Issue 47: 2016 03 31: Earning a Name for oneself (NeilTidmarsh)

31 March 2016

Earning a Name For Oneself

Or not, as the case may be in Brussels and Lahore.

By Neil Tidmarsh

P1000686aThere’s been much ado about names in the news this week.

In China, the civil affairs minister Li Liguo attacked the fashion for giving new housing developments foreign names.  He has a point; would you want to live in a place called Merlin Champagne Town, or Chateau Edinburgh, or Beijing Yosemite?  How about Eton Town (in Suzhou)?  Galaxy Dante (in Shenzhen)?  Thames Town (near Shanghai – mind you, it does have red phone boxes and a statue of Winston Churchill, so we might let that one pass)?  Venice (more or less everywhere in China) or Manhattan? (ditto).  Three cheers and a round of applause to Li Liguo for suggesting that placenames should reflect China’s culture and long history rather than a developer’s attempts to cash in on bizarre cultural snobberies and on transient fashions for novelties and the exotic.

A name can take you a long way in China, nevertheless.  Businessman Oliver Rothschild has made regular visits to China over the last four years, and has found that his name has opened doors for him and generated goodwill, hospitality and generosity among that country’s academic and business elites.  That’s what happens when you belong to one of the wealthiest dynasties in history, of course; the only problem is, Oliver Rothschild has no connection with the Rothschild banking family whatsoever.  He was outed by Chinese media this week, but has responded to international outrage by insisting that he has never claimed to have belonged to the dynasty.  If his name is his best asset, no doubt he would argue, can he be blamed for exploiting it to the full?

The same story in reverse was also given coverage in the news this week.  The author Robert Galbraith made public the letters he received from publishers rejecting his crime novels, criticising his writing and doubting its chances of commercial success.  Robert Galbraith is of course a pen-name, and is not a man but a woman; no doubt the reactions would have been rather more positive if she had used her real name – J K Rowling.

A man in the USA who changed his surname to ‘Null’ to renounce all connections with his parents and family has discovered a surprising side-effect to this alteration; he often escapes being billed for hotels, care-hire, dental treatment etc because computers read ‘Null’ as meaning no data, nothing, nobody.

A British brewer has just won a two-year battle over the name of his product; his sparkling beer, called ‘Champale’, went on sale this week, after trademark authorities overruled French winemakers who claimed that it sounded too similar to the protected name ‘champagne’.  And, while we’re on product names, Aldi changed the name of one of its paints when a customer understandably objected to the grotesque name of ‘rape yellow’.  Aldi has agreed to change the name to ‘rapeseed yellow’ – but no doubt there are many people who find the agricultural name ‘rapeseed oil’ or ‘oilseed rape’ offensive as well (a name’s associations are powerful and cannot be easily ignored), if the correspondence generated in The Times is anything to go on.  Readers have suggested changing the crop’s name back to its older and thus more authentic one of ‘colza’ or ‘cole-seed’.

And then, of course, there is the whole nautical saga of RRS Boaty McBoatface…

But why this focus on relative trivialities this week, when I should be commenting on the serious news items?  Am I trying to avoid something?  Well, yes, indeed I am.  I should be commenting on the tragedies in Brussels and Lahore, I should be telling you about the perpetrators of those atrocities, questioning their motives, analysing their strategies and tactics, telling you who they were, recording their names, the names of those who killed themselves, those who were arrested, those who got away and are still on the run, carefully spelling out those unfamiliar and difficult names, for the sake of history. Names are important, as the above stories indicate.

But I don’t want to.  And I’m not going to.  I’m not going to name them, because that would be suggesting that they deserve to be remembered, that they will have a place in history.  They don’t and they won’t.  History shows time after time that such acts of terror, no matter how horrible, never change anything.  They have achieved nothing – what they did is easily done in an open and free society – so their names don’t deserve to be remembered.  Their political or religious motives might be unclear, but their psychological motives are not; as Clare Foges wrote in The Times this week, “Let’s deprive jihardists of the fame they crave.  These are not ‘masterminds’; they are inadequate narcissists with only one way to get publicity”.  She quotes George Bernard Shaw:  “Martyrdom… the only way in which a man can become famous without ability”. She also quotes the judge who refused to name the boy from Lancashire who was jailed for plotting a beheading; “Glorification is more likely to be effective if (the defendant) is identified and more likely to encourage others to do what he has done.”

In spite of the atrocities they committed last week, those terrorists remain insignificant as individuals and their acts remain insignificant as achievements. So there’s no point in recording their names.  So I’m not going to.


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Issue 46;2016 03 24: contents

24 March 2016: Issue 46

The casting mirror

Chin Chin’s casting mirror

Week in Brief 





The Brussels tragedy by John Watson

What does it mean for the UK?

Exit from Syria, Exit From Yemen by Neil Tidmarsh

Saudi Arabia and Russia look at each other in the mirror of the Middle East’s conflicts.

IDS falls on his sword by John Watson

1970s high rise at the Barbican

1970s high rise at the Barbican

A look at the whys and wherefores.

Pointless: The problem with Budgets by Frank O’Nomics

The importance of good data.

Referendum Run Up

The EU; An Awkward Fit for the UK by Neil Tidmarsh

Why Britain is facing a different choice to the rest of Europe.

Next week the Shawsheet will look at some “In ” arguments.


À la recherche du temps perdu? by Richard Pooley

The French approach to time.

Also in Cannes by J.R Thomas

Shaw Sheet reports from MIPIM.

To Be Or Not To Be – Who, Exactly? by Chin Chin

Finding a Shakespearean alter ego.

Quicksilver Pro Surfing Championships by Lynda Goetz

Kicking off the 2016 WSL World Campionship Tour

Pro Surf Championship

Pro Surfing Championship

on the Gold Coast.


High Rise

A film by Ben Wheatley

is further reviewed by  Raj M. Host



Solution to the last crossword “Plain Vanilla 6”

Earlier Editions

Issue 41: 18 February 2016

Issue 42: 25 February 2016

Issue 43: 03 March 2016

Issue 44: 10 March 2016

Issue 45: 17 March 2016

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!ssue 47:2016 03 31: No Rain on the Parade (J.R.Thomas)

31 March 2016

No Rain On The Parade

Easter celebrations in Seville

by J.R.Thomas

Rogue Male“The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there” famously wrote L P Hartley in The Go-Between.   We may have come to think that in modern times and after two thirds of a century of European Union that the past has faded away and that foreign countries are not nearly so foreign as they used to be.   But scratch lightly the heat and dust of southern Spain and things are very different still.   Not just the weather – though this Easter the one thing that both Andalusians at home and Brits at home would have been able to agree on, was that it was cold.   Readers in the UK will not need reminding of that – rain and wind and grey skies proving merely an introduction to Storm Katie.   Those, though, that inspected the Spanish weather forecasts and saw Andalusia as (correctly) forecast as 24/25C all Easter would probably not have shared the local view that it was cold.  It was certainly simple to distinguish Brits from locals this Easter – the Brits were wearing shorts and T shirts and looking hot; the locals were wearing pullovers, hats, and scarves and looking chilly.

But the differences go much deeper than this.   Last week was Holy Week in Andalusia.   It was of course the same in Britain, as torrents of chocolate eggs, stuffed bunnies and cheery cardboard chickens attested.   But in Spain Easter is celebrated rather differently to this.  For a week there are church services of utmost solemnity, underscored by celebratory processions through the streets of any reasonably sized village or town.   The grandest of these are in Seville, where the processions go on almost continuously for Easter Week, with huge images carried through the streets accompanied by thousands of supporters and bands playing suitably solemn music.

The origins of the parades are obscure, but it is known that Seville has been holding these celebrations since the 16th century, when she was the richest city of the newly united Spain, and its commercial capital.   The processions were symbols of the glory of Christ and the humility of the people, fuelled by the great wealth pouring in from the New World.   The Spanish Catholic Church was rich and devout, showing its power and glory in magnificent new churches, palaces, and monasteries.  The cathedral at Seville, built around and over the mosque previously on the site, emphasizes the power and superiority of Catholicism and  contains the remains of he who was the enabler of all this wealth – Christopher Columbus.   The cathedral is the core of all the processions, but they begin from their nine mother churches in the inner suburbs of Seville.   Each church has a brotherhood who organise and then participate in the holy progresses; these are on a scale which is almost impossible to imagine in post Christian secular Britain today.   The total active and parading membership of the brotherhoods is estimated at around fifty thousand people (women may participate now, though the brotherhoods are still predominantly men).

Sevilla ProcessionWhat is most startling, if not downright alarming, to the unprepared visitor are the traditional costumes.   The first impression is that one has inadvertently strayed into an international conference of the Klu Klux Klan, white conical hats, long robes, concealed faces.   However they are leavened by each church brotherhood having distinguishing details – one wears black robes, another blue aprons over their white gowns, another gold trim.   But all have faces covered in anonymity; these brothers are sinners paying humble penance by their role in the parades.  But even so, the wagging coned hats towering above the crowds in the narrow streets city still causes a shock even after several days of watching processions.

In Seville there are 58 processions, each with a band, often two, predominantly brass, which generally follow the “pasos”, the towering religious statues, which are the highpoint.  The first one represents the particular church, then, often an hour or more later, so long and slow are the processions, at its very end, a huge and sombre Holy Virgin, each church possessing its own.   These are generally of great antiquity, some baroque, the more recent roccoco, mounted on enormous elaborately decorated platforms, with vast candelabras and carvings of gold and silver, the whole edifice surmounted by a wobbling canopy.   They are of course very heavy but modernisation in the form of the wheel has yet to make any impact on their process through the streets .  They are carried, literally on the shoulders of men, the “costaleros”, in groups of about twenty five, for whom this is a great honour.   (It also is a continuing source of business to local osteopaths and spinal surgeons.)

Your correspondent was introduced to one costalero, appropriately named Jesus, who was carrying for the first time.   He said that at first he was only conscious of the weight on his shoulders and the slow shuffle, but then came revelation, of faith, of veneration for what he was doing and the symbolism embodied in the burden he bore.

Because the platforms are so heavy they can generally only be carried a few hundred metres at a time and must then be rested.   A characteristic sound of the processions is the double and treble rap of the chamberlain’s staff on the platform as he signals to “pick-up” and “set down” and “be ready”.   Closest to the platforms walk a group of men, mostly but not all young, dressed in shirts and casual trousers, with rolled up mats round their shoulders – they do not, as the touristic observer might think, represent the Apostles or Disciples, but are the next set of costaleros, ready to slip swiftly under the platform when the previous set have done their duty.

There are processions afternoon, evening and night, and all night, throughout Holy Week, causing massive traffic congestion – indeed at times even pedestrians cannot move along the routes of the processions because of the sheer press of the crowds.  Each brotherhood sets out from its church, with great applause from the crowds as the Virgin finally emerges from the church to follow its traditional route, although they must all pass the so-called “official section”, which starts in Calle Campana Street and passes right through the Cathedral.   Once each procession leaves the Cathedral, it returns to its mother church via a different route.

Sevilla FloatTo the visiting Brit the emotion generated by these extraordinary displays of devotion is initially almost disturbing, then intriguing, and finally profoundly humbling.   The enormous numbers in the crowds (most of whom appear local rather than tourists), the silence as the Virgin finally approaches, applause, and then the reaching forward of many in the crowd to touch or kiss the platform suggests continuing deep devotion.  This in a country which has seen its share of anti-clericalism and priestly scandal.   Even more moving are the occasions when, as the platform is rested, a female voice from a balcony will sing an unaccompanied solo, a “saeta”, a flamenco song honouring the statues.  To many, these are the devotional and emotional heart of the whole process, the core of the processions.  The crowd will frequently be moved to tears and then sustained clapping of these tributes.

In a time when the Church of England, for all its attempts to be relevant and welcoming and moving with the times, its abandonment of old fashioned language and liturgy, is losing worshippers at ever faster rates, the British traveller to foreign lands perplexes over faiths that retain their strength, grow stronger even, by not changing to the times, by not adapting to a modern digital materialistic world.  Most of us are simple people; when it comes to our spiritual lives what suits us best perchance are simple messages demonstrated with emotional fervour; symbols of meaning rather than academic disputations on the possible interpretations of something that might have happened.  Or maybe it is just that faith under a hot foreign sun roots, like olive trees, more easily.


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Issue 47:2016 03 31:Week in Brief International

31 March 2016

Week in Brief: International



BELGIUM: The number of people killed in last week’s bomb attacks in Brussels has risen to 35.  It has been confirmed that the British man missing since the bombings, David Dixon, was killed in the terrorist attack.  The police have made further anti-terrorist raids and arrests, including one suspect shot and wounded while thought to be carrying explosives.  There are fears that the bombers were planning to create a nuclear dirty bomb; 11 Belgian nuclear workers have had their passes withdrawn.

FRANCE: Anti-terrorist police made further raids and arrests in Paris.

Last week’s strike by air traffic controllers will be followed by another one this weekend.

NETHERLANDS: The International Criminal Court at the Hague found Radovan Karadzic, former president of the Bosnian Serb republic, guilty of genocide and sentenced him to 40 years in prison. The judges ruled him responsible for the massacre of 8000 Bosnian Muslim men at Srebenica in 1995 and for the 44 month siege of Sarajevo during which 10,000 civilians died.  His military commander Ratko Mladic is also on trial at the Hague.

Ahmad al-Faqi, a jiahadist accused of destroying cultural monuments as a member of a group linked to al-Qaeda which demoished nine tombs and a mausoleum in Timbuktu in Mali at a proposed Unesco world heritage site, has admitted his crime.

RUSSIA: The defence minister announced that new missile systems will be installed on the Kuril Islands, four of which are still claimed by Japan.

UKRAINE: The lawyer for a Russian soldier captured in Ukraine and on trial in Kiev for terrorism, has been kidnapped and murdered.  Two men have been arrested.

Middle East and Africa

CONGO: President Denis Sassou Nguesso won another 7 year term in this week’s elections.  He is 72 years old and has been in power for 32 years.  Last year a referendum removed the two-term limit and the 70 year old age limit.  The EU refused to send observers to monitor the election.

EGYPT: An Egyptian has been arrested after hijacking an EgyptAir Airbus 320 on a flight from Alexandria to Cairo, and forcing it to land at Larnaca, Cyprus. He was wearing a fake suicide vest.

The authorities claim that the murdered Italian student Giulio Regeni had been kidnapped, tortured and killed by a criminal gang.  They say police have shot the gang members dead and recovered several of Mr Regeni’s personal possessions.  Mr Regeni’s family say the possessions are not his, however, and the head of the Italian senate’s human rights commission has denounced the claim as a lie.

ISRAEL: Two Palestinians stabbed an Israeli soldier in Hebron.  One was shot dead during the attack, the other was shot dead after the attack. An Israeli soldier has been arrested for the second shooting.

LIBYA: King Abdullah of Jordan claimed that the SAS are already in Libya fighting Isis.  Military officials from the Tripoli government also claim that UK special forces have undertaken reconnaissance missions against Isis.  There are reports that Isis is recruiting fighters from migrants travelling north through their territory from sub-Saharan Africa.  It is also suggested that Isis are already profiting from the increase in people smuggling from Libya to Europe now that the Aegean and Balkan route is being closed down.

SOUTH AFRICA: President Zuma’s son is facing accusations of corruption in relation to the business empire run by South Africa’s powerful Gupta family.  Duduzane Zuma is a director of six Gupta companies.

SYRIA: Assad regime forces, with Russian air support, have retaken Palmyra and its ancient city from Isis.  Isis claimed that they killed five Russian soldiers in an ambush.  It is reported that 400 Isis fighters and 188 regime troops were killed in the fight for the city. Its recapture opens the way to the Iraq border and for an advance on Raqqa, the Isis capital.

The USA claimed that Isis’ second in command / finance minister, Abd ar-Rahman Mohammed Mustafa al-Qadulli, was killed with other senior figures in a raid.

TURKEY: The judge in the trial of two journalists accused of revealing state secrets approved the prosecution’s request to conduct the trial behind closed doors.

YEMEN: A US air attack on al-Qaeda training camp reportedly killed 50 militants and injured 30.

Asia, Far East and Pacific

BARZEKISTAN: US intelligence officials reported that the hacking attacks which have repeatedly targeted political institutions and on-line newspapers (including Shaw Sheet) around the world over the last week, originate not in China as first thought, but in the remote and mountainous region of Loof, 200 miles north east of Lirpa, the Barzeki capital. Satellite images have identified a cluster of huge metallic edifices, “almost certainly of extraterrestrial origin”.  A number of reconnaissance drones have been despatched to investigate the site, but all of them have disappeared.  The Pentagon is expected to make an announcement tomorrow.

CHINA: 17 people have been arrested following the on-line publication of a letter calling for the resignation of President Xi Jinping.

INDIA: A school-teacher is in custody accused of raping a 6 year old girl.  It is the sixth sexual assault against children recorded in Madhya Pradesh state in a fortnight.

INDONESIA: The Ulema Council, the country’s highest religious authority, is to ban Muslims (90% of the population) from wearing ‘clothing associated with other religions’.  It is thought that this is intended to restrict Christmas celebrations by preventing shop assistants, waiters and hotel staff from wearing Santa hats and other festive items.

NEW ZEALAND: A referendum on whether to remove the Union Jack from the national flag and replace it with a new design resulted in a vote to retain the existing flag.

PAKISTAN: A suicide bomber killed at least 74 people (including 29 children) and injured 300 in an attack on a park in Lahore.  A group affiliated to the Taliban claimed responsibility, saying that Christian families celebrating Easter were deliberately targeted.  However, most of the victims were Muslims.  The bomb was detonated by a children’s play area.

SINGAPORE: An Australian publisher has been jailed for ten months for posting ‘seditious’ articles on her website, The Real Singapore.


ARGENTINA: President Obama visited Argentina. He attended a memorial service to victims of the military dictatorship 1976-83, and promised to release intelligence files covering US backing of the 1976 military coup.

A UN commission accepted Argentina’s claim to extend its maritime territory from 200 miles of the continental shelf to 350 miles.  However, the commission stated that it “could not and did not consider claims relating to the Falkland Islands”.

BRAZIL: Sports minister George Hilton resigned; Rio de Janeiro is due to host Olympic Games in just 5 months time.  Prosecutors investigating the Petrobas scandal are looking at building contracts for the Olympics and the 2014 World Cup.  A court blocked state funding to one of the Olympic venues.

President Rousseff’s biggest coalition ally, the PMDB party, has voted to pull out of the government.

MEXICO: Police have arrested Juan Manuel Alvarez, the suspected financier of the drugs boss Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman.

USA: Jeb Bush has endorsed Ted Cruz.  Trump’s campaign manager has been arrested and charged with simple battery after grabbing and pulling a journalist by the arm at a rally.  In the Republican leadership race, Trump won in Arizona, and Cruz won in Utah. In the Democratic leadership race, Clinton won in Arizona, and Sanders won in Utah, Idaho, Hawaii, Alaska and Washington state (see comment article).

A gunman was arrested in Washington after opening fire at the US Capital visitors’ centre.


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Issue 47: 2016 03 31: The existential crisis in banking (Frank O’Nomics)

31 March 2016

The existential crisis in banking

by Frank O’Nomics

Financial institutions exist to make money.  Or at least they used to.  The financial crisis of 2008, the seemingly endless series of scandals (Libor, FX, interest rates swaps, etc,etc) have all served to lead these entities, which are the life blood of a service economy like the UK, to question the very nature of their existence.  Having previously spent their time trying to maximise their growth potential (a growth that was historically very profitable) they now focus on business model sustainability.  This means a great deal of focus on the risk-reward of the businesses that they engage in, in particular whether the rewards are worth the risks, both in terms of capital and reputation.

This growing focus on the correct business model has so far resulted in a great many redundancies, closures of business areas and a scaling back of balance sheets.  All of this has a significant impact on the long-term potential growth of our economy and it would seem that the process has a lot further to run; there is a great deal of regulation still to come into force which businesses need to rapidly adjust for.  It is worth looking at the range of regulations that are still to come to get an idea of the restrictive headwinds that the industry faces, but first an illustration of the dangerous risk-reward balance that banks are coming to terms with.

It used to be the case that you wanted your revenue producers to do just that, generate as much profitable business as possible.  However, not all business is necessarily good business in the longer-term and this was well illustrated by the write-downs announced by Credit Suisse last week.  The bank uncovered a portfolio of illiquid assets that had been hidden from senior management, resulting in a $633 million write down for Q4 last year and a further $346 million in Q1 of this year.  The CEO, Tidjane Thiam, has said that the business changes that they have enacted as a result (including cutting an additional 2000 jobs on top of 4000 announced previously) will leave the bank with more reliable and predictable profits.  This will inevitably mean that the upside for profits will be constrained, but the combination of an acceptable risk-reward balance and reduction in reputational risk will be happily accepted by most shareholders.  The problem is that banks like Credit Suisse and UBS are now becoming more and more focused on steady businesses such as wealth management, rather than being the agents for capital raising and investment that they were traditionally involved in.  The decline of institutions that can be both the architects and engines of economic growth raise the prospect of an extended period of economic stagnation.

The issue becomes important when regulation, rather than rational business assessment, becomes over restrictive in terms of dictating the new business model for financial institutions.  It was refreshing, but quite surprising, to see this highlighted in a speech to the Harvard Law School by the acting Executive Director for International Banking at the Bank of England, Sarah Breeden, last week.  She argued that regulators should look at the costs of their actions to rein in banks, not just the benefits, and talked of the “stability of the graveyard”, where international banking is unable to support international trade and growth, or where it does so at too high a cost.  The Bank of England has been leading the push for banks to hold ever higher financial buffers against a potential downturn and to separate investment banking from high street banking.  Ms Breeden sees the Bank’s role as lion tamers but does not want to see the lions being “completely sedated”.  We should not underestimate the importance of the Bank’s role here, given that the UK hosts 170 international banks from 50 jurisdictions.  A significant proportion of international banking activity is booked in the UK (twice that of anywhere else) where the largest investment banks and global capital markets are situated.

We should then consider the further sedatives that financial institutions have to face. The Independent Commission On Banking has said that banks should ring fence their high street banking from their investment banking arms and requires those that lend to businesses and individuals to “retain a systematic risk buffer” to protect against a significant economic downturn.

Most of the other elements of legislation are usually very dull and dry,too complicated for anyone other than those who have to ensure that they are compliant and face a curtailment of their activities.  A very good example is the Markets in Financial Instruments Directive II.  I’m sure that Mifid I passed most people by, but this was intended to make financial markets more efficient, resilient and transparent, while strengthening protection for investors.  Mifid II will involve a significant change in the detail and nature of trade reporting, driven by the EU, which will prove both onerous and expensive for banks.  In addition, there are new regulations for the certification of senior managers and anti-money laundering that will need to be complied with, all of which may seem laudable, but will leave some questioning the ongoing benefits of the underlying businesses, which could become perceived as more trouble than they are worth.

What many of the regulations appear to ignore is the extent to which banks will self-regulate.  They are not interested in receiving continual fines, the loss of business commensurate with a hit to their reputation, and the huge losses that they have suffered from not monitoring their business lines properly.   JP Morgan is a very good example here, having spent some $1billion on internal safeguards and processes to ensure that the losses generated by the “London Whale” (in excess of $6 billion) are not repeated.

The momentum behind the official initiatives is such that there is no sense in stopping the process now, but there may be some scope to moderate the severity so that the lion is not overly sedated.  Mark Carney has commented that “trust arrives on foot, but leaves by Ferrari”, and he is correct in suggesting that reputational risk should be a key factor in driving business models, but the very nature of banking is to take risks and the current scenario points to a dangerous future of economic stagnation.   For now we will continue to see financial institutions reviewing their business models and, while they do, scores of revenue producers are likely to want to keep their heads down, avoid taking any risk and hopefully miss the axe of restructuring.


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Issue 47:2016 03 31:Cosi fan tutte (Adam McCormack)

31 March 2016

Cosi fan tutte

The King’s Head Theatre, Islington

reviewed by Adam McCormack


All is right with the world.  Small scale opera has returned to Islington – and the best news is, it is very good.  Since OperaUp Close ended their residence at the King’s Head Theatre last year, there has been a void that needed to be filled, and the theatre has done a tremendous job in doing so with a new production of Cosi Fan Tutte.  It is a great privilege for an audience of only 120 to watch an ensemble of just six performers and a pianist perform a top quality and original version of an old favourite.  The proximity of the action and the accessibility of Martin Fitzpatrick’s translation helps to make this as understandable and entertaining a Cosi as I have seen.

Setting the action as part of a reality game show is inspired.  The use of close circuit TV to demonstrate the action off stage effectively puts the audience into the role of the missing chorus, and making Don Alfonso an oily game show host is a seamless transition, with Steven East superb in the role.  With the action so close, we really do feel like co-conspirators in his manipulation of the two male dupes, Ferrando and Guglielmo, who are persuaded to pretend to leave their lovers to come back and seduce them in disguise.  This might feel uncomfortable given the reality format, but for the perfectly played gullibility.

The role of Despina, the knowing and ultimately controlling servant, is transformed here to that of TV show Floor Manager.  This loses nothing of her ability to exact the solution to Alfonso’s schemes, and the role seems ideally suited to Caroline Kennedy.  The scenes in which the duped young men return disguised as previous game show winners (rather than Albanians as written in the 18th Century) trying to seduce each other’s loves are played for laughs, but this takes nothing from the opera’s underlying themes and there is no shortage of pathos.  Perhaps the most impressive role in  putting in a pared down production like this is that of the Musical Director; Elspeth Wilkes’ piano is a more than adequate substitute for a full orchestra.

The King’s Head is alternating the opera with a play about the staging of the opera, written by Louis Nowra, set in a mental institution, and both continue until 2nd and 3rd April. Getting a ticket may not be easy, but it is certainly worth the effort. Let’s hope this is the start of a new series of operas at the King’s Head.****


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Issue 47: 2016 03 31: Week in Brief Financial

31 March 2016

Week in Brief: Business and the City

Headline image saying £NEWS 

GRIM NEWS FOR THE VALLEYS:  2015 was a terrible year for the British steel manufacturing industry.  Battered by cheap Chinese and Indian imported steel, many UK plants making non-speciality steel gave up the struggle and closed down, with thousands of job losses.   Now one of the few remaining major steel making businesses in the UK has been put up for sale by its owner, Tata Steel, part of the Indian domiciled Tata Group.   Tata Steel’s main plant is at Port Talbot in South Wales, once one of the most modern and productive plants in the UK, and still one of the main employers in South Wales (Tata ia also a big steel user through its LandRover Jaguar business).   The plant is said to be losing £1m a day and Tata cannot sustain the losses for much longer, but hopes it might be able to source a buyer who could save at least some of the activities (and jobs) on site.

Tata has given early notice that this is its intent in the hope of giving any potential buyers time to consider a purchase, but also to see if a political solution can be evolved.  That seems unlikely to produce much of an answer to what is, after all, a worldwide structural issue of too much capacity in the industry, which has produced rapidly falling prices as global demand contracts.   Recently, steel prices have slightly increased, reflecting some rise in demand and also gradual shrinkage of steel making round the world, but the industry insider view is that this is temporary and that the core problems continue to lie in China, which has the classic squeeze of shrinking demand and vast steel producing over capacity.

Tata have also a major specialist plant at Scunthorpe which looks as though will be sold to an investment fund, with government support for a loan for the purchase.  However,  Port Talbot is a much more difficult challenge; although the various unions involved have called for the government to intervene, it seems most likely that any intervention will be to target soft investment into the area and to cushion the blow of job losses, maybe together with transitional assistance to any buyers who might emerge for parts of the business, which might, early rumours suggest, include a worker/management buy-out if working capital sourcing can be procured.

AND A LITTLE GOOD NEWS:  TVR, long the sports car of choice for many discerning petrol heads, has announced that it will resume production, after a “pause” of eleven years, at a new car plant to be built at Ebbw Vale, south Wales.  It is hoped that it will be producing new cars by the end of 2017 and that sales will be over 2,000 a year within five years.  Following the car manufacturer’s closure in 2005 it has taken a decade to sort out name and patent rights, but the business is now in the hands of Les Edgar, the digital games maker, and a group of wealthy car enthusiasts , who have also sorted out financing with a little help from the Welsh government.   Nor are TVR to be the only south Wales built sports cars – the Welsh government has also helped Aston Martin to build a new manufacturing plant in Glamorgan.

BANK VIEWS: The Bank of England, or at least its Governor, Mark Carney, have been getting some stick after the Governor expressed some pro “Remain” views in relation to the European referendum.  The Governor is never wrong of course, though some signals appeared in Threadneedle Street that he might have been misunderstood.  Now the Bank has once again put its foot in the muddy puddle, but carefully this time, by indicating that it will increase liquidity availability for UK banks during the referendum period, and after, if needed.  When it was put to the bank that it was again being political, it retorted that it was merely engaging in prudent management of the banking system, one of the tasks it is charged with.  This week it further amplified its concerns about currency and banking stability during the next few months by indicating that it was raising the standard of stress tests for the banks for which it is regulator, to ensure that the banks themselves had taken measures to meet any credit crunch.  This, the Bank said was because the referendum is “the most significant near-term domestic risk to financial stability.”  Although the Bank said that it had no concerns about the stability of the UK banking system, it had to be recognised that a Brexit vote would create uncertainty in the market and a possible rise in sterling borrowing costs.  The Bank also indicated that it expected the big four UK banks to pass the new stress tests without any changes to their current practices.

SOUR TASTE:  AG Barr has made a fortune on the back of the well known Scottish love of something sweet.  Most famous for that legendary drink, Irn-Bru, which was reputed to be made of iron girders dissolved in Glasgow water (but actually owing its sweet fizziness more to sugar), AG Barr has warned that the proposed sugar tax outlined in the recent budget will likely hit its business in the UK.  Roger White, who is chief executive of the business said however that in recent years public demand has increasingly been for low sugar or no-sugar soft drinks and that Barr is increasingly diversifying its portfolio in that direction – even sales of the fabled Irn-Bru are now a third the sugar free variety.   Irn-Bru makes up a about 40% of the company portfolio, other big sellers being Snapple and Rubicon.  Barr has also increasingly targeted overseas sales which grew by 40% last year.  White said that the role of the business was to respond to what the public wanted and that is what Barr would continue to do.  He said that though volumes for 2015 were down slightly to £259m, profits were up to £41.3m, reflecting continuing attention to cost control.

LEGAL WINNERS:  The Law Society, which represents solicitors in England, has been doing some research on the contribution lawyers make to the economy.   The legal services market employs 370,000 people, it says, two thirds of them directly as lawyers, spread across about 10,000 firms, generating over £25bn annually to the UK economy, with significant and growing earnings from overseas.  The growth rate of the sector is 3.3% per annum for the last ten years, which may be good news, depending which end of the litigation you happen to be on…

NEXT FOR NEXT:  Continuing difficult trading, says Lord Wolfson, chairman.  Although last year’s profits were a little up, to £821m, the fashion chain continues to see weak trading conditions and thinks next year’s profits will be the same as this year’s.  However, Next has now sorted the stock control problems in its on-line business and sees good prospects for that.


(as at 29th March 2016; comments refer to changes on the week; $ is US$)

Interest Rates:

UK£ Base rate: 0.5%, unchanged: 3 month 0.65% (steady); 5 year 0.91% (steady).

Euro€: 1 mth -0.36% (falling); 3 mth -0.22% (falling); 5 year -0.11% (steady)

US$: 1 mth 0.46% (falling); 3 mth 0.73% (steady); 5 year 1.30% (rising)

Currency and other Exchanges:

£/Euro: 1.28, £ steady

£/$: 1.43, £ steady

Euro/$: 1.12, € steady

Gold, oz: $1,222 falling

Aluminium, tonne: $1,472, falling

Copper, tonne:  $4,939, falling

Oil, Brent Crude barrel: $37.95, falling

Wheat, tonne: £105, rising

London Stock Exchange: FTSE 100: 6,106 (falling).  FTSE Allshare: 3,358 (falling)

Briefly: Major public holidays often produce weakening markets and this Easter may be fitting that pattern, with most key indices easing off; or it may be a new pattern of nervousness emerging amongst traders.  One big mover down was oil, where the view is that recent attempts by big producers to push the market up have now ceased with consequent weakening.  Borrowing rates in Euro and US$ fell, with sterling steady.


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Issue 47: 2016 03 31: Silent Virtue (Chin Chin)

31 March 2016

Silent Virtue

It is not the doing but the not telling that is the true virtue.

by Chin Chin

From time to time I try to do Lorentz transformations in the bath. No, that isn’t some exciting new deviant procedure involving a bar of soap and a plastic duck; it isn’t even a modern form of yoga. A Lorentz transformation is the way you work out how a particle, travelling at near the speed of light, will appear to observers who are rushing past each other. It is a pillar of Einstein’s theory of relativity – yes, you know, the one which says that things get heavier as they move faster so that all jogging is futile.  The one which tells us that time goes quicker if you are moving fast, the reason why people who run for the bus so seldom catch it.

Anyway for me the transformations are a high watermark. The chapter devoted to them is as far as I can get through Einstein’s book “Relativity” before I get completely lost. That is where I stand then in the cosmological firmament. A chapter 11 sort of person. Someone who can look down on those who can only get to chapter 10 but feels inadequate in the presence of those who understand chapter 12 – if any of them really do understand it, that is, which I must say that I rather doubt.

An evening of study

An evening of study

There are a number of books like that. Stephen Hawking’s “Brief History of Time” is one.  Clausewitz on War, is another.  They stand on the bookshelves like sentinels, part read, their bookmarks flagging the high tides of comprehension, waiting for the moment when a long flight beckons or when, sickened with the shallowness of the modern thriller, I resolve to tackle something tougher and to try to extend the boundaries of my knowledge. On those rare occasions when the bookmark gets moved a little further, the feeling of self-satisfaction knows no bounds. Now I can look down on those who got stuck on chapter 12.

The struggle to improve performance is not just one of reading books. Any golfer will tell you that he really plays against himself and that the fact that he beats his partner is simply the icing on the cake. Whether that is true or not, the aspiration for self-improvement must surely lie behind the struggle that many of us go through in the gym; a few more metres in the timed row; a few more pounds lifted on the bench press. It is all worth doing for itself, although if the charming young lady in lycra happens to be watching, well, perhaps that isn’t exactly a disappointment.

The truth is of course that self-improvement works better with an audience. It is true that “I think I now understand the Lorentz transformations” isn’t exactly a pickup line (unless you find someone who does believe that the transformations involve soap and rubber ducks) but it isn’t wholly unpleasant to be asked about a particularly successful session in the gym. That, after all, is why we flop on the sofa exhibiting extravagant symptoms of exhaustion. “No, no just a light session,” we say in response to the hoped-for enquiry, but the tone used is kept deliberately insincere, to allow the heroism to drip through the veneer of modesty like water through a badly maintained roof.

That is what is so difficult about Lent, that season of self deprivation which ended last week. The idea is, of course, that the asceticism displayed should be by way of sacrifice and the effect is surely ruined if you go vapouring on about it to people who you wish to impress. “No, I will only have water because it is Lent” gives a nice note of superiority over friends who are in the act of swallowing their gin and tonics.  “I’m afraid I can’t come to the party because that is a contemplation evening,” goes one better because, in addition to showing off superiority of willpower, it makes you sound deep and possibly slightly spiritual as well.  But, alas, it is horribly like vanity and that can hardly be the right preparation for Easter.

As always the answer is in the Sermon on the Mount. “ But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: that thine alms may be in secret:” That is the divine instruction, so it isn’t just a matter of abstinence in Lent, one mustn’t boast about it either. What then about that extra metre on the rowing machine or those extra pages of the books? Shouldn’t one boast about those either?  That is not a religious question of course but rather one of good manners.

I once went to stay in a house in the country with some friends. We were all in our 20s and it was quite a large party. I thought I should get up reasonably early and so came down to breakfast at about 8 and was pleased to discover that only one other person was there before me.  He looked a little redder in the face than he had the night before and I asked if he had slept badly. “Oh no,” he replied, “I am just hot because I went for a short run before breakfast”.

“Oh” I asked, “round the garden?” The gardens ran to several acres.

“No” he said, “just down to the village.”  I was impressed. The village was 4 or 5 miles away.  Soon the next person came in.

“Been for a run too?” I asked jocularly.

“Only a little one” he replied.  Of course it wasn’t little at all, at least by my standards, and by the time the breakfasters had all assembled I realised that I was the only one who had not been out for a substantial early morning run.

That was impressive enough in itself but what really struck me was that if I hadn’t enquired, none of them would have mentioned it. They just got on with their running and didn’t boast about it, one of the hallmarks of what used to be called “a gentleman”.

How then should one apply their approach nowadays? The achievement without the boasting; the pain without the glory; it hardly fits with the “me, me, me” culture of 21st-century living.  Perhaps, though, it could be done with a bit of self restraint.  Move the difficult books to a less prominent shelf.  Use the rowing and weight machines in a less frequented corner of the gym. Yes, perhaps the Lenten resolution should have been to be less ostentatious.  Almost all of us would be improved by that.  Still, the sacrifices of some would be greater than the sacrifice of others.  Playing golf without a partner would be a depressing way of spending an afternoon.


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Issue 47: 2013 03 31: Week in Brief: UK

31 March 2016

Week in Brief: UK

Union Jack flapping in wind from the right

EU REFERENDUM: Among this week’s claims were

  • that Brexit would increase the number of British expats returning from Europe as their right to health care and other benefits was thrown into doubt. Currently there are believed to be 1.2 million Britons living outside Britain but in the EU, and 2.9 million non-British Europeans living in Britain;
  • that Spain might obstruct access to Gibraltar if Britain left the EU. Currently Spain is subject to EU rules under which it has to afford Gibraltar free movement of labour, capital and goods;
  • that a decision to leave the EU would bear particularly heavily on young people. Nicky Morgan said that they would be left in limbo while Britain adjusted its position;
  • that Britain would be more secure following Brexit. Penny Mordaunt, the Armed Services Minister, suggesting that membership of the EU restricted intelligence sharing after it emerged that Britain had not been told that Ibrahim El-Bakraoui, one of the Brussels bombers, was a known jihadist.  Sir Richard Dearlove, former head of MI6, has pointed out that it is unlikely that any EU members will disrupt its security arrangements with the UK since Britain gives far more than it receives under those arrangements.

Vote Leave has apologised for incorrectly including two businessmen among the signatories of a pro-Brexit letter.

LABOUR PARTY: Chris Bryant, the shadow Leader of the House of Commons, has called for the Labour Party to eradicate anti-Semitism within its ranks. Referring to the contributions to socialism made by such figures as John Silkin and Manny Shinwell, he has warned against criticism of Israeli government policy spilling over into hatred of Jews and attacks on the existence of the state of Israel. His comments come at a time of widespread concern at the slowness of the party to expel activist Vicki Kirby following remarks made in 2014 and at allegations of anti-Semitic behaviour at the Oxford University Labour Club. Jonathan Arkush, the President of the Board of Deputies, has said that “most people in the Jewish community can’t trust Labour”. Both Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor, have spoken out against anti-Semitism in the party.

Labour MPs Angela Smith and John Woodcock have called for a new leader of the party following dissatisfaction with the way in which it failed to hold the government to account over the budget.  It is unclear how any challengers will persuade the party membership to oust Mr Corbyn.

POLICE: The Home Office is to require police to collect information on road traffic stops to check for discrimination against racial minorities. Although use of “stop and search” has been reformed to prevent bias in street searches, a survey by You Gov suggests that some 7% to 8% of white drivers have been stopped in the last two years against 10% to 14% of drivers from racial minorities. The Home Secretary, Teresa May, said that she had not taken action over stop and search to see discriminatory practices elsewhere.

SAS DEPLOYMENT: Leaked discussions between King Abdullah of Jordan and US politicians indicate that the SAS may have been deployed against ISIS in Libya. The Foreign Office have not commented on the reports and SAS involvement has not been discussed in parliament where the Prime Minister has only promised a debate on the deployment of conventional forces.

ASYLUM: An interpreter who worked for the UK military in Afghanistan has been given leave to remain here, despite earlier attempts to repatriate him, in what may be a revision of Home Office policy in this area.

SECTARIAN MURDER: Police Scotland have confirmed that they believe that the recent murder of Asad Shah, a Glasgow shopkeeper and member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, alleged to have been carried out by a Sunni Muslim, was religiously motivated.  The Ahmadis, a peaceful sect within Islam, are hated by ultra orthodox elements and a message celebrating the murder has been posted on Facebook.

EDUCATION: The government’s proposal that all state schools should become academies has been attacked by local authority leaders from all three parties. The National Union of Teachers will ballot members on a nationwide strike on the issue.

The conference of the National Union of Teachers had voted to demand the cancellation of tests for primary schools on the basis that it is turning schools into exam factories. The union considers that the tests are inappropriate for young children.

The National Union of Teachers has voted that the government’s “Prevent” strategy should be withdrawn on the basis that it makes children less likely to confide in teachers. Although the strategy is designed to promote discussion and education about terrorism and to equip children to counter extremist arguments, the union says that it has the opposite effect with many children being unwilling to participate because of concerns that they or their parents will be reported. It appears that there has been over reporting of innocuous cases.

HEALTH: Junior doctors will walk out in the first ever all out strikes in the NHS on April 26 and April 27. The strikes concern the new contract being imposed by the Department of Health on junior doctors and follows a 48-hour stoppage on April 6. During the earlier stoppage junior doctors covered emergency work; on April 26 and 27, emergency cover will be provided by consultants.

IRANIAN VISIT: It is understood that Prince Charles is expected to visit Tehran later this year as part of the general thawing of relations with that country.

ENO: Mark Wigglesworth has resigned as music director of the English National Opera. The ENO, which suffered a number of high profile departures in 2015, is currently wrestling with a £5million reduction in grant. Mr Wigglesworth is believed to have clashed with Chief Executive Cressida Pollock over how cuts in expenditure should be made.

BOXING INJURY: Boxer Nick Blackwell collapsed after losing to Chris Eubank Junior at Wembley and is now an induced coma. It is understood that he is likely to make a good recovery.

BOYCOTT BOYCOTTED: The members of Yorkshire County Cricket Club have voted against Geoffrey Boycott’s return to the board. Boycott, who for many years played both for Yorkshire and England, said he would continue to support the club.

BOAT RACE: Cambridge won the 162nd boat race by 2½ lengths in difficult conditions. In the women’s race the Cambridge crew was swamped by waves and, although the pumps refloated the boat, came in twenty-four lengths behind Oxford.


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Issue 47: 2016 03 31: Betting Against Brexit (John Watson)

31 March 2016

Betting Against Brexit

The UK should remain in the EU.

By John Watson

Watson,-John_640c480“Ultimate authority”; “Our priorities”;  “Take back control”.  The heady words glitter on the “Vote Leave” pamphlet which dropped through my letterbox.  No more European Court of Justice imposing EU law.  No more European Court of Human Rights.   Let’s run our own immigration policy.  Let’s get rid of those irksome restrictions imposed to ensure a level playing field across the free market. Let’s paddle our own canoe just as we used to before this EU stuff got in the way.   Rule Britannia and God Save the Queen!

It all sounds very seductive but can it really be right? If we are to shake free of the European Union, do we believe that the other 27 members should do so too?  That would mean each of the current EU members being free to follow whatever protectionist policies it chooses, free to pursue its own line in environmental matters regardless of the damage to its neighbours, and free to follow its own ideas on human rights. It could certainly make Europe more exciting but would involve a meltdown in the order which the EU has imposed on the continent.  Could that possibly make the erstwhile EU members stronger or would countries from outside the block use the fragmentation to pull business away from us, gradually leaching the wealth out of a disorganised Europe and leaving it as a sort of Disneyland – a nice place to go on holiday but with no real seat in the Councils of nations?

In an increasingly joined up world, a fragmented Europe would be a soft target for international competitors, a collection of countries at the mercy of those who are bigger and better organised.   How could it possibly be otherwise?   Vote Leave suggests that we would regain our voice at the World Trade Organisation.  Yes, but who will listen to it?  How much clout will we have compared to that of the EU which currently represents all its members at that organisation?

If fragmentation doesn’t seem to work very well perhaps we had better try something better.  What about if the UK comes out of the EU but the other members remain within it?  Then the UK can hang around on its flanks, relying on some form of limited coordination with it and watching in impotent dismay if the block which we need as our partner falters or loses influence.  It would be a risky business.  What would we do if the EU put in place restrictions designed to move business from London to Frankfurt?  What weight would our protests have if we were threatened by environmental policies over which we had no say?  How would we persuade car manufacturers to maintain current levels of production in the UK if they are faced with tariff barriers when they export the vehicles to the EU?  No, we will be much too heavily dependent on the goodwill of those we have spurned to let us into their market.  Even if it is in everyone’s interest for them to swallow their pride and do this, logic does not always drive political decisions.

Enough of the negatives of Brexit.  Both sides of the debate have their scare stories. Let’s break the mould by taking things logically and in stages.  We’ll start with why we need a supra national body and, if we come to the conclusion that we do, we can then look at the extent to which the EU satisfies these needs and, if not, what can be done about it.

The requirement for some sort of European body is driven by the increasing interconnectedness of the world with which we have to deal. Businesses and other organisations now operate across national borders and the rules need to be set and enforced by agencies which operate across those borders too.  Issues like nuclear safety are relevant to countries next to those which operate power plants.  International rules designed to prevent unfair competition prevent countries from using state subsidies to grab business from their neighbours.  If we are going to have free trade throughout Europe, then there are other things too.  There have to be agreements to limit tariffs, a common arrangement for indirect taxes and restrictions on the way in which countries can build monopolies.  All these things need to be arranged on a common basis if we’re going to cooperate.  That means some form of overarching organisation. But we also need such an organisation so that we can deliver a coherent response to external threats.  It is a tragedy that the EU could not cooperate better in dealing with the migration crisis but I expect that it would have been worse if each country had functioned wholly independently.

Now to switch the lens from the need for a supra national organisation to the way in which the EU performs its role.

“Subsidiarity” is the name given to the principle that decisions should be made at the lowest possible political level, so that a decision which only affects a particular community should be made by that community.  It has been a principle of the EU since the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992.  If that principle had been  properly applied, the EU would only be involved with those areas which, by their nature, cannot be effectively dealt with by the member states.   Sometimes that is what happens.   For example the EU has introduced the European arrest warrant to make it easier to apprehend criminals across borders but those criminals are still tried by the courts of the country in which the offence was committed.  In other cases though the EU is seen as ignoring the principle because it uses the excuse of maintaining the single market to introduce unnecessary amounts of regulation.

Concern about EU meddling is dealt with twice in the correspondence between David Cameron and the EU president, Mr Tusk.  Mr Tusk makes it clear that the UK is not committed to participate in further integration and also suggests a mechanism under which legislation can be blocked if it does not respect the principle of subsidiarity.  If all this works, the problem of increasing “meddling” would have been effectively addressed and, if there was also an element of “rolling back”, one of the main concerns of the Brexit lobby would disappear.  The question is, however, whether the ideas behind Mr Tusk’s words will actually be delivered.  There are reasons to think that they will be.

The first is that an excess of red tape makes the EU uncompetitive and there is only so long that the member states can put up with that. Another is that the leadership of the EU has moved from France to Germany and that that is creating the climate for reform.  Go back to the late 80s and early 90s when the French socialist Jacques Delors was President of the European Commission.  Then the EU was seen as an extension of French power with the stream of regulations imposed from the top increasing its grip on the member states.  It doesn’t seem like that any more as an economically declining France steadily gives way to Germany, a country without the French power complex and whose government is well aware of the need for less regulation and more flexibility.

If you accept the idea that Europe needs an organisation to help its members maintain their place in the world, an EU which respected subsidiarity and which permitted us to continue to run our own economy would be somewhere near ideal from the UK’s perspective.  It gives us the muscle of belonging to a larger organisation when we need it.  It gives us influence over how the continent develops and it only interferes with our lives in those areas which need to be dealt with by a supranational authority.  It is true that this ideal has not been fully delivered yet but the EU is clearly an organisation in flux and it is only by being there that we can influence the form it finally takes.

That, of course, leaves the issue of immigration.  EU citizens are free to move from one country to another and net immigration from other EU countries runs at 142,000.   No doubt that reflects the success of the UK economy but of course it does put strain on support services.  There is a great deal of debate as to whether EU immigration strengthens the economy.  Clearly it makes some contribution, although presumably as other areas of the EU grow their economies,  the figure will drop.

Doubts as to the benefits of EU immigration at this level seem a poor reason to step out of an organisation which supports our place in the world.  If we leave the EU and we find that, against a background of declining prosperity, the flow of talent reverses we may look wistfully at the problem we once had.   EU immigration is both a cause and a fruit of economic success.   No one knows quite what the balance is.  It cannot be the right reaction to those doubts as to whether overall it is beneficial to simply take an axe to the tree.


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