24 june 2014, hs3

Someone's listening - and just over 6 months after my excellent article on the subject, and the best part of two years' work from lots of people of whom I was just one, the uk's finance minster has mooted the possibility of a proper east-west link to the we-hope-soon-to-be-built high-speed network. There are of course many slips twixt cup and lip on hs2, let alone - and I'm claiming the coining of the term first - hs3, but at least it is on the agenda and in pole position for the eventuality that if hs2 does make it, and the appetite, economic case, and financing are there for more, it becomes the obvious, and the right, next step. Albeit heading towards a general election, there is a serious head of steam building up, in both main political parties, for the beefing up of the north as a bigger centre of economic activity, with transport centre stage. Housing is also important, and not just for regeneration, as in the latest abu dhabi investment (a big deal, with more to come), but also where the market wants it in the outdated but now staus quo green belt (see its our castle not our keep). Moving a bit of government out of the capital, like the department of culture following the bbc (see 23 december 2011), would be a hugely symbolic and important intervention the government could do relatively easily if it meant business. Governance too, dare I say it, is another piece of the jigsaw, and one which manchester could itself seek to improve if it were so minded. The hs3 proposal is a great thing though to have on the horizon, but the trick will be to make it stick, across the political spectrum, and to surround it with the other elements of the global city manchester aspires to be and the country needs.

Attached File: go.pdf

20 june 2014, hungary in manchester

An interesting day yesterday, spent with the new hungarian ambassador, peter szabadhegy. The occasion was my appointment as hungary's newest honorary consul, making me somehow a member of the diplomatic corps and the proud owner of a foreign and commonwealth office card, a large brass plate, an impressive official stamp, a signed letter from the hungarian foreign minister, and two enormous flags, a hungarian and an eu one. I have various duties, but really will be about trade and investment, both ways, and broader connectivity, especially on our planes. My relationship with hungary has in recent years, or always given its past, had both a grey side (see eg 21 september 2013) and a radiant one. It is the latter that always wins out, and we visit and enjoy the country all the time and I am very happy to gather energies both towards its success, and towards its success as the open, modern, european centre I have come to know so well. As well as a tour of the airport, we had the best part of a day's business meetings, thoughts about a real proposition for the splendid victoria baths and a lovely ceremony at the town hall where I was duly invested with wine, speeches, lots of both friends and dignitaries and a 101 warnings along the lines of not knowing what we're letting ourselves in for. Amongst other things, rather more of hungary's very finest export, sweet tokay wine. I hope that is my only just deserts.

Attached File: appointment.pdf

Attached File: hung1.pdf

5 june 2014, more of driving less

Suddenly, driverless cars have crossed from nerdland to the mainstream, as every manufacturer inches their way there, and google, whose cars have nearly clocked up a million miles, have a go at serious disruption. They may well succeed: whereas humans are lousy drivers, machines will soon be perfect ones, and ageing enthusiasts apart (yes, I do have a record player), why would anyone choose to grip a wheel and stressfully stare at road for an hour when you can do whatever you do in any room in your house ? Experts guesses are now clustering around 2020 as the moment a competitive market has critical mass and all our kids want one. An intriguing question, to which the answer is probably yes, is whether this technical innovation may also create a cultural one in owneship, with the long-trailed take-off of the shared ownership (or collaborative consumerism, see 23 december 2010 model becoming the norm for autonomous vehicles (the posh name). They are likely for a good generation to be second cars, and fulfil in part the role of taxi (upending that business model totally, never mind uber, and probably revolutionising public transport too), car firms are anyway struggling to get increasing numbers of us to part with harder-earned cash for a major asset that loses a quarter of its value in a day and 90% in five years, and why buy something you use 3% of the time when you can just pay for the time you use it ? Most of the problems are already not technical but regulatory (normal cars on the road, liability, insurance), and quite soon governments will catch on that there is an easier route to getting ten times more traffic on the roads than building new ones. It all adds up to a societal and business disruptor rather like the mass-produced car was to a world of horses and carriages.

26 may 2014, eurosclerosis

So the results are in, as expected (see the tide rises, the tide falls, below) but more so. The front nationale's win in france is spectacular, as is ukip's, for all that it was predicted. There are other big stories, though overall the mainstream pro-european parties keep a clear majority and the extremes are unlikely to unite. This suggests that beyond a high-pitched media period, europe will set about its new cycle of work, starting with key appointments, which the national governments (not "europe") make. Well-known to me as former head of the eurogroup, jean-claude juncker (see in celebration of, 18 june 2011) may or may not get the most important post of commission president. It is worth noting he is a former prime-minister and a man of the council (governments), not the parliament, despite their laying claim. The election results head off the risk that the commission will be more politicised: this will remain a grand coalition at the eu-level. These landmark elections though are significant, but its transmission mechanism is through national politics. Even merkel will be warier of her eurosceptic flank (in germany mild-mannered professors took a stunning, though still small, 7 seats), let alone hollande, anyway-sceptic cameron and a further dozen states, making progression on federalism in this term, even for the euro area, harder. It raises the chances of a uk-led decentralisation getting traction, for which all eyes will be on merkel, especially if cameron starts deploying his caucus to shore up merkel's epp in the parliament, despite leaving a few years ago. Compromising on free movement (on which sarkozy looks to be making his comeback pitch, saying much about france's solidifying outsider status) is surely off the table, but even there, things like alternative transitional controls for future members will be ok, as might other things that genuinely represent less europe, such as justice or agriculture (a natural anglo-german alliance). From a little englander perspective though, all that is just eurobabble, and if anyone thinks it might swing a referendum in 2017, they are wrong. On the contrary, every event seems to move the uk inexorably toward ending its 40-year experiment with eu membership (see sleepwalking towards the exit, 27 february 2014). Beneath the colourful commentary, that is the simple, strong and searing conclusion of the uk election results.

24 may 2014, the tide rises, the tide falls

This is not america. Yet, political streams there often flow into europe a decade later. So an economist article claiming the political heat is ebbing from the immigration issue is interesting. The tea party's founding idea was shrinking the state (see no deleveraging at home, 24 october 2011), but amongst the fellow traveller issues it co-opted, immigration probably loomed largest; strange in a country built on bringing in the world's tired and poor huddled masses. As recession and hardship swept europe's own masses, so, as you would expect, the political fortunes of the radical and anti-establishment have risen (see of populism, 9 november 2013), as clearly seen in this weekend's european elections, with those parties recording spectacular new high-water marks. Yet, there is reason, and hope, to think that high water-marks these may be. Along with disenchantment with the eu, migration brought about by its open borders has been a central driver, at least in northern places like britain and holland, of this discontent. Yet, the numbers are significantly lower than a decade ago. The difference now is a dismal economy, particularly for those at the bottom, made worse through the lens of rising inequality, a wave ridden by piktetty (though his thesis is flawed). It is not inequality, but the condition of those at the bottom that matters, and there are solid economic omens that although a rise may be slow, that economic stock will at least now stop falling. The sting though will only be gone when the nastiness of the immigration debate is drawn, and that will come from a rising economy too, which actually needs workers to migrate according to labour demand, and where experience shows they are, if not welcomed, at least tolerated. This is far from pre-ordained: the economy needs prolongued growth, and politicians need to turn the debate to real cause and effect, standing up when needed to easily scapegoating migration for a multitude of ills. Whether or not the uk remains in the eu probably rests on whether this sting can be drawn in time. Eventually though it will, and 2014 will hopefully look like an odd moment we need to work harder in the next downturn to avoid.

17 may 2014, narendra begin

I spent most of my final undergraduate year studying india's crucial period of 1919-31, enjoying almost alone the splendours of the indian institute reading room, which I have just now googled to find closed some years ago. Despite that gifting me a lifelong interest and appreciation of all things india, I have not yet managed to visit, my mid-twenties six-months-in-israel, six-months-in-india plan getting waylaid some years on its first leg. There are many political parallels between the two, not least the dominance of the centre left independence party for decades (anc anyone ?), which after a false start in the 1990s looks finally to have come to an end in india with the triumphant victory of narendra modi and the bjp after history's largest ever democratic vote. It reminds me of nothing so much as menachem begin similarly recasting israeli politics in 1977, with his likud victory over the previously dominant labour. Like modi, begin had a deeply chequered past, having been an outright terrorist in the war for independence, masterminding the bombing of british headquarters in jerusalem, and the hanging of 2 british sergeants. Yet, he went on to head the opposition centre-right in israel, becoming prime minister, and it was he that signed the country's first peace deal in 1978 with what was its arch enemy, egypt. All subsequent peace talks originate from that epoch-making camp david source, an "only the right can take on rightist opposition to peace" template that was later echoed in ariel sharon's evacuation of the gaza strip. The indian parallel is of course pakistan, which like israel and palestine, were ethnically-separated twins born violently from the same country in the same year of 1947, and which have fought a series of wars since. Whilst the conflict has for some time been cold not warm, and various initiatives have not failed, there is not yet a proper peace between these two nuclear-armed neighbours, across probably the most volatile border in the world. Modi's basic election promise was economic development, which he must know requires a significantly warmer relationship with india's dangerous neighbour. From india's side at least, he may just be the man capable of delivering it, which would certainly outshine all else as the history of his tenure starts to be written.

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 ?

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