Issue 37:2016 01 21:Contents

21 January 2016: Issue 37

Week in Brief     

Guildhall Art Gallery

Guildhall Gallery                               JR Thomas





The Road to Peace by Neil Tidmarsh

The journey to a new Syria is due to start in Geneva next Monday.

Two girls show off in front of the British Museum with a dance of joy

Tourists enjoying the London weather by Neil Dunlop

Charge! by J. R. Thomas

Fading Icons: Free Admission.

Anonymity Or Spotlight In Rape Cases? by Lynda Goetz

Where is the justice under the current system?

Clash of cultures at Cologne by John Watson

Introducing the children of immigrants to Christianity.


Cat fight in Iowa by J. R. Thomas

Will Hillary come through stong to super Tuesday?

Time for a Smart Beta Bet? by Frank O’Nomics

A product for those who want to get back into the market.

The Four Bears, the Princess, and the Hung Parliament by Neil Tidmarsh

speaking car

Chin Chin                              cartoon A Kenning

A fairy tale for winter

 A car which speaks for itself by Chin Chin

The Japanese fifth column?


Down Under

Solution to the last crossword “A Little Learning”

EarlA medium 600x271 stamp prompting the reader to join the subscription listier Editions

Issue 32: 10 December 2015

Issue 33: 17 December 2015

Issue 34: 24 December 2015

Issue 35: 07 January 2016

Issue 36: 14 January 2016

Issue 38: 2016 01 21: The Blind leading the Blind (Frank O’Nomics)

28 January 2016

The Blind leading the Blind

 What is the point of forward guidance?

by Frank O’Nomics

When should we expect UK interest rates to rise?  For many years economist have examined the fan charts of inflation forecasts in the Bank of England Inflation Report for clues as to the likely timing of a rate move.  From 2013 that process was helped when, like many other central banks, the BoE adopted a policy of forward guidance.  Last week Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, at this year’s Peston Lecture, included a section in his speech that covered the outlook for monetary policy and what was pretty clear to all is that he does not see UK interest rates rising at any time soon.

All well and good you might argue, and entirely consistent with the Bank’s policy of forward guidance.  However, there are many that would disagree, given that just last summer the Bank had been pointing to a rise in rates relatively soon and, as recently as the start of this year, George Osborne (admittedly not someone who has any say in rate moves) was pointing to the recent rate rise in the US as something that the UK should be prepared for.  This is important as the earlier forward guidance will have encouraged many to adjust their investment decisions accordingly – decisions which will now look somewhat over cautious, and potentially expensive.  Anyone who has locked in a longer-term fixed rate mortgage on concerns that rates were about to rise, will now be burdened with a higher rate for a much longer period than they needed.

A lot seems to have changed in terms of the global and domestic economic outlook since the Bank started to warm up rate rise expectations last year.  We will always be vulnerable to unforeseen circumstances, and we are living in a much more uncertain world than that described by Mervyn King in the last decade, as the “nice” era (non-inflationary consistently expansionary).  Having encouraged us  now not to expect a rate rise until, at the earliest, very late this year, what happens if the oil price bounces significantly and/or sterling falls precipitously (on Brexit fears perhaps) thereby suddenly rejuvenating inflation expectations?  Given this backdrop would it not be better for the authorities to be much more circumspect in its forward guidance or maybe just drop it all together?

The Bank of England first incorporated forward guidance into the toolkit designed to help it hit its 2% inflation target in August 2013.  It stated that that it was also “designed to help people understand how the MPC sets interest rates” so that “households and businesses can plan their investment with more confidence” . The original forward guidance stated that rates would remain at 0.5% at least until the unemployment rate fell below 7%.  At the time unemployment stood at 7.7%, but this has fallen steadily to 5.1%, and still has a downward trajectory.  The MPC did include the phrase “provided there weren’t risks to inflation or financial stability” and there is no doubt that  at present such risks are considerable.  In his speech last week Governor Carney cited the on-going collapse in oil prices, volatility in China and a moderation in domestic growth and wages as reasons why there was little justification in tightening monetary policy.  There seems little to argue with here and most market participants will not have been surprised by the contents of the speech, given that they are painfully aware of the asset price falls that have been occasioned by these factors (even with a rally late last week FTSE is still down over 7% year-to-date). But while events will have prepared us for such a speech this will be little consolation to those who have responded to earlier speeches.

As recently as last summer Mr Carney said that the decision to raise rates would come into sharper relief at the start of the turn of the year, and late in October he warned that while a rate rise was a “ a possibility not a certainty” he urged UK households to prepare for tighter monetary policy.  For many this may have been sufficient to convey the right degree of uncertainty, but it led some to decide that they did not want to take the risk and hence move their mortgage to a fixed rate.  What is the difference?  Well, one would have to pay around ½-1% more to have a mortgage at a fixed rate for 5 years, rather than for 2 years – so between £1000-£2000 per annum for a £200,000 mortgage.  Not an insignificant decision for most people.  Further, for businesses, this may have been sufficient to discourage investment in plant and machinery on the basis that the prospective returns would be reduced by higher borrowing costs.

Part of the problem seems to be, as external MPC member Kristin Forbes acknowledged this week,  that the Bank’s forecasting models have not been working very well, and the MPC will need confidence in them before deciding to raise rates.  Ms Forbes agrees that a rate rise cannot be justified yet, although she points out that an increase in wage growth momentum, and the loss of the benefits of cheaper energy and a strong currency could quickly change the outlook.

What are the alternatives going forward? The simple answer is that forward guidance is generally regarded as a good thing, and that any additional elements of clarity and transparency regarding the interest rate setting process should be of benefit to the markets and households alike.  The question then is one of degree.  On the one hand it seems prudent for the Bank to discourage excessive indebtedness and hence be prepared for higher mortgage or loan repayments.  On the other, creating too much concern may hinder economic growth by discouraging business investment and leaving households saddled with higher interest charges.  From this perspective overly cautious forward guidance could be counterproductive in the process of moving towards the 2% inflation target.

The Bank for International Settlements (the so-called bank of central banks) has in the past warned that forward guidance risks a further financial shock if it entails keeping rates too low for too long.  For many it may just not be acceptable to have an MPC that just says we cannot be sure from one month to the next just what the outlook changes will be, and so ensures that forward guidance has so many riders that it ceases to be of any worthwhile substance. While the committee’s decisions have to be put in context, there clearly is a need to have a degree of expectation factored in, but it is also important for them to approach each meeting with an open mind to consider what has changed since they last met, and to react without being restricted by previous forward guidance.  As Keynes once said, “when the facts change I change my mind.  What do you do, sir?”

Issue 38:2016 01 28:Leaving it alone (JR Thomas)

28 January 2015

Leaving It Alone

by J.R.Thomas

Rogue MaleIn two esoteric worlds last week there was fluttering and muttering as a philosophy of conservation, long the focus of academic contention, was debated yet again.  Two very different worlds; one a country house of world architectural importance in Surrey; the other an obscure railway in central Wales.  But both encapsulate the difficulties of conserving what we value, and making the old useful for the future.

The house is Clandon Park near Guildford, an early Georgian pile with fantastically ornate baroque interiors, designed by the Italian architect Giacomo Leoni for the Onslow family.  The Onslow’s were not an especially rich or leading family, but they built a magnificent house and hung onto it for over two hundred years.  In 1956, faced with huge running costs and a hostile tax regime, they gave their house and some of the contents to the National Trust.  The Earl of Onslow retained most of his land and moved out to the bailiff’s house nearby.  The National Trust was able to procure a generous donation of china, textiles, and crystal to refurnish the rooms, opened the house to the public, and life then continued into the better financial conditions of the twenty first century.

Until last April, when an accidental fire destroyed the entire interior of the house, except one room, and engulfed almost all the contents.  It was a disaster for the Trust, for the Onslow family, and for Britain’s architectural heritage.  It was apparent very quickly that the house, although the shell stood safe, was not capable of repair internally, the destruction being so complete that there was nothing much left to repair.  The Trust’s insurance assessors now compute the likely pay-out (to cover “reinstatement” and replacement with similar contents) at over £60m.  Last week the Trust announced that it would seek to “replicate” the main rooms of the house and to make new spaces for public uses on the less architecturally important upper floors.

Leaving Clandon for the moment, we move to the remote and unfashionable coast of mid Wales north of Aberystwyth. Now a minor retirement and holiday destination, many of the mountains behind were in the nineteenth century major centres of mining and quarrying; the brutal slate quarries which now seem a natural feature of the dramatic landscape provided the rooves to many Victorian red brick streets in northern cities.  From the Bryn Eglwys quarry above Tywyn on that coast, slate went to a far more distinguished roof – that of Westminster Hall, when re-roofed in the 1870’s.  The quarry and the Great Western station in Tywyn were linked by a six mile long narrow gauge line, the Talyllyn Railway, built in 1865.  It had two engines, four carriages, and a lot of slate wagons.  In 1911, the bankrupt quarry was bought by the local MP, Sir Haydn Jones, who kept the quarry operating and the railway line running to ensure local employment.  So forgotten did all this become, hidden in its remote valley, that in 1947 the Department of Transport overlooked that the line existed and it was not nationalised.  Yet it still staggered on, having never bought any more engines or rolling stock, the railway just two rusty lines in the grass.

In 1949 it was discovered by LTC (Tom) Rolt, probably the greatest, certainly the most romantic, British transport conservationist of recent times.  He had previously been effectively the leader of the movement to save what was left of Britain’s canal network.  One day he drove in his vintage Alvis over the Welsh mountains and discovered the Talyllyn Railway.  Less than a year later Sir Haydn Jones died and the railway closed.  But only for the winter.  Rolt became utterly determined to save it. It was the most extraordinary time capsule that he had ever come across, the romantic railway, its ancient engines, limping carriages, decaying buildings, over grown track, and, not least, loyal rural Welsh passengers.  Rolt and half a dozen friends were hooked, and moved to Tywyn to operate and preserve it.

They succeeded; now the Talyllyn is one of Wales’s leading tourist attractions, hauling endless loads of passengers up and down the line, with several extra engines added to the original two, and modern comfortable coaches.  There is a museum, tea rooms, shops, lavatories, large car parks, workshops, sheds and sidings for the carriages.


adjusting to modern times                                                                                                  JR Thomas

The Talyllyn occupies a special place in the hearts of many steam railway enthusiasts, but it has also become quite controversial in the arcane, not to say eccentric, world of railway preservation, because to make it viable, much of the romantic decay was swept away.  Now the controversy has been given a further stir.  A new book “Talyllyn Pioneers”, on Rolt and his group of friends, by Michael Whitehouse, the son of one of them, has provoked an attack by Roy Link, a leading steam enthusiast and railway publisher.  In his review of Whitehouse’s book Link ponders “if the term preservation is really correct for the Talyllyn Railway and other preserved railways.  In order to keep them running, all sorts of alterations are required, [so much that] ….often the character that first attracted [the preservationists] is lost.”

You may think that is all hot steam in a smokebox; but how repair and reuse and preservation interlink is a difficult subject in many different conservation circles.

Which brings us back from the Welsh Mountains to the Surrey Hills.  You might expect that the present Lord Onslow, the National Trust having announced that it intends to spend some £60 million pounds on repairing the seat of his ancestors, would be pleased and grateful.  But far from it, and using Roy Link’s same logic: “Clandon is lost. It’s a ruin now. It decayed instantly. This sad site should be left in peace and tranquillity.”  He advocates spending the insurance money on helping another house, or several, which need assistance with repair, or the creation of long-term support funds. His point is that whatever is built will be just a modern copy, with bought-in contents which have no connection to the facsimile house.  The National Trust are keeping a diplomatic silence at the moment and promising to consult widely but anonymous officials have pointed to various positive angles of creating reproductions of the interiors – that it keeps alive the various highly specialist skills needed for such works, and that the Trust is a conservationist organisation whose moral duty is to put back, if at all possible, what was.

This was an argument used with great force by the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, after the IRA Bishopsgate bomb completely demolished the medieval church of St Ethelburga’s.  So little was left, and the destruction around it so great (and the land value of the site so high) that most people involved in the aftermath, both in the City and the Church of England, assumed the site would be sold for development. (With, no doubt, a small plaque to commemorate the history of its former use.)   The Bishop was having none of that; nobody, he said, would have proposed the demolition of such a beautiful and historic church; and the only correct response was to put it back.  That is what was done, albeit with some minor internal amendments, and St Ethelburga’s sits in Bishopsgate as though nothing had ever happened.

We live in an era when our wealth, especially in south east England, and the enormous inflation that that has produced in land and building values, means that we must use buildings to their greatest economic efficiency.  The human species is very good at finding philosophical and rational reasons, often sub-consciously, as to why what we want to do, is also the right thing to do.  Justification may follow need, and often does.  So, from that spirit of the 1980’s, when careful repair and reinstatement, and indeed new work in the style of the old, was the thing, through Richard Chartres’ determination not to be beat, we have now reverted to the conservationist philosophies of the 1950’s and 1960’s.

The great twentieth century Venetian conservationist architect, Carlo Scarpa, is now the exemplar for many modern architects.  He believed in a clear reordering of buildings that no longer worked for their original purpose, in schemes that displayed the history of structures, often (literally) cut away to reveal historical layers, but where the modern form was clearly displayed, of the utmost quality, and formatted so that it made the building suitable for its modern use.  That is effectively what has happened at the Talyllyn Railway (though, one suspects, without much academic deliberation among the preservationists); and a model the National Trust might want to consider at Clandon.

As the electronic digital flexible age swirls ever faster into view the way we use land and buildings is likely to evolve ever faster too.  Let us hope that we have no more disasters like Clandon; but how we use buildings, and how we modify them to ensure maximum utility is likely to become more controversial, and the battles between those who would conserve by adaption, and those who wish to change as little as possible will intensify.  “For things to remain the same, everything must change” mused the Prince of Lampedusa in his great novel, The Leopard.  He was talking about society, but he might just as well have meant building conservation (and steam railways).

Issue 38: Crossword – Poets’ Corner

28 January 2016

Crossword by Boffles


Poets’ Corner


To see a printable version of this crossword



Issue 38: Crossword – Poets’ Corner – printable

28 January 2016

Crossword by Boffles


Poets’ Corner

SS38 grid



    7  Although very tired, it winds somewhere safe to sea (Swinburne) (8,5)

    8  Longed to be in England in April (8)

    9  The Pobble lacked them (4)

  10  Judy O’Grady and the Colonel’s lady are sisters under this (3,4)

  12  A Cardinal wrote about the one Gerontius had (5)

  14  Hunted, it could have been a Boojum (5)

  16  Virgil’s hero (6)

  19  The Blessed Damozel had ones which were deeper than the depth of waters stilled at even (4)

  20  Balmy sleep is tired nature’s (8)

  22  Beginning of an autumnal poem (6,2,5)



    1  It’s not nonsense that he also painted (4)

    2  Chaste ones for cold nymphs (6)

    3  Wordsworth had to  do this to the banks of the Wye in order to write about the vicinity of Tintern Abbey (7)

    4  Mrs Worthington was advised against putting her daughter on it (5)

    5  Love grows this with treason according to Swinburne (6)

    6  Major figure in the Iliad whose wife’s face launched a thousand ships (8)

  11  There is a hive for it on the Isle of Innisfree (5,3)

  13  What they do (7)

  15  Wilde character was unable to when faced with temptation (6)

  17  Nature of some Catullus poems (6)

  18  None available although there was water everywhere (5)

  21  Some have meat but cannot (3)




Issue 38: 2016 01 28: Labour’s Lessons From Defeat (John Watson)

28 January 2016

Labour’s Lessons from Defeat

What we expect from Mr Corbyn.

By John Watson

Watson,-John_640c480The closure of Kellingley colliery may represent the end of deep mining for coal in the UK but the reader certainly has to do a lot of digging to extract from Margaret Beckett’s report “Learning the Lessons from Defeat” the reasons why Labour lost the 2015 general election.  Although section 1 of the report, which discusses the events from 2010 to 2015, points to lots of difficulties which Labour encountered, the emphasis is mostly on the actions of other parties – for example the Tory success in wrongly blaming Labour for the 2008 crash; the coalition partners combining to attack Labour; the lack of media interest in what Labour was saying; the way in which fixed term elections allowed the Conservatives a better opportunity to deploy their superior funding; vitriolic attacks on Miliband; the way in which Cameron’s espousal of English votes on English issues kept the SNPs strong after the Scottish referendum; etc; etc; etc.

Yes, yes, it was all very difficult I am sure, but aren’t these the sort of problems which always come up in the course of fighting a campaign? The Tories and the Liberal Democrats must have their lists, too.  The quality of a politician or a political party is shown by the way in which problems of this sort are overcome, rather as it is the mark of a good bridge player that he plays a bad hand well and not simply that he can win when he holds all the trumps.  After all, the purpose of an election is to decide who will govern the country and it is no good a government saying that it would have come out right if only everyone else had played fair.

In reading the report, therefore, one should skim over all the things done by the villainous Tories, the treacherous liberals or the unfair gods and focus on those parts which catalogue Labour’s own shortcomings.  Alas, there isn’t much there.  Apart from the lack of a consistent theme and the early appointment of candidates which resulted in their being stale by the election, most of the points go to failure of communication: the failure to nail Tory lies, the failure to get the message across, the failure to persuade the public that the programme was costed and so forth.

Let’s try our luck with the causes of defeat identified by the pollsters and on the doorstep. Four of them are listed:

  • a failure to counter Tory mythology about the 2008 crash;
  • a failure to connect with voters, in particular in relation to benefits and immigration. This “lack of connection” first appears in the report as a failure by all the political parties but one which bears particularly hard on Labour who are expected to be more “understanding” than the Conservatives;
  • Ed Miliband was not seen as being as strong as David Cameron; and
  • a fear that a minority Labour government would be propped up by and therefore influenced by the SNP.

Again something of a mixture between criticisms of the party and complaints about the circumstances but here it is perhaps more excusable.  Those on the doorstep merely report voter’s reservations. A report on the lessons to be drawn from defeat should be more focused on the shortcomings in the party’s own approach.

Move on then to the plan for the future. There are various recommendations relating to the technicality of fighting campaigns and electoral organisation.  I am sure they are useful in their way but they do not go to the heart of the subject. Nearer to the essence is the statement that the party must set out a vision for the country’s future, addressing what the country needs and how Labour will contribute if elected. Specific policy proposals can then be linked to that vision creating, in a slightly embarrassing phrase, a “campaign in poetry”.  The report goes on to say that policy-making must be focused on the likely condition of Britain in the 2020s. For example, it must address the question of high-quality social care. It must address the spread of self-employment and Britain’s interest in an internationally competitive private sector. The party must recognise concerns and criticisms in relation to Europe but also recognise Britain’s place within the EU.

This is all very well but it could equally appear in a mission statement for the Conservatives.  Surely Dame Margaret’s task force could have produced something a little less anodyne; perhaps even given some guidance to the party which appointed them as to how it might take things forward?  Or do they simply not know?  Is their vision one of a Labour Party hanging around, struggling against the demographics as the over 65s who tend to vote Tory become a bigger section of the electorate, always hoping that they will drift into power because the Conservatives make some dreadful error just before a general election? Is that really what has happened to the great reforming party which has made such an important contribution to British public life?  If so it is bad from everyone’s point of view.  The idea of political parties is to contribute ideas. “Thesis. Antithesis. Synthesis”. That is the political process in a nutshell and you can only have it if the ideas are rolling in from different places. We need a spectrum of different ideas from which to select just as nature needs different mutations if species are to be improved along the lines identified by Darwin.

All political parties go through periods of exhaustion from which it takes time to recover.  The Tories were there after 1997 and it took some time for them to recover from that.  Recovery has to come from new ideas and it takes time, and often false starts, for the party to decide which ones to pursue.  Labour’s way forward must be as an intellectual hothouse where new ideas are created and tested against each other, not just the construction of an anodyne vision which the marketing people think it could sell to the public.

Perhaps it is a sense of this which has led to the selection of Mr Corbyn. He is certainly a man who holds strong and, in some cases, unconventional, views.  As party leader, however, that may be a disadvantage because it could result in the stifling of debate rather than in the creation of different themes which can then be compared with each other.  It is early to see how this will come out but he would do well to reflect that it was the increase in political research sponsored by Iain Duncan Smith which finally lifted the Tories out of the doldrums.

Sometime ago the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, was asked whether he had ambitions to become Prime Minister. After reciting his loyalty to Mr Cameron in the usual self-deprecating way, he paused for a moment and said “If the ball came loose from the back of the scrum, which it won’t of course, it would be a great, great thing to have a crack at.”  We have yet to see how that will play for Mr Johnson but a year ago Mr Corbyn might have said the same thing.  Well, the ball did come loose and he decide to have a crack at it. That is to his credit. Whether he uses his office to turn Labour into a workshop of new ideas will be the test of his leadership.


Issue 38: 2016 01 28:Tories Nationalise Railways (JR Thomas)

28 January 2016

Tories Nationalise Railways

by J.R.Thomas

Rogue MaleApologies to confused readers; you are right, it is not April Fool’s Day . The proverbial Martian, newly arrived on earth and standing on a garishly decorated railway platform in London, might assume it is though.

The Conservative Party is in favour of private enterprise, of allowing business to stand on its own two feet, of lowering tax rates by cutting subsidies, and of getting government out of people’s lives.  Apparently, only up to a point, Lord Copper.  The point arrives, it seems, when it comes to London’s public transport system, and in particular, its railway network.

Railway politics used to be easy to understand.  In 1923 the large number of private railway companies were forced into four large but still privately owned geographically arranged businesses.  After the Second World War the Labour government of Clement Atlee nationalised the four companies as part of its public ownership programme, though the railway business continued to be run as the four separate regions which they had been in private days.  The lack of investment in the system and its failure to react to changing customer needs led to a series of changes in the 1980’s to reorganise the railways along sector lines, which did bring some improvement in service but ever increasing losses.  John Major’s government in 1994 finally gripped the problem and privatised the railways, completing the task in 1997.

To travellers who had put up with ancient carriages, unreliable services, strikes and go slows, to say nothing of dirty buildings and decaying infrastructure, the handing over the public railway to private ownership was pretty much a breath of breath air.  The actual rails and land and most stations continued to be owned by a state owned but independently managed infrastructure provider, which has been the most troubled part of the brave new world, going through various incarnations (now Network Rail) as it became accustomed to the challenging world of commerce.  The services and trains passed into privately owned limited life franchises, sometimes with subsidies, increasingly often without.  For travellers, life rapidly improved with much investment into faster comfortable trains, more seating, more frequent services, and better facilities at stations.  Passenger carryings have more than doubled over the last twenty years and freight traffic even more.

Which is not to say there have not been problems. Two successive operators of the east coast mainline went bust.  Some operators have suffered with the very problems of success, unable to provide enough capacity to carry the intending traffic.  The decaying infrastructure has caused continuing problems and, until recently, Network Rail has struggled with its quality of project investment.  It still faces a huge backlog of track improvements and over running capital investments.

Passenger memories though, are short. The chaos and appalling performance of the system of thirty years ago is now forgotten, and nowhere more so than in London.  The London suburban railway system is highly congested, and routine maintenance has tended to be deferred to the great new projects that engineers love so much – the Heathrow Express, Crossrail, and the Paddington lines electrification.  Changes of operators and short franchises have led to under investment at the operational level, and the gradual coalescence of large swathes of the suburban system into single operator control has undermined the principles of competition that was supposed to keep quality of service up and fares down.

But, a detached observer might think, the private system compares very favourably with the London Underground, run by the state agency Transport for London (TfL) and ultimately by the office of the Mayor of London. The Underground is also coping with years of under investment and trying to catch up; but poor and unfocused management, and militant unions who have forced through many restrictions on working practices and large salary rises, have made the system heavily loss making and very inefficient, incapable of coping with peak crowds, and with real issues of repair and reliability.

Nevertheless, the Mayor’s Office started to take control of parts of the inner London overground system a couple of years ago, originally and ostensibly mainly driven by the need to create a sort of circle line round the inner suburbs to improve rail services across London (rather than the emphasis on running services into central London).  The system is running, although not heavily used overall and loss making, but it has enabled TfL to claim that it is better than the private sector at responding to passenger needs.

Now TfL has announced it will take a much larger step.  As franchises expire it will take all of London’s suburban passenger services into its direct operating control.  This, it says, will enable it to run much more frequent services and to coordinate the different systems to meet the needs of customers.  It is not taking control of the tracks or the main stations, which will remain under the control of Network Rail, and it will continue to share many routes with the longer distance franchise operators and the freight operating companies.

You might expect a free market loving Tory Mayor to have something to say on this – and indeed Boris has. He thinks it’s a great idea; indeed that he partly inspired it and fought for it.  His Tory possible successor, Zak Goldsmith is also keen – one suspects, not the view that would have been taken by his father, the late James.  And needless to say, every other Mayoral candidate has warmly welcomed the proposal, so it looks like a done deal.  Only the Treasury, that bunch of Gradgrinds, has thrown a little sand in the TfL smoke box – it has reinforced its policy statement that all subsidies for the London rail network will be phased out and that the system should become entirely self-funding over the life of this parliament.

There is no doubt that the nationalisation move has strong public support.  Grumbling about every aspect of rail journeys to work and home again is a commuter’s favourite topic of conversation and most have forgotten the cattle truck conditions, and the uncertainty of getting to journeys end, of British Rail days.  Boris is of course on his way to the Cabinet table in May, and maybe to the top job at it in four years time, and he is always a man with an eye to easy popularity rather than arguing complex propositions on free market economics.  Goldsmith has a very uphill struggle to win votes from the outer suburbs if his mayoral attempt is to have any chance of success, and he will not want the commuters grumbling about him instead of their rail journeys.

But given the enormous complexity of London’s railway network, the lack of experience of TfL in running a semi commercial enterprise, and the need for financial viability, London Tories might not want to get too wedded to the cause of nationalised public transport.  It seems not unlikely that, within a generation, commuters will be calling for private enterprise to sort their commuting lives out and rescue them from nationalised misery.

Issue 38: 2016 01 28: Geneva (Chin Chin)

28 January 2016


A seating plan for peace.

By Chin Chin

drunk persianIf there is one thing which permeates the Christmas holiday it is seating plans.  It may be a season for goodwill but if you put Great Aunt Margaret next to her sister-in-law at lunch you will discover that the only references to charity will be to that lady’s late husband having been supported by the state during the whole of his work-shy existence.  Then you mustn’t put Bertie next to the cousin whose wife he seduced, or that socialist worker activist next to the Colonel. A hundred sensitivities must be observed or you can forget about peace on earth. Any angels which may decide to drop in on the party will be of the avenging variety.

Pity then those who have to organise the table settings for the opening dinner of the Syria peace talks which begin in Geneva next Friday.  Remembering who is friends with whom and what they eat and drink must be a challenge in itself. “Kurds, Froplinson?” you would call out to the diplomat-type lounging around in a slightly too well-cut suit in the corner and reading a magazine.

“Delicious” he would reply. “Everyone likes them. Big portion for me”

“ No, not curds,  you fool. The Kurds, you know, like Saladin”.

“What sort of Salad, did you say?”  He glances up, his attention engaged.

“Kurds from Kurdshire,” you bellow. “You know, Kurdshire in Syria.”  All sense of place names has now deserted you. “Who are their friends?”

“Not sure about that,” he replies, looking at the ‘friends’ list in his foreign office crib. “They are certainly against Isis.”

“Shall I put them next to Turkey then? No?” With a gesture he has sunk that proposal.

“Well, who should go next to Turkey?”

“The Russians have a border in common but, on reflection…”

“OK then.  Let’s start with someone easier.  The Iranians are in fashion at the moment.  They have been doing a series of state visits to Europe.  What about putting them next to France?”

“It all depends. If it’s that cosmopolitan Mr Rouhani, all will be well; but what happens if it’s some fire-breathing ayatollah and he sees his neighbour drinking wine?”

“We could ask the French not to drink?”

“Yes, well…” His expression indicates that that may not be the way forward.

Still, seating plans alone will not guarantee the success of the conference.  There is an agreement to be reached as well, and no doubt the organisers will have consulted psychologists and business schools in search of the techniques most conducive to compromise.  The best aren’t necessarily the newest ones, however, and they might do worse than to look at the comments of Herodotus on how the ancient Persians reached their decisions.  For the benefit of those who have temporarily forgotten the passage:

“If an important decision is to be made, they [the Persians] discuss the question when they are drunk, and the following day the master of the house where the discussion was held submits their decision for reconsideration when they are sober. If they still approve it, it is adopted; if not, it is abandoned. Conversely, any decision they make when they are sober, is reconsidered afterwards when they are drunk.”

It’s not a bad idea on the face of it.  Mix up the delegates. Give them plenty to drink. Let the ideas flow with the brandy and whizz out Ban Ki Moon to pick up the threads as the hangovers clear in the morning.  It might work but, then again, it might go very badly wrong.  Suppose they all become aggressively drunk; it might not just be threads that need pulling together as the troops on the ground respond to their orders; or suppose that the terms agreed don’t look so good next morning and it all comes unravelled?  That can happen all too easily after a glass or two.

Years ago, a friend of mine was involved in negotiations for the sale of a company.  The terms offered were generous and agreement of the documents was proceeding smoothly.  At about midnight it looked as if contracts would be in place in twenty minutes time so someone rang the chairmen of the two companies. They were told that matters were more or less agreed and that if they came round they could be photographed signing the documents; the photographs would just be in time to catch the morning press.

Actually progress was a bit slower than expected and there was still a bit to do when the great men arrived. They were much too important to be asked to wait and if the photo was to be in the papers it needed to go immediately, so someone suggested that they should be photographed together signing a blank piece of paper and that the actual agreement would be completed and signed by their respective staffers once they had gone.  Naturally they had a couple of glasses of champagne together and naturally everyone else had some too.  Then, the photographs having been taken, they left the mere mortals to finish things off.

Five minutes later one of the finance directors frowned. “We didn’t agree this,” he said. Everyone crowded round as the point with disputed. The mood got ugly when someone claimed they had been misled. The point was a small one but everyone had had a drink or two and before long the two sides had become so distrustful of each other that it was plain that the documents would never be signed.  Rather a pity then that the great men had telephoned one or two of their media friends to brief them on the deal.

That puts you off the “drinking early” idea, but actually there is a more fundamental objection. It clearly won’t work where many of the parties are teetotal, and if there is one thing which the Middle East is full of it’s teetotallers. No, I don’t think that can really be the answer.

Another well-known way of getting people to agree is to put them in a small room. Any negotiator will tell you that people crowded together tend to trust each other and that you can alter the temperature of a meeting by moving it from a large room to a small one or vice versa. Now international conferences normally take place in the largest rooms and an excuse would be needed for using a small one. If the meeting was being held in, say England or France, that would be easy.  One could claim double-booking or that the room had been infested by fleas or rats or one hundred and one other possible inefficiencies. The trouble is that the Swiss take their efficiency rather seriously and even the prospect of improving world peace would not induce them to admit to an inefficiency of which they were not really guilty.

Perhaps, though, we are on the wrong track altogether. Perhaps one should look to the imagination of the delegates rather than to that of the organisers to keep things fluid and conducive to agreement.  Sometimes the right comment can disarm an opponent.  One of the most famous examples of this occurred during the negotiations between Churchill and the Irish Patriot Michael Collins in 1921. The two men were bitterly opposed. Collins had been responsible for many British deaths in the long and bloody Irish struggle and Churchill, then Colonial Secretary, represented everything against which he had fought. When he met Churchill he opened aggressively: “You’re the man who put a price on my head.”

“Yes,” replied Churchill, “and a very good price too. I put £5,000 on your head. The Boers only put £25 on mine.”  Collins was hugely amused and from then on the two men worked together to agree a compromise.

Let’s just hope then that there is someone at the Geneva summit who is capable of making the sort of joke which will appeal to Americans, Europeans, Sunnis, Shiites, Turks and Russians.  Tricky, I suppose, but probably rather easier than arranging the seating plan.


Issue 38: 2016 01 28:Week in Brief: International

28 January 2016

Week in Brief: International

UN Flag to denote International news

AFGHANISTAN: A suicide bomber killed seven employees of the TV channel TOLO and injured at least 25 other people.  Last year the Taliban announced that they would be targeting the channel.

President Obama has authorised US special forces to combat Isis-affiliated groups, which have infiltrated Afghanistan from Pakistan.

AUSTRIA: The chancellor Werner Faymann has announced a cap on asylum seekers this year. No more than 37,500 will be allowed entry.

BRAZIL: An outbreak of the mosquito-born zika virus is spreading through Brazil. It is particularly dangerous to pregnant women, as it can lead birth defects.  Three cases were reported in Britain among travellers returning from Latin America.  There is no known cure for this rare virus.

CAMEROON: Three suicide attacks in a market in Bodo near the Nigerian border killed over 26 people and injured 30 others. Boko Haram are suspected.

CHINA: A Swedish human rights activist, Peter Dahlin, appeared on Chinese TV to make a “confession” and “apology”.  He is the founder of China Action, which fights human rights cases. He was arrested at Beijing airport earlier this month.

Gui Minhai, a Swedish citizen and one of the five Hong Kong booksellers and publishers who disappeared last year, also appeared on television to make an “apology” and “confession”.

Police arrested over seventy people and took 15 infants into care when they raided the headquarters of a child-trafficking gang in Liangshan.

DENMARK: Parliament passed a law allowing the confiscation of cash and valuables over a threshold of £1015 from migrants, to pay towards their costs.

EGYPT: A booby-trap bomb killed nine people when police raided a militant hideout in a Cairo suburb. Six of the dead were police.

Eight employees at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo are facing criminal charges for causing further damage when they stuck the beard back on Tutankhamun’s funerary mask after it had been knocked off.

EU: This week’s meeting of interior ministers agreed to suspend the Schengen zone of passport-free travel for two years.  It also proposed emergency plans to seal Greece off from the borders with other EU countries, and to help Macedonia (which is not part of the EU) to control its border with Greece, to prevent migrants from passing from Greece to other EU countries via Macedonia.  Greece has failed to set up ‘hot spots’ for processing refugees, as suggested by the EU.  Turkey has failed to stem the flow of refugees westward, in spite of the €3 billion payment from the EU.

The EU president Jean-Claude Juncker is proposing to abolish the Dublin system (which insists that immigrants must be registered in the country of entry into the EU) and to replace it with compulsory quotas for accepting migrants.

FRANCE: Violent protestors and migrants ran riot through Calais, invading the ferry port and boarding a P&O ferry.  The port was closed while they were removed by police.

Last Tuesday’s strikes by taxi drivers, civil servants, teachers and air traffic controllers were accompanied by riots and violent protests.

A collapse at a site for the storage of nuclear waste at Bure has killed one person and trapped another 1600 feet underground.

In Russia, the economy minister Emmanuel Macron expressed the hope that sanctions against Russia over Ukraine could be lifted by this summer, following the full implementation of the Minsk agreement.

GERMANY: The interior minister Thomas de Maiziere said that the controls Germany installed on its border with Austria last September as a temporary six month measure will have to remain in place indefinitely.

The southern states of Bavaria and Baden-Wurttemberg are confiscating asylum-seeking migrants’ assets above a certain limit (€750 and €350 respectively) to pay towards their costs. (In Switzerland, the limit is €900. Denmark voted a similar measure through this week).

IRAQ: Saint Elijah’s monastery, the oldest Christian monastery in Iraq (founded AD590) has been demolished. It stood outside Mosul in Isis held territory.

ITALY: Prime minister Matteo Renzi has persuaded the Senate to vote to abolish itself. This attempt to revitalise the Italian political system will now go to a referendum.

Beppe Grillo, the anti-establishment comedian who founded the Five Star Movement which now has 91 MPs, is returning to stand-up comedy.

The first state visit to Europe by an Iranian president in 17 years began with President Rouhani’s arrival in Rome. He will visit France after Italy.

MALAYSIA: An investigation has concluded that prime minister Najib Razak received $681 million from the Saudi royal family in 2013 and returned $620 million of it.  The gift was not illegal, according to the Malaysian attorney-general.

NORTH KOREA: A US student visiting North Korea as a tourist has been arrested, accused of committing ‘a hostile act against the state’.

PAKISTAN: Taliban militants attacked Bach Khan University in Charsadda, killing at least 30 people and wounding more than 60.

PORTUGAL: The presidential election was won by a centre-right candidate, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa.

RUSSIA: Retired High Court Judge, Sir Robert Owen’s report into the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006 concludes that it was an assassination organised and sanctioned by the Russian state and ‘probably’ authorised at its very highest level.

SOUTH AFRICA: 11 people have died of heatstroke, over half of the country’s provinces have been declared disaster zones and food shortages are looming as South Africa suffers its worst drought in decades.

SWEDEN: A teenage asylum seeker has been arrested and charged with murder after a worker at a refugee centre near Gothenburg was stabbed to death.

SYRIA: The US is building a military base inside Syria for the first time, in an area held by Syrian Kurdish fighters close to the borders with Turkey and Iraq.  Less than thirty miles away in the same area of northern Syria, Russia is building a military base in an area held by the Assad regime; it is only a few miles from the border with Turkey, and risks a further escalation of Russian/Turkish hostility.

Hydroelectric dams crucial to the economy and ecology of the Euphrates and Tigris river valleys are being used as shelters and hideouts by Isis.

UN sponsored peace-talks due to start this Monday in Geneva have been delayed until Friday.  Rebel leaders say that the US is now suggesting to them that Assad should be allowed to stand in any future election.

Regime forces, aided by Russia and Iran, continue to gain territory.  Thousands of people fleeing their advance have concentrated against the recently-sealed Turkish border.

TURKEY: A woman has been sent to jail for almost a year for making a rude hand gesture at President Erdogan as he passed in a bus during an anti-government election rally.

The government has declared victory against the Kurdish left-wing PKK separatist fighters in the town of Silopi.  Eighteen months of conflict have seen 7000 homes damaged, at least 27 civilian deaths and, according the army, 136 militants killed. The conflict continues in other towns in south east Turkey.  The PKK has made a video appeal to Marxists around the world to join them in the revolution against Turkey.

UKRAINE: An epidemic of H1N1 swine flu spreading across Ukraine has killed at least 72 people and possibly as many as 400.

VENEZUELA: The wife and mother of Leopoldo Lopez, the jailed opposition leader, were forced to strip and subjected to intimate searches in front of his children when they visited him in jail, according to the wife.  Leopoldo Lopez was arrested two years ago during anti-government protests and jailed for 14 years.

An ally of President Maduro and former media chief, Ricardo Duran Trujillo, was shot dead by robbers in Caracas.

USA: A three year old boy was shot dead when a gun kept under his grandmother’s pillow went off while they were asleep.

11 states declared a state of emergency as record snow storms struck the East Coast.  31 people died, drivers were stranded, Broadway theatres were closed, thousands of homes were left without power, and political life on Capital Hill in Washington was suspended.

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