News roundup

Unfit for office…or opposition!

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I would argue that that there are two problems with British politics right now. Firstly a radicalised Tory party, whose broken every one of their pro-brexit promises, that seems to be committed to some sort of pointless and unconstitutional brexiter banzai charge. Which they will of course blame the EU for (as well as migrants and anyone who voted remain). But part of the problem is also a lack of effective opposition.

Labour have been facing the biggest open goal in politics for 3 years now, but have actually gone backwards in terms of support. And this is largely why we’ve gotten to this stage where no deal could be seriously considered. If labour were providing effective opposition, going up in the polls and largely seen as a government in waiting, there is no way the cabinet and Johnson’s ghoulish minions would even be considering no deal.

Case in point, given that an election after a vote of no confidence isn’t guaranteed to work, as there might not be time remaining to hold one (or time afterwards to form a government and do something). And that’s assuming labour’s poor poll ratings don’t see them get annihilated. So the sensible solution proposed by a number of pro-remain MP’s is a government of national unity to sort out brexit one way or another (revoke article 50 or a 2nd referendum) then dissolve itself and call an election.

This government would be led by an interim PM, likely a veteran politician with some prior ministerial experience (this would reassure allies and businesses that there was a safe pair of hands at the helm who wasn’t going to do anything crazy). Such a unity government would have a very narrow mandate beyond brexit. All they can do is slap a few band-aids on public services to undo the damage the Tories have done. Anything more radical (re-nationalising the railways, major tax or welfare reform, etc.) won’t be possible as they’ve have no electoral mandate, no guaranteed support in parliament, insufficient parliamentary time and the lords would just block it anyway. So it would be something of a thankless task. Likely candidates for this role include Dominc Grieve, Anne Soubry, Vince Cable or Tom Watson.

But no, instead Corbyn is insisting that he’ll be PM (why? ego one assumes). Indeed he’s implied that labour won’t even negotiate with the other parties, but try to force through a minority government. His deputy McDonnell even suggested (and I’m hoping he was joking) that Corbyn would go to the palace and demand to be made PM if they win a no confidence vote (so basically he’s going to launch a one man coup d’etat…presumably armed with a cucumber from his allotment). It would be funny if it wasn’t so serious.

Basically this means one of two things. That Corbyn and his cabal really are so deluded that they think that they can just walk in and take over the government, wave a magic wand and put everything right in the world….while ignoring completely the impending crisis of brexit and its aftermath. Honestly Trump seems to have a better grasp of politics than Corbyn et al. And they are ignoring polling which suggests they will at best lose dozens of seats, or worse, potentially finish 4th behind the lib dems and brexit party. The last thing he wants now is an election.

The alternative theory is that Corbyn is really so desperately anti-EU that he’s willing to put the country through a no deal brexit shredder and scupper his chances of ever becoming PM to achieve it. If he sabotages any effort to form such a unity government then a no deal brexit will have his grubby paw prints all over it. And you can be guaranteed this will be pointed out to voters next election.

And in another facepalm moment, McDonnell also suggested that labour won’t block a 2nd indy ref in Scotland. While this is a sensible strategy, it was a grave error last time for labour to whip its members and MP’s into backing remain, but its the sort of position that needs to be rolled out tactfully. You’d only want to adopt it once it was clear a referendum was imminent and use it as a bargaining chip to make sure the SNP behave themselves (i.e. they don’t go the full Cambridge Analytica).

Inevitably the right wing media reported it as labour is in favour of Scottish independence (no they aren’t that’s not what he said). And because he’d not cleared this with the Scottish labour party leadership first, it got a very angry reaction from the Scottish wing of the party.

All in all it shows us that Corbyn’s cabinet is as dysfunctional, factional and chaotic as the one in the white house. He’s completely delusional, has no clue what he’s doing and seems to have no real goal other than making sure brexit happens at all costs, even if it destroys his party to achieve it.

Dragging the queen into brexit

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In another example of how utterly dysfunctional both the main parties have become, there’s the fact that both seem determined to drag the queen into the debate about brexit. Either by getting her to intervene in the selection of who is PM, the date of any election (till after brexit happens) or by asking her to suspend parliament (i.e. suspend democracy) and force through a no deal. This is politically very dangerous. The queen, like any head of state (America being the exception) is supposed to stay out of politics (and this I’d argue is the flaw in the American system). As it can get very messy very quickly if she does get involved.

For example, let’s suppose she backs Boris and a no deal brexit. That is going to upend the lives of millions of people. Families will be split up, millions of jobs will be lost, the UK’s GDP will go down but 6-10%, there might be food and medicine shortages (we might even run out of bog roll!). And any issues with the NHS or medicines means people will die. And all of that the Queen will now be responsible for, with it all played out on the 24 hr news cycle.

So the royals will now have millions of angry voters who’d be wanting a referendum alright. But not on re-joining the EU, but on whether to packing her off back to Saxony. We’d be in the same situation the royals were in after Princess Diana died. And the only got through that thanks to Tony Blair. Boris by contrast will quickly toss her under the first passing bus to save his skin. And Corbyn has co-signed bills looking to remove the queen. And such a train wreck could re-invigorate the republican movements in Canada, Australia and NZ, who might also have similar votes.

So the trouble is that once she makes one decision she’s going to have to make more. This is exactly the sequence of events that led to past royal dynasty’s failing or kings loosing their heads (recall it was proroguing parliament where Charles I troubles started).

So for example, what if Scotland wants independence? Let’s suppose she backs Boris and blocks an official referendum. The danger is that if SNP can demonstrate enough support in an unofficial poll, then they can force their way out of the union by just making themselves such an pain in the ass that the rest of the UK throws them out (e.g. they could ask Scots to refuse to pay UK income taxes, refuse to hand over oil or VAT revenue, run up massive debts on the UK’s credit card then refuse to service those debts, organise wild cat strikes which lead to power cuts and gas shortages in England in the middle of winter, etc.).

All the queen will have done is ensure that Scotland becomes a republic (as Ireland and India did) and it increases the chances of a disorderly Scottish exit. Or worse, the Scots might take a leaf out of Norway’s book and invite some member of the royal family to take the crown of Scotland. Meaning there would be two British monarchs and allies (such as Canada, Australia and NZ) will have to decide who to back. The one whose kingdom is let by racists and disintegrating largely due to actions taken by her (and her heir apparent is Charles remember). Or some dashing new Scottish king (Harry and Megan maybe?), whose kingdom sits on lots of oil, has whisky galore and is applying for EU membership.

The sensible thing for her to do in such a situation would be to either respect the poll but ask the SNP to negotiate an orderly exit (which would be a bit rich given how she supported no deal with the EU), or ask for a 2nd official poll (after she helped Boris block a 2nd EU referendum) or call for some sort of compromise (Devo Max). Of course while this would preserve her crown, it would put her on a collision course with the PM and the cabinet.

Or how about a UK-US trade deal? If that goes through after brexit, farming and manufacturing will be devastated, the NHS sold off and we’ll be eating chlorinated chicken (meaning more people die). So she might have to get involved in that or block it entirely. Putting her on collision course with the government. And the same equally applies if she backs remain. She ends up with lots of angry people beating down her door.

My point is that both Corbyn and the Tories seem to think the queen is some sort of jack in the box. They can take her out of the box, get her to sign a national death warrant and they climb back in her box and stay there. But of course, she can’t. Its impossible to predict what way she’d go (and my advice to her would be, stick to protocol, throw it back at parliament and if they can’t decide, put to some sort of public vote). And once she gets involved in politics its very difficult to untangle her from it.

The channel hop

A French man recently demonstrated a flying platform (basically an enlarged drone) and flew it over the English channel. As Trevor Noah pointed out, you can imagine the reaction of brexiters, they got brexit to keep out the foreigners and next thing you know some flying Frenchman lands on the white cliffs and starts chasing after their daughters.

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A flying foreigner, every brexiter’s worst nightmare

But jokes aside, and while this flying platform does have certain limitations, it does show how quickly technology can change. And how that change has many consequences. For example, we can make multiple criticisms of Trump’s wall and the ease with which it can be breached. But its one fatal flaw is it can’t stop planes and aircraft. Yes, you have some chance of stopping illegal migrants at airports….assuming they are dumb enough to tell you they are entering on a tourist visa with no intention of leaving.

Now we’ve gotten to the stage where drones can carry people, that opens up all sorts of possibilities. Notably of Mexican people smugglers at the border offering migrants an air taxi service into the US. Such a drone could carry people several km’s into the US (i.e beyond the zone currently patrolled by border agents), drop them off and then flying back and pick up somebody else. This would negate the wall completely.

This is one of the problems with conservative governments, their inability to see future trends and changes in technology. Hence why they tend to get blind sided by them and their knee jerk reaction is to try and get it banned.

Case in point, when mp3’s and online file sharing first came out the entertainment industry tried to get them banned. They poured millions into anti-piracy ads that were often parodies of themselves. How can we make money off a service that we just give away for free they said?…to which Google, Facebook and You-tube responded, hold our beer….Now streaming is a massive multi billion dollar industry and the main means of distributing media.

The oil industry and its vested interests, promote climate change deniers, even despite the fact that the oil industry is losing money hand over fist, with 50% drop in oil stocks over the last few years, while renewables are a growing industry. The brexiters want to bring back Britain’s trading empire, ignoring how globalised trade in the 21st century works. They also want a 3rd runway and a new terminal at Heathrow, which will involve demolishing several nearby historic villages and subjecting London to more noise pollution. This despite the fact that airlines are ditching their large planes and abandoning the hub and spoke model in favour of smaller planes and more direct flights, largely due to the availability of newer more fuel efficient aircraft (such as the Airbus A350).

This to me just serves to demonstrate the fatal flaw in conservatism. You’ll get a lot of kicking and screaming. They’ll tell you that television, flying, rock and roll music, gay marriage, abortion, gun control or acting on climate change will be a slippery slope to the end times. Yet in the end they are forced by circumstances to adopt it anyway, upon which they’ll conveniently forget their opposition and move on to the next artificial controversy.

UK College goes bust

The UK government has spent quite a bit of time recently promoting private colleges and universities as it attempts to emulate America’s heavily commercialised higher education system. I’ve long opposed this because I know how ridiculously unfair the US system is. It means large sections of the population simply can’t go to uni as they can’t afford it. And even those with better off parents often still leave uni with massive debts that cripple their finances for life.

Of course the other problem with the US model is the frequency at which their universities go bust. Something that’s practically unheard of in Europe. And such bankruptcies have very real and serious consequences, as this news piece on one such failure discusses. Not just to students, but to local businesses and employment. There are some small towns or neighbourhoods in the UK whose economy would implode if the local uni shut down.

And inevitably one of these new colleges, GSM London has now failed. Fortunately, it doesn’t look too bad…suspect any students or staff caught up in this will have a different view on that! But I’m talking about the wider impact. Its in London, so the impact will be dampened somewhat. Hopefully they can all find alternative employers or courses to enrol on. However, it is a worrying sign of the times.

While the UK government has shown a willingness to quietly bailout uni’s in trouble. Much as I predicted, that’s not always possible. They might be in such a state to be beyond saving. Or the creditors, anxious to get their greedy paws on the valuable city centre real estate the uni owns might refuse any bailout and force through a bankruptcy.

And its also worth keeping in mind that government’s plans are to cut tuition fees. Which would be a good idea. Only they aren’t planning to provide any additional funding to universities (so they are expecting that they can just cut their funding by 30%, on top of the drop off in student numbers from the EU and loss of research funding and expect the uni’s to cope). Naturally its been pointed out that this would be disastrous and almost certainly push many universities over the edge. So we might not be so lucky next time.

A most convenient death

Word is that the alleged sex trafficker to the rich and famous, Jeffrey Esptein, has apparently killed himself in his NY cell. Now call me a tinfoil hat wearing conspiracy theorist, but when someone that well connected (Trump, Clinton, Prince Andrew, you name it) magically happens to die, just days before he can be put on trial and such connections were due to be subjected to legal scrutiny (which could have involved said individuals being required to testify in court under oath), well its a little bit suspicious.

Which probably explains why his victims are arguing for the investigations to continue. Perhaps even try him posthumously. And there is a legal precedence for this. But of course, fat chance of that happening! I mean why do you think they killed him/let him commit suicide for in the first place? So they can brush the whole thing under the carpet of course.

Loosing sleep

The Caledonian sleeper is (or perhaps I should say was) one of those hidden gems of UK transport. Its a train service running from London to the highlands of Scotland, with stops in the central belt (and Northern England) along the way. So you can literally go to sleep in London after a night on the town, wake up in Fort William the next morning, grab some breakfast and be on the summit of Ben Nevis before lunchtime.

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The Caledonian sleeper works its way across Rannoch Moor in winter

However, the rail companies have long hated it, as it means keeping lines open at late hours, screwing up their maintenance schedules. So they’d like noting better than to cancel it. Unfortunately, as its quite popular, plus its also used by MP’s to travel between their constituencies and London, any talk of cancelling it has been thwarted. So instead they tried to let it whither by not investing in it or just making the service poorer. For example, you used to be able to book half board and share a cabin with somebody else, but they’ve tried to did away with that due to “customer demand” (we are too believe there are customers out there who prefer to pay double for their tickets!).

Well now it seems they’ve figured out a solution. Invest money in the sleeper service. Because nothing in British transport will royally screw something up and make things worse than investing millions of pounds in it. Since this £150 million revamp the service has been dogged by complaints of late or cancelled trains (keep in mind, you are showing up to the station at 23:00, you can’t just wait for the next service, that’s not till the following morning!). Others complain about poor catering, lights being left on all night (which can’t be turned off) and noisy air conditioning.

So it seems like the rail companies will finally get their wish and do away with the sleepers…by trying to make them better! To them their own incompetence is now an asset.

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Brexit: How a country lost its mind

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I know I keep banging on about brexit, but the thing is it will directly impact people in the UK and beyond (the joke goes an Englishman, an Irishman, a Welshman, a Scot and an Ulsterman go into a bar, the Englishman decides to leave and all the rest have to as well) for decades to come, a reality a lot of people are very slow to wake up too.

For example, just this week the Irish government broke the glass on its emergency contingency plans for a no-deal brexit. They did this because they (and the EU) are responsible grown ups and, unlike May, they know they can’t simply wait and hide under their desk until the 28th of March, hoping a unicorn rides to their rescue.

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Buried amongst the many provisions of this bill is a clause which means all UK driving license holders cannot drive in Ireland in the event of a no deal brexit (nor in the rest of the EU without an international driving permit). While there’s been speculation about this, it confirms something that had been long feared. Hence all British living in Ireland  now have a little over month to exchange their licenses.

If this sounds unfair, consider that there’s the issue of how do the Irish police British drivers if their license is issued by a third country outside of the jurisdiction of the ECJ. Because in the event of no deal brexit I (on my Irish license in the UK) could literally drive past a speed camera at 100 mph, doing doughnuts while drunk as a skunk. What are you going to do, take my license away? How? My license is issued by a third country whose legal system is completely different from the UK’s and which treats evidence from things like speed cameras very differently (basically to a Irish court, what you’ve got is a picture of a car on a road, unless that photo clearly shows who is driving, simply assuming it was the license holder is applying a presumption of guilt and thus said evidence is inadmissible in court).

However, the official advice in the UK is that even in event of a no deal brexit, Irish (or EU) driving license holders will still be able to drive in the UK. In fact, we can’t exchange our licenses until or unless they expire, or you hit 67 (none of which is going to happen to me for sometime). So it raises the question, given that the UK government is so massively unprepared for brexit and my point above, is this really their final position? Because if not (I suspect its not), the implication would be that I should apply for a UK license right now and give up my Irish one, but that would mean I won’t be able to drive if I go back to Ireland.

Now consider that there are about 600,000 Irish in the UK, some of whom will also have Irish driving licenses. Even if only a small fraction of them are effected, say 250,000, how would the DVLA cope if all of us applied for a UK license next week?  And what about EU citizens? If say a million of them also now apply, can the DVLA cope with 1.25m licensing applications in a few weeks? Which raises the question of whether you’d want to risk posting off your license knowing it will get lost in a sea of post that will hit the DVLA (where talking about several shipping containers full of post on its way to Swansea).

And this isn’t really that serious for me, I don’t drive very often so I can cope without a license for a few months, or even semi-permanently. But spare a thought for someone who needs their car to get to work, or drives for a living (either a brit living in Ireland or an Irish trucker living in the UK). That means they can’t work.

And if incorrect government advice left someone unemployed surely that’s grounds to claim compensation. Can the UK courts cope with a few hundred thousand compensation claims? If a driver decides, not unreasonably, that they are going to keep driving on their EU license regardless. And if and when they are caught with an EU/Irish license, would those charges stick in court? (given that they’d been given incorrect advice and the government had proven itself woefully incapable of doing something as simple as issuing a driving license).

This is kind of the problem with brexit, right from the start the people in charge are utterly clueless and don’t know what they are doing. For example, they argued that in the event of no deal why we can avoid chaos at the ports by just waving trucks through, or maybe just those covering vital supplies like food. If the EU/Ireland chooses to put in place customs controls it will be them punishing themselves. And for 2 years everybody, the EU, foreign diplomats, trade experts, bloggers like me, the 3 blokes in a pub, have been screaming at them, no you can’t do that, it would be illegal and kind of stupid.

The UK would have to be willing to wave through every vehicle coming through every port of entry to the UK and remove all customs controls and tariffs (so you’re leaving the EU in order to have no trade policy and no border controls whatsoever?). Under WTO rules and international law, you can’t selectively ignore the rules for one category of goods, or goods from one country, but impose them on another. Someone, most likely a company in the UK (who won’t be able to compete in such a scenario) or a non-EU country (such as China or the US) will complain and sue the government (and the EU), probably within days. Hence in the absence of a trade agreement (and you’re not going to get that without paying the EU divorce bill), customs checks are inevitable.

And the government seems to have quietly caved in to this reality recently, announcing that they will be applying WTO tariffs on food for example. Of course this confirms that Northern Ireland and Kent are a month away from becoming lorry parks, that food prices are going to soar and there’s a real risk of shortages (due to growing seasons the UK’s winter crops aren’t due to be harvested until April…and without EU farm workers it won’t get harvested of course!). So we’re going to get the opposite of no checks and no tariff’s, everything’s going to be checked and charged, which raises all sorts of logistical questions, does the UK have enough customs officials to cope? What happens when companies in the UK dependant on trade with the EU go bust? (and sue the government no doubt!).

Expect the next iteration to be, this is very unfair I mean maybe we can let some goods in without checks or tariffs, after all its not like we grow lots of olives in the UK, or certain foods out of season, and its beneficial to keep tariffs and checks at zero on as much as possible….you mean you want a customs union? Don’t you think you should have said that like maybe two years ago, instead of chasing unicorns!

What’s that you say, invoke the blitz spirit, bring back rationing, keep calm and carry on. Panic and freak out is more likely the end result. Such a policy would be well to the left of Corbyn, akin to those of Maduro in Venezuela. Is anyone seriously suggesting that, having left the EU because it sets too many rules, the solution is to bring in a government that is so authoritarian it literally decides how much and what everyone is allowed to eat and who gets to starve. You know you’re in crazy times when the hard right of the Tory party are advocating the policies of Maduro.

And where is Corbyn in all of this? Busy trying to settle petty scores with his ex-Mp’s. I’d call it fiddling while Rome burns, but in truth Nero almost certainly never did that, so it would be most unfair to compare him to Corbyn. Nero might have been a tyrant, but even he knew that life is about priorities.

This is the problem with brexit and has been since the start of the referendum campaign. There is no plan, there never was one and there never will be. Because leaving the EU was an act driven by ideology, mostly by public school educated toff’s who’d been indoctrinated with a vision of new British empire, which will magically come about, if we get the pesky EU and its laws (and offshore tax investigators) out of the picture. In the absence of plans, the brexiteers (which includes Corbyn remember) have presented instead fantasy after fantasy, each of which in turn has been shot down, not so much by the EU, but by reality and pesky little “facts“.

And this is not going to end on the 29th of March (remember brexit is a process not a destination), it will probably continue for a decade, or however long it takes for the UK to break up. Faced with this, one has to question the wisdom of continuing. Whether or not revoking article 50 completely (no 2nd referendum, just withdraw it) is the most sensible solution. But unfortunately sense and reason departed this island sometime ago. The official motto of the UK these days has to be “go sell crazy some place else, we’re all stocked up here

While I was away….

Just back from Holiday, thought I’d catch up on a few stories that came up while I was on my travels….

When in Rome do as the Romans do….stay away from burning buses

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The 5 Star movement remain committed to good public transport….with heating!

One of my stops on holiday, was Rome, where they’ve a bit of a wee problem with buses that keep catching fire. The locals blame the new Five Star mayor and cutbacks on maintenance, which is merely one of a host of scandals she’s gotten caught up in. Which given that 5S are now part of the government in Italy, is hardly a good sign.

While there was a few things in the joint NL/5S manifesto I agreed with, e.g. ending austerity, a national citizens income, better public transport (you might want to focus on stopping buses catching fire first!). But they also promised to lower taxes at the same time as greatly increasing public spending. This in a country whose in debt to the tune of 130% of its GDP.

Now while its true there’s nothing wrong with a country borrowing money, particularly in a time of crisis, Keynes never said that gives governments a blank cheque to spend like a sailor on shore leave and ignore any form of financial responsibility. Clearly, at the very least they’d have to demonstrate some plan for paying off this debt (otherwise nobody would lend them money to spend in the first place). This could include putting up taxes for the wealthy, or increasing the tax on things like alcohol and cigarettes (which are both very cheap, I mean I was buying Belgian ales for less than they cost in Belgium!), or starting to introduce carbon taxes (which would eventually replace things like VAT altogether). Cuts could also be made in areas that are cutable, e.g. in terms of defence spending.

But there in lie the problem with a populist government, they can’t do anything unpopular, even if its in the long term best interest of the country. Indeed, the NL part of the government wants to hire more police and build prisons for the hundreds of thousands of migrants they are going to deport. Of course, it would be unwise to undertake such deportations (and unlikely they are going to succeed). Many of the countries in question may not take them back and others would not be a safe place to send them. There is a legal precedence going back to the holocaust, whereby those responsible for deportations to Germany (in the full knowledge that they were potentially sending people to their death) which would come into play, meaning members of this populist government could find themselves facing a war crimes tribunal in the Hague.

And their solution to their debt problems is to demand that the EU simply writes off a large chunk of Italian debt. The EU’s unlikely to do that because A) that would set a precedence, which could lead to both Italy and the entire eurozone’s debt being downgraded. And B) as Italy would now be considered to be in a state of default, banks would be a lot less likely to lend to Italy. So rather than freeing Italy from under the thumb of the ECB, they’ve be more dependant than ever on ECB money to keep the country solvent. Yes, the EU must take some share of the blame for Italy’s predicament, but Italy is mostly in mess of its own creation (something which no populist party could ever admit, hence why they have to blame the EU and migrants for 100% of Italy’s problems).

Print money? That’s really only a temporary solution and the window of opportunity during which that could help has arguably passed. Also such measures would drive up inflation, diluting the value of people’s savings and push up prices. Indeed inflation (or more accurately stagflation) is a big problem in Italy right now. One could argue a number of the policies announced are in fact more anti-stagflation measures than anti-austerity measures. But introducing policies to counteract inflation, which will just cause more of it is robbing Peter to pay Paul. Or in Italy’s case (given that the ECB would never allow this either), its robbing Peter in the full knowledge that he’ll catch you at it and then beat you and Paul up later with a baseball bat.

Oh and 5S and NL also want to drop sanctions on Russia. And this in the same week the Dutch reveal how they have direct evidence linking the Russians to the downing of MH17. You have to love Italian corruption. In America Trump has to at least pretend he’s not Putin’s ally. But in Italy, they don’t even bother hiding that. He helped us get elected, so we’ll be sharing the cake with him, what’s wrong with that?

At least they’ve backed down from their more extreme policies of withdrawing from the Euro and the EU. The NL in fact actually wants a referendum for Northern Italy to separate from Southern Italy. But as is so often the case, when confronted with reality, such headline grabbing (but utterly ludicrous) plans have had to be dropped (like the £350 million a week for the NHS we were promised in the UK).

That said, it is alleged that the reason why the Italian president rejected their pick for finance minister was that he heard that they were planning for a secret withdrawal from the EU over a weekend (think about that for a minute, the UK’s going to take several years to get out of the EU and this lot thought they can do something similar over a weekend!). In the wake of this the populists called for him to be impeached and replaced by the Prime Minster (which would be unconstitutional, this is kind of the whole reason why they are separate jobs). In short, it seems like they haven’t much of a clue what they are doing or how government is supposed to work.

The populists have also asked the EU with coming up with the means for a country to withdraw from the euro at some future date, if they were to have such a referendum. Well the bad news is, I suspect some eurocrat IS probably working on just such a plan as we speak. But its not how Italy can voluntarily leave the euro, its how the EU can kick Italy out of the euro if they break its rules, while minimising the damage the rest of the eurozone takes from the inevitable Italian bankruptcy that follows.

I think we can get some feel for how things will pan out based on one of the earlier sticking points the NL stuck with, they wanted Silvio Berlusconi to be part of the new government. Why in blue blazes would they want that? Well because they know full well they’ve made promises neither they, nor 5S can keep.

What Italy will get is just a less competent (as well as corrupt and more authoritarian) version of the previous government. Just one that picks random fights with the EU, which they will generally lose. There fear is, that Mr Bunga Bunga (whose probably more to blame than anyone else for Italy’s current woes) will exploit that and next thing you know, a year from now, he and Trump will be trading anecdotes about their criminal exploits at Mar-a-largo.

Barcelona tourism protests

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Across the sea in Barcelona, there’s been anti-tourist protests recently. Now yes tourists can be annoying (in London during the summer you’re tripping over them, Edinburgh during the Fringe you can barely walk down the street and I reckon the use of rocket launchers against campervans on highland roads should be legal, when they trundle along at 30 mph with fifty cars behind them). But statistically, Barcelona isn’t even in the top ten of tourist destinations in the world (and having been there, the numbers aren’t anything near as bad as you’d find in say Florence or Rome).

However, a Spanish tour operator did mention to me that there’s been a big upsurge in tourism in Spain over the last few years, due to issues across the Mediterranean making such destinations seem unsafe. And as noted, Italy is starting to get very expensive (and politically unstable), so that’s driving more tourists towards the Iberian peninsula.

So to the locals the sudden surge in numbers is probably something they’d notice. And there’s a few particular features of tourism in Barcelona that I can see would likely wind up the locals. Firstly, there’s been a proliferation of Airbnb’s, with long term tenants being thrown out of their flats so it can be rented out to tourists (for the record, I stayed in one of the older pension hostals).

Also there’s lots of large tour groups running around, who seem to follow a set formula of places to visit. So if you’re in say, the Boqueria at the wrong time, you’re barely able to move for the numbers. And this has also had the effect of pushing up prices (the days of cheap eats in the Boqueria are long gone). And part of what’s driving these massive hordes are cruise ships, which have been docking in Barcelona in ever increasing numbers.

Indeed, my bit of tourist advice for Barcelona (or other cities like Rome with similar or even worse overcrowding) is remember that said tour groups tend to mostly consist of old retired couples. So with that in mind go to the places they won’t go (anything with lots of steps, loud noises, young people or this thing called “rock and roll”). And similarly if going to the places that are likely to be busy, such as the aforementioned Boqueria, go either early in the morning (when the oldies are still putting in their false teeth) or later in the evening (or around lunchtime when they’re having their nap) and you’ll avoid the crowds. But suffice to say though, you can see how all of this would piss locals off a bit. But equally, its a little more complicated than the simple populist “too many tourists”.

Now the thing is all of these problems are within the capacity of the local Catalan government to solve (keep in mind Barcelona voted in favour of independence by a margin of 92%). As I discussed in a prior article, most likely most of these airbnb hosts are breaking the law (notably local fire codes), so even without any new legislation a crack down on them is possible. Tourist guides can be regulated. And those regulations could stipulate terms that mean they stay away from certain parts of the city at certain times or on certain days giving the locals a bit of breathing space. Limiting the number of cruise ships or imposing a 72 hour rule on them (once in the harbour they can’t leave again for 72 hrs) would also relieve pressure somewhat.

Should you be wondering why the Catalan government isn’t doing any of this…..you’ve not be watching the news have you? They’ve got their eyes on the bigger prize of independence. And for that independence to succeed tourism will be a vital industry, as it will serve as a key source of foreign currency (meaning they can raise the cash to buy things like oil or other stuff the rest of Spain will be refusing to sell them). So at present the Catalan government doesn’t want to reduce tourist numbers, if anything they want numbers to keep going up. Not that they’re going to point that out to the angry populists in their own party of course!

But at least it shows that left wing populists can be as prone to blaming foreigners for their problems, as much as the right wing ones.

The downfall of Rojay

And speaking of Catalonia, we’ve just seen the downfall of Spanish PM Rajoy. If Catalonia ever gets independence, it will largely be thanks to his reign of error. When he took office, support for full independence was hovering around about 25-30%, although there was widespread support for greater regional autonomy. Now support for independence is closer to 40-50%. A combination of his austerity measures and his stubborn refusal to even consider alternatives has effectively convinced a large portion of Catalan’s that they can’t get anywhere with the likes of him in charge in Madrid.

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Already, in complete contrast to Rajoy, his successor is talking about reconciliation and negotiating with the Catalan’s. However, I suspect the damage has already been done. The brutal crack down against the vote earlier this year has hardened opinions and nothing short of a legally sanctioned in/out referendum will suffice.

I bring this up because some in the UK have suggested that Westminster should copy Rajoy’s tactics when it comes to seeing off future moves for independence from the SNP. I would argue that would be an excellent idea….if the Tories WANT to guarantee Scottish independence.

As things stand, support for independence is hovering around the 45-50% mark. Given the fallout from brexit and the blow back the Tories will catch for that in a few years time, such tactics will all but guarantee the SNP will win any vote (official or unofficial) by a landslide. And while Rajoy could just ignore the Catalan’s, Scotland can’t be so easily dismissed (given that Scotland controls the majority of the UK’s energy supplies!).

In short, the Tories had best get used to conceding ground to Brussels, because the only way their going to hang onto Scotland and Wales is by conceding more power to Edinburgh and Cardiff.

Magic money trees

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You may recall how Corbyn talked about nationalising the UK’s railways and the Tories laughed and said, oh we can’t do that, its too expensive, there’s no magic money trees……Only low and behold, the Tories have just nationalised the east coast mainline and bailed out their chum Richard Branson (who you will recall tried to rub Corbyn’s face in it last year, over that skit where he sat on the floor).

And this is hardly the first time. Hinkley C, Heathrow, BHS and Carillon, to name a few, have all had a bailout. And let’s not even begin to mention the costs associated with brexit. Recall, the tens of billions paid to the EU is just the start. The UK will also now need to set up whole new government departments to basically do the stuff the EU previously did for us. And there’s all the promises they made, farm subsides to be paid and the tax revenue hole left by leaving EU citizens.

So it would appear that whenever the Tories need it, not only is there a magic money tree, but there’s a whole forest of them.

Border woes

On my travels I also passed through the wee seaside town of Ventimiglia. One unusual feature of this town is that it has three railway stations, of which only part of one is still in service (the rest are either demolished or slowly being taken over by weeds). And the disused sections are absolutely massive, consisting of marshalling yards with dozens of lines of parallel track.

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You may wonder why a town with a population of just 50,000 ever needed such massive railway infrastructure. A little geography will probably help. The town sits right on the Italian/French border and is the last stop before entering France. So obviously, back in the days before the single market, every train that crossed the border needed to stop here for a customs inspection. It kind of hammers home the issues the UK will face post brexit.

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The Tories are still stuck with their delusions that they can magically solve the issue of the Irish border with technology (and presumably more magic money trees). Well the experts don’t just say no, they say “are you mad or what!”. Every month 385,000 goods vehicles and 1.85 million cars cross the border. That’s an average of 75,000 vehicles a day that would need to be checked (and potentially double that number or more at peak times). And there are potentially hundreds of border crossings where you’d need to have inspectors or infrastructure in place.

I think the problem is that many brexiters still have this vision of Ireland as a nation of farmers who ride around with a donkey and cart. They don’t seem to realise that as a factor of GDP manufacturing represents a greater share of the Irish economy (about 40%) than it does the UK (about a quarter). And we’re talking several high tech industries here, everything from aircraft parts, biotechnology and pharmaceuticals, to microchips and software. And yes, this does involve parts being sent north of the border, then onto the rest of the UK or Europe.

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In Ireland these days, we make more than just shamrock and stout!

And speaking of farmers, agricultural produce does represent a significant portion of our exports to the UK. And it is agricultural products that will likely see the largest shift in tariff’s and prices post-brexit (by as much as 50% accounting for currency exchange and differences in tariff’s) and the largest drift in regulation if the UK caves in to some of the demands its likely to face from trading partners such as the US (meaning certain UK food products would be banned from sale in the EU or visa versa). So there’s going to be a very strong financial incentive for smugglers to start shifting such goods.

Already there are smuggler gangs, moving narcotics (Ireland’s rugged coastline makes it a transshipment point for drugs), alcohol, tobacco and fuel. Many of these gangs have links to either loyalist or republican paramilitaries. So even if this “electronic” border did work, they’d take steps to thwart it. Such as taking pot shots at drones, blowing up cameras, or sending guys in balaclavas around to threaten the families of the technicians who program the surveillance software. And these groups also have politician connections to the DUP or SF (much as how the RHI scheme in NI ended up mired in corruption, so too is likely to be any electronic border).

But this is the problem with brexit. Its an idea dreamt up by posh public school boys who live in some ivory tower and are ignorant of what happens in the real world.

Changing tastes

Interesting article here about the likely impact of brexit on the full English breakfast. Let’s put it this way, about the only two ingredients that will be unaffected are the bread and the eggs. Well at least we’ll be able to make French toast then!

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The full English Irish Breakfast

The height of hypocrisy

And speaking of brexit, Nigel Lawson, a leading brexiter, is now apparently trying to get residency in France. And he’s in good company, Nigel Farage’s kids both have gotten German citzenship (and its been claimed he’s applying as well) and several unionist have applied for Irish citizenship.

Do right wingers have no shame, no sense of irony and do they understand the meaning of the word hypocrisy? Or are they just a bunch of idiotic self centred jerks? They see nothing wrong with campaigning for something that will drag tens of millions of brit’s out of the EU, then think nothing of applying for EU citizenship themselves. After all how am I supposed to get to my yacht on the Cote d’Azur! Hell, who wants to live in England anyway, why they eat French toast for breakfast since brexit.

What happens in Donegal, stays in Donegal

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Ireland recently had a referendum on abortion, which resulted in a resounding vote in favour of overturning the ban…..Well everywhere except in Donegal. That said, Donegal is kind of the land that time forgot. Its the sort of rural backwater where you’d be almost tempted to greet the locals by saying “how”. Its the sort place you fear that using a mobile phone might result in the locals burning you at the stake for witchcraft. So no real surprise really that they bucked the trend.

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This creates some awkward problems for Theresa May. Her DUP allies have, like their cohorts in the south, relied on the hypocrisy that they can pretend to be anti-abortion, even thought it just means anyone looking to get an abortion merely has to get a Ryanair flight to the UK. In a year’s time however, they’ll merely have to drive across the border, which will make something of a mockery of this policy.

The result was also was a major blow to the religious right in Ireland and their north American allies. One (catholic) priest even suggested that anyone who voted yes, should be bared from confession and basically excommunicated (which means 66% of the country!) until they do penance. Here’s an idea, how about as penance yes voters have to join the DUP or the orange order (given that they’re the only two groups in the country still in favour of an abortion ban).

Montecassino

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The abbey dominates the local landscape

Another spot on my travels was the Benedictine abbey of Montecassino. A bit off the beaten track, but well worth the visit. It is steeped in history (back to Roman times, as well as the founding of the Benedictine order and monastic orders in general). But its also famous for being the site of the battle of Monte Cassino in World War II.

To say this was controversial was to put it mildly. The Americans bombed the Abbey (effectively committing a war crime) to the point where it became the most bombed building in Europe. What was more tragic was that it was entirely unnecessary. While there were Germans in the hills surrounding the abbey, there were none within the abbey itself….well not until after the Americans bombed the place. After this the Germans argued, perhaps not unreasonably, that the allies had just made it part of the battlefield and they promptly occupied the ruins. The large Polish cemetery just below the abbey testifies to the consequences of this error.

And the Polish cemetery also hints at how the British have a warped view of history. Read a British textbook on the battle and they’ll go on and on at great length about how this commonwealth unit or that took part in the battle. They scarcely mention that it was Polish who had to come in and dig the British and the Yanks out of a mess of their own making and ultimately take the abbey. And then they’ve got the nerve to come over to the UK and get jobs, pay taxes and help to fund the NHS!

Trump’s Korean flip flop

A major story that broke while I was away was that of Trump pulling out of the Singapore summit, apparently because the North Korean media said mean things about his vice president (somebody call the wambulance). Of course the real reason he pulled out can be summarised in two words – John Bolton. He no doubt convinced Trump that he should have his little war with the North Koreans as a way of saving himself from impeachment.

Unfortunately, what Trump, or Bolton, didn’t seem to get is that there are other players involved here. The South Koreans, while they want to keep up the pressure on the north, they also don’t want to see a war start (as they’ll be on the receiving end of any retaliation). So they will keep the talks going if they can. Which, probably explains why Trump’s just flip flopped now. An egomaniac like him couldn’t bear the situation, where they carried out without him, even thought he’ll really just be meat in the room.

The other factor is China. They are often described as a North Korean ally. As I’ve discussed before, that’s not entirely true. But certainly they ain’t going to sit ideally by and let North Korea, get attacked by Trump because of some mean tweets (and anyone who knows anything about North Korea would realise those comments were merely for the purposes of domestic consumption). The danger is that they will use economic pressure against the US, or potentially interfere in any war.

So all in all, its a very worrying development. At the very least it means the US will increasingly see itself sidelined, much as Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal just means the US will have no say in how that deal progresses in future.

Eurovision boycott?

Also while I was away, Israel won the Eurovision song contest. This raises a worrying problem, as it was announced they will host the contest next year in Jerusalem.

What’s wrong with that? Well, it would be seen as legitimising their claim of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. There is no way the Palestinians, nor the rest of the Arab world will ever accept that. They might be willing to accept a divided Jerusalem with one half the capital of Israel and the other half the capital of Palestine (or an international city which is capital of both), but a Jerusalem that is exclusively the Israeli capital is just not an option they’ll ever accept. Which basically means that the current conflict will go on forever…..or at least until someone gets there hands on a nuke or something. That effectively is what Trump endorsed when he moved the US embassy to Jerusalem.

Trump did this to placate the religious right in his country. They are some of the biggest supporters of Israeli expansion of its settlements on the west bank. Not because they necessarily like Jews, actually its because they’re hoping that this war forever between Israel and the Arab world will bring about the end times….during which most of the Jews will be killed or converted.

So to me its quite clear that there should be a boycott of the next eurovision, if its held in Jerusalem.

Trump syndrome in action

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And speaking of crazy Trump supporters, while I was away we saw the melt down of Roseanne Barr. And Kanye West, suggested that slavery was a choice. Well, at least we won’t be hearing much from either of them for a while. Indeed, this seems to be something of a trend for Trump supporters. Apparently many of those who quit the Trump white house are having trouble finding jobs afterwards. Supporting Trump is literally hazardous to ones career. On the other hand, both have done us all a service, by demonstrating the cult like behaviour of Trump supporters.

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There is a distinct difference between a cult and say a religion or a political party. For example, a catholic bishop doesn’t have to agree verbatim with everything the Pope says (many won’t be happy about his recent comments about gays). Similarly in most political parties its okay to criticise the leadership (up to a point of course). And they can praise the opposition when they do something positive.

With a cult however there are only two things you can say, praise for the leader and the vilification of his opponents (which will be anyone who has criticised him in the past). The leader is considered infallible and his enemies are evil and anything they say (such as the Russia investigation) is clearly lies and fake news. Unlike other political leaders at no point will you hear any of Trump’s supporters criticise him, even when he’s clearly done something wrong. Even things that sound like criticism are often phrased such as “the leader should do XYZ”.

And the trouble with getting involved with cults, is the difficulty in leaving. You want to leave the labour party, all you’ve got to do is cut your membership card in two. But once people are in the Trump cult, its not easy to leave, given that they’ve burnt all their bridges behind them (I can’t see Roseanne going back to the green party). Hence the hostility and lack of rational reasoning you’ll see from them.

Of course what this means is that anyone waiting for the penny to drop for Trump supporters, think again. If he makes it to the next election, regardless of how badly he screws up, he’ll still take in at least 40% of the vote at a minimum.

Gun hire schemes

A bunch of practical jokers thought to set up a mock “gun hire” scheme at subway entrances recently, as a way of mocking the NRA. A dangerous thing to do, because this lot have no sense of humour and don’t understand the concept of irony. The danger is they’ll decide this is a good idea and actually do it for real.

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Consider how a few weeks ago I joked how the Outing club should start carrying guns around campus, to get around some SAPS in administration who wanted to shut them down on Elf’n’Safety grounds. Well in another incident a Trump supporter recently showed up to her graduation with an assault rifle and “come and take it” written across her mortar board. Ya and if she’d been black she’d have probably been shot by the police before she got two blocks.

But like I said, your trying to reason with people who are not reasonable people.

Setting the range for hybrid cars

The current transport secretary Chris Grayling is known as a bit for being pro-car and not a huge fan of green energy, so you have to view everything coming out of his department with a level of suspicion. For example, they’ve recently announced that the UK reg’s will specify a minimum all electric range that hybrid vehicles must be able to achieve.

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On the one hand this sounds like a good idea. As things stand a car with a larger than normal car battery and starter motor can be classified as a hybrid, when in truth its really just a conventional petrol powered car. However, that said, the range that his department is talking about is in the order of 50 miles, which even well established hybrids such as the Prius can’t achieve.

Its important to realise that the range of vehicles do vary for good reasons. The all-electric range of a hybrid involves a level of compromise. Putting a heavier battery into a hybrid will deplete its fuel economy, which may well negate the benefits of hybridisation. And its worth noting that the bulk of car journey’s in the UK are less than 20 miles.

Of course with the UK pulling out of the EU, it hardly matters what the UK says on this matter. Inevitably the EU will decide what it thinks a suitable hybrid range should be and car manufacturers will build according to that specification. They’ll then simply sell either all electric or petrol only models in the UK, if they aren’t compatible with this new law. So all Chris Grayling is doing is restricting the car choices of future UK drivers. And the fear is that might be exactly what he’s aiming for, so he and his Tory pals can keep driving around London in their range rovers.

Noise machines

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And speaking of the EU, they have also announced legislation requiring future electric vehicles to have noise generators fitted to them. I would question the need for this. While yes, its eerie having electric cars creeping quietly up on you, but its something you get used to when you are in a city with lots of electric vehicles (such as Oslo or some Chinese cities). Maybe its just because I had the green cross code drilled into me as a kid that I instinctively look both ways when crossing the road, so its not really an issue for me.

One of the main benefits of electric cars is that they cut down on traffic noise, leading to quieter cities. This policy could negate this benefit. Now if people were being regularly cut down by electric vehicles, I’d agree we have to do something, but I see no evidence that this is a problem. And some experts have also questioned whether such noise generators actually work in the real world. So I worry that this policy is simply being imposed as a sop to those who are suspicious of electric cars, in the same way the first petrol powered cars had to have a guy walk in front of them with a red flag.

Four days in Heathrow

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Got stuck over Christmas for four days in Heathrow all thanks to a screw up by BA. And this was before the strikes hit! Fog caused them to cancel a whole load of flights into the airport and delayed outgoing flights. Apparently the UK has yet to discover the benefits of this thing called “radar”, which is odd given that they claim to have invented it. I ended up spending several days getting fobbed off by BA staff. They’d tell you to go to one queue, then another, then ring a number, then check a website, then call your travel agent who would tell you to call BA 😦

And the Heathrow staff weren’t much better. The shops ran out of food and they were doing demolition work at 1am with a hammer drill while hundreds slept rough the other side of checkin. No consideration what so ever, no help to anybody.

All in all I’m forced to ask what exactly is the difference between Ruinair Ryanair or  Awkwardjet Easyjet and BA? Because the only difference as I see it is that Ryanair are usually on time and half the price. Yes Michael O’Leary is a bastard, but he pretty much tells you that up front. I’m surprised its not Ruinair’s motto “yes we’re bastards, but we’re usually on time and dirt cheap”. BA by contrast charge considerably more for essentially the same service. They are no more likely to look after you in an emergency, so frankly you may as well book with the low cost airlines (or take the train….unfortunately they don’t do trains to South America).

Of course these delays are largely because Heathrow is over capacity. This is why the government wants to build a third runway. However even if that was the solution, that’s not going to do solve anything for a decade. The fact is that successive governments have been kicking the can down the road on Heathrow for decades, both Tory and labour are equally to blame. After the first night I went to stay with relatives in London, which meant I got to see the other side of the argument, i.e. constant plane noise in the background. And this was with Heathrow at 50% capacity. So an extra runway will make things that bit worse.

As I mentioned in a prior post a report back in the 70’s recommended shutting down many of London’s airports and building a new one on a green field site to the north west of the city in rural Buckinghamshire. This would reduce noise over London and provide plenty of room for future expansion. And as it would be near (or on) the West Coast mainline, it would be easier for high speed rail to connect to the airport from the rest of the country (eliminating the need for commuter flights into this new airport). However inevitably as it would mean ploughing up the estates of the landed gentry it was ignored and we’ve been going around in circles ever since. This is what happens when governments dodge long term questions like this. You end up with a mess that can’t be quickly or easily fixed or put right.

Keep in mind Germany is in the process of consolidating all of Berlin’s airports to one site to the South of the city allowing it to close down all of those within the city limits. So there’s no reason why the UK can’t do the same. Its just governments here are, like the BA staff at Heathrow, taking the lazy way out of any difficult problem.

And case in point, the main obstacle to the other proposal, so-called “Boris Island” airport, is the wreck of the Richard Montgomery in the Thames estuary. This is the semi-submerged wreck of a World War II liberty ship with several thousand tons of explosives on board. Yes, seventy years after the end of the war the wreck of a ship with thousands of tonnes of explosives is sitting in the Thames just waiting to go off. Nobody has bothered to do anything about it because that would be too much like hard work.

So my advice to anyone is is A) Don’t fly with BA, Iberia or any of their code sharing allies. And B) avoid any flights through Heathrow. The slightest thing goes wrong, your screwed. If you have to do a long distance flight, use Paris, Amsterdam or Frankfurt as your hub. The flight into them won’t take much longer than one to Heathrow anyway and you’ll avoid having to deal with lazy BA & Heathrow staff.

Heathrow, Nissan, cats & Corbyn

Theresa “crazy cat lady” May, aka Baldrick, has given the go ahead for expansion of Heathrow for a variety of reasons. For starters she’s shown herself to be a zen master of the dead cat manoeuvre. And with brexit, she’s got good reason to start tossing around dead moggies.

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Theresa May prepares to announce another government policy

Take the recent announcement regarding Nissan. Sounds like good news, until you read between the lines and realise that the government has guaranteed Nissan business rates the same as if they were part of the single market. That could be 10-25% of the price per car, which is a significant potential subsidy for the government to be doling out to a car company say £5k per car, about a 100,000 of them per year, you do that maths!). And this on the back of the Hinkley C contract, which will give a 68% subsidy per MWh it generates. In short Theresa May has taken the UK economy back to the 70’s with the state propping up industries. Except these aren’t publicly owned or even British firms, but privately owned foreign multinationals. The tabloids who seem to think this is a good idea, would they be singing her praises if it was a bank or a hedge fund? Noting they will likely be the next lot looking for some compo.

Also it this is almost certainly illegal under EU competition rules. Okay, we’re leaving so what? Well because you need to understand why those rules exist. Its to stop EU states engaging in beggar thy neighbour protectionism. They also want to avoid any rows, via the WTO, with other trading block who will challenge such policies and might impose punitive tariff’s on EU or UK goods. So Theresa May has just guaranteed she’ll get into a trade war with the US and Germans at some future date. In short, May appears to have succeeded in combining all the worse elements of labour governments of the 1970’s, with the worst elements of Thatcherism.

But I digress, what about Heathrow? Well its the biggest, smelliest dead moggie of them all. Given that expansion of Heathrow will impact on so many marginal constituencies, both through the physical demolition of towns, but also aircraft noise, most previous governments have avoided the issue like the plague. This is the sort of decision that could easily cost any government the next election. Even May herself could be vulnerable. However, she has something of a trump card – Corbyn. His policies are sufficiently unpopular in those very Greater London marginals that she can take the hit from Heathrow and still expect to win the next election. So I hope those who voted for him a few weeks ago, realise what they were signing up for….when in a few years time you’re being kept awake by late night flights!

And Corbyn’s pro-brexit stance doesn’t exactly help his situation. London voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU. Some of the constituencies affected by Heathrow expansion voted by as much as 70% in favour of remain. Among left leaning voters (the sort he needs the support of to win the next election) the figure rises to 90%. Now while I suspect the lib dems are wrong to be running in Zack Goldsmith’s by-election on an anti-brexit platform alone, because no election is ever decided by a single issue (of course the same applies to Zack Goldsmith). But it is certainly (along side Heathrow) a major election issue. And labour now has little to no chance of winning this by-election, nor any other elections in the Greater London area. Its not beyond reason that Corbyn himself could lose his seat at the next election.

However, Theresa May might well have just executed a double dead cat manoeuvre, what I suspect we’ll later come to call, the Heathrow double flip. She knows that announcing this will be like waving a red flag in front of a bull with Corbyn (or should that be a flat bread in front of a Vegan). He always has been more of a protest leader than a party leader. Him and his sandal wearing friends will now dash off to go protest against Heathrow expansion. And while he’s off organising sit-ins and teach-ins or petitions, the Tories can get on with the important business of dismantling workers rights and setting the NHS up for eventual privatisation.

The Kremlin doth protest too much me thinks…..

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Of course one of the stories over the last few weeks was the report of Dutch air accident investigators into the loss of MH17. It confirmed much of what we know, that the aircraft was shot down by a missile, almost certainly a Buk missile, which struck the front of the aircraft (implying it was fired in front of the plane, i.e. rebel territory), showering the cockpit with shrapnel.

Analysis of this shrapnel, some of it recovered from the bodies of the aircrew, point to it being specifically a 9M38-series missile with a 9N314M warhead. This type of the Buk is only available to Russian supplied forces (i.e. not the Ukrainians) and it ties in with sightings of just such a launcher in the area prior to the shoot down.

Furthermore, the Dutch point to signs of attempts to conceal the truth from them. A failure of the Russians to hand over radar data (strange if we are to believe their claim it was the Ukranians!) and signs of a botched autopsy on the airplane’s pilot in an effort to remove shrapnel from the missile (unfortunately, there was just too much of the stuff and the Dutch recovered enough from the plane and occupants to prove their case).

All this of course points to the fact that the Russians have blood on their hands. They tried to deflect attention by staging a “test of a missile in an effort to give their media something else to talk about, even though all there test proved is that you can blow the nose of a plane with a AA missile (anyone who actually looked at the Dutch report would realise it was clearly an attempt to invoke the wookie defence).

In short the lady doth protest too much, me thinks…..

Indeed I would argue that Russia’s behaviour suggests it goes deeper than simply an attempt by them to prop up their allies in Eastern Ukraine. If that was truly the case, they’ve have thrown the relevant rebel leader responsible under the bus along time ago by now, packed him off to the Hague and focused on saving face with the international community.

No, Russia’s behaviour strongly hints that it wasn’t rebels at the controls of that Buk missile but the Russian military. Its long been suspected that many of the “rebels” are actually Russian soldiers, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if they were also providing air cover. And probably they were there under orders coming right down from the top, maybe even Putin himself. This would immediately explain Russian’s sensitivity on this issue.

Of course, the people who really needed to listen to the Dutch, the Russian people and a number of neo-fascist conspiracy theorists, will of course not be convinced. They will no doubt find some excuse to cast doubt on the evidence, they will ignore anything and everything that contradicts their little fantasy, even the blindingly obvious.

The State of Britain’s Railways

Two big stories as regards the UK’s railway’s caught my attention this week. Firstly, HS2 which has finally been given the go ahead (more on that later), and secondly, an article by the Beeb in which they attempted to identify the UK’s most expensive railway journey. The result of this brief (and admittedly not entirely scientific study) are staggering, Britain has some of the world’s most expensive railways!

While it should come as no surprise to learn that the Heathrow express tops the billing at a whopping £1.17 per mile, the price of 80p per mile on the London to Manchester line, is incredibly high. Even the 40p off peak and 14p season tickets on this route are pretty expensive. London to Kettering or Swindon/London lines are also in the +70p anytime range, with an average of 20-30p per mile across the entire country. This is about 3 to 10 times more than what our cousins in the rest of the EU pay for rail travel. Indeed, I just hopped onto the Amtrak website in America and its about 62p per mile (UK) for the gourmet expensive Acela Express NY to DC (anytime) to about 4.5p (yes really!) for a cheap advanced ticket on the Chicago to California Zephyr. The Americans often joke that they have a railway service that the Bulgarians would be ashamed of. The UK has a railway system that the Americans would be ashamed of!

Consider for sake of comparison that the typical cost of motoring is about 7-10p per mile. While this motoring cost only accounts for fuel, with insurance, tax and depreciation costs of the car adding yet further. But its doubtful that the cost of motoring would be any more than, say 20p in the most cases, or about half the off-peak fare price on the Manchester-London route, a quarter the anytime price (which would be a fairer comparison since a car represents “anytime” travel) and 1/18th the cost of the Heathrow Express! And if you’re starting to think rail travel is a tad pricy spare a thought for Londoners. The standard fare on the underground now works out at the equivalent of £5-10 per mile! That’s about 25-50 times pricier than driving! It is thus no surprise to learn that the average commuter in England can spend the best part of several thousand pounds, for a spot to stand for an hour pressed up against someone’s sweaty armpits twice a day. The comments page on the above beeb article clearly indicates much anger among British commuters about this sorry state of affairs.

Now the rail industry would counter the above by pointing to their “advance” fares. My reply is, yes if you’re incredibility lucky enough to get an advance fare they are pretty cheap, but they are rare as hens teeth. I’ll do the odd long journeys across the UK and will often specifically look out for such tickets. I have regularly searched the booking system trying to get advance tickets (searching as far in advance as the website allows) and 9 times out of 10 have failed to get anything better than the standard off peak fare.

And at the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist, but I’m increasingly of the opinion that the rail companies seem to go out of their way to make booking cheap fares as hard as possible. For example, probably the best bargain you’ll get on the railways, is the Sail/Rail ticket. For an incredibly cheap £30 single, you can get a train and a ferry ticket from the Midlands all the way to Dublin (Ferry and rail combined). I think its about £38 from central London, with similar deals to France to be had for similar bargain basement prices.

However, you try booking one of these tickets through the railway company websites! It will usually refuse to allow you to book a seat on the most convenient trains. This can be bypassed by ringing up the Ferry company, who are usually more than happy enough to book you on the specific trains you want (i.e. the boat train that waits for the boat and coincides with its departure). However, this is not always an option, if for example, as I was over Christmas, coming from Ireland to Britain, but booking the ticket in Britain, you have to go through the rail company. Ring up, and you get put through to an Indian call centre, where they will struggle to understand you’re accent, and to be perfectly blunt, the staff at Indian call centres I find simply do not understand how the British rail system works – which is hardly a surprise nor the staff’s fault, as the Indian train booking system is completely different to the UK one (see here for more info on the Indian train booking system). Try booking a bike on a British train through a Indian call centre and see what happens (when I moved from Scotland to England my bike ended up chained to a lamppost outside Patrick station for a week as “the Trainline” call centre screwed up my booking, I had to eventually transport it south by car!).

Trains, delays and the Black knight of capitalism

An interesting article here from the Imeche journal as regards the end effect of privatisation of the UK railways. In the 1990’s before privatisation was introduced, it cost the UK government £1 Billion to subsidise the railways. 18 years of private ownership later and it now costs the UK government £5 Billion to subsides the railways, i.e fives times more than before privatisation 88|!

Privatisation has therefore failed as regards it principle goal, reducing the costs of the railways to the exchequer. Furthermore, not only is it costing the government more to subsidise the railway system, but ticket fares have soared since then and (going by the grumblings of passengers) the service has gotten worse on many commuter lines.

The Black knight effect
I blame the failure of Thatcher’s privatisation on what I call “The Black knight effect” (after the infamous black knight of Monty Python) as it represents a belief held by many neo-liberal cheerleaders that capitalism and free market theory “always” triumphs, even in circumstances where it is at a distinct disadvantage…much like our armless, legless black knight! Yet like him, the neo-liberals will refuse to give up, or concede that they’re economic ideology is a tiny bit flawed, even when its glaringly obvious that its failing (“tis but a flesh wound!”).

The truth is free market theory will only work in certain circumstances, notably situations where there is truly a “free” market (not a cosy cartel), where there is actual “competition” (not the illusion of it) and the economic model being promoted is actually sustainable and water tight (our numbers add up). None of these conditions applied to the UK railways at privatisation. Firstly companies had to bid to get the contracts. As a result from day one all the individual rail companies had a huge deficit on their balance sheet and lots of share holders looking for a profit to be turned in quickly to give “confidence” to the markets (else the companies would find it impossible to raise money later without going to the government).

Hence, the rail companies started off by cutting back on services, selling off land (such as maintenance yards to property developers), laying off experienced staff and otherwise cutting corners while at the same time hiking up fares. This netted big profits for investors, but in the end it was an unsustainable bubble, and a very brief one at that. It also burst any bubble in the Tory’s heads about how privatisation would see free enterprise whisk away the UK’s old dodgy railways and replace it with a cheap sleek and new, gleaming high speed alternative. Investment in new railway projects were in many cases shelved rather than new ones being put forward. Of course just to make matters worse, the various bits of BR that had actually been profitable had been sold off in the early stages of privatisation in the 1980’s.

Certain long term issues were put on the back burner, most crucially track maintenance, eventually leading to a deterioration in track condition that would several years later come back to haunt the industry in the form of a series of 4 rail crashes (Southall (1997), Ladbroke Grove (1999), Hatfield (2000) and Potters Bar (2002)). These crashes effectively ruined the industry, as Railtrack was all but forced back into public ownership and the rail companies, dependant on Railtrack and its monopoly of track maintenance, were forced to pay an increasing amount of money to use its track as it hastily began a program of track renovation to correct previous problems.

Another problem with privatisation is that, as noted, in order for capitalism to work there has to be an element of competition, and the privatised railway network has very little room for that, as most of the rail companies have a de-facto monopoly in each geographical area. Privately owner or publicly managed, any company that’s left in a position of a de-facto monopoly will evitably become bloated and in-efficient over time. The UK railway companies are a textbook example of this. They can set prices for ticket based not on what is a competitive price (i.e a price that will attract the customer away from their competitors) but on whatever they reckon they can get away with (i.e how much can we fleece the punter for without getting physically attacked!). Managers award themselves generous and unjustified bonuses, the unions (peeved at their lazy managers getting paid so well) regularly demand this and that and management just rolls over, suppliers and contractor golfing buddies of the bosses get overly generous service contracts, staff at all levels aren’t suitably motivated to perform better, etc.

Also, in fairness to the railway companies, competition will only occur when there’s a level playing field. The things the railway’s should be competing against, cars and short haul flights, are both massively subsided by the government (a lot more than the measly 5 Billion the railways get).

Its hard to believe that the train companies have to pay tax on fuel, but the UK airline industry doesn’t. Add in the costs of maintaining the UK’s airports, air traffic control, fire and emergency cover, the cost of building all those airports and support infrastructure to begin with, not to mention the costs of climate change, air travel being a 5-10 times worse (depending on who you ask, see here and here) per km travelled than trains. Taking all this into account and you can see that there are a whole set of hidden costs that you’re Ryanair £12.99 Glasgow to Stansted ticket doesn’t cover.

Similarly, all the talk you hear from the Top Gear crowd about a “war on motorists” is baloney. The UK’s car owners are the biggest receivers of state welfare in the country. Yes motor tax and petrol tax maybe high, but its not high enough to cover the true costs of motoring, i.e maintenance of roads and motorways, the huge costs of originally building these in the first place, emergency cover, policing of roads and the costs to the country of dealing with climate change (petrol heads will often try skewing the numbers to show cars are better than trains by comparing a Prius driven slowly with 4 people and no luggage v’s a half fuel diesel commuter train, while the reality of course, a large car driven fast with 1 or 2 people against an overcrowded commuter train it’s the train that winds out, car travel being about parallel to air travel for vehicle emissions ). Then there’s the other environmental costs of cars (CO2 isn’t the only think coming out of tailpipes) and the health effects of vehicle emissions. Then of course there are the costs of maintaining cheap and readily available fossil fuels (so we should really include a “war tax” surcharge on all car travel then!). Motorists don’t know what a good deal they are getting. Unfortunately, post-peak oil they’ll be getting a rude awakening.

So obviously, it’s all but impossible for the railways to compete against cars, buses and planes if the latter are being massively subsidised while the railways being heavily constrained. So its probably no surprise that by and large the railway companies haven’t even bothered to try and “compete” and have ended up degrading into the same listless inefficient behaviour seen under the latter days of BR…only now with a 25% premium on top for “profit” :no:!

Solutions? Re-nationalisation or Re-privatisation
Clearly the solution is to do one of two things. Option one is to accept the whole thing was a bad idea and re-nationalise the entire railway network. Many of the train companies now have large debts so I suspect some would actually be happy to have the whole sorry mess taken off their books. The others could be either bought out easily or nudged out as most have committed enough violations of they’re conditions of franchise to warrant it being revoked if the government decided to do so. Nationalised railways are not the first stop on the road to communism (as the Daily Mail would have to believe). Many countries have a nationalised railway network, notably the USA, Yes! you heard me correctly, the land of free enterprise has a Federally supported railway network in the form of Amtrak.

Option two is, re-privatisation, but doing it properly this time. That means the government paying companies to take the railways off its hands, and I don’t mean token sums (i.e lowest bidder like last time), I mean what it will actually cost said companies to take on the burden. We would need to allow these companies to compete against each other on routes, and more importantly pulling the welfare rug out from under motorists and budget airlines. Of course, such a project would be hugely expensive and extremely unpopular with many motorists or the Nouveau Jet Set. Unfortunately with a Tory government in power I can’t see either being done, so it will be a case of just paying £5 Billion a year, taking a regular shafting from ticket agents over fares and just putting up with it until (hopefully) the whole sorry mess collapses under it own ineffective weight.

A note to the Austrian school
And Libertarians need to accept the fact that, as the UK railway privatisation shows us (or indeed the economic train wrecks that are the UK water, gas and utility companies), capitalism isn’t Invincible (and some of them, like the Black knight, are raving lunny’s!). It not some sort of magic formula bestowed upon us by the gods (and on the 2nd day God did tell Jesus to set up a private equity firm giving-ith an annual rate of return of 15% & he dith decree that the lepers should not be healed, as that would be socialised health care…). It’s merely an economic system that allows us to maximise resource use, while minimising costs. Nothing more nothing less. It works and works well sometimes yes, but that isn’t universally true in all situations. And it certainly doesn’t work in situations where we actively prevent a free market from forming.

And then there’s the law of unintended consequences and externalities to consider. For example, the purpose of public transport isn to provide a cheap, clean and efficient way for us to move large amounts of people from their homes to their place of business (or recreation) as quickly as possible. If we don’t do this with trains, then we have to do it with road traffic, and how much more would it cost the UK taxpayer if everyone who takes the train to work suddenly got into a car Monday and drove into work instead? (hint, the UK road network would collapse if that happened) Whose going to pay the cost of those upgrades to road and car parking facilities? And how many working class people afford to drive their own car? I’m not even working class, and I can’t afford a car! and if someone doesn’t pay up then that’s a huge chuck of the UK’s work force who can’t do their jobs anymore because they can’t get to work! Who is going to pay the costs of climate change? What about the huge amount of the UK tourist industry dependant on public transport (to move punters around the country)? How are little old lady’s who can’t drive anymore (and we don’t want driving any more!) supposed to get to the shops without public transport?
There are times when capitalism works and works well, but there also things we don’t want to leave to the whims of the market.