14 December 2017
Lens on the Week
GRENFELL TOWER: Today’s memorial service for those who died in the tragedy of Grenfell Tower brings focus to some of the pressures to which the disaster has given rise. Two are worth noting. The first is that as part of a campaign to appoint a panel representing victims to sit alongside Sir Martin Moore Bick, lawyers representing 179 people have written that Sir Martin’s “life and professional experience is not sufficient to make him an appropriate exclusive arbiter of the issues.” The odd thing about that is that it was written by lawyers. Judges are experts in sifting evidence and reaching conclusions. The fact that the matters they are investigating are outside their personal experience is usually inevitable. Indeed it should make no difference. Good quality judges generally come up with the same conclusions whatever their experience and nobody who knows him doubts the quality of Sir Martin’s judicial work. So what do the lawyers mean? Do they really think that the enquiry will get more accurate and dispassionate answers by having a panel representing those affected? Surely not. Inevitably and indeed understandably members of any panel will have axes to grind. Can they be expected to be more dispassionate in their assessment of the evidence than an eminent judge?
The second point is also interesting. It appears that victims have set up their own channels with Downing Street in order to avoid those who are trying to politicise the situation. It is in the nature of aggressive people to exploit. Leave a loophole in the budget and financiers will make use of it. Leave a group of people who have suffered and with whom the public have great sympathy, and the politically ambitious will try to exploit them in precisely the same way. That those affected have seen this and sidestepped it is to their credit.
TRUMP VISIT: Well, will he or won’t he? Mrs May offered Mr Trump a state visit in January but the signals are mixed on whether it will go ahead and, if so, what it will include. So far the talk has merely been about dates, with the only hard engagement being the dedication of the new American Embassy. But there is a balance to be struck here. Mr Trump has done a number of things of which many people disapprove, the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel being a recent example. That means that the visit will require very high security and little contact with the public. Against that he is the leader of our most important ally and a man who we wish to influence. Isolating people may play well to domestic politics but is seldom sensible in policy terms.
Clearly there is a debate to be had but it would be a more sensible debate if British diplomats would not go on about avoiding embarrassment to the Queen. Her Majesty represents all of us and works in the national interest as interpreted by her Government. She is an experienced diplomat and has met many a worse person than Mr Trump. Why would meeting him embarrass her at all?
TRUMP’S NEW JERUSALEM: President Trump recognised Jerusalem (disputed territory, divided between Israel and the Palestinians) as Israel’s capital by announcing that he will be moving the USA’s embassy there from Tel Aviv. This triggered violent condemnation and protest across the Arab world (and indeed in Trump’s own Manhattan backyard). At a stroke he undermined his one foreign policy achievement – a renewed US anti-Iran entente with the Gulf states and Israel, and the associated viable preparations for a credible Israeli/Palestine peace plan. Why on earth did he do that? Was he simply forcing through an election pledge, blindly and wilfully? Was he safeguarding political donations from US Zionists? Has Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas already rejected the peace plan (as is rumoured) and was Trump sticking two fingers up to the Palestinians in retaliation?
At the end of the day, any attempt to find rational explanations for the actions of the current US administration is bound to be frustrating, perhaps even futile.
SAUDI ARABIA: More good news from Riyadh this week; the Crown Prince announced that cinemas are to open in Saudi Arabia – watching movies will no longer be banned. This is the latest achievement in the prince’s Vision 2030, his plan to “modernise and normalise” his country, which has already seen the lifting of the ban on women drivers and should soon see the concept of ‘male guardianship’ abandoned.
These recent near-impossible triumphs at home, however, are in stark contrast to the string of disastrous foreign policy failures over the last two weeks: the Lebanese prime minister has returned to his own country and recanted the resignation he made while in Saudi Arabia, which many suspect was made under coercion and detention in an attempt by Riyadh to counter Iranian influence in Lebanon; it’s rumoured that Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas rejected the White House’s Israel/Palestine peace plan which was apparently presented to him with an ultimatum (accept or resign) by Saudi Arabia when he was recently summoned to Riyadh; the attempt to make the Gulf coalition’s enemy, ex-President Ali Abdullah Saleh, change sides in the Yemen war back-fired spectacularly when Saleh’s Houthi allies struck first, attacking Saleh’s forces, bombing his house, and shooting him dead; the Gulf coalition has responded by launching a new offensive against Hodeidah, the Yemen’s main port, which is sure to disrupt food supplies to an already starving population. Most commentators believe that the new offensive will achieve little else; indeed, there appears to be no possible military solution to the crisis.
END OF AN ERA (ONE): Almost farewell, Janet Yellen. She has not gone yet – end of February is her departure date – but today will be her last public press conference, and for this private low key woman, probably her last public outing. With Mrs Clinton’s failure to get herself in the Oval Office, and Mrs Merkel’s stumble in the recent elections, Mrs Yellen can claim to be the most powerful woman in the world, and in truth probably has been throughout her term of office as chairwoman of the US Federal Reserve Board. Not that Mrs Yellen would ever make such a claim; a true professional, she has worked hard, got on with the job, avoided controversy and abuse, and kept her head well down. She is even said to prefer “Mrs” Yellen to “Dr”, in spite of a long and distinguished career as an academic economist, latter moving into public service, joining the Federal Reserve System in 2010 at President Obama’s suggestion and becoming chairman in 2014, the first woman to be so. Her tenure has been mostly successful, helped by serving under a President who was happy to devolve economic matters to his professionals. Inflation has been kept low – and unemployment, her key concern, has come down steadily during her time. She passes to her successor, Jerome Power, and to President Trump, an economy in great shape, with a business economy which is modernising itself and where more Americans are in employment than ever before. That must give her great pleasure; she believes unemployment to be a curse to those suffering it and a seriously destabilising influence in modern societies. Not only has she been a great steward of the economy but also a distinguished central banker whose record and words, and ability to conciliate strongly held differing opinions, has given her real authority. Will she retire – she is 71? It seems unlikely given her work ethic, but she may now return to academia to preach what she practised so well.
END OF AN ERA (TWO): Mrs Yellen is not the only colossus who departs the world stage at the end of this year. Also retiring from business is Australian businessman Frank Lowy. Who? You may not have heard of him but chances are that you have contributed to the fortune he has made in his sixty five year business career, the last fifty years as chairman of Westfield, the shopping centre owner. Lowy was born to a Jewish family in Czechoslovakia in 1930, caught in the Hungarian ghetto during the war, ending up (via freedom fighting in Israel) in Australia in 1952. He married young and had three sons, all in the business. Westfield is now the largest owner of retail malls in the world outside the USA, 104 of them, worth about €62bn (the European business was separated from the Antipodean part in 2014). Westfield is regarded in the industry as a true exemplar of how to run malls – an active approach to management, attractive spaces and facilities, the right mix of retailers and leisure to bring shoppers back again and again. At 87 Lowy thought it time to concentrate on his numerous charitable interests, and as his sons want to look at new business things (online retailing in particular, which may be a sign of yet more change to come in that corner of the market), the European arm is being sold to Unibail-Rodamco, the French retail giant. The family have agreed to sell their stake worth about €3bn to Unibail and work with them for a while to create a smooth transition. And just to make retirement perfect Mr Lowy went to Windsor Castle last week – and came back as Sir Frank.
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