Issue 105: 2017 05 18: Week in Brief: UK

18 May 2017

Week In Brief: UK

Union Jack flapping in wind from the right

Election news

LABOUR MANIFESTO: Following leaks of a draft, the Labour manifesto was launched on Tuesday, pledging, amongst other things: that tuition fees and  zero hour contracts would be scrapped and fracking for oil abolished; that the triple lock on pensions would be retained; that 10,000 new police officers would be hired; that childcare would be expanded for two, three and four-year-olds; and that water, the railways, the Royal Mail and energy supply systems would all be brought into public ownership with at least one publicly owned energy company in every region.  Labour would renew Trident and retain the 2% of GDP benchmark for defence spending.  It opposes a further Scottish referendum, would produce refreshed negotiating priorities on Brexit and would unilaterally protect the rights of EU citizens living in the UK.  HS2 would be extended to Scotland.  There are commitments to a new Brighton mainline and to Crossrail 2.  Out of 1 million new homes, at least half would be for social rent.  Labour would scrap the NHS pay cap and end hospital parking charges.  In addition to four new bank holidays there are a number of measures to protect workers’ pay and unionisation.  The minimum wage would be increased to at least £10 an hour by 2020.

To help pay for this, a 50% rate of income tax would be introduced for those earning above £123,000 per annum with the 45% rate beginning at £80,000.  Companies paying salaries in excess of £330,000 would pay a levy, the rate of corporation tax would increase to 26% and VAT would be charged on private school fees.  The Institute for Fiscal Studies has expressed scepticism as to whether Labour’s tax changes would realise as much as they think.

CONSERVATIVE PLEDGES: The Prime Minister has indicated that the Conservative manifesto will include provisions for unpaid leave with no jeopardy to employment rights where family members require care.  There will also be provision for two-weeks paid child bereavement leave and a guarantee of further increases in the national minimum wage.  Listed companies will have to appoint an employee director and there will be a reform of the rules governing workers currently treated as self-employed.  It is understood that the manifesto will also contain provision for new social houses.

Mrs May has pledged that a Conservative Government would make Parliamentary time for a free vote on the foxhunting ban.

LIBERAL DEMOCRATS: It is understood that the Liberal Democrat manifesto will include the promise for a further referendum following the Brexit negotiations, a promise to restore housing benefit for 18 to 21-year-olds and proposals to introduce a new local bus pass.

See comment Big Beasts.


NURSING PAY: The congress of the Royal College of Nursing has voted to mount protests over nursing pay, where the cap on public pay rises has meant a 14% real reduction since 2010.  They also threaten the possibility of industrial action if the cap is retained.

HACKING ATTACK: The National Health Service has been seriously affected by cyber attacks against businesses and agencies across the world.  It has been suggested that the tools used to carry out the attack were created by the US National Security Agency and then stolen by an organisation known as Shadow Brokers which made them available on the Internet.  Microsoft says that it provided free software to counter the attacks in March but there are many older systems in use which are particularly vulnerable.  It is understood that each user is being asked to pay US $300 for the restoration of its files.  It is not thought that any patient data has been compromised.

Shadow Brokers has said that only a small part of the stolen data was used in the attacks and that unless someone buys the other stolen material from them they will release it by instalments, enabling criminals to mount further attacks on institutions and governments.

HOSPITAL BACKLOG: Official figures that show the NHS is missing targets in a number of areas.  Performance figures are the worst since 2003/2004 with many patients requiring routine surgery forced to wait at least 18 weeks, 2.3 million beds blocked by elderly patients and the target for treating 85% of cancer patients within two months being missed for 15 months in a row.  Tim Gardner, senior policy fellow at the Health Foundation think tank points out, however, that in relation to strokes, heart disease and some cancers, the quality of care is holding.


MANCHESTER UNIVERSITY: Manchester University is to make 140 academic staff and 31 support staff redundant in response to financial pressures, including an increased pensions deficit, and concerns about the standard of teaching in some departments.  The academic sector as a whole is under pressure from the uncertainties of Brexit and also a higher education bill which will link the ability to raise fees to teaching quality.  Manchester’s own cuts, which are not Brexit related, need to be seen in context.  The University has 7000 academics, so the cuts represent 2%.

KNIVES AT SCHOOL: The number of weapons seized from children at school has increased dramatically in recent months.  This corresponds with the general increase of knife crime in London where 11 people died in the fortnight ending on 5 March.

Central Government and figures

POLL FRAUD: The Crown Prosecution Service has decided not to bring charges against 20 former MPs in relation to their 2015 campaign expenses on the grounds that, although there may have been misreporting, there is insufficient evidence of dishonesty.  The misreporting relates to expenses, such as visits by a battle bus to key constituencies, which were charged centrally rather than as an expense of the constituencies concerned.  Local limits on expenditure are much tighter than national limits.  One case, that of Craig MacKinlay, who defeated Nigel Farage in South Thanet, is still being considered.

SQUEEZED HOUSEHOLDS: The Bank of England has warned that households will have to cut back on spending as inflation moves ahead of wage rises.  The forecast for wage growth is now 2% this year against an inflation forecast of 2.8%.  Business investment is expected to increase.

HOUSE PRICES: Official figures show that house prices fell by 0.6% last month, contributing to a general slowdown over the last year when prices rose by 4.1% across the country, with 1.5% in London.  The average house price across England and Wales is now some 7.6 times annual earnings, well above the traditional level of around 3.5 times.

Policing and the law

POLICE RESIGNATION: The Deputy Police and Crime Commissioner for Cambridgeshire, Andy Coles, has resigned following allegations that he had a sexual relationship with an animal rights activist when working undercover in the 1990s.

ENQUIRY BLOCKED: The Metropolitan Police have been prevented from charging a Libyan man, Saleh Ilbraham Mabrouk, with the murder of WPC Fletcher in 1984 by the refusal of the intelligence services to hand over documents.  Mr Mabrouk denies involvement in the killing.

DIVORCE: A record £453 million was awarded by Mr Justice Haddon Cave to a mother who, by looking after their children as well as children from her husband’s first marriage for 20 years, made an equal contribution to the marriage.  In fact the exact proportion of the matrimonial assets awarded to her was 41.5%.  Although the award is very large, it reflects the normal practice of splitting assets accumulated during the marriage equally between the parties.

Church affairs

ANGLICAN SCHISM: An Anglican bishop has been appointed in Newcastle under the authority of a conservative church in South Africa.  This appears to be part of plans to found a new Anglican organisation in the UK outside the Church of England which were discussed at the ReNew conference in September.  The new church would take a stricter interpretation of Christian teachings on homosexuality.

RICHARD III: Philippa Langley, the historian who found Richard’s body in a car park, has criticised the decision by the Diocese of Leicester to allow a production of Shakespeare’s Richard III in the cathedral in which his body is now buried.  The play, of course, is a work of fiction and may or may not be unfair to the last Plantagenet king.  Either way, however, it is hard to argue with Ms Langley’s comment that this is a “truly unprincipled commercial and promotional venture”.  Some will think that this modern equivalent of dancing on graves compares poorly with the Roman Catholic practice of allowing the dead to Rest in Peace.

Other news

DRAYTON MANOR: An 11-year-old girl, Evha Jannath, died after falling into the water at the Splash Canyon ride at the Drayton Manor theme park.  The ride, and similar rides at Alton Towers, Legoland and Thorpe Park are currently closed.

FOREST GREEN: Forest Green Rovers, funded by green entrepreneur Dale Vince, has made it into the football league.  All food served at the ground will be vegan and the lawnmower is solar powered.

BBC FUNDING: Users of the BBC iPlayer will be required to register as a way of checking that they pay the licence fee.


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Issue 105:2017 05 18:Tree planting, topography, timber and toxins(Lynda Goetz)

18 May 2017

Tree Planting, Topography, Timber And Toxins

Do we need to plant more trees? How to get one planted.

by Lynda Goetz

It is believed that around 3,000 BC some 50-60% of the UK was forested.   But, that being said, any belief that forest cover has been in continual decline since then is totally erroneous.  A fascinating resource here is the Forestry Commission timeline, which evidences clearly how events, and in particular wars, have influenced the way we have used our timber supply throughout the centuries.  Today’s cover at around 10% in England (13% in the UK owing to greater cover in Wales and Scotland) may not be as much as the Government had hoped, but it is double the percentage in 1300, when war and massive clearances for animal grazing had taken their toll; far higher than at the end of the 16thC after the increase in housebuilding, shipbuilding and use of charcoal in various processes (including gunpowder production);  more than twice that in 1815 when timber usage in the Napoleonic wars had reduced woodland cover to an all-time low and 1900 when cover once again down at  5%, shortly to be made worse by the advent of the First World War, led to the founding of the Forestry Commission in 1919.

In the light of this, are headlines referring to ‘an all-time low’,  words like ‘appalling’ and ‘shocking’, and expressions such as ‘drastic decline‘ and ‘prospect of deforestation’, really appropriate or necessary?  This is the sort of reporting which greeted the release of figures last June by the Forestry Commission and also this year’s quarterly report.  It is true that these comments mostly refer to tree planting rather than forest cover and also that between 2011 and 2014 there was a great deal more creation of woodland than there has been over the last two years.  Is this a problem and if so, why, and what can be done about it?

It is a fact that the Government’s aim was to achieve some 12% cover in England by 2060.  This is of course still possible, but it will require planting at a much higher rate than the current one.  This is partly because we are also using more wood.  As our population increases, so the demands for timber increase with it.  Over 80% of our timber is imported.  Use of wood has changed through the centuries.  Wood is currently being used again for heating our homes and hot water (wood burners and wood-pellet boilers); it is being used for furniture, as a clothes fibre and for medicines (e.g. yew for docetaxol and paclitaxel chemotherapy drugs) inter alia.  Not only is there actual usage to consider, but the environmental value of woodland is now much more understood and appreciated.  Many people derive pleasure from being able to access woodland, but as most now know, trees have an important environmental role as well.

Only this week, the academic scientific journal Atmospheric Environment has, according to the BBC environment correspondent, produced an article suggesting that not only should we be planting trees, but that hedges are also essential for absorbing harmful pollutants from the atmosphere.  Lead author Professor Prashant Kumar suggests that where possible in towns and cities, councils should plant low hedges between pavements and roads to help trap harmful toxins from vehicle exhaust pipes.  He is not suggesting that they should stop planting trees, indeed he feels that many more should be planted, simply that hedges could provide a further defence against our increasingly polluted air.

Woodland is also important in reducing flooding; increasing water absorption into the ground, preventing soil erosion and reducing sediment going into rivers, as well as creating a physical barrier to floodwater.  Studies into these ‘soft engineering’ aspects of managing flood risk have shown ‘significant scope for using woodland to reduce flood risk’, although it needs to be part of a ‘whole-catchment approach to flood-risk management’ (Woodland flood control: a landscape perspective)

Part of the problem, it would seem, is that the current regulation of forest in this country is shared between four separate Government departments; Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs Agency (DEFRA), the Forestry Commission, Natural England and the Rural Payments Agency, all administering the Countryside Stewardship Scheme.  In addition, last November the Government opened the Woodland Carbon Fund to encourage more large-scale planting.  The grant scheme for landowners wishing to plant forest changed in 2015 and there have been delays in processing contracts and payments.  Negotiating the complex bureaucratic procedure appears to be something of a nightmare and this, combined with the uncertainty around what correlation, if any, exists between tree planting and EU agricultural subsidies, may have led many farmers and landowners to avoid new tree-planting altogether.

Austin Braby, a spokesman for the The Woodland Trust, the UK’s largest woodland conservations charity, said last June that “there have been lots of really interesting and well-informed conversations… but the system… is not matching up with the fine words.  It is not fit for purpose.”  It may be that the system has needed time to bed down, but as Countryside Stewardship is funded by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development, which of course will not be available after Brexit, it may take some time before it really does and we can get back to the planting rates needed to meet the Government-declared targets.

In the meantime, some of you may be interested to know that as an individual who is not a farmer or a landowner, you can still ‘do your bit’ and get a tree planted, although of course there is no EU grant attached.   You do not however need a spade or a garden.  All you have to do is to sign the Tree Charter.   As 2017 is the 800th anniversary of The Charter of the Forest ( a separate dedicated charter of all the rules contained in the 1215 Magna Carter relating to forests), some 50 organisations led by the Woodland Trust have got together to promote the importance of trees.  Just by signing the charter you ensure a tree is planted on your behalf.  If only everything were so simple!


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Issue 105:2017 05 18: Current Affairs – A Natural History (Neil Tidmarsh)

18 May 2017

Current Affairs – A Natural History

Politicians, policemen and other animals.

by Neil Tidmarsh

The world of politics and the world of nature don’t mix, by and large.  Human beings go about their business and animals go about theirs, normally quite separately.  There are exceptions, of course – there’s an obvious overlap where the ecology and the environment are concerned, and there’s always plenty of room for jokes about politicians and animals (that description of Dominique Strauss-Khan as a “rutting chimpanzee” cropped up again a few days ago in The Times); nevertheless, it was a surprise when rats, buffalo, wild boar and birds turned up in the newspapers this week with plenty to say about the way we humans treat each other.

First, the rats…

Last year, alcohol was banned in the Indian state of Bihar.  This attempt to combat one of the causes of crime, poverty and violence has naturally placed a heavy burden on the police; they’ve arrested nearly half a million offenders (who can expect up to ten years in jail) and confiscated many millions of bottles of booze.  Police stations quickly ran out of room and extra space had to be rented.  But then something strange happened; more than 900,000 litres of confiscated alcohol disappeared.

The officers guarding the alcohol were questioned at a meeting of state police last week and the mystery was solved; the police explained that thirsty rats had drunk the alcohol.  Of course.  The cunning rodents had somehow managed to get the caps off the bottles without bottle-openers, they said, and had gulped down the lot.  Strangely enough, their story wasn’t accepted by everybody (perhaps because the police hadn’t managed to arrest any of the guilty creatures?).  A member of the state government suggested that the alcohol had found its way onto the black market (fenced by the rats rather than drunk by them, perhaps?), while the head of the state police said that “with the rats running riot, policemen should now be subjected to random breathalyser tests to check whether they too have had a swig or two of the confiscated booty”.  In what was surely an unrelated incident, the president and a senior member of the Bihar Policemen’s Association were arrested last week, charged with consuming alcohol and disturbing the peace on police premises.

Next, the buffalo… Also in India, an angry mob raided a dairy farm in Uttar Pradesh and attacked five men they accused of butchering and skinning a cow.  Cows are sacred to Hindus, and it’s illegal to kill them.  The five men, who were beaten and arrested, insist that the slaughtered animal wasn’t a cow but a buffalo, which isn’t sacred or protected, and an examination of its remains is underway to establish the truth.

Whatever the examination finds, however, the story has two points to make about contemporary India.  First, this kind of ‘cow vigilantism’, which is now common, is seen by some as the reflection of a dark side of the otherwise enlightened government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his BJP party.  He is working hard to modernise the country (with education reforms, new technology initiatives, anti-corruption drives, toilets for all, etc) but his critics say that his Hindu nationalist party is encouraging hostility towards India’s Muslims (who of course are the real targets of cow-vigilantism, having no taboos about eating beef).  Second, it suggests that the caste system persists; the attackers were high-caste Hindus, the accused were Dalits, the lowest caste.

Meanwhile, in Canada, at Edmonton airport in Alberta, birds were highlighting the dangers of man’s increasing use of robotics.  No doubt hawks and falcons will soon be complaining alongside human beings that their jobs are about to stolen by robots – a drone which looks like a predator, with realistically-flapping wings, has been developed to scare birds away from the airport’s flight-paths, a job traditionally undertaken by trained birds of prey and their handlers.  It was developed by an engineer at a Dutch company after it was found that birds aren’t frightened by fixed-wing drones.  Humans and their governments are developing drones not just to scare birds, of course, but also – as is the way with all technology – to kill other human beings.  In the same week, Erdogan’s government in Turkey announced that its defence ministry has developed an entirely Turkish-made weaponised drone, the Bayraktar, as a first step towards the development of a Turkish defence industry which will make the country’s armed forces self-sufficient in materiel.

Real animals – rather than robotic, technically-created virtual animals – are striking back with a vengeance in Italy, where wild boar are invading Rome at the head of an animal army of rats, mice, snakes, crows and gulls.  Public services including the organised collection of rubbish have collapsed, and the Five Star Movement mayor Virginia Raggi has been unable to get them back on their feet since she was elected last year.  Mountains of refuse are growing in the streets, rotting in the heat and drawing all kinds of hungry animals into the centre of the eternal city to forage.  Wild boar are a common sight, rummaging in gardens or running down the street among the traffic, and two months ago a man was killed when a boar collided with his moped.  All of which seems to suggest that populists will make a pig’s ear of governing whenever they get a crack at it, a suggestion which appears to be borne out by the mess which President Trump seems to have got himself into with his own intelligence services and Russia.

Police corruption, religious discrimination and hatred, the dangers of new technology and the inefficiency of populist governments… But what, finally, are we to make of this week’s story about the encounter between a troop of wild boar and a British diplomat in Austria?  Leigh Turner, our man in Vienna, was taking a walk in the woods when he found himself confronted by half-a-dozen huge wild boar and their numerous offspring.  He beat a diplomatic retreat but one of the adults gave chase and Mr Turner took a tumble scrambling to safety over a woodpile and ended up with his hand in a splint and his arm in a sling.  A foretaste of Brexit negotiations, perhaps?


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Issue 104: 2017 05 11: Contents

11 May 2017: Issue 104

The week’s news – your chance to catch up


Pledges And Promises by John Watson

The fun will shortly begin.

 On the Hill, Off the Rails by J R Thomas

The administration takes shape.

Sell In May And Go Away by Frank O’Nomics

Or should we just put some “Vix” in our investment chest?

Congratulations, new President M. Now stop World War III by Neil Tidmarsh

President Moon, that is, not President Macron.


Badminton Horse Trials by Lynda Goetz

Not just for the ‘horsey’ crowd.

“D***, And B***” by Chin Chin

Swearing as an aid to performance.

Misty Distant Borders by J R Thomas

The books of Lord Dunsany.


Adults In The Room (by Yanis Varoufakis)

Published by Bodley Head

reviewed by Peter Hanratty (Madagascar British Chamber of Commerce)

Puzzles and Cartoons

Cartoons by AGGro.

Crossword by Boffles: “Plain Vanilla 20”

Solution to the last crossword “Rhyme Time”

Quiz by Boffles.

Answers to Quiz.

Readers’ Letters

Letter from Paul Johnston.

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

Issue 99: 06 April 2017

Issue 100: 13 April 2017

Issue 101: 20 April 2017

Issue 102: 27 April 2017

Issue 103: 04 May 2017

Issue 105: Crossword – Opera Festival

18 May 2017

Crossword by Boffles

Opera Festival


To see a printable version of this crossword


Issue 105: Crossword – Opera Festival – printable

18 vvvvvvMay 2017

Crossword by Boffles

Opera Festival


    1  Help a? (4)

    3  Dirty Don (8)

    8  Madame Butterfly was one of them (7)

  10  Guess what? – the Enchanted one was a prince after all (3)

  11  Very English composer who dabbled once with a Spanish Lady (5)

  12  Can be comic but are often this (6)

  14  The bartered bride became Jenik’s (6)

  16  Tristan eventually finds love with her (6)

  19  Herring who worked in a greengrocer’s (6)

  21  Can be comic or this (5)

  24  Ariadne was left on her ….. on Naxos by Theseus (3)

  25  Ades one based, like so many, on a Shakespeare play (7)

  26  Cretan king a subject for both Mozart and Strauss (8)

  27  Position of Cherubino (4)



    1  Visited under duress by an Italian girl (7)

    2  They often end with the heroine doing so – for example, Violetta or Mimi (5)

    4  Based on a Shakespeare play but left unfinished by Smetana (5)

    5  Descriptive of a Figaro one (7)

    6  Otello character (4)

    7  Quite a contingent of them in the Beggars Opera (6)

    9  Designed to showcase the work (4)

  13  See 23dn (3,5)

  15  Hero of this Handel one not a marmalade cat (7)

  17  Features the Dance of the Seven Veils (6)

  18  That of the Commendatore proved fatal to 3ac (6)

  20  What the Count and Rosina try to do (5)

  22  Garbo who played such a singer in ‘Romance’ (5)

23 and 13dn     Mozart thought all women behaved the same way (4)


Issue 105: 2017 05 18: The Templars and the Internet (John Watson)

18 May 2107

The Templars and the internet

The ghost of Jacques de Molay

By John Watson

The ghost of a dead man haunts the internet.  Whose can it be?  Some unfortunate innocent, wrongly traduced online and driven in his despair to an early grave?  No, of course there are such ghosts but this is not of their number.  Let’s try again.  What about somebody who became obsessed by cyberspace until he lost hold of reality and died, babbling in an institution.  No, common enough but still wrong.  The ghost I have in mind is quite different.  It is that of Jacques de Molay, last and 23rd Grand Master of the Knights Templar who, following years of torture, was burnt at the stake in 1314 on the orders of Philip IV of France.  How did it go so wrong?  One moment the Templars were a great international organisation, unbelievably rich, founders of a system of banking, brave, devout, prestigious, the ideal charity to contribute some money to if you wanted to be sure of paradise, hugely arrogant and self confident.  Then they were gone;  their enormous wealth had attracted the attention of the French king, himself one of their principal debtors.  No amount of prestige or principle could save them from the cupidity of the secular power.  They were just too rich.  Now let’s move forward 700 years and think about the Internet and social media.

Just recently there has been a change in the air.  Not so long ago the internet was virtually unpoliced, somewhere where information flowed freely without supervision by the authorities.  It was all very exciting.  For the first time the public could really see what was going on, both in their own country and in some of the hidden corners of the world.  For the first time the narrative came direct rather than being retailed by professional commentators.  Photographs from bystanders; posts direct from the oppressed; away with obfuscation and in with a brave new world of clarity and truth.  If the suppression of information is the essence of dictatorship, the world had gained a new force for freedom.  Free transfers of information gave the public new eyes.  When something occurred, they could look.  Lying would be a thing of the past.  Cyberspace would be the cathedral of truth, honesty, information and purity.

Of course it hasn’t worked out quite like that.  Much of what sits on the Internet is false, some of it misleading statements made by ignorant people, some of it carefully designed lies calculated to give a false or distorted impression.  There too can be found pornography of the vilest sort and, even worse than that, material designed to promote terrorist outrages.  Malware sites hold people to ransom by “stealing” their information.

Looking down on this, like Jehovah in the clouds, sit the media companies, the hosts and providers of the system.  For a time they could afford to be detached.  After all they did not post the copy which sat on their servers any more than the Post Office writes the letters which it delivers.  If their facilities were abused, that was very regrettable, but it was hardly something for which they could be held responsible.  Those who post pornographic images or encourage terrorism should no doubt be punished, but why the technicians who did no more than host the sites on which posts could be placed?  Surely they should be left to make their honest profits in peace?

Attractive though this may be in theory, it founders on the rock of politics.  It is a function of government to place limits on what is permitted in its jurisdiction and the public expect it to do so.  No one is happy that the net should prove a haven for paedophiles and terrorists.  No one is happy that it should be used as a tool by those who wish to blackmail the National Health Service.  How then should our government, or indeed any others, counter these activities?  They cannot catch all the criminals involved and there are limits to the resources which they can deploy.  Their resources that is.  It would be so much more effective, and so very much cheaper, if they could use the resources of someone else, the Internet companies perhaps.

That, then, must be the chain.  Government forces Internet companies to control the web and the Internet companies meet the costs of doing so.  All that is needed from the government is some tough legislation and that comes reasonably cheap.  The difficulty for the media companies, of course, is not so much the amount of effort they will have to put in to satisfy the requirements of one state but the fact that different states are likely to have different requirements.  Publish something about the King of Thailand and the Thai authorities will move against you.  Publish something about Ruritania and your local executives go to jail.  As the rules lock into place there will be less and less space between them and the media companies will become more and more nervous about what can be placed on their networks. In effect the uncensored information game will be over.

Look for a moment at that the debate over encryption, where the British Government is insisting that the security services should have a window on encrypted messages.  The Internet companies say that that would take away the point and make secure business links impossible.  So what will happen?  Will someone suddenly think up a form of encryption to which the government can be provided with the key?  Or will institutions using encrypted links have to be licensed by the state?  Who knows?   Perhaps it will be something quite different but an answer there will have to be.

That a struggle should emerge over all this hardly comes as a surprise. We’ve been through the initial stage where the Internet flowed freely.  The next stage will be the imposition of heavy restrictions before a modus operandi emerges.  Bearing in mind that the weight of the technical talent is with the Internet providers, governments will need to take a slightly rough and ready line. Host an illegal encryption and you will pay a fine.  Do it often enough and your executives go to prison. That will test whether there is a technical solution through which everyone’s needs can be reconciled.  And as the fight goes on the media companies need to be careful.  In the end the national authorities always win. In the Middle Ages it did not do to be too rich. Nowadays it does not do to be a threat to the state.  If they are to survive the internet companies will need to heed the real concerns of the politicians and, remembering the fate of Jacques de Molay, not rely on innocence or prestige, or freedom of expression to try to bluster through.


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Issue 105:2017 05 18:Big Beasts (J.R.Thomas)

18 May 2017

Big Beasts

What will happen to the Lib Dems?

by J.R.Thomas

“Big Beasts return to Lib Dem Front Line” announced the press release.  Gosh.  Obviously not Gladstone or Asquith or even Rosebery, all of whom have the disadvantage, for the campaign trail, of being dead.  So who can they mean?

“The Liberal Democrats have announced a new General Election Campaign Team, with former ministers including Jo Swinson, Vince Cable, and Ed Davey all returning to the Lib Dem frontbench” they go on to say.  Cynics among you may note that this is a very broad use of the expression “frontbench”, as Sir Vincent Cable, Ms Jo Swinson and Sir Edward Davey are not actually members of either House of Parliament, though they are all hoping to be back in the Commons after June 8th.  Sir Vince probably stands the best chance of achieving that – he was a popular and exceptionally hard working MP for Twickenham, until in one of the shocks of the last election, he lost the seat to the Conservatives.  He had announced that he would not run again (he is 74), but cannot resist the opportunity, and in any case Mrs May had announced that she would not hold an election, so his broken promised is cancelled out by hers.  Whether he can win is not clear though; Twickenham was fervently for “Remain” in the Referendum last year, as is Vince, but polls suggest the seat is likely to stay Conservative, albeit very narrowly.

If the Lib Dems want to increase their Commons representation (eight), to get their numbers of MP’s up from a people carrier load to a bus load, they are going to have to win Twickenham and several adjoining seats, which although look like Tory heartlands but were, like Twickenham, strongly for “Remain”.  The party already has a foothold at Richmond Park, which they won in a by-election last year when Zac Goldsmith had a fit of principles and stood down over the Heathrow expansion approval.  Zac is as much a Leaver as Vince is a Remainer, but, although his constituents seemed to be solidly behind him on stopping the growth of Heathrow, they thought Europe more important than increasing aircraft movements and chucked him out. (He is standing again this time at Richmond.)

It is this victory last December that really is the basis of the whole Lib Dem campaign. The party has sunk from sight after the last election, damaged by being in coalition, damaged by that broken promise on student tuition fees, damaged by the low profile of its new leader, Mr…er…, no, don’t tell us, Mr…um.  Alright, it is Tim Farron, and he is by all accounts an amiable, intelligent, and amusing man, but he has failed to raise the profile of his party from the catastrophe of the 2015 election.  With only eight M.P.’s to choose from, and Nick Clegg ruling himself out of continuing in the job, there really wasn’t a lot to choose from, and one suspects that Farron would have preferred not to take the job, but did the decent thing.

So the strategy has to be to find causes and places where the Lib Dem message might sell well, and build on those.  As the party has one core and uniting belief that the other major parties are divided on, that Britain’s future should be in Europe and in long term political integration into a European state, the obvious thing is to make that the major cause in those seats that voted Remain.  Except that, as voters tend not to vote on single issues at General Elections, reverting instead to natural party loyalties, this may not be enough to overturn natural Conservative majorities in those targeted seats.  And it creates further complications in that another natural Lib Dem target is its traditional West Country heartland; but that area was strongly for Leave.  Also the demographics of the West Country have been suggesting a drift from Liberal tendencies to Conservative support; the radical elements seem to be declining (maybe moving to Twickenham in search of work?) and the reasonably well off retired are moving in.

And another flaw: the theory that south west London seats were all strongly Remain is not that well based.  Sutton and Cheam was a Leave majority; so was Carshalton – which is a Lib Dem seat, and Eastleigh – not London, but with a big young population a seat with Lib Dem characteristics.

But there has to be a strategy, and given the lack of a protest vote – Tories who are fed up with a Tory government but would never vote Labour have carried many a by-election for the Lib Dem party in the past – focussing on the Brexit issue is probably the best one.

And the Lib Dems do have a slight secret weapon.  Actually, it is not secret at all but it is amazing how the other big parties fail to use it.  Work very hard at a constituency level.  Select the candidates early, try and dominate the local news, make many waves about local issues (even if nothing to do with Parliament), and try to get as many local councillors elected as possible.  Oh, and as many stickers and flags and placards as possible.  Any visiting alien, almost anywhere in the country, would assume the Lib Dems to be the dominant part of government by the amount of orange in front gardens and hedgerows.  That dedication to hard work on the ground can win seats, especially where the sitting MP, of either party, is not well organised.

Mrs May, even if she is not a calculating sort of politician (she says), must have reflected that the advantage of surprise is often a winning one.  In this instance, it means that the opposition parties had not raised money for such an early campaign – or done much about selecting candidates in some seats.  Labour to some extent can rely on the unions to stump up financially and, like the Conservatives, usually has candidates in place, or certainly available and approved, but the Lib Dems are still struggling under the costs of the 2015 engagement.  They have struggled to get money and personnel in place and at the moment it is showing.

The principal focus of the Lib Dem campaign so far has been Brexit, but most of the rest is not obviously aimed at winning easy votes.  The Lib Dems will put extra tax on alcohol and on tobacco, and will put a penny on the income tax to help the NHS.  They rather worryingly say that if the housing industry cannot provide the housing required, then the Lib Dems will.  Not, apparently by armies of orange volunteers with picks and shovels, but by creating a public lending bank to fund the 300,000 houses needed and encouraging local authorities and housing associations to build more houses for low income families.  They do not explain how this will be achieved at local planning levels where the Lib Dems are usually the lead objectors to housing development.  Proportional Representation voting in all elections remains a party policy, although it was defeated 68% to 32% in the 2011 referendum.  They want a fairer tax system and the benefits system to be more generous – to those who deserve it – so at least that sounds like a vote winner, if a Treasury buster.

The truth is that this is probably not the time for the Lib Dems.  Their reputation was damaged by the realities of participating in government, they have no easy popular cause to fight, they lack charismatic leadership, and they have been caught on the wrong foot by timing.  They may win some of those carefully targeted seats where they are putting much work in at local level, but equally they may lose some.  Indeed it is not too difficult to see them once again reduced to a taxi load of M.P.’s as in the 1960’s.  But there are three weeks to run yet; maybe the Big Beasts will capture the public imagination, or perhaps, as sometimes happens, unexpected events will conspire to change everything.  That’s probably their best hope this time.

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Issue 105:2017 05 18: The Sense of an Ending (J.R.Thomas)

18 May 2017

The Sense of an Ending

A film by Ritash Batra.

reviewed by J.R.Thomas

The Shaw Sheet is not like other media sheets that your eye may occasionally fall on; we like to think through our views of events, consider what things might mean, and generally take our time, so that readers will get a properly balanced and thoughtful view of the world.  And anyway, when it comes to stage and silver screen, the Editor likes to wait until the cheap tickets are on sale.  Which probably means that by the time your critic has sat in the economy seats chewing his ageing biro for sagacious and considered thoughts, the movie or stage piece has moved on to Vue Bolton or to that mysterious video recording unit from which it might emerge in six months, or not.

Which may sadly be the case with this week’s film review.  A Sense of an Ending has been out two weeks and was never likely to pull in endless hordes of punters anyway.  That is in spite of a stellar cast and some crisp camera and sound work, and even with the benefit of the relatively recent publication of Julian Barnes’s book of the same title, which sold strongly in certain London postcodes and in good home county bookshops.  Mr Barnes has the ability to use few words to convey a lot with the welcome result that his books are both powerful, and short.  And thus easy to film, presumably.  Certainly, there seemed to be very few cuts made in the screen adaptation of A Sense of an Ending, which conveys the dilemma and difficulty of managing how we are seen by others and how we see ourselves, through the play of unexpected events over a month or so.

A little plotting first though.  Tony (Jim Broadbent) is an ageing middle class Londoner of mildly liberal tendencies running a small business, an antique camera shop.  As everything and anything in a Barnes novel can be significant, it may well be that the fact that his life centres round ageing instruments that record snapshots of life onto film – but also through a medium which crops and trims – is important.  It may be something, or one of a number of things indeed, which the reader, and viewer, should carefully note for later pondering.  Tony is divorced, from Margaret (Harriet Walter), and has a daughter in her mid 30’s (Michelle Dockery) who has deliberately chosen to become a single parent and is about to give birth.  But Tony, even on his best days a distracted grouch, has something on his mind.  He has been left £500 and a diary by the mother of a girl with whom he had an intense but short teenage affair.  We are about to start plot spoiling so will stop at this point.

No doubt though you are starting to get the idea.  Tony’s past, a perfectly normal past for a bright university graduate and small businessman, is starting to intrude on his present.  He confides in his ex-wife, frequently and at great length.  The ex is more than a bit miffed to find that none of these confidences came out during their marriage.  She is even more miffed by what she starts to find out about her ex-husband.  And if one can be triple miffed, she is so by a yet further, more detailed, and less reputable version that he tells her one evening.  There is some splendid acting by a very well put together cast here, with Broadbent and Walter and Charlotte Rampling as the leads, and very inspired casting of Billy Howle and Freya Mavor as the teenage incarnations of these now aged and agonising Londoners; to capture realistically the youth of a character now forty years or more older is not easy, but it is done convincingly enough here.

A lot of  critics in lesser publications, and indeed in on-line chat rooms and the like, have complained that what is going on in the film, and perhaps more so in the book, right up to and beyond the end, is not clear.  “What,” cry the chatroom inhabitants “is the meaning of the ending?”  And what do all the lingering camera shots portend; what is the significance of the fried eggs that go so wrong, the little wave after that strange sexually charged weekend away?

The clue, one might suggest, is in the title. That is the point of the work.  Barnes is not, we suspect, going to put a little note on some blog to explain what X meant, and how Y should be understood, and how they all lived happily ever after, let alone how best to fry eggs.  That is what his book is seeking to convey; that generally we don’t live happily ever after, nor, thankfully, unhappily ever after.  We just get on with life, polishing it and smoothing it and forgetting the very embarrassing bits, to say nothing of amplifying the bits which show us in the best light. (I met Prince Philip once; you know, he was very funny.  I did, and he was, and the other fifteen or so people clustered sycophantically and silently around him no doubt thought so too.) We adjust history to impress our friends a bit, but also to make it possible to live with ourselves, so we don’t spend our entire old age agonising over past embarrassments and stupidities. Then we forget the adjustments and believe that is how it was.

But sometimes, as for Tony, the truth of the past intrudes into our present, a shark’s fin breaking into the smooth water in which we like to swim along.  Then we have to adjust the published version of what we told everybody; and if the shark rises higher out of the water, we might find that further adjustment becomes necessary.  That is what is happening to poor old Tony, and if it happens to you, pray that you have a Margaret to patiently listen to you amending your amendments.

Even so, sometimes we have hidden some truths so much from ourselves that, actually, we don’t really know what they are until that shark takes a bite.  And if the shark swims off, we may be left still not knowing what we really did, how crass or hurtful we really were.  Time to polish up another ending, or at least, a sense of an ending.  Barnes is saying, that this is how most of us rumble along; we never quite know everything – even about ourselves.  And life goes on, until it stops.  Then our best hope is that we can leave behind a nice version of who we are, and that nothing unpleasant comes out, so awful that nobody will ever come to lay flowers on our graves.

A Sense of an Ending is a small story, a parable for modern times.  It is what might happen, does happen, to me or you or the man on the underground with the sad face.  We never tell all and certainly will never know all, but would we really want to?

“A Sense of an Ending” by Julian Barnes, adapted for film by Nick Payne, and directed by Ritash Batra, is currently showing at Curzon and independent cinemas (and possibly at the Vue Bolton). No doubt it will soon be on video if you miss it; or the book is out in paperback.

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