29 august 2011, been away

As you may have noticed, I've been on holiday. Usually, we go to hungary every summer, but this year hungary came to us, in the form of my other half's entire family coming over for a week. Having filled our boots with her family, we then did the same with mine, going down to london for my brother's aufruf, the ceremony a week before a wedding. It took place at a charming little synagogue in the east end, an area the centre of jewish sweatshop existence when the hordes came before the first world war. All have long since moved to north london and beyond, but my brother was one of a group who brought life back to this historic corner. After that we did the obligatory day at legoland, and then spent the week in east sussex, which was a wonderful break with the family, although everywhere we actually went - eastbourne, hastings and the de la warr pavilion - was a tad dissapointing; although the miniature railway was ok, and battle was gorgeous. Highlight of all though was bath: never been before, but definitely going again. En route we visited stonehenge: a first for the rest, but second time for me, having already had a mythical experience driving there in the middle of the night when much younger. It was foggy when we arrived, and so drove up and down several times before believing the map, hopping over the fence and then magically the fog lifted and we were right there, metres away; the massive other-worldly structures literally taking our breath away. Chased off, we pitched our little tent on the road's grass verge, to find the next morning we were in the middle of what had become a tourist funfair, and wandering around both that morning and this time around too was not quite the same as that first spiritual glimpse. On then to the wedding...

15 august 2011, masses media

A week on, and the riots are decidedly over. They finished on wednesday. They didn't peter out: on tuesday they raged their fiercest outside the capital, yet the day after not a whimper anywhere. There were three reasons. Firstly, there were 16, 000 police on london's streets; secondly the polical class and prime minister came home from holidays and took to the airwaves; and thirdly the rain was absolutely pouring down: we brought out the manchester water cannon. Though the third may well be the most important on the night, what the other two have in common was that they changed the narrative, as carried by the mass media. On saturday, the pictures were of riot, and so on sunday, as they spread, all stops were out to protect public order. What actually happened though was looting, as the image the media was transmitting was one where shops were not being protected; directly transmitted pictures were of windows being broken and goods being taken. That set the tone for next days: people were taking things, leading a growing number of people to questions whether they couldn't too. On tuesday though, the pictures were of an endless stream of police coming into the capital: tonight's not the night was the message. More subtly, rioters' photographs were being circulated and cases were coming to court, relaying that people were getting caught and punished. It may sound trite but the sudden return of the politicians too had an effect. No-one may have listened to the words, but their presence said action, control, authority, order being restored. Together, that killed the whole movement, dead. The key to all that was the mass media. It was the media than enabled it and the media that stopped it, because media today is so pervasive and it has an almost sensient ability for people to feel the atmosphere and react accordingly. On phones, tvs and blackberrys, people felt it and reacted accordingly. Given its variety and dynamism, using the media to define and relay messages is harder than ever - but no less important. Ironically, malcolm x knew this years ago, calling it "the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that's power. Because they control the minds of the masses."

9 august 2011, civilisation slipping away ?

Another part of that same multitude of humanity I saw having fun on the brighton seafront at the weekend has been displaying a more vicious side over the last days, as riots have exploded across london's more deprived high streets, echoes have savaged birmingham city centre and violence has reared its head in liverpool, nottingham, bristol and elsewhere. In london, shops are shutting early and the knock-on economic effects are only just beginning to be felt. Although policing and its community relationship in a racially-charged area provided the spark, these don't feel like race riots. Nor do they have ideology at their heart like the student riots earlier in the year. Austerity and the cuts may be the talking point, but they are neither cause nor excuse. Rather, the feel is of venting youth, despondent at not being able to buy the glittering goods on display on every high street, and increasingly of any hope that they will ever be able to buy them. Hope and aspiration enable people to absorb a lot; these are youths who have little hope, and so little to lose. What protects shop windows from being shattered on any given day is not the police or security shutters, but the invisible glue of civilisation, an order that ensures that if one person has more than another, it can't be taken by force. Property is not theft, but for theft not to be proper both the sanctions of wrongdoing and the prospects for change for those without have to be real. Criminality must be punished therefore, every incident a camera can catch, but the causes conspiring to create hopelessness must also be addressed. Everyone needs a stake in society and a chance to progress through intelligence, hard work, resolve or originality. That balance has clearly broken down, and for civilisation to survive, both sides of the equation need bolstering, however difficult the times - or they will only get worse.

7 august 2011, the multitude of humanity

I don't really get out enough, so after a furious afternoon of mud racing and drinking, a night out on the brighton seafront, all for my brother's stag do, was a (gin and) tonic. We were not alone, amidst wall to wall hens and stags, at various states of undress, more as the night went on. Woke up to the tottenham riots, scouring the detritus of the night before in search of a newspaper. A couple of hours later, heading back to civilisation, the streets were already flooded with tourists, and I surfed the london tide, which clearly washes down here. The train of course was first late, then cancelled (the norm grumbled the odd regular on it), but I made it in the end, and there was some pride to see the not inconsiderable number of manchester united and even manchester city shirts travelling on the - brighton to london - train. The hordes of tourists may not make it that far up, but other international elements make it this far down. A spot in the observer I was reading made much the same point. The reds were 2-0 down at half time, but came back to win 3-2. Spending a few days on the south coast later in the month, so may even go back to brighton, just to see if there are any places that don't have music pumping out of every bit of the wall at a million decibels. Yes, I'm getting on.

28 july 2011, and the winner is...

From my vantage point as a non-executive director on the board of our hospital trust, fabled as the birthplace of the equally-fabled nhs, I have been involved since december (indeed somewhat before) in overseeing the process of being acquired. It was an extremely interesting experience, weighing up the options, walking on eggshells with the stakeholders, and helping the more active members of the executive team define and execute a very robust and well-managed plan that led up to an all-day board meeting this week when we declared central manchester as the organisation in whose hands we thought trafford residents' health would best be looked after. It was a long journey, not without its challenges, and with a fair degree of profile given its history; several questions were asked in parliament. Meanwhile, just to show that it's not all talk, the day before we got over the most crucial hurdle on getting a whole new hospital built, in altrincham, which is probably the project I've been closest to in my time at the trust. There's still much negotiation to do before we dissolve the trust and hand over our responsibilities, but it does feel now like the torch is passing, and we just need to keep it safe and alight for one more lap.

27 july 2011, from gazelles to gorillas

I knew nothing at all about "business support" when I arrived back in manchester 3 years ago, but now I am overly burdened with the rather too public sector-esque menu of options and interventions for bringing money to bear in helping local firms prosper. An excellent paper, launched this morning helped tilt that investment more towards the high-value, high-tech, sustainable end of the operation, focusing on stimulating and supporting, with innovation - everyone's favourite buzzword - high on the agenda. Best comment came from john leach who echoed the panel's plea to do more for decent sized "foundation firms". In a world of ever decreasing resource, you can't do something for everyone, so this was a call to focus not just on the small high-growth firms, so-called gazelles, nor on the small, weaker, about to go out of business, firms but on helping turn those that are solid and sustainable from merely that to the more bulky firms we so lack. Many great ideas in the report. Now we just need to implement them, which won't be easy given the weak and deteriorating economic climate we're still in - and likely to be for some time according to the armageddon project.

26 july 2011, the chill from norway

I somehow omitted norway in my recent sweep of europe's fringe (26 march 2011, let's ignore the rise of the right), which now looks a big miss after anders' breivik's horrific attacks. They were all the more horrendous for me as I spent many of my childhood summers at such youth camps. Though the incident represents one man's madness and depravity, his connections with the far right, including the english defence league it does again suggest that such movements have a vile and violent tail and provide succour and morale support. No need to look to extremists though for easy scapegoating: the front page of the sun, now britain's best-selling newspaper, ran with the utterly presumptuous headline of "al quaeda massacre", instinctively fingering muslims, exactly the killer's currency. Again, we instinctively reach for the bogeyman - the new jews. Almost as instinctively we go a little further down the security axis, at the cost of liberty (12 jan 2010). On the very same day as the massacre, the uk government blurred its firm commitment to destroy the dna currently stored of those swabbed but later found to be entirely innocent. Though we are who we are, that's an ever-changing state.

23 july 2011, and on the euro – and now the dollar too

A tired looking angela merkel left brussels yesterday with a deal agreed at a pre-meet with sarkozy and trichet, which most seem to agree was more than papering over the cracks. They committed to more economic governance which, based, on the expansion of the european financial stability facility, will be less than a euro area ministry of finance (see 2 june 2011 ) but well beyond what we have today. Whilst the "m" bit of economic and monetary union was meticulously planned and delivered, the "e" is an abrupt and ad hoc process. We will see what they deliver in this round, and what all 27 agree to. Meanwhile, enough was done to deal with the immediate issue of greece. The deal, with bondholders taking a 20% haircut, will see the rating agencies declaring a default, which will hasten the serious money already leaking from euroland, but should be enough to enable the system to manage that through in the short term. Whether it is enough to set greece on the road to recovery, to dam off contagion to the other piigs (definitely two eyes) or to stop the increasing mis-association of the eu polity in the public mind with pouring taxpayers' money down a somehow greedy bankers-linked black hole, we shall also have to see. Probably not, as the write-down surely needs to be bigger, and the transformation of the greek economy towards productivity and growth hardly begun. Meanwhile, as well as the euro teetering, the absolutely unthinkable across the atlantic is also somehow getting out of control, and there is a chance that the usa too may default, so too making the dollar teeter. Mark blyth sums that up well, talking about america's enormous long-term fiscal gap and dependence on china, with the us economy " like wile e coyote who runs off the cliff and it takes him a while to realise it. What has been keeping him up is chinese blowing air up". Suddenly global macroeconomic meltdown is right on the immediate agenda again. Short-term this is all going to shore up boutique operations like british gilts and of course gold, but any global tsunami will wash over us all, big time. No need for the ark just yet, but its time for the wellies.

20 july 2011, the litmus test

Rare praise for the eu, for bringing foreign airlines flying into europe within the ambit of its best-in-class emissions trading scheme - not that ets counts for much in the world, as the failure of copenhagen brutally showed (20 december 2009. This is part of a wider process of turning invisible costs on the environment into financial costs that will ultimately incentivise behavioural change. Yes, if we are ever to slow global warming rather than just mitigate, we are going to have to fly much less. The ets came from a growing realisation years ago that on current trends, climate change was likely to reduce gdp, probably by around 5% a year. Ironically the political agenda turned to this only because economic times were good and so mainstream public opinion allowed itself to worry about the environment. No longer: less people now are willing to pay higher prices to reduce climate change. Even then though the first phase of ets was a failure and only minor changes were made to the current one. Overall eu emissions were reduced by some 6% between the magic date of 1990 and 2008. However, that is a measure only of emissions released within europe, from our own homes and factories. It does not take into account what we imported, i.e. the carbon costs of our consumption - and so the emissions of what were once called developing countries' during that period have soared. In other words, in a world of international trade a net that captures part of the world is no net at all, as to reduce the globe's emissions, it needs to be a zero sum game. We've not really cut emissions therefore, we've just outsourced them. More than ever therefore if we are to cut emissions we need global sanctions and incentives, and unless we're flying less, amongst many other things, they're not working.

10 july 2011, juba-lant

There are so many parts of the world I know so little about; something my time at the united nations reinforced. I first followed sudan with the troubles in darfur and the horrifying janjaweed, discovering that an enlightened american-led process of many years was already near completion to stop a north-south civil war that had killed perhaps 2 million people. That culminated in a ceasefire and an independence referendum, and then with this week's celebrations, as south sudan became africa's 54th nation state. A glance at western sahara shows that there is no inevitability about such progress. South sudan however is extremely poor, if sufficiently exposed to mass media to want development and prosperity. Ensuring a permanent end to a war that has convulsed sudan for decades is just the first essential step along that road. South Africa, india, israel and hopefully Kosovo are all good examples of how a violent militia that forces independence (here the tenacious sudan people's liberation movement) can go on to build a plural and prosperous society that takes its place in the world and seeks to serve its people well. The country has oil, which is a good starting point, but so many countries show is no guarantee. The oil-rich border area already looks at high risk of re-igniting the war, and states such as neighbouring chad, sao tome and nigeria are text book "how not to" guides on becoming natural resource-dependent economies that breed corruption and autocracy, driving away the population's talent and reinforcing elites and tribal and religious divisions. Sudan has a place in british history, and indeed it was britain that without proper process united the 2 regions into one independent state in 1956, something today that looks another example of retreating imperial vandalism. As in india and israel, it was one reason for decades of war. Let's hope though that unlike in those places, independence turns out to be an end to the war, not just a phase in it, and that today really marks a new era of happiness for a fair slice of africa's people.

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