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11 may 2014, the morning after

Occasionally the eurovision song contest is a big event in our house; and 2014 was one. All the ducks lined up: everyone in, a slow saturday night, no plans, a late dinner, the kids lobbying for a late night, and the family increasingly struggling to find things that we can watch together. Being of course a most european family, there is some natural affinity too, and we don't start with the default cynicism its always had in the uk, even when I remember watching terry wogan as a child. My other half remembers saw it in hungary when abba won, and we watched it together in germany, where the politics of who votes for whom, and the "big 5" coming right at the bottom one year a much-discussed phenomena, at work too. The kids took all it very seriously, scoring each song, as we flitted in and out doing washing and dinner, and they called us together for the critical ones, though there was no israel this year. Despite our biggest sympathies, we were all hugely underwhelmed by hungary, though funnily enough when the voting started it was soon top and stayed there or thereabouts until a good half way through. By contrast the ones we quite liked: iceland, ukraine (who I thought might get a sympathy vote, as much as russia was booed) and germany, went absolutely nowhere. Our favourite (and it's still getting airplay on you tube in the kitchen this morning) was france, which came plum bottom with two points, and one of them was ours. Moustache: worth a watch. Three and a half a hours, fun and eurovision almost ended up in the same sentence.

6 may 2014, a year and a hay

A year and a day before the british general election, things are looking pretty good for the main governing party, provided they can get over the acute embarrassment of losing badly to ukip in the european elections. This sober analysis is very much based on an increasingly solid economic recovery, which all signs point to continuing, including the rise in house prices that produces consumer confidence and a feel good factor, at least in the large southern belt where they are being experienced. Help to buy is a real contributant to that, but even more outrageous is the bank of england's help, as it continues to pump ever more billions (£375 and counting) into the economy through quantative easing. The governor, mark carney, recently let the cat out of the bag by saying the bank may not, after all, sell all its holdings - effectively mass monetary financing. This is exactly what a whole tribe of commentators, including my good self (see dread the launching of the bad ship qe2, 21 october 2010) have been saying all along is going to happen. There are a slew of long-term negativities associated with simply cancelling this massive loan, not least that the main beneficiaries are large corporates, banks and big asset holders. That the us fed is following the same policy takes the heat off threadneedle street, but doesn't make it any better. Down the line it's a rotten policy that we are all eventually the worse off for, apart too from the government of the day that can pocket the cash and the boost and make hay.

17 april 2014, and the beast goes on

The ukraine crisis has taken several steps forward, or backward if the concept of ukraine functioning as a viable sovereign state is the objective. A rather soft attempt at a central government show of force backfired spectacularly when armoured personnel carriers sent in were quickly surrendered. The pro-russian forces occupying ever more buildings in "the east" of the country have all the momentum. Whilst clearly russia is complicit, it is clearly too tapping into a strong well of identification with russia that goes back to the perplexity of many russians of the soviet union waking up one day 20 years ago to be told they now lived in the independent state of ukraine. Still umbilically attached to russia until very recently, it didn't really matter all that much. The importance of the november (2013) revolution though is real, and, as timothy garton ash notes, amplified by a neo-soviet combination of violence and the big lie to dismember a neighbouring sovereign state. As he also notes, putin is not without his supporters around the world. To expect a crimea-style invasion is probably a step too far, but with the kiev-based state unable to make its writ run and nato unlikely to support militarily (russian menace being enough to ensure that) the emergence of some combination of south ossetia type "independent states" under the fig-leaf of federalisation of the country looks increasingly like ukraine's fate. This is a split in all but name and a massive blow for the world as we have known it these last 20 years. If georgia was the dress rehearsal, ukraine is becoming the first night - but how long will this play run, and in what venues ?

4 april 2014, timecheck: quarter to trouble

John kerry has put more into the israel-palestinian talks over the last months than anyone since clinton, with dozens of americans shuttling, negotiating, cajoling and even desperately bringing into play sovereign american collateral by offering the release of israeli-spy-in-american jail jonathan pollard. To no avail. Israel stalled on prisoner releases, the palestinians reignited their progress to statehood at the un (see (yet) another (small) step to parastine, 1 december 2012), israel cancelled its prisoner release and the palestinians - well, both sides have proved beyond doubt they were at the table only to humour the americans, with no expectation of ever achieving anything. A decade ago the "peace process" became the alibi replacing peace. Now even that is beyond reach, with the long-drawn out talks and brinkmanship being about prior to process confidence-building measures. Netanyahu has never been in favour of ceding land and mahmoud abbas is seen as a self-serving israeli stooge by most palestinians, who have been denied an election since 2005. Both men have reached the point where the returns on this lost cause are too low. It is israel though that has the most to lose by some way; the palestinians. By contrast, have virtually nothing. Complacent and overconfident, the danger for israel is that the only thing standing between it and the renewed and real momentum gathering behind a new global boycott is america's ability to sustain the belief that israel is a goodie that wants peace. As america now withdraws, having given the process its very best efforts, this fiction is very hard to sustain. At best it is distracted by getting the ultra-orthodox into the army; at worst an insuperable barrier, easily evidenced if you listen to its leaders, such as naftali bennet, its number three, saying "I will do everything in my power to prevent a palestinian state". This total stalemate was entirely predictable, and I was far from alone in doing so (see and so it came to pass, 1 december 2012), as I am in saying the danger of isolation and a boycott that bites is real. Having run out of options to change the status quo, which suits only israel, no-one less than john kerry himself is sounding the alarm, "the risks are very high for israel" he said "people are talking about boycott. That will intensify... Today's status quo absolutely, to a certainty, I promise you 100%, cannot be maintained." He is right, but is israel capable of listening to the one ally whose willful deafness is its only international shield ?

23 march 2014, the bearly new world order

Excellent article in this week's economist, that calls putin's russian aggression in the crimea what it is: bold non-acceptance of the shaky current world order and the consequential plunging of the whole world into a new and highly-uncertain one. I would mesh this with my oft-commented remarks about the old world's inability to integrate the new, mainly china, into its real seats of power, that have left the now-emerged powers less than enthusiastic about the status-quo, and hence largely ambivalent about this step towards its destruction. 1989 and the soviet union's collapse produced a "unipolar moment" for the american "indispensable nation", epitomised by the first Gulf War (see how we made the fatal mistake of not talking to hamas). This quickly though gave way to an era, later embraced by the obama administration, where the usa was still hegemonistic enough to veto action by others, but could not itself succeed without others' acquiescence. When little serbia challenged the order it was stamped on until brought back into line. When medium-sized iran did it, it has at least been held in check and the limits of this influence-without-aggression doctrine are still being tested. When big nuclear-armed russia does it though - houston, we have a problem. The world's feeble and divided response does not bode well for how the old order can cope, adapt or co-opt the new others and re-establish something like international ground rules that all feel bound to act by. The absence of that looks chillingly like the 1930s, the last time no such world order existed. Though cries of "alarmist" go up whenever this comparison gets made, it is not untoward.

Attached File: russia.pdf

21 march 2014, end of another era

Yesterday was the first day of spring, and the last day of my new economy era (see 31 january 2014, up, up and away and other chestnuts). Although work insisted on materialising right to the very end (and is no doubt piling up already in my absence, though that is now for my erstwhile successor), I managed, I hope, in my last weeks to pass on some wisdom of the six years I have spent building and managing our little empire, which I hope over that time has done as much good as I think it has. The name came from an odd voting process many moons ago, and wasn't one that anyone wanted, but I do recall our marketing guru of the time telling us it was just an empty vessel and over time it would become known for whatever we put in it. These years later, how right she was. What the organisation does is extremely well-regarded and held up, rightly so, as a model for what every city needs, in the uk at least. I take as a great achievement building and endlessly nurturing the many, varied and ever-evolving team that does what we do and take great pride in what I have now left behind. Monday saw a touching presentation in the office, and the finale last night was drinks and a splendid farewell dinner at my favourite restaurant in the city that I do feel I have now left some mark on.

Attached File: Dad's Invite (PDF).pdf

Attached File: Baron_Menu.pdf

Attached File: name plate.pdf

12 march 2014, ukraine, minus a bit

Though we obsess about it, europe rarely deserves global geopolitical headlines. Ukraine though, is an exception. The baltic states were desperate to join the eu in the 1990s because it enabled them, like drunken boxers, to pull the rope over their heads and step out of the ring to the promised land that for all europe's many faults they still enjoy. Ukraine had no such luck, and remained from that day to this in the vague netherland that is soviet union post-sovereignty. For most russians the crimea always was and always will be part of russia, but it was tolerable having it nominally in the ukraine, as long as russia retained sufficient influence in its "near abroad". The day that went was the day they needed somewhat more control, and there are no armies that will be pushing them out, leaving it like transnistria, like south ossetia and like abhazia what some call frozen conflicts and others simply russia. In huntington's seminal and fantastic clash of civilsations, ukraine lies on a fault line between two (see how we made the fatal mistake of not talking to hamas): the slavic-orthodox and the western. Geographically, ukraine is in europe, which reaches north to the arctic sea, west to the atlantic, south to the mediterranean and east to a line generally taken to follow the urals, the emba, the kuma-manych depression and then the caspian, black, aegean and mediterranean seas. Politically, joining europe will be the work of generations.

27 february 2014, sleepwalking towards the exit

This is clearly the phrase du jour on britain and europe at the moment, and was implied when angela merkel spoke today to britain's 1, 500 or so parliamentarians, though she clearly doesn't think it may happen. It may. As the uk's finance minister, and second in command, has made very clear, the ruling centre-right conservatives will go into the election on 7 may 2015 with a pretty cast-iron guarantee to hold a referendum on whether britain should stay in or leave. While the centre-left labour are so far holding the line, they are hardly enthusiastic and the pressure on them going into the election will intensify massively. A significant slice of labourites and a big and ever-larger slug of conservatives will anyway be voting openly to go. Even those, like the prime minister, who say they want to be able to vote to stay in, say they will do so only on the basis of negotiating a substantially reformed eu, details of which stubbornly refuse to emerge, though it should limit freedom of movement and give the uk some sort of additional veto rights, "if you cannot protect the collective interests of [britain], then [we] will have to choose between joining the eurozone, which the uk will not do, or leave the european union." The hope is that this threat will increase the chances of such substantial change from effectively zero. However, those "wellwishers" are going to be left either defending a "reform" package that is little more than window dressing, or crossing over to say we tried but we failed, so we're better off out. In any case, whatever politicians say, evidence points more and more to a referendum being totally unwinnable, meaning if we have one, the uk will leave. The inability to change now what will in this way become an inevitability, is exactly sleepwalking towards the exit.

10 february 2014, less than chinese pandas

At last, a decent article about the scottish independence referendum coming up later this year (15 dec 2012, scotland the knave; 8 may 2011, scotland the brave), from andrew rawnsley. He makes the point that the real risk of the result is less that it is a yes, which is highly unlikely, but rather that it is close, opening the way to holding another one in some years time, the "neverendum" situation that canada found itself in for decades as quebec tried to leave, though never did. The nationalists only need to win one. What finally did for the quebecois, he says, was lovebombing by the rest of canada, so david cameron, rather mocked for asking the english and welsh to phone a friend north of the border, may be on to something; as he may by wading in to set sights not just on a no but on a clear no. Whether a conservative (one mp in scotland, less than its panda population) and old etonian to boot shouting up from london (indeed from a monument of taxpayer money spent in the capital) will help the cause is a moot point. Like most brits and indeed, the polls suggest, most scots, I would rather the scots didn't go independent and don't think they will. I fear more a referendum legacy of more rights, devolution, freedoms and flexibilities for scotland's 4 million voters from an exceptionally centralised state, while the 3 million people of manchester, like the rest of england's great cities, find themselves at a further disadvantage, impotent between london's fierce economic dynamism and scotland's ever greater ability to box clever.

2 february 2014, of russian men

Over 25% of russian men die before reaching 55, a signal cause of russia's declining population and highlighting of how its place in the "bric" pantheon is unsustainable, based as it is increasingly entirely on its temporary oil prowess. The function of studies is often to ramp up the basis for action on what we already know to be true. The fact that russia men who down large amounts of vodka die very young falls, at least for me, into that category. I know this to be true from my own experience, having spent quite a lot of time in different bits of russia in the 1990s and been astounded by the cultural propensity and capacity of russian men (and it was men) to drink vodka. It was a norm to have half a largish tumbler with lunch and dinner, before even getting to serious evening drinking, where two or three can easily get through a bottle. During seminars, when my western counterparts might have popped outside for a smoke, many of the russians would bring out the hip flask and have a vodka break. A favourite trick in saunas (of which we had many) was to pour vodka rather than water on the heat, which vaporises and leaves the uninitiated wildly drunk. And my company, I should quickly admit, were of the bourgeois, reasonable, educated population, far from those you would expect to be the worst in this respect (I saw no zapoi). And for me personally, I should quickly admit, I managed just one day of trying to keep up before realising I would be absolutely doomed even trying, for while I was under the table, my colleagues and friends were happily going about the demanding daily tasks we were pursuing, seemingly unaffected bar a wry sense of humour and abandon being rather more pronounced in what is a wonderful aspect of russian culture. Though I have a slav heritage myself (see 15 sept 2013, been a while) this bit of the self is, I suppose, nurture not nature.

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