Thursday, 29 March 2018

Is the Brexit debate over?

I've been reading Nick Clegg's book How To Stop Brexit. Sad, I know, but it was buy one get one half price. No, I didn't buy TWO! Mrs H was buying a whodunnit and I decided I should understand the contrary (remember that can be pronounced two ways) point of view. And not as sad as Nick....

It seems Nick now realises that the EU had many flaws, the UK shouldn't have allowed unlimited immigration from eastern Europe without transitional arrangements (which several other countries invoked) and that the euro was launched without all (or many) of the necessary institutions and arrangements to support a currency. Hmm. We need politicians to anticipate these things, Nick,  lots of folk can figure it out afterwards. He has also now realised that it was a risky economic experiment for countries like Ireland and Spain to lower interest rates on joining the euro, to match Germany. Nick makes this sound like a revelation but that is exactly how I described it at the time of the euro's launch.

However, Nick thinks that Europe is about to reform itself big time (we've heard that before) and we will regret not being part of it. I am still to read Nick's prospectus for how he thinks Brexit should be stopped, but I have news for Nick. In the meantime, the British people have moved on.

For the latest independent poll shows that 57% of the electorate agree with the statement
“the government should get on with implementing the result of the referendum to take Britain out of the EU and in doing so take back control of our borders, laws, money and trade”.

Only 22% disagreed. Not only that, the split by gender, age group, social class and political party shows that in every group - yes every single group,  a majority support this statement which would have been thought just a few weeks ago to describe what was being called a the hardest of hard  Brexits. The only group identified in which a majority disagreed with the statement was Remain voters.*

This seems remarkable as the same polling organisation's referendum opinion tracker, measuring responses to the question "Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union, or leave the European Union?" recorded an 11 point margin in favour of Remain in December**. At the time it was stated that much of the polling was done before the first agreement reached between the EU and UK. Now we have a second agreement and progress towards transition and a full deal, it seems the public just want to get it done with.

And they do. Not just Tory voters. Not just Labour voters (though only by 40% to 36%). Remarkably LibDem voters were more in agreement than Labour (44 to 34). Even Green (41 to 34) and SNP voters agreed. (Though for SNP in the margin of error at 36 to 35 with 29% don't knows). And in all regions. Even in London, by 49 to 35.

At face value this poll is overwhelming. It seems that, now it looks as if progress is being made towards a sensible deal,  the electorate have had enough and just want to get it done.

Debate over?

It seems Nick's book is already way out of date.....

*The poll was carried out by BMG and the results can be seen in detail at

**The BMG referendum tracker can be seen at

Sunday, 25 March 2018

Look after the pennies?

We had the Chancellor's spring statement last week and an immediate u turn on scrapping the one and two penny coins. On decimalisation in 1971 1p was equivalent to more than 14p now. The 5p piece was worth not far off the current pound. And the halfpenny, when abolished without much fanfare or regret in 1984, was worth between 1.5p and 2p now. So Hammond's plan was eminently sensible. It seems one of the arguments that swayed him was from charities who pick up worthwhile donations from discarded small change. Not a good enough argument in my view. Time to take a common sense decision and scrap the copper coins. After all what can you spend a penny on nowadays? Not the obvious, that's generally 20p!

More importantly, the chancellor's statement prompted the usual culprits to bang on about austerity, ignoring the fact that, as I have pointed out on numerous occasions, we never had austerity, at least not proper austerity like Greece and Ireland. What they should do is make the case for extra spending on specifics and saying what else they would cut, what taxes they would increase or what new taxes they would implement. Public spending is now at close to 39% of GDP, higher than it was in the years just before the financial crisis. And, as David Smith put it "History tells us we may be close to the natural limits of what can be extracted from the economy in terms of tax." Tax the rich? We already do and pushing it further is risky in terms of the tax base. The top 1% of earners will pay nearly 28% of income tax revenues this tax year and the top 5% nearly half of the total receipts (48.1% is the official OBR projection).

While I have been supportive of the government policy of raising income tax thresholds, started under the coalition, there are risks if it is taken too far. Fewer than half the country's 65.6 million population now pay income tax: 29.9 million people, down from 32.5 million a decade ago. Even allowing for the proportion of the population that is under 18, that's still an awful lot of voters who don't care what the income tax rate is. Which could make it easier for John McDonnell to give rates a big hike, should we be so foolish as to give him the chance. It wouldn't work of course, as many of that 1% would leave. Which wouldn't bother McDonnell as, remember, he wants to smash the system and move on to his real plans.

The tax system should be broadly based as well as progressive.

Meanwhile big business was  muted on Brexit last week after the latest Davies-Barnier love-in, sorry agreement on most of the transitional  arrangements. They still want a customs union and I suppose are keeping their powder dry for the long term trade deal negotiation. But fewer than 1 in 10 British businesses sell into the EU single market and the views of the wider range of business than the CBI represent are much more nuanced - and some people in business voted for Brexit knowing it will damage their own commercial interests because they could see there was a bigger picture. The British Chamber of Commerce director Adam Marshall has said "There are lots of businesses in the UK who are actually looking forward to leaving the EU."

That said the 1 in 10 statistic is, of course, hugely misleading because not much more than 1 in 10 companies export at all. I don't know what the latest figure is but the FT said it was 10.8% in 2014**, down from 11.6% in 2013. The number of exporting companies had been hit by the then strong pound, so one might expect the post referendum weaker pound to have reversed that trend. Nevertheless, to a first approximation I would suggest that nearly all our exporters export to the EU.

And of course they will still do so under whatever the future trading arrangements are. Big business always campaigns for an easy life and the CBI is nearly always wrong when it makes pronouncements. Just like John McDonnell.

* The David Smith quote comes from his Sunday Times column on 18 March
** UK trade blow as number of exporters falls, Financial Times 12 November 2015.

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Why are we here?

No, not a Brexit post, though it's  a question that has no single answer in that context as well.

Reading the obituaries on Stephen Hawking I came across a quotation from his book A Brief History of Time which, like many others, I started but didn't finish, even though it was indeed brief. In the book he wrote that a single unified theory of everything "should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist." On another occasion Hawking announced "My goal is simple. It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all."

Setting aside the obvious question - aren't philosphers and scientists ordinary people? - I am reminded that the other obvious question occurred to me at the time I read the book and remains with me still. While not claiming to have anything like enough intelligence to understand more than an outline of what Hawking what on about, I have never been able to understand why he thought that the elusive theory of everything would ever be able to answer the question "Why?" I can see that physics could answer what, how and when. And maybe, as Hawking put it "why it is as it is". But not why it exists at all. Or indeed who, another question that niggled the agressively anti-religious Hawking who would not be in the same room as his first wife's devout friends.

I come at this most fundamental of questions from, as usual, all over the place. Fundamentally agnostic, I am reassured by the fact that, as I don't remember worrying about when I was going to be born, I don't expect to be worried about anything much after I am dead. So in the limit there seems little point in wondering why we are here, as the question is unanswerable and there are practical things to be done. As for religion, at its most useful and most harmless it provides great comfort to many people and its gathering places and associated social structures provide companionship, especially for the elderly. On the other hand, organised religion has much to answer for throughout history and into the present, suppressing freedom of thought and action, fostering division, hate and even war.

I suppose one can argue that anything can be used for good or bad ends and with religion that is certainly the case. While holding firm on freedom of individuals to go about their business, including their religious beliefs, I feel that our society should be structured on more rigorously secular grounds. So religion based schools worry me, for example.

Not only am I puzzled as to why Hawking thought he could answer the question of why he thought he could prove why the universe existed, but also why he wanted to answer it. Maybe his first wife was right: he just wanted to prove there wasn't a god.

Not surprisingly this was beyond even a genius like Hawking. After all, these are questions that people's belief and value sets intrude on. Where some scientists see the hand of god, others just see  the laws of science in action. Which leaves us back with the conundrum philosphers will never be able to answer: if there isn't a creator, why are we here? And the ultimate smart-ass question: if there is a creator, who created the creator?

So I will park these questions and go out into the spring sunshine,  grateful to be able to enjoy it, even if I don't know who, or what to thank.

P.S. Some weeks later I've just been reading a review of a book by John Gray called "Seven Types of Atheism". Gray is a professed atheist but is disparaging of the "new" atheists such as Richard Dawkins, who put their faith in science. Their mistake, according to Gray is to believe that religion can be disproved, as if it were an obsolete scientific theory. They fail to see that science cannot close the gap between facts and values. Religion expresses a search for meaning, which would remain even if everything could be scientifically explained. The reviewer, the commendable John Carey, notes that the sharpness and clarity of that thought is typical of Gray's intellect and the power of his advocacy. As these were the thoughts I was striving for, I will leave it that Hawking, while an outstanding scientist, was a very moderate philosopher.

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

"All this, it is fantastic"

I got hooked on sport the first time I played something resembling a proper game of football. Teams picked by two of the older lads, jumpers for goalposts at the local park, 5 v 6 or something like that. I was certainly less than 8 years old and probably more like 6. Up till then I thought football was two people kicking a ball to each other in the back garden. Well, I'd done that with my dad and remember, kids, this was the 1950s and the ONLY game live on tv then was the F A Cup Final and I wouldn't have seen any kind of real match.

Actually pedants among you may point out that isn't quite true, though nearly: there was the odd F A Cup tie and league match broadcast.  Then the introduction of floodlights made night matches possible (seriously) and some of the early European matches English clubs played in were televised, I think much to the distaste of the F A at the time. I don't believe in having a second team but I've always had some admiration for Spurs from the days of hearing their fans singing "glory, glory Tottenham Hotspur", a vague memory I can only think came from grainy black and white pictures of Spurs European games in 61-62 and 62-63 seasons.

There were some edited highlights, limited to 5 minutes, on the BBC in the 50s but I don't remember seeing them. Match of the Day, showing highlights from just one game a week of course, wasn't broadcast until 1964.

I instinctively realised my level of natural sporting ability was limited. But when, aged about 10 I announced to my mother that I wanted to be a journalist when I grew up, "NO!" came back by return. She knew immediately that I wanted to write about sport. (Ten years later it would be sport and music, another few later sport, music and politics. Hmm - what do I blog about now?)

She was right of course - I was much better with numbers than words. I remember being told in my early 30s that I was a typical engineer who basically couldn't write anything clearly. (What's changed I hear you mutter...).

But sport still fascinates me, both team and individual sports, provided they are based on keeping score in a way that is factually clear - goals, points, shots taken, runs scored, time on the clock or whatever, with or without technology. As soon as scoring by judgement features, I find it hard to accept that the contest is a sport. OK, maybe boxing, but I'm not keen. I can enjoy watching ice dancing, but it's a very borderline sport - what's the difference from ballroom? For a spectator surely it's entertainment more than sport, even if it's competitive.

So I was taken with what Claude Puel, the Leicester City manager, said in a newspaper inteview: "I like the competition. I like the story, I like the effort of the athletes to prepare the competition, how they live, their success, their defeats, their comebacks. All this, it is fantastic".  (Puel is French, give him a break with the English, after all Arsene Wenger has never really mastered it after all those years, has he?).

And what a fascinating time we're having. The best sporting action I've seen lately was probably last month's NFL Superbowl, making it the best televised sporting event I've watched since the 2017 one. Last year I watched the extended highlights (no all nighters for me these days!) suspecting from a part glimpsed news report that I knew that the favourites, the New England Patriots, had won. But as they trailed the Atlanta Falcons 28-3 going into the last quarter I kept thinking "surely New England can't do this". But Tom Brady, one of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of the game, dragged his team back level by the end of normal time and to an unlikely victory in what the Yanks call overtime. The Guardian described it as a "frenzied, brain-frying climax". This year Brady broke the Superbowl passing record but gave up a late turnover as the Philadelphia Eagles pipped the Patriots in another high scoring game, with more yards gained - a good measure of how end to end the action was - than any game in NFL history. The quality of much of the play - the attacking play at least - was breathtaking. In the pro game complex plays involving the quarterback passing rugby style to another player who then throws it forward are rare - too risky. But the NFL has gone all Pep Guardiola. Early in the match the Patriots tried such a play. Even more unusually it was quarterback Brady who was the intended receiver and he was completely clear but the ball slipped through his hands.Towards the end of the first half the Eagles coach called essentially the same play and this time their quarter back Nick Foles, also running completely free as the deception worked, made the catch and the score. Foles was the reserve ("understudy" to the Americans) quarterback until two months ago and nearly retired 2 years back. Fantastic stuff.

Meanwhile Manchester City and Liverpool continue to dazzle us with their attacking play. Mo Salah - "Cat Stevens" to Mrs H - has already broken the Liverpool record for goals scored in a debut season, previously held by Fernando Torres. You can feel defenders panic when he gets the ball. At City the player who has impressed me recently is David Silva. At the start of the season my newspaper, noting the 25th Premier League season, asked all its football journalists to nominate their player of the Premier League era. Naturally there were multiple nominations for Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Alan Shearer and Didier Drogba. John Terry also got picked. The one that made my jaw drop was David Silva. A neat and tricky player, yes. But best in England in the last 25 years? For me he often looked a bit lightweight and seemed to produce his best performances at home against the weaker teams. (I'm not saying I wouldn't have wanted him at my club, mind!) However, in the last few months Silva has, for me, been a man transformed. Very involved in the game, getting a foot in to win the ball, getting in the box and scoring some very good goals. He has 8 Premier League goals this year, at the best goals per game strike rate he has achieved while at Manchester City. He got a total of six in the last two seasons. And 7 of the 8 have come since the start of December. As for getting a foot in, he's been going in hard enough to get 5 yellow cards since late November. Have they been force feeding him Shredded Wheat? ("He must have had three shredded wheat" was the comment when I played and a team mate was too hyped up).

Actually things have happened in Silva's life. He had a son born very prematurely in December who is still fighting for life. His manager has basically said be here when you can - Silva has missed a couple of matches and a warm weather training break while flying home to Spain frequently. He says he has been able to focus on his play when he is on the pitch. Some people find being at work is a blessing when they have things to worry about. I also wonder if the rave reviews all through the autumn for his colleague, Kevin de Bruyne,  have motivated Silva to be at his best when he could play, possibly not knowing how many games he would miss. Now 32, he signed a one year contract extension in November, which should keep him at Manchester City until 2020, when he will have been there 10 years. Silva has the air of someone who has had quite a bit of success, knows the clock is running down on his career and feels he still has things to achieve but must perform at his very best because of the competition in the squad. I have new found respect for him: he's gone from "useful fancy dan lightweight" to "good lad" in my estimation.

Of course, we now we have the Champions League clash between Liverpool and City to look forward to. I commented about City's propensity to play "too much football" in their 4-3 defeat at Anfield a few weeks ago (Pep isn't all right, 13 February). It will be interesting to see how both sides approach the two-leg tie, Liverpool having been smashed 5-0 at the Etihad in September.

It's a shame the two English sides have been paired in the last eight but it does tempt me to watch:I don't normally bother with Champions League games.  Either team against Real Madrid or Barcelona wouldn't raise my pulse, but these matches are a fascinating prospect.

On top of this we had the drama of Ireland clinching the Grand Slam on St Patrick's Day. With the World Cup coming up in 2019 critics had been debating at the start of the Six Nations whether England were showing enough consistency to challenge for the trophy they last won in 2003. I hold to what I muttered early in the second half of England's game at Murrayfield: "This England team has peaked". At that point England had lost only one of their previous 25 matches. Twenty minutes later that became 2 defeats in 26. Two games on and it's 4 defeats in 28, after three losses in a row. My error was understatement: this England team is in freefall. It has no visible leaders apart from Owen Farrell, in Dylan Hartley they have a captain who is never trusted to be on the pitch for more than three quarters of the game and a dearth of world class players. The few players who are world class or close to it aren't able to perform to their full ability in the team, the way it is currently set up. I know very little about rugby but I can see that England have close to zero chance in the World Cup. Ireland though could give it a go: they were tremendous at Twickenham and throughout the tournament. The contrast between the passion showed by the Scots and Irish and the lack of commitment from the English team in the two matches was stark.

And then there is Eldrick, better known as Tiger, Woods. After so many comebacks have ended in anticlimax this time Tiger looks like, well, Tiger. A bit more than a dozen years ago, when Tiger had won 8 majors, I recall reading a debate in a golf magazine about whether Tiger would beat Jack Nicklaus's record of 18. Yes said the pundit on one side of the page - after all he's won 8 between the ages of 21 and 28, while Nicklaus won his 18th aged 46. No said his colleague on the other side of the page, he puts too much pressure on his back and won't be winning anything when he's over 40. Tiger Woods was only 32 when he won his 14th major, hobbling on a knee that would need surgery. That was followed by what can only be described as a meltdown (Wikipedia uses the strange wording "Woods took a hiatus from professional golf in order to focus on difficult issues in his marriage"). Comeback attempts faltered as he needed back surgery twice in 2014 and 2015. More alarmingly, his touch around the greens seemed to have gone - troubles with his back notwithstanding I hadn't ever expected to see Woods duff chip shots like, well me or any other club golfer of modest ability actually. Now 42 this time Woods looks the real deal again and has competed at the top of the leaderboard in his last 2 events.

Could he win more majors? Indeed, could he win the Masters at Augusta in April? It's the easiest major to win (because the field is diluted with past winners who are past it, reducing the number of places for the young turks who probably aren't intimidated by Tiger, indeed most of them seem fearless and nerveless) and Woods has won it four times before. The bookies got scared enough to make Tiger favourite after his strong opening round at last weeks Arnold Palmer Invitational, though some bookies have now switched to Rory McIlory, who won that event. Now I'm not a fan of Woods, though I respect him as one of the world's greatest ever sportsmen. He has been great for golf because of his ability, his youth when he started to win tournaments and, let's face it, the colour of his skin. Sport and golf in particular badly needed black stars to put the remarkably recent past behind it. (No black player competed at Augusta until 1975 and the first black member was admitted in 1990). Unfortunately, Woods was not the ideal role model, his aloof demeanour, together with his propensity to swear and spit on the golf course always seemed at odds with golf traditions, though most commentators seemed to ignore that side of Woods. I know none of this would bother me in football but football is football and golf is golf. However, that is all by the by. If Woods were to win at Augusta, ten years after his last win in a major, it would be one of the great stories in sport, as well as keeping alive the question "can he beat Nicklaus's record?"

Puel is right. "All this, it is fantastic".

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Best Musicians I've Seen - 3 post script

In my piece on wind instrument players I realise I overlooked another sax player with a jazz background - Elton Dean of the Soft Machine, famous as the first - if not still only - rock band to play the Proms in 1970. Soft Machine were at the very jazzy end of prog rock and I might sometime get round to recounting my recollection of their gig at Manchester's Free Trade Hall in 1971.

But notwithstanding Soft Machine being one of my favourite bands, or perhaps more precisely their album Third is one of my favourite albums, and the fact that Dean was an outstandingly good player, I'm sticking with Dick Heckstall-Smith.

Interesting though that my choices so far have a jazz theme. I've always loved the jazz influenced end of prog rock, but don't listen to much actual jazz: I think I just need more of a riff.

Besides his playing, Elton Dean is famous because Reginald Dwight, looking for a catchier stage name, saw his name on a poster and liked it so much he decided to call himself Elton John. (Sorry, of course most of you must know that already).

Friday, 16 March 2018

Best musicians I've seen - 3

OK, time to forget the slowly unfolding Brexit train wreck, Everton's mediocrity and the oncoming Cold War and get back to music. And a cop out because, while I reflect on my favourite guitarist performances, here's my 3rd choice of the best musicians I happen to have seen. This time it's a musician who blows into the instrument.

So my brass player - indeed my brass section - is Dick Heckstall-Smith who I saw playing saxophone with Colosseum in 1971. Heckstall-Smith started out as a jazz player and, via John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, was another jazz musician who hopped on to the prog rock bandwagon. Which of course gave him ample opportunity for extemporisation. His party piece, which is not that unusual but at the time I'd never seen anyone else do it, was to play two saxes simultaneously. Using a tenor and alto it did actually sound like a brass section. The knack here is to be able to play the keys on both instruments at once, which means using your "wrong" hand on one of them. A bit like playing a keyboard from the wrong side (see Best Musicians I've seen - 2, 16 October 2017). But unlike Keith Emerson, Heckstall-Smith didn't just (or even) do this for showmanship, but pulled it off several times in a gig to fit the music. There's a good example only 40 seconds or so into this live video clip: (not sure about the colour on this vid - looks like Hiseman is wearing lipstick a few years before glam rock!).

And in one of my favourite tracks, which I have eulogised before - the live version of Rope Ladder to the Moon (see Best Mysicians I've Seen - 1, 30 September 2017) -Heckstall-Smith's perfectly judged sax break takes off, for me, when the second sax kicks in. Always makes me tingle. (Hear it on youtube at  Jump to the start of the sax break, if you really must, at about 2:41; the alto sax joins in at 3:41).

Now Heckstall-Smith - an unlikely hero for long haired students in the early 70s as he already caused the lights to glint off his bald pate in his mid 30s - is by no means the only sax player to pull off this trick and, for all I know, it's easy peasy, though I suspect not.

The American jazz legend Rahsaan Roland Kirk was well known for playing multiple instruments. Kirk would play two or even three saxes at once. In addition to sax, clarinet, flute and cor anglais, Wikipedia lists the "nose flute" as one of his instruments. Ah, so that's how he did it! But what did he use to finger the keys on the third sax, I wonder? Actually, his technique was to use the instruments to play true chords, presumably with a note from each. I couldn't say whether Dick H-S was doing the same or not.

Another good sax player I saw, Davey Payne of Ian Dury's Blockheads, also pulled off the two saxes at once routine. Indeed, his Wikipedia page shows him playing two tenor saxes at once and you can hear him do it at the start of the sax break in Dury's biggest hit, Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick. Payne also came out of the jazz clubs to join one of the unlikelier new wave success stories.

Next time I'll have to come off the fence and go for my guitarist -  though there's bass to pick yet as well....

Thursday, 8 March 2018

I support equal pay for equal work

Today is International Women's Day. I was brought up believing that women could do anything that men could and vice-versa. Apart from the obvious of course, I was never much use at breast-feeding. At the primary and grammar schools me and Mrs H went to (yes, we went to the same schools) no difference was drawn between girls and boys in any subject apart from PE. There were as many girls as boys in the science sets - and no-one thought it anything other than normal - and there was a boy in the  'O' level cookery class. The only thing we found odd was that, 20 years later when Mrs H was teaching some people found it surprising.

And the company I was a director of was correctly meticulous in ensuring there was no gender pay gap for equivalent work, at least a decade ago.

So now I'm going to be a party pooper and risk a load of feminist opprobrium by saying equal pay for equal work is only right, moral and justifiable where the "work" really is the same. This rules out nearly all sport and much of entertainment.

I've been meaning to write this piece for some time, after reading a piece on equal pay in the Times a while back*, prompted by the news that the Norwegian FA is paying its women's international team the same as its mens'. This got me thinking. Leaving aside the obvious point that these aren't employees so aren't covered by employment law, how is that the same job? OK, much of the "role profiles" would read the same. So the goalkeeper needs to try to stop the ball going in the goal, play a lead role in organising the defence, be able to initiate play and concentrate for ninety minutes. So is the Norwegian women's goalkeeper as "good" (you could say "valuable") as the men's? It's unlikely that she is as good at goalkeeping. Hasn't got the chance to prove it I hear you say? Well OK but it's also plainly the case that, at the moment, the Norwegian men's team contributes more financially from gate receipts, TV money and sponsorship than the women's.

And the Norwegian male footballers view? Apparently, Andy Murray-ish, they have agreed to effectively subsidise the women by taking a pay cut. (Murray is a strong advocate of equal pay for women in the major tennis tournaments). It is tennis that has been in the front line of this debate for years because of the simple fact that the men's matches at major tournaments are best of a gruelling 5 sets while the women's are best of 3, whereas men's and women's football matches both last for 90 minutes.

There's no reason for men and women to play for different durations other than, I guess, a prejudice about the "weaker sex" as I remember women being called in decades past. Men are stronger, of course: I once read that 99% of men are stronger than 50% of women. But men do not have better stamina: recent research has proven that women have much greater muscle endurance**.  A conclusion was that, while men are faster and stronger so complete marathons in shorter times, women are "less exhausted". It was suggested that, if there were "ultra-ultra marathons" women would dominate. However, as all this was based on tests involving 200 flexes of the foot, I wouldn't believe implicitly that the extrapolation is necessarily valid.

So there's no reason why women shouldn't play 5 sets like the men. Except, because the women's game doesn't have the depth of good players of the men's game, there would probably be a lot of boring, overly long, straight sets matches.

Some brave males have recently been contesting the equal pay in tennis. Novak Djokovic thinks the men should be paid more, even in the 'Slam' tournaments like Wimbledon, where pay has been equal for a decade. His case is based on viewing figures. At least one brave journalist agrees with him***.

And so today there has been a Twitter storm caused by the Indian cricket board publishing stats which show their men get paid 14 times as much as the women****.

While several contributors make my point about the revenue discrepancy between men and women in Indian cricket, many others say the women 'deserve' equal pay. This is easily resolved. Separate the male and female 'tours', to use a golf or tennis term, pay them all the same flat rate - the current women's rate let's say - and pay a bonus based on revenue raised (tv, gate and sponsorship money). That's fair and equitable, if not equal, isn't it?

After all, performing in front of larger live and tv audiences - by several orders of magnitude - means the 'job weight' for the men, against the same qualitative 'job description' is very much higher.

I don't know why the BBC didn't use this argument in the Carrie Gracie case. It seems self evident to me that the BBC USA and EU correspondent roles (one occupied by a man, the other a woman) are much more demanding than the China correspondent role Gracie occupied. They both carry far more screen time and are much likelier to involve no notice, live reporting on a current crisis. Yes the roles have the identical job descriptions but they are not the same job and would never come out the same on any credible scoring system. If the BBC didn't allow for different job weights against the same role profile they are even more incompetent than I thought. If they did and haven't said so, they are even more stupidly politically correct than I thought.

Which is not to say that the BBC didn't or doesn't have a problem. It clearly does, it's just that not all (or perhaps many) of the particular women making a noise have much of a case in my view.

TV and film entertainment is not straight forward but I thought it was interesting and (old fashioned concept alert) chivalrous that Paul Newman gave some of his fee to Susan Sarandon when he found she wasn't included in the director's 'equal pay for equal billing' promise with Newman and Hackman in a 1990s film. Equal billing should of course mean equal pay.

So I am 100% for equal pay for the same work, wherever it exists. But Gracie's job wasn't the same as Sopel's and, while the Indian women cricketers 'jobs' may be more equivalent to the men's one day, they simply aren't the same now.

The problem with these contentious cases is that they distract and detract from the still too large number of cases where women are doing exactly the same job as men and are, illegally, not being paid as much by their employer. Disgracefully many of these cases are in the public sector. Why am I not surprised? Because if you're inefficient you'll be inefficient at most things, amazingly even this particular thing. Management in those cases deserve to feel the full weight of the law and public opprobrium.

Come on women. Get on the cases that matter - the ordinary workers, not the ridiculous self serving claims of tv presenters and sports 'stars', most of whom we've never heard of. Then I'll be right with you.


**Many sites covered a University of British Columbia study in August 2017, e.g. The Independent, Women have more stamina and muscle endurance than men, study suggests, 25 August 2017

***Metro article 21 March 2016 Novak Djokovic is right! Male tennis players do deserve to be paid more than female stars

****Gender pay gap in cricket angers Indians. BBC website 8 March 2018

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

A dog being dragged backwards by its tail

So now the conundrum of the Irish question and, in particular, our foolishness in getting drawn into discussion of the Irish border issue in the first phase of the Brexit negotiations, comes back to haunt us. It was always obvious to everybody that this issue could not be fixed before trade and customs were discussed. But we allowed it to happen and, desperate to get the first phase done, agreed to an "agreement to agree" with a fallback that said, in the absence of such an agreement, Northern Ireland would maintain full alignment with the single market. Our side seemed to proceed on the basis that we need to get a trade deal, so this fallback was irrelevant. But this left the obvious trap that the EU, with the Irish having an effective veto, need not agree to anything, tieing us in a Gordian knot between the two unpalatable options of an Irish land border or a customs border between mainland Britain and all of Ireland.

Actually the EU side don't see it as a Gordian knot, they want us in the customs union, paying in to the budget, under EU control and without our troublesome veto. And not just the EU side: also the fifth columnists of the SNP, Labour, the LibDems and the whole wailing panoply of the Remoaners, who see no harm in any of the above. But to set our trade policy with the whole of the world on account of a small province would be crazy: it would guarantee Brexit could not succeed. That of course is why Remainers want it. The EU is of course committed to Brexit being seen a failure even if it causes self harm: as I have said previously it is a psycopathic masochist caring not if it harms its own citizens, pour encourager les autres.

Some facts are relevant. 80% of cross border traffic is local, so not relevant to the customs union with the rest of the EU; Northern Ireland's trade with the British mainland is far more important to it than cross border trade with the south; Northern Ireland accounts for a minuscule 3% of UK gdp; the majority of British voters probably don't care too much about the precise future arrangements in Ireland (at least as long as bombs aren't going off on the mainland) and, crucially, Theresa May's government is dependent on the votes of the DUP to fend off an election that could easily lead to the chaos of a quasi-Marxist government supported by the SNP. That's a story line with a lot of potential.

A very cunning plan is needed but, against that background we have agreed to let the Irish tail wag the whole Brexit dog and, as Juliet Samuel put it in the Telegraph* "Because our government is living week to week, like a dog intent only on its next meal, it has allowed itself to be turned round and dragged forwards by the tail." She makes the point that the Irish border question has gone beyond the point at which everyone can be satisfied, so tough choices lie ahead.

The government has been compelled to take tiny steps forward in order to give time at each step for its Euroseptic wing (one 'c' deliberate) to digest and accept the necessary compromises. As a result Brussels always has its next move ready. Even after peace broke out at Chequers, May took over a week to make her speech, by which time Brussels had already, in the old football vernacular, got its retaliation in first by publishing its entirely unacceptable proposals.

I was by no means the only one to predict this, though I did (see my blogs of 17 September  and 8 December). Where we go from here isn't clear. It's like that old joke: "how do we get out of this, Paddy?". "Well, I wouldn't start from here".

Other countries have special arrangements with the EU, in particular Norway and the other EFTA nations. Most roads across the Sweden-Norway border, for example, are not policed. But major commercial traffic has to go via one of a dozen checkpoints with customs officials and police officers. Even though it would leave most locals unaffected, that model would bring back border controls in Ireland, counter to UK and EU promises. Customs checks on the Irish Sea sounds worse. Britain inside the customs union is, for me, a total denial of Brexit. (And would leave me campaigning for a 2nd referendum, "out means out").

There are only 2 options here. The UK convinces the EU that bespoke trade and Irish border treaties are possible or the British government sells out someone: the Unionists, the Brexiteers or the people who regularly go back and forth over the Irish border. Since our negotiating hand is so weak (we are in no position to implement customs controls at short notice, thank you Philip Hammond, treason used to get you put in the Tower)  the deck is stacked against us. The government will get to another crunch, possibly by Easter, when it needs to make progress and, like in December, the dog will need its next meal and will whimper.

The Hotel California Brexit, followed by the return of Nigel Farage and the UKIP phoenix, beckons.

*Juliet Samuel's column "The PM is out of options: however we Brexit someone will be betrayed" (which is somewhat more delicately put than this blog but has the memorable dog by the tail backwards analogy) was in the Daily Telegraph on 5 March 2018.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

You're not big enough

There is a well known children's story by Eric Carle about the bad tempered ladybird. Well I'm bad tempered. And the ladybird went round telling much bigger creatures "you're not big enough". Well, "Big" Sam Allardyce, you're not big enough for the Everton job.

At the end of Everton's 2-1 defeat at Burnley - their 5th successive away defeat - Everton's 3000 travelling fans vented their anger at Allardyce. The Sunday Times match reporter put it succinctly: an uncomfortable and unlikely marriage is now in serious trouble.

Allardyce inherited a mixed bunch of under confident players, with many green behind the ears and others long in the tooth. But some of that trouble stems from Sam's propensity to pick poorly thought out teams. At Burnley the two centre backs struggled with the pace and physicality of the Burnley forwards. Keane and Williams are big enough but Keane is worryingly slow for a 25 year old. At least he should be able to recuperate over the summer as I can't see him making the World Cup squad, let alone adding to his 4 England caps anytime soon.

Jagielka and Holgate are rather old and rather young respectively and neither are as physically fearsome as Keane and Williams. But both are quick. Jagielka is brave and Holgate won't be pushed around. It beggars belief for Sam to pair Keane with Williams when either of the other two are available. Holgate has been on the bench in recent weeks - he hasn't started a game since Boxing Day after Sam had praised Holgate for being ready rather than having potential when he took over. One wonders if resting him is associated with the backwash from the regrettable and now closed incident with Liverpool's Firmino. Except Sam picked him for several games after that incident.

None of it makes much sense. But there is one silver lining: Williams is now unavailable for a while after being sent off at Turf Moor, so at least Sam can't pick him with Keane next time out.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Is UK Sport institutionally racist?

UK Sport is the funding organisation for, er sport in the UK.  It allocated £28 million to the Winter Olympics, which has returned some medals and, I suppose, some national prestige as a result. The funding principles of UK Sport seem to be based entirely around elite sport and the winning of medals. Not that different in terms of objectives than East Germany, just a bit different in means (unless cycling really is still rotten).

Now I've enjoyed watching Brits do well at the summer Olympics in recent years. The lottery funding for carefully selected sports, together with a rich vein of talent like Mo Farah, Chris Hoy, Jason Kenny and Adam Peaty has transformed our medal winning performance and given us some great entertainment. But should it just be about elite sport?

The argument about role models with medals inspiring young people to take up sport doesn't seem to flow through to actual participation. And, in the case of the winter Olympics that isn't easy anyway. We have to face the fact that we just don't have the climate. Where is your nearest ski slope? But money is still funnelled to minority niche sports simply because there is less competition in them and so a greater likelihood of a medal.

In the meantime, sports with huge participation potential receive literally nothing. The most blatant example is basketball, a very competitive sport internationally at which Britain has never excelled.

But shouldn't at least part of the funding be spent against objectives such as health and welfare? Basketball has huge potential to give young people in low income areas something to do rather than join gangs.

I've seen several commentators make this point but not in the following admittedly extreme terms. Isn't there something fundamentally racist about expensively sponsoring privileged white people to train abroad snowboarding or sliding down the ice on a tea tray rather than providing the means for thousands of young, mainly poor, mainly black people to participate in a sport like basketball in their local area?

I know this is "dumb tax" (i.e. lottery) money rather than taxpayers' dosh but it's still cash controlled under the direction of our elected representatives. It's not right and it ought to change. I'd call for a boycott of the winter Olympics but next to no-one watches it anyway!

Saturday, 3 March 2018

How we can make the Germans fund the EU divorce bill

I read a hatchet job in the Sunday Times a month ago* on the German car producer Volkswagen. It included all sorts of historical mud back to the days when Ferdinand Porsche was reputedly encouraged by Hitler to build a "people's car" and came up with a rear-engined vehicle with a rounded body that would become the much loved Beetle.  I'm not sure why it was so loved, but then I didn't like minis either. Be that as it may, the piece went on to note that, not only has VW been poisoning us and our children with their deliberately under estimated toxic diesel fumes, they also carried out experiments in gas chambers with monkeys. Yes, macaque monkeys were packed into small airtight chambers and forced to watch cartoons (I'm not making this up) while breathing in fumes from a VW Beetle as part of research into the effects of diesel fumes on humans, presumably to try to show that what they have been exposing us to isn't that harmful. BMW and Daimler, who ran for the horizon when the story broke, contributed funding for the experiments.

The Sunday Times story also dredged up stuff about slave workers in the Nazi days and slush funds and executives charging sex to expenses at the bland sounding K5 Relax club in Prague a decade or so ago. There were also tales of "special bonuses" for the head of the VW workers council (union boss in other words) as well as footing the bill for union officials to avail themselves of prostitutes on trips away from VW's Wolfsburg base. Oh and the episode in the 1990s where General Motors tried to have VW designated as a criminal organisation under US racketeering law due to industrial espionage. GM demanded up to $4bn and the ruinously expensive case was settled after VW admitted "the possibility" that illegal activities may have been involved.

The Sunday Times concluded that, whatever the legal or moral issues of the monkey torturing affair, "it is hard to think of a more numbingly inept strategem for any modern German company than to associate itself with a gas chamber". Ouch!

 It was a Sunday Times journalist, then environment correspondent Jonathan Leake, who first spotted that the data showed the level of noxious particle and fumes from diesels in the atmosphere was increasing despite the supposedly lower emissions from the introduction of "clean" diesel engines. Leake took the issue up with a Brussels based environmental lobbyist which lead to the eventual exposure of VW's software "defeat" device to cheat the emissions tests. It's hard to think of a more egregious episode of corporate malpractice, at least since the German company Grunenthal kept thalidomide on the market after it was aware of the impact the drug had on foetuses.

In due course VW paid more than $26bn in settlement of US government charges and as compenstaion to US diesel owners for the emissions cheat scam.

More than two years on the UK government has not issued a single penalty or ordered a mandatory recall for vehicles fitted with defeat devices (I know that wouldn't affect the operation of the vehicles but it would punish VW). The UK government has powers to force car makers to comply with emissions rules but has failed to use them.

Which made me think - why hasn't action been taken against VW in the UK? Is HMG worried that there could be equivalent claims against British manufacturers (not that there are many of them bar Jaguar Land Rover). So I made a mental note to write a blog suggesting that our EU divorce bill could effectively be funded by a whacking great fine on VW. Now I'm not suggesting that nobody else has had this idea, but I hadn't seen it anywhere in the press. Until Wednesday, when it was proposed by the Daily Mail's Sarah Vine, aka Mrs Gove. The ascerbic Mrs G noted that as there are more than twice as many VW's on our roads as in the US then, pro rata, the fine would be pretty much equivalent to the Brexit EU divorce bill.

Beaten to the punch! Note to self to get backside in gear more promptly in future.

Just because Mrs Gove (and me and I'll grant you many others) thought of it doesn't make it a bad idea, mind. While it could be worth having on the table as a threat, I think it's astounding VW has not been made to pay.

Grunenthal never paid up in full for thalidomide. VW mustn't be let off the hook.

*The Car Maker That Sees No Evil - Volkswagen loses its moral compass, Sunday Times 4 Feb 2018. The story about the monkeys was actually broken by the New York Times in January.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

"Shocking defending!"

"Shocking defending!" was one of Alan Hansen's most frequent comments when he was a Match of the Day pundit. I know I've been rather preoccupied with defensive failings lately, but Alan must be apoplectic.

I've been ranting about "too much football" being played in one's own half. Last week Chelsea threw away a win against Barcelona in the Champions League when their young centre back, Andreas Christensen, passed the ball across the face of his own penalty area with his team winning 1-0 in the 88th minute - straight to Andres Iniesta. About 3 seconds later Barcelona had equalised. "I had done all the hard work and keept the ball in play but then I made a very bad decision, I should have kicked it out" Christensen said later in an interview. (Er, why work so hard to keep it, just to kick it out you daft lump?). "I know I made a mistake but there is not much more to do than learn from it and make sure it doesn't happen again".

Now Christensen is only 21 and has only appeared twenty odd times for Chelsea's first team. But he has he has been with Chelsea since he was 15, has 14 caps for Denmark (and forty odd appearances for Danish age group teams) and played over 60 times for Borussia Monchengladbach in the Bundesliga while on loan from Chelsea. Before all that he must have played junior football for several years in Denmark. So how many coaches has he worked with in the last decade? It is beyond belief that he has not heard that well known saying "not across your own box" on quite a few occasions. So I'm not terribly confident that he will learn.

Not only that, he didn't need to kick it out. As he had time to look up and play the ball infield almost square (a pass banned at Liverpool when they were in their 70s pomp because of its risk) then he had time to look for a player upfield, preferably "up the line", the phrase used to describe a pass straight up the pitch when you are towards the touchline. As a teenage winger I knew that, if under pressure in my own half, the touchline was my friend - dummy inside then turn away and you either got past your man or won a throw in or, at worst conceded one. Of course, you should be trying to retain possession, not just hoofing it away. But retaining possession and running down the clock by winning a throw in makes a lot more sense when winning in the 88th minute than any kind of cross field pass.

I don't know whether Christensen doesn't know this, or just won't learn it or whether all of his many coaches don't know it, but what he did is not good football.

After that incompetence we had the nonsense of the Carabao aka League Cup Final. It's been the risks taken by the otherwise hugely impressive Manchester City that have caused me to write about football recently but, ironically, it was City who were gifted their crucial first goal against Arsenal at the weekend. Of course, Arsenal have not been a good defensive side for many years now. Indeed, one does wonder whether, without the famous back four of Dixon, Adams, Bould and Winterburn in front of Seaman in goal who were all place (and had been for several years) when Wenger took over in 1996, he would have ever had as much success as he did. Though to be fair the 2004 "Invincibles" had a solid defence including Sol Campbell and Martin Keown and with Patrick Vieira (still referred to mischievously by Mrs H by his dressing room nicknames of "Le Long" or "Le Grand Saucisse" - the giant sausage) in front of them. Whatever, Skhodran Mustafi's schoolboy error in not being goalside of his man turned the match.

Now the concept of being goalside of your man is drummed into defenders when they are too young to tie their own bootlaces: I well remember doing both of those things coaching ten year olds. By the time I was 25 if I was caught standing upfield of the opposing centre forward, who I was meant to be marking, before the opposition restarted play with a goal kick as City were about to do, then several of my team mates would give me earache. If you were daft enough to reply "but the keeper is still fetching the ball" (no ball boys in the Warrington and District League!) you would be put right in short order. "Get behind him NOW while it's easy". Indeed I gave the same advice to other players myself on many occasions - usually with, er, an extra word for emphasis. Mustafi may have thought Aguero, being behind him, was offside. But at least one of Arsenal's other two centre backs, certainly Koscielny on his left, was playing Aguero on. So the error wasn't just Mustafi's as either of his back three colleagues could have looked across (actually I think Koscielny did) and said "get goalside you banana". Or moved up. But maybe Mustafi just thought, why bother, it's only Sergio Aguero...

While we all expected Arsene Wenger to claim that Aguero, holding his ground as Mustafi struggled to get back when City's ball playing keeper whacked the goal kick straight along route one, fouled Mustafi, everyone who has seen it, apart from Jack Wilshere who really should know better, knows it wasn't a foul. Mustafi just backed into Aguero as he held his shoulder firm, giving Mustafi the gentlest of well-timed nudges. Mustafi himself didn't seem to believe his appeal and Aguero did what he does, aided by the Arsenal keeper being in no man's land otherwise known these days as keeper-sweeper position.

These oh so simple lapses are doubly culpable when playing three centre backs because, counter-intuitively perhaps, that system means the centre backs are further apart than in a traditional back four, so the guy in the middle is quite isolated: one of the reasons I'm not terribly keen on the formation.

On the same day we saw Spurs get a last gasp winner at Palace from a corner when Harry Kane headed in from close range from a corner. Three Palace defenders were in the vicinity but all of them were looking for the man not the ball. If any of them had made a decent challenge for it Kane would probably not have scored. Kane is admirable and some are saying he is England's only world class player.  I think that is unproven given the current standard of defending in the Premier League, though he is doing well in the Champions League. We'll see whether he is top international class at the World Cup. At least this time he shouldn't be taking the corners.

In the same game Tottenham's Serge Aurier took three foul throws. I have only ever seen the like of this when involved with boys' football - and very young boys at that. It never happened in my boys' team as they knew even two would mean a lengthy session on throw ins at Tuesday evening's training session. They hated doing it, so of course we did it until they got it right. Mauricio Pochettino apparently asked Aurier if he was trying to get him sacked. Personally I would have gone for the Alex Ferguson hair dryer approach rather than humour. And if I had been the Spurs captain on the day I wouldn't have let him take the third throw.

The Match of the Day pundits seemed to find Aurier's sloppiness funny. As you can tell I'm getting thoroughly grumpy watching people who earn the equivalent of a very good professional person's salary in a week being, well, not remotely professional. It may sometimes mean there are more goals but it doesn't make the game better to watch, for me anyway.

After all, if I wanted to watch schoolboy standard football I'd go back to coaching boys.