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31 august 2015, a balmy bank holiday

Dealings of the day with germany, hungary and america have made me conscious that whilst I'm home today with the family (catching up on "stuff") most of the rest of the world is hard at work. I'm back at it tomorrow, having done a few days already after a week-plus-weekends break in hungary, at balaton of course, but also down in pecs, a first time, and a pleasant one. Leaving the family there for another week I got back last sunday, only to leave monday for chicago, also a first time, and also a good one. I got to see the whitesox which would have been extremely dull and incomprehensible had not the lively company in the box held back the jet lag with excellent food, fine scotch, almost-witty banter and some half-successful explanations of baseball (but never again). Best were the astounding buildings: the cutting edge shimmering of the lakeshore east aqua, the gotham city splendour of the lasalle wicker, the quintessentially american mix of the tribune, the sheer chutzpah of the trump and the won't even mention second-tallest-building-in-the-states of the sears (now willis) tower. Marina city was pretty eye-catching too. All making chicago probably worth a second look...

10 august 2015, still living in the nuclear shadow

Savagery is sometimes in the eye of the beholder: a few beheadings make islamic state devils of barbarity while hundreds in saudi arabia don't quite have the same effect. 70 years after hiroshima and nagasaki, it is worth reflecting that war makes many do rather strange things: each american bomb incinerated about 70, 000 people, killing hundreds of thousands more in the years after. Japan's prime-minister thoughtfully called at the anniversary for nuclear disarmament, but once learned a thing cannot be unlearned and post-war history has shown the battle to be not for reduction but to slow proliferation. It is no co-incidence that the united nations' "permanent 5" members who can veto anything are the world's 5 nuclear states. Their absolute non-commitment to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty's commitment to disarmament actually disarms the foundations of this important piece of international architecture upon which containment efforts are built. Whilst iran's march, for now, has been halted and efforts continue with north korea, india and israel's nuclear weapons are accepted and pakistan's are not far behind. Beheadings or not, saudi arabia along with turkey, japan, south africa, australia and others all have the wherewithal for a mass nuclear breakout within a decade should circumstances dictate the need. That would be a calamitously different world to the one we live in. Perhaps less so than a decade ago, but born of a western generation weaned on prosperity and smiling with the hopefulness of the baby boom rather than the millions of ww2 corpses, we remain a society rather complacent in believing this an era of manageable small wars in which global conflict is unthinkable.

2 august 2015, more, or more europe

Now that greece has momentarily stopped hogging the agenda, the brits will try again to launch a "reform" agenda, with the headline aim of securing a "less europe" deal before a referendum on exiting altogether. If there is a european wave in the greek wake though, it is very much going in the other direction, at least for the eurozone. The uk may be successful in protecting the rights of non-euro countries, but for the core, another round of ever closer union over the next years is remorseless logic. France's president is already talking about a more powerful europe, and, recognising that all may not be with him on the journey, of a new hard core with its own government, budget and parliament. His prime minister, manuel valls, coloured in membership, saying it should include the eu's 6 founding nations (france, germany, italy and the benelux). Italy's finance minister is arguing for full fiscal union and policy, "and this must respond to a parliament and this parliament must be elected. Otherwise there is no accountability." Germany's finance minister, wolfgang schaeuble, has had similar thoughts, recognising that the commission over these months seems to be becoming that government, meaning it needs stripping of its more technical and regulatory functions, e.g. on competition. The commission president, jean-claude juncker (see 18 june 2011, in celebration of), would not disagree, having specifically stood on that election platform. The most thoughtful round-up of this strong stream of thinking came a month ago with the report of the "5 presidents": juncker, draghi, tusk, schulz and dijsselbloem. If europe has a leadership, this is it, and their ten-year plan isn't just about putting the "e" (economic) into emu (and monetary union, see 2 june 2011, trichet, awaaaaay), it also sets out the path to financial, fiscal and political union too. Thus, while the poles of london and the presidents draw very different conclusions, they essentially share the same analysis, that emu is incomplete and can't stay that way forever. History suggests the presidents are far more likely to get their way over time, but probably without the british-led refuseniks.

21 july 2015, a good deal

Not so long ago, the options for dealing with iran were bomb or it gets the bomb. Barack obama and the dogged john kerry have dug in and expended a lot of political capital to create a third option, of a solid deal that limits iran's nuclear options, freezes the possibility of nuclear weapons acquisition for at least a decade and begins to turn a rogue state that not so long ago threatened the peace of the world into a legitimate regional player. This is the most noteworthy achievement obama has to justify the nobel prize he received in the golden dawn of his presidency (see 10 october 2009, history's eyes on obama). There were no better options and indeed welcoming iran back to the world and enabling its people to prosper and take part in mainstream civilisation is the best long-term route to moderating the regime and marginalising extremity, political and religious, within the islamic state's polity. Israel and the republicans are unhappy, as much at an obama foreign policy success as the result. Yet they have no alternative other than war, a poor form of arms control and surely not a sensible course of action in a middle east more rife with violence, extremism and chaos than any time since the second world war. Now iran is damped down a bit, can we please have a little more sustained effort on syria, iraq, israel/palestine, yemen, libya, tunisia...

8 july 2015, greece - the end

Working at the ecb the night euros first came out of atms was a proud moment. It now looks likely different notes will eventually be coming out of greek banks. This may be what the greek government has envisaged for some time given the way it has managed the situation: reversing reforms and wearing brinkmanship and obtusity as badges of pride, perhaps afraid to openly make the (not-unjustifiable) case that they may be best off out the euro now and so letting events prevail. There may have been little choice given a public that wants the euro but clearly favours the expansionist platform on which syriza was elected but which is in stark contrast to the binding terms greece signed up to when borrowing money. Debtors, alas, don't get to dictate repayment conditions, even when democratically elected to do so (see 21 february 2015, le demos nouveaux et arrivé). So, let the others be the baddies, giving tsipras and co some of the domestic political capital they will need in the months ahead. Even those years ago there was unease that greece, an economic outlier, making the grade looked like a triumph of political idealism over economic common. Yet its numbers were sturdy - until they weren't: it turned out, greece completely fiddled its figures, on the assumption no-one would to throw them out over a little creative accounting. And so it proved. Now, the first western country in living memory to default, its banks all but insolvent, its economy 25% smaller than 5 years ago, 50% of its youth unemployed, greece a country being hurtled backwards to the balkan neighbourhood it seemed to have escaped, but only on the surface. European indulgence, it turns out, has limits. While the eurogroup on the other side made mistakes, in this bitterest of ends, the whole of the body is prized higher than the arm which if it really can't be healed must ultimately be cut off, as if in a more classic greek tragedy. The euro area will survive, perhaps even be stronger in the long-term; but for greece, these days bring unmitigated disaster. The rest of the eu must surely be extremely magnanimous in humanitarian and other relief to try and hold the line at the broader union, if indeed after another few months of acrimonious monetary divorce, greece and the broader european body politic still want that. After so much, that it should come to this.

27 june 2015, back to school

As the eurozone faces its very sternest test and the british death toll in tunisia rises by the hour, I go back to how these things come about and one inescapable but true cliche, that there is little not helped, or even solved, by education. I made a small contribution today, speaking at a hungarian weekend school that has sprung up in manchester. Critical to it, as all schools, is the quality of teachers. It is too bad that rigorous performance management comes late to many school systems, although also understandable given that performance in this context is hellishly difficult to measure. Some kids of course, not least through socio-demographics, should be expected to do better. Teacher value-add comes most where they are not, so straightforward like-for-like comparisons with other areas are not right, though like-for-like of the same areas over time might be. Experience also has a value. An interesting point that emerges from the research is that most schools have a full spectrum of good and bad teachers, which is strange. Better systems, places or heads might be expected to bring forward the best; lesser ones tolerate the worst. Better pupils though are assigned to better teachers. This is highly pertinent for me as my second-born makes the transition into secondary school and, unusually, to a state school that has streams. He worked extremely hard to get in the top steam, where, research would suggest, the better teachers are deployed; evidence from my first son (same school, same stream) suggests so. On the other hand, getting the best teachers to work with the worst pupils would likely create the maximum value for society, though at the cost of the highest-performers doing less well. Cause and effect though, as ever, might be an inverse relationship here. We can of course be utopian and just wish that all teachers were excellent, or at least nudge things towards that: better pay for teachers would help, as would rather more ruthlessly rooting out and moving on the poorer ones. Someone was perhaps right with the "education, education, education" mantra.

20 june 2015, shoot first, ask questions never

Once the immediate horror of the charleston shootings moved to consideration, the next thought was torn between the fork of race or guns. The latter won a moment later, when the news reported that the murderer received a gun for his 21st birthday present. Typically, jonathan freedland managed both. He points to the excellent jon stewart commentary. Somehow america, such a leading global light in so many ways, is unable to wrestle with its twin race and gun pathologies. This time, it's not different. Last year there were 283 mass shootings in america. 283. Here's another much-commented on string of thought: 525 people have been shot in america by police so far this year, probably more by the time you check the record. Every day in america 7 children are shot. Yet even when the american president puts the full weight of his office behind it, attempts at gun control are crushed. The people's rights as set out in constitution, or more accurately in the willfully literalist translation of it, are sacrosanct. Even though the right to bear arms makes no more sense than the right to arm bears. Sometimes, it feels good to be a european.

15 june 2015, stamp of approval

There's a beautiful stamp to commemorate today, 800 years since magna carta. I saw it at the post office as I sent several sets of stamps, the first wave, perhaps, of a mass sell-off. I collected stamps avidly as a boy, both me and my sister (she was given a coin collection) were pleasantly encouraged by my father, under whose guidance I built up a decent contemporary collection, bolstered by a family gift of older stock. It was in and out of albums until my early teens, since when it has ossified, albeit added to occasionally by me and, I now recall, my mother. I have tried to get my two sons into the habit, to no effect. I am not upset though, as they have their pastimes and pleasures; philately is just not one of them. Nor any longer is it mine, much as I enjoy the aesthetic beauty as I flick through what is now quite a fine collection. However, I have a growing feeling that my time to horde has gone, my time to unclutter arrived. Stuffocation. Clutter therapist says get rid, purge, clear, toss, abandon, and with relish, too. So I am going through the process of selling my stamps. My first punt was to put two dozen presentation packs on the ebay. Though I found the trial and error element quite therapeutic, I sold just 3 (which I was posting). I am deeply uncertain about the sale: it is odd for a historian to write about selling stamps on the 800th anniversary of magna carta, rather than debunking myths about a document that first made everyone equal before the law. I will have that much less family silver to pass on to my kids. Somehow though the glove needs to fit the hand and there are no tears when it doesn't, when my own hand has turned to other things and when we are all content, as were the barons.

8 june 2015, alea jacta est

Having just watched the eurovision (11 may 2014, the morning after) with my youngest - little more than a blatant attempt to stay awake after bedtime - I was struck, again, by how pervasive, in song and commentary, english was. Across the continent it's no longer a question of what language europe would adopt it had a lingua franca, but rather whether or not to officially adopt english. This is somewhat ironic, given that those who speak three languages are trilingual, those who speak two are bilingual and those who speak just one are english. Some 38% of europeans now speak english, well ahead of german (12%) and french (11%). The reasons for this are of course less olde england and more new world, but no less potent for that - and of course self-reinforcing. As more and more speak the common language, more and more want and even need it. In the european institutions, where 30 years ago french almost totally prevailed, some 70-80% of eu documents are now produced in that funny language where skating on thin ice can get you into hot water and fat chance and slim chance are the same thing. Even french oscars (the césars), much to my francophone other half's disgust, now go to english-language films. For the eu single market, this is a useful trend. Compared to the internal mobility of americans, the biggest barrier in europe is language. The ability to actually talk to each other is a crucial element in encouraging people to shop around and to work where they are needed. At a more philosophical level, can there ever really be a "community" let alone a "union" when its supposed citizens only actually speak to others of their own nationality ? Whereas once upon a time nations harnessed language to the cause of a common identity through compulsory use in universities, courts, civil service and the army, europe's language is emerging in a resoundingly "bottom up" way. The english may yet edge away from the eu, but at least the new neighbours will be able to communicate across the channel.

31 may 2015, copenhalfgone

A busy half-term, with relatives staying from australia, and then we hopped over to denmark for a few days, a first for my other half and the boys. It came on the back of a rather rash promise to visit legoland if my youngest got into the top stream in his new school, which he duly did; we hadn't considered which legoland he meant. We were also inspired by the bridge, and indeed it was a constant theme, as we took the train over it, walked through a new dock development for a sweeping view and then climbed the little-gem rundetaarn tower for an ariel panorama. The other side is malmo, and we also spent a surprisingly interesting day in the other half of greater copenhagen. There were election posters absolutely everywhere, but this was a strictly leisure visit. We ate well, squeezed in the libeskind-designed jewish museum, saw the sights (even the little mermaid) and in the dying hours a tuk-tuk from the new harbour showed us what we'd missed; a refeshing break.

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