26 april 2019, chaos, calamity, catastrophe: things can only get…

Friday, April 26th, 2019

It's one of those periods where anyone who thinks they understand what's going on doesn't understand what's going on. Like an itch that must be scratched, brexit is the boil that can't be lanced and british politics remains entrancing as it gets even worse. May's local then european elections are likely to shake foundations further, with the new brexit party of jack-in-the-box nigel farage ("the most successful politician of our era", see 22 december 2017, ever-shrinking england goes back to black) set to win an online election (it's worth watching carole cadwalladr's ted talk), precipitating more splintering of the main parties, probably a new prime minister and probably the general election no-one wants. At some point, the emergency trap door of revoking article 50 will look a tempting option. I fear. Britain's collapse into self-induced self-obsession comes at a terrible time, as a tide of populism swells across europe, egged on by a manical american leadership that normalises aggressive ignorance (see 23 august 2018, little amber man) and the supposed stability of the strongman model, in russia, turkey and china, just to mention a fifth of the world's population, exerts an ever stronger pull in the world's consciousness. Defenders of the post-war international architecture built on a common vision have deserted their posts and nativism is sweeping the world, even as mass media technology opens ever more of it up to ever greater numbers of poor but increasingly ambitious and discontented people. The world is in a funk, entirely complacent about economic progress and global peace. All momentum is with the forces of regression and sentiment; imprudence and exaggeration pay, consensus and reason do not. Global conflict is no longer unthinkable, the hopefulness of the baby boomers weaned on prosperity rapidly becoming history. The future looks an increasingly dark place and incredibly, tragically, rather than playing its part in renewing the global bonds of international consensus, the uk looks to be amongst the first heading into the pit.

15 march 2019, “order, order…”

Friday, March 15th, 2019

Excuse starting with football. Order, order, apparently, is what they were chanting from the bayern munich terraces as liverpool beat them to join 3 other english (not uk) teams in the quarter finals of the champion's league, global football's top competition, the first time this has happened in a decade, when my own manchester united went on to win it spectacularly against the very same bayern, the winning goal coming from today's manager, ole gunnar solskjaer. It was a truism for years in british politics that nobody outside obsessive westminster-watchers really cared about europe, which all changed in 2016, since when it has become the issue that ever more blots out absolutely everything else, no more so than this week, with every day bringing a new vote with blanket coverage. Funnily enough, this has brought more understanding of europe to many brits, and more understanding of many things britain to many europeans, hence the odd celebrity of the cerebral speaker in germany. At this point, of course, I do have to have a stab at what it all means, notwithstanding it will be out of date in 24 hours. The main impact of the week seems to be after taking a look at the road ahead, parliament decided it needed more road. Despite the vote to the contrary, no-deal is not impossible, but less likely. Until it changes, the choice is still may's deal or no deal or something else and there's still no solidifying around what something else may be or how it will coalesce. The other big point is that party discipline, the rock of the british political system, is in tatters. Though there are 101 examples, surely a cabinet minister, the brexit secretary no less, moving a motion on behalf of the government and then himself voting against it shows up where we are. Jargon-alert, kyle-wilson is not yet, cliché-alert, off the table. Dr sarah wollaston, the now-independent mp asked the right question: can parliament think of any other circumstance in which a consent form would be valid if it were signed 1,000 days before without the signatories knowing the exact procedure they were giving their consent to ? At some point very soon there needs to a renewal, and we can only hope it is of parliament and of the government and not outside it.

20 february 2019, the magnificent 7, 8, 11…

Wednesday, February 20th, 2019

Their approach seems rather light the blue touch paper and see what happens, but the fireworks are quite exciting. It remains to be seen whether the independent group so masterfully gaining the uk media spotlight is white knight or damp squib. They tick boxes like young, female, non-tribal, caring, centrist and, of course, anti-brexit. The steady drip of defections in these first days provides that greatest of political potion, momentum. It already has more mps than the dup, more twitter followers that the actual momentum and some 14% in the polls. Add in the libdem's 7% and they are nipping labour's heels. There is every chance of more leaving, although the "30 or 40" the charismatic heidi allen mooted is ambitious, though possible. The conservatives, well up in the polls, are the stronger of the two holed main party ships, with a rapid leadership change popularity boost up their sleeve, if only they can keep the band together through brexit. Despite the break-the-political-mould, hopey-changey exhilaration, the looming 29 march 2019 day of doom is still the most important thing by a million miles in british politics and everyone is waiting with bated breath (not) for the results of theresa may's latest foray to europe, also brexitcrashing a get-together in egypt to 'ave a word. The latest spat on gibraltar, as other countries have internal politics too, is just one straw in the wind, as if more were needed, that there's nowhere serious to go on this and the running down the clock until parliament is forced to choose between may's deal or no deal, is going to come down to may's deal. What the indy grouping changes, a fraction, is the lesser likelihood of corbyn somehow cobbling together a teflon way to allow the deal through, as there is now that much stronger an alternative pole around which his opponents can gather. However you cut it, bringing more diversity and competition into a dreadfully old-fashioned and patently failing polity is a very good thing. Whilst it's too much to expect old-friends but now-opponents to actively support an alternative political force, it may just be that exclusivity itself comes rather quickly to be seen as rather dated, and it may just be that different politics is the best platform the newbies have to stand on. It's certainly needed.

4 january 2019, get away from it all…

Friday, January 4th, 2019

I've been in oman some months now, so having tried it out on the family, here's my make-the-most-of-it, 7-day, modest traveller itinerary. You can of course embellish, depending on budget & time available. My oman air tip is sign up to the emails & book immediately when they announce a sale (other airlines are available). Best time to come is november to april. Start with a highlight: get yourself down to ras al jinz to see the turtles. Don't book a "nearby" hotel, take the eco-tent on the beach. This is a genuinely magical experience, late at night then 5am in the morning. You'll see massive green turtles, who have swum 3000km to india then come back to lay eggs (which you watch a metre away) on the same beach they were born. If you're lucky (we were) you see tiny ones pop out the sand and scurry down to the sea, avoiding the crabs, birds & foxes that get 97% of them. On the way there or back, stop off at qantab beach, the bimmah sinkhole & wadi dayqah dam, walk wadi shabs and take a gazebo & barbecue to the gorgeous, pristine and empty white sands you'll pass for about 50 miles. Once that's organized, book yourself a boat to the dimanyat islands. Splash out & go for the all-day option: fish, barbecue and of course scuba-dive, or (like us) snorkel. Amazing. For another day, many exciting watersports are available, such as jet skis, or we went flyboarding. Just as exciting, turn right out the wave roundabout (you'll know it when you're here), follow the road right at the next roundabout and there's hundreds of quad bikes of all shapes and sizes waiting for you to rip across the sand dunes. If you've time for a second trip out of muscat, head off thursday night to nizwa. The thing to do is the 6am friday morning genuinely-authentic animal market; its worth it. After thousands of years, it probably won't be the same in a few more, so go. As you're in the city, there's a great market, fab fort (you can't come to oman without doing one) and then drive 30 mins to the al hoota cave for the country's only train and a pretty good cavern too. Book in advance, the 2pm tour being best, and eat in nizwa before you leave. Once out the cave, drive another 30 mins to the gorgeous and again-authentic village of misfah al abryeen. Wear respectful clothes and just wander around to your heart's content; it's beautiful. Take the mountain road to muscat (spectacular view) and you'll be back by evening. You don't need a 4x4 for any of this apart from the white sand beach, but roads (or more precisely, drivers) can be dicey, so its probably worth trading up. For traditional food in muscat, go to kargeen or bin atiq. If you want posh hotels, best are kempinski (in the wave) and the al bustan palace, right at the other end of town. Probably the most spectacular lobby in the world and gorgeous pools and palms at the back, which you'll pass if you eat at the beach bar (book ahead, take a cabana if you're feeling generous). You must go to the port and souq (market). If you're a cultural soul and there's something good on, get to the royal opera house. For retail therapy, best mall is city centre. Whatever else, visit the amazing mosque. Drink & carry lots of water. Too much for a week ? Probably, but then you'll just have to go back...

4 december 2018, the news we’ve been waiting for

Tuesday, December 4th, 2018

Like everyone else, I've had no idea which way britain's brexit-induced political nervous breakdown was going to lurch next. While staying in the eu seems to have become just-about the least-worst outcome for just-about a majority, it's been difficult to see how this would happen. My dictum was always don't watch the politics, watch the process, though even on what may have been the most momentous day in parliament in living memory, the bbc were still talking about how it will "determine theresa may's future". The root cause of the chaos was parliament's abdication of its responsibility in a parliamentary democracy of making decisions, the consequence of asking the people being the need to carry out their expressed will. It has always seemed the case that what the people do, only the people can undo, hence this growing exit-from-chaos move towards just staying in warts-and-all has found expression in the "people's vote" campaign. Today, the commentariat will seize on the consequences of parliament asserting its authority over government though the "humble address" and then successfully doubling down and inserting itself more forcefully into the government's action should its seemingly-doomed deal fail to muster a majority. It could lead us more softly towards norway: the second defeat gives the government a route to losing the vote on its deal but still avoiding no deal. Something equally momentous though happened over in the court brexiteers love to hate. Today we found out rather clearly that should britain want to ditch brexit altogether, it can easily do so, and all on its own. OK, it's just an advocate-general's opinion not the Court, but it is highly unlikely the Court will not follow this when it rules in the next weeks. This is hugely significant as it removes the 27's potential leverage should britain decide to u-turn, meaning it can keep its current deal, rebate and all, and simply snap back to "normal" as if nothing ever happened. All britain needs to do now for that is to take back control and assert the sovereignty the ecj has confirmed it has always had. When we look back at when the supertanker started turning around, today may just be the day.

3 october 2018, stubb thumping

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2018

Given that the european people's party has won every european election since 1994, it's highly likely that whoever emerges as candidate from their congress in helsinki on 8 november will go on to become the next commission president, which, whatever anyone says, is still europe's top job. Home advantage goes to alex stubb. He gets my vote, or would if I had one (I'm not a voting member of the epp or even perhaps by then an eu citizen). I met the marvellous mr stubb (see 10 november 2011, the europeans are coming) back when I was organising seminar sessions at the european central bank and he was a mere mep. Together with then-president jean claude trichet we had a rather marvellous lunch beforehand. He went on to become finland's foreign and then prime minister. He was speaking about enlargement, then a hot topic and was eloquent, confident, sensible and very open to discussion. Beforehand he was probing and challenging but polite and indeed charming. He was the very definition of charismatic and would, I think, be a fantastic president. Not just in temperament, but also a great fit politically, coming from the left of europe's centre-right party in what is still, thankfully, an inherently consensus-driven polity. More than being competent and clever, he has the potential to be inspiring and is capable of giving europe verve and drive - which we can only hope is not something europe's leaders will hold against him. Aside manfred webber (the other leading epp candidate, who has being a german against him), stubb's main obstacle may be the unwillingness of the presidents and prime-ministers to allow the parliament to remove their right to select the president, as happened last time round with their so-called spitzenkandidat, whereby they all agreed that they would all veto anyone but the candidate of the party that won the election - the first solid move towards a european polity. It's hard to reverse progress though, so the smart money will stay on whoever emerges victorious in helsinki. Like America needed Obama in 2008, europe needs stubb !

21 september, weekend in salalah

Friday, September 21st, 2018

You won't know where it is, and nor did I until a month ago, but spent last weekend in oman's second city, salalalalalah as my younger calls it. It was pleasant. Known and quite popular across the gulf region (generally known as the gcc, but rather in abeyance since qatar was isolated), it has made inroads into europe too, with charters filling the rapidly-growing resort about 10 miles outside town. Said younger son mentioned oman to a random taxi driver in manchester who it turned out had been there. Spent most time in older town, which was already empty with schools back and the 3-month "khareef" season over, and so not only all local tourists but half the inhabitants have all left. I ate well, managed some good quality time with omanis, an hour's wander around the local market and a ride into the mountains, which as promised were rolling and green, though we never made it to the waterfalls that have maybe another fortnight before drying up. Spent the last night over at the resort, which was splendid and as good as anything in greece, italy or turkey, if not better. Lovely spa, service, pool, beach, jetty, food, cocktails and mood, lighting and subject for taking some great photos. Working very hard so best part of a week to write this up, but that day by the sea was a total break and time-off.

23 august 2018, little amber man

Thursday, August 23rd, 2018

Russia's has used "alternative warfare" for years, its most notable victory the little green men's bloodless invasion of crimea and successful destabilisation of ukraine, stopping modernisation and leaning to europe (and more importantly away from russia) in its tracks (see and the beast goes on, 17 april 2014). Divide and rule and undermining western democratic institutions are now standard russian infowar with its own specialist division (the internet research agency). China is at it too, establishing armed artificial islands in the disputed waters of its self-declared nine-dash line. Economically, from 1991 to 2013, china's share of global exports rose from 2 to nearly 20%, all but wiping out parts of american manufacturing. Despite chinese investment in military tech, america's overwhelming firepower still makes the mcmasters doctrine about how to fight the us - asymmetric or stupid - true. Alternative warfare has the distinct advantage of avoiding head-on conflict, so if the hegemon hesitates, as both bush and obama did, gains can be banked. No-one has any plans to challenge russia's intense integration of the crimea. Trump's law-of-the-jungle worldview means positive connivance. Indeed, the us now seems an active alternative warfare player itself, with the strengthening dollar its main weapon. It broke the iran agreement and actively sabotaged the turkish economy with barbs and tariffs designed to force submission. Trump's mercantilism though confused iranian adversary and turkish ally, risking devastatingly tipping the latter away from the west entirely. Richard haas already noted we are "witnessing the gradual but steady demise of a relationship that is already an alliance in name only". Without qatar's billions to save it (and make the emirate a good return) continued currency turmoil could (and may yet) have tipped turkey into recession, inflation, banking collapse and mass bankruptcies - for which all would blame washington instead of turkey's own debt-fuelled profligacy. The risks of reckless vandalism are a very high-price to pay for the meagre gains alternative warfare practioners eke out because they don't have the means and global alliances america forged over decades, and which without superpower sponsorship look increasingly fragile defences against a dangerous dystopian world.

11 august 2018, we DON’T need to talk about boris

Saturday, August 11th, 2018

For those that don't already know, I am living in muscat at the moment, where around half of the population are expats, who walk around in shorts, t-shirts and pretty much whatever. Half are omanis, a traditional people where the men wear a distinctive hat and long white dishdasha and women cover their heads, mainly with an open-face hijab, not-unusually with the full niqab (see we will fight them on the beaches, 27 august 2016). I smile and talk to everyone, every day, whatever they wear. It takes a little cultural recalibration, but is entirely easy. I do recall the first time I saw someone in a niqab, which can be quite a strange and intimating sight to a westerner. It was summer in geneva, working at the united nation's palais des nations. They were visiting saudis, walking along the promenade and it reminded me of nothing so much as the orthodox jewish area I grew up near where even in the heights of summer the women wear their heavy wigs on shaven heads, the men their top-to-toe black raincoats and fur-lined black hats. Though not as many as in muscat, manchester clearly now has more hijabs and niqabs alongside its still-growing orthodox jews, to which I can only say how wonderful to see greater cultural diversity and more people coming to visit, work and live in global britain. Like carly simon I've nearly managed to write without reference to the grand poobah who spectacularly achieved the aim of his telegraph column last week and has everyone talking about boris by taking a leaf straight from the trump playbook and acting as a lightning rod for an issue that divides rather than unites and everyone can have an emotional response to. I am pure voltaire on this, disagreeing with what he said but defending his right to say it. It was purile, sensationalist, offensive and entirely self-promoting. It was also evidently successful and in the utter wilderness that is british political leadership probably did his prospects no harm. To quote the organ-grinder: sad.

24 july 2018, manchester, monsal & muscat

Tuesday, July 24th, 2018

It's been a rolling month of finishing off and goodbyes, as I slowly make my way from manchester to muscat, which if you're wondering is the capital of oman, which for those wondering is in the gulf and for those wonks wondering (I know many), the gcc. After a gorgeous little holiday with my younger a few weeks ago, I then had a weekend away with the elder, cycling from buxton to matlock, mainly along the monsal trail (collage). This whole period has been incredibly sunny (somewhat taking away from my poor weather excuse for leaving) so the cycling was just wonderful, as well as quite leisurely, with lots of stop offs for coffee & world cup matches. We had a good saturday night too, in matlock bath, which oddly enough is a little bit of blackpool in the peaks (see 23 may 2010, blackpool). Last week it was various goodbyes at work, with the inevitable drinks and also a lovely dinner with quite a few of my favourite people, of which MAG has many. Companies are little more than people and I will miss them, though hope to have formed a whole new outer layer of friends to stay in touch with. This weekend was center parcs, with brother and sister and families, which was just the perfect place for it, with great fun had by all, especially me. It's just the four of us now, for my last few days before flying out on sunday...

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