Scotland and currency

One story I missed commenting on from last week was Osborne statement, or more to the point scare at bed time, regarding whether Scotland would be allowed keep the pound in the (unlikely) event of independence. Predictably he implied London would make thinks exceedingly difficult for Scotland, not so much because it was in Britain’s interest to do so, but too punish the Scot’s for walking out on him. Indeed his speech reminded me of the sort of behaviour I’ve seen from a divorcing couple where one jilted partner seems determined to make the divorce as difficult as possible, e.g. fighting over the family home, to the point where the likely outcome is that they’ll have to sell it at below market value, neither will get enough from the sale to buy a new home and the only winner is the lawyers (who’ll get most of the money via their fees).

That said, the Alex Slamond all but knelled down in front of the Tories on this issue with a sign on his back saying “kick me“. It would indeed make little sense for Scotland to retain the pound after independence (at least long term). It would be an unprecedented move for any independent country. While several countries have pegged the value of their currency to the dollar (or even allow them to be used as an unofficial currency) these are very different circumstances to what Scotland would face.

Again, a big part of the problem is the SNP’s unrealistic and naive believe that independence can take place quickly, when in truth there would have to be a long and protracted series of negotiations. This would probably see the Scot’s hanging onto the pound for some part of that transition period, but longer term it would make sense for them to set up their own currency, even if this was merely a transitional step towards the Euro. And like the issue of EU membership, it is becoming obvious that the SNP have not properly thought this one through.

In truth there would be advantages to both sides to reaching an amicable settlement on this issue (a review of the option here), not least of those the fact that the Scot’s might just walk away from England, form their own currency and leave Britain to pick up the tab for Scotland’s share of the UK’s national debt.

And contrary to what Osborne says it would be more in England’s interest to maintain a currency union than Scotland. Without Scotland’s industry, which includes many high value export goods (e.g. Whiskey, Salmon, Angus beef, Irn-bru :DD etc.) plus their oil reserves, Sterling will be much more vulnerable without Scotland part of it and probably at risk (in its present from) to speculator attack next time the country gets into economic trouble. Indeed my suspicion long term is, if Scotland leaves, they’ll get their own currency (at least until the oil runs out) and England will eventually be forced to join the euro.

There is no reason to doubt that a Scottish currency would be stable. Many smaller European countries of similar size have very stable currencies, and they don’t have Scotland’s oil reserves to back up there currency. And let’s face it, the way some English shopkeepers act, Scotland essentially already has its own currency.

Take Ireland, we used to have the punt. It was, despite the many up’s and down’s over the 80 years of its life, a fairly stable currency. And its value generally tracked that of the British Pound reasonably closely (within 10-25%), despite there being no official pegging of the punt to the pound by Dublin. While the Irish national bank did occasional intervene to maintain a reasonable exchange rate, by and large the punt was allowed to float. There is thus little reason to doubt the integrity of any Scottish currency (and that it would maintain value v’s Sterling), so long as the SNP didn’t do something really stupid, like what Iceland got up to (and even then its worth noting that Iceland is not recovering and has a better credit rating than a number of eurozone countries).

Of course the problem for the SNP is that they know from their focus groups and opinion polls that many in Scotland don’t believe that a Scottish currency would be stable. The tabloids have long been stirring things up to suggest otherwise, not to mention hinting at chaos if such a currency was introduced. Indeed many of the scare stories they’ve dug up are similar to the stuff we heard in Ireland before the Euro came in.

We were told back then that there would be panic in the streets, hyper inflation (even before the euro was introduced!), that someone would try to buy a sandwich with a mix of Euro coins and punts and both he and the shop keepers would spontaneously implode in confusion, that there would be a wave of crime (as security vans would for a brief period be carrying double the amount of cash), that shops would shut down to escape the chaos and we’d all starve…..actually what happened was on January the 1st everyone’s bank account rolled over from punt to Euro’s and I, like most Irish, gathered up whatever punts I had left, went to the bank, handed them over and got it all back in Euro’s. Simple as that. Again there is no reason to suspect that the introduction of a Scottish pound would be any less stressful. Its hardly the first time in history a country has introduced a new currency (when Norway and Sweden split at the turn of the century, they essentially split the Krona in two, Swedish and Norwegian).

But the SNP have allowed themselves to become trapped by their own ideology and their commitment to unrealistic polices. As I’ve long argued, I’m minded to support Scottish independence, but for me the devil is very much in the detail. As far as this currency issue is concerned, what the SNP are proposing is just silly and unworkable.

My advise to the SNP is to drop the independence referendum altogether and focus on getting more devolved powers for the Scottish parliament, as in truth this is what the majority of the Scottish people actually want.

Why the Tories are bad for business

I happened to be in Oxford the other day and I went through a covered market in the city. The local shop keepers are up in arms over a massive 40 – 70% hike in they’re rents from the local council. Naturally at a time of recession you can imagine how potentially crippling such a rent demand could be. The property rent is often the biggest bill for any company and you would struggle to identify any company (regardless of how big or small) that could see such a huge jump in its costs and still stay in business.

Obviously we all know what’s prompting this rent hike. The Tories have been implementing heavy cuts on council budgets, particularly those under the control of labour (punishment to locals for voting against the Tories). Under pressure, councils are, as I highlighted before, cutting everything not bolted to the floor and shuffling under couch for any loose pennies.

Of course one can see where this is going, the pressure implemented by Osborne on councils is seeing the business costs of firms to go up, inevitably some will as a consequence close down, meaning the councils (and thus the exchequer) has less money coming in the door, quite apart from the drop in tax receipts.

Chain store Britain

The previous recessions under Major and Thatcher had a devastating effect on the UK high street. Many of Britain’s family run businesses closed down and many a British high street became a drab boring chain store clone of another. Now I suspect the Tories are going to destroy what’s left. The UK high streets will become like those in America.

Ever been shopping in an American town? Well first of all most don’t have a high street any more (all closed down). This has caused the economies of many American towns to actually shrink, along with tax receipts to city hall to shrink. Instead many American towns are instead ringed by large out of town retail parks filled with chain stores and big box supermarkets. Such shops tend to offer much lower wages, little long term career prospects.

And as we learnt recently in the UK, quite a number of these chain store firms (Starbucks for example), don’t pay out a lot in tax, indeed they often pay none.

But will the council get a higher rent off chain stores? Ah….no! The Oxford market guys pointed out that when one shop closed down awhile ago it stood empty for months (nobody could afford the rent) until the council let it to a chain store, with the first nine months of rent free!

In short the Tories policies here are ass backwards. We should be doing everything possible to shore up small locally run businesses as they put nearly all the money they make back into the local economy. By contrast we should be cracking down hard on corporate tax dodgers who often take money out of the UK economy. If they decide to pull out of the country, great! I’ll drive em to the airport! :wave:Let’s see how many Latte’s Starbucks can sell in the Cayman Islands!

America and Guns

Speaking of Guardian articles, I came across another from the Observer by Micheal Cohen contrasts the reaction of Americans to the Boston bombing to the everyday carnage inflicted on the US by its lax gun laws. Consider that over the course of the man hunt for these two teenage amateur wannabe jihadi’s there were numerous gun deaths, including at least one multiple murder suicide shooting, and including more than a few in Boston itself. Was the city put in “lock down” over this? No! Did they call out the national guard, of course not!

On average about over a 1,000 die a month in America due to gun violence, with countless others injured, far more than have been killed in Terrorist attacks since 9/11. Indeed even the death toll from 9/11 was easily eclipsed by the average quarterly gun death rate in the US. The US spend hundreds of Billions on security, tore up civil liberties, put themselves massively in debt with two and a bit wars (one of the longest overseas combat deployments in US military history) over the murder of as many people as they loose to gun deaths in a few months! To call such behaviour irrational if not down right crazy is something of an understatement.

Yet Americans do not seem to get it. They want to keep their gun under the bed, even though the lax guns laws just make it easier for criminals (or indeed terrorists such as the two Boston Marathon suspects) to acquire such hardware, and you’re merely increasing the chances of that gun being used against a family member, either by accident or as a result of a suicide.

And of course this dualism clearly suggests to America’s enemies in the world where lies the countries Achilles heel. If I was Kim Jung-un I won’t waste time trying to develop nuclear weapons or long range rockets. A far more effective means of getting his way against the Americans would be to get a few agents to infiltrate the US, go to a gun show (where they can purchase weapons without any background check or awkward questions and “tool up“, then upon their orders coming through they launch a few “terrorists” attacks. Indeed, they won’t even need to do much other than let it be known they had a vast arsenal of weapons (via You-tube) and then sit back while the authorities “locked down” a few cities (crippling the US economy) and basically run around in a complete tizzy.

Predictably the response from our those friendly NRA folks is to claim that oh, most people handle guns safely and should we all be punished because a few go on a killing spree. Indeed one commenter to the above article blamed these gun deaths on “inner city folks”. For those of you who don’t speak red neck “inner city folks” is code word for black people as using the “N” word on Guardian blogs tends to get you thrown off.

Where’s Waalid

And speaking of racists, in the aftermath of the Boston bombings a number of amateur sleuths began crawling the internet looking for photographs to try and identify the bombers, notably on Reddit (a common hangout of libertarians and tea party types). However this quickly descended into what New Statesman referred to as a “racist game of Where’s Wally” or as Charlie Brooker put it “where’s Waalid”. Of course predictably they tended to focus on anyone who looked vaguely Asian, often posting photographs with someone circled with the words “brown”, “backpack”. It was just as well Grizzly Adams didn’t take Gentle Ben and Teddy (from that Seth Mc Farlane film) for a walk in the park or they’d have all been killed by snipers on sight. However in the mean time they caused great distress, particularly when they fingered one particular guy, who had run away from home and has since rather unfortunately turned up dead, likely due to a suicide.

Of course the thought that the killers might be white (not all Muslims are Asian and of course America has plenty of home grown terrorists, notably amoung the white supremacists groups) never occurred to them.

Debunking right-wing myths

I’m actually not much of a Guardian person, but happened upon an article by Simon Rogers in which he sought to debunk many urban legends, including a few of the old chestnuts that the Daily Mail and other right wing tabloids have long propagated. Let’s examine a few:

“much of the government budget is spend on benefits”
As I recall pointing out myself, while indeed the UK’s DWP’s spends a good 23% of the budget (some £159 Billion last year) the bulk of this money is spent paying for pensions and working tax credits. Indeed jobseekers allowance only accounts for £4.9 billion (about 3% of whole benefits bill, about 0.69% or 1/144th of the total UK budget). The tabloids aren’t only wrong in their assessment, they are off by a considerable margin!

While housing benefits total some £16.9 Billion, I would blame a good deal of that on Thatcher’s foolish decision to get rid of much of the country’s council housing, with the result that the government is now forced to pay private landlords to house the less well off.

“A third of the UK population are immigrants”
Actually as Simon Rogers points out the true figure is closer to about 11%. I could go further and point out that the biggest group of immigrants to the UK are from Ireland and other EU countries (notably the usual suspects….that’s France, Germany, Spain, etc. not Poland or Romania!) and of course many British citizens also live and work abroad.

And as I’ve pointed out before only a tiny fraction of immigrants to the UK have ever claimed benefits. The bulk of them it seems merely came here to work (or study), earn a bit of cash, pay their taxes and in many cases then move on.

“The Tories are protecting NHS spending”
While technically there has been a slight increase in NHS spending under the Tories, however this increase is below the rate of inflation. Furthermore with the UK’s population aging and the population increasing the numbers attending hospitals are growing (and thus the costs of just keeping everything ticking over). So in truth the Tories are actually cutting the NHS budget in real terms.

“Benefit fraud costs us billions”
Factually correct, in that it costs the UK just over a billion, £1.2 – 1.3 Billion to be exact, but this is but 0.7% of the welfare budget. As I’ve often pointed out, the government would achieve far better value for money going after the tax dodging of the super rich than harassing the odd benefit claimant who maybe claims ten quid a week more than they should.

“the rich will leave if we put up taxes”
Of course the Tories will claim, no we can’t force the rich to pay any more in taxes (even those they are legally supposed to pay) as they will go into such a huff over the fact that some of the vast wealth they cannot hope to spend in a single lifetime might go to paying for better hospitals and schools that they’ll stop working sit a corner and sulk or flee the country. As I’ve long pointed out this is a ridiculous suggestion.

There are a host of reasons why people move to the UK, for work, family reasons, etc. they often put down roots, buying a house for example and thus there is little possibility of them leaving as the tiny amount they’d save would be outweighed by the huge upheaval and inconvenience, plus the costs involved.

Furthermore many of those specifically in the UK, Middle East sheik’s and Russian oligarchs have ties to England as they want a bolt hole in the West if things go tits up for them back home. Most other country’s charge much higher rates of tax and are harder to get into/out of than the UK, so its unlikely they would leave.

Scam detectors and the power of myth

I mentioned awhile back about a scam perpetrated on the Iraqi’s by a British con man in which he sold them fake boom detectors. The story is topical for two reasons, firstly that he’s been found guilty of fraud, although inevitably his sentence will be a fraction of what it should be (given the numerous deaths due to bombs that passed through check points thanks to his fraud).

However what is more relevant is reports that the Iraqi’s were still using these devices (a good two years after the fact that journalists at the BBC showed them to be little more than a dousing rod and a half baked con). This is despite numerous studies (by the US Army and MoD, which no doubt the Iraqi’s have seen, which show the devices don’t work and cannot possibly work. Their “operatorsstill cling to a belief that they must shuffle their feet “too build up static”, keep a claim mind (we’re talking bomb squad blokes here!) and that if they get a false positive its due to tooth fillings or petrol spills or something. I mean the Iraqi’s would be as well off dressing a guy up in a wizards robes, giving him a pointed hat, broomstick and wand and having him walk down the check point screaming “bomba detectous” for all the good it would do!

Such is the power of myth. The Iraqi’s were clearly under pressure due to the bombings during the insurgency. The bulk of terrorist bombs were not blowing up Americans but Iraqi civilians and security forces (it would seem that these Jihadi’s believed that murdering their fellow Muslims would please they’re god….while I don’t know alot about what the Koran says, I’m kinda doubting that!). They probably wished for some sort of magically device that could detect bombs. And surprise, surprise someone comes along and tells them what they want to hear.

No doubt that had they had the good sense to run the idea by a boffin over at Baghdad university, there is little doubt he would have told them what we now know – these devices don’t work, can’t work and you should arrest at once the criminal con artist trying to sell them to you. But such was the power of myth that they did not think to doubt these devices.

Now while bribery clearly oiled the wheels here, indeed there are a number in jail in Iraq over this affair. Not that this is any surprise given that Iraq is reputed to be awash with corruption. In the immediate aftermath of the American invasion many tens of billions of dollars literally vanished as a consequences of poor accounting an amateurish behaviour by Bush adm. So this bomb detector scam is probably just the tip of a fairly large iceberg.

But this sorry tale clearly shows how it is an unfortunate reality that humans will frequently choose comforting lies over harsh and inconvenient truths.

Tory Nuclear Power ambitions clashes with Ideology

I did a post during the week on my energy blog in which I looked into the delay in the government’s plans to build more nuclear power stations in the UK. The bulk of the UK’s nuclear plants, as I discuss here, are due to decommission between now and 2020, with only three operating beyond this and one after 2023. Given that it can take a good decade to build a plant, this means its already unlikely, even if they broke ground tomorrow, that the existing capacity could be replaced in time.

However there is a problem, nuclear is expensive energy. The supporters of nuclear power have long tried to argue otherwise but the critics have long pointed out that they’ve obviously gotten their sums wrong, as I discuss at length here. And those critics are not the usual suspects (Greenpeace or FoE) but bodies such as the New Economics Foundation or Citigroup bank.

EDF energy have all but confirmed however the high price of nuclear by demanding a fixed price of £100 per MWh of electricity guaranteed for 40 years! To put that in perspective, consider that wind power is generally economic at about £80-60/MWh with a subsidy period of 10-15 years (other studies suggest even lower long term prices of wind perhaps as low as $40/MWh). The numbers would suggest that if you want to generate lots of low carbon energy, you’re better off sticking with wind power and other renewable sources.

And before anyone starts mumbling about wind farms and intermittency, note that the figures I quote are the overnight baseload costs of nuclear v’s the same for wind (i.e. like with like). Indeed that £100/MWh figure for new nuclear doesn’t include the costs of decommissioning. Now the supporters of nuclear will say that the cost of decommissioning these plants will be “insignificant”. But they are basing that on a scale compared to the decom costs of the UK’s existing nuclear infrastructure, a running total of £70 Billion last time I checked. Now on that scale yes, any number with 9 zero’s after it is “insignificant” but the rest of us who live in the real world would still put it into the “you want how much!” category.

The dreaded “N” word…and it’s not nuclear!
Now I appreciate that there are some who argue in favour of nuclear, despite its economics (and the risks and the nuclear waste, etc.) on a sort of “energy national security” basis. My response to that however is to query if that were so, why pay a French company to do it? And why subject UK electricity prices to a form of “lock in” for the next 40 years?

Would it not, if you are pro-nuclear (as many Tories are), be far more sensible to simply cut out the middle man, set up a state owned company guaranteed by the taxpayer that will fund and build these reactors. As the government (and thus taxpayers) will then ultimately own the resulting reactors, this means that it’s possible to decide as we go along how the bill for nuclear power is going to be paid. We could do what the French do and effectively subsidize electricity prices, we could pass the full cost of nuclear onto the bill payers, or we could do a bit of both. The point is, future UK governments will be at liberty to decide these things, even though the costs will likely be about the same.

Of course, what I’ve just said is out of the question under a Tory government, as I just mentioned that most dreaded of words “Nationalisation” 88| (the work of the devil…or at the very least Tony Benn ;D). It would effectively mean the partial reversing of a core Thatcher era policy when she privatised the power industry.

However, the irony here is of course, that EDF energy, ARE a nationality owned industry, just owned instead by the French government. So in essence this whole debate about nuclear power boils down to the question as to how much the Tories are willing to pay the French government to do the job of being good little socialists and nationalising the UK’s nuclear industry for them, as it’s against the Tories religion of Thatcherism.

The Merchant of Paris
One could draw a parallel between this and the practice of money lending in the Middle Ages. Back then Christians and Muslims were forbidden to lend money and charge interest (usury). But the Jews (perhaps unfortunately for them) had a loophole in their religion which allowed them to lend money to non-Jews. As a consequence Christian and Muslims forced Jews to act as money lenders and promptly hated them for it.

In a similar vein the Tories, forbidden by their religion/ideology from engaging in nationalisation are hiring out the French government to do if for them. And no doubt when the reactors are late/ start leaking/ the public rebel against high electricity prices, they’ll hate the French for it.

If this silly plan goes ahead, the Daily Mail and the Sun will in short be all but guaranteed of forty years’ worth of prime material to bash the French with (oh, and you can forget about withdrawal from the EU)…Perhaps we could get them to pay for the reactors?

The Tragic Consequences of Anti – Science

I’ve long worried about what I see as a sort of anti-science backlash worldwide. I covered this, in relation to climate change here and here. This week in Wales we saw the tragic consequences of this mistrust of science with an outbreak of measles and possibly the first death of that outbreak.

As always, our tale of anti-science follows a predictable formula. Step one is some dubious and disputed science (like climate change denial) and a complete misunderstanding of the public as to its implications. A few years back science papers were published that suggested that the MMR vaccine could be linked to various side effects, notably Autism. From the start, this was a controversial stance (note that it’s not the job of science journals to “censor” scientific papers, merely act as adjudicator and facilitators in a scientific debate). Further research cast doubt on these results (as well as a number of undeclared conflicts of interest on the part of the original researchers), eventually leading to the withdrawal of the previous research.

Unfortunately, some parents reacted by either delaying getting their children vaccinated, or didn’t get them vaccinated at all. Some even allowed their kids to deliberately become infected with the disease. This may well have come about as they felt that Measles, Mumps and Rubella are benign diseases. Not so! While the majority of people who contract these illnesses suffer only mild symptoms, a certain number of people (about 3 in a 1,000) will suffer “serious complications” (sufficient to require hospitalisation) with the potential for brain damage, permanent disability and even death a possibility. Every year in the developing world, countries where a free MMR jab is not available (we don’t know how lucky we are), tens of thousands of children die each year due to these illnesses (all told 158,000 people die each year worldwide from Measles alone!).

Now that a vaccine can have side effects is not unheard of. This is why we don’t vaccinate against Smallpox anymore. The risk of catching it is so small (given that it only exists in a few labs these days), it’s not worth the risk involved in taking the vaccine. However for a “live” virus like the MMR trio, the tiny risk posed by the vaccine (millions to one against) has to be balanced against the much larger risk of the virus (measles has an infection rate of about 40-50% and as noted about 3 in 1,000 suffer complications). You’re literally a thousand times safer getting your kid vaccinated than taking your chances with the disease.

And like climate denial and creationism, the key promoters of the anti-MMR stance are the usual suspects. That being a mixture of pseudo-science homeopathic quackery (see Dara O’Brian’s take on homeopathy here) and paranoid right wing (nuts).

Now as I’ve said before, a healthy skepticism of authority is good in any democracy, but some on the right take this to a whole new level. They automatically assume that the government is constantly conspiring against them and that everything the government does is part of some megalomaniac “agenda” (granted the way the Tories are acting these days I know how they feel, but they take this a bit too far). Naturally the thought of letting some “government” sponsored doctor put a needle in their child fills them with dread (who know’s the drug might make him smarter and he’ll become a liberal, gasp! 😉 ).

Of course the reality is that yes, the government does have “an agenda”. That of cutting down on infant mortality! They also recognize that vaccinating against a disease is vastly cheaper than having the NHS pick up the pieces after a pandemic starts. A cost I might add, that we as tax payers are paying for. And of course there’s the cost to the economy of all those sickies people will be taking over the next few months.

If there’s one thing to take away from this crisis, it’s the need to recognize that there is little point in us spending millions of pounds for scientists and doctors to give us their expert opinion if we’re not going to take it seriously. It was listening to the naysayers of the anti-science movement that put Europe into a six centuries long dark age after the fall of Rome.

What’s in a name

I feared that Wednesday’s funeral of Thatcher, aka the wicked witch of Finchley would turn into an episode of Jerry Springer. In which some ex-miner would run out with the intention of dancing on her coffin, only for some yuppie to intercept him & deck him (with his 80’s style cell phone) while yelling “you pleb”, with the army caught in the middle pulling them off each other. Fortunately for me, unlike many Tories, I so many of us who pay the taxes they resent paying, work for a living and couldn’t watch the funeral (again I thought it was odd they picked a weekday, surely they’d have gotten a better turn out on a weekend?).

As I discussed in a prior post, my fear is that Thatcher’s cult of personality will, like their contemporaries in America, try and rename everything after Thatcher. This would be completely out of keeping with protocol. Consider how few things are named after Winston Churchill (well there is that dog that sells insurance! 😉 then again, he was only PM during the war, what’s that next to a miners strike!). The other side of the Atlantic, there are more things named after Reagan (an average at best president) than Franklin D. Roosevelt (who “only” brought the US out of depression, founded the welfare state and the Bretton Woods system, won more elections with bigger majorities than any other president, oh! and won World War 2).

This is because the traditional protocol has been to name stuff after people who have a direct connection to it. In Ireland for example, very little is named after De Valera or Michael Collins, as it was generally taboo for quite some time post-independence to name anything after a mere “politician” (as opposed to a real hero). There are exceptions of course, JFK airport in NY for example (but then again he was assassinated) or others who died in tragic circumstances.

So if for example, we were going to rename a London airport after anybody, why pick Thatcher? I would propose instead to name Heathrow or Gatwick after Sir Keith Park. Who’s he? The leader of RAF 11th squadron, who protected London from the bombing raids during the battle of Britain. While he helped save London from being bombed into rumble, Thatcher succeeded in reducing to rumble more of Britain’s mining, factories and council housing that Herman Goering and the Luftwaffe could have ever dreamed off!

Looking for another name? (perhaps we want to rename both of them), how about Frank Whittle. Who is he? The engineer who invented the Jet engine. We wouldn’t be jetting off to the sun this summer if it weren’t for this guy and his colleagues in the RAE. As for Stansted, I think that’s a tossup between Stelios and Micheal O’Leary!

As for Port Stanley (what about poor old lord Stanley?) I’d rather see it named after someone local to the Falklands or someone with a more direct connection to the Islands. How about Ian McKay? He died during the battle of Mt Longdon above Port Stanley during the last desperate battles to capture the high ground surrounding the capital, earning the VC for his bravery.

Equally, the idea that she should get pride of place in Trafalgar square would not be appropriate. Ken Livingstone let slip the other week that the fourth plinth there is actually reserved for the Queen. Then again, Thatcher always did act as if she was the head of state, so perhaps fitting. Although I suspect such a move might present a problem, as it would no longer be Pigeon doo that the council have to worry about but the human kind being slung at her statue. Consider that a more well-guarded statue of her, in a gallery, was attacked and decapitated a few years back.

And of course I would also note, the precedence the Tory’s would be setting. If they go against protocol and start renaming everything after Thatcher, then next time labour is in power, which the way Cameron’s going mightn’t be that far away, they’ll reciprocate. Big Ben will become Big Benn (after Tony Benn), they’ll be a statue of Arthur Scargill next to Thatcher’s (no doubt a mechanical one that lobs a lump of coal at her statue’s head every hour on the and drops its pants and moons her every half hour) in Trafalgar sq….sorry Ken Livingstone Place! The Mall will become Jarrow Parade, Great Ormond Street becomes Atlee Hospital etc. What goes around comes around!

Thatcher, Reagan and cults of personality

The Daily Mail and Sun were outraged to learn this week, that those bedwetters in the the Football Association refused to have a minutes silence during this weekend’s matches to honour Thatcher. How dare they!

…or maybe its because the FA realise that you can split people in the UK into 4 groups when it comes to Thatcher. The Daily Mail/Sun worshippers who feel that we should all don black (which some zealot in the foreign office suggested embassy staff around the world should do) and mourn her passing, by crying and wailing in mass formation, like they did in North Korea when Kim Jung il popped his clogs. Then there’s those who are really bothered either way. Group three are the people who upon hearing the news immediately googled “who is Margaret Thatcher?“. And finally you have those, as I discussed in a prior post, who regard Thatcher as the wicked witch of Finckley. Naturally the FA’s fear is that this last group will begin singing “ding dong the witch is dead” (currently heading for number one in the charts) with half of the other two groups (peeved at the match they’ve paid good money to come see being delayed) joining in.

In short we’re seeing a repeat of what happened in the US when Reagan died. After this mediocre B-movie actor died, the GOP went on a massive frenzied campaign to name everything in the country after Reagan. Thousands of streets, schools, airports, bus stops and landmarks were promptly named after him (including a mountain!). If a hobo laid down on a park bench for too long he could find himself staying at the “Ronald Reagan Restorium” by the time he sobers up. They even tried to get his face carved into the side of Mt Rushmore.

No doubt they will do the same for Thatcher (a more reasoned analysis of her legacy can be found at Red Pepper here). Already they’re proposing that Port Stanley be renamed Port Thatcher. No doubt they’ll soon be proposing Ben Nevis become “Ben Maggie”, Piccadilly circus becomes “Scab strike Breakers walk” and Milton Keynes becomes “Thatcherville“. The empty plint in Trafalgar square will no doubt have a statue 100ft high gold statue of her, where her supporters can worship at her feet.

The Sun even when to the stage of suggesting this week that Thatcher was the best PM in UK history…ignoring Blair (longest serving PM), Churchill (well, he only won the 2nd world war! what’s that next to a miners strike), Gladstone (introduced a host of important democratic, financial and social reforms), Lloyd George (the 1st world war, the so-called “Welsh wizard“) or Atlee (NHS? welfare state? member of Churchill’s war cabinet?)

Cults of Personality

If there’s one thing I’ve always despised about the Murdoch press its the way their rampant uncritical propaganda has led to cults of personality to build up surrounding the leaders they favour, such as Thatcher, Reagan or G. W. Bush. As events in Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany and Communist China have shown us, such cults of personality are extremely dangerous.

Furthermore, unlike in Soviet Russia, there’s little to stop those genuinely aggrieved by these leaders from pushing back against such propaganda. this leads to the creation of a sort of cult of anti-personality (which is where the people planning street parties on Wednesday to “celebrate” Thatcher’s passing come in).

BBC Censorship

Should anyone feel I’m exaggerating a bit with my “cult of personality” claim. Consider the Beeb (who quite happliy broadcast “Jerry Springer the Opera” in full against the objections of millions of Christians) seem likely to censor the “ding dong the witch is dead” song, no doubt due to significant pressure from Downing Street.

That the government would go to these lengths to protect the legacy of Thatcher should give you an idea of how deep her cult of personality goes (it sort of implies that the government regards her reputation as more important that that of “the Late JC of Bethlehem“!). Consider that this will be one of the few occasions (that we know about) where government has leaned on a Broadcaster to censor something….in this case a harmless song (as opposed to a state secret or something…like the Wikileaks stuff they had no problem broadcasting a few years back!).

Meanwhile on the left…

Indeed its worth contrasting the cult of personality around these right wing leaders and their contemporaries on the left. One doesn’t see many in labour hero worshipping Tony Blair (quite the opposite!). He’s the longest serving UK PM, won more elections with bigger majorities than any labour PM (or indeed Thatcher), repaired alot of the damage made by Thatcher and Major, brought peace to Northern Ireland. Of course he made a number of mistakes, notably being too chickshit scared of the “old labour” label to reverse Thatcher’s free market reforms and becoming G. W. Bush’s poodle over Iraq.

Bill Clinton is, I would argue, America best post-war president. While the Tea party types and the Sarah Palin’s or Mitt Romney’s of this world will talk the talk about bringing down the US government deficit, Clinton is the only president in recent years whose actually walked the walk. He turned a country in recession around, present a balanced federal budget and cut the deficit, even despite introducing a number of important social reforms. He helped bring peace to the Balkans, Northern Ireland and even got the Israeli’s and PLO to actually talk to one another.

Of course he had a few weaknesses. Notably being a serial womaniser and a poor understanding of the English language (in that he didn’t seem to understand the meaning of the word’s “did not” and “have sex“).

Its also worth noting that Clinton had the good fortune for his reign to occur at a time of low oil prices (as I mentioned in my prior post, a good deal of the “growth” during Thatcher’s time was due to North Sea oil and nothing to do with her policies) and the peak of the IT boom. But either way, nobody in the democratic party is crawling around with cigars for him.

Of course Clinton got impeached for that “shared cigar“….which seems a bit harsh when you consider what Reagan and G. W. Bush got away with, such as Iran-Contra (Reagan getting involved in the transshipment of drugs and arms smuggling, a nice tongue-in-cheek summary from America Dad of Iran-Contra here) or all those lies told about WMD’s, Black sites & torture, that energy committee (its hard to know where to stop with Bush!). If the bench mark for impeachment in the US is shagging an intern and lying about it, Reagan should have gotten prison time (as what he did technically counts as high treason!) and Bush waterboarded (well he claims its not a form of torture!).

Of course the reason why Bush and Reagan got away with their crimes, was due to this cult of personality that Fox News has built up around them. This is, as I’ve pointed out, an extremely dangerous development in any democracy. They allow such politicians to bypass the very checks and balances put in place specifically to prevent abuse of power. They have created the situation where, despite all the hand-wringing a few weeks ago over Leveson, the government has seemingly gone “sod that” and is now essentially forcing a broadcaster to censor a song from a 1959 kid’s movie.

It is the role of the public in a democracy to hold the feet of politicians to the flames, which is difficult to do in the face of 24hr propaganda which will hear no wrong and tolerate no criticism of a leader.

So if there’s one thing the Tory’s need to learn from these last few days its the need to acknowledge that Thatcher wasn’t perfect, she had a few faults. For, as the saying goes, those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat past mistakes. I fear the Osborne and Cameron are in the process right now of repeating a number of Thatcher’s mistakes as we speak.

Scottish climbers and Insurance

I caught a rant from some Scottish Tory MEP (a rare soon to to be extinct breed) who was arguing on the BBC radio 4 (can’t find the link but here’s the article that sparked it all) that all climbers in the Scottish mountains should be insured by law.

This is largely as a result of what has been a fairly bad winter for Scottish climbing, with about 14 fatalities on the hills this winter alone. That’s more than have occurred in many single years. Many of these have been caused by avalanches, probably a result of the fairly heavy snow this season, indeed I was out last weekend, and it snowed again at sea level while I was getting ready. Now 9 times out of 10 the people who get into trouble on the hills tend to be the “amateur” guys who try to climb Ben Nevis in winter in Jeans and Trainers (not recommended! its a completely different mountain in winter to the summer peak you can stroll too). but many of the fatalities this winter have been more experienced and well equipped parties, which is I’ll admit, rather worrying.

Most disturbing I thought was an avalanche in the Chalamain Gap. This is about as tame as it gets in Scotland in winter. The “gap, a break in a ridge in the Cairngorms, about 30 – 40 minutes walk from the main ski area carpark. It is often where instructors take their charges to teach winter skills (largely because its assumed to be safe territory). You actually have to walk partly downhill from the ski area car park to get to it, as its not at a particularly high elevation.

Of course I must point out a slight flaw in our MP’s plan, most mountaineer’s already have insurance. To be a member of any mountaineering club affiliated with the MCoS (Mountaineering Council of Scotland) or BMC (British Mountaineering Club) you need to have at the least 3rd party insurance cover (its part of you’re membership fees!).

The BMC and MCoS have long opposed any idea of making such insurance compulsory, not because they worry about the burden placed on their own members, but the impact on those who aren’t members of any club, but maybe take the odd family day out on the hills or tourists. In short by making mountaineering insurance compulsory, you would be turning all the mountains of Scotland into some sort of elitist private members club, something both mountaineering organizations are wholly against (they’re not run by Donald Trump!) as I suspect also will be anyone involved with tourism in Scotland.

Certainly both organisations want people to enjoy the hills safely. Indeed as a member of a student club we were always in contact with both bodies organisations for training and safety awareness talks or outings to train up new members. But slapping a heavy handed “insurance” policy on isn’t necessarily going to work or magically going to improve things. Indeed it could make the situation worse and not better!

Indeed the proposal from our Tory is that the insurance should go beyond just covering third party injuries but also extend to rescue costs as well. No doubt this reflects typical Tory “why should I pay for someone else” jitters over what has been a fairly busy winter for mountain rescue teams.

It is worth remembering however, that all the mountain rescue teams in Scotland are run by volunteers. The helicopter service is currently run by the RAF and RN, although the government is proposing to privatise this service (as I mentioned in a prior posts, here and here). As I mentioned then however, the RAF/RN often regard these flights as good training exercise, they need to keep helicopters on standby to pick up downed airmen (from RAF training flights) and thus if the government’s looking to make savings hear they’ll be disappointed. Thus one has to question what such a policy will be paying out too?

And what about other activities? Skiers for example? They are actually more likely to get into difficulty than climbers (we see a big pile of snow, we go around it, they go straight over the top of it! indeed I recall a late season climb in the cairgorms a few years back, I saw a loaded bank of snow above me and began to detour around it, no sooner had I done that but 6 skiers came flying over the top of it!). What about canoeists? or downhill mountain bikers? or fell runners? (if you think mountaineers are insane going up mountains in winter, watch these guys do their thing sometime!) or indeed cyclists on roads? Water sports of any kind are consistently rated the most dangerous sporting activity (even swimming in a pool!) and the numbers killed or seriously injured in water sports always outstrips all other sporting activities (combined!) by an order of magnitude. As one yachtsman has admitted (see here) if mountaineers need rescue insurance then they’ll need it too (and likely pay a heck of alot more than me in premiums!).

Its also worth remembering that while someone being stranded on a mountain might make for scary tabloid headlines, but the thousands of motorists who need to get rescued every years (tens of thousands this year) from stranded cars or accidents on wintry roads also need to get picked up by mountain rescue teams and helicopters. The only difference is they fall into the “dog bites man” rather than “man bites dog” column of journalism. But far more people are killed or injured on roads in winter than on the mountains. Shouldn’t motor insurance cover rescue costs also? After all anybody who gets in car in winter, particularly in Scotland, must realise the risks they are taking in doing so, as accident statistics (as well as basic common sense!) will tell you the risk of getting into an accident or stranded driving in winter are much higher than in summer.

Of course selling a massive insurance premium hike to the public won’t come across as so populist, as I pointed out regarding similar comments from Jeremy Clarkson (whose Top Gear buddy Hammond had to be rescued, least we forget, by air ambulance after a stunt gone wrong).

Indeed, since we’re talking about, what about those people who don’t go out and do any exercise at all, which is statistically speaking far more risky. We all know the health risks that smoking, drinking and a high fat diet pose, particularly when combined with low levels of exercise Why should my taxes pay for someone else’s NHS treatment? (probably because unlike the Tories I’m not a heartless bastard!).

Insurance Scams

Again the MCoS and BMC oppose such a measure as compulsory rescue insurance, because it will make climbing an “elitist” activity. And inevitably many people, not their members of course (they go out often enough to make it worth their while), be they tourists or occasional day trippers, will just go out any insurance cover at all. What then? Will there be police at the foot of every mountain ready to arrest them?

Experience in other countries (such as some Alpine regions) with compulsory insurance or with private operators providing cover (notably many developing world climbing regions, such as Andes or Himalayas) are not encouraging. People are much more likely to risk it and go without insurance (particularly if they are either too old or young to qualify), get into difficulty and then often hold off from calling for help until its too late, leaving an even bigger mess for the rescue team (a British father and Son were unfortunately killed in the alps just the other week). Indeed I recall being out in Canada myself, and while I restricted myself from anything too daunting, I certainly wasn’t going to sit in the valley and sip coffee! And I saw plenty of others (likely without any cover either) going much higher.

At the other extreme there are a number of “rescue scams” running in some parts of the world. The BMC just did an interesting piece on these in Nepal (via its latest edition of summit magazine, not available online yet tho!). Basically the instant someone starts charging for rescue, it becomes a commodity (i.e. someone somewhere can make money out of rescuing people) and inevitably some less than honest people start arranging unnecessary rescues. e.g. a guide turns around tells a client with a bit of cramp/mild altitude sickness they need to be rescued (as opposed to a thirty minute breather and some Sherpa tea or going down for the day and trying again in the morning) and calls in a helicopter. A massively inflated rescue bill (with kick backs all around) for the insurance company to pay is submitted, who respond by hiking up premiums. Before anyone says that this would never happen in the UK, consider the number of elaborate insurance scams that professional criminals are pulling as we speak, often faking accidents on roads or taking swan lake dives off bits of broken pavement. Indeed just this week, even a cop got in on the act.

“Considerable” tabloid hysteria

Finally I would argue that at least part of this whole saga is driven by tabloid press reports of climbers going out when the avalanche forecast was quote “Considerable“. Why the tabloids ask, go out with a forecast giving a “considerable” risk of avalanche? How dare they expect the taxes we don’t pay to (not) pay for their rescue (by volunteers!).

Well largely because tabloid journalists haven’t got a clue how to read an avalanche forecast. The SAIS (Scottish Avalanche Information Service) operate a five point scale of snow pack stability going from Low to Very High, with “considerable” in the middle of the scale (i.e. for for most of winter this is normal after a snow fall). As the Swiss institute for Snow and Avalanche Research point out a “considerable” risk of avalanche means:

“The snowpack is moderately to poorly bonded on many steep slopes…Triggering is possible, even from low additional loads particularly on the indicated steep slopes. In some cases medium-sized, in isolated cases large-sized natural avalanches are possible”

This is quite normal in situations where snow has recently fallen. I could argue that after a snowfall the risk of avalanche of the snow off you’re roof is “considerable“. If the tabloids were to be believed that would mean we don’t go outside any time snow has fallen. The advice from the experts in such scenario a is:

“Experience in the assessment of avalanche danger is required. Steep slopes of indicated aspects and altitude zones should be avoided if possible….”

In short a “considerable” forecast doesn’t mean the whole mountain is a no go area. It just means you need to read the forecast carefully and avoid certain danger zones (the indicated aspects and altitude where danger is predicted). This of course means you need to be up to speed with avalanche awareness and if you’re not, then off piste skiing or hiking is a really bad idea. The SAIS discuss this themselves here.

Casing point, I was out in Wales this year (where there is no avalanche forecast, but that doesn’t make it any safer!). I noted as I ascended that much of the snow around me was only 24 hrs old (always a warning!). I also noticed that my planned route would take me into corrie where the prevailing wind was building up a steep wall of snow (loading to use the term the snow slope) otherwise known as a “cornice” at the headwall. That created a potential avalanche hazard. At a safe point at the bottom of the slope I dug a quick inspection pit and I didn’t like what I saw and I wasn’t in a mood to go up onto it and “find out” how stable the snow at the top was by standing on it.

My options were to go back down (always an option you need to consider!), or alternatively skirt around the corrie. The crest of a ridge 1km to my left for example, while rocky and icy showed no significant loading with snow, so while I had to scramble up onto it (of course I’d brought an ice axe and crampons just in case this happened), it represented much safer ground. This is often quite normal, if the corries are dangerously banked out with snow, sticking to ridges is often safer. Of course this isn’t always the case!

By way of contrast my planned line of decent took me down a ridge. However, I observed at the top of it that it was much narrower and steeper than I’d originally thought from the map. Furthermore it was heavily corniced (again likely with unstable powder snow). If the visibility dropped (e.g. a white out) it might be all too easy in such a situation to accidentally wander into the fracture zone of a cornice. Now while I thought the risks of this happening were low (weather was cloudy, windy and dull but not stormy), I decided I’d rather not be taking the risk of calling out Prince William (his got his wife and the wee-in on the way to worry about!) from RAF Valley. So I went back up over the mountain and down my route of ascent (a pain having to go back up a mountain you’ve already climbed, but again you have to be prepared to do it sometimes).

Of course had I just read my weather forecast a little more carefully the night before (again, there was no avalanche forecast for this region) I’d have realised that while conditions on the north face of this range were a little dicey, on the opposite South side of the mountain they were fine. Had I just started the walk from there all difficulty would have been avoided (then again, the south side of this peak is boring!).

But as my example above shows it is possible to avoid danger. Of course sometimes things happen, people wander off route, slip, someone gets ill and the party needs to descend quickly, an unexpected change in the weather, etc. Or indeed they just throw caution to the wind and ignore the dangers.

Indeed casing point, the other weekend I was out and saw a guy take a slide a 100m down a steep snow slope. He didn’t have an ice axe or crampons on and the snow in this north facing corrie was still frozen solid. Now he got up afterwards unhurt (that happens quite a lot of the time!) and in his defence of the 4 days last week I was out this was the only time I genuinely needed my crampons (and it is extremely rare to encounter snow in that state this late in the season).

Of course the idea that accidents “just happen” doesn’t sit well with the media, particularly on a slow news day.

So yes, while mountaineering in winter is risky, its not any less risky than a lot of other activities, such as driving on snowy roads! If we followed the tabloids line of reasoning all activity would grind to a halt every time a snowflake falls (as unfortunately does still happen to many schools). Getting mountaineers to pay rescue insurance would be a massive over reaction, and won’t really solve anything, other than scare off tourists and create a host of new scams for criminals to get rich off of.