5 january 2013, morocco

Probably the most interesting stop on our cruise was morocco, where we learned casblanca has over 5 million people, and visited agadir and taroudant, a genuinely non-tourist walled market town. I was complimented when told I could be a moroccan, which quickly got us on to the topic of moroccan jews, which all the guides mentioned in passing. There was a big community there once, around 250,000, but they all emigrated after the war, leaving perhaps 5,000. Most went to israel in a noted "aliyah" of zionist yore immediately before moroccan independence, as that part of the politics of that part of the world were fundamentally altered by the creation of the state of israel in 1948. Our host made much of a bargain with france to "let the jews go" in return for independence, though the facts don't seem to bear that out. The population faced intimidation and fear before leaving, and now-famous prejudice on arrival, as the ashkenazi establishment treated them as poor and ignorant and used them to populate new development towns in the south. There seems disagreement where the next wave went, which is some combination of mainly france, canada and again israel, where with around a million descendants, morocco is the most common lineage after russian. Our host also talked about emigres still owning property and coming and going, which is certainly common in the russian experience. This is a part of the world I know far too little about and this fleeting glance was enough to spur me on to learn more before I become an argaze awassare. Salam !

1 january 2013, ...and a happy new year

After a week cruising the sunny islands of madeira and the canaries, as well as a packed stop off in morocco, we spend new year, as we almost always do, in budapest, with my other half's family. My eldest was on a quest to stay up all night, having been confounded last year when in an exception that proved the rule we stayed home and I pretty much made him and his friend give up the ghost at 4am when they woke me up. This year he had a bad night on the eve, an afternoon nap on the day, and woke up with a headache, so the two of us trekked a few blocks down to where we were staying (her father's flat) where he had a pill, brought his lunch back to celebrate too, and promptly fell asleep. I agonised about waking him or not, but he was so peaceful I decided against it. After all, new year will come again. For the first time in as long as I can remember therefore, I was marooned alone at midnight, unless you count a sleeping son and bill bryson, who kept me wonderfully entertained until somewhere near 1am when my wife escaped hungarian trivial pursuits and pizza with the other 9 kids to bid me, as I bid you, a happy 2013.

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.

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