Thursday, 17 April 2014

Tip: Construction will be up

It's happened pretty suddenly, but it looks as though construction has not only turned the corner but may be in danger of overheating. Subbies are getting booked out and can start to pick and choose their contracts, the multi-consultancy firms are packing extra desks into their down-sized offices and even site labourers are getting several texts a day from their agencies for 'immediate start' jobs. No-one wants a repeat of the boom of the 80s, when construction cost inflation was so great that price escalation clauses were needed even on short contracts and you could often get through three site managers in the course of a job, as they jumped from site to site for an extra £100 a week each time. 

It may be a London thing, but I suspect the next set of economic stats out in a month or so will show the construction upturn. Anyway, it means I'm busier than usual, which isn't entirely welcome. Ho hum. I wonder what Ukrainian brickies are like? 

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Salmond's new Scots Army

With the real costs of maintaining independent armed forces being made clear, Alex Salmond's dreams of a Scots army are looking increasingly unrealistic. Instead of an army equivalent to that of Norway or Sweden, it's looking more like Scotland can only afford one to rival Luxembourg. Still, Luxembourg uses it's contribution of an infantry company to claim a place at the table of both NATO and the Eurocorps command, and though having no air force, offers 'Amazon' registration to NATO's 18 AWACS aircraft. 

The new battalion-sized Scots army could include an artillery company with two or three old field guns for firing ceremonial salutes as well as preserving the identity of the historic Scots regiments at platoon or section level; The Cameronians could be reconstituted as ten men under the command of a corporal from Perth, wearing the distinctive Douglas tartan and so forth. A parade of the full battalion would therefore be a festive occasion, a multiplicity of colourful tartans, and even the guns could be painted in a clan-neutral Burberry check. 

Historic Scots uniform could be revived
The Royal Company of Archers, a subscription club that currently forms the sovereign's bodyguard in Scotland, could be placed on an operational footing to add to military capacity. In return for membership fees, every officer in the corps currently ranks as a general, and every private as a colonel. This may cause some minor problems with NATO integration, but modern military commanders will no doubt come to value a sturdy body of middle-aged accountants with stout yew bows and arrows on their flank when facing a schwerpunkt of Russian armour. The suggestion that the historic uniform of the Royal Company (illustrated) could be adopted as the No 1 full dress of the new Scots army also has much to commend it. All in all, I think Salmond's onto a winner here.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Iraq war criminals: Where are they now?

With Blair still holding up the publication of Chilcot's report, attempting desperately to suppress evidence that he had already agreed to invade before a vote in Parliament, before the report of the weapons inspectors and before any vote at the UN, his co-conspirators are either attempting to reinvent themselves or are fading gently from the public eye. Many on the fringes of the Iraq debacle, such as Balls, have found a new place in Miliband's shambles. 

The usual caveat applies - our lads were fantastic, and neither they nor the generals can be held to blame for the way in which they were abused and misused by a criminal government. 

Tony Blair
Under heavy police protection, he pursues a fantasy statesman job as the most ineffective peace envoy in history whilst his wife amasses a multi-million property empire. Wisely spends as little time in the UK as possible and dare not appear in public. Even the BBC now shun him - avoiding any close up shots that include him in the line-up of former PMs at the Cenotaph. 

Geoff Hoon
Defence secretary in charge of MI6 who first heard of Alastair Campbell's made-up 45 minute claim when he read it in Downing Street's fantasy dossier. Exposed as a liar, fraud and a cheat and forced out of Parliament, he founded a defence business consultancy, Taylor and Hoon, and now sits on the board of military helicopter manufacturer Agusta Westland.

Jack Straw
Blair's Foreign Secretary, still sits in Parliament for Blackburn but will leave after this term. Admitted to Chilcot that he could have stopped the war if he wanted to - but his compliance did him little good; William Rees-Mogg claimed in the Times that Straw was removed from office in 2006 at the request of the Bush administration for failing to support the bombing of Iran.

Derry Irvine
Blair's former pupil master, now 74, who held the senior Office of State during the war. Used the Official Secrets Act to block news of the cost of his interior decorating of the Lord Chancellor's flat at Westminster. A friend of the Scotch Whisky industry.

Alastair Campbell
Author of the fantasy war dossier, he also admitted that on learning that Dr Kelly had spoken to the BBC, Campbell had then decided, in his own words, to use this fact to "fuck Gilligan". The exposure led to Dr Kelly's death. Has attempted to reinvent himself as a media personality in the US fashion, after admitting widely to mental illness and alcoholism, but is the only Top Gear guest to have been booed by the audience.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Power of Recall will strengthen MPs

MPs are no more inherently honourable than any other cohort of the population. Thus when given the opportunity, the majority of them will steal public money if - an important if - they can get away with it. There are notable exceptions, members of exceptional honesty such as John Redwood, but such exceptions may also be found amongst the general population. They have also been subject to a party system that robs them of independence and coerces obedience through the prospect of junior ministerial jobs. Few can say, as Sir Patrick Cormack did, that "It's country, constituency, party. In that order".

IPSA, under Ian Kennedy, has its own agenda. It's part of the permanent mandarinate, committed to securing stable central power and direct rule from Whitehall, with MPs and the parties the democratic dressing that preserves the illusion of democratic participation. The people can't be trusted to take decisions in their own interest, they think, and only an omnipotent and benevolent central State can truly act in the public interest. 

Both government and the mandarinate bitterly oppose the Power of Recall. As do MPs, but for slightly different reasons. For the State, it's a tug-of-war for the loyalties of MPs; the last thing they want is members so sensitive to their electors that they put constituency before party. For MPs, it's the illusion that politics is a career, and the mistaken sense of entitlement engendered by the current system. 

However, Recall should not be a constraint that compels populism. There are times when MPs need to be free to put country first, above both constituency and party, and times when the House, though but rarely, rises above the venalities of individual members to act collectively to secure real national interests. MPs must remain delegates, not become representatives, and exercise their own conscience and judgement where required to do so without fear of being sacked. 

A strong Parliament with a Speaker of probity and stature that can truly hold government to account, a party system subservient to local interests and a State under the close control of the Commons and its committees will ensure the survival of British democracy.  

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Nigel Evans' Life On Mars

Back in the heyday of the old Colony Room Club, we had our own version of Nigel Evans; an erudite QC of otherwise impeccable manners and rare good humour who was a serial thigh-pincher. One would be in deep inebriated conversation when a sharp and painful nip to the thighs or buttocks would alert you to his presence. Engaging him affably in talk didn't work; he'd sneak in further nips whenever he could get a hand within range. It was pointless trying to shame him with an accusation of deviancy or perversion; they were practically compulsory qualities in that small green place, and only a firm "look, will you fecking stop that" (sometimes) caused him to seek new thighs to pinch.Oh, and it was only blokes that he targeted; the girls were all quite safe. Despite the bruising, I liked him - he was good value. 

Those of us from the Gene Hunt generation I suppose are either more tolerant or more forgiving of the sort of behaviour that has since become classified as 'inappropriate touching'. There was a lot of it about in the 70s and 80s, and in the 90s and oughties it just came indoors. And it wasn't just a post-1968 thing either; our parents' generation even had a code, NSIT (Not Safe in Taxis), to annotate shared address-books. The combination of testosterone and alcohol will generally always produce the same effect, and we should hardly be surprised if the current generation, constrained by fifty weeks a year of post-feminist puritanism, go wild for two weeks in Aya Napa or Ibiza.  

The joyless politically correct little puritans at the CPS may well have destroyed Evans' life, and besmirched the reputations of other figures in the public eye in what is increasingly looking like a vindictive and spiteful witch-hunt against any trace of 'Life on Mars' left in public life, but I think they have misread public opinion. Few juries will happily convict gropers, and that is now the danger; having been thwarted by the justice system, these zealots will now seek other ways of pursuing their agenda.

Friday, 11 April 2014

The dangers of the Unrewarded Middle

Selina Todd writing in the Guardian has a point when she suggests that most people don't identify with being 'hard-working families' as Miliband imagines from his isolated and away-with-the-fairies illusion of what ordinary folk are like. It's a fantasy world that exists purely in the Miliband head. 'Ordinary people who have to work' is by far a more accurate description. 

Likewise, the 'squeezed middle' has proved to be a soggy squib. Recent research suggests that the middle reacted to 2008 by knuckling down, cutting costs, repaying loans, skimping on foreign travel and new cars and even with cuts in universal Welfare benefits made adjustments. Fortuitously, the car industry has been saved by the thieving bankers grudgingly having to repay billions in PPI compensation, most of which has been spent on new cars and white goods. 

And 'we're all in this together' has proven to be true only for the very wealthy, who as a group have seen their incomes soar as the rest of the country is stuck on zero percent pay increases. Few will view as equitable an arrangement under which all are required to endure hardship but only some are rewarded. 

And of course those home-owners living in London and the south east are seeing increases of up to 30% over 2008 levels for their homes.

So I think there's a new political cliche lurking out there waiting out there to be discovered - the 'unrewarded middle' - those working in manufacturing or professions untouched by the consumer-spending led recovery, living in areas in which house prices haven't yet recovered their 2008 levels, burdened by student debt and with abilities and qualifications that won't win them secure well-paying work, who have obeyed all the rules and see nothing before them but a lifetime of unwelcome graft, struggle and grief. Such folk will be deservedly angry at all the political promises - and intelligent enough to realise that whilst politicians may be unable to offer salvation, they can at least be kicked hard when the opportunity of the ballot-box arises.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

National psychology

Historical footnotes are often more fascinating than the well-travelled events they amplify. One such formed a running theme of Alan Moorehead's pen pictures of our near European neighbours shortly after their liberation from the Reich. The theme was the extent of residual hatred of the occupiers; Moorehead found that the more compliant a conquered nation had been, the better fed, least deprived its people, the more they hated the Germans. The Belgians in particular had an easy war under occupation; resistance was minimal, voluntary co-operation with the occupiers substantial, the people fatter and better fed than the French, with fewer retributive shootings. As a consequence, they hated the Germans viscerally, to an extent far greater than the French. Moorehead visited Brussels zoo to find the animal cages packed with alleged collaborators. He enquired what was to become of them. "They will be given a fair trial" he was told "then they will be shot."

I was reminded of this whilst reading a further piece in Der Spiegel attempting to understand German sympathy for Russia, particularly over Ukraine. Christiane Hoffmann writes:
The question of guilt has created a link between Germans and Russians, but the issue evaporated fairly quickly for the Russians after the war. Unlike the French, Scandinavians and Dutch, the Russians don't tend to name and shame the Germans for crimes committed during the German occupation. "Those who suffered the most had the least hate for the Germans," says Baberowski, as if the issue of German guilt evaporated in the first frenzy of revenge at the end of the war. He believes it dissipated, at the very latest, after the return of the last prisoners of war to Germany. "The Russians told stories that would make your blood freeze in your veins, but they were never accusatory towards us," says Schulze, who spent several months in St. Petersburg during the 1990s.
Psychologists will no doubt have an explanation. Der Spiegel also remarks the shared sores of anti-Americanism in both Russia and Germany, which the actions of the NSA (ably supported by GCHQ and the UK's hub position for international data routing) have rubbed raw. The French also resent American influence, still blaming the US for having to liberate them in 1944 and not quite daring to make a film depicting Europe being invaded by the 134 French soldiers who accompanied the Anglo-US forces on D-Day. Gregorio Marañón, writing of Tiberius, termed this 'the painful slavery of gratitude'.

The tectonic plates are certainly shifting in Europe.