Wednesday, 30 May 2018

The Writing's On The Wall

We've travelled to mainland Europe a couple of times in recent months. In Spain we drove to three major cities and more recently we went to one of the larger Greek islands. And one thing about the eurozone was staring us in the face. The writing was literally on the walls. The amount of graffiti, compared with anything you see in the UK these days, was off the scale.

It was the same - actually probably worse - when we went to Italy last year, though we did fly into Naples.

My explanation couldn't be more simple. Compared with the UK, youth unemployment in all those countries is also off the scale*. So what else to do but paint the walls, if you're climbing up them with frustration.

So now Italy stumbles into a crisis because its president will not risk appointing a government that might be eurosceptic enough to threaten Italy's presence in the euro and maybe even the EU. Thereby risking an even more eurosceptic government resulting from new elections, as electorates don't like to be told they got it wrong, try again.

Actually the underlying problem is that the euro - still not a fully, properly honest currency - has proved to be a source of misery for many of the southern European states. Why should anyone be surprised that Italy should be deeply unhappy when it's growth has been zero since the creation of the euro. That's right, zilch, nowt, nothing at all in the way of growth since 1999. (An average annual growth rate of zero, to be more precise).

Some authors have tried to argue that this is because of structural problems in the Italian economy that predate the creation of the euro. After all France has had an average annual growth rate of 0.84% and Spain all of 1.08%**. But the euro is set up to benefit the Germans, who want to sell German products but don't want to face up to the broader financial consequences.

I will return to the Italian job at some point. But for now all I can make out is the frustrated doodlings of a generation of graffiti artists. I'm not surprised they and their parents are angry and ready to lash out by voting for change even if it entails risk. After all, if it's broken why not break it properly?

* It's actually 44% in Greece, 36% in Spain, 32% in Italy - and even 21% in France. The EU average is 16% and the GB figure is 12%. See
**, Italian economic growth and the euro, 26 July 2017

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Sorry chaps but I got there first

The Sunday Times noted at the weekend that last week another newspaper had launched a campaign to reform the House of Lords and also marked the opening of the Grenfell Inquiry with a special tribute, with a picture gallery, to the victims. Which paper? "Here's a clue" they said "it wasn't The Guardian".  It was the Daily Mail, which has also been commended by the United Nations for its 10 year campaign against plastic in the environment. Yes, its over ten years since the Mail launched its campaign with a front page article and has kept banging on about it ever since until at last some people with the power to act have started to listen.

Anyway, I was skimming through the Daily Mail today. Yes, I know the old Lord Salisbury quote about the Mail being for those who can read but not think. There is a lovely piece by John Humphreys about the dawn chorus that greets him as he leaves his house to go to work at this time of year. John's favourite is the blackbird and he waxes lyrical about what he thinks should be Britain's favourite bird, though in a poll a while back the robin got the accolade.

Humphreys's column reminded me of my recent blog Blackbird Singing In The Dead Of Night (18 May). Like me, Humphreys noted that each blackbird can have a varying but recognisably individual song. And I'm glad I'm not the only one who whistles to a blackbird to see if he will reply....

Not that I am suggesting I am the first person ever to write about blackbirds of course. Or link the timing of the dawn chorus to the well known song from the Beatles pantheon. But hang on, what's this? In Richard Littlejohn's Mail column on 25 May he said "...we won't get an acceptable deal from the EU negotiators unless Mrs May is prepared to walk away, Renee", referring to the Four Tops song Walk Away Renee. Readers will know I've been using that song as an analogy for what should at least have been thought of as a contingency in the Brexit negotiations. I've been doing this since my blog of 17 September 2017, Don't Walk Away Renee? when I said "If they won't talk like grown ups it's time to Walk Away from Rene. For the purpose of this blog it's unfortunate that none of the negotiators appears to be called Rene, but never mind!" (I had in mind the sitcom, 'Allo 'Allo! of course, which still seems apposite).

Meanwhile Adam Boulton, in his Sunday Times column on 27 May, We can check out of Hotel Brussels but the truth is we can never leave referenced, though not explicity, the Eagles song Hotel California. Which  I first did in my blog of 8 December 2017, the day after the joint report on the first phase of the negotiations was published, when I could immediately see the risk of us staying, as Boulton said in his column this weekend "entangled". Indeed, my blog was called Reasons to be cheerful - or entangled? as I had, as usual, a soundtrack going through my head with Ian Dury and Genesis on the playlist along with the Eagles.

And in my blog As I was saying - entangled or walk away? (21 May) I noted that Dominic Lawson's Sunday Times column of the previous day was a better crafted version of the same two blogs of mine from last September and December.

Now I am not, for a moment, suggesting that Humphreys, Littlejohn, Boulton or Lawson have ever read my humble blog. But isn't that strange?

More importantly, Boulton said that, if only by inertia, the government is leaving itself little option but to stay entangled with the EU. After all, it was last year that Phil Spreadsheet Hammond wouldn't sanction spend on contingency customs arrangements, meaning that we won't be ready for no deal so we can't realistically threaten to walk away (d'oh!). In comparison, the Electoral Commission is planning contingency spend of £829,000 to prepare for our participation in the European Parliament elections which will happen in EU countries 8 weeks after we are due to leave in 2019. Whether any of this money would need to be spent before 29 March 2019 isn't clear. It seems that we can make contingencies for what we didn't vote for, but not what we did.

I'll leave the penultimate word with Boulton (I always get the  last, it's my blog for pity's sake!).  He notes that Sir Ivan Rogers, who quit in January 2017 as the UK representative in Brussels, has predicted that the EU will refuse to agree a definite end date to the transitional arrangements, including the Irish backstop of the UK maintaining "alignment" if it is invoked, because "as the Swiss always correctly observe: no negotiation with the EU ever ends". Remember those words, says Boulton, which he says may come to epitomise Brexit, "no negotiation with the EU ever ends".

I fear it is all to easy to envisage that eventuality. Because it wouldn't just be the EU side dragging heels and playing it long. Theresa May has been doing the same. And whatever we do get agreed won't be liked by all. So there will be many lobby groups campaigning to change this or that aspect of the deal. For example, one can imagine the Brexiteers campaigning out meant out if we end up staying in a customs union or the single market. Indeed, I may be with them! Conversely, I firmly expect there to be a vocal minority campaigning for us to rejoin the EU for the rest of my days.

My fear all along, shared in my tortured blogs of June 2016 in the run up to the referendum and why I pusillanimously voted Remain, was that the transition would be extremely long and difficult. Indeed in my blog of 21 June 2016, Reason To Believe, just before the referendum I said "the transition weighs heavily on me". Though I accept I didn't predict it would be infinite (I was predicting 2-5 years). Yet now Littlejohn wakes up to this prospect, saying somewhat indelicately that it's taking longer to get out of the EU than to get rid of Hitler.

On a more positive note - and one that is a reminder that the really important things in life go on - here is "my" blackbird, giving it large in his time shared fir tree and at his other nearby vantage point, the very top of a small beech tree, just in my eye line from my patio:

Monday, 28 May 2018

Don't bet against the bank

Depending who you bank with, you may well have received a communication from your bank about "ring fencing", a government requirement to set investment, or so called "casino" banking, at arms' length from retail banking, the everyday services that you and I use. These requirements are costing the banks quite a lot. Actually, of course, they are therefore costing us all quite a lot in lower interest rates and higher charges.

Investment banking got a bad name for causing the financial crisis. After all, Lehman Brothers went bust and that triggered the shock wave. Plausible sounding, but not necessarily wise, politicians like Vince Cable railed on about "casino banking" even though the depth of the crisis was caused in several countries, Ireland and Spain in particular, by a good old-fashioned property bubble. Arguably that was the case here as well, with Northern Rock and Halifax. Actually, I have recently read an American take on the 2008 global financial crisis which, with classic introspection, called it the "American housing crisis". A bit like calling your beauty contest Miss Universe or a national baseball competition the World Series.

So none of this had that much to do with investment banking. Yes, RBS's problems surfaced after its acquisition of the Dutch bank ABN Amro. But RBS, in a consortium with 2 other banks, high on Fred the Shred's megalomania, simply overstretched itself, paying three times book value for ABN to make sure they outbid Barclays, even though the bit they had really wanted had already been sold to someone else. And, of course, there were toxic assets. But basically the whole thing wasn't remotely worth what they paid, so the RBS balance sheet was shot and at a bad time. After all ABN, bailed out by the Dutch government, has got back on its feet and is privately owned again, something that is not even on the horizon for RBS.

Under Stephen Hester RBS made good progress towards repaying the taxpayer and returning to the private sector. But after he fell out with chancellor George Osborne over future strategy, Ross McEwen took over and did what the government wanted, retrenching to retail banking. Which, as Hester realised would happen, has just locked the shares in "under water", i.e. permanently below the price needed to repay the government loan. Good job, George.

The RBS performance won't improve dramatically. Iain Dey* explained that, while recently retail banking has outperformed investment banking, that looks like a short term blip. After all, if the Financial Services Authority finds fat margins it would conclude that customers were being ripped off and take action. Meanwhile the "fintech" revolution threatens to disrupt consumer finance with upstarts picking off profitable chunks of retail banking business off the dinosaurs. You don't need to go to bitcoin to join in this revolution. If you use Apple Pay part of what was the bank's profit margin goes to Apple.

Of course, one British bank, Barclays, declined a government bail out, stayed independent and built its investment banking operation. And is doing well. Profits in Barclays corporate and investment division soared 48% in the first quarter, driven by a boom in its bond and equity trading businesses. The way Barclays escaped a government bail out by getting finance from Abu Dhabi and Qatar, much to the annoyance of Gordon Brown and the Treasury, was controversial. The authorities here seem to have hated Barclays ever since. Barclays took the rap for the LIBOR scandal and lost its top two board members but material published since makes it seem to me that they were only trying to do what they thought the Bank of England were telling them to do, i.e. frig the numbers. The Treasury's lapdogs then stitched them up for it.

I accept that the way the loan appears to have been arranged seems dodgy - a Serious Fraud Office case against the bank was thrown out a few days ago but charges against several senior Barclays executives are still proceeding. As I understand it the Qatari loan makers are alleged to have received back handers. While not defending fraud,  I can understand why  Barclays were desperate to avoid a government bail out. After all, had they been bailed out by the taxpayer, they would presumably not have been allowed to pick up chunks of Lehman Brothers and would have had to scale back their investment banking like RBS. Meaning that London, the world's biggest financial centre, would now be home to precisely zero major investment banks instead of just one - Barclays, of course.

I also accept that there has to be strong regulation of the banking system and wouldn't want the banks to take advantage of the fact that the Financial Services Compensation Scheme protects the deposits of private individuals by taking on too much risk. Or indeed, getting so exposed that there are serious risks to the country's financial stability, as happened to Iceland. After all as Iain Dey also pointed out,  investment banking as a business is effectively a big bet on global growth. But, as a trading nation strong on financial services, like Dey I don't think this is a game we ought to sit out.

Dey says that the argument of recent years that retail banking has better margins seems trite. He says the short-termists appear to be those who oppose investment in "casino" banking.

I have a simpler argument. Remember that, in a well run casino, the banker always wins!

Unfortunately for the prospects of the taxpayer getting back the investment in RBS anytime this side of never, Osborne and Cable didn't twig this simple fact.

*Iain Dey's weekly column is in Sunday Times Business, this one on 29 April 2018.

Thursday, 24 May 2018

Best Musicians I've Seen - 4.3 Tony Iommi

Brummie Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath is at number 25 in Rolling Stone magazine's top 100 guitarists. Unlike Richie Blackmore (see Musicians 4.2, 22 April) who I would say is a "hard rock" guitarist, Iommi has a reasonable claim to be the first true heavy metal guitarist. And there is an explanation.

As is recounted in many sources, though I didn't realise it when I saw him, Iommi lost the tips of his middle and ring fingers of his right hand in an industrial accident working at a sheet metal factory. Iommi was aged 17 and it was his last day in that job. Iommi plays left handed so it was his fretboard fingers that were affected. He was told he would never play guitar again.

Two things happened. Firstly, his friendly factory foreman insisted Iommi listen to Django Rheinhardt playing. Listening to guitar was the last thing he wanted to do but Iommi reluctantly did, agreeing that the dude could play. The foreman's motivation was then revealed. He told Iommi that Reinhardt was playing with only two fingers on his fretboard hand because of an injury caused by fire. Iommi was motivated to try.

He toyed with playing right handed and, with the perspective of decades, thinks he should have persevered. But, having a few years of playing left handed behind him he didn't have the patience to re-learn his skills. However, pressing the strings with his right hand was too painful. So he made some home made prosthetics out of Fairy liquid bottle tops, heated to mold them to his fingers and stitched into chunks of leather cut from a jacket.

It worked but Iommi still found it a bit painful to use ordinary guitar strings. So he used banjo strings until lighter guage guitar strings became available a few years later. But then he went a step further and detuned his guitar to loosen the strings and make them easier to bend.

Although the doom laden heavy metal sound probably has numerous origins, many aspiring heavy metal guitarists heard Iommi and followed step and detuned their guitars. It is hard not to conclude that Iommi's tender fingers helped to create one of the most widespread and persistent musical genres. And many metal guitarists pay hommage to Iommi as an influence.

Although there is no explanation on the Rolling Stone website for its panel's ranking, Iommi's influence over heavy metal is presumably a big factor since, much as I love the guitar part in Paranoid, I wouldn't rank him very high out of the people I've seen play. (I'll return to this question of how influential guitarists have been another time).

However, my perception of Iommi as a top guitarist may have been partly due to the circumstances when I saw him play.  I went to see Black Sabbath circa 1972 at Manchester's long gone Free Trade Hall. They were supported by a band who were, at the time, riding a wave - prog rock act Curved Air. The music press had noted that Curved Air were going down better than Sabbath on the tour and word had got round so the auditorium was unusually full for the support act. And yes, Curved Air pretty well blew Sabbath off the stage, going off to a rapturous ovation, though Sabbath turned in a decent performance for their more muted reception.

And so it was that Curved Air's violonist, Darryl Way, was the musician who caught my attention that evening rather than Iommi. Curved Air also had Francis Monkman on keyboards, who became fairly well known. And the eye catching Sonja Kristina, who had starred in Hair, singing.  But Iommi became the best known over the longest period by some margin.

What happened to Curved Air? Well, they scored one top 10 hit and then it all fizzled out. As did prog, before too long. Partly because, to paraphrase John Peel, the one thing it didn't do was progress. And metal? One would be hard pressed to find much progress there either, but it's certainly had longevity. And just about everyone has heard of Black Sabbath.

Though I hadn't heard about Iommi's fingertips or home made prosthetics until a few years ago, when I read that Iommi had just about run out of his sacrificial leather jacket and, to continue playing, he was going to have to start cutting up another one.

For multiple reasons Tony Iommi is a guitar player of some significance. But he isn't on my guitarists shortlist. You can read about him all over the place but Wikipedia is a good place to start.

Monday, 21 May 2018

As I was saying - entangled or walk away?

A good column by Dominic Lawson in yesterday's Sunday Times, "Careful, Taoiseach: we could just walk away" and subtitled "Leo Varadkar's exploitation of the key Brexit issue could backfire badly". Of course, I say that because it's basically a better written and argued version of a number of my blogs since September, in particular Reasons to be Cheerful - or Entangled? (8 December, in which I expressed concern about the text concerning Ireland in the joint report on the first phase of the negotiations) and Don't Walk Away Renee (17 September, in which I said every party to a negotiation has to have its 'walk away' points, or it may just get drawn inexorably into a bad deal).

Summarising Lawson's points, he says

  • Theresa May foolishly conceded on 'sequencing', agreeing up front to the divorce bill without a comittment for a trade deal in return. Lawson says that, in Brussels, the 'bloody difficult woman', as she has delighted in calling herself, is known as 'Madame No - until she says yes'
  • The EU has ruthlessly exploited the Irish border issue, spuriously citing the Good Friday agreement, to get Mrs May to abandon the aim of taking the UK out of the customs union and single market. (Lawson notes this is spurious because the open border preceded the Good Friday agreement by 5 years)
  • He reminds us that the deputy director general of Swedish customs reported that reliance on technology should be sufficient for the Irish border
  • There are significant differences in income tax, VAT and excise duty which are currently managed without checks at the Irish border, a situation that has been maintained by close contact between British and Irish officials. But the Republic has ceased much of that co-operation. Work by Irish civil servants on an electronic border was stopped and meetings with Northern Irish officials cancelled
  • He alleges Taoiseach Varadkar's motives are personal and political. He needs to be seen to be sufficiently 'green' (anti-British in an Irish context) and has ambitions to become Ireland's first president of the European council
  • The EU side can just keep saying 'non' to our border proposals because we signed up to the fallback of 'alignment'. Lawson, being classically educated, says this is like Achilles in Zeno's paradox - we move as quickly as we can to try to catch up with the EU tortoise, but never get there. Having been trained to design chemical plants (and therefore watch football, drink beer and listen to rock music) my analogy was the lyric from Genesis's Entangled
  • Labour's position that it is necessary to remain only in a customs union to solve the Irish border issue is tosh. The EU has said that leakage of non-compliant goods must be prevented. This is a single market, not a tariff-related customs union, issue
  • But staying in the customs union would make a nonsense of 'Brexit means Brexit'. Therefore, in the limit, May may just walk away, causing far more damage to the Republic than the Northern Ireland or the rest of the UK.
I said as much back in September. We may have to walk away to make them call us back in a more compliant mood. If they don't, it's not clear to me why we are worse off.

Lawson hopes May made the point to Varadkar (or the smirking tea-shuk, as I called him in December) when they met on Thursday.

When Lawson describes Varadkar's position as green in an Irish context, I am sure what he means is it is an attempt to lever Northern Ireland towards a united Ireland and away from the United Kingdom. That is, of course, a valid political objective but I consider using Brexit for that purpose unprincipled. Especially when the use of cameras already deployed in monitoring the border is branded unworkable, as the Irish/EU contingent seem to be saying.

So, what should we do? Put it like this. Faced with a menacing gang of, say, 27 thugs what should you do? A good tactic is to pick on one of the weaker ones. That is Ireland. They need a deal more than we do. So we say we are walking away unless they get committed to sorting the border issue by one of our proposed solutions. We have to make Ireland choose between max fac and hard border/ WTO rules. When Ireland say it works, Barnier has nowhere to go.

But we must mean it: we walk away from all the negotiations until sense breaks out. I know that the use of technology in the ways and on the scale proposed for the Irish border is untested and, where trusted trader schemes similar to that proposed are deployed they are limited in scope and do not remotely produce what could be called frictionless trade. But guess what? The trade across the Irish border is so limited that it doesn't really matter. It's a perfect candidate to pilot such a scheme and iron out the problems. It's really only needed for the benefit of the local population.

Oh and if this doesn't work we pick on some of the other smaller EU countries as well. Just because they are in the EU doesn't mean we can't apply selective sanctions to them post Brexit. These could be completely arbitrary but designed to randomly hurt. No students allowed from country X for example. Remember if the EU retaliate it hurts them more than us in total, though I accept there is some asymetry: our exports to the EU are nearly half our total whereas for any individual EU nation their exports to us probably represent less than 10% of their total. It is a mutually assured destruction that won't happen - provided we are prepared to use it. Yes, we need to think of it in the same way as for a nuclear deterrent.

Basically we need to start standing up for ourselves and showing we won't just cave in. Though that is what we have been doing so far.

After all, there is no point whatsoever in staying in the Hotel California, checked out but never leaving. The reason I am adamant about that is this: if we stay in a customs union, or the single market, via the EEA or another mechanism, as well as not really being 'out' we condemn ourselves to a situation that is definitely worse than being a full EU member. While no nation state has total freedom in the modern global economy, a customs union would inhibit or indeed prevent the UK from achieving its potential as an international trading and financial centre. I accept we might not be better off than being in the EU. But I am confident that we could be. It would be up to us.

While there is a short term argument that we would be better of in a customs union this is a temporary transitional issue. I didn't fancy the transition which is why I voted Remain. But if we are leaving it makes no sense at all to me to bind ourselves to the EU more than is necessary.

Many folk who want us to stay in a customs union actually just want us to stay in the EU. As with the Irish issue, that is a valid political ambition. But what none of them say is they want to keep us as close as possible, part way in, to facilitate rejoining. That, of course, is because - however you count it - around half the population think 'leave means leave'.

Over to you Mrs May. You've got a nuclear button but the other side have to be made to realise you will use it.

Friday, 18 May 2018

Blackbird singing in the dead of night

Well, not quite as in The Beatles song, as it was 4.30am. Which, in this lightest quarter of the year isn't the dead of night, even if it feels like it to me. And, being warmer now, the window was open so I could hear him singing very clearly.

The good news this confirmed was that I can still hear the dawn chorus. Several years ago, at our last house, I had concluded that age - ok, and maybe too many gigs - had dulled my hearing to the point where I couldn't. I also remember the amusement of several younger employees in my last company who were completely bemused by the fact that I couldn't hear the "test your hearing age" app on our PA's phone. (Hi, Denise!) "What, you mean you can't hear that?!" as it was switched up through the age range from 30 in 5 year steps until it wouldn't go any further. "Very funny!" I said, since it stopped at 60 and I was already 61, though they hadn't all realised that.

At our current house we have more trees and more birds and, yes, wondrously I can still hear them. In particular we have a large fir tree a few yards from the bedroom window and, because of the slope of the ground, we are at blackbird singing height.

And he was giving it large. I say he with certainty because the tree is sparse enough for me to have spotted him - it is, of course, usually a near impossible task to spot a bird singing in a tree unless they perch right on the top - when I've been listening to him at more convivial times of day from my patio. And he's black not brown, so is definitely male. And I've listened as he does a call and reply routine with another bird in a tree not far away, I'd guess about 50 yards, but maybe further.

The blackbird's song is one of the most attractive of British birds. I've read it described as a "combination of melodic verses combined with cheeps and chirrups". I'd describe it as a varied, melodic whistle, of different length and complexity each time (hence "melodic verses"), ending with a brief chatter of shorter notes (hence "cheeps and chirrups"). The ending can, in my experience, identify the individual bird. In our last house we became familiar with an individual blackbird (that would be the case as they are highly territorial) who would sing from our chimney pot or a neighbour's. The song would sometimes end sounding convincingly like a telephone landline. Indeed, Mrs H and I were fooled several times into standing up and making for the house from our decking at this time of year, before saying "damn, it's stopped". Once we realised we soon spotted the culprit, who entertained us through about three seasons. I have read that the main blackbird singing season is March to July, corresponding with mating. And yes, they can mimic.

So I've just been reading up a bit more about blackbirds to see whether the call and reply routine was Mr and Mrs or male rivals. Until recently it seemed to be widely held that bird song was all about males competing to impress the females, who didn't sing. That has been comprehensively rebuffed - I've just watched a female blackbird singing on youtube, if not quite as exhuberantly as a male. I can't be sure but as the male and female - who are monogamous once joined - have adjacent territories, the reply tended to be shorter and the male sings from the nearby tree, I think it's probably his mate replying.

Our blackbird time shares the tree with a robin and a wood pigeon which, of course, has the most boring and repetitive song of all (though I might have got back to sleep more quickly if he had been singing at 0430!) Oh and occasionally some jackdaws, especially when they are taking refuge from their battle with the seagulls, fought out in the sky in front of our house and over the river estuary, which takes place every now and then and is a bit like T.S.Elliott's Pekes and Pollicles poem featured in Lloyd Webber's Cats, though we no longer have a Rumpuscat to sort them out. (I think he'd have drawn a line at a seagull, mind).

Anyway, if you want to hear a blackbird singing, as well as youtube you could also dig out The Beatles White Album and listen to McCartney's Blackbird. Which of course ends with a blackbird singing and very characteristically too. I'd always thought it was just a sad song, especially since Ian McDonald in his tour de force book on all (and I mean all) the Beatles' songs, Revolution In The Head, discounted the idea that it was a metaphor for the civil rights movement in the USA. But Wikipedia gives convincing quotations from Paul McCartney backing up that explanation, including a referenced transcript of a conversation with Donovan from 1968, contemporaneous with the making of the White Album. And also a disarming statement, viewed from 2018, that a "black bird" was a black woman.

Wonderful. A politically impeccable and politically incorrect song at the same time!

If any readers can enlighten me further about blackbirds (not black birds!) please do comment below.

Monday, 14 May 2018

I told you so, Michael

I read last week that Michael Gove is getting worried that Brussels will not negotiate meaningfully over the Irish border, but will just keep saying "not good enough" and forcing us into the fallback agreed in December of "maintaining full alignment" as that suits them better.

I thought Mr Gove was meant to be one of the sharper tools in the cabinet box, if not necessarily entirely voter-friendly. Obviously he's neither. Moreover, he clearly didn't read my blog of 8 December, Reasons To Be Cheerful - or Entangled? (seriously, can you believe he didn't see it?) written immediately after I had read for myself the 14 page "joint report" on the first phase of the negotiations which had just been published.

The sentence "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." left me deeply worried. I commented: "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".

It seems Mr Gove might have just woken up to the fact that the EU can keep us where they want us, entangled (Genesis song reference) in the Hotel California (Eagles song reference). Of course, you remember the lyric "you can check out any time you like but you can never leave".

Davies and May have kicked the can down the road, avoiding the crunch of what many of the detailed arrangements should be for a long time but the they've got near to the end of the road now. To be fair I don't think any other strategy was practicable while they let pennies drop to see if concensus in the Tory party could be achieved. So now to achieve that two cabinet groups have been established to work up the customs union and maximum facilitation options and have a showdown, maybe, at last. But as Gove has realised, it doesn't matter if the EU just says "non", bluffing that we will blink and not do the same, afraid of a Mexican stand off.

There is a perfectly respectable argument for staying in a customs union with the EU. But I don't buy it. It is fervently advocated by all who would prefer to remain in the EU which is, of course, a valid point of view. Many of those who espouse this option want us to stay involved in any way possible as a route to effectively staying in or paving the way to rejoin in the future. But, in my view, none of that is what the electorate voted for.

The reason I am against a customs union is that it would inevitably be worse than being a full EU member. I am not prepared to accept that we voted for something that is definitely worse than we had before. The alternative, whatever it looks like but certainly free to make our own trade deals, might be better or might be worse but no-one has convinced me that it would definitely be worse. We need to make our own future. We can only do that if we are free.

To do that we have to push through the EU posturing on the Irish border. As Dominic Lawson has pointed out several times, the European Parliament's own detailed report on this issue ("Smart border 2.0: Avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland") said  "the solution presented here can be implemented regardless of the legal framework for the UK's exit from the EU." Lawson has written several columns pointing out that what works for the Swiss would work in Ireland. Indeed, the Swiss prime minister is reported to be puzzled that the Irish border is causing an issue in the Brexit negotiations. All of which points to the EU side deliberately making an issue out of something that needn't be, for their own advantage. Which I find tantamount to negotiating in bad faith. 

Nevertheless I accept that there might need to be some very difficult decisions to make over Ireland. But as Northern Irish trade with the mainland is more important than cross Irish border trade by about an order of magnitude, if there has to be a tangible border it's really a no brainer which one to choose. So we can't hold the whole UK back because of this local issue - it would be daft and there is no need to anyway.

All we need to do is to unilaterally say how we are going to manage the border issue and leave the EU and the Republic to lump it or erect a hard border. It won't be our hard border, so they will take the flak.

Over to you, Michael and Boris.

Of course, even if the cabinet can agree - I guess eventually they must - that is only stage 1. Just Michel Barnier, the Commons and the Lords to go. The Commons is as problematic as the cabinet - there may well be no majority for any conceivable option. So chaps (because they are still mainly chaps) just remember David Cameron promised us a vote which would be implemented by you lot.

If any option - and I mean any option - can be agreed by the cabinet, negotiated with the EU and approved by the Commons I can't see the last hurdle of the Lords being a problem. I say that notwithstanding the Lords risible behaviour in recent votes. 

Perhaps the low point was Lord Roberts of Llandudno preposterously comparing Theresa May's government's approach to the Brexit enabling bill to Hitler's power grab in one of the recent debates. All you need to know about Lord Roberts is the remarkable strength of his CV that led to his appointment as a Liberal Democrat peer in 2004. The highlight is that he stood for Parliament five times in the Aberconwy constituency. He lost all five times, mind. If ever there was a case for reform of the Lords - which the LibDems have always championed - Roberts personifies it. With political giants like this representing us in our so called upper chamber, what can possibly go wrong?

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Never change

As a post script to yesterday's diatribe on Sam Allardyce I should say that, while I have probably always come across as anti-Allardyce, I did want him to succeed. Nothing would have delighted me more than had Everton done well enough for everyone to be happy with him seeing out his contract to the end of next season and beyond. It's simply that I couldn't see that happening. Nevertheless, I am disappointed that it hasn't turned out that way.

You can tell when Everton aren't going through a good spell: when I go to a game I look forward to the curry and chips and pint of beer consumed in the streets near the ground (weather permitting - which it usually does) more than the football. For the recent game against Newcastle I bought a programme. I always used to buy a programme but, as I have several crates of them in my loft, I now limit it to one a season. I find it interesting on occasion to look at how they have changed over the years as I file the latest one away, with Mrs H's protest of "you'll have to throw them out one day!" ringing in my ears.

This time I bought one because I was going to be waiting a bit for my drinking buddy (ok, older son, who will no doubt have to throw out my programmes or store them in his loft) to arrive, the plan being to read it in the chip shop queue. Which I did, though some conversation ensued when I asked the chaps in front of me if they thought Rafa Benitez, Newcastle's Wirral-based manager and my preference when Allardyce was appointed, would have been a better choice. As an ex-Liverpool manager many Everton fans would bridle at the idea. But the response was a deadpan "I'd have been a better choice than Allardyce." The atmosphere around the ground was totally flat, with none of the buzz of excited chatter when times are good, which tells you all you need to know about what the fans are thinking.

Anyway the programme, which usually is a fairly boring read - I much preferred reading the fanzines* at their scurrilous peak before many libel actions** tamed them from printing the more outrageous stories - had an interesting snippet which made me yearn for more interesting, albeit equally trophy-less times.  It featured extracts from a 1970s interview with then Everton star Duncan Mackenzie. Now Mackenzie, famous for his tricks as much as his silky skills, was a bit too much of a fancy dan player for me - not enough end product - but he was capable of moments of sublime magic and showmanship. He was reported to be able to leap over a mini on the Leeds United car park (not sure he'd be able to that with the modern mini!) and to be able to throw a golf ball out of the stadium, as well as remarkable juggling skills with a football. Mackenzie was signed for Everton by Billy Bingham, who was soon replaced by the more pragmatic Gordon Lee. Mackenzie made Lee tear out what little hair he had left while having the crowd roaring with delight. The programme recounted Mackenzie's story of how he scored a winning goal in an FA Cup tie against Cardiff City. After running clear into the penalty area, he took the ball part way around the keeper, then doubled back to do it again, while several defenders ran back onto the goal line. When he eventually decided to shoot, Mackenzie mishit it through the legs of a defender on the line. The fans would have assumed it was a deliberate nutmeg; Lee was not impressed and, after playing 48 times for Everton, Mackenzie was sold.

But I knew all this. The snippet was Brian Clough's comment to Mackenzie the day Clough got sacked from his short tenure at Leeds United: "You, you little so-and-so, with all your fancy flicks and your back-heels and nutmegs - NEVER CHANGE!"

Oh, how I wished some entertainment like that was going to be on offer the other week!

* My favourite Everton zine was the much missed "When Skies Are Grey". It inevitably went digital and I guess many, like me, then became much less frequent readers. However my favourite fanzine title was the Norwich City fans' "Norfolk'n'Good". Yes, that can be read two ways!

**the stupidest of these actions in the case of When Skies Are Grey was when the creator of Brookside, Grange Hill  and  Hollyoaks, Liverpool-born Phil Redmond, sued his namesake, another Phil Redmond who happened to be one of the editors and leading writers for the fanzine. The famous Redmond's case was that many people naturally thought the Redmond writing for the fanzine was the same person. The judge, quite correctly, said too bad. I never thought much of Brookside and this episode made me think even less of its creator. Fancy trying to stop someone using their own name. I know only one version of a name is allowed by Equity, but that's acting, it ain't the real world!

Saturday, 12 May 2018

One game to go

One final match for Sam Allardyce at Everton? Maybe, maybe not. There has been a presumption that he will not be at the helm next season, because of growing unrest amongst Everton fans. Allardyce insisted on and got an 18 month contract when Everton turned to him in some desperation in the autumn. But signals from the club seem to indicate that at least some of the hierarchy favour Allardyce staying. Good grief, don't they watch the games?

One person does seem to be leaving however, depending which reports you believe. This weekend's Premier League finale could also mark Wayne Rooney's second departure. The season has turned out better than I feared but not as well as I hoped. He scored a penalty at Anfield in the derby (I had foreseen a red card, see The Homecoming Price,  12 July 2017) and the goal of the season, from his own half, at home against West Ham in the game that set Everton on the road to Premier League safety, before Allardyce officially took over. As ever, his effort and commitment  could not be faulted, but there were also a lot of misplaced passes and a lack of mobility whether deployed as striker, no 10 or in midfield. But, once a blue always a blue, he did come back and, as Martin Samuel put it, he didn't make out he was doing Everton a favour as some other superstars would have.

But other reports say the Rooney is waiting to see who is Everton manager next season before deciding on going to the States.

It seems that it was Allardyce who told Rooney he could go. That certainly sounds like Big Sam is part of the planning for next season. And, according to Sam, he has been involved in detailed discussions with Everton's majority shareholder, Farhad Moshiri, about next season. "If  I wasn’t going to be here why would we be discussing next season at great length?" Allardyce is reported to have said.

And why shouldn't he be there - hasn't he done enough to have earned the right to see out his contract and potentially (God forbid) earn an extension? Everton supporters like me have been described as ungrateful, unreasonable and unrealistic when Allardyce has, after all, achieved the prime objective of keeping the club above the relegation quagmire. And with something to spare, sitting in eighth place with one game to go. 

Daniel Lewis, writing in the Guardian*, comprehensively squashed this argument. "Everton, on other hand, went into the weekend 19th out of the 20 clubs in the Premier League when it comes to the number of shots they have managed on Allardyce’s watch, 19th in terms of efforts on target, 19th in chances created and 19th for attempted dribbles. Again, Allardyce can point out that the only statistics that should matter are the points that have taken the team into the top half of the table. Plainly, however, it does matter to many Everton followers. The supporters want more. Is that so unreasonable?"

Well, no, it's not. I accept that, for people who think football was invented with the birth of the Premier League in 1992, Everton have been an also-ran club, at best "best of the rest" after those contending for Champions League places; fifth several times in Moyes's days and seventh more recently now that Manchester City and Spurs have found the resources to contend along with Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and the steadily fading Arsenal. But that is not Everton's history. Those of us who have been watching since the 60s remember championship winning teams (1963, 1970, 1985, 1987), F A Cups (1966, 1984, 1995) and a European trophy (1985).

But more than that, we have been brought up over decades on teams that play with fire and passion, speed, commitment and, while not tiki-taka, no little skill. I was at the Everton home game against Newcastle on 23 April. Yes they won (1-0) but it was a doze-fest, totally boring. Everton had one shot on target: Walcott's winner. We kept having to get up to let people get out from the 80th minute and, when 5 minutes of stoppage time was announced, the clacking of seats tipping up was deafening. By the end the ground was half empty. Allardyce noted after that there had been a lot of misplaced passes but "I don't pass the ball". No, but you pick the team and set the tactics and tone, Sam. The players were poor: Yanick Bolassie played the most brainless game I've seen from anyone in a blue shirt (oh and I've seen quite a few contenders for that award!) But the obsession with "keeping shape" (which used to be called "playing to your position" when I was a lad) means that no-one makes any runs, the forwards are isolated and it's all very easy for the opposition to contain.

For the most recent match, at home to Southampton, the BT commentator asked his summariser (not sure who it was) "where do you stand on Sam Allardyce?" The response was that he had done well and Everton fans should be grateful. By half time the entertainment was so palpably dire that Jake Humphreys was saying to viewers "well done for sticking with it". By the end Glen Hoddle was agreeing that the football had been dire. 

Yes, Sam Allardyce has got a reasonable points haul - the team would be sixth if the season had started with his appointment. But many of the wins have been streaky, in games that could easily have been lost. Everton have rarely looked the superior team in matches this season. In my opinion, the points total Allardyce has achieved flatters him and the team.

Others are more generous to Sam. I can only assume they haven't actually watched any of the games. The Sunday Times Chief Sports writer, David Walsh (the man who exposed Lance Armstrong) said "Allardyce is a better manager than he has ever been given credit for. What he achieved at Bolton was astonishing"**. It was indeed and, at that time, Allardyce was near the front in conditioning, diet and use of technology and data. But that was more than a decade ago. After he left his beloved Bolton because the club didn't have enough ambition to attempt to push on from finishing in fifth - yes, fifth - place, Walsh says Allardyce "was like the man who has broken up with the love of his life and goes on a tour of one-night stands. Newcastle, Blackburn, West Ham, Sunderland, Crystal Palace and Everton were variations of a familiar story; the right club at the wrong time". Besides rather cruelly pointing out that Walsh omitted the ultimate Allardyce one night (well, one match) stand - England - I think Walsh is unusually off the mark there. To go to a couple of clubs which underperform like David Moyes and describe it as "right club, wrong time" could be forgiven, expecially as Moyes has now done ok at West Ham. But to describe six clubs as "right club, wrong time" stretches credulity. Especially when at three of them at least - Newcastle, West Ham and now Everton - the fans have been baying for mercy before long.

Lewis reminded us that Allardyce explained in his autobiography how he took media lessons from Alastair Campbell. Well that explains a lot about Allardyce's press conferences. A recent example was when, after the Newcastle game, Allardyce was asked about the poor quality football on offer. "We've got 14 points from the last 7 games" said Sam, using the classic politician's tactic of answering a different question.

For what it's worth I would look for a different manager. I wouldn't sack Sam until I'd got one I wanted lined up. I'd only talk to candidates and their agents on the basis that any leaks would mean the candidate was removed from the shortlist. And then I'd make the change. This needs to be done quickly in view of summer transfer activity - and, I imagine, season ticket sales. It looks like, as I suggested on 10 February, that Everton will change the Director of Football first.

When I was younger if the matches weren't up to scratch the crowd used to chant "we want football!". Indeed. Time to move on.

**Sunday Times 22 April 2018