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28 july 2016, getting away from it all

Thursday, July 28th, 2016


I'm news'd out. In our terribly suburbanite life-trajectory, summer holidays are school-constrained to the august hot-and-expensive slot. Still, away we go. Holidays always have a pull, to somewhere and something exciting and relaxing, but they also have a push: away from work, everyday drudgery, stresses and household chores. Once upon a time I really missed news when abroad, buying a day-old english newspaper whenever I had the chance and reading it cover-to-cover on the beach, packing my shortwave radio to get yesterday's football results. No more: now even on holiday news surrounds us. And the news has been getting ever more pervasive, ever more 24/7, ever more breathless, driven by instantaneous reaction becoming the next event. And even though I am a newsaholic, this relentless month has left me exhausted. It started with the up-all-night compulsive viewing of the referendum, and then daily, hourly, sometimes minute-by-minute, events dear boy have raced along at such a frenetic pace, not least as I'm now keeping up on twitter too (jury's out). This holiday then, though I fear there will be a massive gap when I return, I'm also planning to get away from news as well as I hide from the sun and take a gentle dip in the water. Can't wait.

15 july 2015, there but for the grace of god go I

Friday, July 15th, 2016

Pour tous nos amis français. La promenade des anglais à nice fait une apparition régulière dans notre vie, comme presque exactement un an avant que moi et ma moitié nous nous soient rencontrés, alors qu'elle était sur la plage de cannes à regarder les feux d'artifice du 14 juillet, et que j'étais sur la plage à nice en regardant les mêmes feux d'artifice sur les méditerranées. C'est peut-être pour cela que les terribles feux d'hier nous ont touchés un peu plus proche, la tragédie de la france est un peu plus la nôtre. En effet, comme tout le monde en europe pense, "mon dieu, ça aurait pu être moi". Dans une période antérieure de ma vie, vivant près d'une plage différente, à tel aviv, j'étais habitué à des bombes qui explosaient partout, à tout moment; à des amis qui disparaissaient pendant des heures, aux réseaux téléphoniques devenant muets par la surcharge. Un jour un ami a raté son bus habituel, qui a explosé plus tard. Le petit ami d'une autre amie est reparti avec seulement des coupures et des ecchymoses après avoir été assis à l'arrière d'un bus qui a tué 32 personnes quand il a explosé. Telle était la vie là-bas, à cette époque-là. Une telle vie semble devenir plus familière ici, maintenant. Comme elle semble grande, simple et sûre, la première moitié de la vie de notre génération x. Nos pensées sont avec vous.

3 july 2016, article 50 ways to leave your lover...

Sunday, July 3rd, 2016

I must credit the economist for the title, but will quote a more eminent source for what this exit clause actually means. As it says in the book (p131), "Lisbon includes a specific provision (Article 50) on voluntary withdrawal to help ensure that any such unlikely happening would take place in an orderly fashion. First, the Member State wishing to withdraw notifies the European Council of its intention. It and the Union then negotiate a withdrawal agreement, setting out withdrawal arrangements and regulating the future bilateral relationship. The Council concludes this agreement, by QMV (without the representative of the withdrawing Member State), after obtaining the European Parliament's consent... The Treaties cease to apply to the departing country, either as per the withdrawal agreement, or two years after the initial notification, implying a withdrawal may occur even if no agreement is reached." What do we learn from this ? Firstly, only the uk can trigger the process; good for the uk. However, once its triggered, the axe comes down automatically after two years, so bad. If things get timed out, the eu's arrangements are intact, but the uk's potentially a blank sheet. As to the agreement, only a (qualified, adjusted to exclude the uk) majority is needed, good-ish for the uk. However to extend the two years it's unanimity; very bad. The european parliament needs to agree the agreement before the council; hard to say, but probably bad. Finally, this can all just be about a withdrawal agreement and not the negotiation of a new trading relationship or anything like that. Though the treaty allows for something broader (the negotiations are for an agreement "taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union"), my strong suspicion is it allows the eu to present a hardball ultimatum if it wants, i.e. a take the lock, stock and barrel of eu law norway-style or leave-and-negotiate-more-later approach. This would mean no trade talks not only until after article 50 is triggered but until the rather narrower withdrawal agreement is negotiated, signed & ratified, for which a two-year period looks highly optimistic; very bad indeed. No wonder the timeframe for pulling that trigger is gently receding by a few weeks every time a prime-ministerial candidate makes a speech. Three years, with a uk general election looming if it is hasn't already taken place, is probably more than enough time for the wheel to turn again before the uk population next flexes its democratic legitimacy, this time on the actual terms of what leave means. What a shame about the years of conflict, confusion and contraction we're going to see between now and then. The economist got it right, quoting abba eban, "nations always do the right thing - once they exhaust all the alternatives".

26 june 2016, and the name of the new party is...

Sunday, June 26th, 2016

#different. But we're ahead of ourselves, so let's sweep through the next few months as enough of the (labour) shadow cabinet quit, there's a vote of no-confidence in mr corbyn, he wins a leadership race and very regrettably the brightest and best go all sdp and set up a new, radical, centrist, forward-looking group: "we're not leaving the party" says attack-dog tristram hunt, "the party left us", and there's a few dotted around the rest of the house of commons that join them. It could start life with over 100 mps, a telegenic and dynamic leader, riding a wave of youngist backlash against "leave" and a majority of parliament ideologically sympathetic. In a febrile political environment desperate for new fresh faces, policies and ways of doing politics, it will play into a world in which new "parties" (or let's call it a movement) are spun up on a million tweets. Though s/he will think twice before actually pulling the trigger, the new conservative leader/pm is likely to want to be not gordon brown and will need their own mandate, especially as, unlike the campaign, parameters now need drawing about what "leave" actually means: how much immigration, how much spent on the nhs and all the rest of it. A mandate will also be needed to protect the negotiations from marauding ukip betraylists, even if their immediate fire is turned on converting their appeal in labour's northern heartlands to a slug of seats in the general election. #different (or whatever it's called) will need to appeal to that constituency too, and have a narrative to keep scotland on board. Their biggest weakness is being seen as too metropolitan, elitist and privileged. The break from the "old order" needs to be grossly apparent, including an authentic northern working class identity with a real response to that population's emotional social calamity. The most immediate question will be should it follow the libdem / lammy line of parliamentary sovereignty (meaning stand on a platform of staying in the eu then win an election and carry it out) or accept the apparent will of the majority and try to make it work in the most progressive way possible. Not ducking that question would really be the first thing that marks it out as #different.

25 june 2016, what doesn’t kill eu makes eu stronger

Saturday, June 25th, 2016

So here we are, with a hangover likely to last a lifetime. Given around half a million people die each year, by the time we come to leave our now-beloved eu, the slim majority that voted for it will be dead. Sitting in our life-is-good trees though, we are too sanguine to the social calamity that is modern britain today for so many people, stuck on poverty wages or none at all, "zero-hours" contracts just the iceberg's tip of their non-protection by laws, unions or other agencies of the state and civilisation they are expected to belong to, and ultimately support. When voting, it should be no surprise it was to reject. This is of course is why we have a representative democracy, so parliament, government and "the system" can consider things holistically in the round and not in a binary, zero-sum way, but when cameron's reckless chancism gives a voice to this widespread disaffection, fuelled by a migration spike that to anyone looking seemed scarily disproportionate, there was never much doubt which way it would go. The only ultimate answers are retreat on raw democracy, or retreat on raw capitalism. Government should play a slightly mitigating role, and it doesn't help that london gets £2,713 of public subsidy for transport every year and the north east, which needs it so much more, £5; or londoners £69 a year spent on the arts, the rest of england £4.60. These things add up. I don't actually think we'll entirely leave europe in the end (see building the post-brexit boat below), but that halfway house institutional solution gets us no nearer to the commonality of civilisation we're adept at ignoring, be that within our uk or europe-wide demos.

11 june 2016, building the post-brexit boat

Saturday, June 11th, 2016

Given it will be the biggest set-back to the project in its history (see 1 january 2016, the year of leaving), the eu is turning its attention to the consequences of the looming leave vote; pre-quake tremors are beginning to hit the surface. There are two schools. The first sees the uk as central brick of a wall holding back integration and though convulsive, exit will enable closer union. The second has britain more as the crest of a eurosceptic wave, with the vote loosening the tectonic plates that lead eventually to a more states-first, decentralised construct. Berlin, schauble at least, is already championing the middle-way status quo narrative. Uppermost in this view is denying the uk any rights and privileges as a stark warning to others of the ruinous perils of leaving. While that line is likely to hold in the immediate earthquake of the near-existential crisis the eu will face, it is ultimately unsustainable. Far from being impossible though, both tendencies may find a breakthrough as the vote brings the latent tension to the surface. The "keep them in the fold" countries are likely to strain every sinew to work with the uk on some form of association as similar to eu membership as possible. Norway, switzerland, iceland and (everyone's favourite) lichtenstein already have the eea/efta, and the insertion of the heavyweight uk into the mix should be more than enough to catalyse its reformation. This may prove sufficiently attractive for several other out-inclined member states (hungary, the example du jour) to peel off into too. This has two great attractions for the eu. Putting a safety net in place may well enable the core to start serious optioneering about further integration, likely around a reduced-schengen and the eurozone. An outer-ring is also an obvious answer to the increasingly-fraught question of what to do with turkey and the remaining balkan countries now that the highly-successful dangling-the-prospect-of-membership foreign policy tool has run out of road given political inability to actually bring in any new members for the foreseeable future. Once recriminations fade and passions calm, pro-actively creating this second-tier, unbound by the ecj (see court in the act), is likely to emerge as a potentially sturdy win-win vessel both the eu and britain can sail their now-separate but still interdependent futures together in.

4 june 2016, o solo sorrento

Saturday, June 4th, 2016

Just back from a week away. "first time in italy ?" asked our skipper, "no, several times in the north" we replied. "Aha", he concluded "so it's your first time in italy". The disorganisation, lack of restaurant chains and total imperviousness to rules though were wonderfully familiar. The romans especially did the roads for us: mopeds flying round blind corners on the wrong side of unbelievably narrow (and picturesque) roads, cars reversing down one way streets and brazenly turning right into no right-turns. Everywhere, the views were breathtaking: from sorrento of course, on the cliffs, looking out onto capri, or at the top of its highest mountain, which we accessed on a 1970s chairlift. I was gobsmacked as we were winched up, that so many of the people coming down were staring not at some of the most mediterranean's most dramatic scenery - ischia was rising as if suspended in a cloud - but at their mobile phones. Not even taking pictures, but clearly on emails or social media; some actually talking, breaking the meditative silence. We are a spoilt generation, lost to wonder. The whole holiday I fought this with my kids, though we had amazing ammunition: the wonders of pompeii, albeit in the searing heat, a cooler evening in herculaneum with a great guide, the mind-boggling walk up and sights atop mount vesuvius, capri and a fabulous morning at italian cookery school. We also got to positano, the first time driving across dizzying cliff-top roads and walking down a mountain to eat at the splendid tre sorelles, the second as the climax to our final day's extravagance of a boat down the amalfi coast, in and out the grottos, swimming and sunning, approaching positano from the very best angle, and then breaking a rule and eating at the same restaurant twice. I read the fantastic jacob's gift; he wrote my book. Heavenly holidayesque.

23 may 2016, nate of the north

Monday, May 23rd, 2016

I'm going to indulge in some amateur demographics. At last year's uk general election, almost 37m people voted, a 66.1% turnout. Roughly 11.3m voted conservative, 9.3m labour, 3.9m ukip, 2.4m libdem, 1.4m snp and 1.2m green (full results here). Using the economist's tracker as starting point, some 54% of conservative voters can be expected to vote leave in the referendum, alongside 28% of labour's, 92% ukip and 45% libdem. For scotland we have an all-voter proxy, which imported to the nats, is 36%. For the greens, let's go with the telegraph's lowly 20%. Plugging that blizzard of stats into the referendumresult© gives us a forecast, based on the same turnout, with everyone voting as expected. It's a win for remain, but with a wafer-thin 52%. Let's play. Start with the (typically older) tory vote, where factoring in party membership being far more strongly out (around 70%) and that generally outs, being typically more passionate, are more likely to actually vote on the day than ins, that together translates to a modest 5% adjustment. For labour, I think the polling is wrong. Extrapolating from last month's council elections suggests a far bigger chunk of the labour vote, especially in the northern cities, has ukip-leanings generally and will vote leave in the referendum. With a combination of the labour leadership's distinct lack of engagement, the temptation to give cameron a bloody nose and general disengagement caused by the debate being between white tory males significantly depressing labour-voting turnout (I'd say around 30% down on the general election, still higher than the locals) - this gives remain a much closer 55% for this group. Together, these two adjustments decisively swing the vote - to a 53% win for leave. Widen that lack of passion from ins to depress the rest of their votes by just 3%, and mirror the same for outist-enthusiasm, and leave wins with 55%. On turnout, let's try a scottish referendum-like voting surge, with a 76% turnout on the same trends: it helps remain, but they still lose with 49%. More likely, there's a 10% lower turnout (and even 56% would be a pleasant surprise): leave nudges ahead, on 53%. All this helps explain why although I am unambiguously in favour (see 24 february 2016, in or out ?), I fear the vote, by a clear-enough margin, will be to leave (see 1 january 2016, the year of leaving).

21 may 2016, yet more hopelessness

Saturday, May 21st, 2016

Jonathan freedland tries hard to find crumbs of comfort in this week's israeli government musical chairs - but there is no silver lining in changing the defence minister from a right-wing ideologue committed to the rule of law and in good standing with the army to one far further right and neither. Avigdor lieberman is a notorious extreme-right thug, more noxious than the freedom-party favourite to win austria's presidency this weekend. Unlike netanyahu's vision of the world, which is a complex combination of populist, opportunist and ideological, lieberman's is straightforward racism. Long an advocate of transferring some of the arab population out of parts of the west bank, lieberman has built a popular platform based on denigrating arabs and a political vision based on legally identifying them as second-class citizens. In passing, he has talked about drowning palestinians in the dead sea and executing israeli arabs (ie full citizens) who talk to hamas. During the last gaza conflict he called for israelis to boycott arab shops. The same thinking was behind a sinister government bill (the non-profit association law) to punish domestic critics of government policy. His supporters chant "death to arabs" at rallies. Freedom of expression ? Not for arabs: lieberman's party championed a bill to criminalise commemoration of the "naqba" which loosely translates as catastrophe and is the arab narrative for what jewish israelis celebrate as independence day. Lieberman's party winning 15 seats (of 120) in the 2009 election was one of the biggest shocks in israeli political history, flagging that an enduring message of outright racism has a constituency in democratic israel. Far from the body politic rejecting such racism, it has continued to evolve relentlessly into the mainstream right - hence lieberman's renewed appointment to one of the country's highest offices is hardly news. How far, in the wrong direction, we have travelled (see it was 20 years ago today, 4 november 2015). So - hope from this nightmare ? Bibin there, done that (see 18 april 2015) - tragically, no.

7 may 2016, normal service is resumed (temporarily)

Saturday, May 7th, 2016

I can't help but love reading the runes of elections, and this week's "locals" in the uk were the biggest single set before the next general election, as well as brief respite from the otherwise politically-dominating referendum. Let's start with the conservatives, in government, at the centre of several small-bore scandals and u-turns, as well as being hopelessly split on europe and so who should have been expected to do relatively badly. In fact they held their own. The reason for this was labour. With a new leader they might be expected to be in a honeymoon period - think cameron or blair one year in, both pretty much all-conquering. They didn't. Behind the headline win in london (against a nasty negative conservative campaign) and the general "slow steady progress" narrative against good expectation management that created fears they would lose badly, this was a very bad set of elections for labour, and catastrophic again in scotland, where they are now no longer even the official opposition (as unionist forces coalesced around the modish scottish conservatives). Two peaks and a flatline. The handsome winners in scotland were again the nationalist snp, but there is a sense they have peaked and a new norm of more effective opposition that will one day topple them (south african anc-style) may just be discernible. It's a high peak though they will be happy with. Less so ukip, who some headline-grabbing first seats in the welsh-assembly aside, have little to boast about this time around, which is perhaps strange given europe has dominated the news these last months. Whatever the referendum result, a major crossroads looms for them, as they have not a bad basis to embed themselves across the country as an angry right-of-mainstream alternative. For that, they need to put europe behind them and avoid becoming a nasty anti-immigrant party, not easy given those are the two issues virtually their entire membership and story are built on. The liberal democrats are hardly worth a sentence: they survive. They lost stockport, where we live, labour becoming the largest party, with 23 of the 63 seats. The lib dems have 21 and the conservatives 14. Our own heald green yet again easily returned the local independents, whose 3 seats previously kept the yellows in power: we may well then be living under our own traffic light coalition. I can only hope it does a better job of fixing the ever-increasing number of potholes.

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