25 august 2014, lengthening shadow

With october getting closer, and the situation in israel refusing to stabilise - let alone start much more importantly on the path towards an actual resolution - the shadow that has been cast over these last months has only darkened. Like a rabbit in the headlights we have let a lot of things slip, so we now need to firm ourselves and push on, even as we feel that is really not how it should be. Deaths in the syrian conflict are now approaching 200, 000 and so while the 2, 000 of gaza may seem small in relation to so many conflicts of both the past and present, they are so much closer to home and it is so hard for us to travel there in this renewed light, also taking stock of the country israel risks becoming, which is not a good thing to contemplate right now. My work is also approaching a crunchpoint at exactly the same time, there are some issues of old age unfolding before me, and generally things that need to be dealt with, of both the minor and major sort, all seeming to be coming to a head in unison, so it is a very busy moment in life. My desk is crowded, with many incomplete matters, but today we have dedicated to an exclusive focus on october...

10 august 2014, to return

My world of hungary this year was rather overwhelmed by my world of israel. We generally go to the balaton in the summer, and this year was no exception, although it was shorter than usual, due to our longer trip to israel in october. Most unusually the rain fell and the sun refused to shine, which is very disruptive to an outdoor holiday, but the longer shadow was cast by the missiles that continued to rain down on gaza throughout our stay, although a 72-hour ceasefire did puncture the week with hope, as has today's, as things finally seem to be "winding down". On my return, I rapidly tried to get back up to speed, reading the economist and listening to the (16 july) moral maze I am myself rather lost in, though in my wandering I found roger cohen and yachad, where at least there are some fellow travellers. Back in manchester, the weather is even worse and I'm back at work tomorrow, and home alone a week as my other half and the boys stayed on. Today I tidied, house and mind, and a late afternoon coffee should keep me at it for a few hours yet, if the endless repeats of friends don't draw me in too much...

12 july 2014, so many wrongs

I mentally moved away from the conflict many years ago in utter despair at how, from a moment in time where there were leaders and a process (rabin, araft and oslo, see and that's how it ended) which might, just might, deliver a settlement that a generation later would be peace, there has been a steady and remorseless moving of the fundamentals away from that hope towards a place where no-one can even envisage a solution let alone take responsibility for moving towards it. This makes the last and next years an exercise of management. That has dire consequences every minute of every day, mainly for the palestinians, but occasionally that management breaks down altogether and as my old friend dan levy relates, things are more at sea without a paddle now than ever. Whether or not there is a land incursion into gaza (and we can only hope that, like last time, the build-up is just pressure to ensure a robust ceasfire), there will of course, like last time, be a stop, a ceasefire (that will closely resemble the november 2012 agreement) and silence will reign for some months or years more. The only question is how many palestinians and israelis will be killed before that happens. That this is the very best we can hope for flags, indeed screams, how rotten the status quo is and how, when the heat of battle is reduced, much, much more effort is needed to craft a change. The responsibility for this lies squarely on israel's shoulders. As the sovereign state, as the goliath to the palestinians' david, as the holder of virtually all the cards, the onus is on israel to change the fundamentals. The first step is acceptance that hamas, for all its loathing and violence, is a representative of the palestinians, and the recent attempt (which israel has now probably destroyed) to bring the palestinian factions together under a moderate unity government so they can talk to israel is a good thing to be supported, if the end sought is actually talks. Yes, their charter does not recognise israel, but then netanhayu's ruling likud party charter doesn't recognise palestine either. Yes, this means fatah talking to hamas terrorists, but so did israel when arranging the last ceasefire etc etc. Peace comes from talking not to friends but enemies, even violent enemies seeking to destroy you. They will only be doing the same in 30 years time unless we change something instead of heaping tragedy on tragedy after short pauses. The responsibility for that, the only ones with the ability to do it, is israel.

28 june 1014, 100 years on: where there’s life, there’s hope

It was 100 years ago today that a radical serb nationalist shot the austro-hungarian emperor, setting off events that led inexorably to the first greatest carnage of the last century. It was a different britain then, in which london rather brutally ruled a quarter of the world, women had no vote and the age children worked in mills and mines had just been raised to 12. The 4 years of war, and the 15+ million killed, meant britain, and the world, were never the same. Although it took a second world war to usher in the new, it was ww1 that ushered out the old. In many ways - and juncker's appointment as commission president yesterday when europe's leaders assembled after a commemoration at ypres illustrates it graphically - britain has still not adapted to its lesser role and the need for new continental and global alliances to exert influence. Sarajevo (see 6 april 2012, still crazy after all these years) itself is gory testament to the fact that "the war to end all wars" did no such thing, and nationalism, insularity and law of the jungle mentality and aggression (hello vladimir vladimirovich, see 23 march 2014, the bearly new world order) are even now not confined to the 19th century past they belong to. For all its many, many flaws, one of the best bulwarks built against humanity's past resort to power politics and law is the united nations and the global framework of international law it sits at the heart of. Inconsistent, unenforceable, picked and chosen from by different countries at different times and blocked at most turns by the veto-wielding power reality dictates the "permanent 5" have in new york and geneva, it nonetheless has hundreds of uncelebrated successes over the decades and thousands of good people working for it, trying at every turn to avert a third world war. In this supposedly new world, britain and france sit rather oddly as 2 of the 5, and act in fact as (albeit one of several) a block towards the reform needed to make this vital system stronger: better jaw, jaw than war, war. There are no signs that this entrenched position may change (indeed eu events make it less likely) but at some point some sense on our part might just be the move that breaks the logjam to the refom needed to strengthen the international system enough to make it a better actor. It will sorely needed sometime in the next 100 years, and perhaps sooner than we might expect.

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.

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