Blog

14 october 2017, harold’s house

An englishman's home is his castle. Harold's backed onto a large, enclosed green where, before a ww2 rocket flattened it, a victorian school stood. The neighbours argued over what to do with their common backyard before a bold group across the stream bandied together, took out a big loan and eventually built a golf club. Harold, who had been patiently cultivating a perimeter rose garden with a couple of the other neighbours on his side was not happy. The club though was a great success and after a while all the neighbours signed-up to become members. Harold learnt to live with it. Membership brought a steady income and open access to the bar and spa; he even convinced them to refurbish it with a massive jacuzzi. The club also though brought tourists to the village, a new road and the extension on the other side eventually made the club practically a town centre: loud, rowdy and open all hours. Somehow, it just wasn't what harold wanted, so one day he walked in and handed over his resignation. The other members were rather surprised, but it was soon forgotten amidst a big discussion about the cost they'd been quoted for superfast broadband. Whilst his resignation was processed, harold, who had rheumatism and very much needed a daily dip to stop it becoming a serious health problem, continued to use the club spa, the only one in the area. He bumped into the club secretary, who was a little bit flustered, as she was trying to work out exactly how much harold's part of the club loan should be now the bank needed to set-up a whole separate repayment plan and she wanted his view on how to work it out. She also mentioned the 1974 trophy he'd captained the team to, which though it rested on harold's mantelpiece was actually club property. Harold missed their meeting the next day, but instead called the administrator, just to make sure his pass still worked. The next board meeting was tetchy. Some members enjoyed harold's company and were open to him still hanging around, especially those that knew about his rheumatism. Others though were annoyed: we're partners they said, if he wants the benefits, then stay a member. Sitting in his living room a month later, harold ignored the insistent knock at the door. He knew it was the club secretary, again, who wanted back the trophy and his pass. By him was the bank's confusing letter insisting he sign the direct debit authorisation to cover his portion of the later loan the club took out for the new bridge across the stream. He turned up the volume on the tv, but his joints were aching, so as soon as she'd gone it would be time for him to pop over for his daily dip...

7 october, now always #timeforachange

Never has british politics been more precarious. This is not though because of brexit, but a symptom of the same malaise. Setting aside the prime minister's triumphant conference speech (well done, simon, and best commentary is david mitchell's on how the failing lettering was the worst sign) her strategy behind the early election that so undermined her was actually a good one, undone only by its pitiful execution. It's hard to recall now that most of corbyn's parliamentary party were passively-aggressively willing labour to lose (just not too badly) and even his strongest supporters thought staying alive would be above-expectations. The conservatives looked imperious and about to enter a period of thatcher-like dominance giving them time to regenerate and cast the next era in their image, at least if they got through through brexit in one piece. Now universally seen as a disaster, in fact, just an incredulous 71 votes (yep, do the maths) flipping the other way would have given the conservatives a majority and just 23,074 (of the 32m that voted) would have provided a very decent majority of 60. Blair's fall from overlord of everything to pantomime pariah took years; may managed it in days. That is rather symptomatic of trend and time. It is not only british prime-ministers whose average tenure is shrinking, but that of a whole raft of leaders: ftse ceos average time at the top is down from ten to 5 years and the latest premier league manager to go lasted just a ludicrous 4 games, to mention but 2. The conservative party changed in months from being a bulwark of safe-hands and civilisation gallantly resisting the anti-elitist tide that brought corbyn, trump, brexit and the rest into an old people's home that looks a grounded ship with the tide receding. Life is getting ever quicker and expectations higher, driven by 24-hour mass and social media exposing and analysing every movement in real time. It's harder to hide and move quietly on from the small mistakes everyone makes. The demands of league points, dividends or higher poll ratings are incessant and instant. This doesn't make for a satisfied society or durable strategy with inevitable bumps in the road, but drives the desire for instant and constant gratification and results, which doesn't make for a happy life for anyone.

17 september 2017, another chance to get it right

I've always been a glass half-full person, as well as someone seemingly keeping his head when all around are losing theirs and indeed (I'd like to think) all rudyard's "ifs". That wasn't easy with bombs blowing up buses in front of me in the 1990s (see 10 march 2012, here we go again), and isn't easy now with the open, liberal, humanistic world I've seen move forward so strongly in my lifetime seeming to take some sharp steps back with those bombs here now, trump, brexit and all. That the world is getting worse is a general perception that drives the west's current "anti" malaise: 81% of trump's supporters think life has grown worse in the past 50 years. Yet, there's no doubt at all that any rational state of the world address could only conclude that things are getting better. Global poverty has fallen by half in the last 20 years. Johan norberg (another inveterate positivist) relates how his great-great-great-great grandfather survived the swedish famines of 150 years ago, a time when sweden was poorer than sub-saharan africa is today. In 1820, 94% of humanity subsisted on less than $2 a day in modern money. That had fallen to 37% by 1990 and today is less than 10%. As norberg relates, medical science, technology, nutrition and sanitation all played a role in this, and have resulted too in us being smarter humans. This resonates with sapiens, a summer read, which even on the bombs front contrasts the apparent danger we feel with a murder rate in hunter-gatherer societies about 500 times that of europe today. The average european is still ten times more likely to die falling down stairs than to be killed by a terrorist. Despite all inducements to the contrary then, I remain glass half full. Trump won't last forever, brexit probably won't happen at all and meanwhile we'll all do our best, and largely succeed, to live happy and healthy lives with our families and friends; a positive thought to go into a new year with (photo: neil libbert).

12 august 2017, this was (and still is) the day...

Ten years and a few days ago, I went to work to find we (the european central bank) had injected a staggering 95 billion euros into the money market, after overnight lending rates shot up (due to bnp paribas freezing funds over american sub-prime mortgages). After being at it since 3am, an excellent colleague composed a great email to everyone explaining this was not the ecb giving away money but lending it to ensure no-one ran out, i.e. monetary policy. As in the normal run of things, it said, we'd soon be bringing it all back. After ten years of lowest-ever interest global rates and quantative easing, in spades for the uk, that deal is still not closed. A few days later, came the run on northern rock, and a year after that the credit crunch after the us decided to stop the policy of saving the banks and let lehman brothers fall. Less bank lending led to less investment led to less consumer spending (the twin peaks of economic growth) and so the crisis hit the streets and began affecting people's lives in various forms, including the resulting wave of fiscal contraction policy, the austerity still with us. It is no coincidence that during that period we saw the rise of nationalism and populism across europe and the west (see 26 march 2011, let's ignore the rise of the right). Whilst it existed before, this was the time it took wing and grew into the mainstream in more and more countries, resulting today in trump and of course brexit. It is ironic that the market that rescued britain from being the sick man of europe and is its greatest chance of increasing prosperity became the lighting rod issue for disaffection, anti-elitism and inequality, but that's democracy for you. Meanwhile I am still trying to read the runes of resistance to see if the tide has properly begun to turn, as those same banks all start setting up various headquarters outside london (dublin seems to be doing rather well) and the same ecb renews its battle to get euro clearing out of london too, on which it places a great deal of importance (as a globally-unprecedented 98% of all euro transactions are cleared outside the central bank's jurisdiction). Going forward britain, not being a member, won't be able to argue its case at the eu's court of justice as it did successfully last time. Oh well, another 900 billion a day (and 100, 000 jobs) out of the window. Gonzalez-paramo's "dark cloud" hasn't lifted yet.

7 august 2017, home alone

Though my other half and kids remain in budapest, I am back from a week in switzerland, and a second by lake balaton in hungary. Britons may be shunning fortnights away, but I have to say a longer break (still shorter than the august ecb grande vacances) is something I hugely appreciate. Unusually this year, we did several musical highlights, including reliving my youth at paleo nyon, an impromptu night with manchester's own david gray and a double dip into the paloznak jazz picnic, where we saw kool and the gang and matt bianco, who were apparently massive in eastern europe back in the day. We made a lovely start in geneva before mosying around the lake and then breaking new ground for me with 3 nights in interlaken (unremarkable but surrounded by gorgeous water & mountains) 2 in lucerne (gorgeous, amazing bridge)and 1 in zurich (lots to do, but 2 days enough). Mountains featured too of course, including eye-wateringly expensive trains up them, though in fairness the swiss have made an industry of building astounding complexes on top: saleve was our hors d'oeuvres, followed by the amazing la diablerets and then biggest of all jungfrau, where 3500 metres up are things james bondesque lifts flying up 8 floors of shops, restaurants, an ice-palace, a rope-bridge stringing peaks together and an unbelievable bob-sleigh ride. We drove a lot too, through gorgeous scenery, which I love, and managed tennis, spa and a chocolate workshop before jumping on board the night train from the swiss financial capital to our by-now regular hungarian campsite in balatonalmadi. In what has become my intense reading window of the year, I got through the excellent sapiens, the light disobedience, and about half of hugh young's monumental this blessed plot, aided by three hours on budapest's runway waiting for the summer storm to move far away from the airport enough for the them to refuel us, the spectacular lighting marking the end of a heatwave period even by hungarian summer standards, the mercury hitting 39/102. It was also raining when we touched down in manchester at 3am...

25 june 2017, wrong side of history

The basic building blocks of the world have long since moved from nation state to continental bloc, or at least giant states, like the us and china in its asian hinterland, that act in that way. Europe was partly constructed to be such a leader in a multipolar world. At its heart is trade, where as the world's largest investor abroad and exporter of goods and services, the eu is a recognised global actor and veto-player. The world trade organisation has 159 members, but a "g7" of australia, brazil, the eu, india, japan, the us and increasingly china who run the show. The picture is similar in most areas of global economic policymaking, such as the g20, imf and the actual g7, where the ecb president replaces the central bank governors of germany, france and italy; an overwhelming majority of oecd members are european. Other areas, such as oil producers, the gulf states and africa exhibit the same intention, if less successfully. Whilst the pendulum quickly moves across the unified representation to national self-interest spectrum in areas such as defence, energy and the un system, it is a broad truism that there are few power-wielding players on the world stage, and they tend to band together as blocs. The eu is one of those blocs and so it is hard, a year on from the uk's decision to leave, not to see the country as being on the wrong side of history. The tables that over the last decades have slowly made way for europe's representatives and interests will not easily make room for another player. A recent un vote on the rights of chagos islanders (moved to make way for an american air base) was notable for most eu countries not supporting the uk; a harbinger of things to come as the default support of the eu out there in the world is removed. This may be a particular uncomfortable position given the shakiness of global governance both longer-term, as europe and the us decline relative to china, india and brazil and the consequent battle for influence and in the shorter-term as an increasing number of diplomatically-illiberal players, including turkey, russia and amazingly perhaps the us, seek to gain tactical national advantage at the expensive of the global common of stability. However, whether born of reactionary, self-interest or global common welfare, leaving the big power the uk has made its home and done so much to build over the last decades is going to be a more powerless place: "it's cold outside" as the 1975 referendum campaign phrophetically warned us.

27 may 2017, manchester

As someone who fled when I was 18, never to return, it's only slowly that manchester crept up on me since I actually did, even though my role in life for many years was its boosting and (weird word alert) agglomeration. Now of course I'm a proud native and suffered with everyone on hearing of the bomb and cheered at our response. There may be other things going on, but my emotions were on my sleeve as the dead kids were identified, probably as I now have my own and they both had friends there (thankfully everyone totally fine). My obvious resonance was to israel, as there was a time I was there in the early 90s when bus bombs were going off weekly. I had one very good friend who took the same bus every morning to university in jerusalem, missed it one day and it blew up. The boyfriend of a very good friend was actually on the number 5 bus blown up in the middle of tel aviv. 20-odd people died, but he walked away with cuts & bruises (always sit at the back). Somehow though my attitude then was cavalier and removed. All life was a risk and we lived it daily. Now though I feel for families and somehow internalise the devastation of lives rather more. I also shared in the defiance. After its dress rehearsal at everyone's everyman steve mycio's funeral, the wonderful this is the place (worth a watch) found its ancestral home in front of the town hall and gave words to everyone for this tough world. Meanwhile, at the bottom of p8, at least 28 people were killed yesterday in a bus bomb in egypt (see 15 november 2015, paris-to-paris, a heavily-edited story of 2015. Meanwhile, today is the city games, which will see bigger crowds than ever on manchester's streets. We live each day.

10 april 2017, going it a loan

Britain and the union have set out their initial positions on uk withdrawal. They are some way apart. Despite wanting a "deep and special partnership", the uk confirmed it does not want to remain in the single market. Though that is unambiguously the best economic outcome, the three political stooges of parliamentary control, paying in big money and free movement of people made it impossible. The same logic may seem to rule out joining the eea too, though I continue to suspect that if we do actually exit, that's where we'll go (see 11 june 2016, building the post brexit boat). Britain is also leaving the customs union, as, again politically, a whole government department has been pinned on britain making its own way in the world. Hence this week's trip to indonesia (which accounts for 0.1% of uk exports). As for britain's largest trading partner, the eu (45%), when to start negotiating that deal is the first big negotiating point. London wants discussion to start immediately; the eu insists on sorting out the divorce terms first - or in eurospeak "satisfactory agreement on the arrangements for an orderly withdrawal". They specify those all-important withdrawal arrangements: the status of individuals and their families; legal certainty for businesses (presumably including financial services passporting rights); britain's leaving bill (big issue alert); ireland; uk sovereign territory in cyprus (yes we have some, and yes it's going to get tangled in too); uk and eu representation in international fora (see powerless europe); relocating uk-based eu agencies; the ecj/commission docket on the day of exit; and dispute resolution. The uk also linked the economy (where britain's hand is weak) with security (stronger), though two can play at that game, as the eu did, mentioning gibraltor. As everyone has an ultimate veto, more issues will bubble up. On the taxing question of the rights of eu citizens in the uk and vice-versa (see 18 march 2017, I am a european citizen), agreement is achievable, but don't expect anything soon, as the eu guidelines inevitably insist that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed (and duly not vetoed by the european parliament and ratified by all 27 other member states). It is also flagged that everything eu-side will be on the basis of a single unified position. This may be the draft's most toxic principle, as once something is negotiated and agreed by the 27, it is highly unlikely britain will shift it. How strongly the eu sticks to this may be the most important determinant of all, and so far it's been pretty cast-iron solid. Finally, it is also set out very clearly that "a non-member of the union... cannot have the same rights and enjoy the same benefits as a member". Only now, decades on, might the uk begin to understand what those rights and benefits are...

25 march 2017, eu can check out any time you like...

The brits have always been sceptical. Their delegate at messina in 1955 left before the famous political declaration that 2 years later created what is today the eu, saying "I leave because you will never agree, and if you agree you will never implement it, and if you implement it, it will be a disaster". They only joined in the 70s when stuck in the economic doldrums while europe's benelux writ seemed to be spreading the german economic miracle across the continent. Back in the early noughties, when my job was the first half of the "prepare and decide" policy on joining the euro, it was clear the uk would only sign up when, again, the uk economy seemed to be heading terminally south whilst the euro area was soaring. That has not yet happened. Indeed, far from just standing at the back as a rather dazed eu celebrates 60 years, britain has taken the unprecedented step of trying to leave altogether. In this case, the disaster will befall everyone, but predominantly impact the smaller and weaker party. Back in euroland, french and german elections look set to underpin renewed and perhaps even strong, pro-eu leadership. With europe nearing the end of its decade of eurosclerosis, sunlight may at last be gingerly peeping through, even as the grey clouds of trump, putin and the rest threaten renewed storms. Indeed, external threats often cause communities to get bound more tightly together. As for blighty, striking off in its red, white and blue (now-german) mini coopers, don't lose hope that once it becomes evident in a few years what a catastrophic proposition leaving actually is, the politics of common sense and self-interest may reassert themselves (the negotiations can theoretically go on endlessly). Otherwise, the sooner everyone starts redesigning europe's outer area for us to dock into the better (see 11 june 2016, building the post-brexit boat). It's all rather hotel california, though the bill for checking-out is going to be rather substantial and an early point of great contention. Divorces are never swift or easy, and sometimes so hard the couple just ends up getting back together...

18 march 2017, I am a european citizen

The first words on my passport are "european union". That's odd, as a passport is a primary embodiment of nationality. Yet, though few of us realise, since 1992,we have all been dual citizens (see the state we're in), thanks to the maastricht treaty's bold assertion that "citizenship of the union is hereby established. Every person holding the nationality of a member state shall be a citizen of the union". I am proud and appreciative of my european citizenship, which gives me the right to move freely to, and reside and retire in, 27 other countries, to vote and stand as a candidate in local elections there and to access diplomatic services in parts of the world where britain lacks them. Essentially, it means I can live in another eu country and claim the same rights as anyone there. That's why guy verhofstadt's idea about brits keeping their eu citizenship has a serious foundation. Sure, you only acquire eu citizenship by your country becoming a member of the eu, but no-one has yet tested whether your country leaving automatically removes your citizenship. In fact we may, as individuals, have acquired rights, as might non-uk eu citizens living here. Its a universal legal principle that once an individual acquires rights (by whatever means) and exercises them, they cannot be easily removed and this does not automatically happen when the power that granted them seeks to reverse. Unlike any other international treaty, it is a long-established principle that eu law can grant individual rights, going right back to van gend en loos (see court in the act, for the lawyers amongst us), buttressed by the eu charter of fundamental rights. Whether the uk's "great repeal bill" can remove these rights, granted as individuals by the eu during a period when the uk gave them the power to do so, is an open question. Article 50 only mentions the treaties cease to apply to the state; nothing about its eu citizens. Other international law might help, notably the vienna convention, which states (article 70) that termination of an international treaty 'does not affect any right, obligation or legal situation of the parties created through the execution of the treaty prior to its termination.' As with most things though, determination of this question is likely to be political and subject to negotiation. It is worth reflecting that verhofstadt leads brexit negotiations for the european parliament, a body which has a total brexit veto and has never been shy of using leverage to get what it wants; indeed that is its modus operandi for building its power over decades. What better cause than its citizens' rights for a body of the people's representatives to pick as its battering ram ? Watch this space...

Next 10 Results