Sunday, March 30, 2014

The dangers of nationalism

Patriotism, as we know, is the last refuge of a scoundrel or, as Oscar Wilde put it, the “Virtue of the Vicious”. And yet still today there is patriotic tub-thumping on, it seems, every occasion. And we even have a political Party, UKIP, and a wing of the Conservative party predicated on what they see as patriotic principles.

Some patriotism is benign if a bit daft (worship of the Monarchy) and some rather engaging (support for sporting teams which represent the Nation). But when patriotism is blind and when it is strongly negative about those who are seen as not being of our tribe it becomes dangerous. This is when Patriotism becomes Nationalism.

“My Country right or wrong” that jingoistic aphorism is the war cry (often literally) of nationalism. We saw it at its most venal during the Falklands war. Nationalism from the Argentinians when they invaded the Falklands and nationalism from Britain when we took them back. Was the shedding of so much blood really worth it to take a nationalistic stand to either annex (Argentina) or recover (Britain) some sparsely-populated dull and distant islands just because the Union Flag flew there and a couple of thousand vaguely British types lived there? One combatant was to die, and three times as many were to be injured, for every two Falkland Islanders in this absurd nationalistic adventure.

Whilst the situation in Gibraltar is not so lethal (two EU powers are hardly likely to come to blows over such a territorial dispute) the case has similarities. Gibraltar is part of Spain geographically but was taken by force by Britain 300 years ago. The case for British sovereignty, as with The Falklands, is legally strong but it is so archaic and anachronistic that it needs urgent review. It is worth remembering that Britain had sovereignty in perpetuity over Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. Only the New Territories had to be handed back to China in 1997. But Real Politick determined that the whole Territory was handed to China – the idea that some nationalistic fervour should have caused Britain to dig its heels in and try and hold on Hong Kong is absurd

The cases of The Falklands and Gibraltar are not dissimilar to that of Hong Kong. In both cases only a misplaced and out-of-date nationalism makes Britain hold on to them. But what about the people I hear you cry? Don't they have rights? Indeed they do. But if we could put nationalism in its guise of “Sovereignty” off the table the problem would be solvable. Britain could concede sovereignty to Argentina and to Spain but lease the territoires back for say a hundred years and co-jointly with the sovereign power undertake to protect the interests of the residents of the two territories. Britain would confirm that these people would have full British nationality and Argentina and Spain would grant them self governance. The Argentinian and Spanish flags would fly, but the people of the territories would run the places. That is what happened in Hong Kong (the British nationality aside, shamefully) and it works!  

The history of the twentieth century was one of clashes of nationalisms. The most evil of the various ideologies – Fascism and the  “Communist” totalitarianism of the Soviet Union and China - were selectively countered by the democratic West. Hitler was defeated militarily, as he had to be, but the not much less evil and no less nationalistic Stalin was an ally. The United States disastrous adventures in Vietnam and in the twenty-first century in  Iraq and Afghanistan were carried out under the nationalistic banner of the “Stars and Stripes”. The dangerous and unquestionably nationalistic dogma of American and “allied” Neo-Conservatism caused untold misery and distress – and it still does.

The very basis of Nationalism requires us to define the Nation we promote or defend. Vladimir Putin’s annexation of the Crimea is nationalistic in that he declares, with some justification let it be said, that Crimea and the Crimeans are Russian. In essence this has been welcomed by Crimea because they see themselves as more Russian than Ukrainian and the decided that they couldn't be both, so they chose Russia.

Which brings me to Scotland. The de facto Scottish National Anthem, “Flower of Scotland” contains the following lines:

“Those days are passed now
And in the past they must remain
But we can still rise now
And be the nation again
That stood against him
Proud Edward's army
And sent him homeward
Tae think again”

The key words here are “We can still rise now, And be a nation again”. Nominally this refers to Bannockburn (1314) but in fact, of course, it is to a Scottish Nationalist equally applicable today. Many of them will mean when they sing it be an independent nation again. Only with a positive (“Yes” vote) outcome to the referendum to be held in September 2014 will, they believe, this occur.

Scotland is a Country, historically and actually and nobody would question that. If “Nation” is used as a synonym for “Country” then Scotland is a nation and there is no need for it to rise and become one. It already is! But the word that takes the argument one step further is “State”. Here we are talking about governance and in that respect Scotland is only partly a “State”, but mostly not. It has a Parliament but that is effectively a regional assembly because it is, or could be made to be, subordinate to the Parliament of the United Kingdom – which is the “State” to which Scotland belongs, of which it is a constituent part.

The question that the Scottish voters will be answering in September is:

"Should Scotland be an independent country?"

The key word here is, of course, “independent”. For the Scottish citizen however it is rather more complex than that. It is essentially a nationalistic question. He or she is being asked whether they wish to give up their British citizenship and exchange it for a Scottish one. But trim away the citizenship issue and if we must accept that Scotland cannot be a “Nation State” within the United Kingdom. It can be, as it is, a “Country” within the UK and arguably also a “Nation” – but it cannot be a State without being independent.

Scots have two choices. The status quo under which they are (mostly) residents of and emotionally connected to Scotland as well as being citizens, not of Scotland, but of the UK. They are Scottish as well as British. That's choice one. Choice two sees the Scots breaking all governance links with the rest of the United Kingdom and in this case “Country”, “Nation”, and “Nation State” would become synonymous.

It is not for nothing that the SNP are “Scottish Nationalists” – it is the rawest form of Nationalism to seek to be independent. This is very similar to the pitch of UKIP regarding the UK and Europe. UKIP believes that all decisions in respect of the governance of Britain should be taken in Britain, not in Brussels. The SNP believes the same about Scotland and the UK - Edinburgh not London.

Those of us who abhor nationalism, especially in a British context, would argue that the interdependence of Nation States these days makes it inconceivable that Britain should not be a member of the European Union. Is the EU a “SuperState” as critics charge? Well yes up to a point it is. But do the French or the Italians or the Germans feel any less French, Italian or German because their countries  are also members of the EU. I very much doubt it! And nor should we. Similarly I see no problem with Scots being proudly Scottish and proudly British at the same them. There is no anomaly here. Britain is an entity that was arguably as much created by the Scots as it was by the English (and the Welsh and some of the Irish as well of course). But that is for the Scots to decide. Back to patriotism. Can you be patriotically Scottish and patriotically British at the same time. Of course you can. Look at Andy Murray, or Chris Hoy. Can you be a British Nationalist and a Scottish Nationalist at the same time? No. And my hope is that none of us will want to be either of these things. Nationalism has left too many war graves around the world, led to too much slaughter of the innocents and is inclusive and profoundly dangerous – as history teaches us.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The ghastly "Bash the BBC" brigade are out in full force again. Let's Fight them !

The ghastly "Bash the BBC" brigade are out in full force again. Let's Fight them ! Let's be crystal clear about this. The idea that the funding system of the BBC needs reviewing comes only from Right wing obsessives who cannot stomach the idea of Public Service broadcasting. They are the same people who want EVERTHING to be privatised. The Health Service included. It is pure ideology and it only gets media space because the rest of the media (BBC aside) would benefit. Pure self-interest mixed with flawed ideology is a dangerous mix.

We are all to ready to run down our institutions in Britain - unless there is obsequious mileage to be gained. The Monarchy for starters in the phoney "Best of British" category. But when we have something genuinely special, genuinely unique, genuinely world class the shallow obsessives of the Right come along to knock it. The BBC is first in line. And yet travel the world over and you'll be told that Britain is held in esteem - when it is - because of the BBC not in spite of it. And when you tell those who praise the breadth and depth of the broadcasting in the BBC output that it costs every household 40p a day they look at you incredulously. How can it be so little for so much. What a bargain. Which of course it is.

The Licence Fee is an essential element of the BBC. Even if you only listen or watch a small part of the Corporations output it is still a bargain. I pay more for my Times online subscription! And for Sky I pay four times as much for a tiny fraction of the benefit. Rupert Murdoch has stolen British sport and I have to pay his take it or leave it rip-off charges to watch football and cricket. I despise him and what he has done but I have no alternative. That is the model the "Subscripion" enthusiasts seem to want for all Broadcasting! Well it is nonsense and to suggest that the BBCs output be paid for in the same way is preposterous and offensive. 

We will fight to the limit the BBC bashers. They will not win. 

The Predictable, and boring, Mr Hodges


Dan Hodges has become the Pub bore. The person who inspires you to move seats or even pubs to escape his predictable rants. He recycles the same old anti Ed Miliband polemic in every article. Here is the latest version. It is neither informed nor original any more, if it ever was.

Journalism is about more than having an opinion and then peddling it at every opportunity. A degree of balance would be welcome. But failing that how about Mr Hodges actually thinking whether he has anything new or original to say before he drafts another piece. Or how about the Comments Editor saying to him "Come off it Dan, you've done this. Again, and again and again. I'm not paying for it any more.”

Sunday, March 16, 2014

So am I one of your "Hardworking people" then Dave?

So how's the "Big Society" going for you then? Remember that idea - we all work together for the benefit of society at large and volunteer in droves to do so? Well I haven't heard much of it recently have you? No the new slogan is about "Hardworking people" who are lauded - as compared with? Well what? Slackers I suppose. Well I worked, quite hard at times, for 37 years. Certainly over those years I worked the hours I was paid for, and some that I wasn't paid for as well. If you're an Ex-Pat, which I was a lot in the latter half of my Shell career, you don't clock in and out. It's, as we didn't say at the time, a 24/7 job! 

When I retired I did so to do other things. That's how it was ten or so years ago. The Pension gave you the chance to choose. So I chose. Some of it was voluntary - doing things that seemed worthwhile and not seeking to be paid for them. Some of it was vocational - writing a book and enjoying the thrill of having it published. Some of it was quite well rewarded - the odd bit of consultancy and specialised journalism. That's how I balance my time today. I'm busy doing, mostly, things that I enjoy. Lucky me. Am I "hardworking" ? Not really. If I need a day, or a week or even a month when I do very little I take it. I'm quite energetic when I do do things. But pretty laid back when I don't.

So David Cameron am I one of your "hardworking people" ? You call my State Pension "Welfare" - that's not how I see it. I worked hard for 37 years, paid my taxes and the State Pension, to which I contributed with National Insurance, is my right. Deferred benefits if you like. My Shell Pension is the same. Deferred remuneration. So where do I fit in your "hardworking" model? A burden on the State, the Health Service and the rest? Or someone who deserves your respect. Someone who deserves more than to be marginalised or even vilified as your colleague David Willetts has done with his cheap shots at the Baby Boomer generation. Do let me know, Dave. There's an election around the corner. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The UK Economy is a long way from Happyland

You don't have to travel far to find a Conservative politician who'll tell what we need is tax cuts. You don't have to look hard to find a Labour politician who'll argue that cuts to public expenditure are a sin. But in reality on both sides they are living prematurely in Happyland - and there is a long way to go before we have arrived in such a place where either becomes possible. When we get there, if we do, then it would be useful for both main Parties to say what they would do. How we give the peoples' money back to them is a matter of ideology. Traditionally Conservatives favour lower taxes (though rarely deliver them). Traditionally Labour favours new and/or improved Public services (though rarely provides them cost-effectively). But we are so far away from the point where this debate would be for real that it is profoundly unhelpful to have it now. The hard reality is that the gap between Government expenditure (including interest payments) and Government income (primarily tax) is so large that neither ideology-driven choice is remotely possible.

The economic future is bleak. Internationally China looks highly problematic and the global spin off from a Chinese crash would catch the UK as it would all major economies. The Eurozone has made considerable progress but only a fool would say that Europe's recovery, such as it is, is assured. And in the USA there are signs of greater protectionism and inward-looking attitudes, especially on energy, which substantially decouple the world's largest economy from the rest of us. 

In Britain there is no alternative to moving towards getting a balance in the budget before any tax cuts and/or increases in public expenditure are achievable. Labour knows this and whilst there are some contradictory rhetorical flourishes from some Labour politicians which catch the headlines Miliband and Balls know that "tax and spend" would not only be a dishonest electoral pitch, it would be irresponsible. They won't do it. Similarly, as the smarter Conservatices like Mark Field are saying, to promise tax cuts when you know you can't deliver them for the foreseeable future would be to cheat the electorate.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Ukraine is a European problem and needs a European solution

In a post on the ConHome website Garvan Walsh, who was National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party until 2008, says this:

"Military action to defend Ukraine from Russia may be out of the question, " 

May? MAY ? There is no "may" about it surely. Would he seriously suggest that there is the tiniest doubt on the matter? That the UK could launch some attack on the forces of Russia over Ukraine? Of course not, even the most deluded of Neocons would not suggest that. So why "may" ? 

Walsh's proposals might give the rather self-satisfied anti Russia orators of the moment a warm glow and let them claim the moral high ground. But they will have little effect given that they are mostly words, or how you say them, than action. 

He also says "...developing a coordinated Atlantic response takes time".  Why "Atlantic response"? This suggests that Britain would determine its actions on Ukraine in a bipartite way with the United States when of course the primary partners for action are the fellow members of the European Union. Walsh fails even to mention the UK's role within Europe to help solve the problems. Ukraine is in Europe's back yard and is indeed a candidate for EU membership in time. With or without Crimea. Primarily European problems need European solutions and it is with our European partners that we must primarily work.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Brief thoughts on the BBC and the Licence Fee

The BBC is rightly considering all aspects of its operation in the light of the stringent real terms cuts imposed by the current Government. I very much doubt that they will acquiesce to the abolition of the Licence Fee, and nor should they. I agree it's regressive. But exceptions are made and the quantum of 40p per day per household is peanuts and affordable by nearly all. 

It is a British disease to slam what is good whilst doing nothing about what is bad. The BBC is not perfect, but it is our greatest institution by far and the envy of the world. It is under scrutiny, and should be. But those on the Right who lambast the Corporation - backed as they are by those like the Murdoch media who would be beneficiaries of the BBC's decline - do our nation a huge disservice. If only they were just as vocal about bankers' bonuses and tax avoidance! 

Friday, March 07, 2014

Andrew Neil is right. "Peak Oil" is a very long way away!

Back in the early 1980s I worked in Energy forecasting for Shell in the Netherlands. Energy supply and demand is a complex and interesting subject. On the supply side we analysed all Primary Energy sources - basically oil, gas, coal, nuclear, hydroelectric and renewables. For the first three (the hydrocarbons) we were dealing with finite resources. Every tonne of them we consumed depleted that finite resource. That was not in dispute. The areas where there were differences of opinion were about the size of the reserves per se, and the amount of these reserves that could be commercially exploited. How much did we have and what percentage could we extract?

Reserves are a function of man's capability to find hydrocarbons. The extractability is partly technical - did we have the actual ability to get the reserves from the ground so that we could use them? It is also a commercial issue. Given the current price of energy was it economic to produce? Could you cover your production costs and make an acceptable return? 

The oil companies assessed reserves, as did independent bodies and governments. One of those involved with whom I had some contact was the Erasmus University in Rotterdam and especially their Professor in the appropriate Department Peter Odell. He was a colourful and clever man one of whose claims to fame was that he believed that oil companies, including Shell (for whom he had once worked) were far too conservative in assessing reserves. 

Over time Peter Odell was proved right. The main driver of this was technology improvements. The ingenuity of scientists and engineers to extract more oil or gas from a reservoir just grew and grew. This was helped by a rising oil/gas price. At higher prices fields that were not economic at lower prices became attractive. This was a virtuous circle as the commercial driver facilitated the technology advances. Similarly the search for new resources was done in the context of a paradigm which said (say) if it cost $10 a barrel to produce but the market price is $20 it's worth doing.

The idea of "Peak Oil" - a point in time when oil/gas production peaked before falling back was and is in the lexicon. But Peter Odell never believed it and, after a while, nor did I. The most obvious area where this is currently true relates to oil and especially gas from Shale. Twenty years ago the ability to exploit these reserves did not exist. Now it does and this means that, for example, the United States can become self-sufficient in hydrocarbons. An almost unthinkable possibility as recently as five years ago! 

Any exploitation of commodities like minerals and hydrocarbons must be done in an environmentally friendly way. Shale reserves can only be utilised if environmental controls exist. But if they do there is no logical reason why these massive reserves cannot be used. 

Intellectually it is true that at some point in the future oil and gas production will peak. But it is a long way off. Before then technology,  ingenuity and political will should  allow us to use resources that not long ago we didn't even know we had let alone how to exploit them. Peter Odell told us this thirty years ago - he was right. He still is!