Thursday, 28 February 2019

So Chuka chucked it in - for what?

So Chuka Umunna chucked it in, as I'd told him back in October he might as well do, as moderates had no place in Corbyn's Labour party (Chuck it in, Chuka, 10 October 2018). We wait to see whether the Independent Group of MPs of which he is part go on to form a new party. But if they do I've already told him we know how it will end: in failure, like the SDP.

The launch of The Independent Group, if it can be called a "launch", seemed off key to me. While I have enormous respect for Luciana Berger and sympathy for the outrageous harassment she has received from Trots in her Liverpool Wavertree constituency, I read that the timing of the announcement about the Independent Group had been triggered by her need to quit Labour before the final stages of her pregnancy. If correct that seems strange to me and a complete PR mess. It would have been much better had she quit Labour purely on the grounds of anti-Semitism. That would have avoided diluting that message. If she had been followed by the other Labour MPs who have given that as their prime reason the message would have been crystal clear. Chuka and the rest could have followed in a week or two. As it played out it looked like the people who have been needling her in Wavertree, accusing her of intending to set up a new party, had actually been right.

The other thing in all this that really got me was Chuka and his chums rejecting the idea of joining the LibDems and having the brass neck to suggest that LibDem MPs join them. For a start, they haven't formed a party for the LibDem MPs to join. They haven't espoused any particular set of political beliefs or principles. So what on earth makes them think that people who are committed to a party with a tradition going back to 1859 would contemplate switching to their embryonic venture? Why ditch the party of Gladstone and heir to the Whig tradition, going back to Palmerston and Walpole, with its belief in toleration of non-conformists, abolition of the slave trade, the supremacy of Parliament, expansion of the voting franchise and free trade? For what exactly?

The only things that the Independent Group seem likely to agree on are a second referendum (oops, Labour has gone there now, the LibDems were already there) and that Corbyn's party is a nasty hive of bullying, Trotskyite anti-Semites. Big deal.

If you look at the people who have joined the Independent Group, they comprise mainly former Labour MPs who are naturally left of centre and Tories including Anna Soubry who would more naturally be somewhat right of centre. I read that, setting aside anything to do with Brexit, Soubry's political views are as close to Thatcherite as you can get.

When the Gang of Four (Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen and Bill Rogers) quit Labour in the 1980s announcing a set of political beliefs (the Limehouse Declaration) they launched the SDP as a fully operational political party within 2 months. Don't hold your breath on Chuka and his chums achieving that. I can tell you now that, including Chuka, they don't have one person of the calibre of Jenkins, Williams or Owen, let alone three.

The SDP foundered in part on whether it should be a party of the left, taking on Labour in a fight to the death, as David Owen wanted, or a centre-party that cosied up to the Liberals, as Roy Jenkins wanted. Jenkins of course won that one. Now there should be no reason why a truly centre-ground party couldn't function successfully. After all you would find it hard to distinguish between most of the views of the left of the Tory party and the right of Labour, at least as they both were until recent years. But in practice it doesn't seem to work. I'm not an expert on European political parties but it seems to me that, in their mainly PR systems, they have moderate parties of the left and right. The extreme left wing (like Corbyn and McDonnell) are in far-left Socialist parties and the extreme right wing (like the far right of the Tories) are in parties like Germany's AfD. If there are any successful examples of true centre parties please would someone point them out to me?

As the Independent Group hasn't started out with a coherent set of principles I can't see them developing one on the hoof. So they'll have an even harder job than the SDP had in trying to "break the mould". Together with the lack of geographically clustered support, so essential in the first past the post system, they'll need more than Chuka's telegenic features. They'll need some of the political brains that I doubt they have amongst their number so far. And even then they'd face an uphill struggle. Oblivion beckons.

The question I have is whether the rift will cause Labour to come to its senses, as it gradually did after the formation of the SDP. I suspect the hard left has its hands too firmly on the levers of power and will use any means to hold on, though Chris Williamson's suspension is perhaps a cause for hope. The other chink of light is the fact that union donations to Labour have fallen. Maybe Labour just might not be a lost cause. If so Chuka and chums will have done the country a service.

Friday, 8 February 2019

The Crimson Kings

Robert Fripp is on my shortlist of the best guitarists I've seen live (see More guitarists 15 August 2018). Having last seen him with King Crimson in 1971, we caught their current tour in Liverpool late last year and I was just as impressed the best part of 50 years later.

King Crimson went from being in the vanguard of jazz influenced progressive rock to a quite pared down grunge metal sound, which influenced many bands that came later, as I now realise. American 1990s grunge band Tool from my sons' musical palette, for example, cite Crimson as a key influence on their sound, sharing Fripp's fondness for unusual time signatures.

Across the eras some of Crimson's material isn't what you would call easy listening. But Mrs H enjoyed the gig and readily agreed that seeing them perform 21st Century Schizoid Man, the first track on their highly acclaimed first album from 1969, is something everybody who likes rock music should experience.

From the late 70s onwards my attention was elsewhere and I hadn't bought any of their stuff in decades. I've now got a bit of catching up to do as I the harsh guitar laden sound is more to my taste than I realised.

I will eventually return to my guitarists shortlist (just one more to go!) but the gig also left me thinking about one of the other "members" of the original King Crimson. I say "members" because he didn't play an instrument: Peter Sinfield wrote the lyrics, acted as road manager and constructed one of the first light shows used by a touring band: it was so unusual it was one of the reasons people went to see them. So Sinfield was considered a full member of the band. Until, like all of the other members of the band in its first 20 years or so, Robert Fripp fell out with him or vice-versa. (He did fall back in with some, so I saw the proficient multi-instrumentalist Mel Collins again from the 70s band the other week).

I'd checked up on Sinfield quite recently on Wikipedia. One thing about the world of the internet is that you can nearly always answer the question "whatever happened to....?" about almost anyone who has been well known. As far as I was concerned Sinfield fell off the planet after Crimson. I should have noticed that he worked with Emerson, Lake and Palmer (well he knew Lake from Crimson). But after that he co-wrote hits for Celine Dion (her Think Twice won him an Ivor Novello award), Cher, Cliff Richard, Leo Sayer, Five Star and Bucks Fizz!

So he went on from writing lyrics like:
Cat's foot, iron claw
Neurosurgeons scream for more
Paranoia's poison door
21st Century Schizoid Man

in 1969 to

Your world is turning from night to day
Your dream is burning far, far away
Into the blue, you and I
To the circus in the sky....
In the land of make believe...
(The Land of Make Believe,  a number 1 hit for Bucks Fizz in 1982).


But I also learned it was Sinfield who coined the band name King Crimson, verbally riffing on alternative names for the devil. Strange the things you don't realise at the time.

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

The special place in hell and how to save the European dream

"I have been wondering what the special place in hell looks like for those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan how to carry it safely" said Donald Tusk today. You should know, Donald because it's the same place reserved for those who deliberately sabotaged the negotiation by insisting that trade arrangements could not be discussed before the Irish border issue was resolved. This was always an paradoxical impossibility. If it was a figure of speech it would be an oxymoron, two contradictory and mutually impossible conditions juxtaposed. Indeed, just moronic, Donald.

The EU insisted on setting the negotiation up that way. I understand why some Remainers say that it's the UK that is leaving, so it's the UK that has to solve the problems. However, it's the EU that set the order of play in a way that means the problems cannot be solved. Hence the need for the backstop which is causing the biggest issue.

So, Donald, you designed the place in hell just as much as any Brexiteer.

But another version of hell awaits you, Donald, if you don't show flexibility to get this all fixed. In that version your mischief making helps to contrive a position in which we stay for longer. Or maybe even for permanently. Have you thought about what that looks like?

It's easy to predict that, in the UK, the political situation will be toxic for at least a decade. The referendum arguments will be re-run ad infinitum and a eurosceptic party (maybe UKIP, a UKIP successor but probably a totally eurosceptic Tory party) will do permanently well enough in the polls that any government will find itself under pressure at all turns to stick it to the EU. So the UK will be pushed into opposing every measure, however sensible or well intentioned, that smacks of ever greater union. Like some stroppy, overgrown, sulky teenager we'll block everything and anything. Brussels, already sclerotic enough, will grind to a halt.

I must admit I hadn't given much thought about how to save the European dream. But it's actually clear what British europhiles who want to see an ever closer EU should do to save the project: they should work to ensure Brexit happens.

After all, from here all options (and I mean all options) lead to economic futures that are poorer in the short to medium term than if we had voted to Remain. Even if we stay. So the game from here is making the best of it.

We may or may not be better off outside the EU but we were given a choice and we made it, in an outbreak of democracy that is alien to folk like you, Donald. The EU may or may not be better off economically if we stayed. But in terms of their precious "project" it's clear. We've never been committed to much more than a trading entity. We've always been a pain in the backside to those wanting ever greater union. They would definitely feel in a better place without us.

So Donald, if you don't want hell to freeze over - i.e. Brussels to grind to a halt - it's time to start thinking about how to make Brexit work. After all, you created this situation just as much as Boris Johnson or Dominic Cummings.

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Chocks away

I chuckled at the BBC TV news cock up that showed footage of a Spitfire over Sophie Raworth talking about Theresa May's next mission to Brussels. But, thinking about it, it's not a bad idea: May needs to dart in, hit some precision targets and get straight back out again, leaving Barnier and colleagues in no doubt, despite all their protestations, that they will have to budge. After all those earlier trips when May was humiliated - smacked across the face with a wet fish as I put it - Parliament has given her a hand of cards which are just strong enough to play. So far she's been tough with Parliament and soft with Brussels. There's one last chance to do it the other way round.

All she needs to say is:
  • The backstop has to be changed. You say you have no intention of locking us in indefinitely so make it time limited. We are only asking for something that is standard in treaties and commercial deals: an exit clause
  • Your own chief negotiator says other solutions will work. Your own policy documents have technology-based solutions as the aim for controlling trade across borders  between the EU and other countries. So there is no reason for an enduring backstop; you are playing games
  • If, as you say, you have no intention of using the backstop, why risk failure at this stage by intransigence?
  • The change must be legally binding and watertight
She needs to make clear that, as I've been proposing for many months, we will not introduce a hard border in Ireland whatever; any border will be theirs. I've read that this prospect has only just dawned on the Irish and is causing some panic. If so, they are rather weirdly confirming to jokeish stereotyping of their own nation.

Would the above approach work? The newspapers are carrying stories that it won't, the EU will let the clock go to March 29 and expect us to blink. But the eurozone economy is, in aggregate, closer to recession than any other major trading bloc or the UK. As Jeremy Warner said* "we think of Britain as in a profound state of political crisis, but the position scarcely looks any better across the water. It's a political tinder box that could blow apart at any stage". When you think of the gilets jaunes in France, the oddball coalition in Italy with it's dodgy banks, Greece still in dire financial staits, Merkel a lame duck coming to the end of her time and with parties of the right looking ominously strong in Germany and to points east, the EU is not looking particularly stable. A bodged Brexit could be enough to precipitate a very difficult situation for the EU, with Trump tariffs a further wild card that could come into play.

There is a reason why I think it is important for us to insist on a legally binding change to the backstop. Yes, of course I have always been concerned about being trapped in Hotel California. But, since I realised that need not happen - in the situation where the backstop would come in to force we just breach the agreement and walk away - there is another, more important reason. Firstly, if things pan out that way we'll have paid the EU more money than we should. I'm not one of the flat-earthers who think that no deal means we don't pay a penny of the £39 billion divorce deal. We do have obligations but they wouldn't add up to £39 bn and the EU would have to wait for the cash while the wrangle was resolved, maybe for many years. So there is no point in deferring no deal till 2020, it would be bettter done straight away.

But secondly and, for me, more importantly, we have one last opportunity to show the EU that we won't be bullied. We are going to be negotiating with these people for decades and caving in first time round would set entirely the wrong precedent.

The backstop is not acceptable to the UK parliament. It is not necessary. It must be changed.

Yes, I worry about no deal but I don't buy the more extreme Project Fear scenarios. Yes we get most of our lettuce from Spain but did we notice when their production was severely hit by flooding in Murcia last year? No, we didn't.  But if they do have lettuce to sell, do they want to sell it to us? You bet. Blocks on our exports? Well, we'll just go back to getting lettuce from elsewhere then.

Before walking out to get back in her Spitfire all May needs to do is to quietly and apologetically say she hoped to be able to get the deal ratified but she can't. So it needs to change. And she won't be changing the 29 March "Independence Day" date, so it needs to change now.

Then we can get on with negotiating the trading arrangements which will mean the backstop was all a load of hot air anyway.

* Warner's column was in the Daily Telegraph on 1 February

Sunday, 3 February 2019

Will the Masters of their Universe win tonight?

“The ball is round and was meant to go round”. This may well be a very old football saying indeed but I first heard it from George Best, way back in the day. I took it to mean that, in football, your team is never at the top for ever. Bob Paisley’s Liverpool were soon to temporarily suspend the truism, but eventually someone else wins. In football it was a new dynasty, when Alex Ferguson succeeded in knocking Liverpool “off their perch”. But even in these times of near domination there were periods when there was at least a duopoly. Liverpool and Everton in the 80s; Man United and Arsenal in the 90s. Maybe we are moving into a Man City and Liverpool era. But just maybe the huge riches of the Premier League mean we are moving into a more competitive era, when half a dozen or more teams can genuinely compete.

There is, of course, a sport which is set up to a make domination by one or a small number of teams tantamount to impossible: American football. Which ironically doesn’t have a round ball. It would be hard to replicate all of the ways in which this is done in our British sporting structures. But just imagine the bottom ranked of the elite 30 English football teams getting first pick of all the graduates emerging from that year’s under 23 teams. And then first pick in the second round of choices and so on. And having the easiest fixture list in the next season. And having an equal share of the game’s TV and league-wide commercial revenues: sponsorship, licensing etc. (The teams keep "local" revenues: ticket sales and their own commercial income). Surely this would make it impossible to build a dynasty lasting nearly two decades?

Impossible unless you are Bill Belichik and Tom Brady, coach and quarterback of the New England Patriots, who are candidates for the best team sports coach and player partnership of the current era, if not ever. By winning the NFC championship game last Sunday, in combination they have got to 9 of the last 17 NFL Super Bowls, a record unprecedented in that sport. Yes, other teams have had sustained success over a period close to one decade, but not two. In their halcyon days the Pittsburgh Steelers got to 4 Super Bowls in 6 years in the early era after the then rival American Football leagues came together to create their end of season play offs a bit over 50 years ago. And the San Francisco 49ers got to 4 Super Bowls over a 9 year period in the 1980s.

To be fair, quarterbacks Terry Bradshaw of the Steelers and Joe Montana of the 49ers won all four of their Super Bowls. I was fortunate to be at the game where Montana, who I then thought to be peerless, won his third in Miami in 1989.  But no other quarterback has more than 5 career Super Bowl appearances, no other coach more than 6. As American football pundit Michael David Smith says, even if the Patriots lose tonight, "going 5 and 4 (as the Americans put it) in Super Bowls is more impressive than going 4 and 0".

Moreover, Belichik and Brady have won about twice as many matches as any other NFL coach- quarterback combo in history. Given the way their sport works, Belichik is arguably "Ferguson plus, plus, plus" evolving and rebuilding his team for sustained success. And Brady certainly doesn’t lose out in comparison with, say, Messi or Ronaldo. Their achievements in a system stacked to prevent what they have a done is remarkable.

As, of course, is 41 year old Brady’s longevity in an extremely physical sport. I used to think the risk of injury in American Football militated against its attractiveness as a sport, notwithstanding its huge entertainment value to the TV viewer. But now the average rugby three-quarter weighs something like 25% more than when I was a schoolboy the risk of injury in that sport with a similar shaped ball is surely at least as high. American Football has worked hard for many years to limit the risk in a very physically aggressive sport. Rugby is only just starting to think about the risk, let alone get to grips with it.

And, notwithstanding the colossal entertainment value of the Six Nations, which has got off to a cracking start this year, I am usually in the dark about key refereeing decisions most times I watch rugby, whereas, after listening to the NFL officials live, backed up by the TV pundits, I always understand the decision, even though I can’t claim to be an expert on the rules. Last weekend’s win by the Patriots featured yet another piece of nerveless play by Brady at the death as he ‘found a way’ as great sportsmen do at critical junctures. But the game also involved several key decisions reviewed with great clarity and success by the officials. What struck me was how well their video review works at moments of huge controversy. To be fair, rugby's TMO system also works well, whereas soccer’s VAR doesn’t look at the moment as if it will ever work as smoothly. And when the sporting stakes couldn’t be higher, the spirit between the Patriots and Chiefs players, as they took a break from knocking ten bells out of each other while awaiting the decisions, was remarkably warm.

The two Conference Championship games (semi-finals to us Brits) were amongst the most entertaining bits of TV sports coverage I have watched since last year’s Superbowl. High drama, close finishes, huge levels of individual skill. Yes, maybe a poor bit of officiating cost the Saints against the Rams in the final seconds – no video replay available to the Rams under the cricket-like rules – but, for the neutral that only added to the drama. I don’t have the stamina now to watch the Super Bowl live in the early hours so it will be a highlights package for me. But we’ll see if Brady's throws to Gronk (Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski) and Brady to Edelman (Patriots receiver Julian Edelman) bring him a record 6th Super Bowl winners ring. Nothing is certain in sport – after all Brady’s team fell short at the final hurdle last year – but I wouldn’t bet against it.

I've always found it more than odd the way Americans proclaim the winners of their national competitions world champions just because hardly anyone else plays some of their sports. But, whatever, Brady and Belichik are masters of their particular universe and we’re privileged to watch them at work in combination.

P.S. well of course the Patriots won, albeit in the lowest scoring Super Bowl, dominated by the Ds (defense). Brady to Edelman was the most successful combination and Brady has cemented his place in the pantheon of the world's greatest sportsmen. No, that doesn't mean you have to like him, after all he is respected more than liked in his own country, disliked as much as liked in popularity polls. But his stats don't lie