Archive for December, 2009

Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

Foreign Policy

I simply do not know why anyone thinks David Milliband would be a good Leader of the Labour Party. Ed maybe but David no. He is one of the worst Foreign Secretaries in our history with a narrow blinkered view of the world, lacking in strategic focus and forever falling back to promote the many chips he carries on his shoulders.

The world is not a perfect place and most countries do things differently to us. Some in ways of which we disapprove. But if that is their way, unless they are on the rampage of conquest with us in their sights, the smart thing is to find the common interests to enable the world to move forward.

Our David has mucked up our relations with Russia, failed to make progress in the Middle East, inflamed distrust with Iran, supported a failing policy in Afghanistan and now he has quarrelled with China. Yes, it can be argued that he speaks from the moral high ground but in the conduct of relations between states this kind of sanctimonious finger wagging really does not work. It also looks very cynical to foreigners who notice that we are still without a proper Constitution of our own, presently have a corrupt Parliament sitting and a voting system that is the least democratic anywhere in the civilised world.

Wednesday, December 30th, 2009


There are signs that firms are repatriating manufacturing to the U.K because greater efficiency, improved quality, lower transport costs and greater reliability of delivery make this country once again a competitive manufacturing base. This is a profoundly good piece of news for the potential quality of economic recovery and of huge strategic importance to our future economic health.

If the momentum can be sustained it will benefit our balance of payments and push exports back into the driving force. It will create real jobs for people which really do add value to to the national wealth, rather than simply inflate existing assets. It offers the potential to create jobs in deprived communities to restore social and economic cohesion in these disgraceful blackspots. It will mean we make more of what we buy.

It will also create the employment opportunities away from the financial services and legal sector which have contributed so adversely to the creation of our current medieval economic model which sucks money from the poor and showers it over the rich.

This is just a beginning and a ham fisted government could wreck it. But a beginning it is and good news to come at the end of a year of a glut of bad tidings.

Tuesday, December 29th, 2009


Death in any form brings sadness to family or friends however it occurs. Accident, enemy action and execution are among the sudden brutal endings of life which give rise to especially high emotions of those left to grieve.

I did not follow the case of the unfortunate man executed by China today, so I cannot comment with any coherence on it in specific terms, save to say this. Some countries continue to have the death penalty as do some of the American states. Those who commit crimes in the places that have capital punishment must realise that if their crime falls within its remit and they are caught, their life will be forfeit. Sanctimonious cries by human rights activists (as opposed to the pleadings of a naturally distraught family) are not only futile but probably counter productive.

If there ever was any chance that the Chinese authorities would reprieve the sentence in this case and I am not sure there ever was, that was certainly dashed by the pleadings and strictures uttered by our own increasingly enfeebled Government to their counterparts in China. China does not back down under pressure, as any fool can tell. To subtler and covert persuasion much more attention is paid. Witness modern China and compare it with the country Nixon, showing great political courage, flew to visit all those years ago.

Sunday, December 27th, 2009

The Delta Flight.

Phew! That was close. Outstanding responses by passengers and aircrew were remarkable. A miracle malfunction of the suicide bomb underlined the proximity to disaster that stalks every airplane. What is good is the level of effort that goes into counter terrorist activities by all the security authorities world wide. Focused as we are on wars, we can overlook the real protection provided by the intelligence and protection services. There seems to have been a lapse in this case. There is talk of a journey to Yemen. It has crept into the news in the last few days that Al-Qaeda  operations are being prepared in the ungoverned reaches of that country. This is important because it underlines the futility of the war in Afghanistan. 

Wars are strategic. Battles are tactical. They work if they are part of a strategic war. Afghanistan is strategic only in the rhetoric of its proponents. The facts are that it is a tactical war which ignores strategic reality. To prepare strategy you have to understand the nature and logistics and mobility of your enemy. In these assessments of Al-Qaeda there is glaring military error.

Al-Qaeda is not a conventional military formation. It has no formal membership. It has no recognisable army. It inhabits no state. It has no government. It wears no uniform. Its home base is in the mind. You cannot fight it, nor defeat it until you resolve the issues that allow young minds across the world to be turned by its doctrine. If you chase it out of Afghanistan as we did, it pops up in the lawless border area of Pakistan. If you chase it from there it will pop up in Yemen, it already has, and if you chase it on it will find somewhere else. The world is a big place.

You can counter it, as we do  through security and countermeasures and good intelligence. You can use drones to de-capitate local leadership. You can keep it on the back foot investing more time protecting its own security than in destroying ours. But you need to remember that every time you send your troops into a sovereign country under whatever mandate you give it life. You need also to face that fact from which the West has been running for over sixty years. Until you reign in Israel and bring justice to the Palestinians there will be no end.

Saturday, December 26th, 2009


One of my Christmas presents this year is a series of three maps, all covering the same area, but based on Ordance Surveys of the early and late nineteenth century and the nineteen twenties. It is immensly interesting to study these maps of a rural area in southern England and compare one period with another. In the earliest map before railways, there were many more usable lanes, but by the turn of the ninteenth century railways had become the main means of transport and the road network was significantly reduced to main trunk routes, with cross country minor roads neglected or no longer passable.

Later with the advent of cars there is something of a revival of the road network as motor vehicles began to compete seriously with rail. The most modern and current map is littered with markings of disused railways. What is most striking of all is the extent of the connections of communities offered by the branch railways round about 1900. One of the worst domestic decisions of the twentieth century, perhaps strategically the worst, was that absurd programme of closing down branch lines. Left in place it would today provide a rural tramway network with modern rail-cars which would transform the efficiency of cross country travel and contribute hugely to the reduction of carbon emissions. Serious thought needs to be given to reviving these lines, just as in the early twentieth century there was a revival of the roads.

We need to think, too, whether every form of transport can or should be profitable, or whether its contribution, like sewage treatment and drainage, is an indispensable element of civilised and eco friendly living. Business knows a good deal, but it does not always know best.

On one of my walls I have an enormous framed map of the United States of America, showing its entire continental rail network in the nineteen twenties. It is a staggering achievement. A revival there might be a very good thing indeed. Wherever in the world you go, railway travel is the most eco friendly and efficient ever devised.It must not be judged in its run down state, starved of investment, its trains dirty and out of date, its connections severed. If we breath new life into railways, we will breath new life into our planet and thus into us all.

Thursday, December 24th, 2009


I read yesterday that the U.K has become a country of net savers, by the biggest margin in history. In fact most of this is going to debt reduction, but it is nevertheless the best news for the future of our economy that we have had this year. It represents real structural change of the kind needed to build a more secure future. Once the household debt is reduced, we need to go on saving more and borrowing less. More on this in the New Year.

Thursday, December 24th, 2009

U.S Healthcare

The Senate vote makes this dream of proper universal healthcare in the U.S very nearly real. It will transform the lives of millions. There are yet hurdles to overcome, deals to be done and compromise with the House Bill, before the President can sign it into law. Yet now it is much more certain that he will sign.

For over a century liberal Americans have campaigned for this. It is a mark of civilisation to care for the sick and almost all countries with which the U.S has friendships do so. Like the ending of slavery where the U.S was last and then only after untold bloodshed, so it is last with Healthcare. If Obama delivers it will affect the lives of the poorest quartile of that country with the greatest social impact since the ending of bondage. Obama will have his place in history, not just for what he was, but also for what he did.

Yet I am personally much troubled by the thought that if my daughter, who was a joint US/UK citizen had been born and brought up in America, she would be at our midst this Christmas, bringing, as always joy to our hearts. Instead at dusk tonight I shall go and set a candle to burn upon her grave in the quiet churchyard beneath her beloved Downs. Because although we have in the UK the best universal healthcare system in the world, it lacks the flexibility to cope with the challenge of a unique case. In the US a far inferior system has one significant advantage. It is willing to listen.

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009


So everywhere is chaos. Why? Because nowadays everything works to due process and best practice and for snow, because we do not get a lot of it in the south, there is no plan. But I have lived in the south all my life. We used to have snow and coped well enough. We even manged big stuff like the war and got on with our day. What has gone wrong?

To begin with people saw it as their duty to make their own preparations. Many cars were fitted with chains on their tyres and others fitted winter tyres with massive treads on the driving wheels, mostly then at the back. Every farm had a snow plough which attached to a tractor and the farmer was paid to keep the roads near the farm open. In the towns all the council outside employees were mobilised (in the days of a large direct labour force) with shovels and grit in handcarts to go all round the town in gangs to make the pavements safe and the roads passable. Main roads and railways were ploughed 24 hours a day with special teams of four or six on board the snow ploughs with shovels to cope with the unexpected. There were still problems, but only in the very worst conditions and then not for long.

There was no vast investment. There was a great deal of make do. What there was a lot of was initiative, common sense and clear purpose. There was improvisation. There was also a huge diversion of labour from activities halted by the snow to new emergency tasks. But there was something else. More of everyday life was in the hands of more local local authorities and when their remit reached the limit, of County, City or Metropolitan authorities which had much greater control over more generous budgets with power to act as their councillors saw fit. 

What the last few days of suffering, disappointment and national humiliation have shown us is that just like our imploded financial model, our model for governance does not work either when put under stress. We need also to return to a rational approach to Health and Safety instead of the present ludicrous bureaucratic fundamentalism now operating.

A lady living not far from me rang the council to ask for someone to come and grit her lane as she feared for life and limb on the sheet ice. Of course they said. Only  too pleased to help an elderly person in need. The Act says we have a Duty. But there will be a three day delay while we carry out a Risk Assessment, before we can let the gritters through as our first Duty is to assure the safety of the gritters.

Not only can we not operate like this any more, but we have to stop educating young people to suppose that this gibberish has anything to do with rational life. We also have to cut the slice of  taxation handled by central government with all its waste and profligacy and increase the resources of local government so that taxpayers can keep a better eye on where their money is going. When their councillors go mad they can vote them out. There will also be positive and invidious comparison between one authority and another. That sort of competition works.

Thursday, December 17th, 2009


I sometimes feel that we have given to much emphasis to the man made element of climate change, giving the impression that maybe it might not happen if we change our lifestyle.

I think negotiations would have been easier if it had been accepted from the very beginning that climate does change, of which the Sahara Desert, the Black Sea, and the English Channel are obvious reminders. There will be climate change and some countries already low lying will be seriously affected. Money will be needed to help the poorest countries and this will have to come from the richer. The bill is for certain, the glaciers are melting, the change is happening.

Reducing carbon emissions might reduce the impact and lessen the damage. It will make the bill smaller. The argument put round that way might appeal more  to the Americans.

Wednesday, December 16th, 2009

The BA Strike

As regular readers of this blog will know my views are often leaning left. I am a great supporter of trade unions and believe everyone should be a member. I was myself for a number of years a member of the white collar section of the Transport and General Workers, now enveloped in Unite. I think Unions can do a vital job helping and supporting their members, especially in cases where individual issues arise.

I am, however, seriously opposed to the modern use of the strike. I think the day when this was a meaningful weapon has long gone and it is now to industrial relations what lynching was to justice. Striking to cause maximum distress to families and loved ones trying to meet up at Christmas is mean, spiteful and in all respects despicable. BA cabin crew are overpaid and nothing like as good as those on Virgin flights. They have no excuse for this calculated mischief, ruining the plans of their innocent customers, which include especially the elderly and children at this time of year.

I hope they lose this fight and lose big. I wish their bosses had the bottle to sack the lot.