Sunday, 31 December 2017

Racism, in fact?

Let me try a statistic on you. Homes headed by someone born abroad accounted for more than 80% of the total growth of households in London's rented sector between January 2008 and January 2017. (Yes, 80%: 265,000 out of 328,000 net increase).

Now a question - can facts - simple, true statements that are 100% factually accurate - be racist? That would surely be a preposterous suggestion, though obviously facts can be deployed selectively in a way intended to inflame opinion. Especially in times when there is so much moral outrage at perceived slights or micro-aggressions. I nearly said mock outrage but, worryingly, it often doesn't seem to be put on.

I'm taking the "fact" above to be true because it was published by Migration Watch, a think tank that takes the view that current levels of migration are neither sustainable nor well managed. Migration Watch has had a good handle on immigration statistics over the years and has rarely been "called out", to use the latest Americanism to take hold in our language, for getting things factually incorrect. Does the fact that the stat comes from a Migration Watch report influence your opinion of it? Indeed, should it?

I ask these questions because there is a worrying trend to suppress freedom of speech in our country. At universities, with no platforming for example. And sometimes by the howl of "raaaaacissssst!" when a valid point is made in debate.

The reason the statistic is important is that rents in London, in the same period, went up by 36% whereas earnings increased by 21%. While not a scientific proof of a connection between immigration and high rents, that would seem to me to be far more than circumstantial evidence.

The impact on housing costs has been greatest in London, though the stats country wide are even more extreme: 1.1 million households with a foreign born head out of 1.2 million total growth, over 90%, but with the rent rise being "only" 23%, presumably because of a less adverse supply and demand position than in London.

As nearly half of households headed by a person aged 25 to 34 live in private rented accommodation, the impact has been greatest on young people. The very people who tended to vote against Brexit and believe strongly in freedom of movement.

Let me try another pair of stats on you: there were 140,000 recorded errors in NHS maternity units last year, ranging from minor to life threatening. And more than six in ten babies born in London hospitals last year had mothers who were either immigrants or were visiting from abroad. That latter stat isn't from Migration Watch, by the way. It's published by the Office for National Statistics. Is it any surprise that maternity units are under such pressure?

So are the problems in housing or the NHS due to austerity or, to use a word used by David Cameron, immigrants and visitors "swamping" the system?

None of this is to say that immigration hasn't been beneficial for the economy and the country because, for the most part, it has: plenty of commentators have gone through that.

But what is exercising my mind is this. We now need to invest significant extra resources in house building. The target 300,000 units a year is 50% more than the highest levels we have normally achieved in many decades. Arguably, we should have started sooner but there was a financial crisis after all. Similarly, yet more money may well be needed for the NHS and other services like education. But if the economy has done so well as a result of immigration, why isn't the exchequer flush with funds to spend from all the extra taxation, when in fact we still have an alarmingly high deficit and so the debt gets higher every year.

A number of studies have shown that immigration has been positive for the economy but they have tended not to consider the extra spend needed on services and the extra investment needed on infrastructure.

If the proceeds of immigration were paying for top class new facilities and additional services perhaps the rise of UKIP, the kamikaze EU referendum and Brexit would not have happened. But that is not the case.

I hope readers don't think that promulgating these gobsmacking facts is racist. There are serious issues here that we will continue to have to grapple with for some time, even if the government were to be successful in limiting net immigration to the tens of thousands, whether or not it should. Which might of course put brakes on the economy. Or might lead to industry and commerce investing in ways of increasing our chronically low productivity.

Let's hope someone has some answers and 2018 is a prosperous new year. But either way I wish you all a happy one.

*the Migration Watch report "Migration and Housing" was published on 21 December and is at
The summary article "Young people are paying the price as high net migration contributes to housing crisis" is at

Thursday, 28 December 2017

Je ne regret rien

I followed a link to an interesting item by Anthony Wells, of the polling organisation yougov, titled "On measuring support for Brexit".

He notes that people with an axe to grind get very excited about poll results supporting their viewpoint, a recent example being a yougov poll which partisan writers claimed backed Brexit by 48% to 39%. That result was actually the GB element of a an EU wide poll which was mainly aimed at finding out whether other EU countries still wanted us to stay. (For the record most Germans, Danes, Swedes and Finns want us to stay. The perfidious French are evenly divided).

Wells notes that people get three different questions tangled up:
Question 1. How would you vote in a new referendum held tomorrow. This question tends to show a lead for Remain of typically one to four points. But Wells points out that you then have to assess whether people would actually vote. After all, most of the polls showed the same thing before the referendum. And it's academic because there ain't a referendum tomorrow.
Question 2. Whether Brexit was the right or wrong decision. Tracks of polls asking this question show a slow drift towards regret, with slightly more people thinking the decision was wrong than right over the last few months. But that doesn't mean people think Brexit shouldn't happen - as that is...
Question 3. Whether people think we should now go ahead with Brexit or not. YouGov have a semi-regular tracker that asks how the government should proceed with Brexit, which this month found 52% thought the government should go ahead with Brexit, 16% that they should call a second referendum, 15% that they should stop Brexit and remain in the EU. Wells says "The reason for the difference in these questions is that a substantial minority of people who voted Remain in 2016 consistently say that the government should go ahead and implement Brexit (presumably because they see them as having a democratic duty to implement the referendum result)."

Wells concludes: "It is true to say that more of the public now tend to think Brexit was the wrong decision than the right decision, and say they would vote against it in a referendum. It is also true to say that most of the public think that Brexit should go ahead. Neither measure is intrinsically better or worse, right or wrong… they are just asking slightly different things. If you want to understand public attitudes towards Brexit, you need to look at both, rather than cherry pick the one that tells you what you want to hear."

So, according to Wells my view (voted remain, but believe the government should get on and implement the referendum result without another referendum) is very much part of the public opinion picture.

Sorry you Germans, Danes, Swedes and Finns. We might regret it but we're still determined to snub you and leave.

*You can read the full article, posted on 27 December, at

Thursday, 21 December 2017

So how important was that Government defeat on the EU Withdrawal bill?

Now we know that the single market isn't that important (post of  20 December), how important was the government's defeat in the Commons last week? This was, of course, amendment 9 to the EU Withdrawal Bill and it means there has to be a vote in Parliament on the terms negotiated with the EU. The answer is equally unimportant.

I found the initial press view here, that the vote meant a soft Brexit was more likely, surprising. That view changed over the next few days but in the meantime Eurointelligence pondered why a vote that made it dramatically easier for MPs to veto the Article 50 withdrawal agreement reached with the EU was thought to be good news for a soft Brexit. The conclusion was that people who think this, including some of the MPs who voted for Dominic Grieve's amendment, "do not have a clue about the EU's decision making procedures....only focus on UK politics" and "have probably not even read Article 50". They reported a comment by Danuta Hubner, who heads the European Parliament's constitutional affairs committee:

“Once it is finalised and it is signed by both parties, then any change to it means reopening negotiations, meaning we will not make it within the two years, meaning there is a hard Brexit.”

 They go on to say that, while the Tory mutineers might hope for something different:

"Like the Scottish separatists in 2015, and the Catalan separatists in 2017, they believe the EU will come to help them. That won't be so. There is no way the EU will reopen negotiations after an agreement is signed. The rebels may hope that the ensuing political chaos in the UK would unseat Theresa May, trigger elections, and get another leader into 10 Downing Street with an explicit mandate to hold a second referendum. We have heard suggestions that Jeremy Corbyn may base his entire campaign in a hypothetical election on the claim that he would get a better deal. It will take Jean-Clauder Juncker, Donald Tusk, and Hübner, only seconds to debunk such nonsense, should it ever come to this."

So, as I thought, all the Tory rebels have done is increase the chance of a Corbyn led government in the near future. If their actions were relevant to Brexit it was only to increase the likelihood of a hard Brexit - exactly what they say they don't want! Ironic really, as they have shown that, for some in the Tory party, Brexit (whether hard, soft or not at all) matters more than whether they are in government. As the Tory party has traditionally been thought of as the UK's purest political machine in terms of winning and keeping power over the last hundred years - with the exception of the Blair years - that is quite something. Whatever happens as Brexit unfolds the scars in the Tory party will run deep for a generation. It's 20 years since John Major's "bastards" and it could be another 20 before the bad blood between the Tory factions has run its course.

Meanwhile Labour has cast aside all principle to make mischief over Brexit, regardless of the impact on the country, as it tries to position itself to win power at any cost. But remember the cost is irrelevant to them as John McDonnell wants to smash the system anyway.

The new year sees talks moving on to the transition, which the EU has said will last till the end of 2020, not quite the full 2 years expected. And, maybe by Easter, trade talks which won't be easy as we want a bespoke, "Canada plus plus plus" deal and the EU only want to offer Norway or Canada dry. But at that point things might get interesting as the EU 27 definitely do not speak with one voice on trade. Then, when the clock is running down, the Irish problem will re-emerge. And apparently Brussels will insist on some sort of UK-Spain agreement over Gibraltar.

So this could end stuck between a hard place (Ireland) and a rock (Gibraltar).....

*The eurointelligence piece is at

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

How important is the single market?

The surprising answer is "not much" as, according to a study of some standing publicised by Adam Tooze of the Wall Street Journal, the long term impact of the single market is "negligible"*. The cumulative impact on gdp growth of the single market, averaged over the number of years since each EU member state joined the single market is a totally underwhelming 0.79%. Not 0.79% a  year, 0.79% in total. Even Germany's economy has benefited by a total of only 1.55% since the single market started in 1993. I picked up on this from the website eurointelligence (a pro-EU source, note) which said**:

For a policy to boost GDP per capital by 0.79% on average over a period of 25 years, essentially means that it has had virtually no effect. The slightest measurement error would blow this result out of the water. And even if the numbers are correct, expect there to be real losers as a result of a massive re-distributional effect that resulted from the single market - from smaller to larger companies and from the periphery to the centre. 

Some countries, like the Baltic States and Romania, have only benefited by about 0.1% and for Greece the single market has been negative.

I found this conclusion gobsmacking. I had taken it for granted that the single market had brought enormous benefits. My economics guru, David Smith, waxes lyrical about its impact. So I checked out the background for myself. The study was carried out by London Economics, one of Europe's leading specialist policy and economics consultancies. (Who says so? They do, on their website). The London Economics report was commissioned by the American Chamber of Commerce to the EU (which snappily calls itself AmChamEU), a body which says it "speaks for American companies committed to Europe on trade, investment and competitiveness issues. It aims to ensure a growth-orientated business and investment climate in Europe. AmChamEU facilitates the resolution of transatlantic issues that impact business and plays a role in creating better understanding of EU and US positions on business matters." The report is 136 pages long (I didn't read it all) and can be downloaded free if you want to read it for yourself***. But, to save you the trouble, it says that:
"The Single Market has brought jobs, opened new opportunities for citizens, consumers and businesses, made their life easier and this study shows it in detail. The contribution of the Single European Market to people’s wellbeing is significant. The researchers calculated how many new jobs were created thanks to being in the Single Market, how much more money consumers could spend and companies could invest and how much the wealth of each one of the EU countries has increased."

Reading on, it quantifies the extent of this enormous wellbeing: "The resulting estimates show that EU GDP per capita is 1.0% higher than it would have been without an increase in integration since 1995." Wow! Double wow! That is is the noise in terms of the accuracy of economic data. It's two-thirds of sodall (sorry, nothing at all)!

The report does say that "the single market has brought jobs": there are estimated to be around 1.9 million additional jobs. Wow again! That doesn't sound very much either! So I checked for myself - and you can look up the EU eurostat website**** also if you are sad enough. Most of the stats are about employment rates but after a fascinating few minutes I found that, of the EU's total population of 510 million in 2016, 219 million are aged 15-64 and in employment. There will be a small number of over 64s in employment but, to a first approximation only around 2 million of 220 million employed  people owe their jobs to the single market.

I tried to understand how the analysis had been done. They used an "econometric model" (me neither) to try to distinguish the benefit from the greater integration provided by the single market. So my take on the study is that it is attempting to assess not the benefit of being in the EU, but rather the marginal benefit of the "frictionless" single market compared to the previous status quo, effectively the customs union. As there are disbenefits as well as benefits from the customs union (for example, we pay tariffs on satsumas to protect fruit growers in Spain) I'll take the conclusion at face value. The single market is actually a bit of a raspberry.

 The surprising take away conclusion, as I said at the start, is the single market doesn't seem to have added very much to Europe's prosperity, though with the caveat that the larger countries (like Britain) have benefited the most, though still not that much.

That doesn't mean our transition away from the single market will be painless, but my opposition to a very soft Brexit has just hardened. And I think a lot of other people would think the same if this amazing statistic gets broader publicity.

* The reference to the Wall Street Journal is but I haven;t read the piece as it's a subscription only site. However the original source document by London Economics is referenced below.


*** full document is at

**** EU employment stats are at
The detailed table showing the number of people in work aged 15-64 is at

Monday, 11 December 2017

Who cares what it looked like? They were derbies!

Sam Allardyce is winning me over. Yes, Everton were poor at Anfield, but they fought hard and kept their shape under a lot of pressure in the 1-1 draw. The much vaunted Liverpool attack, managed only 3 shots on target from a 79% share of possession, albeit with some key players rested. Everton's possession share was their lowest in a Premier League game since the inception of these stats.

Allardyce did one thing the press predicted - park the bus - but not the other - pack the team with 3 experienced centre backs, which I thought would be a recipe for disaster against Liverpool's small, quick forward line. He retained Holgate (as I'd pleaded) who did well. He also kept Kenny, though that was not a surprise. The youngster from Kirkdale - you can't be born much nearer Goodison Park, Kirkdale is the nearest railway station -  was certainly Everton's best player in the first half, when it looked as if they didn't have anyone else who could actually play football. Indeed, some reporters had Kenny as man of the match, though others went for Rooney or Salah, with Calvert-Lewin also getting high marks. So Allardyce has passed my main test - would he play the youngsters when their form merits it? - at least for now.

Yes, he brought on Jagielka to protect the draw after Rooney's penalty, won when DCL( Dominic Calvert-Lewin) drew Lovren into a very foolish push in the back. A bit soft but no surprise that it was given. Despite playing in a handful of derbies in his first spell at Everton, it was Rooney's first goal for Everton against Liverpool. But I had no issue with that substitution in the context of the game.

More concerningly he brought on Schneiderlin, who's only contribution of note was to get a yellow card conceding a free kick in a dangerous position.  Schneiderlin is 6ft 1in tall but plays with all the physical presence of a midget. Sam needs to get this lad to play - or at least impose himself on the game a bit - or ship him out in January for someone better. I know which I would do.

Sigurddson also still has to improve to win me over, looking like a fish out of water for most of the match. £45 million was always an extraordinary amount of money for him, a sum I can't see him ever living up to, though that isn't his fault of course. I'm just judging him against my own arbitrary standard of whether he's good enough to wear a blue shirt, irrespective of the fee. The answer is still "maybe".

Sam went for good old boring 4-4-2, possibly feeling that it's still the system that most British footballers are most familiar with. The two banks of four proved hard to break down despite the limitations of Martina, at left back, especially.

Having said before the match I would settle for any score which saw us concede less than three, the result was more than enough justification for the poor entertainment on offer, which must have bored neutrals to tears.

But who cares what it looked like, at this particular juncture in Everton's evolution?

Indeed, I've never cared what a derby match looked like if the result is positive. Entertainment can come watching other teams!

Of course, Sam won't actually win me over until he shows that he can train the team on to the point where the potential of the youngsters is fully materialised and they can go to places like Anfield and play proper football with confidence. That won't take less than 2 years. For me, the jury will be out for a long time, even if things go relatively well for much of it.

Not that the entertainment was that much higher at Old Trafford, where Mourinho's pragmatism limited City's sparkle but didn't prevent them getting the result. For me two things were evident from the match. Ederson's excellent double save from Lukaku, the first with his face, reinforced the point that Guardiola has successfully resolved his team's main weakness of last season. And, despite all the hype and Guardiola's own statements about the importance to him of his team always playing their passing game, City showed they also will be as pragmatic as they need to be to get the job done. That involved blatant time wasting towards the end of the match and, perhaps more surprisingly, silky skilled David Silva taking out a player more normally considered one of the league's narks, Ander Herrera, in midfield in the closing period. Herrera isn't just a nark but towers over Silva. When the ref played an advantage United didn't want, Silva's next action was to to attempt to kneecap the even taller Matic only seconds later. The ref booked Silva when play eventually stopped, presumably for the first challenge, though both merited a yellow card. What was more than clear is that Guardiola's much vaunted 'when we lose the ball, try to win it back within 6 seconds' does indeed have a caveat, as Mourinho has been saying. That caveat is, of course, 'if you can't, halt play with a professional foul if the situation looks dangerous'. I'm not coming over all purist here, that's what most teams would do if they were quick enough. It's just the hypocrisy of commentators who think City don't do this stuff that gets me. And the fact that, whoever the best teams currently are, they seem to get cut more slack by referees.

But the obvious truth that City will do the dirty work when necessary means that, barring an amazing collapse, this season's title race is now a formality.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Fireman Sam to the rescue - and a rant about players who can't tackle

Fireman Sam is what Sam Allardyce is being called, after Everton's sudden revival, prompted by his appointment I accept, has taken them into the top half of the table.

I've been reflecting on my negativity about Allardyce's appointment (see A dis appointment, 29 November). I accept that the Board, having mishandled the situation awfully in previous weeks, had to act and make an appointment. They knew who was available, so I wouldn't 2nd guess that. My frustration was that it should never have been allowed to develop as it did.

There are potential positives in Allardyce's appointment. While not accusing him of being "long ball", the team is likely to play more directly and with more aggression and be defensively more robust, all issues that have troubled me since half way through Martinez's reign and for much of the time under Koeman, whose teams also tended to want to consolidate possession after winning the ball and not risk playing it forward at the earliest opportunity after winning the ball in what has become known as a "transition". The irony of that, of course, is that the best teams (yes, Barcelona, Man City etc) do go for the jugular whenever they have the opportunity.

And Allardyce has been at the forefront of sports science using sports psychologists, nutrionists and statisticians since he was in charge at Bolton. By all accounts, when he was interviewed for the England job in 2006 he gave the best and most comprehensive presentation about how to take all aspects of the England national team forward. The only problem was he had prepared a "knock your socks off" Powerpoint presentation. He was told that the FA had no facilities for him to do that, so he had to print off and take hard copies. I doubt that is what cost him the job that time round.

The Sunday Times reporter at Everton's match against Huddersfield last Sunday came up with a phrase that summarised my primal scream/whinge of last week, saying "the jury remains out on whether he is philosophically aligned to his new club". If I had thought of the phrase "philosophically aligned" my piece could have been much shorter.....

Anyway, I said I would see the crowd's reaction to Allardyce for myself at that match. If you saw the game on Match of the Day you may have noticed that Everton did something a bit odd. I was rather expecting Allardyce would be officially introduced to the crowd before the teams took to the pitch, which would be fairly normal. But he wasn't: the teams came out, went through all the usual rigmarole and were all lined up ready to kick off when the stadium announcer asked the crowd to welcome Everton's new manager, Allardyce taking to his technical area and waving. This might have been done because, these days, many punters stay in the refreshment areas under the stands until the teams take the pitch, which means that, together with the over amplified tannoy system, there is essentially none of the pre-match atmosphere of the old days. But it might have been because Everton weren't sure how Allardyce would be greeted. Doing it just as the crowd were about to roar "come on" avoided that risk.

If you listened carefully you'll have heard pretty much what happened. A rather mixed initial response was soon replaced by a generous round of applause coming from the majority of fair-minded Evertonians. That mixed initial response included some very loud boos from a small minority in the stands around me at the corner of the Gwladys Street and Bullens Road stands. Of course, in the old days of terraces, those booing would have been able to congregate together and it would have been much more obvious. But it was a very small proportion.

And me? I gave a rather lukewarm and somewhat begrudging few polite handclaps.

Because of the mid-week game Allardyce had only a single training session with the squad before the match, so one shouldn't read too much into it. There was bound to be more effort but the first half didn't provide me (or anyone else) with much encouragement. Yes, they were getting the ball forward more quickly, but essentially aimlessly. Not long balls knocked high and Wimbledon style, just quick, long "passes" into space were there wasn't a blue shirt. Even goalkeeper Pickford succumbed to this, as he caught the ball from a corner and hit a quick, long, low kick to Everton's right when the only man up, Calvert-Lewin, was running to the left wing ("you great banana, why don't you look first?" I shouted to the amusement of some around me, as Pickford was wearing all yellow). I suspect this was a misinterpretation of what Sam had told them. Everton didn't concede but didn't often look like scoring either in a goalless first 45. Rooney did ok but Everton's most accomplished player in the first half was 20 year old full back Jonjoe Kenny.

The second half was better, with Kenny, Davies, Lennon and DCL (Dominic Calvert-Lewin) combining well down Everton's right on several occasions and it was no surprise the first goal came from that side, with a delightful flick by DCL, who also had a good game, freeing Sigurdsson, who had been totally anonymous in the first half. A 2-0 win felt about right, though I was shocked to see the stats afterwards with Huddersfield having more possession and only one fewer shot on target. It didn't feel quite like that watching.

Allardyce noted in his interview afterwards that he'd told the wide men, Lennon and Sigurdsson, to push on more in the second half and it clearly worked, which is encouraging. When asked by the Everton PR guy in an interview on the club website about the potential of the young players (my specific worry about Sam) and Mason Holgate in particular, Allardyce said "well I think the potential's nearly a reality, from the performance like that and the performance on Wednesday". He also said "I think Jonjoe Kenny is an outstanding young man at full back....his choice of ball possession is first class as a young man, his defending is excellent..", going on to say that the back four provided the platform for the victory. All true.

The above words might have been meant to win people like me over. Before I heard them I'd returned home to tell my Mrs that I might be at risk of sounding foolish (that's not new I hear you say) but Jonjoe Kenny has appeared only 10 or 12 times in the Everton first team and I would wager that, after that number of games, he's at least as advanced in his development as Gary Neville was. Or, if not Gary, then a comparison I can definitely vouch for, Tommy Wright, who played full back for Everton in the 1960s and 70s, appearing nearly 400 times and being capped 12 times for England.

And I would argue Mason Holgate is currently Everton's most reliable centre back, given the poor form of Williams and Keane and Jagielka being out injured. The team selection for Sunday's derby match will be interesting. Whether he selects Holgate and Kenny is Allardyce's first real test, for me.

With a bunch of even younger youngsters, the toffees won in Cyprus last night 3-0. Allardyce might just have landed very fortunately at the biggest club he's ever managed. As long as he realises it.

The other great thing about these two league wins is that, suddenly, the result in this weekend's derby match becomes somewhat less significant. If those two games had gone badly a poor derby would have mad it feel like a real crisis. Now it would just be a hiccup.

There was one comment on Match of the Day that was totally risible however. Ian Wright (who I have a lot of time for) noted that Everton had achieved two clean sheets with Sam. Eh? Allardyce  wasn't officially appointed as manager until the day after the first of the games, against West Ham. And he had one training session before the Huddersfield game. I accept that Allardyce's presence made the team work harder and think about their defending but come on - the Hammers and Huddersfield at home? Huddersfield had conceded 14 and scored nil in their previous 5 away matches. A bit early to be crediting Sam with tightening up the defence, though I'm sure he will.

Still, to give Wright his due, there is 100% support for the proposition that any Everton team Allardyce has anything to do with never lets in a goal. Until Sunday's derby at least.....

There is another game being billed as a derby match this weekend, in my second city, Manchester. (Well, until 2006 it was the only city I had lived in, when I was a student, hailing as I do from outside the Liverpool city limits). I was brought up believing that there are only 3 derbies a year: Everton v Liverpool, Liverpool v Everton and the horse race. But the United v City clash holds out the promise of a fascinating clash of styles, with City's slick passing against United's formidable physical strength (unlike City most of the United team is over 6ft), both teams possessing fearsome pace.

I think it is unfortunate that United's Paul Pogba will miss the game, as it would have been good to see two essentially full strength sides pitted against each other. Pogba was sent off in last week's game against Arsenal for treading on Hector Bellerin. While a red card was correct I think Pogba was unlucky. Everyone thought his offence wasn't deliberate, though that is not material to the referee's decision. I thought he was unlucky because Bellerin's challenge, if that's what it can be called, as Pogba advanced towards him with the ball, was weird. He trailed his left leg out to one side a bit like a goalkeeper spreading himself to make a large target and block a shot. It was more like an exaggerated curtsy than anything else. As Pogba stretched for a ball he had slightly over-run, he could surely not have expected Bellerin to effectively lie down in his path and place his calf roughly where Pogba's boot was going to land. It wasn't a freak incident, because Bellerin had attempted the same ludicrous manoevre earlier in the game.

The root cause of Pogba missing this big match is that Bellerin, in common with most Premier League players it must be said, has either forgotten or never learned how to do a conventional, classic block tackle. Despite spending something rather less the 10,000 hours of legend to achieve real competence, I spent very many hours playing and practicing football as a youngster - enough to take corners with either left or right foot - but I didn't really learn to do a block tackle until I migrated from the forwards to the back four via midfield in my twenties. It's not difficult, but it does require bottle. In the classic 50-50 challenge with two players running towards each other, you try to plant your non-kicking foot as close to the ball as possible,  turning your kicking foot as if to side foot the ball but going for it really firmly, as if striking a long pass as hard as you can. At the point of impact you hold your kicking leg firm, rather than following through. This keeps your foot low and your studs pointing downwards so, although you will foul the other player if you are late, it's not a dangerous challenge for either player, though if you don't commit you risk the bottom half of your leg being twisted round at the knee if the other player arrives at the ball at the same time and goes for it harder than you do. So you don't risk that: the old adage is that you only get hurt if you don't go in hard enough. If both players arrive at the ball together in the classic 50-50 the player who is stronger in the tackle will win, the ball popping forward  past his opponent. The weaker player in the tackle tends to fall forward over the ball. In my later years as a player it was a mark of honour for me that I never lost out in a block tackle, unless the position of the ball made it more than 75-25 in the other player's favour (in which case you are better standing off). I saw (and made) many strong block tackles. Though 50-50 clashes between committed players could look fearsome, the challenges were fair and no-one got hurt - unless one of the players wimped out, turned their head away at the last second and hung out their foot over the ball rather than challenging for it, which is very dangerous for the other player. Remarkably, this latter scenario is exactly what happens week after week in the Premier League on our televisons. Sometimes it's both of the players involved in a challenge doing it!

Ironically, one of the worst offenders is Manchester City's highly rated man mountain Vincent Kompany. He has been sent off several times for lunging over the ball in these head on challenges, committing what I'm sure my sons will remember me branding a "coward's challenge". As you can tell, it really irritates me when these overpaid nonces, who have spent 10,000+ hours playing football, demonstrate that they can't tackle properly. What often look like horrific challenges in slow motion are caused by the culprit losing their nerve and trying to protect themselves.

So it's very simple: if Bellerin knew how to tackle, Pogba wouldn't have been sent off. I thought it was really odd that the Match of the Day pundits didn't highlight this, though I've seen two sports journalists comment on it since, one telling Bellerin "here's a tip: try tackling".

Anyway, what result am I hoping for in the Manchester "derby"? A United win to keep the title race open. And because, despite producing some of the best football seen in England for a long time, if not ever - and some of the goals they have scored this season have been truly outstanding - I dislike Manchester City. The reason is that the only time I've ever felt unsafe in a football stadium (and I've been to quite a few over more than 50 years) was at City's Maine Road in 1972. It's too long a story for now, but involved targeted physical aggression towards the away fans. I know it was a long time ago and it isn't the only time it ever happened but it's the only time it's happened to me and I'm an unforgiving cove at times. I've never wished City well since and I don't tomorrow in terms of the result, though I'm hoping it will be a great match.


Friday, 8 December 2017

Reasons to be cheerful - or entangled?

So, while I was urging our negotiators to have some backbone (Part of the Union, 7 December), David Davies's civil servants were scurrying around finalising the wording of an agreement (it's called a joint report actually) so Theresa May, having had to walk out of her lunch with Juncker, could get on a plane at stupid-o-clock this morning to go and have breakfast with him and seal the deal. Is this a Reason to be Cheerful?*

Well, I'm sure a decent deal would be better than no deal. But we won't know if this paves the way for a decent deal for some time. I suspect it doesn't. The reason is, rather than presenting the EU and Ireland with a crunch and trying to get them to take at least joint ownership of the problems, an enormous dollop of fudge has been applied and we've kept the problems of finding solutions all to ourselves.

Having read the report* for myself (go on, it's only 14 and a bit pages!) it's pellucidly clear that the EU side has succeeded in all its main objectives for the first phase of the negotiations. Those objectives started with making us agree up front on the things that we could otherwise potentially use for leverage in the broader negotiation, especially the financial settlement.

However, the biggest problem I have is over the Irish border. I quote here the relevant paragraph in full (it's paragraph 49):
The United Kingdom remains committed to protecting North-South cooperation and to
its guarantee of avoiding a hard border. Any future arrangements must be compatible
with these overarching requirements. The United Kingdom's intention is to achieve
these objectives through the overall EU-UK relationship. Should this not be possible,
the United Kingdom will propose specific solutions to address the unique
circumstances of the island of Ireland. In the absence of agreed solutions, the United
Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the
Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island
economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement. (My emphasis in bold)

So the onus remains entirely on us to bring forward ideas to fix the potentially unfixable. The EU side can just refuse to agree to anything they or the Republic don't like. They don't have to do anything other than say "non". In Ian Dury's song, sometime after repeatedly singing "why don't you get back into bed?" (which surely Theresa May was thinking this morning) he sings "yes, yes, dear, dear, perhaps next year, or maybe never". And, potentially to infinity, the UK is trapped maintaining "full alignment" with the single market and customs union. This gives the EU side the most enormous lever in future negotiations. I'm sure they won't hesitate to use it.

This all puts us firmly waiting in the lobby of the Hotel California, with the Eagles singing:
'Relax' said the night man,
'We are programmed to receive.
You can check out any time you like,
But you can never leave!'

Though, as of today, I'm feeling it's more like the Genesis song Entangled:
"Well, if we can help you we will,
Soon as you're tired and ill.
With your consent
We can experiment further still.
Well, thanks to our kindness and skill
You'll have no trouble until
You catch your breath
And the nurse will present you the bill!"

The bill being around €50 billion it seems. Both Hotel California and Entangled have a nightmareish quality...

Our only get outs are that the word "alignment" is apparently not defined legally in the EU and that paragraph 5 of the agreement has the caveat that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.

I am thinking hard and trying to identify anything, however small, that the UK side has won the argument over in the negotiation to date. The only thing I can think of is that initial reports were that the EU was looking for a financial settlement of €100 million, which may well have been the number Boris Johnson said they could go whistle for. I don't count this as a "win", as it feels to me like the EU took the number they actually wanted and leaked double that number to put the wind up the other side. So Brussels has got us to commit to paying everything it wanted. And agreeing on everything else. Which just goes to show how weak a position we are in and how desperate we are to get a deal.

If we were always going to cave in on everything, why didn't we just save time and do it 6 months ago, one might ask. Except that the 6 months of hassle were necessary for the government to get its Brexit hardliners on board, everyone had to see for themselves how difficult it was. Remember, this whole thing has always been - and will be through to the end - about the Tory party trying to keep itself in one piece.

I've written the above after reading the joint report but without looking at what other commentators are saying. But I couldn't resist looking at what the Times has to say just now. Oliver Wright refers to "carefully phrased fudge" over the Irish border. "So what we have is no regulatory barriers between north and south and no regulatory barriers between east and west while in Westminster Mrs May insists that Britain will be free to change EU regulation after Brexit to strike free trade deals. Frankly, whichever way you look at it, it really doesn’t stack up in the real world." However, he says that doesn't matter as both sides have essentially agreed to kick the can down the road because the problem can't be fixed independently of the future trading arrangements. (D'oh! Of course, that was always obvious, wasn't it?) He concludes "But that is not the same as saying the ultimate problem has gone away. It hasn’t and frankly it is as divisive and difficult to solve as it has always been."

Sam Coates, also in The Times, writing under the headline "Theresa May's weakness becomes a source of strength..." notes that Mrs May's position as Tory leader remains safe for a while yet. "The fight endlessly postponed by Mrs May is coming soon, however. The party faces a choice between keeping Britain closer to European rules or whether it is better to allow divergence. Alternatively the party may choose a third way: continued fudge and the promise of the ability to pull away in certain sectors at different speeds in effect left to future generations of politicians, meaning that EU negotiations go on for decades. That could see Mrs May clinging on for longer."

I don't care about Mrs May, but negotiations going on for decades is exactly my concern. Entangled indeed.

PS 1020 pm update. Watching the smirking Irish Tea-shuck (sorry, too much wine on a Friday, can't be arsed to look up the proper spelling) on the BBC tv news, quoting Churchill at us ("end of the beginning") prompted me to throw something at the tv.....

*Reasons to be Cheerful part 3 was, of course, a big hit for Ian Dury in 1979. When I get back to writing about more enjoyable things a piece of nostalgia about the gigs I've most enjoyed is in the back of my mind. The Ian Dury and the Blockheads gig we saw in 1979 would feature prominently in any list of either mine or Mrs H's

**The Joint report from the negotiators of the European Union and the United Kingdom Government on progress during phase 1 of negotiations under Article 50 TEU on the United Kingdom's orderly withdrawal from the European Union is at

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Part of the Union?

Not the Strawbs song (sorry) but the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. And the implications of that Union being in or out of the EU customs union.

I'm grateful to the eurointelligence website for a link to an article in the Irish Times by Kevin O'Rourke which goes into the background of the British/Irish customs union of 1923, the Anglo-Irish free trade area of 1965, the implications of the EU customs union and single market together with a discussion of "alignment" or "regulatory convergence" and what these concepts mean in terms of the EU and UK obligations to the WTO. The eurointelligence item* is a summary of the article for those who just want the headlines.

The story starts with the Irish Free State leaving the UK customs union in 1923. Customs posts immediately appeared. They remained despite the signing of the Anglo-Irish Free Trade Area Agreement in 1965. The UK abolished most tariffs on Irish exports, while Ireland started reducing tariffs on UK imports. But while Ireland had agreed to that it hadn't agreed to reduce its tariffs on imports from elsewhere. Free trade areas necessarily involve border checks to ensure that goods from third countries are not given the preferential treatment enjoyed by the countries that are party to the agreement.

In 1973 Britain and Ireland joined the EEC and its customs union. Customs unions don't just abolish tariffs between member states: they surround those states with a common external tariff. By adopting a common trade policy there is no need to check where products entering a member country (say Ireland) from another member country (say Britain) originated from. As long as it entered the customs union legally it will have paid the same tariffs as if it had been imported directly.

So there was no need for customs controls at the border. But controls persisted at the Irish land border. EEC members retained the right to set a variety of regulations on what goods could legally be bought and sold in their countries, so there was still a need to check whether importers were respecting these rules. In 1992 the single market (for which the EU can substantially thank Mrs Thatcher) ensured that what could legally be sold in one country in the bloc could be sold in all of them. So, from 1 January 1993 trade-related border checks between Ireland and Northern Ireland ceased, as they did across the EU. Of course, at the time border controls were retained at the Irish land border for other reasons.

But the point is that getting rid of border controls depended on having both the customs union and the single market. So Norway is a member of the single market but not the customs union, hence there are border controls between it and Sweden. So the logic is that, unless both Northern Ireland and the Republic retain equivalent regulations (the purpose of the single market) the result would be a need for border controls.

According to the Irish Times, the "deal" that Theresa May had to pull out of stated that "in the absence of agreed solutions, the UK will maintain full alignment with the internal market, customs union and protection of the Good Friday agreement". If true I'd say it's a good job we pulled out of that as there would be no incentive for the EU side to agree to anything else: they'd have us hooked for good.

The Irish Times also said that the suggestions that regulatory alignment would only be required in some sectors doesn't work. They say all traded goods would have to be covered to prevent a hard border. Moreover, they say that if the UK were to strike such sectoral deals with the EU, both  the UK and the EU would be in breach of their obligations to other WTO members not to discriminate against their exports, an obligation that can only be waived in the context of free trade agreements covering "substantially all" trade. Oops. Surprising that no-one else has realised that, or that the WTO haven't pointed it out. But it does sound logical, I must say.

So Mr O'Rourke of the Irish Times concludes the Brits have moved a lot and so are desperate for a deal (tell us something we don't know). He also predicts that the EU will become even more reluctant to consider bespoke negotiations and more determined to offer only off the shelf arrangements. Hence the talk in some circles of arrangements like "Canada dry" (in other words just like Canada's deal, I suppose). Eurointelligence agrees, saying it's Canada or EEA, not bespoke. O'Rourke says "it's beginning to look a lot like single market and customs union. Here's hoping".

For reasons I have outlined at length before I'm hoping this will not come to pass as I think it would be hopeless for the UK. And I don't believe it needs to come to that. But the crunch is coming soon. It doesn't need to come to that because we can point out that the Irish border is not just our problem. Or even our problem at all. It's the Republic's problem. We have promised no hard border. But we can't control what the Republic does. As trade across the border and with the UK is more important to the Republic than to the UK we can just say "we're out, but we aren't instituting border controls. Your call Messers Barnier, Juncker and Varadkar." After all, there would be no need to protect ourselves from goods coming in from outside the EU, as we can offer lower tariffs than the EU customs union, so there would be no point in bringing those goods in through the EU. We would only need to institute customs controls if the EU put tariffs on our goods and we choose to retaliate. So it would be their fault.

I suspect David Davies has known of these problems all along: it's why he was urging "flexibility and innovation" from months ago. He presumably worked out long ago that the off the shelf arrangements don't work and that there isn't an answer to some of these issues without new ideas. And it's why we must get the EU side engaged in fresh thinking and understanding that off the shelf doesn't work for them either. By planting the problem in their laps. In that old management jargon canard, we need to get them to "own the problem".

So, time to call their bluff. Have you got it in you May, Davies, Johnson, Gove and company? I wonder.

Oh, but if we could turn back time I still would have voted Remain, because I always thought the separation would all be rather difficult, leading to short to medium term economic impacts and distracting the government of the day from doing just about anything else. And I'll still vote leave if we were to be asked again. As I said on 20 October, for Ozzy's "medical reasons".

PS interestingly the Eurointelligence article agrees with the point David Davies made when he told the Parliamentary Select Committee that economic models can't cope with paradigm shifts so there would be no point in completing or publishing Brexit impact assessments. They say "the impact of Brexit will depend on factors that are themselves uncertain - like the nature of the final agreement and, most importantly the future economic policies of the UK". An eloquent lady from the Institute of Economic Affairs made similar points on Question Time just now, saying that all this was just political point scoring and it was more important to focus on negotiating a good deal, rather than making spuriously accurate predictions for futures that probably wouldn't come about. And we can negotiate that deal best, right now, by making the other side engage by making it clear it's all at least as much their problem as ours and it's time for them to start to scratch their heads.

*Eurointelligence, What the (failed) agreement on the Northern Irish border tells us, 7 December 2017.

**Irish Times, 6 December 2017. Kevin O'Rourke, Britain wakes up to the reality of free trade.


Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Soft or hard boiled?

With the clock ticking and the UK wanting to get on with talking trade the crunch time has come on the Irish border and Brexit. Which is why half the news these days seems to be about hard or soft, be it borders or Brexit.

The biggest surprise for me in the events of Monday 4 December, at least as they were reported, was that Theresa May seemed not to have made sure for herself that the DUP had been squared off before going to break bread with Juncker. After all, she had relied on what her chief whip told her after the election and went and told the Queen she had a deal when it turned out she hadn't actually got it pinned down. It didn't hurt the chief whip's career - she made him defence secretary recently. But to apparently make the same mistake again and have to interrupt her cosy lunch seemed incredible. I wonder what post the new chief whip will get promoted to? Though some reports are saying that the deal that wasn't only ever concerned aligning regulations on specific aspects of the Good Friday agreement, like transport, energy and agriculture, with the Brits wanting to say "now can we move on to talk trade?". After all, there's a catch 22 on customs issues until trade is discussed, surely? Those reports are also saying it was the EU side who jumped the gun, briefing that a deal had been reached, possibly trying to bounce May but also spooking the DUP. Nevertheless, if the communications between the DUP and Tories were working, surely it wouldn't have panned out this way.

As usual I'm going to say I had predicted these difficulties - see my posts of 22 Nov and 17 Sept, the latter referring to a Gordian knot and issues "laden with political and emotional implications" in terms of the border. But it didn't take a crystal ball really, did it?

Unless the EU and Irish are prepared to consider the UK's suggestion of using "technology and innovation" (no, I don't know exactly what that means in this context either, let alone whether it could work) one is left with limited options: a border in Ireland, a border between Northern Ireland and the UK, Northern Ireland staying in the customs union when the rest of the UK doesn't (a suggestion that inevitably made Nicola Sturgeon pipe up with "we'll have some of that") or all of the UK staying in the customs union. None of these options really work, unless you are a Remainer who wants to go for the last of these, the "soft" (for which read soft-headed in my view) or Hotel California Brexit, as I called it on 17 September, where we check out but don't leave the single market, customs union or the embrace of the ECJ, still pay into the EU budget but have no representation in the EU's institutions and still have freedom of movement imposed on us, which some argue - reasonably convincingly when you look at the numbers - is the real cause of our housing crisis. Niall Ferguson was even more caustic about this, likening it to being a child bride under sharia rather than a divorce.

Ferguson also noted that there is no way back to the "status quo ante". He was referring mainly to the UK's EU membership condtions, with rebates and opt outs. But the point holds in spades for the Irish border. The "soft" border we had from the 1920s pre-dated both the Republic and UK being in the EU. They joined together in 1973. One country being in the EU and the other outside is a new situation, which surely was always going to mean that continuing the soft border arrangements needed a new solution. And, of course, people have got used to virtually no border recently - the soft border of the free travel area wasn't actually that soft in the days of watchtowers, was it?

Bertie Ahern, a former Taoiseach, suggested an old solution: have a hard border and just ignore it, don't police it. This is surely the daftest thing anyone has said yet on this issue. I can't imagine the EU ever sitting by while Northern Ireland became a massive version of Gibraltar in terms of smuggling stuff into the EU and"laundering" it through the Republic to other countries.

There are some things that could be done to ease the obvious problems a renewed border would pose to the Irish folk who have got used to crossing it freely in either direction for myriad reasons including access to health care, education, employment and shops. One report highlighted a road that crossed the border multiple times in a few short miles. The border could, of course be rationalised to make sure that each road crosses only once for example, that is if you could get anyone there to talk about such a thing rationally (I expect you can't).

All of this was pretty obvious before we had the referendum, let alone got into the article 50 negotiations. However, it looks like the only option left for solving it is to send for International Rescue......

Though actually, it occurs to me that's not the only solution. I was irritated hearing on the radio today that the EU had tweeted that it was ready to talk further as soon as the UK was. And I heard an EU spokesman saying that the problem was between the Tories and the DUP. No, chum, it's not. The biggest problem actually belongs to the Irish Republic.

Trade with the UK is vital for both parts of Ireland. 12% of the Republic's exports of goods and 18% of services go to mainland UK. Only 1.6% go to Northern Ireland. And it is the rest of the UK that matters to the north as well: two-thirds of Northern Ireland's economy is internal trade, exports to the rest of the UK make up 21%, those to the Republic 5% and the rest of the EU 3%. Which explains why it's the link to the rest of the UK that matters to the DUP.  Indeed, some say that even if the Tories had got a majority of 100, a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK would never have flown, so it's nonsense in my view to lay any of this at the door of the DUP.

So, if we are at an impasse (which is not necessarily the case yet), I think it's time to walk away from Rene and say ok, if you lot aren't prepared to play ball at all, always saying it's our problem, never engaging with any ideas of your own, we are getting ready for no deal. Specifically on Ireland, we won't do anything about the border; as far as we are concerned it will carry on post-Brexit as it is now, no customs posts, no passport control, whatever. If you (the Irish government and the EU) want to change the arrangements, go ahead. When you've got any ideas to share, we are ready to listen to you. We should just turn the tables and sit tight.

That might also make German industry sit up. I read recently the reason most German companies that export to the UK are relaxed is because they don't think Brexit is actually going to happen. Time to wake them up.

It's also about time the trouble-making Irish government stopped freeloading on the UK. Indeed, it may have to, to some extent. The eurointelligence website notes that the republic has been overly reliant on the UK as an ally in EU negotiations and as a source of information on what is happening in the EU as well as a buyer of its goods and services.  Once we leave the the EU, the Republic won't be able to piggy back on our civil servants' work and our media's analysis, as we will be outsiders. Perhaps because it has so little footprint and influence in the EU outside of the UK, or in places like Africa, Ireland has - bizzarely - applied to join Francophonie, a club of French speaking states, though as an observer not a member*. The same source says that French is growing as a language in Africa and, if population grows as forecast, French "could even overtake Mandarin, English or Spanish as the world's most spoken language". Hmm, I don't think I'll need to hold my breath on that one, Freres Jaques and Patrick. But Ireland will certainly have an adjustment to make after Brexit. So we should say it's their problem. They might actually think of something instead of just throwing stones.

*Ireland in search of its own path in the EU is at

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

A dis appointment

Everton are apparently about to appoint Sam Allardyce as manager. If Sam's the answer I don't know what the question was.

Allardyce has never trusted young players. Everton have fielded more players aged under 21 in their team this season than any other premier league team. In tonight's win over West Ham there were 5 players aged 23 or under in the starting line up as were 8 of the 14 who appeared during the match. Allardyce is hardly likely to be positive for the careers of these players.

Am I dissing Allardyce unfairly? I don't think so. Martin Samuel made exactly this point in his column several weeks ago, urging Everton to keep looking for a manager until they identified a better option.

Allardyce will no doubt want to bring in some experience (i.e. various dodgy old lags) in January. The youngsters have a month to make Everton's league position secure enough to limit the number of players Allardyce will be allowed to bring in during the transfer window. Preferably to just the desperately needed striker and cover for Baines at left back, both of which were glaring omissions in August. After all by then Coleman, Bolassie and maybe Barkley should be available again after injury.

Of course, Everton were desperate, especially after the weekend's disastrous performance at Southampton. The board clearly decided an appointment had to be made immediately given the alarming drift since Ronald Koeman's sacking. And the presence of a manager elect in the stand made the team work harder in tonight's much needed 4-0 win though Everton also had some luck: Rooney scored despite his penalty being saved to open the scoring, Everton's keeper saved a penalty and West Ham hit the crossbar with the score at 2-0 in a period when Everton couldn't keep the ball before Rooney scored a remarkable, one might say freak, goal from his own half. At the time it was the only way Everton were likely to score as they were camped in their own half. It punctured West Ham's comeback and made the game comfortable as the Hammers reverted to looking as hopeless as they had in the first half.

While Rooney's first ever hat trick for Everton automatically made him man of the match, other than him I thought the best performances came from Jonjoe Kenny, Tom Davies and Dominic Calvert-Lewin, none of whom are yet 21 years of age and have about 70 Premier League appearances between them. And the shakiest from Ashley Williams (over 350 Premier League and Championship appearances) and 28 year old Cuco Martina.

The Goodison crowd was very subdued at the start of the game. Thinking en masse, I'm sure, how on earth has it come to this? Allardyce, for heaven's sake. Well, despite last season's satisfactory final league position, the team had looked alarmingly clueless for quite some time last autumn before going on a run which included beating Manchester City 4-0 on 15 January this year  (yes, that recently!), Lukaku's goals pushing the team to the position they reached.  So I wasn't convinced by Koeman. Then, sell that outstanding striker, don't replace him or even reinvest all the money, buy 3 players who all play the same position, fail to organise or motivate them, watch them lose confidence, sack the manager without a succession plan and Bob's your uncle. Awfully mishandled by the club.

After the success of the England age group teams in the summer many commentators were lamenting the lack of a pathway for the players involved to get to the senior international team and were asking whether many - or any - of them (including Calvert-Lewin and Kenny) would get games in the Premier League any time soon. A penny for Gareth Southgate's thoughts about Everton going for Allardyce. I guess you've already figured out mine.

P.S. I will see for myself the crowd's reaction for what will presumably be Allardyce's official unveiling at the game against Huddersfield on Saturday. If it's true that he intends to bring in Liverpudlian (I nearly said something stronger there) Sammy Lee as his assistant, I will be joining in heartily if the crowd reprise the old ditty from the 1980s: "he's fat, he's round, his arse is on the ground, Sammy Lee, Sammy Lee....."

PPS you can tell I'm REALLY not happy about these developments. But you have to cheer your team, don't you?

Thursday, 23 November 2017

The stupidest newspaper column I've read this year

As all regular readers will have realised, my Sunday morning read (and much of the rest of the week) is the Sunday Times. I glance at the Sport section, especially David Walsh's column and try to help Mrs H with the crosswords (my contribution is usually very limited) before turning to the politics and economics. Notwithstanding my interest in the latter two topics, I think the world feels a better place when the talk is of Lennon rather than Lenin.

Jeremy Clarkson normally has a column on the inside back page of the main paper. It's usually irreverently funny. But last week (12 November) I saw the name Jeremy at the top of one of the main comment pages, where Adam Boulton (the Sky dude) normally has a column. Crikey, they've given Clarkson a political platform, I thought, this should be interesting! But, d'oh!! The byline was Jeremy CORBYN, not Clarkson. I resolved to read it later, as it would probably make me laugh, but not in the same way as Clarkson.

The Corbyn column was, of course, worthy, unrealistic and dull. It called on Theresa May to sort out the Brexit shambles or move over for someone who would. Eh? Labour hasn't said what it wants to see beyond a transition period of, effectively, no change. Because the party is at least as deeply split as the Tories on that point. So dull and hypocritical. A Clarkson column on Brexit (he was a strong Remain supporter incidentally) would at least have been entertaining.

However, the Corbyn column wasn't the stupidest thing in the newspaper that day, not by a long way. Under the heading "Suicide clinics a preserve of the middle class" Sarah-Kate Templeton picked up on a report by Dignity in Dying, a group campaigning for the law to be changed to allow assisted dying in Britain. She wrote:

"The report, How the UK Outsources Death to Dignitas, finds that an assisted death at Lifecircle or Dignitas, the best known Swiss assisted dying clinic, is not available to all British people who want it. The average cost of an assisted death is is £10,000 and most people cannot afford it. The report finds a lottery in the co-operation on offer from doctors, with some refusing to talk about an assisted death while others discreetly help to plan it.

Dignity in Dying says the administrative process of arranging an assisted suicide overseas can be difficult. Obtaining the necessary paperwork by navigating the bureaucratic systems 'requires knowledge and skills that favour the sharp-elbowed middle class'."

Good grief. I could have believed seeing tosh like this in, say, the hand-wringing, anti-aspirational, prizes for everyone Guardian. But in a Times group paper? One doesn't really know where to start with such incoherent, class warrior tripe.

Setting aside that, at £10k, the cost is only around three times that of an everyday funeral, does the reporter agree with the implication in the report that applying for assisted suicide, something that is currently illegal in this country, should be eligible for means-tested benefits? Does she think that relatives from social classes D and E should have the euthanasia equivalent of free parenting classes? Pressure groups like Dignity in Dying clearly do believe that but a reporter worth her salt would "call out" (to use the current phrase) those putting forward such nonsense.

For the record, I could be convinced to support a law change on assisted dying, though I think it will prove too difficult for the politicians to navigate the moral mazes involved, so I don't expect it to happen anytime soon. But, class warrior Sarah-Kate. I can't resist an entirely inappropriate dig at the hyphenated forename, though it makes a change, I suppose. Just don't expect to get a gig writing for the business pages any time soon. And if you ever get to write the leader column I'm cancelling my subscription.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

The German crisis gets worse and what it means for Brexit

Isn't it fascinating how governments can lose authority seemingly overnight and then stumble from crisis to crisis? So it's been here and so it now is in Germany.

Yesterday's news was that Merkel's most important foreign policy adviser, Christopher Heusgen, who only recently became Germany's ambassador to the UN, used his influence to get his wife a job there. Commentators are wondering whether Merkel personally intervened to assist.

Interesting enough but in a further topical twist this news came from a leak by Fancy Bears, the Russian hackers who gave us the low down on Bradley Wiggins's therapeutic use exemptions. So the Russians continue to destabilise western governments. How unsurprising. And the Western governments don't actually seem to need much help on that score anyway.

Heusgen sent an amazing email to the UN Secretary General, even specifying the appropriate pay grade:
"If you consider which contribution Germany renders to the UN, it could be attractive for you to have someone in your staff (at the salary level P5, which as I understand is appropriate for Ina [Heusgen's wife]), which has both: a direct connection to the chancellor's office and to the office of the foreign minister (and to Germany's future UN ambassador [referring to himself], who has the ambition to sit in the security council in 2019/2020."

Frau Heusgen didn't get that post, but she did bag another at the UN, albeit funded by the German taxpayer. I learned this from the Eurointelligence blog - it doesn't seem to be on our mainstream news media yet.

And what does Mutti Merkel's difficulty in forming a government mean for Brexit? Jacob Rees-Mogg and other Tory Brexiteers have got all wound up, thinking it changes whether we should reduce rather than up the ante on our EU divorce settlement. Setting aside the obvious fact that we shouldn't give in to blackmail and agree to pay money up front without any commitment on the future relationship, I can't see why the German situation makes much difference myself. Eurointelligence agrees, saying it would only come into play if the German crisis goes on into the spring, in particular if new elections lead to another impasse. At that point the EU might decide it can only handle one politicial crisis at a time. Though they do say that "A hard Brexit shock, while worse for the UK than for the EU, will end the economic recovery in the eurozone, which is so important for its stability."

So we are not without cards in the negotiation, we just don't seem to have the gumption to play them properly. Though it may be that David Davies is actually playing a game of "chicken" - brinkmanship in the run up to the next big round of Eurotrash (sorry I mean the European Council meeting on 14 -15 December) as we are indicating we will pay more, but won't make a formal offer until the EU agree to talk about trade. So the EU will have to decide whether to stick to its guns on resolving the three priority issues before the negotiations broaden.

Of the other two issues, citizens rights always seemed the easiest to solve, though the EU insistence on continuing involvement of the ECJ is a problem for me as well as many others.

The third issue has also been in the news, with the DUP's Arlene Foster joining me in telling the Irish  republic to button it* over the border issue (see Don't Walk Away Renee, 17 September). I've been struggling from the outset to see how the soft Irish border issue can be resolved without a hard border within the UK or between Ireland and the EU, but can conceive that the UK's suggestion of an electronic system is workable, given that is how customs declarations are apparently made now. While I won't accept the Ireland tail wagging this dog of a negotiation, the real problem is that the EU has set the negotiation up to fail by insisting that the Irish border issue is resolved before the trade and customs arrangements are even discussed, a ridiculous catch 22.

I guess we'll see in December if the EU actually want the negotiation to fail, as posited by Yanis Varoufakis (also in post of 17 September), or whether they blink. We mustn't, if only because our political crisis - I couldn't see May surviving Tory backbench outrage at a large unconditional financial settlement - would then trump Germany's.

In the meantime we can at least indulge in schadenfreude about Merkel and the Germans. How appropriate that wonderful German word has "eu" in the middle.

For both news items on Germany, see the Eurointelligence blog for 21 November at

*Irish PM should know better over Brexit, says Arlene Foster:

Monday, 20 November 2017

Should I have bet on May v Merkel?

Is the end nigh for the weakest politician in Europe?  I mean Angela Merkel, see my post of 17 November, who might be up for an early bath, to use a footballing analogy. Her party's coalition negotiations have broken down. The FDP, free market liberals who, with their 80 seats, are necessary partners for  Merkel's CDU to govern effectively, have pulled out of talks, saying there is "no basis of trust" and "no shared vision". The disagreements are thought to have concerned tax, asylum and environmental policies (remember that Germany is a climate change denier by action, rather than words).

The CDU may try to operate with the support of the Greens as a minority government. But if there is an impasse the German President (no, I didn't know they had one either but I suppose I would have guessed) has the power to call new elections. But only after a process I don't understand but which could take months. In that case, Merkel's party aren't sure about her fighting on and might ask her to stand aside.

This all may not come to pass. But it holds out the remarkable prospect that Theresa May could outlive Angela Merkel, in political terms. I must admit I wouldn't have bet a bean on that even last week, but I am regretting not placing a bet on it as I would have thought you could have got long odds on that before the German elections!

The UK is not the only EU member state living with uncertainty and trying to work with the hand their electorate dealt them in a general election. "Crisis" is a word now being used in Germany. The main beneficiaries of any new election there are likely to be the far-right AFD....

Germany's Merkel suffers blow as FDP pulls out of coalition talks, BBC website today,

Friday, 17 November 2017

The weakest politician in Europe?

No, I'm not talking about Mrs May. Weak though she is, there's a lot of competition for this title at the moment. I offer you my candidate: Mrs Merkel, or Mutti ("Mummy") as the Germans call her.

Nearly a month after the German federal election, Merkel has not put together a government yet. The Social Democrats have ruled out another grand coalition (the equivalent here would be Lab-Tory) and Merkel's Christian Democrats won't want to do business with the ulta-right AFD, so she is left trying to do the deal with the liberal Free Democrats and Greens. Talks so far have stalled over issues including immigration, climate change and EU defence plans.

I'm not surprised Merkel is coming under pressure from the greens on climate change as Merkel's government is the true climate change denier, in terms of actions, compared with Trump. Of course they are fully signed up to the Paris accord, but they say one thing and do another, burning ever greater quantities of coal, while the USA does the opposite, saying it will pull out of the international agreements but making progress in reducing emissions. Merkel is in a bind on this as a big reason for the Germans increasing coal burn is their commitment to phasing out nuclear and the Greens won't agree to her backing out of that.

Merkel has till Thursday, else there may have to be another election. Which she won't want in case the AFD do even better. So I expect deals will be cut.

But don't kid yourself that Germany has strong leadership. Our 'weak' PM's party got 42% of the vote, Mutti's party got 33%. They obviously succeed for other reasons.

PS It's not just me saying this. After writing this blog, I saw Wolfgang Munchau's tweet " Why Merkel's position on climate change is in reality no different from Trump's". In the eurointelligence blog his article titled "Germany's climate change hypocrisy" notes that at the Bonn climate change summit Germany was confronted by a 20 country initiative to commit to stopping burning coal. The problem for Germany is 40% of its power comes from coal.The UK is committed to phasing out coal fired power stations by 2025, while Germany is basically doing what Trump says he wants to do.

You can see the full article at

Saturday, 11 November 2017

We will remember them - but how?

This is the Weeping Window display by Paul Cummins and Tom Piper, they of the poppies at the Tower, when they took their ceramic poppies on tour for 14-18 NOW, the UK's arts programme for the first world war centenary. This display was at The Silk Mill in Derby, a building that hosted a corn mill and medical supplies business during WWI, back in June and July.

A super and thought provoking large scale work of art.

I have worn a poppy in early November since I was a child. If anything I've got a bit less keen on actually wearing one, though I always make a donation, because of the poppy police. It seems you can't appear on tv without one and I always think they start wearing them much too early on in October. Poppy wearing seems to have become competitive, which doesn't feel right to me.

And talking of competitive, Premier League footballers now have them embroidered on their shirts. If they don't all kinds of media hell breaks over their heads. It wasn't like this until just a few years ago. When I coached my son's boys football team back in the 90s at my instigation and by agreement with the coach of our opponents we held a minute's silence before the match nearest to Remembrance Sunday and the boys all thought it was great, both teams standing around the centre-circle just like their favourite clubs on Match of the Day. It was just about the only time I got them all to stay quiet! But I don't agree with footballers having poppies on their jerseys. Even more so now that the home nations have won their argument with FIFA so our international teams do it as well, including last night's England v Germany match where the players of both teams had poppies on armbands. FIFA have backtracked from their earlier view that the poppy was a "political" symbol.

I'm with Martin Samuel of the Daily Mail on this. He says that it's only "half right" to say the poppy is not political propaganda because it's impossible to separate acts of remembrance by nation or race. Iran was fined by FIFA a year ago because fans at a match with South Korea were asked to mark Tasu'a by wearing black and replacing football chants with holy songs. Tasu'a is the day before Ashura, which is one of the most significant events in the Shi'a Muslim calendar. Ashura translates as "day of remembrance". So we get our poppies but surely Iran will be able to mark Ashura and Samuel wonders whether Japan will want to acknowledge Hiroshima's A-bomb day if they play on or around the 6th of August. It seems to me only a matter of time before we find our national football team is compromised by having to join in an act of remembrance for fallen which might include people we thought of as terrorists.

To be clear, I don't think our poppies are political but others might. And we might think their equivalents are either political or inappropriate. FIFA should have insisted on keeping this box firmly closed.

One of my old bosses, who served with distinction in more recent times before his career in business, had a different take on this. He never wore a poppy and used to sniff at me wearing one. He said it discouraged the government from taking proper care of our former soldiers and their families when they needed it. I didn't agree, but I could see his point. There are different ways of remembering, but that should be the bottom line.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

A Brown Curate's Egg

Gordon Brown has re-emerged from the shadows. His memoirs are published today. No, I haven't blagged a preview copy - I've been reading the trailers in the newspapers. And, of course, I have my own views on the man who I lectured a Labour canvasser about in 2001. I guess it was the general election that Labour won handsomely: I remember because we had just moved house and I was decorating the hall. I'd got his attention by saying that, having 2 youngsters I was concerned about health and education. No sooner had he mentally noted me down as "for" when I launched into a vituperative tirade about how Brown had started well as chancellor but time would tell otherwise. Brown's £5bn a year pension tax grab featured prominently but wasn't my only stringent criticism. I was peeved about paying a huge wodge of stamp duty to buy a lower priced house than our previous one and, rather selfishly, about Brown's stealth taxes on my company car and health insurance. None of which I would have minded paying if it was spent wisely, but I felt state education and the NHS weren't performing and were unlikely to improve. "Mark my words" I remember saying "you all think he's a hero now but Brown will come to be seen as a total unmitigated disaster". (Ok, not quite right, that prediction, I'll give you). The poor chap eventually managed to get away from me and I turned to my younger son, who had been listening in and said "I don't know why I did that, look my paint brush has gone dry". "No, dad" he said "but it had to be done". (A very wise 15 year old, I thought).

Brown was, of course, a son of the manse - his father was a minister in the Church of Scotland. Though I'm effectively demoting his dad in saying this, after my 2001 tirade I came to the view that Brown was a curate's egg, good in parts. And, to misquote the American poet Longfellow, when he was bad, he was horrid.

The bad included letting public spending get out totally of control and helping to create the crisis in company pension schemes with that infamous £5 billion a year tax grab (though, to be fair, a Tory chancellor had started this stupid wheeze, Brown just pumped up the volume). He was also complicit in the "education, education, education" Blair government that did so little for education, other than come up with the dumb target of 50% of young people going to university, which has left us with the overhanging issues of university funding, student "debt" and a surplus of unemployable graduates in some disciplines, using that word very loosely. And it was Brown as chancellor who gave the gambling industry free rein, leading to wall to wall betting ads on Sky Sports, gambling companies sponsoring half the Premier League teams and, according to the Gambling Commission, half a million youngsters aged 11-15 gambling regularly, as do two-thirds of students. (Two thirds!! It wouldn't have been 1 in 50 in my day).

Horrid? More like appallingly awful.

However he did, as he put it "save the world" when he unfortunately miss-spoke in a debate in the House on the financial crisis. Though to be fair to him, he did, with Alistair Darling, skilfully ensure that the worst of the chaos that could easily have resulted was avoided. Very good. The reforms he made on assuming the role of Chancellor of the Exchequer - independence for the Bank of England and taking bank regulation from the Bank and putting it with the newly formed Financial Services Authority - were also good and bad respectively, the FSA proving not up to the job of regulating the banks and so contributing to the crisis he had to deal with. But Brown, along with Ed Balls, deserves enormous credit for thwarting Blair and keeping us out of the euro, otherwise the impact of the financial crisis would gave been far more serious*. And extricating ourselves from the EU would have been even more difficult, so your view on Brown's success in bamboozling Blair with his five economic tests probably depends on whether you think we should remain or leave.

Anyway, with that background, it's worth listening to what Brown has to say on the financial crisis. And guess what? It's a curate's egg.

Brown says "If bankers who act fraudulently are not put in jail with their bonuses returned, assets confiscated and banned from future practice, we will only give a green light to similar risk laden behaviour in new forms", a statement that led to headlines like "Bankers should have been jailed". This is the Gordon Brown who'd had 10 years to get the regulatory system right before the crash and at least 2 years after the crash to start to take action.

Brown says the actions of Northern Rock's bosses in covering up their financial situation were 'but a short step from criminality'. Hmm, not criminal then, so hard to jail them surely? And the Rock's business model, borrowing money on short term markets while lending it out on long term mortgages was very well known. Absolutely a failure of risk management and regulation in my book, so that one's actually down to you, Gordon.

Brown also hits out at Barclays bank for doing an 'unconscionable' deal with the Gulf states to avoid taking the Treasury's shilling, so avoiding Treasury control. Brown blanks out the fact that Treasury officials lied to the Lloyds team, who were also wary of state control. (Lloyds asked Treasury officials whether the other major banks were being bailed out and explicitly asked about Barclays, who they hadn't seen during the negotiations. They were told the Barclays team were meeting on a different floor of the building). Barclays maintained its independence and arguably fared the best of the British banks. OK, HSBC makes more profit than Barclays (£5.49bn against £3.93bn last year), but Barclays profitability (profit as a % of turnover) is a lot higher and HSBC didn't require a bail out (just as well as it is essentially trans-national, British taxpayers bailing it out wold have been problematical I reckon).

And of course Lloyds only needed bailing out because Brown had offered them the poisoned chalice of HBOS, which they had previously coveted but hadn't been allowed to acquire on competition grounds. Under pressure to get things fixed Brown changed the rules and gullible, greedy Lloyds didn't do proper due diligence. Otherwise Lloyds wouldn't have needed a bail out at all.

 To be fair the Gulf deal does look dodgy. But the government (i.e. you and me) didn't have to put up any of our money to bolster its balance sheet, some Arabs did. Brown argues that, because Barclays avoided government control, it carried on as before. Well actually it didn't because Barclays also reshaped its business away from what Vince Cable calls "casino banking", wilfully ignoring the fact that Northern Rock and HBOS got into trouble overstretching themselves on good old property. Barclays would probably would have done better if they had kept more of their investment banking business.

Meanwhile, RBS languishes in state control, unlikely ever to be able to repay the taxpayer bailout. Partly, I would argue, because the government made it get rid of its most profitable activities. Yes, it was to take out risk but it doesn't look with hindsight to have made any sense. So the bank most under the control of the state has done the worst - quelle surprise!

Brown takes aim at the egregious Fred the Shred - Fred Goodwin - and the ridiculous corporate excesses of RBS under his control. It was well known that RBS was a byword for hubristic levels of corporate extravagance don't I remember Brown saying anything about the overblown HQ in Scotland when it was opened. I wouldn't be surprised if he had applauded the job creation in his homeland.

Meanwhile the only bank executives charged with fraud are 4 former senior executives at Barclays. Ooh, it doesn't do to upset people like GB and the Treasury, does it?

So, as I say, curate's egg. I guess I should read Brown's autobiography in full to see whether it's as self-serving as the previews make it sound. But I'm not the only one - the Spectator said "Gordon Brown's memoirs show he is good at blowing his own trumpet - but nothing else"**.

Brown's memoirs is called My Life, Our Times and is published by The Bodley Head.
*For example, see Five tests that saved Britain from the fate of economic oblivion, Telegraph 27 Feb 2012
** The Spectator, 4 November 2017