adventurous musically but who had the knack of writing appealing melodies. Indeed, I recall hearing her "Autumn" on both Radios 2 and 3 before the pop and modernist controllers moved into those networks respectively. But her respectability among serious critics had disappeared in her lifetime as her works were dismissed as "salon pieces". The concertino for flute and piano survives.

Who was her successor? Presumably Germaine Tailleferre, the last member of Les Six to die, but who has never had the exposure on this side of the channel which is her due. 

Thursday, 3 September 2020

Cops of the World

 Phil Ochs' lyrics were never more true. 

We've got to protect all our citizens fair 
So we'll send a battalion for everyone there 
And maybe we'll leave in a couple of years '
[...]We'll find you a leader that you can't elect 
Those treaties we signed were a pain in the neck
'Cause we're the Cops of the World, boys 
We're the Cops of the World

As Miles Kington pointed out in one of his Independent columns, imperial Britain used to feel the same way. (He quoted one of Arthur Conan Doyle's lesser-known stories where one of the characters uses just that phrase, "police of the world".) But we never went as far as Donald Trump is now aiming to do, threaten the financial future of two leading officers of an international body.

The International Criminal Court is the spiritual descendant of the international military tribunals held in Nuremberg to prosecute Nazis and others under international law governing warfare. It also follows on from the UN-sponsored international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. However, there had long been a feeling among international jurists that a permanent international court was needed to prosecute genocide and war crimes and the UN duly set the ball rolling in 1989, though the prime mover then was Trinidad & Tobago, concerned more about international drug trafficking than war crimes. 

By implication, Trump is siding with Nazi, Balkan and African ethnic cleansers, not to mention international drug-dealers (who, by the way, have not featured as targets in his pitch for a second-term as president). The US is not a signatory to the Rome treaty setting up the ICC. She is therefore legally (if not morally) justified in ignoring its judgments and has every right to refuse to extradite any persons convicted. She does not have a right to use her control over the international banking system to threaten investigations in another country by citizens of other countries.

Wednesday, 2 September 2020

More Covid-19/SARS2 developments

One of BBC's best-kept secrets is the (very) early Sunday morning science programme on Radio 5. Perhaps it is better known to a younger generation as a podcast, but it would be good to give more publicity about it to us oldies more used to listening the radio. Although Inside Science on Radio 4 is an enjoyable and varied update on things technical and scientific, the extra half-hour gives 5 Live Science the opportunity to examine a topic in depth. Last Sunday's programme ranged widely over the latest research, some of it (user warning) not yet peer-reviewed. This piece is a mish-mash of what I have gleaned from both programmes - probably with a bit of More or Less thrown in.

The most controversial suggestion was that SARS2 (which seems to be now a common designation in the scientific community) did not make the leap from animal to man in Wuhan as is generally accepted. The researcher putting forward this theory bases it, as I understand, on two facts: the precise SARS2 has not yet been found in ... and that there are B and C strains in circulation. Only A is found in Guangdong, so he reckons this is the source. An aternative interprettion is that it has had more time to mutate in Wuhan.

The other is the only school survey carried out in Israel (apologies for not finding a URI). From an admittedly low sample, it seems that peer-to-peer transmission between teachers is much higher than that from teacher to pupil, pupil to teacher or pupil to pupil , thelatter being the lowest. The general finding that children are least at risk from the virus is borne out. Although they can be infected, they tend to shake it off quickly (no evidence of it spreading to other organs like heart lungs and liver as with adults) and do not shed virus as readily  So perhaps Kirsty when she introduced her first tentative return to school in the  summer should have put teachers on a rota rather than the children.

[Later] Listening to that 5 Live Science programme again and more carefully persuades me of the strength of the case against Wuhan as the area where the virus first jumped from bat to human. It also further weakens the accusation that it escaped, or was deliberately constructed in, the laboratory there - not that president Trump ever listens to scientific evidence.

Pushing the date of the initial mutation back to 3rd September at the earliest also enhances the possibility that Covid-19 escaped China in the autumn of  last year. Maybe more cases of death previously ascribed to pneumonia in continental Europe as well as Guangdong should be reexamined.