Issue 13: 2015 07 30: Week in Brief: UK NEWS

30 July 2015

Week in Brief: UK NEWS

CHILD ABUSE: Cabinet Office papers have been discovered which show that the Head of MI5 wrote to the Cabinet Secretary in 1986 about an MP said to have ‘a penchant for small boys’. MI5’s concern was the security and political risks involved. The documents contain references to Leon Brittan, a former Home Secretary and EU Commissioner, Peter Morrison, an MP who was Margaret Thatcher’s private secretary for a time, William van Straubenzee, another Conservative MP, and the diplomat Sir Peter Hayman. The papers will be passed to the Goddard inquiry into child sexual abuse.

LABOUR: The prospect of the hard-left MP Jeremy Corbyn becoming Leader of the party has led to turmoil. Tony Blair and Lord Mandelson have said that victory for him would be a disaster for Labour. Liz Kendall has been called upon to retire from the leadership contest to ensure that Corbyn does not win but has declined to do so. Dame Margaret Beckett has described herself as a moron for being one of the 35 MPs who endorsed him originally. Further controversy has been caused by Lord Falconer, a supporter of Andy Burnham, saying that neither Yvette Cooper nor Liz Kendall were up to coping with the party. The standing of Harriet Harman, the acting Leader, has been damaged by MPs refusing to follow her recommendation that Labour support the Government’s welfare reform bill.

OVERSEAS AID: The Government’s commitment to donate 0.7 per cent of GDP to overseas aid was met for the first time in 2013 by a rushed last-minute year-end payment of £415 million (making a total of £543 million for the year) to the Global Fund, an organisation  set up to fight Aids, tuberculosis and malaria but whose effectiveness and governance have been criticised.

NHS: The Patients Association has reported that the waiting time for seven key surgeries (such as knee and hip operations) rose to 90 days in 2014.

EUROTUNNEL: Holidaymakers and commercial traffic from the UK are suffering severe delays as Eurotunnel’s operations continue to be disrupted by migrants attempting to board its trains in Calais or hide in lorries about to travel on them and by the disorder caused by striking French ferry workers. The migrants have adopted the tactic of storming the terminal in large numbers and some are getting to the tunnel. On Monday night, 3,000 migrants are thought to have got into the Eurotunnel complex and 148 were picked up in Folkestone.  Operation Stack which allows delayed lorries to park on the M20 continues. The Home Secretary, Theresa May, has met her French counterpart to discuss the crisis and the UK is to pay further sums to improve security at the Calais terminal.

HOUSE OF LORDS: Lord Sewel has resigned as Deputy Speaker of the House of Lords and from his position as Chairman of the Lords privileges and conduct committee (responsible for ensuring proper behaviour) after the Sun published footage apparently showing him taking cocaine in the company of two prostitutes. He is also said to have spoken critically in the film of a number of politicians including David Cameron and Tony Blair, who made him a peer.  After initially refusing to resign from the Lords, he has now done so.

DEFENCE: The UK will meet NATO’s target of defence spending of 2 per cent of national income but only after including for the first time the budgets of its intelligence agencies, MI5, MI6 and GCHQ.

CRIME: Paul Massey, a criminal alleged to be the Mr Big of Manchester, has been shot dead outside his house. This follows the shooting in his garden a few weeks ago of another notorious criminal, John ‘Goldfinger’ Palmer, who, among other things, had smelted gold stolen during the Brink’s-Mat robbery. When called to the scene of John Palmer’s murder, the police failed to realise that he had been shot.

MONEY LAUNDERING: The National Crime Agency has said that billions of pounds are being laundered through the UK and that this is affecting the London property market. This follows the disclosure that the Government tax on houses owned by companies had raised far more than expected. The Government intends to find ways to ensure that the identity is known of the beneficial owners of foreign companies owning property in the UK.  From next year UK companies will have to disclose their true owners.

TOUR DE FRANCE: Chris Froome won the Tour, becoming the only Briton to have done so twice.  In doing so, he survived allegations of doping, a chest infection, being spat at and having urine thrown at him.

 

Issue 13: 2015 07 30 International News

30 July 2015

Week in Brief: INTERNATIONAL NEWS

EGYPT: Nineteen people were drowned when a cargo boat collided with a Nile river boat.

A second Suez canal, 72km (45 miles) long, has been built in twelve months.  The depth of the original canal has been increased to 20m (66ft) to allow bigger ships.  With two canals, two-way traffic is now possible. Care has been taken to ensure the safe passage of ships; security is a concern because the new canal is close to North Sinai which is occupied by Isis militants.

FRANCE: Jean-Marie le Pen has announced that he will be standing for election as an independent against his own grand-daughter, who is standing for the party he created and from which he was recently expelled.

Farmers protesting against falling prices are blocking roads into France, preventing lorries entering from Germany and Spain.  The German dairy producers’ federation has complained to the European commission, claiming these measures amount to a boycott of German goods, illegal under EU rules.

The Eurotunnel terminal in Calais continues to be besieged by migrants.  The tunnel was closed on Tuesday after three thousand migrants stormed the terminal in one night.

A law proposed by the Upper House in the French parliament would make it a criminal offence to insult the poor.

GREECE: European politicians were shocked by the revelations of Mr Varoufakis, the former finance minister, about the Syriza government’s secret ‘plan B’ for a return to the drachma, which would have included activities such as raiding central bank reserves and hacking taxpayer accounts.  Mr Varoufakis and everyone else involved with the plan could face criminal charges: he has immunity from prosecution, but the Greek supreme court has referred the case to parliament for a vote to remove it.

IRAQ: Ashton Carter, the US defence secretary, visited Iraq.  To improve the sectarian balance of the forces opposed to Isis, US troops are training and encouraging Sunni tribes to join the advance on Ramada and Fallujah.

JAPAN: Mitsubishi will apologise to and compensate the Chinese slave-labour force it used in World War Two.

KENYA: President Barack Obama’s tour of Africa began with a visit to Kenya, his father’s homeland.  He spoke about business, security and human rights issues.

KEPLER 452b: NASA has announced that there may be life on this planet as it is so similar to Earth.  Kepler 452b is 1400 light years away in the constellation Cygnus.

LIBYA: A Tripoli court has found nine former officials of Muammar Gaddafi’s overthrown regime (including his son Saif-al-Islam) guilty of war crimes and sentenced them to death.  The court is not recognised by the country’s official government, whose soldiers are holding Saif-al-Islam.

MALAYSIA: The prime minister, Najib Razak, sacked his deputy, the attorney general and three ministers, and imposed strict publishing laws on the media, as questions continue to be asked about allegations of corruption made by The Wall Street Times.

PARAGUAY: US prosecutors have asked for the extradition of the former head of Latin America’s football federation, Nicolas Leoz, on corruption charges, as part of their investigation into Fifa.

SOMALIA: At least 15 people were killed (including a Kenyan diplomat and a Chinese embassy guard) and 21 injured in an attack on the Jazeera Palace hotel in Mogadishu by an al-Shabaab suicide bomber in a truck packed with explosives.

SPAIN: King Felipe has spoken out against the plans of the Catalan separatist, Artur Mas, who has called regional elections in Catalonia for September and has announced that he will declare independence if the separatists win.

SYRIA: A senior al-Qaeda terrorist, Muhsin al-Fadhli, has been killed in an airstrike.  His death was reported by the Pentagon, which said he was planning to use an aircraft for a terror attack on an American target.

Three Spanish journalists are missing, feared kidnapped.

TURKEY: Prompted by the Isis suicide bomb attack in Suruc last week and the protests which followed, Turkey has joined the coalition of 60 states opposed to Isis, by opening the Turkish airbase in Incirlik to the US airforce and launching airstrikes against Isis positions in northern Syria.  At least three hundred people have been arrested in an attempt to dismantle Isis networks and other terrorist groups.

The suicide bombing in Suruc last week also prompted protests by angry Kurds at what they see as the government’s tolerance of Isis.  Violence erupted, with two soldiers killed, four injured, and fifteen kidnappings.  The ceasefire between Turkey and the PKK group of Turkish Kurds appears to be over.  Turkey bombed PKK bases either side of the border.  There were reports from Syrian Kurds fighting Isis that Turkish soldiers had attacked them.  NATO leaders have urged the Turkish government to show restraint with the Kurds.

Turkey plans to establish a buffer zone (68 miles by 30 miles) on the Syrian side of the frontier, to accommodate Syrian refugees and to help Syrian rebels against Assad.  As it would separate two Kurdish enclaves, it would also make it difficult for the Kurds to establish an independent state.  But Isis is already established there and would have to be driven out.  The USA has agreed to support the plan in exchange for Turkey’s help in the fight against Isis.

UKRAINE: Two Russian soldiers taken prisoner by the Ukrainian army two months ago have been disowned by the Russian Defence Ministry.  Ukraine could now charge them with terrorism and espionage rather than treat them as prisoners of war

USA: Two inspectors general have asked the justice department to investigate Hilary Clinton’s use of her private e-mail account while secretary of state, claiming that she used it to send e-mails containing classified information.

Washington announced that the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention centre is in its ‘final stages’.

A gunman killed two people and injured another nine in a cinema in Louisiana.  He then shot himself dead.  He had a history of mental illness, which has raised questions about he managed to obtain firearms.

Issue 13: 2015 07 30 Financial Week In Brief

30 July 2015

Week in Brief: BUSINESS & THE CITY

SMART COP:  Great Scotland Yard, historical home of the Metropolitan Police, though government offices for many years, has been sold by Galliard, a development firm, to Lulu Group International, the international business vehicle of Indian tycoon Yusuffali Kader.  Galliard are converting the building to a luxury hotel, which Mr Kader intends to operate via Steigenberger Hotels with whom he has other ventures.  The price paid was said to be £110m.

DRUG DEALS: The pharmaceuticals market is going through a typhoon of corporate changes, much of it amongst firms that the patient in the street has probably never heard of.  The latest deal is by Teva, the world’s largest maker of cheap medicines – the sort of boxes and jars to be found in your local chemist – who are paying £40bn for Allergan’s generics business, head-quartered in Dublin.  This follows just a few days after Teva withdrew from a deal to buy Mylan, a similar business based in Amsterdam.  Meanwhile, Mylan continues its efforts to take over its main rival Perrigo.  Also on the takeover trail is the massive USA business Valeant, who have been stalking Allergan.  The deal with Teva is thought to be part of Allergan’s defences against the American predator.

DOSH DELIVERED:  One of the great growth businesses in major cities in the west is food delivery – not your local Indian sending round a moped with a takeaway, but moving up a layer of sophistication.  Striving to be market leader in London is Deliveroo , founded only in 2013 and operating from a head office in Soho.  Its business model is to source food from a range of top quality restaurants – often those who do not have their own takeaway service – and whisk it round to the consumer via their fleet of fit young cyclists, or motor bikes for destinations further afield.  It has proved hugely popular and now operates in 22 urban centres in the UK and in Paris, Dublin, Munich, and Berlin.  Now the company has raised a further £45m, mainly from existing backers, to add to the US$25m it raised in January this year.  The new money will take it into more European cities, and soon into the Far East and Middle East.  It has some way to go to scale up to the number one in the market, Just Eat, which raised £1.47bn when it launched via an IPO on the LSE in 2014.

RETAIL THERAPY:  The supermarket chains are almost obsessive at measuring performance at the moment, but the statistics continue to worry the larger established retail chains in the UK.  Last quarter’s losers were Asda, showing a decline on the comparable period of 2.7%.  This allowed J Sainsbury to pull back to the coveted number 2 position in the rankings, with 16.5% of the market, down only 0.3%.  Tesco retains the top spot, a long way ahead of anybody else, at 28.5%, but down by 0.6%.  The balancing growth, given we continue to spend more on food and household goods, is Waitrose, up 3%, surprise mover the Co-op, up 1%, but most of all the two German owned chains, Aldi and Lidl, up 17% and 11% respectively.  However, these results are not adjusted for openings and closings of stores, so reflect the smaller operators continuing expansion into new premises.  As Tesco can tell them, this is not necessarily good for the bottom line…

NO COMMENT, NO FT:  The shock deal of the week was Pearson Group’s sale of the Financial Times, for £844m.  Although it was known that Pearson was looking for a sale of the pink ‘un, the speed of the sale took the market by surprise.  As did the identity of the purchaser, Japanese information and information technology group, Nikkei, sponsors of the eponymous index.  This is a deal which makes a lot of sense to Nikkei, who are keen to achieve and hold number one position in the world in their business.  For Pearson, who have owned the City sheet for many years, it is another step out of publishing and into its global educational business, where it believes its future lies.  That move has been slow and painful, and Pearson, once a stock market darling, has fallen on a hard path, with losses for the first six months of this year of £115m, although revenues were up, showing perhaps that they are starting to get to where they want to be.  The sale of the FT was not well received by the market with the share price falling 1% on the day.  The FT is famous for its editorial independence, following in recent years a political philosophy somewhat to the left, and Nikkei have promised they will maintain the newspaper’s approach in such matters, though some City readers might welcome a change there.

RATE-SETTER:  Dr Gertjan Vlieghe has been appointed by George Osborne as a new member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee, the all important Bank committee that recommends interest rate changes to the Governor.  The MPC is about to enter a new phase in the market where its deliberation will be scrutinised more thoroughly as the Bank signals it is expecting rates to begin to rise and to be more actively managed.  Dr Vlieghe is a senior economist at Brevan Howard Asset Management, a hedge fund, took his doctorate at the London School of Economics, served previously at the Bank in the economics division, going from there to Deutsche Bank, and then to Brevan Howard.  He replaces David Miles, who has served two terms on the MPC.

TROUBLED WATERS:  The 2010 oil spill from a BP rig in the Gulf of Mexico has cost the energy company US$ 54.6bn, according to figures released by BP and following a final settlement with claimants earlier this month.  That should draw a final line under the extraordinary costs of the event, but BP is also battling with problems in Libya, where its onshore drilling has been badly hit by the civil war, necessitating a US$600m write down, and trading problems in its joint ventures in Russia, to say nothing of the general slide in oil prices, which contrary to expectations, continues.  On the plus side, cost cutting and reductions in capital spending have conserved the cash flow, and BP also saw its trading and refining operations make good returns.  All this produced a loss of US$1.3bn, worse than expected, though in current conditions the market seems to expect results to be worse than expected and the share price at 384p barely shifted.

AN APPLE A DAY:  The rapid roll-out of Apple’s new instant on-line payment technology continues apace.  Latest banks to support the system are HSBC and First Direct.  It is understood Lloyds Halifax Group will be next to come on board.  This has been a major success for Apple – making it easier than ever to spend money!

 

KEY MARKET INDICES: (at 29 July 2015; comments refer to change on week; $ is US$)

Interest Rates:

UK£ Base rate: 0.5%, unchanged: 3 month 0.56% (steady); 5 year 1.58% (falling).

Europe€: 1 mth -0.8% (steady); 3 mth -0.2% (steady); 5 year 0.33% (rising)

US$: 1 mth 0.21% (steady); 3 mth 0.38% (steady); 5 year 1.70% (falling)

Currency Exchanges:

£/Euro: 1.40, steady

£/$: 1.55, £ steady

Euro/$: 1.1, € slightly weaker

Gold, oz: $1080, significant fall

Oil, Brent Crude barrel: $54.62, falling.

Wheat, tonne: £120.15, steady

London Stock Exchange: FTSE 100: 6,550.  FTSE 350: 3,635

Briefly: Interest rates remain surprisingly steady, considering the noises being made by several major central banks (especially the Bank of England) regarding forthcoming rises in rates.  In the UK this is affecting mortgage and personal loan pricing, where medium/long term deals are getting more expensive.  Stock markets are drifting down over fears of the pace of recovery faltering; gold and oil have both fallen – gold to the lowest price for more than two years.

Issue 13: 2015 07 30 This Could Never Happen

30 July 2015

This could never happen

by Neil Tidmarsh

Imagine a powerful armed force has invaded Ireland (let’s call them ICIC – a European movement akin to the KKK).  They’ve swept Eire’s military aside and are heading north, towards the UK.  All that’s holding them back are irregular bands of a hastily re-formed IRA, which are managing to defend and hold on to a strip of territory along the Republic’s side of the frontier with Northern Ireland.

Now, if you were the British government, what would you do?  Bearing in mind that ICIC – in their white sheets and pointy white hoods – has already conquered great swathes of continental Europe, has transformed itself into a mighty and ruthless military force with a big army fed by a constant stream of fanatical volunteers from all over the world, is well-organised and extremely well-funded from assets seized, banks plundered and art-treasures looted in the conquered territories.  And bearing in mind that its aim is to unite the whole of Christendom into a single political entity by conquering its constituent states, including your own.  And bearing in mind that your allies – the USA and NATO – are screaming at you to do something to help them stop ICIC before it’s too late.

Do you:

a) Shrug your shoulders and refuse to do anything. You’re secretly delighted that those bastards in the IRA are having a hard time, even though there’s been peace between you and them since a successful cease-fire was negotiated some years ago. But you’re also worried that they’re now holding territory of their own – perhaps they’ll try to expand that territory to your side of the border?  Perhaps some of your people are even suggesting you should secretly encourage – or at least not discourage – elements within the UK who might be sympathetic to ICIC.  After all, ICIC are Protestant, and so are we, so perhaps we have more in common with them than with the Catholic IRA.  And ICIC are giving our traditional enemies the French and the Germans a drubbing – hurrah!

Not sensible.  Short-sighted, narrow-minded, cynical, amoral, almost suicidal.

b) Seize the initiative by hitting ICIC before they breach your defences (your army is one of the biggest and most effective in the region, after all) and by supporting your allies (allowing them to fly missions from your airfields, sharing intelligence, pooling resources, launching joint operations). You don’t have to aid the IRA, but they are defending your border for you and they have been at peace with you for years, a good peace which you don’t want to jeopardize. So perhaps you should show some gratitude and offer some practical assistance.  But by taking direct action against ICIC you do of course seize the initiative from the IRA anyway, take some of the wind out of their sails.  Another strategic aim accomplished.

Very sensible.

What’s that?  What are you saying?  You’re going for option (a)?  Are you sure?  But don’t you realise that ICIC are by far the biggest threat?  Don’t you realise that it’s only a matter of time before they shed your blood, either in warfare on the front line or in terror attacks in your heartland?  And the IRA – do you really want to antagonise them?  Do you really want a return to the Troubles of the 1970’s and 1980’s?  Nevertheless, you insist on option (a)?  Really?  Very well.

Did you hear that?  A terrible explosion.  There’s been a bomb, a suicide attack by ICIC, in Belfast.  On a party of Catholic aid workers, about to cross the border into the Republic on a humanitarian mission.  Scores dead, hundreds injured.  UK citizens, your own citizens.  I told you.  And now many of your citizens in Northern Ireland are going to blame you for it, for tolerating and even (they say) favouring ICIC, for not helping the IRA hold back ICIC.  They’re very angry.  There’ll be protests and violence and maybe even kidnappings and murders, a return to the bad old days of Northern Ireland’s Troubles if you don’t do something about it.

So what are you going to do about it?  Revert to plan (b), you say?  Good.  Stand shoulder to shoulder with your allies, join the war against ICIC, weed out ICIC cells in your own territory.  Very good.  Yes, I can see your bombers flying south to give ICIC a pounding.

And reach out to the IRA, reopen talks with them, reassure them, rebuild the cease-fire, restore the peace.  No?  You won’t?  You’re going to bomb them too, send air-strikes against their bases south of the border?  But aren’t we all on the same side now?  Aren’t we allies in the same war?  Do you want to double your enemies, to double the terror threat to the UK?  Surely you don’t want a civil war against the IRA as well as a war against ICIC?  But a second wave of bombers has already taken off, they’re already hitting those IRA bases.

Brace yourself for what follows.  War and civil war.  New wounds opened and old wounds re-opened.  The birth of a new terror and the return of an old terror.

Of course, this could never happen.  No one would make your mistakes.  And ICIC doesn’t exist.

 

Issue 13: 2015 07 30: Labour in Vain

30 July 2015

Labour in Vain

by J R Thomas

In another article in this week’s Shaw Sheet, we look at the exciting world of opera in modern Britain. Followers of politics in the UK may be under the impression that they are watching a live opera, albeit without the singing (so far), as the Labour Party leadership contest moves across the stage with increasingly dramatic flourishes. The party seems to have a liking for exciting productions when it comes to selecting leaders. In 2007 the dark, scowling young pretender overthrew the handsome older (oh, alright, younger) King to seize the throne, only to find his new Kingdom slip away from him. Then in 2010, in a classic tale of fratricide, two formerly loving brothers fought for the crown, with dire results for the winner. And now, in a new production, a tale of civil war among the gods as former friends stalk the land hurling thunderbolts and threats.

To understand what is going on, we probably need to step back a little, to the day after the election on 8th May. Ed Miliband, the then leader, shocked by Labour’s unexpected and “overwhelming” defeat and facing a flood of criticism, immediately resigned and left for a vacation in Ibiza.

When the smoke obscuring the events of May 2015 finally blows away (and that may well take a few years) and Mr Miliband can be reassessed as leader, there may well be a different view taken of his time at the helm of his party: firstly, that the Labour defeat was not particularly overwhelming – the party has suffered much greater defeats in the past, not least the 1983 election when led by Michael Foot (we will come back to him). What was most shocking for Labour was its almost total wipe-out in its former heartland of Scotland, reduced to one seat by the Scots-Nats. In England Labour actually did quite well, advancing its position in London and holding on in many Northern and Midland seats. Secondly, that actually Mr Miliband was quite a skilled leader, holding his fractious political movement together, avoiding internal dissent by increasingly polished and firm leadership and growing considerably in stature and confidence during the election campaign. Any leader of a modern political party needs a strong chin to take the endless insults of modern media, and Ed was robust in this; but one suspects that he and indeed Nick Clegg over at the Lib-Dems had both had enough of this modern form of torture and were relieved to retire immediately from the fray.

But by that, Mr Miliband did the Labour Party no favours. By going so quickly, he prevented any period of calm reflection, any thoughtful analysis of what had actually gone on at the polls that May day and any regrouping and discussion as to how the party should move forward. The Labour veteran minister Harriet Harman, deputy party leader, took temporary charge (also announcing that she would not stand for either the leadership or deputy leadership). Even under her calm authority, the need to immediately find another leader descended into a sort of hysteria, with much intrigue and manoeuvre. Candidates approached and withdrew. Candidates threw their hats into the ring, then promptly retrieved them and left. By the time formal proceedings got underway there were three shadow ministers jostling for the job – and a little known backbencher of mature years.

Galloping through the list, Andy Burnham, a former Blairite who has tacked considerably to the left, might be characterised as the establishment candidate and original front runner. He is polished and personally well-regarded, though his repositioning politically has raised some suspicion from both the left and what are remains of the Blairites. Yvette Cooper was the main threat to Burnham; another skilful political operator, well regarded at Westminster, energetic and intelligent, and of an encompassing centre-left ideology. Liz Kendall is less well known and a Blairite, which is not a strong starting position in current Labour politics; she was clearly the outsider candidate. Though not as outside as Jeremy Corbyn, a veteran left winger, an energetic supporter of left wing causes and a long serving London MP. He only scrambled onto to the ballot list at all because there was a sort of nominations whip-round amongst Labour M.P’s to ensure a left wing candidate was on the list to “broaden the debate”. Some of those who nominated him are openly regretting their choice now.

For, astonishing though it may seem, the current front runner by a very large margin is Mr Corbyn, the man from Islington North. The debate has indeed been broadened. The reasons for Mr Corbyn’s surge to the top of the list are not hard to find. He immediately became the union’s chosen candidate, especially Len McCluskey’s Unite, the largest and richest trade union in the country, divorcing Andy Burnham from what he expected to be a key component of his support. Corbyn, as well as being ideologically to the taste of many trade union leaders, is a former trade union activist and is personally close to many of the current generation of leaders.

To the pure in heart, Corbyn is also appealing. It is clear what he believes – ending the nuclear deterrent, more taxes on the rich, more expenditure on social services and help for the poor, more controls over private enterprise, abolition of private education and moving Britain towards becoming a republic. For the old left and many of the new that ideological purity is very true to Labour’s founding principles and it strikes a deep chord. And it is a life Mr Corbyn has lived and preached throughout all his political career. His opponents and detractors point to the terrible example of Michael Foot’s defeat (by Mrs Thatcher, no less) in 1983. But leftist politicians would often prefer to loose and remain pure of soul than win by trimming their beliefs. And Mr Corbyn has a certain appeal against politicians who look as though they were put through a grooming course for media acceptability of appearance. He is bearded, chilled, informal, witty, almost a jolly grandfather; a genuine man of passion and tested belief. In the Labour Party as it is at the moment he is a breath of fresh air.

There is a long time to go yet. The election itself is not until 10th September, and much will undoubtedly happen in the meantime. Mr Corbyn may well have peaked too soon and at some point one suspects that he will be attacked in places that he could be expected to be weak: his competence administratively, given that he has never held a ministerial job; his approach to recovering Labour’s position in Scotland (he is very London-centric); and as to how he will form effective working relationships within the parliamentary party which is ideologically very remote from him (remember that he could not get enough nominations to even put his candidature forward without some selfless help from ideological opponents).

At the moment the contest has moved into some remarkable mud slinging, with the latest suggestion from unknown “sources high up in the Party” that if Mr Corbyn wins there will be a parliamentary party revolution within days to eject him as leader. Nobody has yet set out what would then happen, apart from a Conservative Party dancing gleefully, unable to believe its luck.

It is certainly unclear who among his rivals will be able to gain a clear enough advantage to unite the anti-Corbyn vote and storm through. Clearly not Ms Kendall, and things are split pretty evenly between Mr Burnham and Ms Cooper. What should happen is that two candidates should withdraw (customary future place-trading having been done) and move to a straight fight of two.

At the moment, the clever operators are those candidates (step forward Chuka Umunna) who decided to pull out at an early stage. Their reward may come sooner than they expect.

 

Issue 13: 2015 07 30 The view from the M20

30 July 2015

The view from the M20

by Neil Tidmarsh

A motorway which has been turned into a car-park is a very strange sight indeed.  The stillness and the silence are truly surreal.  Movement – fast movement – and noise – loud noise – are two of the things which define a motorway (even when traffic is stuck in a jam, there is still the sound of engines turning over and the sight of lucky traffic streaming by in the other direction).  All those stationary vehicles – lorry after lorry after lorry, all lined up nose to tail miles and miles ahead, as far as the eye can see, on both sides of the road, all the way to the distant horizon – it’s like something from an apocalyptical science fiction movie.  Operation Stack is a J G Ballard vision made real.

The M20 takes you from London to Dover, Calais, France, the Eurozone… or at least it should.  These days you leave bustling, booming, fast-moving London and speed southeast through Kent.  And then, the closer you get to France and the Eurozone, things start to slow down.  They get slower and slower until you stop altogether.  You stop in the middle of nowhere.  Well, you stop in the middle of the glorious Kent countryside, in fact, which would be very pleasant if that was your actual destination, but it isn’t.  Your destination is France, the Eurozone, Europe, and you have business to do, you have a lorry-load of goods to deliver on a tight schedule.

What’s holding you up?  You get out of the cab and peer ahead.  You sniff the air.  There’s a faint acrid smell on the southern breeze, coming from Calais.  It’s the smell of burning tyres.  Striking French ferry-workers have built a barricade of them across the Eurotunnel entrance.  You listen hard.  The silence isn’t quite absolute.  There’s birdsong, an aeroplane passing overhead, and, carried from Calais on that same south-eastern breeze, the sound of raised voices, angry voices, the voices of those striking Frenchmen.  They get louder and louder, and behind them you can hear more of them, you can hear other furious French protesters from beyond Calais.  France seems to be full of them.  Voices from the Tour de France shouting ‘Cheat!  Cheat!’.  Voices from taxi-drivers setting fire to Uber drivers’ vehicles.  Farmers protesting about falling meat and dairy prices, and blocking Spanish and German lorries at the borders, and ripping those lorries open and throwing their cargoes out onto the road.  You aren’t the only one trying to do business in France who has found your attempts grinding to a halt at its doorstep.

You can just about hear the voices from Madrid issuing a formal complaint, but President Hollande can’t hear them.  He will stand by the farmers, he says.  You can just about hear the voices from Berlin, complaining to the European Commission that this boycott of German products is in breach of EU rules.  But is the European Commission listening?  You mutter something about the free movement of people and goods, but your words are drowned out by those angry voices shouting “Notre travail a un prix!”

Amid all the raised voices in Brussels as the future of Greece was furiously discussed, there was a big silent entity.  It was silent because it was hoping no one would notice it in spite of its size.  It was the elephant in the room, and President Hollande did his best to hide it, terrified that someone would talk to it.  The elephant in the room was the French economy.  President Hollande knows his country is in dire straits, possibly as dire as Tsipras’s country.  He knows that sooner or later the discussion about the necessity of austerity in Greece will turn into a discussion about the necessity for austerity in France.  So the elephant of the French economy remained, ironically, silent.  And all the Eurozone leaders pretended it wasn’t there.  But it trembled anxiously as it watched them spoon bitter medicine down Greece’s throat, fearing that sooner or later it would have to swallow the same unpalatable but reviving brew.

President Hollande must see that his elephant is sick and he must administer the appropriate veterinary treatment.  If he doesn’t, his great nation is doomed, because no one else can.  Since 1958, when de Gaulle effectively replaced parliamentary democracy with a presidential system, the republic has been embodied in one person.  “Basically the republic is me” said de Gaulle, but at the moment it is M.  Hollande.  Bruno Waterfield, in his review of Jonathan Fenby’s recently published “The History of Modern France”, wrote of the Fifth Republic’s ‘elected republican monarchy’.  Paradoxically, France’s president is much more powerful than Britain’s monarch: Britain, the monarchy, is in many ways more like a republic, with a hereditary president; France, the republic, is more like a monarchy, with an elected King.  But, as Bruno Waterfield and Jonathan Fenby point out, “the office (of president) itself has allowed the elite of the Fifth Republic to dodge the need for reform.  Embodying the republic in one person has insulated the state from the pressure to change.” But things are not necessarily so hopeless; power has always been concentrated at the top in France, and it is precisely this which has enabled France to push through spectacular big projects – high-speed trains, nuclear power, Haussmann’s transformation of Paris under Napoleon III (compare that with the failure of Wren’s grand plan to rebuild London after the Great Fire).  It all depends on the man at the top.

Meanwhile, a few miles from the white cliffs of Dover, you stop straining your eyes for a glimpse of Cap Gris Nez, south across the Channel.  You turn your eyes east, and wonder whether the goods in the back of your lorry wouldn’t find a better market in China.  You look west; the USA.  You turn through 360 degrees.  India… Australia… Canada… The world is a big place.  It ought to be wide open to your lorry.  You wonder yet again why you’re stuck here, hammering at the one door which ought to be open to you.  You wonder yet again if it isn’t perhaps time to knock on other, bigger doors.  You have a lorry load of perishable goods and your livelihood is on the line.  You can’t wait forever for President Hollande to find his inner de Gaulle.

 

 

Issue 13: 2015 07 30: Getting our desserts

30 July 2015

Getting our desserts

by Chin Chin

I don’t know how the directors of Booking.com spend their holidays, but they must be rather tedious if the approach taken by their website is anything to go by. A couple of years ago I decided to stay at Montreuil–sur-Mer for the first night of a touring holiday in France. That doesn’t mean at just any hotel in Montreuil, but rather at the Château, a watering-hole as important to the sophisticated modern traveller as was Cyprus to the better class of crusader. I shall say no more about the Chateaux (it is already quite popular enough as it is) but I duly booked my room on the booking.com website and subsequently enjoyed my stay.

That, you might think, was the end of the matter; but if you think that, you are wrong. Ever since then I have received regular emails announcing “Last-minute deals at Montreuil-sur-Mer”, presumably on the slightly odd assumption that my idea of going on holiday is to go somewhere I’ve been before, possibly using a different hotel. There may be people who like to holiday in that way, but I doubt that there are many. Surely it would be more logical to send me details of resorts similar to Montreuil which I might not have tried – rather like Amazon recommending similar books. They don’t, after all, offer to send you the book you bought before but in a different cover.

Still, the irritation of receiving repeated holiday recommendations pales to nothing when compared with the annoyance of being offered the opportunity to buy luxury goods “because I deserve them”. For one thing, I am never offered the goods free of charge, which would be the logical response to a true case of “deserving”. For another, how does the internet know whether I deserve them or not? Has the monitoring of electronic traffic gone further than I thought, so that there is now a committee, staffed perhaps by the Archbishop of Canterbury and one or two others drawn from the great and the good, whose role is to determine who is deserving and who is not? “Yes”, they might say, “that is the third email he has sent to his mother this week. Give him two ‘deserving points’ and send him that message about our linen sheets offer”. Then I suppose there must be those who have only one point and not two. “No, linen sheets are too good for him,” intones the Archbishop, “but I suppose brushed nylon ones would not be inappropriate.”

That is certainly one possibility. The other, however, is that the offers are sent out indiscriminately with no monitoring at all. “You owe yourself a tasteful woollen tea cosy, Mr Putin”. “Your Majesty deserves a nice set of plastic place mats to set off all that silver and gold”. “You deserve the opportunity to buy a case of Algerian wine at French prices, Dutch cigars priced as if they came from Cuba, a tasteful pair of Austrian shorts or almost anything whose price is based on its brand.”

Actually, it isn’t the implication that you are stupid enough to believe that your good deeds have earned you the chance to buy overpriced rubbish which is so offensive, but the impertinent suggestion that the marketing people can classify your worth. Nobody likes to be judged, and in one of his Father Brown stories Chesterton uses the exercise of character judgement as a motive for murder.

Unfortunately, it is impractical to identify the advertising man responsible for the “you deserve it” line, so murder is out of the question. Let’s just say that as fallible human beings living in Britain, most of us don’t really deserve as much as we already get. Perhaps then the statement that we deserve to buy a particular product sends a message about that product and its pricing which is different from that intended by the advertisers.

For myself, I can only say that I hope never to get my deserts; desserts, however, in a restaurant like that of the Château of Montreuil, are quite a different matter.

 

Issue 13: 2015 07 30: The fat lady has gone

30 July 2015

The fat lady has gone

by J R Thomas

The opera, they say, ain’t over until the fat lady sings. But that was then, this is now. The fat lady, fans of Covent Garden may remember, is no longer acceptable on the Royal Opera House stage. As far back as 2004, Deborah Voigt, the distinguished American soprano, was fired from the role of Ariadne in Ariadne auf Naxos for being overweight, or (according to the ROH management) for being unable to wear the dress made for the role. We will not get into the wonders of haute couture or tailoring here, but merely report the happy ending that Ms Voigt slimmed down over the next four years and made a triumphant return to her intended role in 2008. Whether she returned to the intended dress, history does not relate.

But great opera directors of today have not just dispensed with fat ladies. They frequently dispense with the original script of the opera or great chunks of the libretto. Even if you get all the right words, they are “not necessarily in the right order” (to quote a great comedian).  Settings are changed, the sex of the protagonists reversed or obscured, and now it is a rare director who does not drop historicism for his own questing and searing commentary on modern times.

This trend began at the theatre, especially with attempts to make the works of one W Shakespeare relevant for modern school children. And often successfully, let it be said. In his early teens, your correspondent had grumbled and snoozed through endless classroom readings and explanations of Julius Caesar. But seeing it performed in modern dress at the Theatre Royal, York, changed the whole thing. Caesar as an aspiring Hitler made everything horrifyingly clear (as did a wonderfully raunchy version of Romeo and Juliet at Stratford with a practically naked Juliet).

Opera has never been so popular in Britain as it is today; or, rather, has never been seen by so many people (not quite the same thing). Any owner of a country house who wishes to gain respect for his cultural depths will run an opera festival at least every other year. (Unless the mansion needs a new roof or the local authority has again turned down the planning application for a wind turbine farm – in which case a slightly more lucrative approach might be a festival along the lines of Bestival or Latitude.)

Led by the very grand Glyndebourne, country house opera is the big in-thing – the example of the Christies of Glyndebourne being followed by Grange Opera in Hampshire with a very serious and impressive set-up in the ruins of Grange Park, by the Ingrams’s at Garsington (now removed to the safe keeping of the Getty family at Wormsley, Buckinghamshire), by the Cartwright-Hignetts at Iford near Bath and by the roving Pavilion Opera Company, founded and still run 34 years later by Freddie Stockdale. Pavilion roams the country houses of Britain, filling in for those bereft owners with no opera house of their own. Cowshed Opera (the clue to the location is in the name) entertains the humble folk of the Cotswolds, 500 at a time. At the other end of the architectural scale is West Green Opera, also in Hampshire, in the garden of the very operatically baroque West Green House.

For opera lovers, life is good and choice is plentiful. And what is more, country house opera is often much closer physically to its core audience than those two great opera houses stuck in the middle of London. Aficionados of the greatest music form of all can drive to the opera, park nearby and, weather permitting, take a wonderful picnic complete with family silver and their own champagne. Opera is not cheap but it is cheaper in the country, and you will meet your chums, all of whom will have seized this excuse to dress properly (long dresses and grandma’s jewellery; dickie bows and evening dress rescued from the moth). The booze is usually cheaper as well, when you have run out of your own – though it is best to agree first who is driving home.

That is all rather shallow stuff, but those of deeper cultural yearnings will also find satisfaction in rural musicality. The standard of orchestral play in Britain now is now very high, and there are plenty of musicians to provide good orchestral quality even in the most remote counties. On-stage, the standard of the cast usually ranges from pretty good to remarkable. Grange Park is especially proud of its reputation for attracting the biggest and best. Established stars very much like summering in the country, the divas and magnificos often finding themselves accommodated as honoured guests in the sponsoring country house. At Glyndebourne, the soprano Danielle de Niese even gets to live in Glyndebourne House – though to do so she had to marry the current Mr Christie and become chatelaine of the place. (We have no details of who sleeps where at Cowshed Opera.) Equally, young aspirants in the opera world and rising stars find employment and appreciation in the country opera business, and it is a great place for hearing those soon to be at the London houses at double the price. True, passing aircraft, sudden rainstorms and cows lowing nearby can provide distractions, but real opera buffs should be able to take that in their stride.

Maybe best of all for the traditionalist devotee of singing-and-moving-at-the-same-time, most country house opera is done in accordance with the concepts, music and libretto of the original writer, in dress of the period in which it was written and against magnificent sets appropriate to the era. So far, no country house has seen a reorganised and reset Don Giovanni open with the anti-hero copulating in a vandalised car, nor have any productions opened with the chorus seated in the open stalls of a public toilet.  Nudity and simulated rape might well put the country house audience off its coronation chicken and Pol Roger, and (so far) have been avoided.

The migration of the traditionalist audiences to rural opera, though taking at least some of the core ticket income from the Royal Opera House and English National Opera, has in many ways been a boon for the London houses and other city venues. Freed of a rich but conservative audience, the city houses have been able to experiment with new treatments and approaches in their old repertoire and to commission new works. Some of the controversial works of the twentieth century have been exhumed from the dusty vaults in which old operas are kept and have become big draws for a much younger, informal and more international following. Controversial though some productions have been, they fill the seats at the demanding prices which the running of a modern urban opera house needs.

There is concern amongst the board members of the great houses that too much controversy, coupled with a conservative Conservative government, might create problems in obtaining the large public subsidies needed to fund the buildings, sets and huge numbers of musicians, set hands, singers and management. Compared with the self-funding nature of rural opera, the huge costs of running urban opera is remarkable, and is generally seen as explicable given the short country seasons, temporary facilities, and minimal permanent staff. But so far there is no great noise to cut funding to the city companies, even though the elitist nature of opera is always an easy target.

Opera seems to be in that best of all possible worlds. Standards are high, there are many opportunities to enjoy it in the style and surroundings that best suit the audience member, and traditional treatments vie with the most modernist and shocking approaches. Adherents of each may grumble about the nature of the other, but there is plenty for everybody. So good are things, there is probably an opera to be made of this happy tale!

 

Issue 13: 2015 07 30: Communication the modern way

30 July 2015

Communication the modern way; how to really get in touch.

by Lynda Goetz

When I went out the other day, carrying my mobile (as usual), it sprang into life (as usual) as I left the village. It seemed that a number of people had been trying to get in touch. Where I live, my mobile – smart as it is – cannot really do the one thing for which it was originally invented, namely send and receive phone calls. This is because I live in the countryside; not only do I not get superfast broadband (and look unlikely to do so in the foreseeable future), but I also do not get much of a mobile signal. Occasionally, on a good day with the right weather conditions, I can get a signal if I stand on one leg in one corner of my dressing room (slight exaggeration, but you get the picture). My daughters, on a different network, can sometimes get a signal in one of the bathrooms. This situation is not entirely satisfactory as far as modern life goes, but we are quite used to it. We tend to use an old-fashioned thing called a landline – which does a surprisingly good job if you actually want to talk to people – rather than email or text them, that is. However, I find that my city-based friends, acquaintances and business contacts seem not really to understand that such a situation could exist in the second decade of the twenty-first century.

Go back some thirty five years and I was living in a rather cool flat (well, I thought so at the time) in Bloomsbury. I was there courtesy of some American friends I had met in Spain, who had the use of it from a friend of theirs who was living in New York (keep up at the back there) but who had kept the lease going as it was basically too good a thing to let go (I think eventually he was paid good money to ‘leave’). Anyway, part of the deal was that I would move out in the summer and find somewhere else to rest my head for a while should any of them wish to come to London. Reasonable notice was expected to be given. I came home from work one day to find a man I had never set eyes on before in ‘my’ flat; apparently he had been ‘ringing and ringing’ to tell me of his arrival. I was incredulous. Had he never heard of Royal Mail and its American equivalent, United States Postal Service (USPS)? Clearly writing a letter had simply never occurred to him. I had not answered his calls, so I must have been out of the country or possibly dead. The fact that I had been at work during the week, with friends in the evenings and away at the weekends seems not to have entered his head.

Nowadays very few people write letters (although I have noticed a rather interesting development amongst some of the young who appear to have decided that writing letters is so out of date as to be the latest thing). Emails seem to have been superseded by Facebook messaging in many instances, and texting or Whatsapp seem to have replaced ‘giving someone a ring’. If you do ring someone it is far more likely to be on their mobile than on a landline, which many people do not even have these days. However, should you be trying to ask someone how to get to their house and your other indispensable piece of modern technology (namely the SatNav) is not working, then what to do if they do not answer their mobile and it has not occurred to you to use their landline? Well, as I explained to my new friends from London who were trying to visit us on their way home from holiday, you could simply have asked the couple who run the village shop. They could have told you immediately AND given you directions.

 

 

Issue 13: Crossword – Cheers

30 July 2015

Crossword by Boffles

Cheers

To see a printable version of this crossword