Saturday, 29 June 2013

LS Lowry Revisited

Having made some comments on the LS Lowry exhibition at the Tate a couple of days ago and with little comment around on his background, decided to take a look.  I had put his reticence about personal matters down to his job as a rent collector.  But there may have been more to it than that.

Contemporary with him and around the same general area in Lancashire was the writer and playwright Harold Brighouse.  Checking up on him revealed that he was five years older and of much the same class and background.  But there may have been more to it than that.

Brighouse wrote some popular plays about Lancashire and its life and one was "Hobson's Choice".  Later in 1953 this was made into a successful film with Charles Laughton in the leading role and an array of well known stars, notably the young Prunella Scales.  Rather later David Bintley made an very attractive and interesting ballet of the story based on music of the period, some notably from Leslie Stuart.

The title seemed simple enough, it was a well known and old saying going back to the 16th Century.  Also, the basic plot was easily seen as one of a well established genre of writing.  In this case "King Lear", amongst others, up to a point.

However, Lowry's mother was an Elizabeth Hobson and her family well known in the area for selling fancy trimmings and hats.  So there was certainly a Hobson's shop in the general area.  In the play  Hobson is a comedy turn around whom the story is told.  It is a striking role and one in which actors could ham up the comedy.

The fictional Hobson is a boot and shoe maker and shopkeeper.  Whilst LS Lowry's father, Robert, was an office worker of reasonable status his family had been in the boot and shoe trade and Jacob Lowry, his grandfather a well known figure of some standing.  He appears amongst the petitioners to Parl1ament for Manchester to become Incorporated in the late 1830's.

So Lowry's background and possibly even family connections may have been those in the relevant trading classes featured in this classic and famous comedy.  To have Brighouse so close in time and place is intriguing.

No wonder LS Lowry may have had trouble and was concerned about being taken seriously.

Friday, 28 June 2013

A Life On The Ocean Wave

This is one of the longer blogs at around 1500 words but is about the much ignored question of the Royal Navy, its size, makeup and purpose.  Once it dominated the British media now it barely rates a footnote.

In the news in the last few days has been a surreal item about Alex Salmond saying that unless the EU agree to Scotland's terms for admission to the EU then he will impose a blockade in the North Sea to prevent the Spanish and Portuguese fishing fleets entry.

Looking at a map suggests another route to northern waters so does this mean blockading the Atlantic as well?  In any event there is the small matter of how many warships Scotland might have.  The answer seems to be not many unless perhaps there is the hidden threat to nuke Lisbon and Madrid.

Away from the other excitements of the media other things are happening and there are critical issues on which our future might depend.  One is what kind of Royal Navy we should have and what its function should be. 

In the past Naval issues were at the forefront of political debate.  In recent years we have lost sight of them and could pay a heavy price.  This is a long piece taken from the LSE website who sourced it from the Journal of the Royal United Services Institute.


The Defence review is occurring at a time of extreme financial pressure at home and considerable military risk in Afghanistan. Gwyn Prins and Sir Jeremy Blackham argue that geopolitics prescribe a primarily maritime framework for the Strategic Defence Review.

The core strategic challenges remain naval ones, yet the Royal Navy has become dangerously weak. Urgent steps must be taken to reverse this trend before it is too late.

The Royal Navy is and remains the principal guardian of the silent principles of UK’s national security, namely preserving the country’s wealth, prosperity and peace, and the free trade global system on which all that depends. However, the Royal Navy is losing coherence.

The inexorable downward momentum in the commissioning rate of new surface warships has resulted in a rapidly ageing surface fleet and a reduction of overall fleet utility.

Defenders of the status quo base their arguments on two strong assumptions. The first is that in a globalised and increasingly interdependent world, the powers of multilateral institutions and of supranational jurisdictions will and should wax, as those of the nation state wane
The second premises is that the utility of ‘hard power’ is being swiftly eclipsed by that of ‘soft power’, such as development aid. This stance has been given material expression in consistent year-on-year real money increases in the budget of the Department for International Development, at the expegivnse of the chronic underfunding of the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

Indeed, the defence budget is in deep trouble. Bernard Gray claims that the real costs of the defence equipment programme are currently £30billion above the present allocated budget in the next ten year period. On top of this, much of the current equipment inventory is being badly over-used and is consequently in increasingly poor repair.

The nation is at war in Afghanistan and elsewhere, while a peacetime mentality prevails and Whitehall’s strategic analysis fails to properly  understand the risk environment that we are obliged to inhabit.

In practice, globalisation is about the growing interdependence of nations and global regions, but with decreasingly adequate policing of the global commons. Multilateral institutions such as the UN and the EU have been weakened and eroded and they often now act merely as forums within which nations battle nakedly for their national interests.

What is needed is a ‘strategic identity review’ and the application of Palmerstonian principles to our alliances in order to ensure that we possess coherent, independent core capabilities to nourish them and to allow them to protect us in return.

The national institution which should translate the national will into this coherent force structure is the Ministry of Defence. In fact the MoD is deeply tribal and, as presently constituted, is simply incapable of solving the major issues of the defence programme.

The chiefs of staff are the prime guardians of their own service interests and are seen as such by their personnel, strongly encouraging inter-service rivalry. However, it is an act of self harm for any service to denigrate, and thereby lose, the assistance it needs from the others. It is essential that a full capability approach be taken to the defence programme. Only this will harness capabilities correctly to the full spectrum of first-order national security tasks.

We live now in a time in which wars touch few people directly. Yet, as Trotsky famously remarked, and 9/11 aptly demonstrated: ‘You may not be interested in war, but War is interested in you’.

Today, the assumption is that good order is a natural condition and can be taken for granted because ‘nothing happens’. But that ‘nothing happens’ is no accident, but is rather because of pre-emption and deterrence.

The free flow that makes globalised trade and the creation of prosperity possible depends prominently upon the presence of naval units at sea, unseen and silent and therefore easily forgotten. This is the classic operation of deterrence and this silent aspect of national security is of rising importance as the post-Second World War multilateral instruments fade.

The dependence of the West on the use of the sea for its survival and prosperity is a geopolitical fact of life. In particular the dependence of Britain on the secure use of the sea has significantly increased, in both commercial and military operations.

According to the Chamber of Shipping, 95 per cent of UK trade by volume and 90 per cent by value is carried by sea. In 2009 total direct employment in UK ports and at sea was over 100,000 people.

This is a very substantial industry and a vital one for the well-being of UK citizens. It is an industry that depends on good order at sea and therefore it needs and deserves protection against the increasingly threatening environment in which it must operate.

Of course, navies must fulfill a wide range of tasks.  Since the end of the Second World War the contention of successive Navy Boards has been that, if a navy of ‘high’ capability is procured, ‘lower’ level tasks (diplomatic and constabulary) will automatically be covered by this ‘consequent capability – the argument of the ‘lesser included’ case.

This logic has been used to justify the failure to build new ships and as a case for reducing fleet numbers.

In fact, the evidence shows that the result of this strategy is the opposite of what it intends. The argument for the ‘lesser included’ case is subverted by the high end strategy. Because as well as failing to provide the numbers needed for the ubiquitous maritime security tasks, it also weakens the coherence of the power projection case.

The reduced rate of ship orders means that only sixteen new surface combatants will enter RN service between 2002 and 2031, and the number of significant vessels in the surface fleet will shrink appreciably, as the chart below shows.

This rate threatens the viability and skill base of the ship-building industry, plus the manpower base of the Royal Navy, as well as its capability and reach.

The average age of our Navy’s surface combatant ships will rise from fifteen years in 2012 to twenty-one years in 2021, with implications for sustainability, support, logistics, cost and viability. Moreover, it contrasts strikingly with countries as varied as Australia, China, India and Japan.

Such a programme effectively tells the world that Britain is signing off from serious maritime security and hence national security.

This picture is an alarming one. Rapid rebuilding of the general purpose fleet is essential for the present and likely core future strategic needs of the UK. Use of the sea demands presence along the sea routes.

Presence is the prerequisite for the silent deterrent messages that naval force alone can articulate. Presence demands numbers and we envisage an initial fleet total of around 25 surface combatants.

That is, in our judgment, the bare minimum needed for credible conventional deterrence, for power projection, or as a basis for surge construction in the events of another major war.

As Frederick the Great observed, ‘diplomacy without force is like music without instruments’.

This blog is a summary of an article first published in the published in the Journal of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) on the 23rd of August, 2010.


The Blair-Brown years were a period when policy consisted of short term reactions governed by the media and the demands of the City of London.  All those key issues which were complicated or difficult or which demanded serious long term thinking were set aside while they and their ministers played student politics with our futures.

The Royal Navy has been the key to our national security since the time of King Henry V.  They threw it away and left the door unlocked and the Coalition cannot be bothered find it or to work out any strategy for any future navy.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Flapping Wings And Feeding Time

Taking a walk today through the local tourist attraction we had three black swans chasing us hoping for food.  Was this an omen?  Those who follow economic and financial crashes in detail will have heard the phrase "Black Swan Event".  Essentially, it means that something that was not supposed to exist or could not happen would appear.
It came from the certainty at one time in Europe that all swans were white and could not be black.  A visit to Australia proved them wrong, but then if you go there with one notion or another they will be all too happy to put you right in the mistakes you make.  The idea was taken by Nassim Nicholas Taleb for his work on financial crashes.

Today our Chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeffrey according to President Obama, formerly George, formerly Gideon, Osborne has been telling us of what has to be done to put the national finances to rights.  After three years of severe austerity it seems that we have spent more and owe more than ever before.

So the delicate grinding and polishing of the last three years has not done the job and given what the future may hold it is out with the adze and plane to hack and trim away.  Whether the axe may have to be used, or the sledgehammer will have to be seen. 

The basic problem is that for thirty or more years now since North Sea Oil arrived we have made so many promises pledges and political deals that we can no longer pay the bills from our own revenues and have been borrowing large scale.  Not just that but their nature meant that they were mostly compound in effect. 

Our government and governors forgot the difference between simple interest and compound interest with predictable consequences.  In the old Elementary Schools this was one of the "basics" of arithmetic taught by teachers with a moral lesson on the need to avoid debt and to save or spend only what you could be certain you could afford.

We are not alone.  In Zero Hedge today there was an item about the predicament of President O'Blimey, whose Irish Ancestry is distantly connected to that of Osborne above.  They both had very distant relatives who sailed on the "Titanic".  It says that each and every person in the USA is now in hock for over $52,000 and rising because of interest liabilities.

The President is more than anxious to do a trade deal with the EU, another entity in serious money trouble and for the UK to be part of it.  The fond hope seems to be that if we more or less pool our debts and trade with each other then somehow or another all our troubles will vanish.  The most serious and insightful comment on this prospect is possibly the nursery rhyme about the Owl and The Pussycat.

What worries me is why the black swans were hungry.  It may be because all the recent run off from the unexpected wet weather has sluiced so much fertiliser into the stream serving their lake that it is now covered with algae and their natural food has gone missing.

How many hungry black swans are there out there now wanting food?

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Painting Pictures

In the news this week have been stories about the exhibition of LS Lowry works at the Tate Gallery in London.  They are said to have been down in store for a long time and were dusted off for the occasion.  There is a debate in the art world as to how far Lowry is "art" and his standing, many feel his work should not have been relegated to the store. 

On the other hand The Tate has to keep coming up with major new exhibitions to bring the punters and the tourists in and as decade follows decade there are more and more artists to show and more to reclaim from the past.  So whose work stays on the wall and whose does not is a cause of some strife.  This is something I want to keep away from but simply to add some comments.

One is that the day job he had was a rent man.  This occupation did not make you many friends or welcome in the local pub or club.  If he was not sardonic and cynical before he began that work then he certainly would have been after not too long encountering the local population.  It is likely that he had few illusions about human nature and tended to see it how it was.

He would have developed a detailed knowledge about his patch which enabled to have ready insights into others and the day to day life of any of the towns and villages he knew.  There would not be much he missed or could not appreciate in terms of its own realities.

Also he was a man of his time, born in 1887  not long after my grandparents and whose lifetime overlapped well into my own.  More to the point this was very much the environment and the places which the lady knew all too well.  When she looks at Lowry it is her own childhood and her parents she sees and how it was.

One striking feature of his works is the colouring.  The memory of those surviving from the 1950's is that everything was dirty and blackened.  This is enhanced by the black and white films of the past and the photographs also mostly in the same form.  There were not many colour shots of the periods and the archives do not have a great deal to draw in that form.

But Lowry was born in 1887 and grew up in a period when large areas of new and replacement housing was being put up.  The replacements came as a result of the types of leasehold as well as  clearances.  It was also an age of local government reform and a great age of municipal life with very many public buildings going up as well.

Add to that the Churches and Chapels trying to out build each other in the race for congregations.  In this world at the time these were important social facilities.  There were not many alternatives if you wanted to keep out of the pubs.  Many of the clubs in the period were places not for drink or entertainment but also for educational and common interests, notably the Temperance Clubs. 

So he would know these buildings from the time they were built and in their original colouring and style.  Later two World Wars and a long period of depression meant years of skimped maintenance, little or no exterior cleaning and the acceptance that the soot and dirt would win.  So by the 1940's and into the 1950's we were left with grim black blocks of deteriorating buildings.  Lowry's work gives them back to us as they were.

Then there are the people, and the term "matchstick men".  But the net allows a good hard look at many of his works and it is not at all like that.  There is a variety of shapes and it is crucial to know that then people were indeed thinner.  On the whole they were far more active, had less food and also a lot less sugar.  Food costs were high, some grew fat  if they had more cash, but not many and nowhere near the numbers of today.

One thing that I can be certain of was on the typical diet of the time, anyone doing ten to fourteen hour shifts on their feet and having to do some and perhaps a good deal of walking were going to be a great deal slimmer, fitter and sharper that the great majority of people today.  Also much of life was outside.  Before radio or TV or the age of the Picture Palaces there was the incentive to go out if the weather was anything like fit enough.

One subtle thing that comes across in his works is the intense communal life that so many lived then both in work and the little leisure they had.  It is difficult to explain just what it was like in the many industrial towns of that era in how people interacted and lived. 

Unluckily as so much of the film and literary life of the period was London based with almost invariably the provincial working and other classes being caricaturised it is now lost save in the works of now little read authors who will never appear on any school or university reading list.  Who today reads Arnold Bennett?

It is a lost world and it was our world and it is a world scrubbed from the histories of ourselves.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Bumping Along On The Crest Of A Hole

When we take to the road in The Flying Shed, our ageing and unfashionable car we are all too aware of the costs involved.  The MOT test is coming up and now there are often things to be done.  This time round there is a real concern and that is the tyres.  They are not old, we do not do a high mileage and nor do either of us go in for the screeching tyre style of driving.

But they might all have to be changed at some cost.  The reason is the rough riding we have had since the winter.  Again we drive on the ordinary town roads and do not wander down many lanes or country roads.  There are too many fast hard driven "Chelsea Tractors" on them for safety.  But there are now so many pot holes and bad surfaces to do damage to the tyres and possibly the suspension.

The road damage of last winter is still extensive and unlikely to be repaired before next winter.  So any run of bad weather and by next spring our roads will be really bad.  If it is tricky for long experienced careful drivers on four wheels then it is risky for others and especially those on two wheels, cyclists or motorised forms.

Apparently this is not just the case in our area, it is common around the country, better in some places, worse in others.  But overall we have a problem with road surfaces.  So when we see schemes to spend billions of government money on new projects when existing facilities are becoming badly run down and routine maintenance is not being done we wonder why.

All of us are aware of countries elsewhere with magnificent public buildings and high profile facilities but where the great majority of the population lives in abject poverty amid filth and lack of facilities.  These are places where you might have a decent road where government needs it but off those are wrecks of a former system and tracks that are like those of centuries past.

We have new developments taking place and with new roadways attached as is the case in many other places.  But soon the other roads and those leading to them will become badly worn and then subject to all the usual delays of emergency repairs or warnings of risk.  But it is not just the roads.

Most of our services and other provision is now in the process of gradual deterioration.  It will not be a sudden business but slow steady and inevitable over a decade or two.  I have seen this before in some places, once great economic centres, now benefits based with adjacent service industry.

Apart from a few places, notably in patches of the South East favoured by the political and business class, it seems to be becoming more widespread and persistent.  Yet we are told that a huge proportion of the limited investment has to go to big schemes carried out by big companies with big finance attached which will take most of the cream.

So what kind of states are they which have these major wonderful projects sticking up in the middle of an impoverished, inefficient, backward and poorly serviced population?  They are usually corrupt, badly governed, criminalised and dangerous places to be.

Welcome to UK Unlimited. 

Friday, 21 June 2013

Crime With And Without Punishment

It is widely reported that our prisons are full and the demand for places exceeds supply.  So there are suggestions for new very large ones which take thousands who can be dealt with allegedly more effectively and what is called humanely and with the advantage of major reductions of cost per head. 

At the same time there is widespread and perhaps justified concern over the leniency in sentencing in many cases.  To this should be added large numbers of cases which are not brought to court but dealt with by cautions or warnings.  Some offenders seem to rack up an astonishing number of offences with no custodial sentence being applied.

But the media and the net are now awash with demands to bang up and for a very long time persons engaged in activities for which they were once praised and admired by those who now decry them.  They are bankers and other financiers and those who were tasked with managing the National Health Service. 

The one has lost billions, perhaps trillions in money the other thousands of patients who might have been saved and perhaps tens of thousands damaged beyond repair.  They are not alone.  The Supreme Court has said that the families of lost soldiers can go to court. 

The leading cases here are men sent into battle without the equipment they might have had.  The feeling is that there is a common thread to all these disasters and that is alleged criminal conduct of those in charge.  There are a number of questions at present about the way our defence contracts are handled.

It is perverse that the rights legislation, intended to protect privacy is said to have been a useful tool to ensure information could not get out, those responsible could not be identified to respect the rights of those they killed and those who objected and tried to call attention to the issues could be fired or subject to very rough handling. 

The puzzle is even greater.  For example in recent decades there has been a huge reduction in hospital and allied facilities for those with severe mental conditions,  For them "care in the community" was to be the answer.  When it came to priorities it was their fate that this category rated low for those engaged in providing public and complex medical services.

The upshot of this is that large numbers found themselves in trouble and packed off to prison where they neither received care or much support from the community they then found themselves in.  A number have found themselves in and out of prison.  Others are numbered among the homeless and other floating people always on the verge of breaking the law either by accident or design.

In "The Guardian" on Thursday 20th June, Joris Luyendijk pointed out that the problem with controlling the banks and allied services was that within what were supposed to be managed organisations those put in charge were not in charge but simply holding the ring to what amounted to badly run franchise operations.  Equally, managerialism applied to the NHS has had much the same effect.

In short the business of who is a criminal and therefore ought to be in prison has gone chaotic both at government and institutional levels of all kinds.  In the past in other times and in other places when this has happened other solutions have been attempted.  In the 18th and 19th Centuries Century Britain went in for hanging and transportation.

Other regimes with differing forms of government and control went in for other methods.  At the moment in the UK our contraction of defence services, couple with a good many former troops with limited futures means that there are a lot of locations available with all sorts of potential.

When will someone come up with the idea of big facilities with a wide brief to pack all and sundry of the difficult cases who are at the margins?  There many places to turn over to this function.

Welcome to the Catterick Gulag or the Bovingdon Labour Camp? 

Wednesday, 19 June 2013


After sixty years the Royal Opera is about to have another crack at "Gloriana", the Benjamin Britten piece written to celebrate the Coronation of 1953.  Then it went down with a large loud clunk and dismayed the audience rather than rousing them to the glories of Empire, victory in World War 2 and the conventional school history that the reign of the Tudor Queen Elizabeth was a long feast of wonders and delight.

Having seen the Opera North performance of twenty years ago and picked up a screening of a continental production, we are aware that it is a heavy duty mental anguish evening with a grim ending and did not book.  Also it is a piece of its time.  Britten tried in the few months he was given to make the best of a bad job. 

But given his musical form and the realities of 1952 to 1953 and many periods of the reign of the Tudor Queen if he was being truthful to his art then he was never going to come up with either a fun, glory story, or a blatantly propaganda piece.

Probably those who commissioned it were influenced by the varied and colourful items of film music he had written to order and the wild success of "Peter Grimes", which we have seen a few times in different productions. 

This also is serious watching and listening but you are there for the drama and the music as much as anything.  It is also about ordinary people in an ordinary town that Britten knew well and could relate to and solidly based on a well known poem.

One problem is that Britten often assumed that people knew more than they did and whilst this was less of a problem with Grimes when it came to Gloriana those in the audience did not pick up on many of the references and allusions. There is a lot more going on in Britten's works than many think.

One interesting feature is the second Act dealing with the Progress to Norwich when the Queen has made her way to what was a major City of the period rich on the Wool Trade and others.  Then in the 16th Century the Queen openly celebrated her Boleyn family and her wider English ancestry.  We might remember that in 1953 the Queen Mother was still looked down on by some as second tier Anglo-Scots aristocracy.

When the Tudor Queen Elizabeth attended a service in Norwich Cathedral she was given a throne across from the tomb of her forebear Anne of Hoo who married Thomas Boleyn.  Above the tomb was the heraldry of the Hoo family, until 1455 when the male line failed one of the great magnate families of the Middle Ages.

The Progress to Norwich would have taken her through the lands of the Howard family, that of the mother of Anne Boleyn and amongst the plotters against her rule.  Given the history of her reign it was a very firm and particular statement as to her right to rule against the very real claims the Howard family might have had.

In 1953 we assume that Queen Elizabeth was accepted as the rightful Queen, but there was still an element, albeit a very small but well placed minority who might have wanted the abdicated Duke of Windsor to return, at first as Regent. 

This would have been on the grounds that the young Princess Elizabeth would not be able to handle all the difficulties and responsibilities.  The very subtle inference to this would not have gone down well with those who knew that plotting was going on.

Now we may be able to accept that the reign of the Tudor Queen Elizabeth had many ups and downs, with periods of disease and famine and other calamities.  Also, our present Queen has done as much as can reasonably be expected and has demonstrated her grasp and abilities from the earliest days.  So we can take the Opera for what it is and of its time.

But it is still a serious piece which illustrates a grim reality.  And there is more than enough of that about at the moment.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Love And Marriage

It is suggested that at present some 25% of children are in "lone parent" families.  A figure for this is not easy to calculate with certainty and to it might be added those in changing partnerships and circumstances.  The implication is that this is modern type of family situation and departs from the "norm" of most children being in a nuclear family with two parents.

Back in the 1890's my four great grandmothers at the time were often all lone parents.  Two were young widows and the other two were both married to merchant seamen who were more away than at home.  Trawling around Census Returns from 1841 to 1911 this was far from unusual. 

The number of families disrupted by mortality, disease, events and very often the requirements of work was very large.  We know from reports the many street children left to wander as well as the numbers being brought up in institutions because of family collapse or crisis.

In the 20th Century in the UK in the second and third decades the losses of the First War and other problems meant many lone parents and then in the fifth decade and after for a period the same happened again.  So the idea of a continuing nuclear family living in a reliable and self funded way seems to have been a short phases in a particular time of relative prosperity.

It is possible that the ideal for family has not been achieved in the past as often as we think and in until recent times came nearer to it because of an unusual situation where in the developed world health provision, incomes, housing and work structures enabled more families to survive in a relatively benign environment.  This may be over now but we are still attempting to live with the basic assumptions of recent prosperity.

A lot of this is to do with housing, property generally and the connected systems of welfare benefits.  Compared with the past we have granted ourselves astonishingly high levels of expectation, credit expansion, ideas about entitlement of space and facilities and benefit support from the state, central and local.

One effect of all this, allied to much changed cultural and social thinking has been to tip the scales against the nuclear family and the idea of continuing support in marriage.  For many the default is not marriage or wider family for many of us but the state system of benefits and social services.  Add all the "rights" legislation and law and their application this has racked up demand and entitlement to a high level.

At the same time the way the property market has worked has had perverse effects.  At the rich end of the scale persons with wealth live in properties in small numbers that once might have housed quite a lot of people.  As you move down the scale and allow for ageing as well there is a lot of space in a lot of properties. 

Then there are all the second and third homes, holiday homes, holiday lets that are rarely let out of the family and the consequence is that quite a lot of people today are taking much more room compared to the past.  Very recently money flight into the London and the South East has resulted in boosting prices and costs and often taking more space out of ordinary use. 

When one time workers two or three bedroom small terrace houses are coming in at a million or more then something is very awry with the market.  Yet politicians win more acclaim and favour for wanting to make matters worse using funny money and racking up debt than trying to get things back to a more sane and responsive market.

The collateral damage is impacting on many aspects of our lives, culture and social structures, never mind finance, tax and spending.  But one major area is families and how they do or do not function and sustain themselves.

The signs are that increasingly many are not and never will be if we attempt to go on like this and another crash or economic contraction will not be the answer.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Royal Progress

First the bad news, there was no invitation to Trooping The Colour this weekend at The  Horseguards in London.  Not even the offer of a seat on the sidelines or even to be squeezed in the plebian standing enclosure with David Cameron, his lady Samantha and a huddle of G8 people representing our once great status.  The lads on the square done good but unlike the G8 they knew what they were doing.

As CO (community organiser) of the Ragged Rabble of Redundant Skivers my unit of mob handed slouching disorganised ancients should have been there if only on diversity duty.  Shuffling past the salute waving our bus passes as ID and pulling our shopping trolleys we would have made a true statement of the state of the national defences.

It appears that the Treasury have pointed out that our Army now has more horses than tanks, said to be 227.  This is not a call to have more tanks, it means less horses, said to number over 500, entirely for ceremonial duties and the provision of eco friendly compost for the squaddies' allotments.  Lurching from long forgotten neurones in my head came the memory of tank counting.

One of my jobs was to keep track of the Divisional tanks, a lot more than 227, to let the War Box know how good we were if the Soviets decided that the provocation they were getting from GCHQ was too much.  On our signals capers we called it "making the blighters jump" although the B word then used is now incorrect.  Normally, of the tanks we had despite substantial numbers of mechanics to hand there were always quite a number not operational.

So of our present 227, give or take one or two that fell into ditches, the actual number available for effective use will be rather less.  My guess is around 180.  So it is arguable that the number of effective and available horses we have, on the evidence of Trooping The Colour is much greater. 

Once I suggested that horses might be easier and more useful to deal with but was told firmly not to say anything like that to the War Box or The Treasury would get to know and we would not have any tanks at all.  It has taken a long time but it is good to know the government has come round to my thinking at last.

The other gripe is again the omission of my name from the latest Honours list.  In truth I have never ruined a bank to the cost of the taxpayers, presided over a multi-billion spending fiasco, lobbied hard to benefit some wealthy cronies, paid a small fortune into party funds or politicians pockets or devised some lunatic flagship scheme that will take decades to fulfil and eventually cost twenty times more than it should.  It is clear, I have just not been trying hard enough.

Lastly, someone has at last got round to realising that Prince William has an extended ancestry, in this case someone from the Sub Continent and the old Raj of India turns up.  In the generation in question the potential number of ancestors is 128 and in his case the actual will be rather less because of the intermarriage of the Royal elements from his father's family.  From his mother, Princess Diana and great grandmother, the Queen Mum, it is another story.

At this at least and sometimes before the 128 level almost anyone can have someone popping up that is not expected, sometimes a happy find, sometimes not if it conflicts with a sense of identity or moral or religious stance.  As the potential figure doubles at each generation back then more and more people in places ever wider and with very different lives and beliefs are in the genes.   

In Prince William's case one is a family called Bagshawe, seemingly once Derbyshire peasants who did well out of lead mining.  This may or may not be welcome, they were a rough lot.  It was Richard Brinsley Sheridan who said that his ancestors may be very good kind of folks but not people who he would invite to dinner.  He was contemporary and associated with the great writer, Edmund Burke.  Burke was related to the Roche family, ancestors of Prince William.

Funny things families, as most of us know.

Friday, 14 June 2013

John Le Carre Now Tells You A Story

At the Hay Festival this year and screened on Sky Arts there have been a series of interviews.  An unusual double one was with John Le Carre in conversation with Phillipe Sands about his life, times and writings lasting ninety minutes but put out in two parts.  So I repeat in part the title and picture of a couple of days ago.  Given the present fuss about information gathering and gleaning it was of interest but shed light on some of our past in this field.

We share a lifespan and the same hair style and apparently some of the cynicism about our present governments and the way thing are.  But our paths do not seem to have crossed.  He had gone from Lincoln College, Oxford by the time my rugby team arrived for a fixture.  He was gone from Germany before my time and returned only a while after I had left.  He had a very different career.

We were in London at the same time for a spell in the late 1950's, but unless his sports and music
interests were similar there is little chance of being in the same place at the same time.  The only thing that might have been was on a hot summer day the Endell Street open air baths was a good place to be, especially as many of the West End chorus girls would enjoy some fresh air and a splash around.

His conversation needed close listening.  I suspect he does not suffer fools gladly unless it is part of the job.  There was what was said, what was apparently incidental, what was hinted at and critically what was not said.  The links his father had with the Krays were admitted but the name  Lord Boothby was dropped.  At this point the nose twitched.  He was in the Security, his father was in with Boothby, who was privy to Government, the lover of Harold Macmillan's wife, a familiar of the Krays and up to who knows what.

One of those stray memories is when Boothby, a BBC favourite on whom they fawned at the time, proclaimed to the nation that everyone should go and see the Red Army Choir and Dance Ensemble.  Boothby was always extreme but his enthusiasm for this lot was extraordinary.  The BBC did run a performance.  They were good but not that good.  Remember, this was the time of the Philby and other scandals.  Just how close was Boothby and who was he serving?

If Le Carre (real name David Cornwell) did have a personal line to him then the Security must have known.  Just as they must have known about the coming and goings of the Profumo affair.  What else did they know and about whom?  If students in London were aware of which senior Labour figures frequented the Russell Square men's conveniences and why it is inconceivable that the Security did not know, especially as it was almost literally just round the corner from their offices at the time.

Le Carre attempted to explain the nation of our political and how it operates, note the word "operates" rather than works.  Work suggests something productive and with a result.  It is his view which I share that for much of the time what happens are the errors, failures of politics and all the unintended consequences.  The pernicious and all pervading thing is that access to the secret information is central to government and decision making and this places the Security at the very centre and is often the crucial element.

One aspect of this which this might explain is why during a time of centralised economic and financial controls etc. both Labour and Conservative governments actively encouraged the creation of tax havens whose purpose was the opposite of what their monetary and fiscal policies were try to achieve.  It may well be the need to move money and information about transactions in secret overcame any other consideration for decades.

Another involves the whole business of the Security and the Special Relationship with the USA.  Le Carre is very cynical and dismissive of this and again I am inclined to agree with his suggestion of the UK government obeying every whim of that of the USA.  In this context there is the amazing decision of the Heath government to run down and minimise involvement in satellite development but to bet the research money on supersonic airplanes.  Big fancy toys for the elite and a wonder of the age the Concord might have been. But the USA could have built them any time it wanted and what they had was the real advantage of going into space with all that it involved without any real competition for decades from anyone else in the West.

What had this to do with UK Security?  Le Carre made no mention of signals intelligence nor is there much hint of it in his work.  Yet we know now from recent documents about GCHQ going back to the 1950's.  This was the ultimate of secrecy yet what part did it play and how did Security handle it or did it even know how to deal with it?  What seems possible is that for a while the UK gave the USA some knowledge without revealing the actual source.  This was our Special Relationship.

But going into the 1970's by which time big computers allied to more varied sources including signals were churning a lot of information, the UK was mired.  Part of the problem was that the attitude to computers was affected by the "secret garden" attitude.  These were new gods to be attended by (expensive) high priests and guarded from the general public.  You questioned the information they spewed out at your peril.  Unless you had good reason.

This may well have created huge tensions in Security.  Le Carre in his "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy" has something called "Moscow Centre" which is pitted against the UK "Circus".  The Circus has large numbers of people doing traditional hands on intelligence of all sorts.  These include the spy networks, the moles backed by intensive surveillance and the analysis of anything in print or broadcast on radio. 

But beyond that is the "Witchcraft" project, a key mole with very special information restricted to very few both in The Circus and in government.  But "C" does not trust it nor the analysis made from its contents.  It cannot be confirmed by other means and you are dependent on what you are told.  It is not too much to suggest that in reality "Witchcraft" was the product of GCHQ listening and then analysis by a limited number using computers.

There was reason to distrust these methods of intelligence gathering by the mid 1970's.  The US disaster in Vietnam owed a great deal to gross failures of intelligence and analysis in Washington arising from these forms of information gathering and the assumptions made from them by over active and ambitious people.  Moltke's "enthusiastic idiots".
Le Carre is scathing about the Iraq War and again I agree with him.  He also feels that our recent governments and the related elite, still devoted to secrecy and inner cabals is essentially "internationalist" in form, structure, belief and policy making.  So we are rarely told the truth, even more rarely given reliable information and have become beholden to outsiders.

Much more dangerous is the politicisation of both government and related intelligence services.  They are no longer there to do real intelligence or careful independent analysis or offer insights into the complexity of questions or issue or the reality of affairs.  They are there to help do the spin, provide excuses and find reasons to defame or destroy those who question and oppose.

In the last analysis the UK has been betrayed and made a place to be exploited and used by others for the benefit of a very few.  It may not even survive but revert to a set of governed provinces as it once was.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Going Off The Rails

The phrase "train crash" is now a cliche.  Having used it in the past it must be.  It is still favoured by many and various experts suggesting that things are not as they should be and the prospects look bad.  In our complicated and fast moving world there is no shortage of choices.  Barely a day goes by without another one in the media.

One area is finance and within this a rich and varied selection.  The international bond markets is one with a number of people betting on the train hitting the buffers any time now.  Japan is a leading contender for the trigger mechanism for this one with real concerns about the way it is going.  France is another contender, rivalled by the UK, the USA as well as a clutch of other smaller financial centres.

Inevitably the stock markets are one field.  It is alleged that all the funny money, "easing" sloshed out to keep bad banks in being, broke states functioning and bubbles bubbling to keep the noisy money go round going round in circles has nowhere else to go to get a return other than minimal. 

This has rarely if ever worked in the past despite the academic and mathematical theories and is unlikely to work in the immediate future.  One bubble notable in the UK is the property one in the South East of England especially in the London area and in high value properties together with EU subsided land.

With The City too much involved in the international markets and a lot of their earnings locked up in property together with that of the "hot money" coming in from disrupted states and indeed too much of the UK economy based on moving money and creaming the contents the risks are very high.  In the USA there are similarities but a much more complicated situation.  There the risks also are high but the potential effects less predictable.

Among the other choices is an article in the LSE magazine about the Robbins Report of 1963 about Higher Education recommending a major expansion to allow many more to go to University from the pool of able people available.  What was signal about this report was that it fudged the costs and overall consequences.

Also it entirely ignored the major areas of other education that may not have been university or given degree status but were then available to very many and both demanding and often of high standard.  An effect of this has been to turn university education into a product dependent on foreign money along with state support and the creation of a huge lobby in its own and related narrow interests.

So now we have nurses many of whom do not actually nurse, teachers who are doing less and less teaching to deal with paperwork, chronic shortages of key skills, including doctors and many employers finding it increasingly difficult to find workers who want to work within the UK labour force.  Was the 1960's University model really the only and the best way to educate and train a labour force?

Apart from the "train crashes" there are a great many derailments.  The BBC has blown £100 million on a failed digital caper to add to the vast sums spent on colonising and gentrifying Salford.  It's daftness over digital is minor compared to the vast sums lost by the government.  Almost wherever you go in government you see huge sums lost forever almost all paid for by borrowed money.

And it is corrupt to an extent that beggars even 18th Century standards.  As I write the latest "Private Eye" has arrived with the picture of the Palace of Westminster on the front.  That large tower at one end is called "Big Bent".  It says it all.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Where Does The Money Go Or Has It Gone?

Among the many and various financial disasters of our time beyond the state of our own bank accounts, debt totals, ongoing unfunded commitments and favours owed to all and sundry are the larger questions of state finance.  These may be a personal minor matter at the moment or a larger one.  But all of us may well be a liability for the future.

At present the UK social security system is said to be derived from the period of the Attlee government post 1945 when a population has suffered years of war and before that many had been badly affected by the Great Depression.  The FDR "New Deal" of the USA is cited as the example.  But in 1908 Asquith had brought in a means tested pension for the over 70's and in 1909 this was followed by Lloyd George's "Peoples Budget" with provision for the sick and infirm.

These were followed by the introduction of "Insurance" which was not entirely national and certainly not insurance in that the payments out were not from a fund but derived from payments in as payroll and other taxation.

This was a time when the expectation of life was low, few made to the date to claim it.  And of the sick survival was limited in many cases and severe cases for the most part  did not last long.  The idea that many would see over twenty years of retirement or be able to survive long term severe disability or illness did not occur to the policy makers.

Also, down the decades that have followed political success is determined at the margins in a minority of electoral districts.  Additionally, many groups have been able to lobby politicians and government for extra help or priority or admission to the state pot of benefits.  Even minor amendments or simple readjustments invoke a blizzard of rage and new demands.

So the various schemes and benefits and entitlements and the rest have grown in number, become enlarged in form and have been extended wider and wider.  We may have lost our political and economic empires but the sun does not set now on our world empire of benefits provision.

We thought that all this could be paid for by unchecked and certain growth in the economy. We went on to think that clever financial manipulation by the state could manage it.  This did not work because of the political hindrances.  But the state put its trust in the bankers and money men to do the business.  They certainly did for us and may well have done for any real form of democratic government.

The result is that the social security schemes as they have come to be in many states are now in deep and continuing trouble with no real answer to the problems other than ones that will be deeply unpopular and for many be intolerable.  This seems to be leading to the destabilisation of governments across the world.

The descriptive term used is "Ponzi Schemes" after the American Charles (Carlo) Ponzi  in the 1920's whose ability to persuade people to pay in was not matched by his intentions to pay out with the result of a financial collapse which left him with the money and almost all the people without.

For a graphic, albeit long, item on this subject here is a link from the Mises Institute:

If indeed there is no pot at the end of the rainbow and in addition it is about to evaporate as a bright hot sun of reality disperses the haze of our thinking there is going to be serious and rapid change. 

All our illusions and expectations will go and perhaps much of the structure and purpose of our governments will go with it.

Welcome to the real beginning of the 21st Century.

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Tell You A Story

All the hoopla going on about the security "scandal" is at least entertaining.  As it is now the fiftieth anniversary of the Profumo Scandal of 1963 at least the timing is right.  One of the supporting persons in that drama was Valerie Hobson, the attractive and famous film star and wife of John Profumo.

Early in her career she may well have been in a stage production somewhere or other of "The Importance Of Being Earnest" by Oscar Wilde.  In that play in the third act the "gubbins" was the arrival of a Miss Prism to confess her deceits and errors of 28 years before when as a nurse in the household she had mislaid the baby at Victoria Station.

The ending of the play was a happy one.  The current Prism business involving the security services of the USA and UK will not be.  There will not be an end and we do not really know the beginning.  President Obama may remind us that you cannot have 100% security and 100% privacy but even that might be unacceptable to the masses.

For the first fifty or so years of my life for the great majority of us there was not a lot of privacy.  It was not difficult to work out around what other people were worth, what they were up to, where they traded and other things, notably religion or political interest.  As for finance there was simply a good deal of received knowledge and in any case a great many pay scales etc. were in the public domain.

On the other hand there were the criminal classes and those in various forms of business and with great wealth who were able to make other arrangements and keep them very quiet.  One of the interesting features of the 1960's and later is how many former colonies and other territories were allowed and encouraged to be tax havens.

Sadly we now know that the overlap between those groups was and is much greater than we thought or assumed.  We are painfully aware of the passionate desire of most of our Parliamentarians to have lots of expenses along with absolute privacy relating to them, never mind all the little extras and backhanders.

Inevitably as we are supposed to have a democracy with various equalities and rights and privacy we all now want the same as those with lots of money, power and access to expensive lawyers.  Increasingly we have secret courts and tribunals and other secretive bodies dealing with various affairs.  A very convenient arrangement to many both in government or other office.

Yet at the very same time a great many of us carry credit and debit cards, other documents, driving licences and a wide range of things with access to online stores of information.  To those with the technical ability or interest a quite amazing amount of material is out there which they can use.  Just check your inboxes and other folders to see what turns up.

Never mind what is in the social media where many unburden themselves of all or almost all and then shriek when it leaks.  Also raiding this material and your emails can be perfectly legal.  It someone has the money and good reason a lawyer can invoke the Principle of Discovery which means the lot has to be handed over.  If you allege in your items that a famous professional footballer goes round raiding church poor boxes you better have evidence that will stand up in court.

Indeed it is not nice to know that somewhere Over There all your secrets may be looked at, but you put them there.  Also, a lot of them you were supposed to inform people of, notably the tax authorities or your bank or your insurance company or your mortgage provider in the first place.  That GCHQ in Cheltenham may have some details is certainly unwelcome but what does anyone expect?  It is the price of the modern digitised global fiat money and debt based society that we have all rushed to embrace.

It is possible to avoid it.  We could go back to hunter gathering and keep the secrets of food sourcing within the tribe and pray and sacrifice to our own gods to protect us.