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Monday 27 July 2020

The spin on the spin

There's been something of a triumph of spin on the EU's MFF share-out. Oh I don't mean the headlines, which we summarised last week, but the rationale. Spain and Italy get the biggest share for the next seven years because they have been hardest hit by Covid, the spin went. And hardly anyone said "Hold on - Covid hasn't gone. What if Poland goes down next year, or the Netherlands?"

Of course, as Rutte and Kurz know full well, Covid has been the cover for propping up the generous but unaffordable pension commitments in Spain and Italy. I told my old mate in the pub last night not to worry - Germany was paying for the mad Med pensions. He was just paying for Slovenia and Croatia. "What?

Austria pays €14bn into the MFF; Slovenia gets €1.2bn and Croatia €12.1bn. That's €1,580 from the purses of every Austrian and €2,969 into the wallets of every Croatian. "Croatia? Why do they need money? Have you seen the price of property there now? Their hotels cost the same as ours and are more fully booked, their trains are new, new stations, bridges - we paid for all that already".

I have my own suspicions - and they're around Tito's old nuclear power plant at Kr┼íko (say Crooshgo), shared between Croatia and Slovenia, due for decommissioning from 2023 but now extended for another twenty years. The EU insists it's safe, but our nuclear leak (and other civil emergencies) warning sirens are still tested every Saturday at 12 noon, and most folk have a 7-day course of Iodine pills in the first aid box.  More specifically, Croatia has a contractual obligation to take 50% of the nuclear waste by 2025, hasn't got anywhere to put it and Slovenia has run out of storage. That's my guess, anyhow.

That's the sort of thing that Covid is helping to hide. Don't tell the tourists headed for the Adriatic beaches that there's a nuclear waste dump behind the hotel, don't tell the punters hard at work in Munich that their taxes are being drunk by Luigi and Alphonse sitting in the sun outside their tavernas. Hey ho.

Sunday 26 July 2020

Could Covid save the Green Belt?

At engineering school we learned one of the costs of the black hole that is London, whose gravitational pull was once so great that everything in the island was drawn inexorably into its maw. In this case it was sand and aggregate - an effect known as the Aggregate Drag.

Essentially all sand and gravel quarried in the south-east is delivered in the direction of London; gravel from Chelmsford will go to London, gravel from Ipswich will go to Chelmsford and gravel from Diss will go to Ipswich. Likewise roadstone from the Midlands and the north is always (in aggregate, ahem, terms) delivered southwards. So pernicious are the economic and transport infrastructure effects of this drag that interventions have frequently been made with the intention of by-passing the movements. London plans have preserved sand and gravel wharves right in the heart of the city, from Deptford to Richmond, to take millions of tons of traffic from the roads radiating to Kent and Anglia. The aim is to take gravel from Diss and such parts direct to London and leave Ipswich and Chelmsford supplying themselves. Railheads have been established in Scots 'superquarries' that hollow-out entire mountains to send millions of tonnes of Scots roadstone directly into coating plants in the heart of London rather than into Northumberland. And so on.

London's insatiable demand for building and expansion led the well-intentioned but over-controlling planners of post-war London, with a masterplan known universally as the Abercrombie Plan, to create a green belt. In the same way as they sought to control Aggregate Drag they sought to control People Drag; establishing a series of new towns on the other side of the green belt. This is an original plan -

In recent years both councils and developers have been poised with back-hoe excavators at the ready (oh come on - you don't expect us to write 'bulldozers' on this blog ..) at the edge of the existing green belt - always somewhat smaller than the 1944 plan - doing the housing-queue equivalent of shroud-waving. At times it has been doubtful if the green belt can survive. However, Covid could change all that.

In a matter of months we have undergone a decade's worth (in more normal times) of change. The culture wars have left the workplace a minefield in which first smoking then alcohol and finally human contact has been banned as too hazardous. Lawyers and HR departments were in the ascendant, 'micro aggressions' lurked round every corner, and one couldn't even move someone's yoghurt pot in the office fridge without risking a misconduct hearing. You can get away with this nonsense in the BBC and the public sector, where maintaining the right diversity quota is always more important than actual output, productivity and efficiency, but the new mores have hit the private sector hard.

Covid has actually come as a welcome shock-adjustment for many firms. Overnight whole legions of HR executives monitoring breaches of fridge-etiquette are redundant, as are lawyers taking on yoghurt-pot cases for no win no fee. Workers can crack a beer in their home offices without breaching company policy, and hug their spouses or significant others without risk of disciplinary action. Of course we have still to work out some important stuff like how employer's liability in law will work if a home-worker trips on a printer cable, whether home offices are lawful in planning terms, who will pay for the heat, light, power and water consumed to the firm's benefit by household-based workers and so on. But such solutions will come.

More significantly, housing demand in and around London will start to fall. If you can work remotely from Harlow, why not Bishop Auckland? Or Austria? And if housing demand falls, then so will pressure to develop the green belt. Covid could turn out to be a very green disease. 

Friday 24 July 2020

EU trade talks latest

"Give up your rights under international law" 
"You're being unreasonable"

"Subject your trade to our political court"
"You're being very unreasonable"

"Allow us to dictate your national standards"
"There you go again - just unreasonable. Clearly you don't want a trade deal."

Thursday 23 July 2020

EU manages a deal that angers everyone

Just when you thought the farce that is the EU couldn't sink any lower, they've managed to agree a Covid recovery plan that has angered just about everyone. Spain and Italy are furious because they don't get enough, Germany Austria and the Netherlands furious because they're paying for what they are getting. The French are in a rage with Macron - who is hiding from them in his big gold palace; the Poles and Hungarians are ticked that any money is tied to changing their national mandates for Brussels' ones. The European Parliament is very cross with two of the EU's Presidents, VDL and Charles Michel. The Italians are incensed with Conte, the Dutch with Rutte. The Irish are demented that in Brexit year they will pay more and get less, and the Commission is vexed that Ireland has just won a tax fight against them. I've never known a deal be so successful in pitting so many of the EU's actors against eachother.

Unelected bureaucrats think they're happy because the deal has just ratcheted up federal power and authority, but at the cost of a big hit to public satisfaction, which will grow as the utter inadequacy of the MFF and Covid package becomes clear.

What's even more absurd is that they only got this deal because no-one wanted to go on record for this recent round being the longest ever European Council summit. It just beat the longest, we are told, by fifteen minutes. So glad. Pleased to see it's the PR merchants driving the talks not the national interests of 420m people and 27 nations.

The European Parliament, politico EU reports, wanted a deal €266bn bigger than Michel's starting point; instead they've got one about €130bn smaller.  Charles Michel's summary of the summit process - "Europe is united, Europe is present. We have demonstrated that the magic of the European project works because when we think that it is impossible, there is a spring in our step thanks to respect and cooperation." - must surely rank with Lyndon Johnson's 1964 Vietnam pledge that "We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves."

Boy, aren't we glad we left. 

Wednesday 22 July 2020

The fury of the scorned

Remainer fury yesterday was fierce, on the release by the Intelligence and Security Commission of the long-awaited Russia report. The fury on show extended to members of the committee itself. It was not, however, directed at the Russians, for having attempted to interfere in the 2014 Scots referendum, but at the entire Leave side, for the result of the 2016 referendum not having been subject to Russian interference.

They excoriated the security services for not finding something that wasn't there. They wanted, I bet, to excoriate the Russians for not having interfered. But most of all they were furious that the 52% won the referendum fair and square, when for four years FBPE stars  have tacitly supported suggestions that the Russians crooked the result. They failed even to find anything on Arron Banks, long the target of Russian smears. Brendan O'Neill has a piece in the Speccie hoping, I think naively, that this report will now end Russsian conspiracy whispers in relation to the referendum. I doubt it.

The report did however include one paragraph of note - but we have to read through the redactions -

One of the fundamental pillars of a free democracy, the integrity of the secret ballot, is largely safe - or it was when the committee took its evidence, and before the 2019 election.

What is safe is the process that involves stubby pencils on bits of string and collapsible hardboard voting booths, locked boxes being opened and votes counted in local town halls and sports centres. This, at least, Blair could not foul with his 'reforms'. However, I'll bet a pound to a pea that the redactions include reservations about the integrity of the postal voting system. It is this, rather than fantasies about the integrity of the 2016 referendum, that should now dominate the committee's concerns.

The 2019 general election saw the proportion of postal votes rise to 37%. At the same time, public confidence in the integrity of the postal vote process has fallen. Voters know what's going on, even if the Electoral Commission doesn't. What's extraordinary about the postal vote level in the 2019 election is that a 120-page report on the election by the Commons Research dept, a report that includes an analysis of everything from the weather on polling day to the numbers of spoiled ballots, makes not one mention of this extraordinary increase in postal votes.

Covid may mean great pressure to move to wholly postal voting, absent a vaccine. Before we acquiesce, we must be sure that the process is secure. Here is where members should turn their attention, not chasing remainer fantasies around the integrity of the 2016 referendum. 

The report is also critical of the extent of Lords' interests in Russian money, and the Mail points out Peter Mandelson's shareholdings in Russian defence firm Sistema, and that he previously sat on the company's board. Peter's interests aren't just Russian, though - he's also President of both the Great Britain China Centre and the German British Forum.

Tuesday 21 July 2020


I imagine it is kindness on the part of the government that allows 'Chief Nurse' Ruth May to encourage stories that she was dropped from the daily Covid briefings because she disagreed with the fact that Dominic Cummings did nothing wrong.

The alternative may be less palatable. It took only one appearance and one answer from Ms May for me to conclude that she simply wasn't up to it. At the podium she was an embarrassment. You can understand the Number 10 press office thinking - "let's have a nurse on, a nice reassuring homely nursey, spirit of the NHS, representative of the people .."

I'm not knocking nurses, but nurses are nurses, professors of epidemiology are professors of epidemiology and politicians driven and devious enough to have risen to ministerial level are, erm, politicians. And it really was better for Ms May that she was withdrawn when she was. She was never there in the first place for her scientific or public administration expertise, but as a misplaced bit of PR. Absent lions, Hilaire Belloc's Jim may have done no wrong.

Monday 20 July 2020

The cost of the Chinese dollar

It's awkward for the left. Their liking for China's state communist regime and support for the autocracy's dictators, the dreadful old waxworks, has come under strain in recent months as the disguise has come off and the CCP has been revealed as the brutal and inhuman force driving the sino jackboot. If you haven't seen Marr interviewing the Chinese ambassador yesterday on the concentration camp transports, I recommend it. The wolf warrior's wax almost melted. He clearly hadn't expected questions such as this from a comrade of the red banner, a fellow-traveller on the lefty path. If China's behaviour has been so egregious that even the British left are deserting them, things must be serious.

After having promised extended UK citizenship rights to Hong Kong's 3m potential BNO passport holders (Brexitcorp™  need not worry - not even a tenth of that number are likely to want to come to the UK) Raab is expected to suspend the UK's extradition treaty with China later today. This, after Huawei, will encourage China to make it even more difficult for its citizens to come to the UK, either to shop or study. Whilst this may be good news for the folk living within coach-trip drop-off from Bicester Village, Covid and the Chinese hiatus are causing deep gloom in the worst of the woke re-education camps that badge themselves as 'universities' - and the Scots will be the hardest hit.

Confident of ever more money flowing from London to Scotland to pay for it, the SNP bravely offered free degrees to not only native Scots but to EU citizens. In reality, it's been the PRC that has been picking up much of the tab. The CCP clearly regards UK universities as outposts of their own ideology, safe spaces for PRC ideologues. Glasgow University depends on fees from Chinese students for 31% of its income, the Mail reports. Edinburgh is at 20%. And it's not just the re-education camps - the local student economy in everything from bedsits to Bok Choi will be hit.

Already in Scotland the free Uni thing is turning sour as native Scots are finding their access is severely limited due to the SNP's economic mismanagement. The re-education camps are going to have to downsize a few barracks blocks. And short of Wee Nippy announcing that Scotland will become a Special Administrative Region of the PRC if they vote for independence, changes must be made. I suspect EU students are about to be axed from the free access programme, with Sturgeon seeking to put the blame on London.