Friday, 28 February 2014

Chasing Shadows

In the last couple of decades our banks and bankers have gone from being pillars of the community and respected authority figures in national affairs to be thought of as a bunch of greedy shysters out to screw us and criminals to be punished.

The latest headlines about banks losing unimaginable sums of money only to be given King's ransoms in their annual bonuses do not help the image.  Inevitably, ordinary persons want to know why they cannot be brought to heel, controlled and answerable.

Between the media, who seem to know little and understand less and the politicians, assumed to be in conspiracy with them and on their payrolls there is a lot of noise and posturing but little or no action, nor much reality behind the promises and alleged policies.

What has happened is that the banks we knew, saw and dealt with were once located in places we knew and were evident and identifiable.  You could walk around city centres and the City of London and say this was this and that was that with a degree of certainty and truth.

This is no longer the case.  Tax Justice Network has a key interest in this question because of its pursuit of tax losses to havens abroad which in the last half century have grown hugely in extent and effective monetary power. 

Even there, despite the secrecy there has been the idea that they were locations which could be seen and visited and had buildings and staff where the business was located. 

But in recent years the complexity enabled to accounting and management systems by the series of digital revolutions have transformed this.

What has happened is that another banking system has grown up, called "Shadow Banking", which is not a good way to describe it.  Perhaps "Space Time Banking" might, but that also is a little too loose and confusing.  An article linked from the Tax Justice web site tells some of the tale.

It is by Anastasia Nesvetailova of The City University who tells us that in the last three to four decades there has grown up what is a parallel universe of banking.  It is located nowhere, is difficult to trace and therefore to regulate.  They have become used by the financial elite to create "silos of silence".

Whether you like or hate the idea, or cannot understand or accept them it is argued that they are now vital to credit creation and therefore the function of all our money economies.  If troubles arise they are the key to what might happen and what might be done.

She concludes:  "The real risk is that so much of this is rent-seeking activity: extracting wealth and bringing forwards consumption into the present, at the expense of future generations.  Or, to put it more pithily: we will pay for this."

So if another bust happens it is likely that nobody will know what is happening, why or how it can be dealt with.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Getting Down To Basics

All the talk of "austerity" in part is designed to strike fear into the minds and hearts of ordinary people.  Vote for me and mine because only we can save you from the horrors of it.  But real austerity is a world away from what is now the case in the more developed world.

Again in the west what we consider hardship and limitations would be regarded among the poorest as luxury and riches.  Together with rafts of state benefits and services some of those seen on TV as being hard up and struggling will appear to others as having a desirable standard of living.

So it is little wonder that many want to come, especially when kin are already here and established.  I recall that when we really had austerity in the UK what is now regarded as poverty would have seemed to be unimaginable luxury to some. 

Even in the 1950's newly married couples might not have TV, central heating, fridges, let alone freezers, a bathroom and those really in luck might have a washer/spin dryer to enable manual washing.

Today The Mises Institute has tried to point out in simple terms what is real austerity in an article which explains brutal reasons for saying we are nowhere near it.  It does not make it welcome and many would argue politically impossible short of a collapse situation.

The picture above is of a Southern Railway "Austerity" from the 1940's when in order to radically reduce the cost of having and running a basic freight locomotive this is what they came up with.

It was ugly, noisy, did not much resemble the received ideas of what a locomotive should look like but it worked.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Pumping For Beginners

The oil business is a very complicated one in which prediction is often short on certainty and long on political troubles.  One of the issues on which the Scots Independence Referendum debate is based is who owns the North Sea oil rights and to what purpose.

Necessarily, the respective arguments make many assumptions about the future and what might develop.  This post in Automatic Earth caught my eye and gave pause for thought in what it was saying.  It goes on to discuss other issues as well

If this line of thinking were to be correct it might be that the politicians involved in the present debate should not be arguing about who makes the decisions and gets the profits.

They should be debating who is going to pay out the massive subsidies needed to ensure local production of oil and gas.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Repeat Potty Over Potholes

Four years ago this was a post about pot holes.  The least that can be said is that some things do not change.


Those who drive, some who walk, but especially those who ride bikes, manual or motor will have noticed that across the land potholes have been sprinkled over our roads like fairy dust upon a moonbeam. 

A representative of the Local Government Association, motto “Your money or your life” has been roundly blaming the utilities for their indiscriminate digging and delving activities that, I quote, “have wrecked the structure of the roads.” 

Before you rush off with your pitchforks and cattle prods to put up stakes and pile on the brushwood, I have to tell you it is not as simple as that.

Why do the utilities dig up roads?  Because in the last 150 years we have required a lot of services we regard as essential to be installed below the surface. 

It began with drains and water, then we had gas, then electricity, then telephones later complex telecommunications and lately cable TV and other things. 

Now there is not only a lot more down there, but the pace of development and change entails more activity.  In other countries some of these facilities are carried above ground at much less cost.

Add to this the older services were often installed at a time when less robust systems were the rule and are now past their effective life. 

During the mid to late 20th Century the maintenance budgets of the local authorities and other bodies were often insufficient to keep them all up to standard and were the first parts of the spending to suffer any cuts being made.

There are other factors.  The insistence of the government on extensive high intensity building adds to the pressures on existing services and systems.  Also, we forget the earth moves. 

Water tables can go up and down, subsidence is common in many areas, and tree growth can impact on sub surface structures.  There are other things as well to add to the movement.

The trouble is that our local authorities have forgotten what they were created for in the first place.  Governments have piled on so many new jobs, initiatives and notions about what they might do that councillors have been giving themselves all sorts of airs and graces uttered in modern management speak, garbage in garbage out. 

One of the basic duties was to enable people to move around on roads easily.  Recently, it seems that many authorities are trying to make it as difficult as they can and as for keeping a reliable surface on the roads ours has certainly abandoned direct responsibility for that.

There are two other important matters.  One is the practice of minimising reserve capability to deal with less common or rare events, such as a bad winter, or a wet summer.  The other is the actual vehicles using the roads.

We do a fair amount of driving on the local minor roads and back roads often in the rural parts of our county.  These are where the activities of the utilities is far less and there can be long stretches untouched by these organisations. 

But the numbers of potholes are not fewer, they are often more, and the increasing rate of breakup of the road surface as well as the degradation of the sides and verges is remarkable.

Why should this be?  Because so many trucks and other vehicles are bigger, heavier, go much faster and give the road surface a real pounding.  Also, there are a great many more of such larger vehicles using the roads for various reasons. 

So they are taking a great deal more heavy punishment.  Not only are many of the lesser trunk roads deteriorating fast, but many of the minor roads and country lanes are in a very bad state. 

The reason why the structure of these roads is being damaged is because that structure was never strong enough to take this sort of use.

The ugly truth is that if we wish to consume more and have more and need many more bigger and heavier vehicles to carry all this as well as ourselves on all the journeys we make.

So not only do we have to fill in the potholes, we are going to have to rebuild the basic structure of almost all our road system.

This will cost money and the local authorities are pretending that someone else should pay, notably the utilities so the councils can concentrate on their more airy fairy functions and prestige projects. 

But may I ask, whose money is it that pays for the utilities?


Time that ever rolling stream rots all the roads away.

Monday, 24 February 2014

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

When, along with long trousers and body hair came the threat of having to work there was the question of what and where.  As it happened this was avoided on a permanent basis for a while but it was still necessary at times, if only to provide essential beer money.  So I found myself on the railway in the early 1950's.

The picture above is of the Kentish Town locomotive shed in North London, essentially serving the passenger services out of St. Pancras station, although with other sundry duties.  As you see it was not a welcoming place, in line with most others of the period.  Where I was the shed was much the same, just as dirty and with the same duties to be done.

The three loco's you see in the picture are typical of many of those on the system at the time.  They are workhorses for the ordinary and basic work and apart from the much smaller number of loco's working the major long distance passenger services.

The one in the middle is of 1870's design, although some built rather later.  The one on the left is an 1899 design and fitted with a condenser for work around the tunnels of the London system.  That on the right is a state of the art 1935 design, a great deal more efficient in coal use and more flexible.

After a few journeys they would need to be back at a shed having their boiler tubes gone through, the smoke box cleared of ash and the firebox thoroughly cleaned.  All the oiling and greasing would have to be done.  On the rare occasions when they had a complete external clean this would be done largely by hand with a hosepipe.

Imagine, if you can, the scale of the manual labour needed at this shed alone, and then replicate for the very many over the whole system.  Then think about the carriages, also dealt with manually, and all the movement of goods and parcels most of which also involved manual labour.  You will then understand the need for the numbers employed on the railways.

Wherever you went in the economy, with some but rare exceptions the same would apply, vast numbers of manual and low skill employees needed simply to keep it all going.  Very few indeed would have had any secondary education, the great majority having left elementary  school at 14 with some skipping off earlier.

What they then might become was up to themselves.  The opportunities were there but they took time, discipline and determination.  A surprising number did so and made progress of one sort or another.  It was a very different world.  You made your own human rights and entitlements, they were not given.

But there was a sense of continuity and feeling for the past and often a real sense of community.  What they needed was carefully thought through management of change and the truth of the real choices involved.  They did not get it.  They were given platitudes, promises, pipe dreams and planning.

The people doing this were the first among the new breeds of professional politicians and experts, many self appointed or neo-political.  While for a time the rapidity of change and its needs allowed some social mobility, this became transitory as other changes were made.  The result is that we have a new lower class which little resembles the one that has been destroyed.

The only common thread now for all the workers at basic levels is more or less the media we have.  The results are becoming uglier by the decade as a consequence.  Yet the whole thing is based on increasing the amounts of money pushed about.  This is intended to allow greater use of resources in consumption lifestyles to meet the promises made.

If populations increase by a far greater number but our ability to find the resources they demand diminishes meaning scarcities there are going to be a great many losers.  Has the squeeze begun already?

It might be one reason for all the trouble.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

On The China Station

As the various situations in the world become ever more testing and dangerous the media politics we are offered becomes sillier and far removed from either the realities or the risks. 

Big Osbo the paperhanger is on a trip East to a G20 caper in Sydney in Big Oz after bashing, bullying and berating the Scots.  He has been on a stopover in Kowloon to take in China and Hong Kong, where there are long memories of the Brit's, especially Scots, doing the same there in the long past.

"Chinese" Gordon is one of the major personalities of the past we have taken care to forget along with other brave and benighted men who built the Empire.  In reality the Empire resembled a lot of erratically controlled government Agencies not all of which turned out to be howling successes.

China has built some spectacular railways, along with parallel huge property developments and other things.  It seems to have vast wealth which it has deployed into colonising parts of Africa as well as buying up bits of Europe.  But there is a problem.  How much of this is due to unsustainable credit or not we could be about to find out.

Apparently, Osborne has become fixated with the idea of for the new HS2 railway building a bigger, much bigger and better Euston Station in London.  The railway history buffs will recall that the history of this station is decidedly chequered.  The first big Euston took a long troubled while to build and while a decent train shed with some handsome features had its working problems.

A major reason for this is that the project was under way when not only was London expanding rapidly, but railway technology was advancing fast.  So the grand new Euston had great difficulties to face in its management, notably persistent overcrowding and delays as time wore on and many more parcels and commuter trains were needed.  I remember it well.

When British Railways was created one of their first, and government blessed projects was a total rebuild of the station and surrounding complex.  This was quickly seen as vandalism by many especially with the wanton destruction of the Euston Arch for no good reason other than Prime Minister Macmillan's desire to be seen to be positive.

The present 1960's Euston is a horror and one of the worst stations to travel from and to, moreover it was built on specifications drawn up in the steam age.  As soon as it was finished the West Coast Main Line was promptly electrified, which radically changed the working patterns of train movements.

The suggestions for a new mega Euston will disrupt the trains and the general area for years, will cost an enormous amount and is highly unlikely to ever yield any real return on investment.  For something like this to be built on specifications drawn up now but which will not finish perhaps for nearly 20 years is a high risk plan at the very least.

So while Osborne is in China saying that my train station is a lot bigger than yours; as he looks over the immense changes at Kowloon he may need to remember that China can change and very likely will.

Also, that it may be in the future rather fewer of us will be able to afford to travel much at all.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Power To The People

We are having a respite from the bad weather, although the experts seem to be very coy about what might be come yet.  It is four weeks to the onset of spring.  Here in the UK usually this means another lurch into atrocious weather of one kind or another.  We shall see.

Early last Autumn it seems that the Met' Office in its confidential advice sent to the Environment Agency and subscribing local authorities etc. suggested that it would be a dry winter with less than average rainfall.

In weather speak that seemed to me to indicate long blocking highs with bitter cold, fog and maybe the occasional dose of nuisance snow falls.  What then was the worry was that if it went on long enough and was very cold there could be energy supply issues.

Happily on this score the rain and wind although chilly knocked out the power to a vast number of homes which helped to avoid this problem emerging.  As a blogger I can assert this was due to a conspiracy among highly placed people to make sacrifices of benefit seekers to the ancient gods of milder wet weather.

It is one explanation and arguably more rational than many in the media at present.  But the energy problem is still with us and is not going to go away.  This is the backdrop to an article in "Naked Capitalism" by Yves Smith "Will The Us Follow The UK Into  Power Shortages" which is very pessimistic telling us that it is not looking good.  In fact the word "catastrophe" is used.

Unless something nasty does happen which distracts the media and others from their current obsessions; given what might be going on in the next couple of years politically will mean that energy policy, the difficult decisions and the vital work all go on the back burner.

If one goes into the realms of fantasy, it could mean that when the HS2 is finally built, probably at around £150 billion at least, it might have to run at thirty miles an hour because of the electrical supply limitations.  Football matches may all have to be played earlier in the day because there are no floodlights.

And there will be no need to worry about the story lines in all the TV Soaps because nobody can watch.  Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man happier, wealthier and wise.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Slippery Dealing

It is apparent that things world wise are not going entirely well, but it might be worse, it seems for a billion years in the past it became difficult.  Essentially, the world was stuck in the slime and took a long time to get going after a hesitant start.

We could be heading in a direction when most of humanity is stuck with little to do other than complain or revolt.  If the latter happens then the chances are that it will all be worse.  At present the Ukraine is a possible example.

If reliable money and contracts are the oxygen of modern economies and we are close to losing them to live in a hit and miss collection of societies what exactly will happen and where is very uncertain.

At the moment there is no settled state and few predictions that are reliable.  Those researching the uttermost particles of matter are now split between those who want to go further in the name of science and those who cry halt on the grounds that the strangelets and mini black holes could shrink the Earth to a small ball of lifeless frozen matter

At least it would end the argument about whether the HS2 is desirable.  In fact it would end all the debates forever.  But if humanity does go on for any length of time we can expect bigger and nastier events as the stresses mount and our failings prevent us from sensible or effective relationships.

One failing we have at present is to consider how far our world is finite in terms of its resources and what we can demand of it.  With much of Somerset reduced to slime this may be just the start.

This is what you might call a "sticky" post.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

The Play's The Thing

According to Zero Hedge today, the hymn sheet we should be singing from is tell me the old old story dealing with the London property market and its risks.  It has the engaging idea of Cameron, Carney and Osborne acting as three witches chanting their nostrums over the cauldron.

As this concept derives from The Scottish Play, name forbidden to be mentioned because it brings ill luck, this has an added poignancy to the business.  Another bubble, another crash could have many unexpected consequences in the coming months. 

It is my thesis that the London property market began to go wrong in the 16th Century with the Dissolution of the Monasteries, which included almost all the religious houses.  The rush to get in on the act when that property hit the market had many and various effects.

One was that a Midlands property agent and developer became an impresario in the fashionable public theatres buying into the new celebrity culture of the time.  With a shortage of decent and popular entertainments to fill them he started scribbling his own, being an ace cut and paste writer with a gift for words.

One was The Scottish Play, sadly with an ethnic stereotyping of that nation being run by a pack of aggressive nobles who would stop at nothing in their ambitions, could not be trusted and engaged in deceits.  How unlike the family life of our own dear leaders. 

Perhaps William Shakespeare was writing about the London property markets but felt obliged to remove the story in time and place.  There was a lot of hot money around as the landed classes piled in with their increased incomes from larger land holdings.

Among the many complications at the present day is the issue of so many properties being left empty with many not paying Council Tax because ownership is hidden abroad.  When new projects are being marketed internationally first as investment this is adding a great many more to the unoccupied listings. 

Even where Council tax is being paid, it is far less than those elsewhere.  Add to that the many residences used for short periods.  This is compounded by other matters. 

In the 1911 Census one of the questions asked was the number of rooms available for family and residential use, sculleries, laundries and closets etc. excluded.  For very many the idea of a bedroom to yourself was a fantastical prospect.  Essentially, those on low incomes or some form of support would be found as lodgers.

Today, in the Benefits row, if a single unemployed person is in a two bedroom rental on benefits then to reduce the payments to cover only one is regarded as a vicious tax and an affront to human rights.

That unrestricted payments and massive state support for rentals has played a large part in the property bubble which is going to leave everybody worse off in the end is disregarded.

Worse still, and to the horror of all, more and more families are beginning to live together and for rather longer than they expected. It could get back to the 1950's. What we do not realise is that if another crash occurs and the inflows continue it may be back to 1911.

In 1851, in a very high class residence in Lowndes Square close to Hyde Park in London, I counted 39, and this was one of the richest men in the land.  And he hadn't dug out the basement to provide for increased room.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Animal Crackers

Imagine, last year it is going into Autumn and in the public bar of our local, "The Four Horsemen" suddenly I have this urge.  Not that one, but to stand up and predict the future rather than football results. 

I see a great mist and as it moves there is a man.  He is in waders and paddling through the great waters towards a deceptively spacious semi-detached bungalow in a desirable area close to the river and facilities.  He speaks to the residents.  They are cast down in misery.

"Money is no object!" he prophesizes as they try to shout him down.  "All that must be done will be done!"  Then I see that it is our Prime Minister who should be touring the world with his flunkies selling London property and anything else worth flogging, such as large banks or public utilities.

The vision is of England under floods and the political panic arising when most of it is in Tory constituencies vulnerable to marginal shifts in voting patterns. 

The other people in the pub begin to talk to The Lady about whether it is time for me to lay off the fizz and change to Complan and to ask for medication. 

Yet it has come to pass and did anyone predict it?  Not precisely, but it is apparent that many locals and experts had become concerned about the flooding risks. The evidence was there and was mounting up.

They were ignored, largely it seems because the Environment Agency (EA) was stuffed at the top level by pension seeking political's who were at the wacko end of the greenies and for whom drowning farmers had become an acceptable blood sport; along with eco terrorism such as blowing up pumping stations and trashing dredgers.

They along with the agri brigade at DEFRA laying bare the fields and hills to grow maize for corn syrup to promote obesity and for bio-fuels and factory farm fodder had ensured major run off of water which helped to turn bad weather and a few severe storms from a testing situation into a disaster.

What these departments and agencies have in common is the need to relentlessly search through the small print of all the Euro guff for some passing sub section or mention that will either justify their nonsense or enable them to claim that they were only obeying orders.

How this will all play out and to what effect is an open question.  I am not going to make predictions because apart from The Four Horsemen there are the Four Pitbull Terriers of prediction to worry about and they are on the loose again.

They are, in no particular order, Unintended Consequences, Unforeseen events, Chaotic Situations and Collapse Dynamics.  If you think we have had enough of these in recent years, then Brother, it is only just beginning.  The world is becoming ever more complicated.

So we demand of governments that they tell us what they are doing and intend.  They come up with documents, at vast cost, and all sorts of ideas, plans and programmes.  These are not their own but put to them by interested parties who will either gain or more likely profit by it.

It is clear that neither the political chiefs nor the administrative quasi-servants masquerading now as managers know all that much about any of it.  But confidence and certainty is vital to selling the dream.  But one or other pitbull terrier will turn up and chew the dream to ribbons and that none of them will really know how to deal with it except to throw more money at whoever comes up with best excuse or get out clause.

When it comes to knowing, suddenly our weather forecasters are telling us about the Jet Stream and its implications.  For decades this has not been a secret, but something rarely if ever mentioned because it might confuse the peasants and detract from the forecaster's authority.

Now they have this big globe that they tell is us the world with the Jet Stream which itself depends on other things in the Pacific.  In other words they are but helpless interpreters of great natural events in the planet.  These can be many things, some predictable, many not.

So as Cameron and our other political leaders wander the waters they might well consider that they are essentially a bunch of helpless and often useless interpreters of things they little know and understand less.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Decisions Decisions

Trawling round the web for something, almost anything, different from the current issues that are rumbling away came across two items that have an affinity.  Apparently, in the USA scientists suggest that things can happen fast in that the magma at Mount Hood can change from solid to ready to go in a couple of months.  

This one is alleged to be a volcano that oozes rather than blows, but you never know.  Another article on another page to do with the past says that it could an ultimate big one if there are enough volcanoes that are big enough to do for us all which blow in series. 

The joy of reading this kind of material is that it reminds us of just how trivial we and all our obsessions are.  It also tells us that where there are complex entities which we cannot control or do not fully understand things can happen a great deal quicker than expected and with wide and serious consequences.

One thing little realised in the government and media is how change has altered the pace of things.  As a tiny example, yesterday I dealt with the electric bill.  From the decision to do it to finish online took me five minutes, the meter read, the bill calculated and paid.   Just a handful of years ago this would have been impossible.

The trouble is that if the supplier loses the picture or their system goes wrong then they rapidly have a chaotic situation on their hands.  It could do a lot of damage and at worst lead to a collapse in their system.  If we look at a good many of our government services we see too many potential systemic crashes possible.

At the same time the expectations of the great majority of people are that our very complicated and intricate systems must work well all the time.  In the event of disruption we expect that all will be put right quickly and effectively.  Yet in the interests of cost and price reduction we have been eliminating spare capacity and alternative options.

Currently, we have Syria in chaos, with others in a similar situation.  The western media think it cannot happen to any of them while at the same time they do not realise that they are putting the pre-conditions in place for one type of breakdown or another.

As for all this water, instead of getting rid of it fast, should we be trying to store it against the prospect of drought?

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Hole In One

It was decades ago when a local council, going on site to put up a new school on what had been allotments with sheds, found that the bulldozer had gone down a big hole.  This was a mining district where coal had been taken even in the Middle Ages.

Monks from the local monastery, or perhaps lay employees or tenants had extracted coal from shallow bell shaped pits.  Then there were no tunnels etc. just Bell pits dotted about all over the place, without much logic and long forgotten.  They had been capped at some time in the past.

As well as these there were the remains of other workings, both for coal and other minerals where found.  Again these were from another age and there were no records of them.  The more extensive of these had an added problem because like modern mines a movement of rock etc. could be transmitted along any fault line.

Our ancestors had been very busy underground mining and digging for many reasons all over the place.  I recall reading Harmsworth Magazines at Grandma's from the 1890's with articles about the long established salt mines of Cheshire causing local towns to become lop sided.

All these and nature too have endowed us with potential problems for now and the future and any of the shifts of activity or other causes can give us a nasty surprise or shock.  Such as instead of fairies at the bottom of the garden a cavern opens up and the car insurance does not cover it.

The closure of the M2 because of a big hole, luckily in the central reservation, is said to be a Dene Hole, not a Sink Hole.  The Vikings are blamed for it, because they were as busy as any others in digging for materials.

So you never know.  Add to this the matter of the water table.  In many urban areas at one time industry and related activities took out a great deal of the underground water. 

As this industry has declined in many places the water table has been reinstating itself.  The effects of this could be interesting and unpredictable.  Be careful of basement flats or storing the family treasure in one.

Depending on what is underneath, how it relates to other strata and the geology there is a great deal of potential for events and issues in many place.  Whether the insurance industry or government can make some sensible arrangements or cover is a real question, is it a Euro responsibility?

As we build more, reshape more and redirect nature more there are going to be a lot more issues, events and unexpected happenings.  Don't bet on it, you may be on a loser.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Orations And Nations

Now that Mark Carney and George Osborne have reminded us of basic monetary realities regarding the currency, following the line of this blog, we revisit the tiresome politics. 

We are told that across Scotland the young males have fled weeping from their sushi bars, coffee shops and cocktail lounges to be comforted by their mammies, grannies and favourite aunts, or something like that.

Indeed in Edinburgh the lawyers are besieging the Human Rights agencies asking for protection for their sterling holdings in various off shore tax shelters.  The SNP claims that the Osborne, the bully boy Irish paperhanger, has kicked them where it hurts, in their marginal rates of interest.

There could be worse to come.  At 5.15 this evening, Friday, in a live web video event from the London School of Economics Jose Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission is to give voice.  What it will be about is not known.  It could well be about the whole relationship of the UK to the EU.

If he does not say anything directly on the Scottish Question it would be as well to deconstruct the text and see what is not being said to see if there is something hidden there in the densest verbiage.

In a couple of days time, the speech will be posted on Youtube for all to see and debate.  How it will be listed is not known.  Perhaps somewhere between Count Duckula and Brigadoon.

More interesting is that Big Osbo published the Treasury document, signed by no less than the Permanent Secretary, an elite Westminster gent' called Sir Nicholas Macpherson, see Wikipedia, late of Eton, Balliol, and best of all University College, London, home to the remains of Jeremy Bentham, the Utilitarian, an expert on happiness.

The name gave the DNA a twitch.  Up in Greenock on the Clyde there is the grave of Highland Mary of Robert Burns fame, see Wikipedia, known as Mary, but said to be baptised as Margaret Campbell from Dunoon.

There is a large statue to her memory there by the harbour, picture above.  The grave belonged to a Dunoon and Greenock Macpherson family, then a Peter, who were her relations. 

Could Peter be of the same family as Nicholas?

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Laying Eggs For The Future

If it walks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck then you have a theoretical basis for assuming that it may be a duck, unless, of course, it is politically inconvenient to be linked to ducks or the things they do.  Then the trick is to have a line to the effect that it is something else and hope to have the media onside.

Most, if not almost all, the crises, major debates and issues of the present conform to this basic proposition.  Nothing is as it seems, there is always something else.  We wander lonely as a cloud and those are not daffodils, they are an exotic species that just look like them.  But it is more like a fog and we are hurrying along a mountain path in a thick one.

So when situations move towards the phase of becoming chaotic and difficult choices have to be made, the chances of choosing the least worst option diminish.  Possibly the risks of taking entirely the wrong course increase rapidly.  Once you take the wrong turn at a critical juncture then all the ensuing turns will be wrong.

It goes against the human psyche to admit mistakes, for the most part, so even when things are evidently wrong, we crash on regardless and persuade others to follow.  On our mountain path in the fog sooner or later there is a risk of walking off the cliff. 

In the last decade or two there have been many examples of leaders going over the edge, crying for the led to follow them.  Unluckily there are now many of the led ignoring them and just wandering about regardless in the hope of finding a right way of one kind or another.  When many of them bump into each other they resolve the differences either by fighting or some form of mutually destructive behaviour.

The answer that many give to the question what is to be done is to stand still or go back to an earlier situation, although that situation is no better, we just think we know more about it. 

When economists and their ilk talk about "equilibrium" this is a notion that there is a natural balance.  When political philosophers or cultural theorists talk about society, it is one that did not really exist, just one that historically they think did when it never did in reality.

When environmentalists talk they have the idea that there was once some sort of past balance of nature that can be reclaimed and enforced despite the slight technical problems, one of which is the doubling of world population every fifty years.

Those who claim to be futurists and predict how things will be can use only dodgy data of the present or their imaginations.  One lesson from the past is that developments and event occurred that nobody might have imagined what could follow.

As for the economics, it is my thesis now that there is no such thing as an equilibrium, there never has been and there never will be.  Add to that all our theories of society cannot work in the world that is to come.  As for the environment we have no control whatsoever about the future.

It will all just happen.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Leadership For Beginners

With all the wars, crises, major problems and oncoming disasters there was the intention of doing a considered item on the subject of political Leadership.

The general idea was to display deep and challenging thinking and the rest of it, if only to show the world what they have lost by leaving me to surf the net.

It seems that Wikipedia has a long article on the matter and as it is nearly time for a cup of tea that will have to be skipped.  In any case Niccolo Machiavelli is one of my favourites.

An approach would have been to compare and contrast leaders of the present to illuminate the debate or something.

Then I saw the Dilbert Cartoon for today, above, which says it all.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Different Similarities

After booting a first job is to check the Obituaries to confirm my continuing presence and to retrieve the memory of any bits of my past that connect. 

Today in the Telegraph list were two that seemed to be in sharp contrast.  One was of the former child film star Shirley Temple, 85, and the other Stuart Hall, 82, the Jamaican born English cultural theorist cum political philosopher.

Both have Wikipedia pages and other listings telling their stories as well as the summaries in the obituaries.  Shirley went on to a distinguished career in politics in later life, Stuart has been credited with the thinking that created major planks in the Labour Party policy making of the last three decades.

Neither are any personal connection but both had an influence one way or another.  My parents were regular cinema goers and as for some reason neighbours were reluctant to sit or take me in I was dragged along. 

There were certain films where one was restive.  Any romantic film, ugh Charles Boyer, or child stars, oh no no not Shirley Temple or Judy Garland might well lead to the cinema manager having a quiet word.

The result was that while very many of my parent's generation and those following bought into the notion of The American Dream, Hollywood and media style, I did not.  But thanks to the men of the US 82nd Airborne Division and contact with ordinary Americans, I did have a healthy respect for them and their capabilities.

Quite why I did not bump into Stuart Hall at some stage is one of the accidents of life, simply that we were not in the same place at the same time.  Basically, his ideas about culture and society were derived from, related to and part of the warp and weft of the metropolitan Left and people of the post war mid 20th Century, they are listed in the biographies. 

A couple of years in a London Secondary Modern school in the 60's would tell you some things but it was far from typical of the British working classes around the country and nor did he see much of manual work, factory work or the basic public services that existed then. Bluntly, he like his academic associates was always well removed from the daily grind.

So today we find ourselves in a culture and way of living in the UK that is defined by a global media celebrity and entertainment industry that saturates our communications and politics. 

This is largely based on that of the USA which has grown and expanded since the early 20th Century.  Shirley Temple was part of that and for a brief space of time promoted an ideal of childhood.

Stuart's ideals made for a woolly notion of theoretical culture and meaning.  This was supposed to derive from the working class but that class now and in the coming generations are far removed from those of the past in almost every way. 

His idea's were oblivious to either technological change or the pace of radical reshaping of work patterns, movement and the basic thinking patterns of so many people compared to what some of the Left thought they should be. 

So now we have a Labour Party based on cultural theories that bears no relation to realities.  It is little wonder they were bought so easily by the extractive financial and media industries that had emerged in the late 20th Century.

Two people so different yet so much alike in being party to the selling of illusions of life that were fictions of the mind.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Playing A Blame Game

As the problems and risks mount over the flooding in England so does the blame game.   The media are giving us dire ire, anger, gratuitous insults, back stabbing and the full range of political evasions. 

There goes the old myth about we Brit's pulling together in adversity.  Some do and some don't and it is not too difficult to predict who will be what.

On the basis that there must be a scientific explanation other than the debate whether it is about climate cooling or warming or sheer cussedness there is this item from the cartoon web site xkcd for people who like their minds bent.

If England is floating out to sea then there is a serious worry about the direction.  One way is Europe another the Bermuda Triangle.  You can't win.

The ancient Romans may have had a way with dealing with all the pundits and politicians arguing.  Their environmental solution could have been to put them into an arena with a lot of hungry lions.

At least it would have been entertaining.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

To Repeat, What Foreign Policy?

This was written in June 1910.  Has anything changed, or if so, inevitably, has it changed for the worst?

Among the forgotten nooks and crannies of Westminster there is a little place, well a big one, called the Foreign Office.  Once it was the Mount Everest of the Civil Service but like the mountain is now a much visited tourist attraction. 

Also it is strewn with the litter of visitors, liable to cause unpredictable damage and has lost both its mystery and purpose.  It has been redecorated recently but we may need to restore it to its former glory of function.

The Foreign Office was one of the first Whitehall departments to assume a more modern form back in 1782.  The two separate departments that had dealt with matters in foreign parts, the Northern and Southern Departments were merged into one. 

It was Jeremy Sneyd, Head of the Northern Department and former Private Secretary to Prime Ministers, who is regarded as the person responsible. 

Jeremy, born in County Cavan, whose maternal grandfather had King Charles II for a Godfather, and who rode with the Government cavalry at Preston in 1745, was close to Sheridan and his circle.  In the past he had paid off Goldsmith’s liabilities to his servants and associated ladies. 

He was probably the man who arranged the bail outs to some of those worst affected in the Great Crash of 1772.  At least it gave him a property in Cleveland Row by Clarence House, a handsome estate in Hampshire and an acquaintance with the Austen’s.  This is the essential tradition of the FO, insider knowledge is a wonderful thing to have.

However, the bringing together of the opposing elements in handling Britain’s relationships with the world did not mean ending the conflicts.  It internalised and disguised them.  Many times in the recent past our Foreign Policy, such as it was, lurched from one stance to an opposing idea and from one hasty deal to another that was even more hasty and ill advised.

At least much of the policy was at least our own and as far as possible in our own interests, as the government determined.  Posterity often disagrees but history is a moveable feast. 

From time to time it involved making deals with more or fewer other governments jointly and with respect to their needs.  By and large, however, we remained free from permanent set up’s which fixed the ways and means of conducting international relationships.  After the debacle of World War I, this changed. 

There was now a League of Nations and a growing number of bodies and other organisations to which we became committed.  At the end of World War II with now the American’s involved as well as many others the number of international bodies, agencies, treaty commitments and other forms of negotiation and decision increased rapidly and extensively.

By the 1960’s it was impossible to conduct any sort of independent policy.  The major constraint was the Cold War need to follow the American’s, but there were others.  We liked to claim that we led the way but only like a poodle leads its mistress. 

In the 1970’s we bought a ticket to the Great Maze of Europe and since then the only diplomatic triumphs our politicians have claimed are those where they have taken on more binding commitments, membership of this or that at a huge price and giving away both our law and sovereignty to more or less anyone who asked for it.

In the last three years the world has turned.  Just as Foreign Policy and Foreign Affairs was relegated to one of the disregarded and last of the interests of our media and under Blair and Brown the least comfortable seat in the sofa of government, we may well need to learn how to do it for ourselves all over again.  We can no longer play “Follow The Leader” because we do not have any leaders any more.

But the Foreign Office is no longer what it was.  Like the rest of Whitehall it has been hollowed out of its essential past functions and turned into another PR/Management freak exercise meeting targets for sales talks, sales fairs, sales conventions, contact lists media spin circuses and attending meetings on how to keep all our masters happy. 

The baby that was the capability for analysis of information and intelligence as a basis for policy has been thrown out with the bathwater of real international communication.

One of the main problems this or any government faces is with the radical change in the way the world works, who matters and we our need to formulate and structure a well thought out and effective Foreign Policy. 

To do that the Foreign Office has to change again and soon.  It no longer means churning out reams of garbage based on redundant management and financial theory or fancy fictions about how we intend to make Ruritania's in revolt and chaos our kind of place.

You cannot run a real foreign policy on the notion of added value.  Also the Foreign Office is not there just to be a sales office, agency for the latest financial dross dreamed up in The City or a personal service for all those Brit’s who travel abroad and find out the hard way that others have different ideas about personal conduct.

We have a Foreign Office but need a real foreign policy.  The present office would not know where to look for or recognise one if it found it.

Jeremy, where are you now?

Saturday, 8 February 2014

What About Italy?

It is an old adage from some forms of study, aerial photography being one as well as some historical research.  "Look for what you cannot see". 

The media and news we see tell us some things, but it might be that we do not realise the other matters, which could become critical.

In Europe and with potential world impact there are the problems of Italy which have not gone away.  Last year there was some attention to the serious situation there and comment.  But we have not heard much lately.

Italy is a relatively new country, only around 150 years old since it was brought together by nationalist movements and the urge for an Italian identity.  It has had its troubles, largely arising from two world wars that it became involved in and which led it into the European Union and the Euro block.

The stresses are building up and as they do with a decline in nationalism and a reversion to local traditions, including different forms of corruption and fractured criminal engagement in politics, could Italy suddenly revert to separate entities?

Would the inheritors of Piedmont want the territories returned that were surrendered to France as the price of its support?

Friday, 7 February 2014

The Naming Of Names

Our Prime Minister, David Cameron, has made a speech, said to the emotional case, on the independence referendum in Scotland.  This was at one of the 2012 Olympic venues at Wembley, the Velodrome for cycling.  It is for the kind of cycling race where you go round, if not in circles, then in a sort of oval.

Cameron, for those in foreign fields, is a distinctive Scots name, one of a famous Clan with many septs.  In the case of our PM it is said that his forebear was a humble crofter who descendants made good in the Union and left for England.  A couple of canny marriages added extra genes as well as more money.  A Royal forbear entails a Stuart ancestry. 

In England there has never been a King David, although there has been in Scotland.  There are David's in Wales whose Patron Saint is a David.  This kind of interchange is only to be expected in an archipelago such as the Atlantic Isles where long coastlines and internal waterways have enabled movement.

The response of Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland, is a joke that Cameron should confine himself to bothering about the Somerset Levels.  At one level this is a cheap shot, on another nasty.  This is a disaster with many human tragedies involved. 

Why Salmond suggests it is funny because it is in England when he would not dare to say the same in the case of other disasters elsewhere is indicative of a lack of moral perspective. This is in line with his casual attitude in my purely personal opinion to violence, threats and the rest that amount to condoning them.

There is a Scottish dimension to Somerset.  Lord Chris Smith, the head of the Environmental Agency whose policy was to drown the Levels was educated at the George Watson's College in Edinburgh, almost within spitting distance of Holyrood.  It is fair to assume some Scots blood there somewhere. 

The MP for the Somerset Levels, who uncharitably wants to put Smith's head down the toilet and pull the flush is Ian Liddell-Grainger of a landed Scots Berwickshire family with a substantial Scottish and Royal ancestry going back to the Stuarts.

So what of our Ultra Scot Salmond?  According to some sources this name has Anglo-Saxon origins.  Also, his mother was a Milne and similar sources suggest also a Saxon origin for the name.  Perhaps their forebears came up the Rhine on the same boat in the ninth century and finished up in Scotland because of an error in navigation, they were really looking for Essex.

More seriously, as any family historian knows as you track back and the number of ancestors rises sharply from one generation to the next all sorts of unexpected people turn up from many places and with varying beliefs and origins.  Salmond's vision of the ethnic purity of the Scots ancestry may well not apply to him at all.

The Mail recently has been dabbling in the web sites that deal with genealogy and has come up with a number of people who are related who you might not expect to be.  Perhaps their interns could have a look at Salmond's and see who turns up.  It could be fun.

In 1852 the ship, the HMS "Birkenhead", built in 1845 at John Laird's yard in that town, went down with great loss of life.  On the ship were the 74th Highlanders among others, the Wikipedia article gives the details.  It became famous for The Birkenhead Drill where the rule was women and children first to the boats while the men stood firm.

The ship had struck a rock in uncharted waters off the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa.  Captain Robert Salmond RN who organised the drill, went down with his ship.  Throughout the Victorian age and after the tragedy was a noble example to all.

As the SNP go into uncharted waters if Scotland's ship of state goes down you can be sure that the SNP will be first to the boats with any loot they can carry cracking jokes about those who are lost.