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Saturday, July 09, 2016

There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen

A millennium ago, in 1016, the people of England were going about their daily business of growing sheep and suchlike and probably didn’t realise that, these being days long before universal suffrage and representative democracy, they were about to become part of a Scandinavian empire and without a referendum. This happened when the Saxon King Edmund Ironside died.

Why? Well, the Saxons had already chosen Cnut as their king but London opted out and went with Ethered’s grandson Edmund Ironside. Then, as now, London was another country.

When Ironside died, London couldn’t hold out and Cnut the Great became the King of England. He was the Son of Sweyn Forkbeard a daughter of the King of Poland (bloody Polish kings coming over here and taking all of our monarch’s jobs). He was a grandson of Harald Bluetooth. He became the king of Denmark in 1018 and the King of Norway in 1028, forming the Anglo-Scandinavian North Sea Empire. This Empire, it has to be said, did not last very long but following Brexit, who knows!

Five hundred years ago in 1516, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was on the way to becoming biggest country in Europe. It eventually stretched from the Baltic down to the Black Sea and was powerful enough to invade Russia and occupy Moscow. I’m sure the inhabitants of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (which, by the way, had a very interesting constitution that included porto-democracy) thought that it would last for ever and found it very difficult to imagine any other form of government or, indeed, sovereignty.

Two hundred years ago, in 1816 (remembered as “the year without a summer”), in the newly independent United States of America (which was having another go at forming a central bank) the last-ever Federalist Party candidate lost the election to previous Secretary of State Monroe (just as the last-ever Republican Party candidate Donald Trump will lose to previous Secretary of State Clinton). America instituted a series of tariffs against British goods, deciding that following the war of 1812 it no longer wanted to be in a free trade alliance with us. Now we have TTIP.

One hundred and fifty years ago in 1866, there was a Latin Monetary Union, or “Victorian Euro” as I think about it. It was created by France, Belgium, Italy and Switzerland  but was later adopted by countries ranging from Peru and Venezuela to Serbia and Bulgaria. Another late joiner was Greece, in 1867. Greek economic problems meant that they began debasing their version of the currency and they were chucked out in 1908 and then let back in 1910. Ultimately the whole thing fell apart because countries printed paper money that wasn’t backed by a bimetallic reserve and it formally ended in 1927 (although the Swiss continued to mint coins to the LUM standards for size, weight and fineness until 1967). In 1866, people must have thought advantages of a single currency unarguable.

A century ago in 1916, the last Emperor or Russia, must have found it very difficult to imagine any other Russia than the feudal state he ruled. When Lenin (who once said that the best way to destroy the capitalist is to debauch the currency) led the October Revolution, overthrew the government and established a one-party state the average Russian must have been utterly astonished at the turn of events. Sometimes, things change really quickly. I’m not for one moment suggesting that Brexit is a revolution (far from it) but sometimes profound change can come along relatively quickly.

A generation from now, in 2056, who knows where we will be. It seems to me, though, that one plausible scenario is that set out in Gill Ringland’s report for Long Finance. She envisages a world dominated by cities rather than countries (which fits with my world view, the Jane Jacobs “Cities and the Wealth of Nations” perspective of economies as cities and their hinterlands). In such a world, where the mayor of London has more power than the Prime Minister and London’s trade deal in services with Beijing is more important than the UK’s trade in goods with China, we will probably remember the European Union much as we remember the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Sterling as we remember the Latin Monetary Union. Neither the United Kingdom nor the Pound Sterling are laws of nature.

I know, I know, in the long run...

My point is that the referendum went Brexit. So we should live with it. I don’t like referendums. The idea of a “constitutional” referendum to decide a complex issue by a one-off simple majority, seems daft to me. Richard Dawkins had a point when he asked why we were being asked to vote on this at all, especially when we’re not allowed a referendum on anything else (e.g., capital punishment). And we’re going to have months, years of uncertainty before we get back on an even keel and will undoubtedly suffer economically through this period.

“If there are issues on which the populace at large should be trusted to vote, something as complicated and economically sophisticated as EU membership is definitely not one of them.“

From Richard Dawkins accuses David Cameron of 'playing Russian Roulette' with UK's future over EU referendum | People | News | The Independent

I know it sounds elitist, but I kind of agree with him. But we are where we are. I was marginally on the remain side, but I didn’t imagine that the EU would last terribly long in its current form or that Euro would survive. I thought in another decade or so we’d have a renegotiation following a euro collapse and new EU would emerge from those discussions with a core or business-class EU centred on France and Germany and an outer EU centred on us and our Scandinavian friends (hence my fantasies about the return of the North Sea Empire!).

Shit happens.

If Brexit does happen in its current form, which seems far from certain, we’ll be fine. We’ll end up in TTIP, we’ll have a trade deal with the single market, we’ll have a free trade zone with the Commonwealth and so on. The thick as pigshot Brexit racist arseholes who are out setting fire to the sheds of Polish taxpayers will be defeated and the dire warnings of the Remainers will fade.

The title, by the way, is another quote from Lenin.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The way forward for British politics

The most important political event of the year here in the UK, bearing in mind the degraded nature of our democracy and the nature of modern political debate, was the edition of the BBC's flagship public political discussion programme, Question Time, that featured both Nigel Farage and Russell Brand.

Russell Brand pre-prepared his best lines when appearing on Question Time and read them off cue cards, Nigel Farage has said as fallout from the pair's on-screen clash continued to rumble on.

[From Brand read his best Question Time lines off a cue card, Farage claims - Telegraph]

Brand is like Farage in so many ways. Neither of them seem terribly smart and they are both much less charismatic than they think. They both promote a populistic rehashing of genuine grievances and benefit from the real feeling of alienation abroad amongst the populace without proposing any rational or even plausible solutions.

Now, on this point, I cannot help but observe that what constitutes a sensible solution is hard to determine. I have noted before, as have others, that policies advanced by the Monster Raving Loony Party and dismissed out of hand by the establishment, and the media (and, indeed, the public) have a strange habit of becoming mainstream thinking once there’s been some water under the bridge, 

All-day pub opening hours, “passports for pets” to avoid them having to go through quarantine after returning from holidays abroad, lowering the voting age to 18, and the abolition of the 11+ exam because it’s “the wrong age to take an exam that affects you for the rest of your life” are all measures we have in place today.

[From What are the Monster Raving Loony Party’s election plans?]

The lesson of history comes through loud and clear. Policies that appear Loony at first will eventually be implemented by a future Labour government. But now, our politics have fallen to a state where endless coalitions mean that Loony policies will not get the attention that they deserve from future Parliaments.

The solution is obvious. Russell Brand should become the leader of the Monster Raving Loony Party and forge it into a powerful opposition force to provide an alternative to UKIP. This will transform the British political landscape back into a two-party system, the UKIPpers and the Loonies, where the parties stand for something different. He should do it soon, so there is plenty of time to get Russell’s plans for a socialist egalitarian paradise into the manifesto in plenty of time for the election.  It will sit nicely alongside existing manifesto commitments.

We will ban all forms of Greyhound racing. This will help stop the country going to the dogs.

[From 2010 GENERAL ELECTION MANIFESTO | The Official Monster Raving Loony Party]

There are plenty of other policies from earlier manifestoes that Russell could draw on to create a policy document to change the political landscape for a generation. Like Russell, I think we should focus on the economy, where the Loony proposals for a 99p coin (to save on change in shops) and a campaign to persuade European countries to leave the Euro and join the Pound will engage a public  that it is not too comfortable with numbers. I’m sure Russell can add to this list with little effort. Encouraging people not to vote is an excellently Loony manifesto commitment, as is the idea of the Occupy Movement giving “the people” hope (I’d wager that at least 51% of the people have never heard of the “Occupy Movement”).

I want to go back to time when the two main political parties had clear and different ideologies, an inspiring vision for Britain in the 21st century and leaders that television impressionists (e.g., Mike Yarwood) can work with. This is how to do it! Russell do not let the people down!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

John Cooper-Clarke is a prophet as well as a poet

One of the reasons why our society is doomed is that it has no moral compass.

Facebook said breastfeeding photos have never been against the firm's Community Standards, but nipples had to be covered or concealed.

[From Facebook removes mother's breastfeeding photo - Telegraph]

So. Pretending to rape women on MTV is OK for Facebook, and I'm sure you can find a zillion Robin Thicke or Miley Cyrus videos (I didn't look, because I didn't want my interest in them to be misinterpreted on some GCHQ computer somewhere), but a picture of a nipple is beyond the pale. Never mind Facebook, this is Modern Britain in a nutshell. Our greatest living poet, John Cooper-Clarke, saw all of this coming a generation ago. In one of his greatest works, a heartfelt rage against the truly bizarre public morality abroad in a United Kingdom, he wrote:

“This paper’s boring mindless mean
Full of pornography the kind that’s clean
Where William Hickey meets Michael Caine
Again and again and again and again
I’ve seen millionaires on the DHSS
But I’ve never seen a nipple in the Daily Express.”

You’ll Never See A Nipple in The Daily Express (John Cooper-Clarke).

The Bard of Salford says it all.

In the future, everyone will be famous to fifteen people.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Time for slow TV

The recent success of Scandinavian television in the UK has been quite surprising. "The Killing", "Borgen" and "The Bridge" were stalwarts on my iPad for many months. But I think the next wave of Scandi-TV might be even bigger. We need to look beyond Denmark and beyond Sweden: Norway is the next big thing.

Since then, “slow TV” has become a staple of Norwegian public broadcasting. In 2011, more than half the country watched a cruise ship’s 134-hour journey up Norway’s west coast.

[From Big in Norway: Slow TV - Olga Khazan - The Atlantic]

I think I will add a slow TV element to my campaign to become the next Director General of the BBC. I have in mind a camera mounted on the 18.15 to Portsmouth Harbour via Woking as a regular feature. I'm also thinking about a channel that is nothing but someone reading (in full) all new legislation coming from Parliament for people who find the train too stimulating.

Of course, I'll need a famous face to get it underway. The most talentless, uncharismatic and boring television presenter I can think of is Claudia Winkelman, so I think I should get in touch with her agent right away.

[Addendum] When I wrote this post, I assumed that Claudia Winkelman was married to someone famous and that was how come she was on TV but according to the wikipedia link she is actually a hereditary celebrity and is on the BBC because she has famous parents.

In the future, everyone will be famous to fifteen people.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Our tax system is almost completely wrong

There’s an excellent piece in the July 2014 Prospect magazine by Philip Collins called “What is tax for?” in which he notes that almost half of the tax raised in the UK is income tax (ie, a tax on work) and only around one-twentieth is tax on land and buildings. He calls the case for tax property and land “excellent”, and I agree. We went down the wrong path on this a couple of hundred years ago and have never recovered from it. He also calls for the re-imposition of capital gains tax on the primary residence: I’m not so sure about this, because I wonder if it might be better to abolish capital gains tax entirely in order to encourage more people to invest for their pension-free futures, but I’ll have to think about it a little more.

Talking about direct taxes, Collins calculates that a 1% tax on land value would be sufficient to abolish corporation tax entirely, which would surely benefit the nation in many different ways. Apart from encouraging more people to invest in businesses here, it would also begin to redeploy to the legions of clever people at accountancy firms who spend every waking hour trying to dream up tax loopholes to apply themselves to more productive enterprise.

In the future, everyone will be famous to fifteen people.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Wolf of Woking

I just couldn’t sleep on my last long-haul flight back into Heathrow. One of the reasons what that they guy next to me, who was a lawyer for one of the big international law firms (and had spent ages marking up a long document with Rothschild written all over it, so not short of a bob or two I would imagine) was watching “The Wolf of Wall Street”. This probably the most socially-irresponsible film to be exhibited to still-forming teenage brains since ‘Rock Around The Clock” had them tearing up the seats in cinemas the length and breadth of the country. If you haven’t seen it, it’s about a fraudster who becomes a multi-millionaire building a bogus trading business and eventually gets arrested and sent to jail. His victims were left a couple of hundred million dollars out of pocket. The eponymous hero goes to jail for a few months and is then released to a new life. Propelled in no small measure by the success of the film, he is expected to earn $100m this year from books, speeches, corporate gigs and personal appearances. Once he’s paid back the $50m that is his share of money owed to investors, he will still be quids in. Crime doesn’t pay? Really?

The lawyer was chortling all the way through the film, and my teenage son loved it too. How am I now to persuade him to go off to University to do something socially-useful like engineering or science? The message he got from the film was that cheating people out of money, provided you wear a suit, is excellent fun and delivers girls aplenty.

In the future, everyone will be famous to fifteen people.

Thursday, February 13, 2014


Guildford Shakespeare Company

Holy Trinity Church, 5th to 22nd February 2014

I’ll save you the trouble of the reading to the end. This is a brilliant production, not to be missed.

The story is well-known. Iago, angry about being passed over for promotion, determines to destroy Othello, the "Moor of Venice” (a character many believe Shakespeare based on the Ambassador to the king of Barbary, who visited London around 1600), and sets about deceiving Othello into believing that his wife Desdemona has been unfaithful. It’s a play about jealousy. So I knew all of this, although I hadn’t read the programme or any notes about the play, when I sat back hoping to be entertained and surprised. I certainly was, but I was also shocked, because I was unprepared for the intensity and depth of emotion that the play stirs up in the hands of such talented actors.

Somehow the interplay between the atmospheric environment of Trinity Church, the “double stage”, the clever lighting and the intimacy set up by Caroline Devlin’s excellent direction worked to heighten and make compelling Chris Porter's outstanding Iago to the point where I almost wanted to jump up on stage and attack him myself.  The play was compulsive from beginning to end. I couldn’t take my eyes off the leads as the action switched from stage to stage.

Matt Pinches seemed to inhabit Cassio effortlessly and David Carr’s Othello had the nobility needed to make the play set off on the right path but I thought that the women stole the show as it moved to its tragic close. The way that Nicola Hartley played Desdemona was perfect to her end and the Emilia’s final speech was delivered rich with emotion, right at the edge but never over the top, by Rosalind Blessed (who, it turns out, is the daughter of noted thespian Brian Blessed).

I’m not sure that the “Cold War” theme completely worked for me. If it wasn’t until I read the other reviews of the play that I realised that that was the point of the 1950s staging. I thought it was 1940s staging and I'd taken the uniforms to represent British or American troops in Italy in 1943 or 1944. I’m a man, so how am I supposed to tell the difference between 1940s dresses and 1950s dresses? But the reason that this did not resonate with me was that the war between Venice and the Ottoman Turks was not a Cold War in any sense. In fact it was an almost continuous extremely hot war, or more accurately, series of wars, seven in all, that ran from 1463 to 1718. Cyprus, where most of the action takes place, fell to the Turks in 1571 following the siege of Famagusta after which the city, surrounded by 100,000 Ottoman troops and 1500 cannons, surrendered and the Venetian commander was flayed alive.

I really appreciate the opportunity to see theatre of this quality. I fell asleep still thinking about Othello’s feelings towards Desdemona and how they mutated in response to the information he was fed. Run, don’t walk, to the box office and beg, steal, or borrow a ticket to see this wonderful production before it ends on 22nd February.

In the future, everyone will be famous to fifteen people.