5 December 2019
Lens on the Week
LONDON BRIDGE: Two members of the public died as a result of stabbings when a man who had served a sentence for terrorist offences ran amok at a conference on prisoner rehabilitation which he was obliged to attend as a condition of early release. One of the victims, Jack Merritt, a 25 year old graduate of Cambridge University, was a course coordinator for Learning Together, a prisoners’ rehabilitation programme which was hosting the conference at Fishmongers’ Hall. The other, Saskia Jones, also a Cambridge graduate, was assisting as a volunteer.
Further casualties were avoided by police officers and members of the public who wrestled the attacker to the ground without knowing whether he carried explosives. The attacker was shot dead by police.
Regrettably both Mr Johnson and Mr Corbyn have sought to politicise the incident with Johnson blaming the early release scheme and Corbyn the Iraq war. No doubt they smell votes but it would be better if they would both shut up.
ELECTION CAMPAIGN: One of the odder features of the election campaign is that both of the main parties are keen to move away from their past. Corbyn is no enthusiast for the Blair years, in particular the war with Iraq. Johnson is careful to keep away from any suggestion that he would continue austerity. Can they leave the baggage in the depot and walk free? That is one of the things we will discover next week.
RETURN OF THE TRUMP: It is unfortunate that the UK should be hosting a meeting of NATO in the middle of an election campaign. Our own civil servants can be made to observe purdah but you don’t have control over what the leaders of our allies may do or say. Still, Mr Trump, perhaps the most loquacious of the visitors, has been uncharacteristically circumspect. He can work with Johnson and Corbyn, he says. He wouldn’t interfere with the NHS if it was handed to him on a platter. Rather better behaviour than from our own crew where Corbyn sought to corner Trump to obtain assurances about the NHS, a body which is of course central to NATO. He never got close enough.
SAFETY MARGIN: 500 metres. That is how close Greenpeace protestors can go to Shell’s Brent field installations following an interim interdict (presumably the equivalent of an interim injunction) granted by the Court of Session. It sounds like a restriction on free speech but then the thought of hostile activists on unmanned pieces of machinery far out in the ocean leaves a queasy feeling. Maybe it really is better that they demonstrate somewhere else.
SOUTH WEST TRAINS: Severe disruption has been caused as a result of a walk out by strike action on the South West region as part of the dispute between the Rail, Maritime and Transport union and the company over the role of guards on a new generation of trains. The problem is that the trains are fitted with CCTV which means that drivers can carry out pre-departure checks. The union, though claiming implausibly that its concern is safety, sees this as a route to cutting guards altogether, which indeed is presumably the company’s ultimate objective. The travelling public meanwhile are caught in the middle.
NATO: The Nato family has been squabbling all year.
‘Pay your way, you European freeloaders!’ demands the USA. ‘Why am I paying all the bills for your defence? And why am I the only one standing up to Russia and China and Iran?’
‘But our only enemy is terrorism’ says France. ‘This organisation is brain dead – we’d be better off with a Europe-only defence body.’
“Oh no” says Germany. “We must stick with the USA and Nato.” (A Europe-only defence body means it really would have to pay its defence bills).
“You’re brain-dead” says Turkey to France.
And everyone says to Turkey ‘Hang on a minute, what are you doing buying weapons off Russia, our traditional enemy?’
So the family get-together to celebrate its 70th birthday was cut short to just one day, with a mere three hour meeting attended by all members, to pre-empt the possibility of a really serious falling out. The result? Nothing more than an agreement to form some sort of committee to consider something or other. Mission accomplished.
HONG KONG: President Trump signed a US bill, passed by both houses and both parties, in support of the pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong. The bill triggers an annual review of US trade with Hong Kong and could lead to sanctions against abusers of human rights. A second bill bans the export of tear gas, rubber bullets and other crowd-control weaponry to the Hong Kong police.
At Thanksgiving, thousands of protesters gathered in Hong Kong and marched to the US consulate to thank the USA and President Trump. The demonstrations – and tear gas attacks by the police – resumed this week, following a suspension for local elections.
Beijing has protested about the US bills, condemning them as interference. The US ambassador was summoned and reprimanded. Sanctions against a number of US human rights groups have been announced and visits by US navy vessels and aircraft to Hong Kong have been banned.
Hundreds of residents in Wenlou, a town on mainland China, demonstrated against local authorities and chanted slogans used by the Hong Kong protesters. Their demonstration was dispersed by riot police wielding batons, water canon and tear gas. The protesters responded by setting up barricades, throwing bricks and attacking police cars.
THE AUNT AGATHA AWARD: For Banning Stuff (named in honour of Bertie Wooster’s intolerant, self-righteous and bullying relative). Following last month’s Policy Exchange investigation into censorship, intolerance and embattled free speech in universities, which reported that female students are more likely (and male students less likely) to support censorship, the following are suggested as candidates for the short list:
Canadian academic Dr Mary Rambalan-Olm, who is campaigning to ban the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’, as she claims it’s used by racists. (Ironically, her campaign is itself racist; it’s a discriminating, offensive and insulting attack on all those immigrants of Germanic origin who came to Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries and on their descendants).
The female citizen of Boston who has initiated legislation to make it a crime for someone to be called a bitch. (Ironically, the word ‘bitch’ highlights the odd fact that it is often the male of the species who is deprived and underprivileged by the English language and the female who is privileged: ‘dog’ is the general word for a member of the canine species; the specific word for a female member of the species is ‘bitch’; the specific word for a male member of the species is… oh, there isn’t one).
The female officer of Oxford university’s Students Union who successfully campaigned to have applause banned and replaced by the woke and silent ‘jazz hands’. (Ironically, ‘jazz hands’ has racist connotations, associated as it is with ‘black face’ and Al Jolson, and discriminates against an already handicapped group, the deaf).
POWERING ON: One form of green energy technology that has got somewhat overlooked in recent years is tidal power. It is one that the conservationists have fought against – preferring offshore turbines which are less visible and are likely to interfere less with marine life, tidal change, and estuary silting. The front running scheme is the Swansea Bay barrage which is intended to take advantage of the unusually high tidal range on the South Wales coast – but so far has failed to find funding. Its promotor, Tidal Lagoon Power, has won the political support of Plaid Cymru and Labour, and has permission to proceed with a scheme subject to detailed planning – but has no money with which to create and process such an application. Now it is having a campaign with a new share issue to raise £1m which should, if successful, get planning in place and enable it to go forward to a major fund raising. Just one little problem on the horizon – the project needs a price per kilowatt of around three times the current market level to enable the scheme to break even – and the government have said no to such a level of subsidy. Details, details.
POWERING DOWN: M&C Saatchi, formerly the most powerful advertising agency in the UK, is in need of some positive news spin. The agency announced in August that it expected profits to fall short on the previous year, and this years’ forecasts to be marked down. Out went the Finance Director and the auditors; in came a new team. And liked not what they found. Now the board have said that they are making further downward adjustments to profit expectations – about a quarter down on last years results of £32m, so not a total disaster by any means. The problem has been that often found in businesses anxious to “not worry the shareholders” – recognising profits before they have been made – or in Saatchi’s case, on occasions even before the contracts have been signed, apparently (not unknown in banking circles either). New processes have been put in place to introduce a more conservative approach to booking profits, and there will be some internal reviews of costs, likely to reduce head count. The shareholders may or may not be worried, but they won’t be happy – the share price was 400p in May – and 85p yesterday.
POWER BANK: That’s just what the world needs, a new bank – especially one owned by an old bank – in fact mostly owned by you and I, as British tax payers. But that’s not stopping innovation from RBS Group – which owns Royal Bank of Scotland and NatWest. RBS is launching a new retail on-line bank under the name of Bo (no idea why that) which it hopes will fulfil the public demand for pure on-line banking services – and save the cost of all those pesky branches. The new offer will sit within the NatWest part of the group, but with state of the art technology, and a simple approach to money management for customers, who are expected to be drawn from the lower income quartiles – an integrated credit and account plastic card, for instance. So far RBS has spent around £100m launching the new brand, which it expects to compete with the new challenger banks – not with its existing branch based offerings. As it already has 20% of the UK current account market, the Monopolies Commission will be watching with interest – as will HBOS, whose similar operation, IF (Intelligent Finance), launched as long ago as 2002, has not particularly prospered.