The populist threat to the Good Friday agreement

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You’d be forgiven for thinking that Ireland is some sort of democratic utopia right now. However, its more about the fact that relative to the UK (with Brexit), the US (with Trump) and Europe (with various far right populists), we come off a bit better, the best of the bad lot as it were. We still have all the usual issues of incompetent politicians wasting public money, corruption scandals (more recently regarding police whistleblowers) and sooner or later we’ll have to have a tribunal about all of the tribunals.

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Aftermath of a vigilante raid by SF supporters in Co. Roscommon

But its not as if Ireland has escaped the racism, bigotry and populist upsurge of other parts of the world. In fact recently there’s been some very worrying developments. We’ve had the murder of a journalist in Northern Ireland, a rise in vigilante activity (linked to Republican groups) and even an unauthorised Saoradh parade of provo’s on O’Connell’s street. As events in Sri Lanka recently showed, terrorism can just bubble below the surface, then erupt without warning. And while brexit is certainly part of the problem, it would be unfair to blame it alone. The rise of extreme politics, the DUP and Sinn Fein, at the expense of more rational parties is clearly part of the problem.

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A paramilitary parade in O’Connell street….taken this Easter, not 30 years ago!

Sinn Fein have of course gone through their usual dance of condemning all of the above, without condemning it. Yes its terrible that those bullets choose to hit that journalist…rather than the cop they were aimed at, but clearly that’s not SF’s fault. I recall there was something of a stopped clock element to how Ian Paisley would often refer to “IRA/Sinn Fein”. As he saw it they were both two sides of the same coin…course he failed to mention how closely aligned the DUP was (and still is) to loyalist terrorists. But either way, inevitably the rise in support for these parties, combined with brexit, has embolden terrorist groups.

And least we forget, NI terrorist groups are also linked to a significant proportion of the crime both sides of the border. We are talking about crimes such as smuggling (drugs, booze, cigarettes, guns, etc.), racketeering, counterfeit goods, robberies, kidnappings, bank raids. You name it NI terrorists, and their political allies, have their grubby finger prints all over the place. After all, running a terrorism campaign is expensive, Semtex doesn’t exactly grow on trees. And given that the terrorists are marked men, they need their political allies (SF & the DUP) to run errands for them from time to time.

And its also important to understand how people are drawn into these terrorist/criminal gangs. Often they live in fairly deprived areas, that have seen little inward investment and depleted public services. A situation not helped by Tory austerity, the current power vacuum in Stormont, or the uncertainty over brexit putting a freeze on business investments. So with nothing better to do and few prospects, they get drawn into these gangs.

With many new entrants to politics (the usual angry populist voters who just want to vent their fury) Sinn Fein and the DUP have tried to distance themselves from this criminality and terrorism, much as the far right parties in Europe try to distant themselves from the skinhead gangs. But like I said, they are two sides of the same coin. You can’t have one without the other. There are plenty of other parties, both sides of the border, with the same basic political goals (although they tend not be single issue parties). Its not as if these views are under represented. The whole point of Sinn Fein or the DUP is to be a mouth piece for the gangs. So long as these parties exist, there will be the threat of terrorism and visa versa.

And there seems to be a failure of many to recognise this, both among voters, but also the politicians, particularly those in the UK. After all, May’s government (if you could call it that!) is propped up by the DUP. Meanwhile Corbyn (while busy denying he’s a dictator oh and labour’s in favour of a 2nd referendum now….maybe…maybe not, we’ll see) has been busy courting Sinn Fein.

And even US politicians don’t seem much better. The surprise announcement of Trump’s UK state visit probably has something to do with events in the US congress and Nancy Pelosi’s recent fact finding tour of Ireland. The British are all too aware that any threat to the Good Friday agreement will rule out any possibility of a US/UK trade deal. And this is a position that enjoy’s cross party support in Congress (such is the strength of Irish/American voters).

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The Nancy Pelosi recently visited Ireland for talks about brexit and the GFA

The UK’s only hope is to play their Trump card, the joker in the pack and hope to get the ball rolling on any trade deal before he leaves office (which could be as early as next year, depending on the election or any impeachment). Hence the urgency of his visit. Granted, doing a trade deal with the US in a hurry would basically mean conceding everything to the US, but its not like Tory MP’s care if farmers, fishermen and factory workers lose their jobs, or they have to privatise the NHS (actually they would see those as positives in any trade deal!).

But what policy did their ally Trump recently announce? He’s withdrawing from an international arms control treaty. Which will now make it easier for terrorists to buy weapons, not unlike those recently used in shootings. And yes, it is a proven fact that both the IRA and UVF have acquired weapons in the past via the US, by taking advantage of its lax gun laws.

So all in all we have a very dangerous situation developing. There is, unfortunately, a very strong risk of a break down of the GFA and a return to the bad old days. And consider that such a campaign would be far worse that it was in the old days. Technology as it were has moved on.

Back in the 80’s the IRA couldn’t hack into key computers and shut down the financial markets. Or buy a few drones, fit them with explosives and fly them over airports and other large public events (or merely threaten to do so). In fact one weapon the IRA are known to have acquired (but not used) was surface to air missiles. The only reason they didn’t was because that would have been a significant escalation at a crucial point in the peace process. One assumes that if things kicked off again, this could be the opening salvo.

Like I said, I won’t blame it alone on any one factor (such as brexit), clearly there are multiple drivers here. Angry voters who vote for these parties (because urinating into a ballot box is illegal so this is the next best thing), without considering the consequences. Tory austerity. The fact that both of these parties currently see them as benefiting from the impasse in Stormont. Establishment politicians who see nothing wrong with doing deals with the allies of terrorists (if they wore turbans and prayed to a different god, can you imagine the outcry?). US politicians who don’t understand what’s going on this side of the pond. Something needs to give, if we’re to see off this threat.

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The environmental impact of space Junk

daryanenergyblog

5ab950de821646d6378b4707-750-500 Figure 1: Its not just the oceans where the earth has a garbage problem

We often think of environmental problems as something that only effects the natural world and things back on earth, but there’s a growing environmental problem in space, which could have very serious consequences if it isn’t contained. The issue of orbital debris from expired satellites and spent rocket stages, which is gradually building up in space, making operations in space increasingly difficult and dangerous.

1200px-Debris-GEO1280 Figure 2: A NASA radar image of the objects currently in orbit around the earth

A couple of weeks ago India was criticised for destroying one of its own satellites. This test produced a large cloud of debris (some 400 pieces) flying around the earth at twenty times the speed of sound (to put that in prospective that means a small 1g speck of debris has the same destructive energy as…

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Varsity blues

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I’ve meant to comment more fully on the Varsity blues” case for sometime, where rich parents have been paying middle men to get their kids into university. This has involved faking documents or claiming athletic merits (in sports they didn’t even partake in), bribing of admissions tutors and the rigging of exams. We’re talking corruption here on a level that would cause even the most corrupt governments on earth to blush. I’ve heard of helicopter parenting, but this is ridiculous.

Oh and it turns out one of the students in question, going to USC (I assume that stands for the University of Spoiled Children), is basically using her time in uni (bought at such a high price) as little more than an opportunity to party, rather than study. Those millions were well spent then!

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Yet the thing is that this is simply the tip of a corrupt iceberg. There’s all sorts of shady practices that go on in US universities. From how universities disproportionately take on students from wealthy backgrounds (presumably just a coincidence!), or how whites are vastly more likely to attend a top tier uni than anyone else. To academics farming themselves out as paid experts to anyone who offers them enough cash.

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And while academic standards in Europe are usually enforced pretty well (if you fail you fail, see you again next year, no exceptions), in the US, there’s all sorts of shenanigans, with the jocks from the football team being given extra tuition or the opportunity to earn extra credit (what we call in my uni “cheating”) just to allow them to pass.

And if the dodgy recruitment policies weren’t bad enough there’s the sky high fees, which immediately put academia beyond the reach of so many Americans (if you think fees are high in the UK, ask an American sometime about how much uni costs, I’d advise having something soft nearby to faint onto). Plus you’ll need somewhere to live on campus. Which could well mean joining a sorority or frat and go through hazing. Aside from the issue that they have been labelled as “hot beds of racism and sexism”, they are also the epitome of the term “white privilege”, as they are largely for the better off. In corporate America its not what you know, but who you know. You could be top of the class at Yale, but some rich jock who struggled to pass (and only did so with generous use of contract plagiarism) gets the job ahead of you, just by waving around his fraternity ring.

But at least by going to UCLA or Harvard, I’ll be taught by Nobel laureates? Think again, most students in the US (even the top universities) are taught by teaching assistants who are overworked, on minimum wage and struggling to get by. To the point where some are living in their cars. The only way you’ll get to see an actual professor is if you bump into them in the lift, or get a 2nd job as a cleaner.

Now okay, you may say I’m being unfair. There are some examples of good teaching and world leading research at US universities. Take for example, the recent imaging of a black hole. But this is the problem with US academia, the standards are extremely patchy, both in terms of teaching and research. For every Katie Bouman, I can point you to some woo pedaller, such as some of her colleagues at MIT who were pushing that water woo stuff I talked about awhile ago.

Go to a US uni and yes its possible you might get a professor who actually gives a crap, shows up to class and tries to help you learn. Or might get one who sends one of his PhD students to do the teaching, as he’s way too busy prostituting himself to some corporation, or ripping off his own PhD students work and passing its off as his own.

And as I’ve said before, the direction of travel here in the UK is to copy the US academic system. Both in terms of the high fees, the unequal recruiting policies to the dodgy financing and shady deals with corporations. In fact only this week we had the revelation that UK uni’s have spent £90m on staff gagging orders, in just two years.

And the thing is there is a straightforward way of fixing the US admissions system – centralise applications through an independent, government regulated, third party. In Ireland for example, we have the CAO system, whereby you apply to the CAO rather than the individual universities. The CAO system assigns every student a number and only the computer knows which number corresponds to which name, with selection on the basis of merit (i.e. you only get to go to the best university if your grades are high enough). There’s also separate programmes for students from a disadvantaged background (where it might not be fair to solely judge them on grades alone) and well as various schemes for mature students.

Furthermore, fees in Ireland are largely covered by the state. And while universities are independent and self governing in Ireland, as they are financed by the state, they are also regulated by the government. which tends to cut down on the sort of funny business we see in the US. And the EU also supplies various research funding schemes for universities, so they aren’t necessarily dependant on compromising their academic standards just to get funding.

So its strange how in the wake of this scandal, both sides in Congress aren’t pushing for these sorts of policies. One has to conclude its because they WANT a university admissions system that is unfair and benefits the rich. These issues I raise are not an unfortunate side effect of the commercialisation of US academia, they are the deliberate intention. The purpose is to game the system in favour of the better off against everyone else. And like I said, this is the route of travel for academia here in the UK.

A not so slow news week

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Of course the big story over the last week was the arrest of Julian Assange and his removal from the Ecuadorian embassy. To be honest, the only thing that surprises me is that this didn’t happen sometime ago.

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There’s an accepted wisdom that if you are offered asylum by a country, you don’t make waves for them. After all they still have to have relations with the country whom you are fleeing from. And that’s assuming you are in the actual country, not in an embassy metres from cops who want to arrest you! And you especially don’t want to go interfering in the affairs of the state who is protecting you, that’s just common sense. One has to assume that the historic distrust of many Latin American countries towards the US (thanks to its past policies in the region) is why they held this off for so long.

Assange’s supporters claim the arrest was illegal. It wasn’t. Diplomatic immunity is a mutually agreed convention. If both parties opt to wave it (as often happens), then a protected individual losses their protection and can be arrested just like everybody else. Police can enter an embassy upon request. There’s also a claim that Ecuador has been bribed with several billion in funds. However, this likely refers to a loan granted recently by the World Bank and IMF. Many states contribute to these funds (including Russia and China) so this accusation doesn’t really ring true.

Assange also claims he only sought refuge because he feared being extradited to the US and facing the death penalty. It is illegal under EU law to do such a thing. In fact, by contributing towards brexit, he’s inadvertently made this more likely.

And that’s the problem. Julian has been very selective and applied political bias to the information he’s released. Wikileaks was rather quiet about anything damaging to Trump, but released those Hilary e-mails (which actually didn’t contain anything new) right at the time when they would inflict maximum political damage. By taking sides like this, its difficult for him to play the card of being the little guy against the machine. Because it looks more like he’s an enabler of the alt-right.

To be honest I don’t think the guy is the full shilling, even before he went into the embassy. As I’ve mentioned, several of his decisions were tactically stupid, arrogant and foolhardy. Even his decision to stay in the embassy is questionable. Given that his expulsion has been on the cards for sometime and the police outside were withdrawn sometime ago, why didn’t he make a break for it? The Colombian embassy is in the same building and there’s about a dozen other embassies in a 1km radius. If he was willing to risk a car or taxi journey he could be in the Australian embassy within 5-10 minutes.

And while yes some of these would have shown him the door, others would have had to apply a certain due process (notably the Australian embassy). This would have required the US authorities to declare their interest and make documents publicly available (which they probably won’t want to do). Also some of these embassies have underground car parks. Meaning they could spirit Assange into a diplomatic vehicle, drive to an airfield and put him on a plane out of the country.

So I’d argue these numerous blunders made by Assange suggest he’s might have some mental health issues. And obviously if that’s true then he can’t be extradited, either to Sweden, nor to the US. Thought I doubt his lawyers will be allowed to use that argument.

The black hole

Scientists have recently managed to photograph a black hole, where all matter and the fabric of spacetime breaks down. Its therefore the one place in the universe where you can escape news of brexit or Trump, hence NASA are planning a mission there as we speak and millions are ready to sign up.

Jokes aside, this is kind of a big deal. While scientists have long suspected the existence of black holes, the idea that vast amounts of matter could be compacted down to a singularity has never sit well with them. Even Einstein, while he accepted his own theories (worth noting that it was actually Karl Schwarzschild who first proposed the existence of black holes based on Einstein’s theory of general relativity), he wasn’t entirely comfortable with the idea (which probably explains his obsessions over quantum theory later in his career). But we cannot deny the vast body of evidence built up over the years. And now we have an actual image of one.

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And the heart of this story is an unsung hero in the form of a post-grad student from MIT by the name of Katie Bouman, who proposed the imaging method used to capture this image. Its an excellent example of how academia should work. A hypothesis is proposed and, regardless of who proposed it, its subjected to multiple layers of peer review and scrutiny. Assuming it passes, funds are sought, its implemented and we get back our results.

Inevitably the internet being the internet, and there’s people out there who resent anyone who is successful (particular if it’s a woman), Ms Bouman (we should probably should start calling her Prof Bouman, because if this doesn’t earn you tenure I don’t know what will!) has attracted a online few trolls. But then again, you can’t say you’ve had the whole internet experience until you’ve received at least three online death threats and attracted at least a dozen cyber stalkers. Maybe we can send them on the mission?

Brexit update – limbo until halloween

And speaking of black holes that nothing can escape, the UK has secured ANOTHER brexit extension till Halloween (insert brexit metaphor or joke of your choice!). But you have to kind of ask, what’s the point?

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The time allotted by the EU is too much for the brexit bigot brigade to bear (hence there will probably be a strong showing for far right parties in the upcoming EU elections). And yet too short to allow a 2nd referendum. It serves no real purpose other than kicking the can down the road and hoping the UK actually makes a decision.

I would also argue that the EU is being very naïve. Their assumption is that one of two things will happen. May will go and a Tory brexiteer will take over, who’ll leave the EU straight away and the EU just triggers its no deal contingency plans. Or there’s a general election, Corbyn gets in and he either asks for an even longer extension (to have a 2nd referendum), or negotiates a Norway+ style arrangement. However, neither is actually likely.

Firstly, while yes the Brexiteers are talking the talk on no deal, I’m not sure they are willing to walk the walk. Remember they want it to happen accidentally (either that or May’s deal is voted through by Corbyn). If they force it through, then they have to take the blame for it and that’s their career over. If some brexiteer like Boris took over, he’d also be faced with the same parliamentary arithmetic as May. Not enough support for either no deal or May’s deal.

So he’d probably try and sabotage the EU from within (much as Mogg recently suggested) in an effort to win a free unicorn off them and distract from his own short comings. We’d only leave when the EU basically voted to kick the UK out against our will, thus giving him cover to blame all that follows on them.

And while labour has been going up in the polls, that’s more a reflection on how badly May is doing and a strong swing to UKIP and other far right parties. The issue for labour in any election is it has no brexit policy and it can’t agree on one. A pro-remain policy is at odds with the views of Corbyn and his cabal. A pro-leave policy would anger the 90% of labour supporters who want a 2nd vote. And it won’t take that many of them to swing a few seats. As I’ve pointed out before, go through the article 50 petition signature stats, constituency by constituency and you’ll see that there’s more than enough who signed it to swing plenty of safe labour seats into marginals and put others seats they have to win beyond reach.

And even if he won, and that would take some doing, he’d be right back in the same position as May. Its some variation on May’s deal (which everybody hates), no deal (which would be a disaster) or no brexit (which nobody is brave enough to support). Corbyn can’t magically change anything. He’s not the 2nd coming. I suspect what those who vote for him would actually get would be more akin to this scene from the wizard of Oz.

How to infuriate the EU in 10 seconds

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The irony is that the UK has actually got some leverage over the EU. Threatening no deal was never going to work. The EU’s never believed the UK would actually be foolish enough to follow through. And, in any event, they’ve had three years to put in place various contingency plans to cope. And they are also aware how woefully inadequate the UK’s no deal plans are.

To draw an analogy, let’s suppose the Pope had a glass too many of the confession wine and went around waving a gun. You could quite safely call his bluff. He’s the Pope and a Jesuit, he won’t hurt a fly (mostly because the fly would probably win….that said I won’t bring up the whole pedo priest business!). On the other hand, if Chuck Norris did it….well you’d want to be careful (if Chuck Norris was the UK’s brexit negotiator, we’d be the only country left in the EU, because he’d have roundhouse kicked the rest out of the building, fact!).

No, the UK’s one trump card left is to threaten the opposite – revoking article 50, then have a 2nd referendum at some in-determinant point in the future. That would absolutely drive the EU, particularly the likes of Marcon, up the wall. They’d be rolling on the ground and chewing the carpet if that happened.

The EU is going to start its budget negotiations for the next seven years some time at the end of the year, which will carry on for about a year or so. The last thing they want is the UK to still be in the club, but the topic of brexit is unresolved. i.e. That the UK might trigger another referendum at any time. And, if that goes the way of leave again, another set of exit negotiations, right when they are squabbling over money and they need to know if the UK is out or in (else they don’t know how much everyone will have to pay).

But of course, nobody in the UK parliament will even consider that, as it would only work if they were willing to let this process extend will into the 2020’s (ignoring the fact its going to continue anyway into the 2040’s).

Worse out than in

The other issue with this long brexit delay is that it means that all of that stockpiling that went on, by the government, companies and individuals has been for nought. Yet, given that brexit (and no deal) remains a looming threat, such stockpiling will have to continue. No quicker than I’ve eaten my way through my stockpile of Tayto crisps, Irish biscuits and Irish tea, I’ll have to start all over again.

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But this is no laughing matter for industry, they’ll now be forced to keep a floating stockpile of spare parts and perishable items for the foreseeable future. What’s wrong with that? Well many UK companies operate on a system of Just In Time manufacture, which is simply incompatible with the needs for brexit related stockpiling. The whole point of such a system is to eliminate inventory. This saves on cost (as you don’t need to pay for a warehouse), improves quality control (any issues get spotted immediately and dealt with straight away) and reducing waste. Leaving the UK stuck in the brexit twilight zone for another 6 months is thus going to have a negative effect on the UK economy.

And another piece of brexit related news is that of how the UK is now officially worse off than if the referendum hadn’t happened. Even if we ignore the £1.5 billion spent on no deal planning (that’s now basically gone to waste), the UK has sacrificed 3% of GDP growth to not leave the EU. And recall back in the referendum when it was said brexit would cost every household over £4k by 2030. Well its already cost each household £1,500 already, which implies where ahead of the curve.

Yes, inevitably during the referendum Cameron told a few porkies. He implied for example that said £4k loss would happen immediately on the 24th of June. That there would be emergency budgets, etc. But the main threat of brexit, was always the brexit bear effect and that bear is very real and we’ve now seen its claws.

Norway minus

Given that soft brexit and the Norway model seems to be everybody’s preferred compromise, I have to ask, has anybody bothered to run this by Norway and the other members of EFTA? Because I think you’ll find the last thing they want (or need), is the UK coming in and demanding special treatment, like some spoiled toffee-nosed etonian.

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Why no deal is probably inevitable in one easy to follow chart

I was actually in Norway during the referendum (and I’d previously been in Iceland a year or two before) and they know why they aren’t in the EU. Its largely due to fish, which is 10% of Norway’s economy, 30% of Iceland’s and 50% of Greenland’s, but under 1% of the UK’s. And even these stats don’t do justice. You live in a village up north in these countries, you’ve got a steep mountain on one side (or a volcano!), the sea the other side and a small sliver of land on which to build a fishing port. Job opportunities in these communities involve A) fishing B) Tourism during the short summer or C) Marrying a puffin.

Thus these nations are all willing to accept being rule takers from Brussels, but not rule makers, so they can exert a bit more control over this one key issue. Their concern therefore is that the UK will try to push the sort of rhetoric we’ve heard from the brexiteers into EFTA. Or that the UK tabloids will just turn on them as their hate figure in place of the EU. And they just don’t want that in their little club house.

Now if the UK were willing to compromise, for example not bringing in any changes to immigration or welfare rules for some extending period, agree to some dilution of the UK’s voting power such that the other states can easily outvote it, that would probably work. But the UK is in this mess precisely because it won’t compromise.

So I’m not sure how that’s going to work. And single market membership won’t eliminate checks at the Irish border, we’d need a customs union as well. Like any of the brexit options, the Norway model amounts to accepting that the UK is worse off out than in and that’s the one unspeakable truth none dare utter.

Ourselves alone

There’s some who say that the solution is for Sinn Fein (which translates from Irish into “we ourselves” or “ourselves alone”) to come to Westminster and break the deadlong. Quite frankly, we’ve already got one bunch of terrorist supporting criminals in parliament (the DUP, aka the old testament with fortnightly bin collections), the last thing the country needs is another bunch. And I do not make these allegations lightly, Sinn Fein (like the DUP) have been recently linked to vigilante gangs, terrorists (obviously perhaps) and one of the largest bank robberies in both Irish and UK history.

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Aftermath of a recent vigilante raid by SF supporters in Co. Roscommon

So the last thing that parliament needs is for John Bercow to find himself refereeing kneecapping and arson competitions across the chamber. If you think the UK is in a crisis now, wait till SF show up. They have a saying along the lines of “England’s difficulty is Ireland opportunity”. They will try to be as disruptive as possible. Far from breaking the deadlock, they’ll flip flop either way on every vote on every issue to make sure nothing happens. Hell given the state of the building, they’ll probably start drilling holes in the ceiling (or calling in false bomb alerts). After all, they and the DUP have shut down parliament in Belfast over some dispute over the Irish language, for two years running now.

Furthermore, while SF will claim they don’t want to sit in parliament because it would mean taking the oath of allegiance, that’s just a load of BS. No, the real reason is that they’d have to take a position on something. And like all populists, they don’t want to do that (because then something might get done and they’d have nothing to whinge about!). Take their position on brexit. They are eurosceptics who want Ireland to leave the euro (and thus the EU), they want out of the single market, yet they don’t want a hard border, they won’t support any deal that gives Westminster any say over NI or Irish affairs and they don’t want no deal. And you thought the Tory Brexiteers policy was convoluted and hypocritical!

And if you think that’s bad, SF’s policy on pretty much every other issue is the same. Don’t take a position, because then you’ll displease someone. Like all populists they are the party of protest. They are against everything and for nothing. Urinating into ballot boxes isn’t allowed, so voting SF is basically the next best thing.

So no, the worse case scenario is for SF to show up. Hell I’d even include a bit in the law just in case, that if they do show up now they have to kiss her mag’s feet and give her a sponge bath. The best we can hope for is they bugger off and be themselves alone.

Breaking faith

Within conservatives brexit has taken on something of a religious status, a class struggle (the toff’s screwing over the working class, but getting them to vote for it first!). Fintan O’Toole’s talk on brexit kind of illustrates this narrative well.

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So any conservative coming out and saying that they were wrong about brexit is thus treated like a heretic. And this is rather vividly illustrated by a recent case study. Peter Obrone published an article in which he admits that he was wrong about brexit. It has turned the UK into a laughing stock and its quite clear the idea that we’d get a better deal outside than in the EU is false. Needless to say, this hasn’t gone down well with his fellow brexiters, as this piece from C4 news illustrates. I’m reminded of this song from the 90’s.

This is the problem. The reason why so many brexit voters cling to unicorns, or dismiss any negative news about brexit as “fake news” is that the minute they accept that the UK won’t be better off out of the EU, even if its only slightly worse off, their whole world view falls apart. It means that they voted to make themselves poorer and make their country weaker. That Farage, Johnson etal lied and they were fooled by those lies. Quite simply put, this makes them look stupid (as well as selfish, racist and unpatriotic) and their ego can’t take that kind of a hit. So they grasp for whatever fairy story that will magically make it all go away.

And we see the same in the US with Trump supporters who do not live in the same world as the rest of us. There is literally something wrong with their brains. Just take this piece where the relatives of Fox news viewers lament what happened to their family members.

Which illustrates the problem with any 2nd referendum. This lot aren’t going to change their minds no matter what. I’d guess, at best you’d get 60/40 in favour of remain and that’s if you are lucky. Similarly a Democrat victory in 2020 is by no means guaranteed and it will probably be by a tight margin.

The Atlantic city shuffle

And speaking of Trump, here’s an interesting article about the mess Trump left behind when his casino collapsed in Atlantic city. When the Trump Taj Mahal opened he declared it “the eighth wonder of the world”. But within a year it had gone bankrupt….only to then go bankrupt again! Yes, Trump managed to go bankrupt with his casino twice! And its likely that this was solely down to the mismanagement of the casino’s finances. In a casino, the house always wins, the casino owners are the only real winners….unless Trump is running one of course!

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In fact, its difficult to believe that even Trump is that incompetent. The suspicion is that Trump’s mob connections, used the casino to run a money laundering racket. In fact he was fined $10 million for various violations of anti-money laundering laws related to his casino’s.

Fortunately for Trump going bankrupt multiple times or breaking the law doesn’t mean he goes to jail. Nor indeed does it mean he losses a penny of his money, nor is he disqualified from voting (as happens to many African Americans after a slight misdemeanour) nor is he bared from standing for elected office. Like in any feudal society (such as Westeros!), there’s one law for the nobles and another for the rest of us plebs.

Parliament cracks on brexit

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The roof of the house of commons leaks – insert brexit inspired metaphor or joke of your choice below

One of the founding myths of brexit was that at the last minute, the EU would crack and give the UK everything it wanted. Instead the opposite seems to be happening. Boris & Mogg, having derided May’s deal as “worse than remain”, “a betrayal of leave voters” or that it would turn the UK into “a vassal state of the EUvoted for her bill last time ….which probably had something to do with her offering to resign (which just goes to show their motivations have always been selfish opportunism).

May meanwhile, apparently troubled by the risk of the UK breaking up in the event of a no deal, seems to be trying to prevent it (at last!) by offering indicative votes (which she previously whipped her MP’s against), considering a long extension, holding EU elections and opening talks with the spawn of satan the leader of the opposition comrade general Jeremy Corbyn.

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Now granted, these talks are unlikely to go anywhere, clearly the goal is to ensure labour shares the blame for whatever follows (be it no brexit, hard brexit or a long delay). And while Corbyn wants brexit to go ahead, he can’t be seen to support it. Allowing enough of his MP’s to “rebel” on key votes (e.g. stopping a peoples vote or even his preferred option a customs union) is one thing. But openly backing brexit would split his party, or force him to go along with what was agreed at conference, which was that if they can’t get an election labour backs a people’s vote (with remain on the ballot paper). And we can’t have that now can we (as remain would almost certainly win and Corbyn would have to hide in the woodshed again for 6 months).

And MP’s, aware that May is just winging it and Corbyn ain’t going to do diddly squat have panicked and are now desperately trying to get their own bill through parliament that will legally force the PM to request a long delay. Of course brexiters in the lords (where remain holds majority support) are trying to frustrate it and filibuster, complaining, with no hint of irony, of “the tyranny of the majority. Okay, so forcing a hard brexit that nobody voted for (only about 37% of the electorate voted leave, closer to 25% when we account for those who weren’t allowed to vote and support for May’s deal is as low as 6%), without any sort of consultation either with the opposition or remainers is implementing “the will of the people”. But a majority of parliament voting for something, that probably isn’t far off the majority opinion of people in the UK (delay brexit to avoid a no deal) is a tyranny. Asking the people to vote twice on something is undemocratic, but asking MP’s to vote on the same bill 3, or maybe even 4 times is okay thought. Conservative logic, don’t ever try to understand it.

But anyway, my point is, its all too little too late. May’s deal is basically dead, even if it goes through it might now be subject to legal challenges (as its questionable she’s followed parliamentary procedure). Any agreement Corbyn reaches with May will be meaningless, the withdrawal agreement can’t be changed at such short notice and the political declaration isn’t legally binding. May’s replacement could simply renege on anything signed. Pushing a bill through to stop no deal at this late stage has no real teeth (that would require a nuclear option to force the revocation of article 50 on the 11th of April if all else fails), it can be delayed for long enough to be meaningless.

And the EU has to agree to any extension. And May has asked for an extension, which the EU has previously turned down for solid legal reasons. If brexit is delayed until June 30th and the UK doesn’t hold elections for MEP’s, then what happens if the UK needs a further extension? After the EU’s elections, there will be nobody in a position of authority in Brussels to offer such a thing until mid July at the earliest. What if the UK were to revoke article 50 on the 29th of June and thus plunge the EU into a constitutional crisis? So no, its either a no deal brexit at the end of the week, passing May’s deal and then leaving on the 22nd of May. Or coming to the EU on the 10th of April with a solid plan, which would probably have to include participating in European elections and either a general election or referendum (or both). Pick one of three options. My guess? An accidental no deal is the most likely outcome.

What I’d argue has been laid bare here, is not how dysfunctional the EU is, but how broken the UK parliamentary system is (and I don’t just mean the roof!). To those who say brexit broke the UK parliamentary system, actually I’d argue it was broken all along, its just they’ve been very good at papering over the cracks until now.

They claim that the EU is undemocratic, when it is painfully obvious that it is the UK government that is undemocratic. The UK’s FptP system means an MP can be elected with just 25% of constituency votes. And a party can get a majority of seats with just 35% of all the votes (so about 25% of all voters once turn out is accounted for). Hell even Hitler had a stronger democratic mandate than many recent UK governments. And many stand in safe seats where losing is nearly impossible. Hence why several of Corbyn’s lackies (and several Tories) in seats that voted strongly remain, can back brexit and not have to worry about any blow back.

And of course nearly all of the real power in parliament lies with the PM, the leader of the opposition and (to a lesser extent) the speaker. Three MP’s, elected by a perhaps 30,000 votes each can basically overrule the votes of the remaining 50 million voters…and all three are among the safest of safe seats in the country (so its questionable if even their constituents have much of a choice!).

They claim that the EU is out of touch, yet it is clear that it is MP’s who are out of touch. While they squabble and play their games of thrones, the country is gradually descending into recession and despair. And its also painfully obvious that MP’s are utterly clueless not only as to how the EU works, but how their own parliamentary system works. Hence we have the PM trying to submit bills multiple times and having to be told no, you can do that. Or how every week the ERG quotes out of context some clause in EU or WTO rules, only to get smacked down by legal experts. Or on the remain side, an inability to properly organise a consensus around an alternative to the PM’s plans. And now they’ve probably left it too late to do anything, because IT TAKES TIME TO PASS A BILL! If they were serious about stopping no deal, they should have initiated this process back in December when May first delayed the first meaningful vote. Now its just pissing in the wind.

Of course the difference between the UK and either the EU or the national governments of many EU states is that, unlike the UK, they all have written constitutions. These documents lay out in clear detail what MP’s (or MEP’s) can do, what they can’t do, what are the limits of state authority, what is the position of the courts in all of this, when there should be a people’s vote, etc. And given that most elected officials across Europe are elected via proportional representation, this more or less forces them to work together. Consensus politics is the norm.

By contrast in the UK, its more normal for one party to govern, the other to vote against everything and whinge to the tabloids how the government is pandering to the EU and wrecking Britain. Then when the roles reverse, they spend half their time trying to unpick what the last lot did, while the other side nit pick and whinge to the tabloids that the government is pander to the EU and wrecking Britain.

So remain or leave, if there’s anything we’ve learnt from the brexit process began its that we need to take a leaf out of Guy Fawkes book. And I don’t mean getting rid of the building (that said its falling apart and would probably make sense to just demolish and rebuild it), I mean the UK’s system of government is fundamentally flawed. It needs to be completely torn down and replaced at every level.

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One possible solution?

A written constitution (which presumably will require a referendum to alter), proportional representation, a reformed judiciary, the elimination of numerous hereditary property rights, breaking the class system (which sees a disproportionate number of CEO’s and MP’s coming from a handful of public schools), replace the house of lords with a democratically elected upper house, changes to a massively unfair social welfare system (that doles out cash to wealthy pensioners without means testing, but drives genuinely poor people to food banks or forces them to sleep in doorways while their benefits are means tested).

I’d argue that if you want to waste 20 years of parliamentary time on something (and that’s about how long brexit and the post-brexit negotiations are going to take), leave the EU alone and focus on this project instead.

Predatory finances – the shape of things to come

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I know one or two who work in the financial sector and rather than “hot stock tips” what I tend to get instead are “whatever you do, don’t give your money to this bunch of fe*kin thieving gits”. Well one of those I was warned about was a firm called London Capital and Finance (LCF). And unsurprisingly, that firm recently collapsed, wiping out the life savings of many thousands of people in the process, with it considered very unlikely any of them will get their money back.

The firm, led by Paul Careless (I’m not making that up, wonder what his middle name is? Truthless? Brainless? Heartless?), is now mired in allegations of malpractice. Both in how the firm enticed people into investing, often by mis-selling them high interest bonds without explaining the risks associated with these sorts of investments. Or the fact that it has been technically insolvent since 2017, yet still continued to operate and take people’s money.

This is unfortunately a sign of things to come, for LCF are merely one of a number of similar firms that have popped up under the Tories. Given that the government have basically stopped providing public finance for local infrastructure projects, councils are often forced to look to the private sector (to build, operate and finance these projects). So rather than issue bonds and take advantage of low interest rates, instead they are forced into lending arrangements that are overly expensive (so called LOBO loans), which has stretched the finances of many UK councils (or NHS trusts) to breaking point.

And with interest rates so low, pensioners and savers have been putting their money into firms like this as they are only thing offering a decent return, something that Tory changes to the pension system have promoted (encouraging them to play the stock market and take what could be considered excessive risks).

So the end result is bankrupt councils with no money, private sector firms building or operating public services which go to the wall (which the government is forced to pick up the tab for), some +300 billion of PFI debts, plus pensioners and savers who get stiffed when these predatory finance firms collapse. The only beneficiaries? Well unsurprisingly the wealthy investors who bankroll the Tory party (and through their off shore status don’t pay any tax). I’d call it African dictator levels of corruption, but that would be unfair to African dictators. I mean why do you think they wanted out of the EU? Because they know sooner or later Brussels would shut them down.

And the scary thing is that this is the shame of things to come, for such predatory financial firms are much more common the other side of the Atlantic. Watch local US TV and you’ll see all sorts of ads offering loans to people who can’t afford to pay them back. Or cold called by someone running a sleazy investment scam. Or we’ve got MLM’s that are little more that a ponzi scheme masquerading as a cult. And that’s before we even talk about predatory TV evangelists trying to con people into paying for their private jets.

And least we forget, the financial crisis didn’t start in the big banks of financial firms. It started in lots of small local mortgage brokerages across America, who began offering so-called “Ninja loans” at high interest rates to people who couldn’t afford them. While this doesn’t absolve the major banks of any blame (they had to have known what was going on, so either they were criminally incompetent or criminally complicit), it does highlight that simply cracking down on the big wall street firms (as Bernie or Corbyn propose) won’t really achieve anything. Its the smaller investment firms you want to watch as much as the big boys.

And the impact of America’s predatory finance are all too obvious. For example in how rural America has been destroyed by US corporations, turning many in the countryside into little more than modern day serfs. Those not driven off their land by mounting debts are often no longer in control of their own farms. They are completely dependant on large corporations, for production contracts, who own their produce (the birds, the seeds they sow, etc.) and control their farming methods. And they can face the demand for expensive changes at short notice, which the farmers/serf’s have to pay for (putting themselves in debt in the process, often via the aforementioned predatory lenders). And needless to say, its gotten worse under Trump.

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Rural America is dotted with the abandoned farms of those driven to bankruptcy

America in short is the land of the free….free to exploit people and get away with it that is. Hell, take the recent college admissions scandal in the US, in which rich parents have been paying middle men to get their kids into university. Yet the response to this in the US, notably from academia itself seems to be muted and more about damage limitation, firing those implicated (for being caught rather than what they did). Nobody is talking about changes to the admissions system (such as adopting the systems used in EU nations, where applications often processed anonymously by a central authority rather than the universities, with places awarded solely on merit). I mean I’m critical of the UK admissions system, which tends to favour those who go to the right school, but at its worst its still way better than the US system.

Well this is all coming to the UK’s way post brexit. Why after all do you think the Tories are so keen to throw the farmers under the bus post-brexit and make everyone eat growth hormone beef and chlorinated chicken. The real purpose of this free trade deal is to allow UK predatory finance firms to fish in the US market for suckers investors and visa versa. Of course, once they get caught, they’ll be much more capable of escaping justice. Not that bankers ever go to jail anyway. In short, what both brexiters and Trump supporters seek is a mutually beneficial oligarchy. If you voted for either, then that this is effectively what you voted for.

The environmental impact of concrete

daryanenergyblog

photo-3j A concrete cement mill in operation

What is the most destructive material known to humans? Plutonium?Cyanide?Whatever the hell they put in Marmite? No, it would have to be concrete. The Guardian recently ran a series on the environmental impact of concrete which is worth a read.

Much of the focus on climate change mitigation, or pollution in general, tends to focus on energy production. However, in truth this is merely one of several sources of carbon emissions. Agriculture and land use changes tends to be the next biggest headline at about a quarter of emissions (which is actually arguably larger than it looks given the amounts of fossil fuels used in agriculture both by farm machinery and the production of fertilisers).

After that its the acquisition of raw materials (mining, refining and processing of base metals and minerals). And concrete, as one of the mostly widely used…

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