13 September 2018
Lens on the Week
BREXIT: Salzburg is used to music. It is the city of Mozart and The Sound of Music after all. Next week though the sounds will be different as EU leaders meet and discuss the proposals for Brexit. Will it be the “Ode to Joy” or “1812”? Goodness only knows as the air fills with dire warnings from commentators, politicians, businessmen and the rest. There is something of a competition of nutterdom going on which Boris looked placed to win with his comparison of the Chequers proposals (quite nutty in themselves) to a suicide vest, until he was brilliantly overtaken by MEP and ex Belgian PM Guy Verdhofstadt with ““Fortunately, we have Brexit. It illustrates the populist wave but it has also provoked a resurrection of attachment to the EU.” For the moment, my friend, for the moment.
Below the rhetoric however the mood seems to be changing as negotiators move their positions to try to get a deal home. Security and Galileo not such a problem after all, it is rumoured. Before long there will be a list of technical projects on which the EU and Britain have agreed to work together and the debate will be just down to the difficult issues, the rulebook and the Customs Union. The first must be fudgeable in a world where everyone insists that their products are of the very highest standard. The second is much more difficult but this column would not be surprised to see the Chequers idea replaced by a border with very lightweight policing in Ireland and lots of unsaying of things about the Good Friday Agreement. How those clever chaps in Brussels who encouraged the Taoiseach to bang on about a resumption of the troubles must rue the day they did so.
No doubt we are in for all sorts of twists and turns but one thing should not surprise us in the least. In big deals it is usual for everyone to posture away to the end and then to become realistic at the eleventh hour. The Shaw Sheet has always said that that would happen.
POLICE PAY: Cressida Dick, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, described the capping of police pay at 2% as a punch on the nose. The recommendation had been 3% and the effect of reducing it will have implications for the morale of an already undermanned service. Ms Dick is not given to drama and should be listened to but the problem is probably not of the Home Offices making. Austerity imposed since 2007 has steadily hollowed out public services and how to fund them is now the most important political issue. Should we do less or tax more? The debate needs to be had but we cannot have it until we know more about our financial prospects. It is not just industry which needs to know where Brexit is coming out to do its planning.
WHEN TO GO: The Shaw Sheet salutes Alastair Cook, not just for his magnificent record as an England player but also for knowing when to bow out. Could a final innings of 147 be bettered as a finale? One of the qualifications for immortality is to go at the top: Nelson at Trafalgar; Wolfe at Quebec. The mistake is to try to come back later. Nigel Farage is considering running to be Mayor of London…
EYES RIGHT: In Sweden, the far-right Sweden Democrats won 18% of the vote and 63 seats in the 349-seat parliament. The two main parties both lost seats; the centre-left Social Democrats lost 12 seats (down to 101 from 113) and the centre right Moderates lost 14 seats (down to 70 from 84). The results leave the country’s left-wing alliance neck and neck with the centre-right alliance, and the anti-immigrant populists Sweden Democrats (a party with neo-Nazi roots) now hold the balance of power. This means that Sweden could become the third European country (with Austria and Italy) to put an extreme-right party in power in a coalition government in the last year. Only the most ungainly contortions enabled Chancellor Merkel to keep Alternative for Germany, which holds a similar mandate and a similar manifesto to Sweden Democrats, out of power in Berlin.
In Germany, last week’s extreme-right demonstrations in Chemnitz were repeated this week in the city of Köthen, after two Afghan migrants were arrested there in connection with the death of a young German. 2500 vocal people – including 500 overt neo-Nazis – marched through the city on Sunday, and another 500 far-right protestors staged a silent ‘march of sorrow’ a few hours later. Hans-Georg Maasen, the chief of Germany’s home intelligence agency, denied that there had been any racist violence from the protesters at Chemnitz, ignoring the photographic evidence and contradicting Chancellor Merkel who had condemned the violence a few days earlier. Other members of the government accused Dr Maasen of being biased towards the Right (it seems that he has offered advice to AfD in at least four covert meetings) and called for his resignation. However, interior minister Horst Seehofer (of the right wing CSU party) is standing by Dr Maasen, whose opinions many believe he shares.
Speaking in the European parliament, the prime minister of Hungary, Victor Orban, scorned and rejected the EU’s plans for punishing his right-wing government for undermining democracy in his country by trying to control the judiciary, the media and academia.
RUSSIA: The biggest war games ever staged by the Russian military began this week, in partnership with China. 300,000 Russian troops and 3,000 Chinese troops will take part in the manoeuvres in Russia’s far east, according to the ministry of defence; 36,000 Russian armoured vehicles, 1000 aircraft and 80 warships will be deployed, alongside 900 Chinese vehicles and 30 aircraft.
Victor Zolotov, the head of Russia’s National Guard, challenged opposition activist Alexei Navalny to a duel, for accusing the National Guard of corruption. The challenge was made via a video on YouTube. In reply, an aide to Mr Navalny called Mr Zolotov “a thick lout”.
In the UK, security services have identified two GRU (Russian military intelligence) officers as prime suspects for the Novochok attacks in Salisbury. In the USA, intelligence officials now believe that Russia is behind the mysterious attacks (suspected to be micro-waves) which have left some US diplomats and their families with acute brain trauma in Havana, Cuba, and Guangzhou, China.
CHINESE LESSONS: Last week, some schools in China announced that lunch-breaks will be cut to ten minutes to save on learning-time in the classroom, and chairs will be removed from dining halls so pupils will have to eat standing up and will be deterred from lingering over their food. This week, a teacher in the city of Foshan told her nine-year-old pupils to count 100 million grains of rice for their homework. Chinese pupils enjoy up to three hours of homework each day, but this assignment would have taken about nine years to complete.
See comment Education and After.
FAIR INCREASE: A select parliamentary committee – the Transport Committee – has been looking at the collapse of railway operator Virgin Trains East Coast earlier this year. It has concluded that this occurred because the operator paid too much for the franchise in the first place, perhaps not the most scintillating of observations, and, rather more remarkably, accuses the government of soliciting bids that were too high. The core reason for the collapse of Virgin’s east coast business seems to have been that it over estimated the speed of growth in travel on the railway, and although it was managing to fill its trains, was having to use heavy discounting, especially on off-peak services, to get the passengers on board. Revenue thus fell short and led, as in any business, to eventual disaster. Richard Branson, owner of the Virgin brand, which was a partner in the business with Stagecoach, the bus and train operator, had accused Network Rail of delaying track improvements which were key to increasing passenger carryings. The committee however found this was not so; the Network Rail works were not due to be provided until after the collapse, so had no effect on capacity up to that point.
REFINING THE REFINERY:In spite of the growing unpopularity of diesel powered cars, Britain has an increasing shortfall of diesel refining capacity. Good news then from ExxonMobil who have announced plans to rebuild and extend their super refinery at Fawley (Southampton), by spending £500m on what is already the country’s largest diesel production plant. The site covers 3,000 acres with direct access for super-tankers of crude oil from deep-water moorings in Southampton Water, and its output supplies fuel to one in six vehicles in Britain. ExxonMobil is now going through the necessary planning and environmental consents to rebuild the refinery, a process which it thinks will be complete in spring next year. The work will then be done in phases over the next few years so as not to disrupt output from the existing operation.
REACH FOR THE SKY: It looks as though demand by customers and urging from government is finally starting to unblock the problems the broadband industry has had in getting the latest – or even the last – generation of broadband connections rolled out to its customers. Openreach, the main UK provider, owned by BT but increasingly run at arms length at the insistence of the regulator, has signed a deal with Sky, controlled by the Murdoch family, to supply its retail customers with the latest G.fast technology. This is using already existing copper wire, but should give superfast delivery – up to four times faster than the theoretical maximum speed of 3G and 4G on copper wire. Sky will also retail Openreach fibre based systems which, where the fibre exists (mainly urban locations), are faster still. Sky estimates that will enable up to 9 million homes to have enhanced service within the next two years or so, and it will now start marketing to ensure that those customers are signing up with Sky rather than its competitors – including BT.
RECYCLING: ASDA, the food retailer, is keen to prove itself a recycling champion and cut use of plastics, especially plastic bags, in its stores. The Cambridge superstore accordingly increased the price of take-home plastic bags, from 5p to 9p. Plastic bag usage did drop as intended – but never underestimate the British shopper. The store found within days that most of its in-store shopping baskets had vanished – only 30 were left. The rest are presumably in gardens and ditches around Cambridge. Next bright idea, anybody?