Issue 82: 2016 12 01: Week in Brief: UK

01 December 2016

Week In Brief: UK

Union Jack flapping in wind from the right


BREXIT NEGOTIATIONS: Guy Verhofstadt, the chief EU negotiator on Brexit, has suggested that, following the UK’s secession from the EU, individual Britons should be able to pay an annual fee in return for personal EU membership, an idea unlikely to appeal to “leave” MPs.  According to reports in The Times Mr Verhofstadt sees Brexit as an opportunity to reform the EU which, he believes, may not be able to survive in its current form. In a book to be published in January he argues for Britain to have some form of associate membership.  He apparently has a pleasing sense of humour and an interest in vintage British sports cars. See comment Renewing the EU.

Meanwhile the lawyer-fest continues with think tank British Influence arguing that abandonment of the EU does not necessarily involve departure from the European Economic Area and proposing to take legal action to prove the point. The government’s view is that the UK is only a member of the EEA because it is a member of the EU, so that membership will lapse automatically.

SNOOPER’S CHARTER: The Investigatory Powers Bill has received Royal assent. It includes a requirement for web and phone companies to keep a record of visitors to sites for twelve months, powers for the security services to hack and collect data, powers for police forces to do the same in certain circumstances and a new mechanism under which certain activities require judicial approval. It has been criticised by Sir Tim Berners-Lee as “disproportionate”.

RICHMOND BY-ELECTION: Polls show the Liberal Democrats closing the gap between their candidate and Zac Goldsmith, the Independent who resigned from the Conservative Party in protest against the expansion of Heathrow. Polling at the weekend showed the Liberal Democrats on 43.3% and Mr Goldsmith on 46.7%.

CORPORATE GOVERNANCE REFORM: The Government has published a Green paper seeking views on how to curb excessive executive pay, how to strengthen the “voice” of employees and other stakeholders, and whether corporate governance rules should be tightened for large private companies. The paper indicates that the government has dropped the idea of requiring the appointment of employee directors.


HOSPITAL BED CRISIS: A leaked NHS memo requires hospitals to bring bed occupancy levels down to 85% over the Christmas period, where necessary using the private sector to carry out operations.

EBOLA: The Nursing and Midwifery Council has found that a nurse, Donna Wood, deliberately concealed the high temperature of her colleague Pauline Cafferkey in order to get the group through Heathrow more quickly.  Ms Cafferkey was later diagnosed with Ebola but survived.

SMOKERS AND OBESE: The Vale of York clinical commissioning group is to postpone operations for those who smoke (by up to six months) or are overweight (by up to 12 months).  Cancer and emergency treatments are unaffected.  As Vale of York is in special measures, the move will have had the approval of NHS England, which may encourage other Clinical commissioning groups to follow suit. Clare Marx of the Royal College of Surgeons criticised the idea as the wrong approach and shocking.

NEUROSEXISM: According to an article in the Journal of Neuroscience Research by Professor Cahill of the University of California Irvine, neuroscientists have avoided research on the difference between male and female brains out of political correctness. He said that studies into major diseases were being seriously hampered as a result and the health of both men and women is being put at risk.

NURSING APPRENTICESHIPS: As from next year it will be possible to become a nurse by starting as a nursing apprentice rather than obtaining a degree. The  Royal College of Nursing described the plan as ridiculous.

HAMILTON SUICIDE: The British fashion photographer who was accused on French radio of the rape of a prominent presenter has been found dead.  Allegations had been made against him by four women but were denied. The cause of death has yet to be established.

CHILD SEX ABUSE ENQUIRY: Groups representing victims have written to Alexis Jay, the current chairwoman of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, asking her to clarify what has gone wrong and to set a clear path.  The enquiry has now run through three chairwomen and five senior lawyers.  As if that was not enough, there have been suggestions of bullying, racism and sexually inappropriate behaviour at its London Office.

METROPOLITAN POLICE: HM Inspectorate of Constabulary has condemned the Met’s handling of 278 of a sample of 374 abuse cases as “inadequate or requiring improvement”. The Home Secretary has ordered quarterly inspections of the child abuse team and Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, has branded the force’s performance as unacceptable.

SUPREME COURT MARCH: The proposed march by Brexit supporters which was intended to put pressure on the Supreme Court on the first day of the appeal relating to the triggering of article 50 has been cancelled amidst concerns that it could be hijacked by the far right.  It may also have occurred to the organisers that Supreme Court justices were unlikely to be influenced by the marchers.

FOOTBALL ABUSE: The Football Association is treating allegations of sexual abuse of junior players by coaches with the utmost seriousness.  Allegations initially focused on Manchester City Crewe Alexandra but are now spreading to involve other clubs. It is been suggested that some leading clubs have made secret payments to silence victims of sex abuse. Governing bodies for other sports have been ordered to check on their files and call in the police where there appears to have been a cover-up.

LIFE SENTENCE: Stephen Port, who poisoned four young men before having sex with them and leaving them to die, has been sentenced to a whole life sentence and been told that he will never be released. The Metropolitan Police has been criticised over its failure to properly investigate the earlier death, the suggestion being that, had they done more, later deaths could have been avoided. The Independent Police Complaints Commission is to investigate.

Thomas Mair, who murdered Labour MP Jo Cox shortly before the European Referendum, has also been given a full life sentence. Evidence at the trial revealed that Mrs Cox had died urging her companions to run for safety and leave her to her fate.

DRUG SALES: The Competition and Market Authority is to give its final decision on a Joint Venture by Pfizer and Flynn Pharma to relaunch the drug Epanutin under a new name and at a greatly increased price. Although the drug is out of patent, there was a lead time of 3 to 5 years before rivals could enter the market, so there was an effective monopoly for that period. The CMA will reveal whether that monopoly was unfairly exploited.


WITHDRAWN INVITATION: 221 students at the Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys in Canterbury have written an open letter objecting to the withdrawal of an invitation to old boy Milo Yiannopoulos to address them. Mr Yiannopoulos edits an American website Breitbart which is accused of being racist, sexist and anti-Semitic, and the invitation was withdrawn under pressure from the Department of Education. The boys complain that they have been deprived of the opportunity to interrogate him, and say that by attempting to silence him the school has vindicated his accusation that society is against free speech. Some will think it a pity that the school showed such a lack of confidence in its pupils, many of whom would have been old enough to vote in the Scottish referendum.

TIMSS: The Timss report comparing international maths performance at 4th grade (9 to 10) and eighth grade (13 to 14) has been published for 2015.  The results need to be treated with care as different countries participated at different levels.  England, and still more so Northern Ireland, did well at the fourth grade level, coming ahead of the USA, France, Germany, Australia and New Zealand. Neither France nor Germany participated at the 8th grade level, where the UK came out equal with the US but above Australia and New Zealand. For tables see

CONSETT DIRECTORS: One might think that the presence of hundreds of company directors in Consett heralded an industrial revival. In fact they have simply been used as directors by a company formation agent which makes companies available for online businesses including pornography. Frequently the directors have no idea of the company’s activity. Apparently businesses can only get certain types of banking facility if they have a local subsidiary with a local director.

TEACHING RECRUITMENT: Graduate teacher trainees have dropped for the fourth year running with the overall number down to 27,229 from 27,761. There was a similar drop in the much smaller number of undergraduate trainees.

RAIL STRIKES: ASLEF is to bring Southern Rail drivers out on strike for three days in the run up to Christmas and for a week in the New Year, as part of its campaign not to allow drivers to operate train doors.  The union says that its action is motivated by concern for the safety of the public.  The RMT Union which represents guards is also planning strikes.  Other possible sources of disruption over the season of goodwill include a 24 hour tube strike on Tuesday, a strike ballot by BA cabin crew over pay, and a work to rule by Virgin Atlantic pilots over union recognition.

LAKELAND SHEPHERDS: Shepherds in the Lake District are complaining that the 15 year tenancies granted by the National Trust are not long enough to enable them to invest in their flocks. There is already tension between farmers and the National Trust over the latter’s purchase of land at Thorneythwaite without the farmhouse, making  it difficult to sustain sheep farming there. The National Trust’s lakeland estate was largely bequeathed to it by Beatrix Potter, and the farmers believe that she would see them as its natural custodian.


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Issue 81: 2016 11 24: Contents

 24 November 2016: Issue 81


Week in Brief





When Racism Stalks The Streets by John Watson

Time for a message.

Bad Hair, Good Hair by J R Thomas

Just who is Mr Trump?

viennaReadies Under The Bed by Neil Tidmarsh

Narendra Modi takes note.

ID, Insurance and the NHS by Lynda Goetz

Other countries manage.


Rather A Jumble by Chin Chin

Are Christmas presents the front line in the struggle between the sexes?

The Last Emperor by J R Thomas

The lessons from Franz Joseph to Mr Juncker.

Shopping and Benches by Lynda Goetz

Will benches and loos really make the older generation spend more?

Worth the Money? by Frank O’Nomics

Watch your Back

Time to investigate fund management fees.

What About Our Wine? by William Morton

An EU fantasy.


“City of Light”.

Solution to the last crossword “Trumpery Stuff”.

Earlier EditionsLarge 600x271 stamp prompting the reader to join the subscription list

Issue 77: 27 October 2016

Issue 78: 03 November 2016

Issue 79: 10 November 2016

Issue 80: 17 November 2016

Issue 82: Crossword – Plain Vanilla 15

1 December 2016

Crossword by Boffles


Plain Vanilla 15




To see a printable version of this crossword

Issue 82: Crossword – Plain Vanilla 15 – printable

1 December 2016

Crossword by Boffles


Plain Vanilla 15



    1  Sir’s card game or London district (13)

    8  Can find it difficult to get into heaven (4,3)

    9  Cupid shoots the common version (5)

  10  They seldom make passes at bespectacled young females according to one authority (3)

  11  Troubled Mexican resort where Elvis had fun (8)

  13  Famous for champagne and a jackdaw (6)

  14  Spanish one came to grief (6)

  17  Recently departed follower of 1dn unmourned in Florida (6)

  19  He was told about British Gas shares in a classic campaign (3)

  21  Not the current capital of Japan but can be with a little re-arrangement (5)

  22  Realm of Mad King Ludwig (7)

  24  Hockney certainly made one with this pool painting (1,6,6)



    1  Influential German thinker who wrote about class struggle (4,4)

    2  Surely its smell does not enrage Catholics? (7)

    3  Evil smelling low murmur? (3)

    4  Adventurous sailor from Baghdad (6)

    5  Chinese activists to some extent inspired by 1dn (3,6)

    6  Architectural order (5)

    7  Laid-back midshipman (4)

  11  First man on the moon (9)

  12  Payment method available even if the currency is soft (4,4)

  15  Al leaves a large country for a smaller one (7)

  16  A Lancaster or Halifax perhaps (6)

  18  Sauce breath-taking with fish (5)

  20  Seabird sounds as if it is in the kitchen (4)

  23  Bigwig (3)


Issue 82:20106 12 01:After the Revolution (J.R.Thomas)

1 December 2016

After the Revolution

Castro’s legacy.

by J.R.Thomas

Rogue Male“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” advised Gil Scott-Heron, Chicago born anti-system soul and jazz singer.  But he had reckoned without the advertising skills of Fidel Castro, instigator, leader, publicist and proprietor of the Cuban Revolution.  Mr Castro, who died earlier this week, at the very respectable age of, perhaps, 90, displayed a remarkable ability to use every medium of communication, including television, to promote the particular Castro brand of Caribbean revolution.

After two years of guerrilla warfare following his landing on the Cuban shore from exile with his brother Raoul, Che Guevara and another eighty men (fifty eight died in the early fighting) Fidel had overthrown the Batista regime and was Leader of the Revolution and of Cuba.  Although few Cubans had television, he proceeded to televise and publicise the revolution, and his personal success in creating it, all he could.  But socialism – or at least, the Castro brand of it – did not seem to work very well in Cuba.  Under the Batista dictatorship with its close (although strategic rather than emotional) links to the USA, and with many natural resources and advantages, Cuba had been a wealthy island, albeit one where the wealth was concentrated among the elite.  Right from the instigation of the Castro government, the Cuban economy lost its key trading partner to the north and found that new markets were not easy to source.

Castro made a rejection of American values and USA influence in Cuba’s affairs a large part of his appeal for mass support.  The 1950’s and ’60’s were the great days of the end of western colonialism, and this line of anti-imperialism went down well, not just with Cubans rejoicing in their new “peoples republic” but also among Western left wingers looking for a more acceptable model of socialism than its grim manifestation in Russia and its satellite states, all controlled by aging grey men.  Castro was 32, a romantic figure in military fatigues smoking a giant cigar, a bearded man of the people delivering freedom to the toiling masses.  But, before long, the toiling masses found that things had changed little; poverty became ever more pronounced, and Castro was forced into a series of economic alliances with the Soviets.  Their motive was very clear; a friendly, indeed dependent, nation on the very doorstep of the USA.

That was a challenge that ended with the showdown of the Bay of Pigs, a stand-off as the Russians threatened to move nuclear missiles on to the socialist peace loving paradise.  The Russians blinked but the Cubans paid the price; in their economy as the American boycott became implacable, and in their political system as Fidel’s control became absolute.

Even the Soviets could have learned a thing or two from the Castro control of the revolutionary republic.  He openly criticised the very concept of democracy – why would you need such a thing when the Glorious Leader had access to all the answers?  He took complete control over the press and the media; the opposition was locked up or allowed to escape (often by small boat across the ninety miles of choppy water to Florida, the nearest point of the USA); escape saved the cost of keeping them in jail.  It is estimated that one and a half million Cubans left during the Fidel years, forming a major power bloc in Florida (one that brought Marco Rubio close to the Republican nomination earlier this year).

Cuba’s main export was raw sugar and its almost sole customer the Eastern Bloc; the other, and one which the Comrade President took great pains to personally publicise, was tobacco, in the form of cigars.  Cuban tobacco makes the finest cigars in the world and they are among the most expensive; somehow, USA boycott or no, the cigars did leak through the blockade and were widely available in all the wealthy places of the world, even in the USA, although not “legally”.

As the years passed and the rest of the world moved on, nothing changed on Cuba; Fidel remained in charge, assisted by his brother Raoul and a few long-term friends.  Most Cubans remained completely unaware of how the world had moved on, thanks to Castro’s control of all the media, and in many ways the people seemed not to be unhappy in their poverty-stricken ignorance.  What was spent on public welfare was invested in the health services and especially dentistry – Cuba was said to have one of the finest dental services in the world, a claim impossible to verify as no independent inspections were permitted, but visitors did comment on the good dentistry of many of those Cubans they met.

If the regime invested in healthcare and it showed, then what also showed was the extent to which they invested in nothing else.  For income Cuba was dependent on Soviet friendship, but after the Russians cut all favoured economic links in 1989 as their own revolution was abruptly terminated, the Cuban economy shrank by nearly half in just four years.  That was effectively the beginning of the end for the Cuban revolution although Fidel was determined to resist any vestige of capitalism.

As the need for foreign exchange grew desperate, the borders were cautiously opened to allow foreign tourists to visit Havana and some limited areas nearby, including newly-built resorts.   By the 1990’s one of the great attractions was that visiting Mr Castro’s socialist paradise was a trip back to the 1950’s.  It was as if the world had stopped in 1958; there were practically no cars or household goods manufactured after that date; most of the beautiful baroque buildings of pre First World War Havana had had no maintenance carried out and were in states of romantic if increasingly dangerous decay.  The locals were friendly and very eager to engage in currency dealing, especially for American dollars, which formed a black-market enabling currency.  (Don’t sneer – Eurodollars were performing a not dissimilar role in Europe not many years previously).  Before long the regime was also engaged in US dollar trading.

And most romantic of all, the Great Revolutionary still bestrode his revolutionary landscape, declaiming endless and interminable speeches and exultations as to how the rest of the world would become like Cuba and that what was happening there was the future. Nobody knew much about his personal circumstances – less it seemed as the years passed, including his correct age, which is almost certainly a year or two less than the official ninety he claimed as he approached his death.  He certainly had numerous lovers, many children, and, increasingly well proven, an immense fortune.  Investigative journalism is not practised in Cuba, but as some of those close to him escaped to the Cuba in exile on the mainland north, more and more leaked out about the doings of the Castro family – Fidel and his estimated ten children, plus his brother who succeeded him as President in 2008 after Fidel’s rumoured stroke.  Whatever the wealth of the family is, nobody of course knows, but some estimates are in excess of US$1bn.

Castro’s death will make little difference to his appallingly poor and mis-administered homeland.  Raoul Castro is quietly permitting modernisation and the entry of foreign private capital.  Soon, he too will pass from the scene and Cuba will probably move to a more western capitalist model, hopefully with participatory democracy.  The buildings will be repaired, the cars scrapped or sent to museums.  And the Cuban people may at last be able to earn more from their country than free dental work.


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Issue82:2016 12 01:Week in Brief Financial

1 December 2016


Headline image saying £NEWS

SMELL OF SUCCESS: It may be essential for the smooth running of our lives, but Pennon plc is one of those companies that is far from being a household name – even if what it does is household friendly.  Pennon is a FTSE top 250 company which owns South West Water and Bournemouth Water, and also Viridor, a waste management business which is concentrating on turning waste into energy.  Landfill tax and increasing energy costs have made converting waste to power a viable business, and Viridor has built eight conversion plants since 2011, with three more under construction.  Now it has announced plans for a twelfth, the biggest yet, which will be built at Avonmouth, near Bristol, convenient for road, rail, and indeed sea access.  The plant will produce 33 megawatts of power and will cost £250m to build.  It and should be coming onstream in about 30 months.  Pennon says that it expects Viridor will build yet more of these plants as local authorities struggle to find efficient – and cheap – ways to dispose of rubbish; Viridor is actively marketing its solution to those with a rubbish problem and will build on the back of further contracts.

Pennon is benefitting from this side of its business which shows continuing profitable growth, along with costs savings in its core but heavily regulated water business – where it is also expanding in a new joint venture deal with South Staffordshire Water.  Operating profits in the first half of this financial year (to end September) were up 20% to £128m, though, after writing off a charge for financial derivatives and scrapping an IT system with associated writedown costs, they are expected to be slightly down at the statutory level.

GOOD NEWS FROM THE NORTH: Northern Ireland, that is:

First,  Lamprell, a former FTSE 250 company and specialist builder of oil rigs mainly in Dubai has been suffering from the downturn in the oil price.  The demand for rigs has suffered all over the world, and the slump has also affected maintenance and improvement works.  But Lamprell has now found a new source of business – also in energy production – building wind turbines for offshore wind farms.  That specialist knowledge of the complex business of constructing large works at sea has enabled it to win a £180m contract with Scottish Power who are building a new farm in the North Sea off East Anglia. The basic steelwork will be built in the company steel yards in Dubai, but much of the construction and assembly work will be done in a joint venture with Harland and Wolff who are a major employer in Belfast, where the work will be carried out before the structures are transported to the North Sea.  Lamprell hopes that this order will be the first of many, showing what the joint application of specialist knowledge will be able to achieve.

Secondly Ulster Bank is bringing some good news (at last) to its parent, Royal Bank of Scotland, the partially state owned and  troubled banking group which is still struggling to recover from its collapse in the 2008 crisis.  Ulster Bank operates in both the Irish Republic and in the Province, and it has recovered more rapidly than its parent as the economy of the Republic has emerged strongly from the financial difficulties that beset it with the collapse of most of its banks.  It is that southern element of Ulster Bank that has built up distributable reserves and has now got the regulator’s permission both in Dublin and in Europe to make a distribution of €1.5bn to RBS by way of a dividend.  That of course does not alter the capital base of RBS, but it does mean that the money can be treated as free cash and reallocated elsewhere in the RBS group to help liquidity.  Ulster Bank says that it is in very good heart, with its business showing good profits and strong reserves both north and south of the border – an example to its shareholder indeed.

PROBLEM NOT FIXED:  After weeks of rumour, OPEC has confirmed that discussions have been going on between its 14 member states to try to agree production cuts to their oil output.  OPEC represents a number of the world’s major oil producing nations, mainly in the Middle East, but also including Venezuela and Nigeria, and for many years had effective control over global oil production, and thus the price.  But the economic problems of many members have forced their taps open wider and wider, and the rise of many other producers not in OPEC, such as Russia, has meant that the cartel has gradually lost its standing, culminating in its inability to resist the dramatic fall in the oil price over the last three years.  Many members cannot withstand the economic pressures of even a short-term cut in production unless helped out by the richer nations, such as Saudi Arabia.  But Saudi is unwilling to do this, and Iran, who said it would support a restriction, has now said it won’t.  And Russia, which is rumoured to be in informal conversations to work with OPEC, probably could not afford even the short-term cash flow problem.  The oil ministers meet in Vienna today (Wednesday).  The market is nervous, yesterday discounting a deal with the price falling 4%; this morning there might be one, pushing the price up to a touch under the magic $50 as we went to press .  If you are the nervous type who feels the cold, maybe better order your heating oil now.

WIRES NOT UNCROSSED: The Openreach saga continues.  Openreach is the broadband installation and operating arm of BT.  It has long been criticised for its slow role out of fibre and internet connections – which then have to be made available to other providers.  BT, its competitors say, has a vested interest in doing things slowly to keep costs down and maintain a marketing advantage in connecting customers up – both to its existing landline based service and to the new fibre box points as they are installed.  The Regulator had so far refrained from doing what other operators in the market want, which is to completely ring-fence Openreach from BT’s control, and has given BT several warnings but also extra time, most lately in July this year, to show how it is tackling the problems of poor service and slow roll out of the new technology.  But Sharon White, the Regulator, has had enough.  She has now told BT that Openreach must be split off and she will seek legislative support, in Westminster and Brussels, to achieve this is as soon as possible.  


(as at 29th November 2016; comments refer to changes on last 7 days; $ is US$)

Interest Rates:

UK£ Base rate: 0.25%, unchanged: 3 month 0.40% (steady); 5 year 0.84% (steady).

Euro€: 1 mth -0.37% (steady); 3 mth -0.31% (steady); 5 year -0.06% (falling)

US$: 1 mth 0.61% (rising); 3 mth 0.94% (rising); 5 year 1.76% (rising)

Currency Exchanges:

£/Euro: 1.17, £ steady

£/$: 1.24, £ slight fall

Euro/$: 1.06, € steady

Gold, oz: $1,185, falling

Aluminium, tonne: $1,721, slight fall

Copper, tonne:  $5,777, rising

Oil, Brent Crude barrel: $49.85, rising

Wheat, tonne: £135, fall

London Stock Exchange: FTSE 100: 6,835 (slight fall).  FTSE Allshare: 3,716 (slight fall)

Briefly:  That autumn steadiness is slowly eroding – oil price all over the place – see our article above – and copper marching on up – China agree a deal with the main producer in Peru to take most of their output.  Short term interest rates remain remarkable steady but long term rates are more volatile, the 5 year dollar rate moving up a little more.


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Issue 82:2016 12 01:Week in Brief International

1 December 2016


UN Flag to denote International news


AUSTRIA:  Last May’s inconclusive presidential election will be rerun this Sunday.  The choice is between Norbert Hoffer of the far-right Freedom Party and the Green but independent Alexander van der Bellen.

BULGARIA:  Migrants rioted after a health scare confined them to their camp in Hermanli near the Turkish border.  Police used rubber bullets and water-cannons to contain them.

EU:  The European parliament voted (479 to 37) to suspend talks with Turkey about EU membership, as a protest against post-coup repression.  The vote is non-binding.

Martin Schulz resigned as president of the European parliament to return to German politics.  He hopes to gain a seat in the German parliament for the centre-left Social Democrat Party.  It is thought that he is positioning himself to take over the leadership of the party in order to challenge Angela Merkel for chancellor in next year’s elections.

Officials in the EU are to get a 3.3% pay rise next month (almost seven times the rate of inflation), backdated to July.

See comment Renewing the EU.

FRANCE:  Francois Fillon won 67% of the vote in the second and final round of the elections for leadership of the Republican party, decisively defeating his opponent Alain Juppé.  M Fillon is a Roman Catholic traditionalist with an agenda for hard-hitting Thatcherite reform.  He advocates improved relations with Russia and Syria’s Assad, a Europe of sovereign and independent nations, and cuts in the public sector at home (including a reduction in public spending by 100 billion euros over five years, the scrapping of 500,000 public sector jobs, and a curb healthcare spending).  Unions are vowing to fight his reforms if he becomes president in next year’s election.  See comment “Made it, Ma! Top of the World!”.

Disarray in the Socialist party increased with prime minister Manuel Valls threatening to stand against party leader M Hollande in the party’s primary election in January.

GERMANY:  Chancellor Merkel warned that Germany is becoming a target for Russian cyber attacks.

GREECE:  Eight Turkish officers who fled to Greece after the failed coup have been denied political asylum.  Extradition proceedings have begun.

ITALY:  The referendum on prime minister Matteo Renzi’s proposed constitutional reforms will take place this week.  He plans to reduce the power of the Senate (the upper house).  He says that it is essential to overcome the government’s impotence and the country’s political stagnation, and enable economic reform, but his opponents say it will give too much power to the government.  Many fear that a ‘no’ vote will trigger political chaos (Mr Renzi will resign, leading to an election) and economic catastrophe (as many as eight Italian banks, already burdened with toxic debt, could fail).

Three MPs of the populist, anti-corruption Five Star Movement (which opposes Renzi’s reforms) are being investigated over allegations of election fraud.  The party has suspended them.

NETHERLANDS:  An outbreak of avian flu at a farm east of Amsterdam resulted in the culling of 200,000 ducks in six farms to stop it spreading.  Other outbreaks were reported in Denmark, Germany, Finland and Sweden.

The lower house approved a ban on the burka in certain public places.

RUSSIA:  The military build up in the enclave of Kaliningrad continues, as does the naval build-up in the Baltic.

UKRAINE:  Russia has sent more troops to Eastern Ukraine, according to Ukrainian military intelligence.  The International Criminal Court officially classed the conflict as an “international armed conflict”.

Five officers accused of opening fire on demonstrators in February 2014 have gone on trial (the deaths of more than a hundred pro-European protestors led to the downfall of pro-Russian president Victor Yanukovych); ex-president Yanukovych appeared via a video-link to a court-room in Russia.  More here.

Middle East and Africa

IRAN:  More than 40 people were killed in a collision between two passenger trains in northern Iran.

IRAQ:  The battle for Mosul continues with house-to-house fighting.  The Iraq army said they have cleared Isis out of 15 of 39 districts in east Mosul, but Isis’ use of suicide bombings, tunnels and mines continues.

SYRIA:  The Syrian army launched its fiercest attack on rebel-held eastern Aleppo, taking 40% of the rebel’s territory which is now split in two.  The rebel forces are reportedly close to collapse.  Air attacks continue.  Civilian residents are trying to flee besieged rebel areas.  There are reports that rebel forces have tried to prevent them from leaving, and that a chlorine-loaded barrel-bomb attack on fleeing civilians by a regime helicopter killed 25 people.

TURKEY:  President Erdogan responded to EU criticism of his post-coup crack-down by threatening to send 3 million refugees to Europe.  A Greek newspaper reported on a Greek intelligence analysis which says that Turkey is preparing to send 3000 migrants a day to Greece.

UGANDA:  The king of the Rwenzururu tribe, Charles Mumbere, has been charged with murder, following the death of 87 people in clashes between his guards and Ugandan security forces.

ZIMBABWE:  Zimbabwe began issuing its own currency.  The Central bank’s ‘bond notes’ are supposed to be redeemable against the US dollar at the rate of one to one, but they are already being dismissed as worthless.

Far East, Asia and Pacific

BURMA:  The UN High Commission for Refugees accused the Burmese government of engaging in the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslim communities from Burma’s northern state of Rakhine.

CHINA:  Reports that Facebook has developed new content-restricting software is thought to indicate that the company is eager to return to China, where it was banned seven years ago.

KOREA, SOUTH:  Parliament is expected to vote to impeach president Park over her ties with her spiritual adviser Ms Choi Soon Sil, who has just been charged with fraud and corruption.  Over a million protesters demanded her impeachment.  She offered to resign.  More here.

PAKISTAN:  An Indian artillery attack on Pakistan-administered Kashmir killed 12 civilians and 3 soldiers, and injured dozens of others, according to official reports.  Seven Indian soldiers were also killed.

A new army chief – Ms Choi Soon Sil – has been appointed by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.  The Prime Minister (the victim of two coups) recently clashed with the previous chief, General Raheel Sharif.

PHILIPPINES:  Protests and law-suits continue to demand that the remains of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos should be removed from the cemetery for national heroes, in which he was interred with full military honours last week, 30 years after his death in exile.   Dozens of male students demonstrated by running naked (but masked) through the campus of the University of the Philippines.


COLOMBIA:  A revised peace deal between the government and Farc rebels was signed by President Santos and Farc leader Timochenko.  The deal will go to Congress for approval, but will not be submitted to another referendum.

A plane crash killed 77 people (including members of the Brazilian football team Chapecoense) near Medellin. Six people survived.

CUBA:  Fidel Castro died, aged 90.  He turned Cuba into a one-party (Communist) state and ruled it as a dictator for fifty years.  He retired in 2008, handing power to his brother Raul. See feature After the Revolution.

USA:  Donald Trump filled two more vacancies: Fox News analyst Kathleen McFarland as deputy national security advisor, and the campaign attorney Donald McGahn as White House counsel.

A recount of votes in Wisconsin has been triggered by a Green party candidate.  Recounts in Michigan and Pennsylvania might follow.

Eleven people were injured when a Somali-born student drove his car into a crowd of students at Ohio State University then attacked them with a knife.  He was shot dead by police.  It is reported that he left an on-line message urging Muslims to make more ‘lone wolf’ attacks.  Isis has claimed responsibility.

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Issue 82:2016 12 1:Hooting and shunting (J.R.Thomas)

1 December 2016

Hooting and Shunting

Sorting the ticket price confusion.

by J.R.Thomas

Rogue MaleHow difficult can it be to run a railway?  Not the driving and signalling bits; your technically unaccomplished correspondent accepts that all those electrical impulses and wires must make a modern train very complicated.  In the good old days you just chucked the coal in the firebox, after of course remembering the box of matches and an oily rag to get the fire going in the first place. Or had to remember which hugely heavy iron lever was connected to which signal, to be seen out the widows of the signal box.  Making the trains go and stop has undoubtedly got a bit more difficult.  But surely, selling tickets, a logical and clear methodology as to what to charge people to travel on the things, cannot be too tricky, whether in the ever narrower seats (or, on most commuter services, leaning against them).

The early railways had a very simple way of doing things when it came to working out fares.  If you were a poor person, or mean, then you could travel on the wooden seats without heating at 1d a mile.  That was not what the railway would necessarily have charged if left to its own devices, but on nearly all lines in the United Kingdom, Parliament imposed an obligation to run at least one train each way per day in return for the Act of Parliament which authorised the line and the compulsory land acquisition.  In the comfortable seats with the hot water cans under the seats and the oxy-acetylene lighting, the rich and extravagant classes had to pay a lot more, but it was worked out the same way – so much per mile.  If you wanted to go to Barchester, and it was twice the distance to Much-Binding-on-the-Marsh, then you paid twice the price; whether you slumbered in comfort in the upholstered armchairs of First, or got splinters and chilblains in Third, or behaved impeccably and sat sternly upright in the middle, or Second class.

Then some marketing expert got in on the scene and started the rot.  You could now buy a day return, at perhaps one and a half times the price of a single.  Much appreciated by the passengers, no doubt, though quite what the benefit was to the railway is not so clear.  Maybe on the lines where there was competition  –  Manchester to Sheffield, or Exeter to London, it encouraged customer loyalty and stopped the passengers shopping around for a cheaper fare for their return.

Tickets available on-line

Tickets available on-line

But, competition, that was the thing. Many main towns had at least two routes to get to London, or to the next main town.  And in the glorious railway age before 1914, there was more competition than you might think – there were over ninety serious railway companies for a start, excluding all the little local tramways, and Welsh mountain lines, and mineral branches.  And often they were given running rights over their competitors lines (and those competitors over theirs) when they got that Act of Parliament that enabled them to get into business and drive their lines through the favourite coverts of various dukes.

So competition kept the fares down on many routes – not all, some lines were notoriously slow and unreliable and expensive, but by and large and amidst a degree of polite British grumbling the whole system worked.

Then came the  “grouping” – all the private companies were forced together in four private regional semi-monopolies – and when this had run its course, were nationalised, in 1947.  We will pass swiftly over the endless changes of direction, of structure, of leadership; the lack of investment, the endless cuts to service and quality of service; to John Major.

Mr Major’s big idea, when it came to the railway problem, was to de-nationalise the whole caboodle and reintroduce competition.  That way it was argued, investment would find its way to where it was needed, service would be responsive to demand, and prices would be driven down.  Just like supermarkets.  Except for one flaw – supermarkets tend to trade from their own premises, not all having to share one huge shed.  Trains have to run on dedicated tracks, their cost a major component of that of operating a railway.  The answer was to copy the road system – as in, we all drive our different vehicles to our different destinations for our different purposes, using the same roads, owned by us via the government, which employs its own or independent contractors to maintain them and occasionally, very occasionally, to build new ones.  So could the railways, it was argued.  An independent body controlled by the public interest, fairly swiftly replaced by the Department of Transport, would own the network of lines and many of the stations and would welcome all comers with trains to run.  That way competition could be accommodated even on the same tracks and between the same stations.

It was a brilliant solution, although compromised in the actual delivery, and it has worked surprisingly well in many respects.  Passenger carryings have more than doubled in twenty years, and are higher than they were at the previous peak in the 1920’s.  Freight movement, in spite of the loss of many old staples such as coal and steel, has also started to increase, helped admittedly by the grossly congested road system, with three major competitors who can provide open access service to almost anywhere; and a number of much smaller operators who can do all sorts of specialist transfers (nuclear flask from Kent to the Lake District?  No problem.)

But the major flaw has been around the passenger operating structures. This has been in the hands of a system of limited term franchises – operators given a licence subject to strict performance conditions and complex revenue transfers depending on carryings for, say, ten years.  But that has many drawbacks only dimly forseen.  No operator can buy the trains they need or enter into major capital expenditure for such short commitments.  Also the Department of Transport with that civil service urge to control everything has tended to make franchises shorter and subject to ever more conditions – and take back into direct control operators in breach of their franchise conditions.

Which brings us at express speed to the latest row.  That is over the tendency of ticket machines on stations, and ticket sales sites on the internet, to have an enormously complicated range of ticket prices.  Somehow the public does not seem too phased by complex on-line inquisitions and acquisitions, but the station ticket machines, on which 25% of tickets are sold, are much less helpful.  They tend to offer the most expensive tickets and do not advise that buying two singles for a return journey, or a whole series of short distance singles to make one longer single journey, or travelling via Much Binding, would be significantly cheaper.  No matter that J Sainsbury do not perform this useful advisory service either when it comes to beans or marmalade – but to be fair, in J Sainsbury you can compare the stuff on the shelves, whilst the ticket machine hides it all in a devious, if not downright inaccessible, computer programme.

Our guardians at Westminster, who are heavy users of train services, though not in the cheap seats, think this won’t do.  So more legislation is proposed so that the train operators will have to tell us that we can get a cheaper fare by pressing Button X and then Button Y twice.  Or indeed use a different operator altogether.  Get your cornflakes from Tesco, and your olive oil from Waitrose, we will soon be advised.

Or possibly some bright young minister will recall what the objective of all this was, back in the 1990’s, and make his name by reintroducing the concept of competition on rails. Different operators with competing levels of service, blue trains, red trains, yellow trains, fast and slow, luxurious and spartan.  Choice, competition, service.  It might just work.  As it did a hundred and fifty years ago.


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Issue82:2016 12 01:The Philosophy of the selfish (Tim Marshall)

1 December 2016

The Philosophy of the Selfish

When everyone else is wrong

by Tim Marshall

Is there a connection between the introduction of “safe spaces” on university campuses, the riots in US cities by those who oppose Donald Trump and the legal action taken by Gina Miller and others in the High Court in London, following the referendum result on the UK’s membership of the EU?

There are several aspects of the “safe spaces” phenomenon. One is the prohibition preventing guest speakers from addressing meetings, if the speaker may express views with which the student leadership disagrees. Another is the banning of certain newspapers whose views or policies are considered to be distasteful.

In the US, the rioters made clear that they disagreed with the election of Donald Trump and showed their disapproval, in extreme ways, with the views of those who had voted for him.

In the UK, press reports about the legal action taken by Gina Miller have shown that she had voted to stay in the EU and is appalled by the result of the referendum. She is expressing her refusal to accept the result by way of action through the Courts.

Perhaps the connection, if there is one, is that there is a growing sentiment that people who disagree with the views of others feel that they are entitled to take any steps to block those views, in an attempt to ensure that only their own views prevail.

John Major recently addressed a meeting at which EU matters were debated and referred to the “tyranny of the majority.” As commentators and correspondents to “The Times” pointed out, he made no mention of the “tyranny of the minority”.

Is there a new and developing social/political philosophy at work? The philosophy of the selfish?


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