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15 december 2012, scotland the knave

Whilst english politicians race towards the extreme of who can get the country out the european union quickest, the scots head the opposite way. Hence its government's hostile reaction to the european commission president's restatement that an independent scotland would have to apply to join the eu. To some, this shows the snp's political immaturity, as they are found out for not doing their homework. I'm not so sure. Yes, it is clear in the treaties that it is a union of defined member states, and if a new one comes along, from within or without, there is an established process they need to go through to join. And yes there is a precedent, of greenland leaving when it won independence from denmark in 1974. However, this is the institutional view, which is also that of the current member states, and of course madrid and brussels, to mention but two, have the very strongest reasons to avoid a precedent. They want any change to be as painful as possible, and of course have a veto on anything in this area at all. There are though grounds to consider "internal enlargement" differently. Also, the one institution that has consistently not always taken the institutional view, and also the most important one, the european court of justice (see court in the act), has yet to opine. It has strong form for actually looking at the law, when it would find that exactly who the member state is ("the united kingdom of great britain and northern ireland", article 52(1)) would be rather murky should scotland leave, there being some weight to that act effectively dissolving that particular member state or at least the "great britain" part of it. The ecj does not always side with the big member states, and if things ever actually got there, I suspect the threat of its deliberations would be enough to enforce a pragmatic solution, along the lines of accession talks taking place in parallel to independence, such that the transition was seamless to scotland joining as the 28th member the day it left its british union. Those years would of course see fun discussions on schengen, regional funds and the euro amongst other matters, but once independence was an established fact, there are pragmatic answers to those questions. Having said all that, I don't expect scotland to vote yes, although the whole process will help them gain more local powers from whitehall, which shows they have a rather better strategy than the rest of us.

6 december 2012, block d

Sometimes the obscure is interesting, or so I'll take just a few words to convince that this applies to one of my more important lesser priority issues: data sharing. The good folk at the guardian were convinced, so I can finally add them to my mild-mannered national me-dia appearances, alongside radio 4 (30 april 2012), channel 4 (12 april 2011), the economist and of course the budapest sun. Sharing information is one of those behind the scenes things, like water pipes in a house, that enable water to flow uphill, or in this case not really flow, as these days there are so many rules and regulations around different organisations sharing intelligence on people that even where there's a will the way is tough. More usually the will is about protecting vulnerability and avoiding embarrassing publicity around lost data sticks, which doesn't help much when you're trying to get a health worker to do a little of the job of a probation officer checking the same person is alright, and perhaps throwing in a bit of what is done by other people in the realms of social work, police, benefits, skills and employment or housing. Yes having less people call round would be much cheaper and better for the individual, but dear me moving from theory to practice on this one is like moving mountains. But we'll keep trying I'm sure.

1 december 2012, (yet) another (small) step to parastine

It is more than a year and a half (16 april 2011) since we almost had the culmination of years of international consensus-building and the legal declaration, kosovo-style, of a nascient palestinian state. Browbeaten yet again, the west-bank-based palestinian authority pressed the pause button, to try and find a different way to restart serious negotiations as an alternative route to statehood. Yesterday, they finally followed through, with the un general assembly in new york enthusiasically welcoming the state of parastine into their ranks as a non-member observer state. Just nine countries of 193 voted against: the us, canada, panama and the czech republic being the only ones with a population of more than the london borough of camden. Netanyahu responded in typically ebullient style, with the highly-incendiary announcement of a slug of new settlements in the west bank and east jerusalem which couldn't be better designed to ignite violence that in the ensuing fog can be blamed on the palestinian's diplomatic move. Though, lest we forget, netanyahu is not out on a limb but rather the second longest-serving prime minister in israel's history. It is very difficult to rationalise the stated desire of the israeli body politic for a two state solution (one state of which is palestine) with its absolute hysteria when a palestinian flag is unfurled at the un. You need to make peace not with your friends but with your enemies, and the sad, sad fact is that frustrating and refusing to engage with the moderates of the palestinians simply strengthens the extremists and makes the hamas claim of victory in gaza through force of arms that much more credible. In this case saying there is no partner for peace is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and it is so hard not to see that as the desired outcome in jerusalem rather than two states. The message to that massive and passive israel is be careful what you wish for.

24 november 2012, did we miss something ?

Whilst being enormously relieved about the gaza ceasefire, and optimistic it will hold, I also think something happened we don't yet know about. For hamas it was a clear victory. Reaching tel aviv and flaunting much-improved rocketry buoyed their reputation and won concessions easing the blockade; surely the first step to israel actually negotiating with hamas. For abbas and the palestinian authority, equally clear defeat, as they show themselves and their engage-israel strategy impotent. But what about israel ? Though the usual suspects rush to fill the pro-israel mass media vacuum, there was a distinct lack of israel's own usual bravado. Rarely have I heard israeli spokespeople, least of all in the netanyahu era, sound so uncertain. And this with an israeli election just weeks away. In a first precedent-setting round in the brave new world of a muslim brotherhood-led egypt, how was a hard right israeli prime minister persuaded to accept the status quo ante as an outcome, a clear hamas victory ? Convincing netanyahu of this would surely have taken the great persuader himself. And funnily enough, who was actually skipping around when the ceasefire was brokered and agreed - hilary. And it is she who surely deserves the real credit for this, as it was she who was the only party in the room who had anything to offer israel wanted. That is the missing ingredient: a classic rumsfeldian known unknown. We can only speculate what she actually gave, but logic points strongly to the one thing that is a real existential threat to israel. Not gaza, which is ultimately a manageable irritant, but iran, on which israel has been desperately trying to bring the americans round for years. My guess is they finally did, and I'm also guessing we'll know something about it before january 22 2013, as netanyahu has an election to win.

21 november 2012, crystal balling

I thought that prediction is very difficult, especially about the future, was a great woody allen quote, but of course there is nothing new under the sun, as evidenced in my latest newspaper blog, on forecasting. I'm also not sure exactly who successfully predicted nine out of the last five recessions or if it's forecasters or economists who know tomorrow why the things they predicted yesterday didn't happen today, and so on. Nate silver perhaps shows that some forecasters have their ignorance better organised than others. But the best quote is one I firmly believe to be true and which advises the strongest caution when working the magic of alchemy that transforms data and information into research and intelligence, "governments love statistics. They collect them, add them, raise them to the nth power, take the cube root and prepare wonderful diagrams. But what you must never forget is that every one of these figures comes in the first instance from the village watchman, who just puts down what he damn well pleases." The last word though belongs to the poetical logic of voltaire, that the present is pregnant with the future.

17 november 2012, oh what a lovely war

It didn't take long for the israel-palestine protagonists to test out obama 2.0. One side of the palestinian leadership was first, with "president" abbas making a measured effort to escape the dead-end parastine status quo by unfreezing their bid for recognition at the united nations (see 8 september 2011, 16 and 30 april 2011). America, not yet ready to move from observer to facilitator, said no. This sharpened global divisions (even the europeans are totally split) and gave the internal initiative, again, to the rejectionist camp led by a resurgent hamas, now further than ever from a once-imagineable shift to the peace camp (how we made the fatal mistake of not talking to hamas). Just as it did after obama's election first time around then, the missile count from gaza into israel started rising, and with an israeli election looming, no prime minister can be seen not to be very strong, least of all netanyahu, and so the irresistible assassination of ahmed al-jaabari and off we go, to war, to war. Missile strikes on tel aviv and jerusalem, an absolutely unprecedented expression of new-found capability, heavily underline the internal need for israeli action in this lose-lose scenario. Operation cast lead in 2008 destroyed hamas capability at a cost of some 1,400 lives; pillar of defence will be bigger and better. However, though america may, to the palestinian's disappointment, play the same passive role this time around, things have significantly shifted closer to home, as is already clear from the visit to gaza of egypt's prime minister. Egypt may yet be a mediator, but one now that starts in the hamas corner. The debate in israel is whether hamas acted from weakness, either losing its ability to control or needing to reassert its credentials, or from strength. I think the latter. Egypt is a big boon, as is the broader context, from free flowing libyan weaponary to the tense iran tinderbox that could make a vicious little middle eastern war an era-defining global one, not least as a struggling global economy would go into freefall. Israel generally, and netanyahu specifically (10 march 2012), are never slow to take advantage of global inaction, and this time the risk of that plunging us all into mayhem is rather higher than it has been for a long, long time. I am not sleeping easily these nights.

12 november, tale of two cities

Sunday in london and monday in paris; always a pleasure. I am here to present and work a paper through one of the oecd committees, that uses 12 leading "middleweight" cities, of which manchester is of course one, to try and divine just what it is that generates economic growth and broader societal success. A well-evidenced and consistent strategy, implementation capacity and leadership are important elements, as are the disruptive je ne said quoi of the mobile and talented creative class that every city under the sun is trying to attract, but so very few really do. An interesting session, well launched by greg clark and debra mountford, and they even asked lots of questions. A slightly oversold cocktail reception afterwards (wine being neither shaken nor stirred) but compensated by the company that went on into dinner. Meanwhile, with thanks to my other half and endre ady, autumn slipped into paris yesterday, came silently down boulevard st michel, in sultry heat, past boughs sullen and still, and met me on its way.

2 november 2012, swan song

I like clever, opinionated and out-of-step politicians (see 18 june 2011), and michael heseltine, about to turn 80 and finally walk into the sunset, falls into that category, as this remarkable broadcast shows. This week came his swan song, a massive report that leaves "no stone unturned" in its search for economic growth, the defining political question of the day. Though not unqualified, one of the report's more interesting elements is localism, which after many months of speaking to many people (including me !), he seems to have become a champion of. He talks about "reversing a century of centralisation" and bemoans how the UK has "disempowered local government by centralising power and funding". These are familiar themes to those of us that deal with the most centralised government in the western world (see 8 december 2011; 22 january 2011, with photo), but all the more powerful for coming from someone who has managed that machine for decades, and who is writing about economic growth. Local government in england these last years has been scythed down, by some 20% and counting, and as the spotlight turns to similarly scything down the whitehall centre, there is a renewed possibility for good schemes that move functions away from the centre to get real airtime and traction in the middle of what is already shaping up as a westminster-whitehall battle. Those skirmishes between politicians and their civil servants are already breaking out in the response to heseltine, and so it will be interesting to see who gets the upper hand in terms of the overall tone of the government response. I for one am certainly to arms with a renewed spring in the step because in an era when the totality of things that can be done systematically lessens, the prospect of pushing things down from the centre because we can pick them up elsewhere steadily rises.

23 october 2012, the next small thing

Once upon a time, every high street had a travel agent; no longer. Tobacconists are similar memories. The last recession was particularly hard on estate agents, and the next is likely to do the same for banks. Even much-loved post offices will dwindle, and as newspapers disappear, so will newsagents, or at least they'll stop devoting ever less space to the times and more to the tins. There is a mountain of evidence showing how non-food retail will continue to need ever less floor space, and even food is ever more in massive out of town boxes people drive to, usually accompanied by more of that dwindling stock of non-food stuff. Town centres up and down the country are in a long-term pickle (see from bricks to clicks). My local, heald green, is on the cusp between down-at-heel and well-to-do areas (see 18 december 2011) and seems to be holding its own. The forces of modernity are ranged against high streets though and it is hard to see sustainable futures for most of them unless they go in for serious downsizing and consolidation and rapidly build up a "footfall client base" that needs to be based on something that is very distinctive and draws people in from a very wide area.

Attached File: TCs.pdf

13 october 2012, right versus right

Some may find this connection odious, but I do see an echo of the awful case of 14-year old schoolgirl malala yousafzai being shot in pakistan, and barry thew, sentenced last week to 4 months in jail for wearing a t-shirt revelling in the deaths of 2 manchester police. Where the taliban justice system summarily shoots a minor, the british puts an adult in jail after due process of law, so there's much to distinguish there. However, the basic alleged crime is the same: one person causing gross offence to another by expressing their views. There have been many cases of this acutely difficult issue of my right to free speech against yours not to be grossly offended, including azhar ahmed, who got 12 weeks community service for a facebook post saying all soldiers should die, liam stacy, 8 weeks in jail for a drunken racist tweet making fun of fabric muamba ("I have no choice but to impose an immediate custodial sentence... you must learn how to handle your alcohol better"), matthew woods (19), 3 months jail for a drunken explicit tweet about missing toddler april jones and paul chamber prosecuted and threatened with jail (though eventually let off) for a frustrated tweet after hours of delay in nottingham airport, in which he menacingly threatened "Crap! Robin hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high !". This recent history is littered with social media incidents, which clearly our justice systems have not quite worked through yet, but goes back via the jyllands-posten cartoons lampooning the phrophet muhammed and their many successors, through david irving and the holocaust deniers, to the grandpa of them all, the fatwa against salman rushdie for his satanic verses. Uncertain, I have been listening carefully to the discussions over the years. On the one hand, totalitarian regimes through the ages have forcibly stopped people expressing views now considered entirely mainstream, and still do today. Yet, in our open and permissive democracy, we have an equal problem with views the mainstream finds offensive; there are alternative views we also silence and punish. If someone lost a daughter though, a more cogent commentator recently posited, and someone phoned them up and abused and made fun of their dead 4 year old over the phone, that is an actual and surely a moral crime. Modern media means that the heartbroken mother might wake up today faced with a public message that does just that, albeit by an entirely unconnected teenager through a drunken tweet to friends last night. There is law to be brought to bear, including against inciting violence and racist abuse, and I guess my view is that the justice system must deal, as it does, with each individual case on its own merits. Consensus and consistency, as with most things, are probably a little too much to ask for.

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