Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Isn't he just a fraud?

Anthony Ekundayo Lennon is the geezer who has been in the press recently because he is genetically white, but he won Arts Council England funding intended for "people of colour". This has led to plenty of comment about the issues of people self identifying as, well whatever. The craziest I read so far was an American who self identifies as a dog. It wasn't entirely clear if this was a wind-up. We used to laugh at Ali G saying "is it 'cos I's black?". And I've often deliberately pushed the political correctness boundary by claiming to be a person of colour - pink. After all, males of my age are sometimes referred to as "gammon" because we aren't very white.

But back to Tony, as I'll call Lennon, just to annoy him. He has white Irish parents, though he says* that, in his mind, there is no doubt that he has some African ancestry, recalling the old comment "mother's baby, father's maybe". He has a brother two years younger who looks much the same as he does, but there's an obvious possible explanation for that. Oh and he felt very comfortable in a Rastafarian neighbour's home as a youngster.

Strictly speaking our Tony is a fraud. He knows that he officially has white parents but he benefited from representing himself as mixed race, which he may or may not actually be. Fraud is wrongful or criminal deception intended to result in financial or personal gain. That might be a dictionary definition but the legal definition, according to the CPS website, is making false representation dishonestly, knowing that the representation was or might be untrue or misleading with intent to make a gain for himself or another, to cause loss to another or to expose another to risk of loss* (my emphasis on might).  Lennon did gain funding and, in doing so, deprived others of that opportunity. Others who really are people of colour, Tony, though I don't expect you to feel a moment's guilt.

Now the CPS may not be able to find time, in the midst of all it's bureaucratic pursuit of Jimmy Saviles and hate crimes to charge Tony. But the issues raised show some of the difficulties with concepts such as self-identification which are becoming mainstream thought in this era of gender and identity politics. 

One current hot topic has been the vexed issue of trans folk who were born male but self identify as female and seek to be considered as female. It seems to me that protecting the rights of a very small minority could easily prejudice the hard won rights of a significantly larger group that has suffered prejudice over many years. I proffered an opinion the other day that the obvious end point of this process is that everybody gets treated as a minority of one. Which doesn't actually get us anywhere.

But back to Tony. Maybe the CPS should take a test case against him. After all it would create an interesting legal precedent which might just return some sanity to the debate about self identification. You can call yourself what you want, but surely not for gain or if it disadvantages others when your claim cannot be factually justified.

Otherwise I'm not sure we we are going to end up, though I do know that it won't make much sense, as it will actually become much harder to achieve the more equal society that many of those championing minority rights claim to want to see.

* Yes, I have white parents. But I have African ancestry too. The Guardian 10 Nov 2018
** Fraud Act 2006, The | The Crown Prosecution Service,

Thursday, 8 November 2018

Super League - now that's not fair play

It looks like Manchester City have been caught cheating the Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations. Der Spiegel says they inflated various sponsorship deals to balance the books, "manipulating contracts" - or to put it more bluntly laundering Sheik Mansoor's money - through fronts like the Abu Dhabi tourism authority. It must be said the size of the various sponsorship deals always looked dodgy. City needed to do it not just to buy players but to pay off the hapless Roberto Mancini when they sacked him. Hapless because Mancini struggled to even find a way to beat Everton. "There is no answer to the problem of Everton" he once said, possibly after the Toffees beat his team home and away in 2010-11, though he did somehow manage to finally win the Premier League the next season, even if he didn't last much longer. Possibly it had something to do with spending around £200M net on players?

I'm no fan of FFP, which was never designed to make the competition "fair". On the contrary, it was designed to pull up the drawbridge so the most wealthy clubs could never be matched. It has been spectacularly successful in Germany, where Bayern Munich has won the Bundesliga 6 times in a row and 8 times out of the last 10. And in Italy where Juventus has won Serie A seven times in a row. So, when FFP was being introduced, City knew they had to push hard to break into the top echelon of the Premier League, before they found it was unattainable.

And who is complaining the most about Man City? The egregious Uli Hoeness, who complained that "Abu Dhabi only has to open up the oil spigots to afford expensive players". That would be the Uli Hoeness who, in addition to being president of Bayern Munich, was jailed for three and a half years after admitting evading €28.5 million in taxes. No lessons in propriety needed from you, Uli.

Besides being a fundamentally bizarre concept - fining clubs that get into too much debt  - FFP crushes the dreams of fans that their club might find a wealthy owner and make a breakthrough. Even the Leicester fairy tale needed investment. FFP, if it operated as intended, would just guarantee that the biggest clubs stay the biggest clubs, forever.

But even that isn't enough for the elite clubs. They are always greedy for more. Or, in the case of Juve and Bayern, they realise that their fans will get bored. So it was no surprise to read that a group clubs are holding discussions about forming a "super league" of 16 with 11 founders, including 5 English clubs, inviting 5 "guests" to make up the numbers. Guests because they can be relegated, or at least disinvited, whereas the others would have 20 year franchises.

If this feels a bit like deja vu, then it is of course. The then "big five" threatened to breakaway from the Football League in the late 80s. Youngsters might not identify the five correctly: Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal yes, but the other two? Everton and Spurs. The FA decided they liked the idea, partly because they had their own issues with the Football League but probably also because they would get something out of it. So they formed the FA Premier League, allowing the top division to ditch the remainder of the Football League, though at least retaining promotion and relegation. The essentially simultaneous arrival of satellite TV turned it into what it is now - yes, a grotesque money go round but at least it's a very competitive. So much so that the original big 5 have not dominated it. OK Man United won the Premier League 13 times in 21 seasons to 2013 but they haven't won it in the last 5 seasons and no club has retained the title since 2009. Arsenal haven't won it since  their "Invincibles" of 2004. And Liverpool and Everton? Nix. Six different clubs have won it. The English game must be in much better shape than any other league in the world.

Whether all the clubs that have been mentioned are actually in cahoots over the European super league isn't clear: for example, newspapers say Chelsea remain committed to the Premier League. Of course, it may just be a lever for these clubs to take an even bigger share of the cake. They always forget that you need a full set of clubs to make a league and want to keep what they see as their "own" revenues from TV rights for example. I have long thought that this is anti-competitive and all such revenues should be shared equally, much as they are in the NFL.

Nevertheless, I have long said that, if a group of clubs want to go off and form a euro-league, let them. (Actually my language is much riper than that, it would only take you one guess I'm sure). And I still take that view. But if the football authorities want to block it they have the power. Every club has to be affiliated to its national football association, or a regional sub-body. In England this goes for clubs from the Premier League to your local park pitch. Of course, you can organise an unauthorised competition, but anyone who plays in it will get banned from playing in authorised football for a long time. This very rule squashed an under 18s Sunday league I started playing in as a schoolboy, not realising it was unauthorised, in the 1960s. And so the FA can ban anyone playing in an unauthorised super league from playing for England, as can all the other countries. Indeed, FIFA has said today that it would ban any such players from playing in the World Cup.

Martin Samuel made much the same point in his column on Tuesday*. He went further, saying the FA could threaten any clubs who went to play in a super league with a ten year ban from re-applying for membership. And then they would have to start off at the bottom of the football pyramid. Samuel is right: the risk of your big fixture being FC United ought to deter Manchester United.

But also, as he says and I have said for several years, super league games wouldn't be interesting enough to hold the attention of football fans in general. I haven't subscribed to Champions League matches for several years now, not because my club isn't in it but because I can't justify the cost for the odd game that I fancy watching. United v Barcelona, yet again, is a yawn.

I think the business model for a super league is therefore flawed. Yes, there are a lot of Man United and Liverpool fans. But, at the moment, when they play each other a lot of fans of other Premier League clubs want to watch on TV. If the game was a fixture in a league their own club wasn't playing in I think a lot of them would lose interest. So a super league can only work if revenues from around the world were much higher.  So guess what? Samuel correctly says the problem with a super league is that it wouldn't be like a permanent Champions League. Games would inevitably be hawked around the world for ever more money. And franchises could move - why does Manchester or London need two teams for example? Samuel thinks a super league, even if it was launched, could collapse. Quite possibly. Whatever, the super league is another European dream I don't buy into.

So call their bluff. Or, alternatively, encourage them to go by making the share of TV revenues completely equal between Premier League clubs. We can do without them.

I nearly said we'd be better off without them. But I doubt that is the case. If the Super League concept is as flawed as Martin Samuel thinks it is, then revenues would decline. Both for the clubs in it and possibly for the remaining Premier League clubs as well. So it probably wouldn't do much good for the business case for Everton's stadium right now.....

*If our greedy, pampered clubs want to join a super league, call their bluff. Daily Mail 6 November 2018

Deal or no deal?

Some journalists are getting excited that a Brexit deal with the EU is getting close. But, because the whole negotiation is back to front, i.e. future arrangements last, transition to those arrangements before you know what they are beforehand and divorce settlement, citizens rights and Irish border before you know either, it is of course dysfunctional. Like Yanis Varoufakis I thought at the outset this was deliberate because the EU wanted to set the negotiations up to fail. I'm coming to the view now that it's because the EU is not just a bureaucratic nightmare but they aren't even good bureaucrats. Our negotiating team have probably been worse but I'm not sure that would have mattered too much.

So, as expected nearly a year ago, we are left with the Irish border issue. Or, since that can will be kicked firmly into a pile of fudge along with lots of other issues, we are actually left with the argument over whether or not the backstop is time-limited or can be unilaterally ended. Which, of course, is just as binary. D'oh!

The smirking Irish Taoiseach has been unhelpfully digging his oar in a lot lately, possibly because he is worried that the other 26 EU countries will stitch him up, but more likely because he is in a fairly weak position in his own country. Just like Theresa May, which is proving to be a very unhelpful combination of circumstances. When Varadkar seemed to be signalling he would agree to May's version of the backstop, his opponents immediately stuck the boot in and Varadkar panicked, insisted on speaking to May and introduced a new and additional condition for removal of the backstop. Though that new condition, referring to a suitably ambitious vision for the future with no hard border, doesn't sound very new to me.

I didn't think you could go off someone you already disliked but Leo Varadkar obviously has hidden abilities. But then supposedly senior politicians who get into Twitter spats with punters aren't too clever. Varadkar responded online to a jibe that the UK had helped bail out the Republic after the financial crisis, saying "Ireland has no budget deficit now and we have a Rainy Day Fund. Happy to do same for UK and help them out financially in the future if they need it for some reason…”* That's very big of you Leo but, as several said, not very statesmanlike. "We won't help Brexiteers design a border we didn't want in the first place" he has said. Well don't complain if you get something you don't like then chum.

Nevertheless it seems as if we could be heading for the whole of the UK staying in a customs union with the EU for the transition period, defusing the Irish border issue for now. Behind this is a key concessions made by Brussels - the first one of any great significance I have detected so far. The EU has apparently conceded that checks can take place "completely in the market" meaning that British trading standards officers can police EU regulations where goods are sold, rather than where they cross the border. Without this type of arrangement none of the mooted solutions, other than staying in the single market, can work without a hard border in Ireland. Not Chequers, not Canada Plus, not Switzerland. "This is a big deal for us" an EU official was quoted as saying, "we'd be allowing a third country to enforce our rules for us which we don't normally do". But there is still some way to go as Brussels has yet to agree to such a checking process for so-called "phyto-sanitary goods".  What are they? Plant-based products where EU law stipulates that checks should happen at borders. But the EU would have the transition period to change its law, so that shouldn't be a deal breaker.

So is being in a customs union the answer, whether it's for a transition or for ever? It's not.

Andrew Marr had Keir Starmer on his show on 21 Oct. Had in both senses of the world, shouting that it was "just too late" to start the negotiation over again as Labour pretends and also pressing him hard over whether Labour's plans for a customs union are workable. Being in a customs union of itself doesn't solve the Irish border issue. For once I'll save a thousand words and just show why. Turkey is in a customs union with the EU and this is what the land border looks like:

Not exactly frictionless. To be fair Starmer says that he isn't looking for a Turkey-style solution, without saying what he would try to negotiate, how it would work and why the EU would accept it. Pie in the sky, then - the standard Labour Brexit position.

But other solutions get advocated, like Switzerland or Norway. A buddy told me about his recent road trip from Spain to France and Switzerland and back. The Swiss-French border was as noticeable as the Irish border, while the France-Spain border felt much more like a real frontier. He probably went over a border crossing that looked a bit like this:

I think the major crossings used by lorries look a bit more like a border, but could the Swiss model be the answer? Switzerland sells a bit more than half its exports to the EU; we sell a bit less than half of ours to them. But Switzerland manages to sell  more than 5 times as much per head to the EU than Britain. Does this mean that the Swiss model would be good for the UK? Well, no it doesn't.

There a lots of reasons why the Swiss deal isn't any good, including**:
1. The Swiss don't actually have a deal - they have around 120 bilateral agreements negotiated over many more than the two year transition period envisaged for the UK to conclude arrangements
2. The Swiss "deal" involves free movement. This is controversial in Switzerland: 50.3% of Swiss voted against free movement in a 2014 referendum and their government is still trying to figure out how to do it without contradicting free movement and breaking their agreements
3. The Swiss deal doesn't give its large financial services sector a clear legal framework for doing business in the EU. The cross-border activities of Swiss banks are legally grey, inhibiting growth. The UK's larger financial sector would find that difficult to say the least
4. Switzerland has to pay into the EU budget, complies with EU rules for its exports (but you can't really complain about that!) with no control or influence over new rules, whereas the EEA countries are involved in the working parties designing EU legislation
5. Yes the Swiss can do their own trade deals. They have one with China but, given the relative bargaining power it's a bit rubbish, allowing immediate access to the Swiss market for the Chinese but phased over many years in the other direction.
6. It isn't actually available. The EU doesn't really like the Swiss arrangement and want to change it. They certainly don't want it repeated on a larger scale with the UK. And the Swiss aren't that happy with it either.

So the customs union is a turkey and, like its cheese, the Swiss model is full of holes. However, most Leavers feel the Swiss "deal" is better than the Norwegian arrangement, which gives single market access but wouldn't really constitute "leaving". If you are in the single market and paying into the budget you might as well be in the EU. Palatable to Remainers, but it isn't what we voted for.

This explains why Theresa May wants a bespoke deal for Britain. The EU don't; they talk of cherry-picking. And yet the Swiss "deal", being a series of bilateral deals, is exactly that.

I've come to the conclusion that the problem over the Irish border is not only the complexity, given the common travel area with the UK that long predates the EU but also that a higher bar is being set for the solution. I don't know, but I daresay that the Swiss border with France is based on custom and practice and could in principle be changed to a more conventional border at any time. The Irish solution needs, apparently, to be fully agreed and permanent. Which shows how little trust there is in the negotiation.

There may, of course, be an answer to what I described as a Gordian knot oooh, a long time ago, in 2016. After all a 16 year old Brit called George has found a way to solve the Rubik's cube in "four easy steps"^. It takes him between 4 and 8 seconds because observation is still key and, to my eyes, the fourth "easy" step isn't that well defined. But it can be done. ("You're saying there's a chance!"#) However, it's taken nearly 4 decades for George to emerge, so the transition period could need to be rather long.....

The radical way to cut through this knot, of course, is for Northern Ireland to decide to join the now more liberal and less Catholic Republic, solving the border problem and saving us a huge wedge: £9.2 billion a year, more than the £8.1 billion it costs the UK to be in the EU. A recent poll had more than half of UK voters saying they wouldn't be too bothered about formation of a united Ireland.

But, given that isn't going to happen any time soon, if there is a deal it looks worryingly like Hotel California: a transition that we can't be sure we can ever get out of, checked out but never actually leaving. Just what I've been worried about all along.

If so it won't remotely put the issue to bed. It will be very much alive at the next general election and probably the one after that. Groan......


** Would the Swiss model suit a post-Brexit Britain? SWI,

***  Swiss border shows free movement works perfectly well without customs union. The Sun 24 April 2018

^ Four steps to solve a Rubik's cube, BBC Newsround, 31 October 2018

# A reference to the film Dumb and Dumber, see my blog of 22 October 2017

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

In your brain you know he's sane.....really?

My post of 15 October suggested that Donald Trump might not be totally bananas. David Owen agrees with me. But his article published on Sunday* made uncomfortable reading nonetheless.

Owen noted that, when Trump was elected, there were many amateur diagnoses of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). This stopped abruptly when Allen Francis, the professor of psychiatry who first defined NPD wrote to the New York Times making clear Trump did not have the condition. "He may be a world-class narcissist, but this doesn't make him mentally ill." There is a marked difference between NPD, classified as a psychiatric illness and narcissism, a personality trait.

All good, but Owen went on to say:

"Narcissists train themselves from an early age to block out other voices, other opinions, so one of the few voices they trust is their own." 

Hmm. One of my mantras during my business career was "trust your own judgement", though to be fair this started in earnest when I was given very poor counsel, counter to my own opinion, by my boss's boss while in my early 30s. But there was more:

"They are accustomed to listening to themselves talk  (oh, SO guilty!) debating different sides of the same issue... (I like testing arguments this way all the time. It really irritates people sometimes when I take the counter view to what they have said, just to test where it might go).... finally reaching a decision about what to do and the best way to do it." (Oh, yes as well! After all, if  I'm going to trust my own judgement, who else can I have the debate with?)

Apparently narcissism is common in many heads of government, military commanders and business leaders.  It is not, as some think, indistinguishable from hubris. Hubris is characterised by overconfidence (wow, there's one I at least don't feel guilty of!) overambition (well, I was ambitious but I knew many who were much more so), arrogance (no comment, Fifth amendment!) and excessive pride (I don't think that's me, there would be so little to justify it!). While, according to an emeritus professor of psychiatry at King's College, London narcissism is expressed with "blatantly attention-seeking, grandiose sense of self-importance, a persistant and burdensome search for admiration and lack of empathy". Well. I have sometimes found myself seeking praise - never got much as a kid, you know, but never felt I needed it then -  and one of those gobbledegook psychometric tests at work indicated a lack of empathy (though I might have been trying to frig the outcome towards strong leadership and other tests didn't come out that way - but then I made sure they didn't.....) And if I'm not attention-seeking, why do I write this blog, for frig's sake?

So, I've been found out - a narcissist, then. But surely not as big a one as the Donald.....??? And at least it doesn't count as "mentally ill". Phew.

But I'm sure everyone can see some of these characteristics in themselves. Er, you do, don't you?

*Trump floats above us all on a double bubble of narcissism and hubris. Sunday Times 28 October 2018. Owen's book, Hubris: The Road To Donald Trump, is published by Methuen on 1 November

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

The top clubs still get the breaks

Match of the Day was on the TV as I started to type my latest rant about Manchester City. Fabulous team but like all teams at the top they do get cut some remarkable slack at times. This isn't new but I find it more surprising now, with all the video analysis that all of us see. Including PGMOL (Professional Game Match Officials Limited, keep up!) My own team has benefited from this behaviour often enough in the past. Referees sometimes freeze when a player from a team at the very top gets it all wrong. Sometimes fouls aren't given, red card moments are allowed to pass. It's as if they think "surely I didn't just see that...."

Last weekend's examples came from Manchester City against Burnley. Yes it ended 5-0 so the fact that Manchester City should have ended the match with 9 men may not have affected the result, though the first incident happened in the first minute and City's second goal should not have stood. But the suspensions that would have followed could affect what happens over the next 3 weeks, had the referee acted on quite appalling challenges by Vincent Kompany and Leroy Sane. I know, with City's depth of squad, maybe not. City don't exactly need help from the refs.

Kompany has, for me, been perhaps the most over-rated player in the history of the Premier League. Yes, he can play. But he gets eulogised as if he was, if not Bobby Moore then John Terry. Which he's blatantly not. On Saturday he took out Aaron Lennon at crotch height, missing the ball by "about a yard" as Lineker and Murphy put it on MOTD. It was a clear red card from a player who, readers will know, I feel is always a red card waiting to happen given his poor tackling technique which often turns into a lunge for the ball. Although this incident happened in the first minute, referees are trained to understand that  isn't any different from any other minute of the game. So why wasn't it given?

Late in the game Leroy Sane lost the ball to the Burnley right back and attempted a needless - and foul - tackle from behind to recover it. When that failed he took his opponent out with a scything swipe from behind. No sanction. The incident happened near Burnley's box. If a Burnley defender had challenged a City player in that way in that part of the pitch, what do you think would have happened?  Sane's challenge seemed to be borne of frustration, perhaps because he is no longer an automatic starter since Mahrez's arrival. Indeed, you could see it coming just as I did on quite a few occasions in my own playing "career" when you could see a hothead boil over after losing the ball. So no excuse for the ref.

City also got a big favour in the build up to their second goal after players from both teams froze as Sane went down easily in the Burnley box. David Silva's brain was working but he was off the pitch. He played the ball from just over the dead ball line (so it was out of play AND he was offside) enabling City to score. To be fair, that is a double error by the Assistant Ref, but the offside should also have been twigged by the ref himself. It was one of those occasions where the officials should think "that didn't look quite right". I remember, refereeing in the heights of the Oxford Boys' League, realising that there was actually time to "replay" such moments in my head before giving the goal. Refs are trained that, while decisions have to be prompt, there is a short window to think first. And, if the ball is dead, a longer window to talk with the Assistant, though many refs seem to hate doing that, as it looks as if they aren't sure.

Actually, the real problem last Saturday was that the referee, Jon Moss, is not one of the better Premier League referees in a weak field. Moss was one of the refs that former top flight ref Keith Hackett said should be cut from the PL list when he reviewed how they had all done last season*. Mind, Hackett said 6 of 16 should be dropped and gave a couple of the others a rating of 5/10! I've noted before that it's no coincidence that there were no English refs at the World Cup. (Mark Clattenburg would have been picked but quit the Premier League to pick up petrodollars in Saudi).

The Premier League refs, all full-time professionals of course, get together frequently for reviews. One wonders what Moss's colleagues will say to him about those decisions at their next get together. But will it make refs treat the top clubs, especially playing at home, the same as all the others? That would be a triumph of hope over experience.

But a question. When VAR comes in, will it make a difference? It probably would have changed all three of these decisions at the Etihad. So, in theory at least, it could go some way to leveling this particular aspect of the playing field. We'll see.

* Telegraph 23 May 2018. My top 10 referees of the season and those the Premier League should not retain.

Saturday, 20 October 2018

The cod war

On the day of what was to become Theresa May's latest humiliation in Brussels I mentioned to Mrs H that the PM was going to Brussels to speak to but not eat with what are still supposed to be our "partners". She wasn't invited to partake in the refreshments.  How pathetic. Nick Ferrari, speaking on LBC, went further calling it "damned rude" followed by an outstanding rant:
"Can I just point out to these European leaders, save for this country, what they'd be eating tonight would be saurkraut and sausage and drinking beer and speaking German".
It went on in that vein a bit longer.....

But I wasn't angry at that aspect of the snub; it just confirms what they think of us. Why would we want to belong to a club where we have for so long not been wanted? If we ever were?

Mrs H asked me what the point was in the trip. Good question. I said "it's not going to change anything. She has no new ideas which are material and if she had the would make the Chequered Compromise even more unpalatable. She'll just get smacked across the face with a wet fish again and told to go away and try harder."

Which of course is what happened. How many times does she need the cod in the gob to get the message? What was the point of going?

I've come to the view that Mrs May feels she has so much political capital vested in her big idea - an idea which she can't seem to explain in terms anyone else can understand, and an idea that hardly anyone outside of her civil servants buys into  - that she daren't even acknowledge there could be a plan B, else everyone would grab it and she would be seen to have been wrong all along. (Such a plan B might be the EEA option, for example, either as a solution or a route to a Canada style free trade deal). She must have known she was going to get the wet fish treatment but she needs to show the electorate that no stone has been left unturned in the pursuit of a "good deal". So when what's left is either shabby, or only satisfies one group of people, she can say "we tried everything".

Of course, we shouldn't have started from here. A confident government, provided it also had an opposition that believed in our country, could have adopted a much more consultative approach, canvassing various options perhaps through cross-party Commons committees, putting the most appealing ones to Brussels for discussion, followed by a further round of debate factoring in what Brussels thought as well as our preferences. We didn't have any of the ingredients needed for that approach in place so we got the Maybot control freak, bouncing her own cabinet by giving them next to no notice at any turn of what her officials were cooking up.

So it could all crash, though whether it would burn I'm not sure. Oh apart from Theresa who must surely be toast by the spring at the latest.

The shame of it is that it didn't need to be like this. There have been plenty of column inches devoted to the Irish border issue. Or non-issue as some people think. They argue it's a contrivance of Brussels to keep us in the single market and customs union. After all, Spain has an internal customs union "border" between its mainland and the Canary Islands which isn't seen as a big deal. And, in South America for God's sake, French Guiana has a border with Brazil that doesn't seem to be "hard" even though that territory counts as part of mainland France and the customs union.

I saw a comment from a reader on a recent Times Brexit article which made me think differently about the problem. It argued that Northern Ireland could be missing a historic opportunity. Wouldn't there be great potential in being part of the UK but also in the EU customs union? Yes the cost would be some kind of border checks in the Irish Sea. Of course that's anathema to the loyalists and pretty difficult for mainland Brits to swallow. But couldn't it create the potential for Northern Ireland to become a much bigger player economically than it is now? Wouldn't it be an inward investment magnet?

There is, of course, no way this beguiling way of looking at things is going to get any consideration. But it could have been great for all concerned. Yes it might lead towards a united Ireland. But if it worked really well there would be no point at all in destroying the whole basis of success by doing that. Of course the Scots Nats would want to have a similar arrangement. But guess what, Nicola? You don't have a land border with the EU, so it just isn't relevant.

The septic climate in the UK has not been conducive to any kind of grown up debate about the future. It has been dysfunctional politics, with temper tantrums, hearing not listening, reacting without understanding. To be politically incorrect (what's new I hear you say) it's all been kind of autistic.

"Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results" is a quotation often misattributed to Einstein. It didn't stop me using it a lot at work when I was called "Transformation Director" and charged with improving the business through change, though I used to explain to it to people using my golf performances as an analogy. If I didn't change anything, why would I keep turning up each week and expecting to get a better score? Another way of looking at it is "hope over experience". Theresa May's Brussels trip brought it all right back to mind. She isn't insane but she is making herself appear crazy, as well as looking like a rabbit in the headlights being interviewed on TV after the latest slap across the face. You could almost smell the fish on her.

P.S. cod can of course mean phony or fake. Theresa's battle with Brussels has many aspects of a 'phoney war': not much is actually happening, but people keep thinking it might.  Just like in 1939, war has been declared (article 50 invoked) but one feels the real battles lie ahead for Britain.

Monday, 15 October 2018

In your brain you know he's sane

Since Donald Trump's UK visit in July I've been pondering what to make of him now we are getting close to half way through his term (first term, maybe?) as U.S. President. That visit passed off with a predictable degree of hullabaloo and also a predictable degree of confusion about what the President actually thinks about Britain, Brexit and Theresa May. What he thinks, not what he said because that's a matter of record and was contradictory. Which matches his pronouncements on most subjects. But hopefully he enjoyed his round of golf at Turnberry, as I did when I played there. (It was the first links course I had played and I've loved them ever since).

Nevertheless, we know he's deranged, don't we? "In your guts, you know he's nuts", said Lyndon Johnson about Barry Goldwater in 1964 but the slogan was also used against Trump in his presidential campaign and I remember saying "we do know they were both nuts", because that's certainly how it seemed to me (post of 21 February 2017). And yet, and yet......

We are now familiar with Trump's lack of diplomatic niceties and the way he goes in hard and early to soften up the situation in advance. And that he is a tasteless mysogenistic boor, at best.

But Trump's grandstanding brought Kim Young Un to the negotiating table, though admittedly at a time that suited Kim as he now has credible nuclear weapons and delivery systems. Nevertheless, there is an opportunity to improve security in a sensitive area of the globe and prevent further spread of weapons from a rogue state. It's far too early to tell whether any real progess has been made, as some reports claim North Korea is ploughing on with its nuclear programme but there is the prospect of an accommodation which is far more than the smooth talking but ineffective Obama achieved on his watch.

Trump's actions to pull out of the deal with Iran and recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital, the first of which seemed risky and the second bizarrely inflammatory to most of us, has not created greater instability in the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia currently much more concerned about Iran than anything to do with Israel. Finding a solution to the Gordian knot of Palestine is probably beyond anyone, but it seems to me that it can't be done without recognising that the Jewish nation has historically valid claims and rights over Jerusalem, at least as much as anyone else. Unless you are J. Corbyn, of course, in which case it's all very simple. No, simplistic. The recent kerfuffle over the Saudi dissident who disappeared after visiting their embassy in Turkey has clouded the fact that Trump has built a powerful coalition covering Israel and Saudi Arabia to resist Iran, the real threat in the region, which does seem rather clever. And beyond Obama's imagination.

So while most of us thought Obama's reasoned approach to Korea and the Middle East made sense at the time, it actually resulted in aimless drift and a reduction in security.

But what about fears of a trade war? I recognised Trump's tactics at an early stage. I recall going on a company training event focussed on pricing, for which they had hired a facilitator considered a guru. He was indeed sharp and, more importantly, streetwise. One of his pieces of advice concerned increasing prices if you weren't sure the market would take it: pick on a small customer who didn't matter that much to try it out before going into battle with your major customers. Trump did something similar. He picked on Canada (sorry, Trudeau lovers, in this context Justin is the 7 stone weakling) and Mexico. The bigger game for Trump and what he sees as fair trade is the EU and, especially, China. Trump was sending a message to the world.

But does his policy of banging on tariffs make sense? It certainly offends against the long-held principles of free trading. Two of the economics commentators I most respect, Irwin Stelzer and David Smith, are at odds over this. Smith has referred to Trump's tariffs as "knuckleheaded" and has been totally consistent in his comments so far. Stelzer, or at least his subeditors who write the headlines, seems to have oscillated. In June* he noted the big game was China, that Trump had more ammunition than China and that China would not be able to sustain a game of poker over tariffs.  In July** he called it as a "win for Trump on trade" after the EU decided to work with the US to reform the WTO, try to end the theft of intellectual property and work towards zero tariffs and removal of trade barriers. Stelzer greeted this as proof that "Trump is not a mad protectionist but a champion of freer, fairer trade". He noted that America had taken some casualties in the trade war but Trump had been ready for this with support to American farmers and industry hit by retaliation to his tariffs.

However by August*** Stelzer was concerned that some commentators thought Trump's tariffs would bring the US economy to a screeching halt and that the tax cuts induced growth would inevitably run out of steam because employers can't find people in a high employment economy. But only a fortnight later Stelzer got over his wobble and declared that the "Trump war on the world is working"****. This war included:

  •  Turkey, who had upset Trump and US evangelicals over the case of Andrew Brunson, held by Turkey on charges of spying and terrorism. Trump banged on tariffs even though Turkey is a key ally. (The Turkish currency plunged and Brunson was released on 12 October. Trump is now being warmer to Turkey over the Saudi Arabia embassy affair. A simple message: are you with me or against me?)
  • Russia, with sanctions on Putin's circle. Trump has backed the UK strongly over the Salisbury affair despite Trump's chummy (and at the time unsettling) meeting with Putin
  • China: tariffs banged on and retaliation greeted with more. China is the ultimate big trade issue for Trump
  • EU - see above. They blinked
Stelzer noted that the US had taken some serious inbound fire, but support for its president seemed to be holding and the "wars unleashed by America on what we might with some accuracy call the rest of the world are going rather well". Trump offers a firm handshake and state dinner to Macron, then levies tariffs on French products. He wines and dines Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago, then loads tariffs on Chinese exports. He chats pleasantly to Erodogan at a NATO meeting, but then cripples his economy. He has a cosy meeting with Putin, but then increases sanctions on Russia. Stelzer compared Trump to a cowboy, with scalps hanging from his belt. I'd say it shows two things: it ain't personal and you'd better believe he means it when he says "America first".

Maybe we need someone who isn't an economist to see through this. Niall Ferguson is not an economist. The Oxbridge historian is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford and a visiting professor at Tsinghua University, Beijing. Ferguson became an American citizen this year and has a good vantage point from which to comment on Trump and China. In a column# titled The China I see is losing this trade war - Trump's tariffs are widely mocked but he has found Xi's weakspot, Ferguson said that 99.9% of economists regard Trump's trade war against China as idiotic. "Doesn't  he realise that a trade deficit is not equivalent to a loss in business?" Ferguson went on to say that, while Trump might have missed some economics classes when he studied at business school, somewhere along the way he picked up an intuitive understanding of power. Ferguson says the Chinese governing elite is scrambling to formulate a strategy to respond and has few good options. Divisions at the top are showing, with strains between the "new new China" technology sector, the "new old China" of banking and telecoms and the "old old China" of  state-owned heavy industry. China reminds Ferguson of the French second empire, in which an autocratic regime brought into being a large middle class. Ferguson sees Xi's China running the same risk as Napoleon III. Xi will be well aware of the risk and will do whatever he can to avoid growth slowing. Which makes Trump's trade war a real problem for him. Ferguson says future historians may be as impressed with Trump's trade shock as today's economists are contemptuous of it.

The story has now moved on, with the US pushing Mexico and Canada (reluctantly) into a revision of the NAFTA. Stelzer@ notes that the proposed new arrangements show what future trade deals will look like post-Trump and that Trump is using the threat of tariffs as a bargaining tactic to gain concessions rather than a prelude to permanently high tariffs. So Justin Trudeau was forced to relax tariffs on American poultry, eggs and dairy products. Adam Smith himself said that the use or threat of high tariffs is "good policy when there is the probability that they will procure the repeal of high duties". I'm not sure David Smith has recognised that.

There is some concern from free marketeers that the new arrangements will not be as effective at maximising trade as they surrender free trade purity for advantages for (some) American workers. But - and it's a big but for me to swallow as a free marketeer - while free trade has produced unparalleled wellbeing it pays little concern to distributive effects and has hollowed out communities, which is a downside of globalisation. But a problem with current world trade is that some nations, notably those with partly Marxist economies (hello China) game the system. OK, they cheat. Deals between countries that cheat, by artificially fixing their currency for example, can't really maximise economic benefit for both parties anyway. So there is a case for Trump's hardball tactics.

Now he's pulled Trudeau down a peg, Trump will continue his battle with the EU and Japan over motor cars and will hope to get China in line as well once, as Stelzer puts it@ "as soon as his good friend Xi Jinping can no longer tolerate the trade war's damage to his economy and sues for peace". Stelzer also notes that the implication of what he calls "Globalisation 2.0" is that the price paid for a system more attentive to the interests of American workers will be reduced efficiency and a consequent increase in costs and prices. The gain is a system that might be seen as fairer (at least to some Americans) and therefore prove more sustainable.

And if Trump can stop Chinese theft of intellectual property that would be an enormous long term benefit for the US and maybe the West in general. Western companies selling to large Chinese enterprises - which are all state backed - find they have to cede their IP rights to get the work. Not the arising IP under the contract which has become normal in the West but all of the know how related to the design of whatever product is concerned. And that's without getting into the security implications of Chinese subcontractors inserting rogue chips into the motherboards of PCs made by American companies for the US Department if Defense, including their navy.  I wasn't the only one to feel queasy about BT's deal with Hauwei as this sort of caper isn't really a surprise. Individual western companies stand no chance of negotiating different terms with what is effectively the Chinese state. I've always felt it needs western governments to intervene if we are to avoid selling our future.

So the end results could be possibly fairer to America, more sustainable and with "yuge" potential long term benefits. Looked at that way Trump's tariffs don't sound so nuts, do they?

In the meantime the US economy continues to do well on what has been called by some a 'sugar high' due to Trump's tax cuts. Whether these will prove beneficial in the long term or will just increase debt remains to be seen. But in the short term it seems to have worked, politically at least.

But, even if his economic and trade policies might not be nuts, doesn't Trump ride fast and loose with the truth I hear you say? Plenty of American Presidents have "misspoken". For example, one of Reagan's press correspondents once clarified matters by saying that the President had been "less than precise". And, risibly, one of Eisenhower's people once misspoke himself by saying "President Eisenhower doesn't necessarily speak for this administration" (eh?). And of course there was sleazy Bill Clinton, who didn't just miss-speak several times but also found himself in a miss-poke (sorry, couldn't resist that one) media frenzy - "I did not have sexual relations with that woman". Er, so you just had it off with her dress then Bill? That's really weird....

So whether you like him or not there is clearly at least some degree of method in Trump's bizarre and at times unsettling behaviour.  And, whether you, I or Joe Soap likes it, he is POTUS and we have to deal with him because has influence over many things that matter a lot to us. So whether or not he's sane, in your brain you surely know we have to work with him as best we can.

If you watched the BBC bulletins during Trump's visit to Britain you'd have thought that half the country was up in arms against him, as the time spent showing the rather embarrassing, indeed pitiful, demonstrations was almost as much as that covering the visit itself. The truth was revealed when the camera zoomed out from the throng at the launch of the Trump baby blimp in London, for we could all see there were a  few hundred there at the most. At least one BBC editor wanted us to see the context.

Note to the BBC: just because some people make a lot of noise doesn't mean that they should have equal coverage. After all, empty vessels and all that.

I found the demonstrations embarrassing to the point of squirm inducing. Yes, I'd have been on that side of the plot when I was a student. But there seemed to be a lot of folk involved who should be more grown up by now. For a start, what they were demostrating about is mostly none of our business. If you doubt that, consider what we would think of southern US rednecks demonstrating against Theresa May because we have allowed gay marriage.

But these folk just don't get how counter-productive their actions could be. How should we be responding to Trump? Lord Powell who, as Charles Powell was private secretary to Margaret Thatcher from 1983 to 1990 and one of her key foreign policy advisers, wrote^ that the special relationship would, for her, have transcended the personality and politics of whoever was US president. She would have found plenty in common but would not have agreed with him on everything and a lot "to oppose fiercely. But top of her mind would have been that her duty and Britsin's interest was to give him the respect that in her eyes any and every American president deserved. Whatever personal distaste she would have felt for aspects of his behaviour - and she was pretty broad-minded - she would have rigorously supressed as beside the point by comparison with our strategic interest".

If you want to know just how deep a hole Jeremy Corbyn could take us into just think how statesmanlike he would be in these situations. And consider the consequences.

Trump ain't nuts. And neither is Corbyn. But there is more sanity in Trump's approaches to international relations and trade than might appear obvious. Corbyn? I think that's pretty obvious too.

*China will fold if it plays poker now, Irwin Stelzer, Sunday Times 24 June 2018

**That's a win for Trump on trade, Sunday Times 29 July 2018

*** Tariffs will wreck Trump's boom, Sunday Times 5 August 2018

**** Trump war on the world is working, Sunday Times 19 August 2018.

# Sunday Times 23 September 2018

@ Globalisation, blue collar style. Irwin Stelzer, Sunday Times 7 October 2018

^ Soulmate, no,  but Maggie would keep Trump close, Sunday Times 8 May 2018