Issue 100: 2017 04 13:Revolution (J.R.Thomas)

13 April 2017

Revolution

Fading Icons:  The Mayor, Aldermen, and Common Councilmen of the Corporation of the City of London

by J.R.Thomas

All around the world populism is sweeping the established politics aside, the old order and ancient ways give place to the new.  We perhaps saw it first in the Middle East and North Africa with the Arab Spring – though that has faded rapidly to a pretty bleak winter – and then we marvelled at a progression of dominos as the EU Referendum result swept away Mr Cameron and much of his cabinet.  Across the water, while Bernie Saunders threatened the Clinton coronation, Mr Trump prevented a Bush one and then seized the White House.

In the peace loving Netherlands, the remarkable coiffure of Geert Wilders pushed the ruling moderate right coalition further from the centre as Dutch politics suddenly stopped being consensual and started to offer clear choices – with the left and right fringes giving haircuts to the moderate middle.   Austria only just failed to elect a far right president (choosing the Green candidate instead) on a simple majority.  We have a French Presidential contest looming where it seems quite possible that the traditional political parties will not feature among the top three nominees from the first round.  And there are Italian elections yet to come.  There the traditional party structures have almost vanished.

Is there nowhere that political tradition and serenity rules?  In our edition of the 16th March we looked at the elections then approaching in the City of London, when all one hundred seats in the Corporation were coming up for the judgement of the electorate.  The shock waves from that have spread – well, it is probably true to say that the shock waves have not spread very far, but certainly in the City there has been a sense that barricades may be beginning to be pushed into place among the glass and steel.  The Labour Party won five seats, having previously won one at a by-election.  All of these were in City wards with a high residential population, in the north-west corner of the Square Mile, around the Barbican and Golden Lane estates, part of the great post-war rebuilding of the heavily bombed City which in this corner was reinvented through the medium of Brutalist architecture.  The rebuilding was not just designed to show that the City read and admired Le Corbusier along with the rest of 1950’s hip Britain; its residential focus was to help the City survive as a self-governing area, there then being a severe threat of abolition of the business vote and the incorporation of the City into a neighbouring borough.  Hackney, anybody?

It is not just having a Labour bloc on the Common Council, or the prospect one day of a Labour Lord mayor of London replacing the mayoral finery and waving a Mao hat  in the Lord Mayor’s Procession, that is causing the City grandees alarm.  It is also the concept of party politics entering the Guildhall, the great City tradition being that candidates are “independent”.  One does not have to scratch very far to find that most members of the Common Council are only independent when it comes to the City but it is a good line to sell to local electors (and to any future reforming Westminster government) that the City is run in a spirit of pure pragmatism.

But this approach is showing signs of disintegration; not only is there the major shock of a lurch to the left; there is another grouping which is causing consternation.  This is a strange alliance called “Temple and Farringdon Together”, not the most catchy of names but certainly clear enough as to its geographic origins.  TAFT, as it does not call itself, is an alliance of Barristers and Butchers, the Inns of Court and the Burghers (or at least burger makers) of Smithfield.  This swept the board in Farringdon Without – the Without meaning that it is outside the ancient City wall  (For those curious about these things there is indeed a ward of Farringdon Within).  TAFT seems an innocuous enough grouping, wanting to improve public transport and reduce pollution in the City, but it has swept the old independent representatives aside and set a trend which may spread – that of special interest groups in different wards.  It is, in City terms, revolutionary indeed.

Does this matter?  In some ways no, not at all.  The City is more or less that literal Square Mile and just runs itself.  It has done that task historically quite well, though there are constant mutterings about the amount of money spent on prettifying the City whilst the neighbouring boroughs – especially Hackney and Tower Hamlets-  have great financial difficulty providing even basic services.   The City got a very nasty shock in the early 1990’s with the success of Canary Wharf, the major development on the Isle of Dogs, which set off to become – and to the Corporation’s horror did become – a City in the East.  A large number of City banks migrated east – including Barclays, formerly resident in the City for three hundred years, and HSBC, a cuckoo which had invaded the City and then departed to the Wharf with Midland Bank under its arm.  Where bankers go, lawyers tend to follow, and the net effect of this was almost a collapse of the City office market.  The City fought back – led by Michael Cassidy, Chairman of the City’s planning committee and effectively the City’s Prime Minister, and the Chief Planning Officer Peter Wynne Rees who changed much of the City’s planning codes to allow the construction of the towers which now define the financial district – to a large extent, now back in the City.

With the towers came an explosion in City employment – over four hundred thousand work there now – many of whom, a careful eavesdrop on a walk down Lombard Street will reveal, were not born or educated in the UK.  These offshore bankers, working for offshore banks, are not interested in City government or practices but just want the place to provide an efficient working environment.  Largely it does, but the amount, disruption, and volume of building works – and the City’s own endless tinkering with traffic management and landscape – has caused muttering about the mess in the streets, especially in the residential wards.  It is probably that which, coupled with some less than competent management of the two big residential estates, Golden Lane in particular, and noise from the burgeoning night life,  has triggered that swing to Labour and to TAFT.

But there is something deeper than that.  The City, surprisingly to a modern generation, has been for centuries a centre of radicalism.  This was where new fortunes were made, where the new money lived and multiplied, where new ideas were fomented and turned into cash machines.  It was the centre of immigration – at least just outside its boundaries to the east, not always from overseas;  Dick Whittington was almost an immigrant, coming down from Durham to London.  It was the centre of religious dissent – Wesley’s Chapel in the City Road is still a centre of Methodism – and revolution, with much of the direction (and financing) of the English Civil War centred in the City.

As late as the 1950’s the City Corporation was one of the most dynamic local authorities in the land; the Barbican and Golden Lane being a concrete (very concrete) demonstration of that, part of a one hundred year plan to rebuild the City two levels up, with people above and traffic and servicing below  (Hence the odd walkways and staircases that go nowhere in strange places).   But the present corporation seems to have lost that verve, that edge of radical solutions.  Maybe the electors feel in their bones, if not populism, an urge for something a bit more lively and creative.  Maybe we will yet see further upsets in City politics and the Lord Mayor in a Nissan Leaf.

 

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Issue 97: 2017 03 23: Moving the interest rate goal posts(Frank O’Nomics)

23 March 2017

Moving the interest rate goal posts

 The Bank of England has forgotten its mandate

 by Frank O’Nomics

The Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England sets UK interest rates with a view to keeping inflation close to 2% over the medium-term.  If inflation is forecast to exceed this target at a two year horizon, they are supposed to look at raising interest rates, and conversely they consider rate cuts if a serious undershoot is predicted. Any significant deviation of inflation from target (1% either way) requires a letter of explanation from the Governor, which generates one in response from the Chancellor.  Why then, after nearly 10 years without a rate rise, is the Bank ignoring high and rising inflation, leaving the base rate at a historic low of 0.25%?  The Federal Reserve in the US set in motion what is likely to be a series of rate rises last week. There may be some differences to the UK, not least the potential stimulus coming from President Trump’s likely tax cuts, but there are also some striking similarities in the rising level of US CPI and the steady fall in unemployment.  Last summer’s UK rate cut was supposedly an emergency measure, and there is growing evidence that the emergency has not only passed, but also that there are strong arguments for material rate rises rather than just taking back the precautionary move.

Inflation, measured by the Consumer Price Index, hit a three and a half year high of 2.3% in February, up from 1.8% in January and looks set to rise much higher.  The Bank of England expects it to peak at 2.8% next year, although many economists are forecasting levels in excess of 3%, which would prompt a letter from the Governor in which he would explain why this had happened and what the MPC intended to do about it (it was only last December that he had to write a letter explaining an undershoot).  Some are happy to describe this as a “blip” resulting from sterling’s post-Brexit vote depreciation, but how much of a blip will it be if sterling remains under pressure? The bigger problem is that price rises will prompt wage increases (real wage growth is currently negative), thereby provoking an inflationary spiral.  Further, the currency factor is not the only driver, with signs that the price trend in commodities has turned up again.

Those who insist that interest rates should remain low will add to the argument of inflation being transitory, concerned by the prospect of a slowdown in consumer spending that could result from the uncertainty that surrounds our departure from the European Union. This is a reasonable stance to take – just because there has not been a loss of confidence so far does not mean that it won’t happen. However, there are strong justifications for starting to “normalise” the level of interest rates.  The emergency cut in rates last summer was justified by the imminent danger of a sharp economic slowdown.  The MPC was particularly concerned by low readings from forward-looking indicators such as purchasing managers surveys.  Not only were these fears not realised (the PMI data turned back up quickly) but the actual growth numbers came out surprisingly strong, at 1.8% for 2016 overall.  The combination of this, together with the strong CPI data, suggests that, at the very least, the August rate cut should be reversed.

Beyond this there are sound economic arguments for pushing rates up further.  If we have an environment of normal, or long-term trend growth, then shouldn’t we have a “normal” level of interest rates?  This would point to a level closer to 2% rather than the current 0.25%.  Two former members of the MPC have been articulating their concerns that low rates are causing problems for the economy.  Dame Minouche Shafik has expressed concerns that low rates may be depressing productivity and last week Sir Charlie Bean (who is now with the OBR) said that low cost credit was allowing the survival of “zombie” firms which suffer from low productivity.  Phillip Hammond is keen for improving productivity to become the engine of growth in the UK, but this will be difficult to achieve unless higher rates force weaker firms out of business.  The only concern is that, as these firms fail, they take some stronger businesses with them.  The growth of consumer credit would further suggest that, from the point of view of household finances, people need to be discouraged from increasing debt to a point that they will struggle to repay or service it once rates finally rise.

There are others who argue more strongly for a rate rise, with four of the eight members of the Institute of Economic Affairs Shadow MPC (which meets quarterly) recently voting for a rate rise.  Only one member of the MPC proper voted for a rise last week – Kristin Forbes – and sadly she will be leaving the committee in June, but this was the first time since June last year that the committee has not been unanimous.  One can only hope that someone who is mindful of the MPC’s mandate, and forceful enough to remind his or her new colleagues, will replace her.

 

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Issue 95:2017 03 09:Twelfth Night (Adam McCormack)

09 March 2017

Twelfth Night

The National Theatre

reviewed by Adam McCormack

Stars: *****

It is very rare for a new production of a Shakespeare play to succeed in every aspect, but Simon Godwin’s Twelfth Night has virtually no identifiable weakness. This is not a “safe” or standard approach – not only has the action been shifted to the twenty-first century, but the gender of Malvolio has been changed to a female – Malvolia. The modern setting works exceptionally well in providing a perfect backdrop for the bacchanalian romps of Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and the gender shift sits perfectly with the key plotline of the shipwrecked twins Viola and Sebastian, with the former passing herself off as a man.

The puritanical, socially ambitious Malvolia, wickedly misled into playing out her crush on Olivia, only to face mock imprisonment for lunacy, works just as well in a lesbian context, particularly given the modern setting.  The real beauty of this approach, however, is that it allows us to appreciate the prodigious talents of Tamsin Greig.  Her Mrs Danvers style management of her mistresses affairs and attempts to crush Belch (Tim McMullen) and Aguecheek’s (Daniel Rigby) revels, allow for great moments of farce which work beautifully as a result of their comic talents; they are also enhanced by the presence of Doon Mackichan as the fool, Feste.  Grieg exudes self-importance and hubris and her transformation into the cross-gartered, yellow-stockinged suitor is hilarious.

Mackichan’s singing is worthy of such a strong production, as is the talented musical accompaniment. The musicians appear regularly on the stage and add much to the modern Illyrian feel. Their musical dexterity stands out, moving from witty sax to illustrate “If music be the food of love” to pounding dance music to energise the athletic Aguecheek and simpering disco queen Olivia (Phoebe Fox). That they are able to do this is one of the many triumphs of the set, the essence of which is a rotating staircase that, from facilitating the initial shipwreck scenes, opens out to provide backdrops for the various elements of Olivia’s villa. The garden scenes complete with fountains and topiary help generate the maximum effect from the duping of Malvolia.  The seduction of Viola by Olivia in a Jacuzzi is hilarious and uncomfortable in equal measure.

For those who have been unable to get tickets for this sell-out run, there is the opportunity to see the production in cinemas on 6th April.  Johan Cruyff was much lauded for his creation of total football – the National should win a similar crown for the development of total theatre.

 

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Issue 90:2017 02 02: Donald and Teresa (J.R.Thomas)

2 February 2017

Donald and Theresa’s Love In

The way to implement

by J.R.Thomas

One of the most irritating features of modern news management (that is, attempted management of the media by politician’s inner offices) is that one is told the day before the set piece speech what the revered one will say.   “Mrs May will say that she and Mr Trump will rule the known world…”,  “Mr Corbyn will say that he is firmly in favour of…”.   But suppose that, when they rise behind the lectern, they don’t say that all?   Suppose Mrs May had actually found on meeting Mr Trump a person she could not possibly contemplate doing business with, and decided to say so?   Suppose that Mr Corbyn, on eating breakfast, considered other perspectives and found himself torn between them (unlikely, we know) and decided to turn his address into an opportunity to muse on what might be the best course.

No danger of this with Mr Trump of course.  A thought comes into his head that he needs to share.  Some event blows up that he should express an opinion on.  Out comes the gold (we’re surmising it might be gold) cell phone and the world is informed in 140 characters – or less.  Nobody knows what the Donald will say until he says it.  Even, one suspects, the Donald.   He has plans, ideas, stratagems, of course.   But (as we have said in this column before) he is a businessman, he seeks angles and opportunities, he seizes moments, he reacts to changing circumstances.

Also, as a businessman, he delivers product fast; so, he thinks, will his Administration.  Never before has a politician delivered so clearly and quickly on his election promises.  He said he would engage with his programme on taking office, and the Presidential pen has been busy engaging.  Oddly, given that outrage is usually directed at politicians who ignore their manifesto commitments, this President is been vilified for delivering.  What he is delivering is certainly controversial, but hardly unexpected.  But perhaps his opponents never believed that he meant it – which may give as much insight into their approach to politics as Mr Trump’s.

What might be more cogently criticised though is the detail and implementation of the executive orders flooding out of the Oval Office.  There is a reason in the USA, as in the UK, for having cabinet officers and massive departments of state behind them, lawyers and civil servants and PR persons, lobbyists who can be used to disseminate suggestions as well as seeking favours, political contacts who can be consulted and briefed, friendly executives who can be informally consulted and pre-armed.  This is the formal and informal machinery of government, and it means that executive action can be polished and shaped to avoid the obvious weaknesses and potholes in changing procedures and laws.

Previous presidential pens were normally deployed after some sounding and consulting, often a considerable amount, had been carried out, the ink only being placed on documents after the implications and consequences had been thought through more than a little.  Sometimes, the security of the state or the urgency of the situation means that this process cannot be gone though, and the legislation is rough and ill considered but achieves an urgent objective, knowing that slamming the door may, as it were, break a few fingers but will keep out the bad guys.  Mr Trump would doubtless say that this is exactly the position concerning his order to extend the wall on the Mexican border (there is nearly 600 miles of high security fence already, remember) but given that he needs Congress to vote the funds for the construction of the wall, the executive order is really just an order to get ready.  He has cited security threats as being behind the temporary ban on Moslem entry to the country whilst stricter vetting processes are put in place.  This may be based on some threat identified by the intelligence services of which we have not been made aware; but if not, then it does look like a clumsy and ill drafted order which at the very least is a gift to the Presidents political opponents – elderly and infirm entrants refused entry, celebrities fearing they will not be allowed entry, crying children denied entry.  This is a short term humanitarian disaster, and if the President does not care about that, a PR one as well.  He might not worry about such perceptions a few days into his Presidency but it is very early to be creating waves that may lead in time to impeachment moves, and risks alienating an already doubting party in Congress.

The rest of the orders and memoranda flooding from the White House are largely symbolic because they either relate to things which will need formal legislation or which require funding.  They are statements of intent, a reassurance that the President is indeed beginning the draining of the swamp, that he wishes government to be crisper, cheaper, more effective.  And he is parking his tanks not on the Congressional lawns but on the very steps, giving them notice that he intends to deliver as promised.

What he delivers though needs to be better thought through than the border security measures enacted last weekend or he may find that in the streets and in the courts and in Congress there is so much opposition that nothing gets done.  This is certainly not unknown in Washington even with politically skilled presidents, but would be a remarkable achievement indeed for a President whose party has control of both Houses and, according to the polls, majority support (albeit narrow) for what he has done so far – though (early warning Mr President) his personal ratings are declining.  Which brings us to where we began – even if you are out to drain swamps and change the world, some of those old techniques are still useful – such as thinking before you speak, and leaking what you are thinking of saying before you say it so that you can gauge reactions and tailor your words and actions accordingly.

Mrs May might also need to take a refresher in these matters.  That the most cautious of politicians, a woman who presented with fresh ground will dig and double dig, and then dig the other way just to be sure, should fall into such a minor but embarrassing pit as to publicly invite her new friend for a state visit, without consulting the one who will have to host it, or precedent, or public opinion, is very odd indeed.   She has much on her plate, and has had little to do with foreign affairs.  Did she consult? Was her Foreign Secretary asked what he thought?  Or was this a calculated decision taken in full knowledge of normal process and procedure in the Whitehall swamp, calculating that The Donald and Theresa Brexit Show would help towards an early trade deal with the USA, more important than the downside of a bit of hoo-haa over an unprecedentedly early State Visit.

If it was this, Theresa may have got it right.  Polls suggest that the public think on balance that being polite to the most powerful man in the world is a Good Thing, and are not as bothered as civil servants and royal advisors about the precedents and rules as to when a visit is a State visit, or just a visit.  But Mrs M, maybe next time you get the urge to entertain, perhaps leak the day before that you are thinking of inviting a mate round, just to gauge the reaction first.

 

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Issue 87:2017 01 12:North of the border(Antoninus)

12 January 2017

New Year’s Greetings from North of the Border

Happy Hogmanay

By Antoninus

By the time you read this it may be mid-January. Never mind.  I still wish you a happy new year.  In Scotland we wish folk a happy new year until … oh, it seems like forever if we haven’t met them for a while: it may be a cautious exchange with neighbours in the street, a handshake from the boss at work, or for the more adventurous amongst us, a decorous peck on the cheek for the opposite sex. We are Presbyterians after all.

That’s not to say we’re immune from superstition.  This blond Sassenach has been pushed back across the New Year threshold more than once because of the requirement for a first-footer to be tall and dark.  And woe betide the innocent who provokes bad luck with a ‘Happy New Year’ before the bells without a qualifying ‘… when it comes.’

Still, universal amongst humankind seems to be the impulse to look back at the last year and forward to the next.  So here, for those with any lingering interest in events North of the border, is a wholly partial view of what was in Scottish politics in 2016 and what is likely to be in 2017.

2016 is easily dealt with.  We elected members to our own (some unkind souls say toytown) parliament in May.  The SNP lost their overall majority and form a minority government while casting occasional smiles at the Scottish Greens (nationalists and separate from the English Greens) in the expectation of their votes.  Labour are much reduced, as everywhere in the UK, the Lib Dems ditto, and only an unexpectedly rejuvenated Tory party under youngish leader Ruth Davidson provide a semblance of organised opposition.  On Brexit, we were too exhausted by our own existential ‘indyref’ in 2014, the 2015 general election and our Holyrood election to get as agitated as everyone else.  Afterwards, we noticed with a slight surprise that like London we were one of the few areas of the UK to vote Remain (by 63%).

That vote threatens to dominate Scottish politics in 2017, albeit in a different way from the rest of the country.

The votes had scarcely been counted when our first minister Nicola Sturgeon was flying hither and yon to seek common cause with others uneasy at Brexit. A quick flight South to touch base with Sadiq Khan, then off to Gibraltar, Dublin, Berlin and Brussels to see whoever would talk to her.  Foreign affairs are a matter reserved to Westminster under our devolution settlement but, never mind, off she went.

Her initial plan was not clear, but to be fair neither was, nor is, the UK government’s.  In the run up to Christmas the Scottish government published ‘Scotland’s Place in Europe,’ a 50-page document that voiced the unsurprising conclusion that Scotland’s best option was to remain in (they really meant join) the EU as an independent state.  Failing that, it set out a series of proposals to allow Scotland its own approach to the EU while staying part of the UK.  Three of her own panel of EU experts, including the British ex-diplomat who drafted the famous Article 50, have made their belief clear that there is no way the SNP’s proposal to somehow remain part of the EU and the UK is realistic.

Where does this leave our devolved government?

The answer is in a difficult position.

The over-riding aim of the SNP is independence/separation and the only way to achieve that constitutionally is another referendum. But recent opinion polls have shown the majority of Scots do not want that, at least until the UK’s Brexit decision has been implemented in two or more years’ time.  Those polls also show there is a consistent majority of around 55% in favour of Scotland remaining in the UK.

This is almost precisely the result of our 2014 referendum.  So in two years the appetite for independence has scarcely changed, and this despite the election of a Conservative government at Westminster and the gift of the Brexit decision to a supposedly Europhile Scotland.

I cannot see the fallout of the Brexit decision for Scotland in 2017 being anything other than a source of continuing grievance for the SNP. Their ability to do anything practical about it will be limited not only by those polls but by the UK’s government’s unwillingness to countenance another Scottish referendum (their agreement is needed) as well as the EU’s indifference or hostility to a Scottish membership approach when they have so many bigger issues to resolve. (Additional hint: if you don’t want Spain to veto your approach, don’t make common cause with Gibraltar or, as the SNP also do, with separatists in Catalonia.)

How the SNP’S opposition to Brexit will play out at Westminster, Lord only knows. The precise role of parliament is in the hands of the Supreme Court as I write and we still don’t have a realistic view of HMG’s intentions less than three months before their self-imposed deadline to invoke Article 50.  If nothing else, expect continued SNP grumpiness on the subject.

In Scotland itself, the SNP are in their third term of government, never a good place for a political party as ideas and energy seep away in what seems to be an invariable pattern.

Pre-Brexit, Nicola Sturgeon announced her government’s first priority was going to be education.  So it should be. Scotland has slipped down the rankings in the OECD triennial PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) survey to, the ultimate shock for Scots, below England.  This after a long ten-year school reform programme called Curriculum for Excellence initiated by a previous Labour/Lib Dem administration but carried through by the SNP that is now seen to be flawed and the subject of a major review. Meantime, although Scottish students enjoy fee-free higher education, a lower proportion from poor backgrounds goes on to university than in England.

Whether our opposition parties make the most of this and the SNP’s other weaknesses is a moot point.  Both the Lib Dems and Scottish Labour seem pre-occupied with ideas of a federal UK, something the SNP would only favour if it were a step on the way to independence, not a destination itself.  In the run-up to the EU referendum all five party leaders were united in declaring themselves Remainers.  And our parliamentary chamber, a semi-circle, was designed to encourage consensus.  Which is one reason the place lacks the drama and sense of occasion that Westminster can engender.

To end where I began, on a personal note.  Locked into our two camps (pro- or anti-independence) we avoid conversations about the issue, circling each other warily until we establish whether friend or foe before opening up.  Or not.  Is it the same in England with Brexit?  It’s all very sad.  It’s what nationalism does.

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Issue 86: 2017 01 05: Contents

05 January 2017: Issue 86

Week in Brief

UK

International

Financial

Comment

Declumping Immigrant Communities by John Watson

The Casey report.

All The President’s Numbers by J R Thomas

Mrs Clinton’s majority.

Look At That! by Neil Tidmarsh

On the horizon, there, straight ahead…

POETS Day by Lynda Goetz

But only once a month for hard-working Japanese.

Local (and not so local) investment heroes by Frank O’Nomics

To tip or not to tip?

Features

Taking the Cross by Chin Chin

Has it changed so much?

Ignore the Pronos by Richard Pooley

Nobody knows.

Wild Behaviour by J R Thomas

A voice crying in the wilderness.

Crossword

“What’s On The Cards”.

Solution to the last crossword “Noel, Noel”.

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

Issue 82: 01 December 2016

Issue 83: 08 December 2016

Issue 84: 15 December 2016

Issue 85: 22 December 2017

Issue 87: 2017 01 12: Week In Brief International

12 January 2017

Week In Brief: INTERNATIONAL NEWS

UN Flag to denote International news

Europe

CYPRUS:  The Greek Cypriot president and the leader of Turkish Cypriots met in Geneva for UN-brokered talks about the possibility of reunifying Cyprus.

CZECH REPUBLIC:  Intelligence officials have set up a 20-strong unit, the Centre Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats, as a defence against cyber-attacks and fake news.  President Zeman, who is considered to be pro-Moscow, has criticised the project.

FRANCE:  Marine le Pen distanced herself and her party, the National Front, from their previous aims of dropping the Euro and leaving the EU.

Manuel Valls, a contender for the leadership of the Socialist party, distanced himself from the pro-market reforms he has previously advocated, and instead has begun to propose far left policies.

ITALY:  In the European parliament, Beppe Grillo tried (unsuccessfully) to distance himself and the 17 MEPs of his anti-establishment Five Star Movement party from the eurosceptic policies they have previously advocated.  He intended to abandon his pact with UKIP and instead to join the ALDE block of pro-EU MEPs, but he was rejected by ALDE.

Middle East and Africa

AFGHANISTAN:  The US is to send 300 marines to Helmand province, to help tackle a resurgent Taliban.

A car-bomb attack and a suicide bomb attack killed at least 38 people and wounded 80 others outside the parliament building in Kabul. The Taliban claimed responsibility. Another bomb attack killed nine people and wounded 18 others (including the United Arab Emirates ambassador) in Kandahar.

GAMBIA:  General Ousman Badgie, head of the army, has said that the Army will support Adama Barrow the presidential election winner. The outgoing President Jammeh refuses to stand down after his defeat in last year’s election on the due date, 19 January.  The fifteen-nation Economic Community of West Africa States insists that Jammeh must step down.

IRAN:  Millions of people took to the streets to mourn the death of former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, many of them apparently protesting against the regime’s hardliners whom Rafsanjani opposed.

IRAQ:  In the battle for Mosul, the coalition destroyed the last bridge over the Tigris and has recaptured most of eastern Mosul from Isis.

Two Isis suicide bomb attacks on markets in Baghdad killed 20 people.

ISRAEL:  A military court found a sergeant guilty of manslaughter – he was caught on video last march killing a Palestinian attacker who’d been captured. He is to be sentenced next month. There were protests against the verdict.  Prime Minister Netanyahu called for a pardon.  The judges have been given military guards

A lorry was driven into a crowd of Israel army cadets on a busy street in Jerusalem. Four were killed, and 17 injured. The driver – a Palestinian – was shot dead by the police.

IVORY COAST:  Soldiers mutinying over unpaid wages have taken control of the city of Bouake.  The defence minister was taken hostage, but released when deal reached with government was apparently reached.

SOUTH AFRICA:  The ANC women’s league endorsed Nkosazana Diamini-Zuma, an ex-wife of President Zuma, as their chosen candidate for the next president.  The deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa is also likely to be a candidate.

SYRIA:  A US airstrike on Raqqa has killed a senior Isis official, who handled the group’s finances and intelligence.

Turkey and Iran have accused each other about violations of the ceasefire. Fighting has flared up in Wadi Barada, northwest of Damascus, and has damaged a water plant supplying Damascus. There remains confusion about whether or not the Fateh al-Sham rebel group has been excluded from the ceasefire.

Russia said it would withdraw aircraft carrier and other warships from Syrian waters.

A US:  A Special Forces raid by helicopter on an Isis compound near Deir Ezzor seized a number of people thought to include Isis leaders and Western hostages.

TURKEY:  A policeman, an official and two militants were killed when a car-bomb exploded outside a courthouse in Izmir.  It was detonated after police tried to stop the vehicle, and a gun-battle followed.  Ten other people were injured.  PKK Kurdish militants are suspected.

Two army officers were convicted of involvement in last year’s attempted coup and were sentenced to life imprisonment. They were the first of many hundreds (if not thousands) of army officers to be tried in connection with the coup attempt.

Parliament has begun to debate proposals to abolish the position of prime minister and to give the president more power. If passed, the measures would give President Erdogan the chance of another two terms in office.

Far East, Asia and Pacific

CHINA:  Government censors have caused Apple to remove the New York Times app from its iTunes store in China. The New York Times website, the BBC website and many other foreign media websites have been blocked in China for the last five years.

Beijing and much of China are suffering under a second week of choking smog. Last month, a study concluded that perhaps a third of all deaths in the country could be connected to air pollution.

KOREA, NORTH:  Kim Yong Un boasted that his country is in the final stage of developing an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the USA.

KOREA, SOUTH:  A statue of a ‘comfort woman’ has been put up in front of the Japanese consulate in Busan. It is a copy of the statue which was put up outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul a year ago as a monument to the hundreds of thousands of Korean women taken as sex slaves by Japanese forces during World War II.  Japan has protested by withdrawing its ambassador from Seoul and its consul-general from Busan, and by suspending talks between the two countries about financial co-operation.

PAKISTAN:  Military officials reported a successful nuclear missile test in which they launched a cruise missile launched from a submarine for the first time.

PHILIPPINES:  A group of 100 armed men attacked a prison in Mindanao, and freed more than 150 inmates.

THAILAND:  The new king, Maha Vajiralongkorn, has demanded changes to the new constitution which was accepted by a referendum last year.

America

HAITI:  Senator Guy Philippe, a former police chief and rebel leader, was arrested on charges of drug-trafficking.

MEXICO:  Rioting and looting has erupted across the country, following an increase in fuel prices.  At least four people (including one policeman) have been killed and 700 have been arrested.

USA:  A gunman killed 5 people and wounds 13 in a random shooting at Ford Lauderdale airport, Florida.  The gunman, thought to be ex-military veteran of Iraq war with mental health problems, surrendered to the authorities.

Friction between the president elect and the country’s intelligence services (and the Republican Party) continued to grow as Trump challenged their credibility following their report which said that the Kremlin backed his presidential bid by hacking into the Democrats’ computers and spreading false news stories.

Trump nominates his son-in-law Jared Kushner as a senior White House adviser.  A federal statute forbids the presidents from hiring relatives.

Dylann Roof, who was found guilty, last month of murdering nine people at a church in South Carolina last year, has been sentenced to death.

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Issue 84: 2016 12 15: Contents

 15 December 2016: Issue 84
smoed

Keeping an eye on Chin Chin

Week in Brief

UK

International

Financial

Comment

Thinking Forward by John Watson

Britain’s immigration offer.

Ageing Disgracefully by J R Thomas

celebrate-spring

Celebrate spring

A movement in the balance of power.

“Made It, Ma! Top Of The World!” Part II by Neil Tidmarsh

What do Lagarde, Cahuzac, Strauss-Kahn and Rato all have in common?

Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT) and Operation Northmoor by Lynda Goetz

What these are; why they exist; and what should happen next.

Just A Spoonful Of Tax Helps The Sugar Go Down by Frank O’Nomics

Lateral thinking on a sugar tax.

Features

Updateski by Chin Chin

“Winter in Sanlucar de Barrameda, Spain”

“Winter in Sanlucar de Barrameda, Spain”

SMEOD strikes at the West.

Spring Into Spring by J R Thomas

The ides: an idea?

Review

The Tempest

at the Donmar, Kings Cross

reviewed by Adam McCormack.

Crossword

“The Land of Culture and Cucina”.

Solution to the last crossword “More Friends, Rivals and Enemies”.

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

Issue 80: 17 November 2016

Issue 81: 24 November 2016

Issue 82: 01 December 2016

Issue 83: 08 December 2016

Issue84:2016 12 15:“Made it, Ma! Top of the World!” Part II (Neil Tidmarsh)

15 December 2016

“Made it, Ma! Top of the World!” Part II

What do Lagarde, Cahuzac, Strauss-Kahn and Rato all have in common?

by Neil Tidmarsh

white-heat-8What do the following four people have in common: Christine Lagarde, Jérôme Cahuzac, Dominique Straus-Kahn and Rodrigo Rato?

Yes, they have all been finance ministers.  Christine Lagarde became a French finance minister in 2007, under President Nicolas Sarkozy.  Jérôme Cahuzac was a French finance minister from 2012 to 2013, under President Francois Hollande.  Dominique Strauss-Kahn was a French finance minister from 1997 to 1999.  Rodrigo Rato was Spanish finance minister from 1996 to 2004.  OK.  But what else?

Yes, they have all been heads of the International Monetary Fund (all right, except Jérôme Cahuzac).  Rodrigo Rato was head of the IMF from 2004 to 2007.  Dominique Strauss-Kahn followed him, from 2007 to 2011.  Christine Lagarde followed him, and is the current head. OK.  But what else, apart from all of them having been entrusted to handle the money of a whole nation, or indeed the whole world, prudently and honestly?

They are all facing, or have faced, criminal charges.

During the presidential elections in 2012, Francois Hollande promised to crack down on wealthy individuals who cheated the country out of taxes by hiding secret stashes outside France.  After his victory he made Jérôme Cahuzac (a plastic surgeon and the Socialist member of parliament for Lot-et-Garonne) a minister for the budget and put him in charge of delivering on that particular election pledge.  A fierce battle against tax evasion was launched.  But, early in 2013, French media claimed that Cahuzac had a secret Swiss bank account.  For weeks he denied the accusation in front of parliament.  Then he resigned and admitted that he’d been lying.

This week a court in Paris found him guilty of fraud and tax evasion, sentenced him to three years in prison and banned him from seeking elected office for five years.  The court learned that he’d hidden €3.5 million in a number of different foreign bank accounts. The money came from his hair-transplant clinic in the Champs Elysee, to which the rich and famous flocked to be re-thatched. This “guardian of fiscal equality and of the fight against tax evasion” the judge said, had run a “constant and systematic fraudulent system”; fleecing his country, as it were, while re-fleecing the bald, the vain and the wealthy.

Also this week, in another court in Paris, the trial of Christine Lagarde began.  She is accused of negligence, relating to her approval of a €403 million payout of state money to French businessman Bernard Tapie in 2008.  Tapie was seeking damages from the state-owned bank Credit Lyonnais over its purchase of Adidas from him in 1993; the payment was agreed by an arbitration panel and approved by Mme Lagarde as finance minister. The payment, however, was allegedly corrupt. It is claimed that the decision to pay was made by President Sarkozy, who was a friend and ally of Tapie.

The ten-day trial is taking place in the grand Court of Justice of the Republic, in the very chamber from which Marie Antoinette was sent to the guillotine in 1793. Mrs Lagarde faces black-robed judgement from three judges and twelve members of the upper and lower houses of parliament.  She denies any wrong-doing, but could be sentenced to a year in prison if found guilty.

Her predecessor as head of the International Monetary fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, resigned in 2011 when he was arrested in New York for allegedly sexually assaulting a maid in his hotel room.  A famous and, in many ways, a mysterious case.  The charges were dropped (though Strauss-Kahn did reach an out-of-court settlement with the maid for an undisclosed sum when a civil suit was brought against him). But in its wake came more allegations in France – attempted rape (investigation dropped due to lack of evidence) and involvement in a prostitution ring.  Investigations into the hiring of prostitutes for orgies in hotels in Lille, Paris and Washington led to him standing trial in 2015, charged with ‘aggravated pimping’, but he was acquitted.  Oh, and back in 1998 he resigned as a French finance minister after he was accused of corruption (two financial scandals, involving Elf Aquitaine and MNEF), though he was acquitted of the charges in 2001.

Meanwhile, in Spain, his predecessor as head of the IMF is currently on trial in a Madrid court, over allegations of misusing funds at Bankia.  He was president of the Bankia financial group from 2010 until 2012, when it became bankrupt; it had to be rescued at huge public expense.  He was arrested in 2015 and charged with fraud, embezzlement and money laundering.  The case involves claims that he and other Bankia directors used unofficial and undeclared company credit cards to make €12 million-worth of luxury purchases.  If found guilty, he could face a jail sentence of four and a half years and a €2.7 million fine.

Oh, and their names – with the exception of Christine Lagarde – have all been linked to the Panama Papers.

What are we to make of these terrible coincidences and ironies?  I wouldn’t suggest that it proves today’s populist parties right when they claim that liberal democracy is just a mask hiding a corrupt and hypocritical elite. Rather, I would suggest that it highlights the robust and impartial judicial systems which go hand-in-hand with liberal democracy.  Nevertheless, the stinking toxic smog which has been blanketing and choking Paris all this week, and prompting all kinds of desperate anti-pollution measures, does appear to be as potent a symbol as the wild wolves threatening Italy and France last week.

 

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