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Saturday, 19 August 2017

Trump Trumped?

At seven o'clock this morning I saw from my window in Bakewell what was perhaps the most perfect rainbow I have ever seen. The colours were brilliant, the bow was complete and behind it the rain clouds were dissipating quickly. From my radio I heard comment on the departure of Steve Bannon from the White House: and it would have been easy to take the atmospheric phenomenon in the English East Midlands as a portent of better times to come in the District of Columbia. But to ascribe to natural events, whether it be the positioning of stars in the zodiac or a trick of the light in the Peak District, as an indication of the future trend of events in politics, in society or in one's private life is to abdicate responsibility. The management of one's conduct in the circumstances where one is placed in life is the sole responsibility of the individual; and the people who went out last evening in Barcelona to oppose immigrants [especially Muslim immigrants], and the contrarians who went to oppose them, were each responsible for being there however far they may have participated in mob behaviour if things had become any more stressful.

Similarly, the events in Virginia earlier in the week showed divergences in people's reactions to circumstances; and the President of the United States [possibly with Mr Bannon's advice] made a major mess of responding to it. It is possible to read President Trump's reaction as a perfectly comprehensible determination not to endorse the 'left', who show an increasing tendency to violence and intolerance. The president now has a huge task of deciding what he means, then of saying it consistently. The removal of Mr Bannon should help, at least a little, in this process. Mr Bannon appears to have an obsession with war. In the last couple of days he has argued that the spat with North Korea over nuclear weapons is a sideshow; which has distracted the president and the media from the 'real war' that is the trading relations of the two dominating economies. It is more important that Bannon should be whisked off the official stage if he is correct in his assessment than if he is wrong: incendiary utterance [written or spoken] can be hugely damaging in the resolution of a matter of such complexity as US-China trade relations, which will take decades to resolve satisfactorily.

Bannon has said that he will now feel free to wage war against the president's enemies. He will surely find that as the president is managed into moderation 'the president' [or, at least, the presidency] will become the target for more and more opposition and abuse from Mr Bannon's shrinking cohort of ultramontane conservatives.

The question has now become explicit: can Mr Trump be controlled so that he can be made to appear as a more intelligent and sensitive person than he has displayed over the years? I call to mind the image of Woodrow Wilson, a two-term president who had redrawn the map of Europe but failed to get the US Congress to agree to the treaties that created the League of Nations, who spent his last months in the White House as a shriveled shadow 'managed' by his wife. The image of Trump constrained by a kitchen cabinet, and thus protected from impeachment and not allowed to resign, is intriguing perhaps my rainbow was a portent, after all?

Friday, 18 August 2017

Constitutional Conformity

The absence of a 'written constitution' in the United Kingdom has enabled the political class to elevate the office of Prime Minister to a level where almost all the powers of a medieval monarch are now concentrated in the small clique of people who control the country from the complex of buildings that have a modest front door at 10, Downing Street. The Prime Minister is personally responsible for the actions and statements that emanate from the buildings, though it is manifestly impossible for the responsible individual to produce the required throughput of work personally. Nevertheless, the general tenor of policy and the basic substance of statements must reflect positions that the PM is willing and able to defend.

One of the greatest mistakes that has been made by "number ten" in modern times was the decision to hold the referendum on EU membership of the European Union on June 23, 2016. Having been given the means of showing their contempt for the political class [in London and Brussels, especially] and having been pumped-up with ludicrous scare stories derided as 'project fear', a  narrow majority of the electorate voted to 'leave'. No particular means, terms or conditions for leaving were adumbrated, and this has enabled the 'Brexiteer' minority of Tory MPs insistently to pressure 'number ten' to adopt a perilous path that may well end up with the UK being economically isolated. The isolation of the UK by U-boats in two world wars almost starved the population: economic isolation could have a similar effect. 'Number ten' is not yet aware of that prospect; which probably means that they will sleepwalk towards it.

Meanwhile, in the USA the written Constitution has heavily been researched as this this-skinned, vain and intellectually challenged president displays increasingly challenging behaviour. On taking office, Mr Trump was determined that everyone should believe that his tenure was the most popular in history; hence his and his spokesman's absurd insistence that the crowds who gathered for his inauguration were the biggest ever. More recently, his extreme sensitivity has been shown by his abolition of his consultative bodies with US capitalism as soon as a few members resigned. His remarks about the riots that surrounded the statue of Robert E Lee in a small Virginia town have sparked a major storm, providing leverage for the left-inclined groups who want to be provoked by him to challenge everything that he says or does, and everyone who appears to align themselves with him. It is now a matter of speculation whether he will become bored with criticism to the point where his ego forces him to resign, or whether he will be goaded into actions that qualify for impeachment.

In both the USA and the UK there are campaigns to demolish statues of colonialists or slave owners from past eras, and to remove their names from the schools, colleges and hospitals that they founded. In some colleges, History, Sociology and Politics have degenerated into shouting-matches where 'white men' are blamed - as such - for all the misfortunes that have befallen 'white' women and men whose skin colour includes any hint of genes that are not definable as 'white European'. Academic institutions have been captured by people who promote these ridiculous non-historical assertions, and where any dissent is suppressed.

Women and minorities [including the men in many white minority groups] have been oppressed all over the world through many centuries; but such oppression is less prevalent now that it ever has been in the countries that one would recognise as being constitutionally democratic. It is possible to construct an argument that Robert E Lee was leading a campaign for states' rights, as a legal principle. The fact that victory for the Confederacy would have enabled him and his officers to keep their slaves is undeniable; but it can be argued away as a subsidiary matter to the constitutional principle. It suits the new left in the USA to ignore the constitutional issue altogether, and just to concentrate on the history of oppression and the perceived need to eradicate oppression [and all memorials to its perpetrators]. In so doing, they are prepared to use undemocratic and unconstitutional means to make their point: and thus they bring up the danger that extra-constitutional 'direct action' can be justified. President Trump is displaying an ability to fan the flames of such a movement, and could thus become very dangerous indeed. His way of defending the Constitution could endanger it.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

The Uses of University

The principal social purpose of universities today is to keep around 44% of the age group 18-22 out of the jobs market and [in the main] in a life of sufficient social indulgence to keep them from radicalisation in support of any real or imagined cause. In England [which forms the bulk of the population] the cost of achieving this objective has been shunted from the state budget into a La-la-Land where it appears as a debt owed by the graduate community; which no one believes will be repaid in full, or even in half. The fact that the interest that is added to the accumulated debt has now increased to more than 6% - compound - makes the dream of repayment even more laughable.

It is still argued in some quarters that the universities have an economic purpose, to train the inventors of the future and to nurture some of the best researchers as teachers in the universities who combine their pedagogic work with the selection of the best students to join their research teams who will thus extend and perpetuate their work. This happens, on a depressingly small scale in comparison to the massive size of the university sector overall. Some buildings that were provided by the state in the nineteen sixties and seventies for university schools of science - especially of applied science and engineering - have been 're-purposed' to take some of the expansion in social studies: especially business and media. Where applied science capacity has been maintained, since the mid-seventies it has been occupied by an increasing proportion of overseas students [at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels] who mostly take their skills to competitor countries after graduating. Around the best scientific, medical and engineering departments have been gathered spin-off companies, which have developed innovations formed in the academic context into potentially successful businesses. Where these grow into conspicuous successes, the probability of them being taken over and developed by aliens, rather than by British capitalists, is overwhelming.

It is also worth noting that much of the best spun-off development has been in business parks funded by richly-endowed colleges, especially in Cambridge; which have been better resourced that spin-offs from Manchester or Sheffield Universities. Bullshit about the Northern Powerhouse has drawn heavily on the resources of the universities in the region for its rhetoric: but the Oxbridge endowments have not been matched by state funding for spin-offs from the multiple universities in Leeds or Birmingham.

The chief function of the universities is indeed to maintain intelligent young people in suspense over a period of years in which they have a good chance of being softened by drink, drugs, sex and idleness, or of being diverted into sports and hobbies that absorb their attention in ways that are not economically or politically disruptive. The school results that determine which university and course [if any] pupils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland will take up are being announced today, and the universities are competing vigorously to attract the best talent [insofar as it is revealed by A-level results]. The short-term motives for this are to be able to claim a 'high quality' of intake to keep a flow of good applicants coming to the university, and to get their fees through the university's books. The longer-term objective is to be a survivor when the inevitable cull of the over-bloated higher education system is begun. Economic and social usefulness will then be asserted as the criteria for selection as to which institutions should be culled and which retained: but the objectivity and validity of those criteria will be subject to challenge. The outcome, as to the size, shape and orientation of the higher education system cannot now be predicted.

There still are great scholars and sensible researchers in the British higher educational system. One such has just challenged the increasing optimism of government and the media about the extent of the oil and gas supplies that can be gained by fracking shale. He has gently suggested that the shales that are to be found in the UK are mostly too new [in Geological terms] to yield much that is economically useful. So another bubble may be about to burst: which shows how important it is - and always has been - to develop and retain the applied sciences: they can provide counterbalance to the fantasies that emerge from the Econocracy, which currently corrupt far too great a proportion of the university population.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Brexit and Ireland

At least since the time when the only English pope 'asked' King Henry II of England to take full possession of his Lordship of Ireland, there has been an endless and fascinating sequence of tense relations between the rulers based in Westminster and the people of Ireland. Several times, kings and the Cromwellian republic tried to settle conformable populations of Scots and English in Ireland, and between 1670 and 1690 the great Sir William Petty wrote extensively about his plan to resettle half the Irish population on the island of Britain and/or in British colonies elsewhere, replacing them in Ireland with Brits, so that a short period of interbreeding could eradicate the difficult characteristics of the native Irish. Often, British policy in Ireland has been highly revealing about the actual character of British government and the real intentions of British policy.

Thus the publication yesterday of a less-than-half-baked paper on the future of the Irish border under Brexit is in that revealing context. As I have commented previously in this blog, the present UK government can not possibly give effect to any sort of Brexit that involves leaving the European Economic Area whilst retaining the policy of austerity. Actually to erect realistic customs borders and controls on the passage of people all around the UK - which would be necessary before Britain could begin to trade with anybody under the rules of the World Trade Organisation, outside the EU - is totally incompatible with austerity.

Yesterday's UK government paper on the Irish border rejects any hegemonic physical line, either on the land border between the Republic and Northern Ireland or enforced by frigates in the middle of the Irish Sea. One radio commentator summed up the potential control methods as "an iPad in every truck's cab". Interestingly, this looks as if it would put the primary cost of compliance with any new system of "technological" border and customs control onto the private sector; but, of course, billions of pounds would have to be spent for the government to acquire the equipment and train up and pay the skilled people [who probably do not exist anyway] who would be needed to create and maintain the records that would be needed of the passage of people and goods over the borders. The notion implicit in yesterday's paper is simply potty.

Both the British and Irish government are adamant that there cannot be a hard border in Ireland: not just prosperity, but also peace is dependent on free movement of people, goods and arguments.

Ireland will prove to be a sticking-point: the first - and probably the most fundamental - of all. Any genuine Brexit is not affordable to the British state, even if Osbornian austerity were relaxed. Corbyn will not understand this; but, more importantly the headbanging Tory Brexiteers - on whom Mrs May relies for her parliamentary survival - will not understand it: some because they do not want to, and some because their intellectual capabilities do not stretch that far.

The Irish Question will again be a determining factor in British history: and [as Sellars and Yeatman said, in their inimitable 1066 and All that] the English will never solve the Irish Question because whenever they come up with an answer, the Irish change the question. This is certainly the present situation, where the new Irish Prime Minister has set new terms for the discussion of the border: and we can be sure that the great bulk of the European Union will back him to the hilt. Nigel Farage and the 'hard Brexiteers' will claim that the electorate is being betrayed as a 'transition period' mutates into continuing membership of the European Economic Area [but without membership of the Brussels political set-up]. The 'betrayal' will come from the incomprehension and incompetence of the political class: against which a majority of the nation voted on 23 June 2016. Hence, the political class - the very people who are least trusted by the nation - froth and posture about 'taking back control'. They don't know how to do it, because there is no affordable way to achieve it within their mental universe.

Interesting times indeed.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Draining the North Sea

One of the most frequent assertions made by critics of the government's austerity programme is that the UK is 'the fifth richest country in the world'. This is correct, in terms of the recorded turnover of the economy, the Gross National Product. But the country has been living on its reserves of capital, goodwill and material assets for many years [probably since 1915], and has disgracefully been wasting the talents of its people; not least, by selling off their inventions to foreign companies who then reap the profits from the ideas. The medium-term prospects are bleak, even before one considers the idiocy of the politicians who the rest of us allow to remain in control. The position paper on the Brexit process, issued today, dreams of a customs union of undefined size, shape or duration: more like something from a naive fourth-former than from the government of a great country: I will leave that concern aside today, and look instead at two basic facts.

First, coal. Britain led the world into modern industrialisation, using the abundant coal resources under the ground and under the surrounding seas [as in County Durham, where pits stretched a couple of miles beneath the North Sea]. The entire coal mining industry [with trivial exceptions] has been shut down, as other countries use old British ideas to develop uses for coal that do not involve atmospheric pollution. If we decided to return to those developments, we would be far down the queue.

Second, oil. Before North Sea and Irish Sea oil reserves were discovered, I grew up in Lancashire with the legend that the Romans' main reason for coming to Britain was to exploit the 'Tockholes Treacle Mines': a tale vindicated when oil was found in the area; and now a focus of protest as [further west, towards Blackpool] fracking is under way. When I was an undergraduate in Durham the university was demonstrating that there were potentially massive oil reserves under the North Sea. This geological observation was confirmed, and oil deposits are still being found offshore all around the United Kingdom.

The availability of that oil came just as Mrs Thatcher's deindustrialisation of the heartlands of production was developed, and it helped to balance the country's payments while a huge proportion of the population was deprived of the context in which they could work profitably, providing exportable commodities to exchange for the imports that are inescapably necessary. Instead of building up a massive investment portfolio, as Norway and the Gulf oil-exporting countries have done, the UK just mitigated the accumulating deficit with the rest of the world by its sales of oil [and by not needing to import so much as oil as would otherwise have been needed] as the unemployed and early retired were maintained, exiguously, on benefits.

Then, in 2016-17 [according to figures from HM Revenue and Customs, published early in July], the amount paid in tax by the companies that exploited our diminishing oil and gas reserves declined so far that the rebates paid to companies for decommissioning former oil and gas wells [and other permitted expenditure] exceeded the amount of tax payable. It was bound to happen one year: our luck means that it pretty well had to occur at the very time when Brexit loomed. Back in 2011-12, when Osborne was just stepping up the austerity programme, net revenue from oil and gas was £10.9 billion; in 2016-17 the net figure was MINUS £312 million.

The numbers will get worse, with occasional relief as new wells are opened and new ways of exploiting abandoned reserves give a short extension to the 'life' of some facilities.

These facts are so horrific, in their implications for Britain's economic survival [let alone, its tenure of the fifth place in the big league table] that they have largely been passed over by the media. We must not forget them: they must be a spur to new action and new thinking about the whole shape and future of the economy.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Brexit: Trouvez la Femme

So now we know, for sure; definitely.

As on the previous Sunday, when I went to get a copy of the Mail to check on the context of remarks by Vince Cable, so yesterday I bought the Telegraph so that I could read exactly the piece attributed to Philip Hammond and Liam Fix. It was cited on the radio as representing the formation of a joint strategy for Brexit, and thus the conclusion of a cabinet spat that has been reported over this year's 'silly season' by much of the media.

It was a short piece, attributed to the two men [and doubtless accepted by them] but indubitably crafted in 10, Downing Street, and polished by party professionals. It represented what had generally been understood to be Mrs May's position ever since she made her sublimely idiotic remark that "Brexit means Brexit". Since it was coined, derived from 'Grexit' which meant the threatened departure of Greece from the eurozone, the term Brexit has simply meant "the departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union, in response to the referendum decision of 23 June 2016". Mrs May was asked how she interpreted the terms: did it mean withdrawal from the European Common Market and the Customs Union? Did it simply require departure from the political institutions only? What mix-and-match of possible options did she favour?

None of this has been clear: either in her much-cited 'Lancaster House Speech' early this year or in her disastrous election campaign. Nor has it been any clearer whether she favours a 'hard Brexit' [undefined] or some 'softer' version. Two things that do appear to be consistent in her few and often oblique remarks on the matter are:
1. Her proclaimed determination to reduce net immigration: the great 'failure' of her six year tenure of the Home Office which she apparently thinks she can achieve from Number Ten. If she does achieve it, she will alienate industry and commerce, the universities, and the immigrant communities from the Commonwealth who had seen a reduction in EU immigration to the UK as a chance for them to bring more friends and family members into the country.
2. Her equally definite declarations that there is no place in the UK post-Brexit for the European Court are equally likely to make for an extremely difficult negotiation with M Barnier on trade matters that should be straightforward.

Lewis Carroll, in one of the most brilliant satires on society, has a character declare that they can think of six impossible things before breakfast. Mrs May, without saying anything on those lines, has made it abundantly clear that she has one impossible thing on her mind all the time: the removal of the British economy from its European Economic Community context without significant damage to Gross National Product or to the standard of living of the mass of the nation.

It now appears that Fox and Hammond have accepted that they must both support this point of view, at least publicly and for time being. This is a consensus that cannot last. The crisis in British politics will continue: well done, David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Odious Osborne!

Sunday, 13 August 2017

The Expulsion of the Holy Ghost

The vast majority of the population of Europe, including the United Kingdom, has severed any material connection with the Christian religion. Thus the immense number of quotations from the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer that are used in daily speech have been severed in the public mind from any appreciation of the texts from which they come.

When the Muslim population are speaking English, they virtually always deploy religious phrases in Arabic; which is the language in which they hear them in the mosque; whatever may be the language  used by the preacher in linking the religious phrases with the point that is being made. Thus very few quotations from the Koran have come into everyday secular English usage.

As one of the minority of the population who still does regularly attend church, I am increasingly aware of how few Anglican churches make any use of the King James Bible and of the Book of Common Prayer in their regular worship: thus for many young people who are taken to church the resonance of the 'old' phrases has been lost. In most churches awful, clumsy late twentieth-century versions of the official liturgy are giving way to non-liturgical 'popular' or 'family' events where the clergy simply make up what they think the congregation will find a happy experience. In other cases, the laity are simply encouraged to use the space, lighting and heating of the church to create their own event; with the intent that they shall go home feeling 'better' for the encounter. Traditional, authoritarian preaching is at a huge discount among Christians and Jews; while Islam faces up to the problem that some traditional preaching can easily verge on 'Islamism'.

Among the secularisation and debasement of religion, which is particularly prevalent in the Church of England [where it has driven away the majority of former adherents], to me one of the most interesting changes has been the removal of the 'Holy Ghost' from the usage of the clergy. Almost universally, the phrase 'Holy Spirit' has supplanted the ghost. I can find two reasons for this:
1. In the relatively recent English Language Mass, the Roman Catholic church adopted the 'Spirit';
2. Naive Anglican clerics, whose training includes little reference to [or respect for] traditional usage of any kind, are told that the phrase 'the Holy Ghost' might make people think of spooks, boggarts, zombies and other scary creatures of the human mind.

Such clowns do not seem to realise that 'spirit' can also refer to a powerful intoxicant, and thus their adoption of the term 'Holy Spirit' is simply carried forward. The words of well-known hymns are changed to incorporate this, and other changes of usage that are thought to be more politically correct. The result has been to remove both beauty and character from the Sunday services that become an unwelcome duty for people who can remember better days.

The occasion for writing thus is that I received during the past week the annual Report and Accounts of the Prayer Book Society, and realised that fewer than four thousand people - in the whole wide world - care sufficiently about maintaining some use of the Book of Common Prayer as to contribute to the body that makes efforts to allow all candidates for ordination as ministers of religion to handle, read, think about and - possibly - use the root source of what used to be the strength of the Church of England and it affiliates worldwide.

I have long anticipated a reaction against the shoddy state of the Anglican Church; but there has been no serious sign of it. One could, just possibly, take a sort of comfort from the emergence of radicalism in the Muslim population; in that young people are seeking to express their contempt for the degeneracy of contemporary society: even though that search can lead to jihadist destruction of society and of the perpetrators . It is a very sad fact, that such a search for enlightenment can lead to medieval violence and social oppression. There must be a better way, for the people who could benefit from any of the world's great religions.