Friday, May 31, 2019

Thoughts from the night train to Madrid early 31..5.19

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable. 
                  Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain

Note: A few of the items below have been borrowed from Lenox Napier's Business Over Tapas of yesterday.

  • Spain's star is rising in Brussels as Italy's wanes. This, says Blomberg here, reflects the former's superior economic performance over the last 10 years. Not to mention the nature and policies of the current government in Rome. 
  • As I know from the experience of friends, it takes a lot of time, money and patience to gain Spanish nationality. Quite possibly 3 years or more. This contrasts with an average of c. 6 months to get English or German nationality. One can only guess why. Despite the prospect of this calvario, the numbers of Brits seeking to change their nationality have grown considerably in the last couple of years. For obvious reasons.
  • In contrast - and contrary to the what the Ministry of Culture (not Sport!) avers - the number of bullfight attendants continues to fall year on year, probably reflecting the antipathetic views of Spain's younger citizens.  
  • Talking of real sport . . . If, perchance, you'll be in Madrid this weekend, hoping to see the big football match there somewhere or other, this advice from The Local will be invaluable. Be warned that you might bump into me.
  • And talking of the capital city . . . As the Socialist mayor didn't retain her majority position in the recent elections, it's possible that the right-wing PP party will return to power there, with - they say - implications for expenditure and retention of the recent anti-pollution measure of restricting cars in the centre of the city.
  • Lenox has posted this fascinating 1946 newsreel feature which majors on UN measures against fascist Spain and talks of Franco being on 'a downward path', as the 'sands of time run out' on his dictatorship. In fact, Franco ruled Spain for another 30 years and died in his bed. It's almost amusing to watch.
  • Some folk, of course, really miss El Caudillo and the 'greater safety' his regime accorded to some of its citizens. The ones it didn't imprison or execute. See this video on support for the far-right Vox party down South, from the Guardian.
  • The police in a Galician town have announced they'll be eliminating a zebra crossing. On the grounds that too many accidents occur on it. I guess there's a sort of logic there. People won't dare to try to cross the road in future.
  • Yesterday morning, I was passed by 13 'pilgrims' when crossing the bridge into town. One of them, a young woman, was dragging a small dog. Which reminds me . . . Am I old-fashioned to be concerned to see so many single women doing a camino? Or just sensibly alert to the risks?
The EU
  • Ambrose Evans Pritchard continues to be negative about Italy and warns that: The eurozone elites are looking straight down the barrel of an Italian economic revolt and a parallel currency. See his latest article below. The actions of the European Commission at this juncture are astonishing, says AEP. They have issued a crass ultimatum, regardless of the immense financial risk. They are needlessly provoking the newly-triumphant leader of Europe’s second biggest manufacturing power. To say that Brussels had no choice under the strict rules of the US fiscal machinery (dubious) is to acknowledge the absurdity of the EMU construction. The project has taken Europe to this demented cul de sac. Should Salvini bring the whole temple crashing down on their heads, the retort will serve them right.
Social Media
  • Voice-controlled assistants are fast becoming a common feature of the modern home, but many of Alexa’s owners struggle to shake the nagging fear that they are being recorded. Now, Amazon wants to make that a reality. It has registered a patent application in the US that would enable the device to continuously capture everything a person says in case it hears the word “Alexa” or another so-called wake word.
The Way of the World 
  • Well, that's art - and 'art' buyers - for you . . . Well into his 8th decade, Peter Max could be found in his studio above a Chinese restaurant in Manhattan, painting late into the night. “He would have 10 canvasses at one time,” a friend said of the prolific pop artist yesterday.T he friend would watch him paint until 2am. “Then we would go and get coffee. That was in 2010, however, and he now fears that Max, who is now 81 and has Alzheimer’s, is no longer capable of such bursts of creativity. Yet until recently an increasing stream of paintings issued forth from his studio to be sold on cruise ships, where Max’s bright, optimistic works are in great demand. According to The New York Times, this vast productivity was engineered by Max’s son and 3 associates. The newspaper said the artist had not painted seriously in 4 years, citing 9 people who had knowledge of his condition. It claimed that the paintings had been produced by a team of painters, some recruited off the street. Twice a week Max would be ushered into his studio, a paint brush placed in his hand, and he was instructed to scrawl his name on the artworks, the newspaper reported.
  • Word of the Day: Señal
Finally . . .
  • I'd made a mistake in booking my ticket on the train to Madrid last night and had to pay - rather expensively - for an upgrade from an uncomfortable seat to a bed which seemed to be next to something loose in the wall near my head. With inevitable consequences for my ability to get to sleep. But, anyway, as I quietly searched for my shoes at 6.45 this morning, so as not to wake any of my 3 companions, my bloody phone blurted out: Hi! How can I help? I didn't even know I had this facility on my phone. And so have no idea how I accidentally accessed it.

Italy to activate its 'parallel currency' in defiant riposte to EU ultimatum: Ambrose Evans Pritchard

The eurozone elites are looking straight down the barrel of an Italian economic revolt and a parallel currency. Subversive “minibot” treasury notes are back in play.

“I don’t govern a country on its knees,” said Matteo Salvini after sweeping the European elections even more emphatically than the Brexit party. Note the majestic ‘I’. He is already master of Rome.

The Lega strongman can no longer be contained, even by Italy’s ever-ingenious mandarin class. His party commands 40pc of the country together with eurosceptic confederates from the Brothers of Italy. It has erupted like a volcano in the Bourbon territories of the Mezzogiorno, now on the front line of migrant flows and left to fend for itself by Europe. Salvini can force a snap-election at any time.

By some maniacal reflex the dying Commission of Jean-Claude Juncker has chosen this moment to draw up the first indictment letter of the revamped debt and deficits regime. Italy faces €3.5bn of fines for failure to tighten its belt. It has 48 hours to respond.

“We’re not Greece,” said Claudio Borghi, Lega chairman of Italy’s house budget committee. “We are net contributors to the EU budget. We have a trade surplus and primary budget surplus. We don’t need anything from anybody. And we are in better shape than France.”

Lega strategy is to offer EU leaders a choice: reform the EU treaties to enable fiscal expansion and allow the European Central Bank to act as lender-of-last-resort; or face the consequences.

Brussels says Italy has failed to make “sufficient progress” on debt levels even though the chief cause of slippage was recession and a world trade slump. Its demands are macro-economic vandalism. It is ordering a country already in slump to tighten budget policy violently by 1.5pc of GDP. It is doing this after the withdrawal of monetary stimulus from the ECB.

The prescription is futile even on its own crude terms. Italy’s nominal GDP will deflate. The public debt ratio will ratchet higher through the denominator effect. But law is law - at least for Salvini’s Italy, if not for Macron’s France.

“I am not going to hang myself for some silly rule,” said Salvini. “Until unemployment falls to 5pc we have a right to invest. We have regions where youth unemployment is 50pc. We need a Trump cure, a positive fiscal shock to reboot the country.” His plan is a €30bn boost led by a flat tax of 15pc.

But Italy is not America. It is not a sovereign economic country able to borrow in its own coin. His plan is impossible under the current structure of monetary union. All it took was a minor skirmish to push risk spreads on 10-year Italian bonds to a six-month high of 292 basis points on Wednesday. Stress begins at 300. The banking system spirals into crisis at 400.

Italian lenders hold €360bn of their own country’s debt. Rising yields force them to mark down these assets. The International Monetary Fund says a “severe” shock would drive down the Tier 1 capital ratios of Italy’s banks by 230 points, with a chain reaction quickly spreading through Portugal and Spain and morphing into a systemic threat to the eurozone. The “sovereign-bank doom loop” has not gone away.

Mr Borghi said the plan for minibot treasury notes is written into the coalition’s solemn “contract” and will be activated to flank the tax reform package. This scrip paper creates parallel liquidity - akin to what Yanis Varoufakis wanted to do in Greece - to be used to pay €50bn of arrears to state contractors and households.

“It is a way to mobilize credit that is badly needed and put money into circulation,” he said. Once these short-term notes trade on the open market they would become a de facto currency, a new lira in waiting. Italy would have a split monetary system. The euro would unravel from within. My guess is that the ECB would first ration and then cut off Target2 support for the Bank of Italy.

Mr Varoufakis says Italy would have to impose capital controls within days. The country would wake up one morning to find that it was no longer in the euro. That, of course, is what Mr Salvini wants. Currency sovereignty is a pre-condition of national self-government. “The euro is a crime against humanity,” he once said, to me as it happens.

Will the poteri forti of the Italian deep state let him go this far? There was much bluster a year ago. It came to little. The Lega-Five Star alliance later capitulated in budget talks with Brussels. They were boxed in by the President Sergio Mattarella, an inheritance from the old order.

He used the constitutional powers of the Quirinale - rarely invoked under the Second Republic - to block their economic agenda. He vetoed appointments and installed technocrats in key departments. Imagine a Speaker Bercow taking charge of the Treasury and you get the gist.

The Lega’s landslide election victory has changed the game. “We have far more bargaining power,” said Mr Borghi. “We know will be stiff resistance at every level but this time we intend to impose our line.”

The political battle will come to a head under the new Commission this Autumn when Italy’s budget is sent to Brussels. Yet the writing is already on the wall. Germany and the northern block have refused to rebuild the eurozone on viable foundations before the next global downturn hits. They have rebuffed all proposals for EMU fiscal union and debt sharing.

Lorenzo Codogno, former chief economist of the Italian treasury and now at LC Macro Advisors, said EU leaders guaranteed the next Italian banking crisis at last year’s December summer when they cleared the way for easier sovereign debt restructuring. There can be no further rescues by the eurozone bail-out fund (ESM) unless debt is deemed sustainable. “Other European countries are preparing for Italy’s default,” he says.

The ECB may not legally buy Italy’s debt until the country requests a formal bail-out under stringent conditions, requiring a vote in the German Bundestag. This would entail a ‘Troika’ take-over of Rome. Salvini would sooner have them arrested.

Mario Draghi’s “whatever it takes” has expired. The situation is even more dangerous than during the EMU crisis of 2012. There is no longer any firewall at all.

The actions of the European Commission at this juncture are astonishing. They have issued a crass ultimatum regardless of the immense financial risk. They are needlessly provoking the newly-triumphant leader of Europe’s second biggest manufacturing power.

To say that Brussels had no choice under the strict rules of the US fiscal machinery (dubious) is to acknowledge the absurdity of the EMU construction. The project has taken Europe to this demented this cul de sac.

Should Salvini bring the whole temple crashing down on their heads, the retort will serve them right.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Thoughts from Galicia, Spain: 30.5.19

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable. 
                  Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain
  • A good word about the Spanish, whom every foreigner agrees are one of the best things about life in Spain. That said, friendly conversations can often be remarkably trivial, superficial or gossipy. I really only enjoy the last type.
  • And let's hear it for us Brits . . .
  • Checking on the availability of Stalingrad by Grossman Vassily, I discovered that, on Amazon Spain, the kindle version at €19.32 costs more than the hardback version at €15.81. In contrast, in the UK they are £14.99 and £17.50, respectively. This is the first time I've seen this and hard to understand. Worse, Amazon - for reasons best known to themselves - only allow me to download kindle versions from the Spanish website. Exploitation?
  • Talking of books . . . Yesterday I finished Eduardo Mendoza's An Englishman in Madrid (Riña de Gatos). It did move along but ultimately I was seriously disappointed by it, finding it confusing and even preposterous at times. So, I was surprised to find it'd won some major literary prize. Happily - and inevitably - though, at least a couple of people on Amazon agreed with me and had given it only a solitary star.
  • Last year, I opined that most public toilets in Spain lack some of the 15 features I felt essential for a decent washroom. Yesterday, I noticed that the Gents in my morning café place - the excellent Hotel Rúas in Plaza Verdura - has a 16th element - a ventilator. So, even more sub-optimal places now.
The UK
  • Query: How can Ryanair be so 'punctual' when Stansted is Britain's most delayed airport? 
  • Answer: Airlines all go in for the schedule-padding pioneered by British Rail about 35 years ago. Just add 30-60 minutes to your average journey time and issue a new timetable.
  • Britain's 'post-truth political environment'. Is it as bad anywhere else in Europe? Hungary? Poland? Germany??? Or did that sort of thing go out in the 1940s there?
  • Nigel Farage’s upstart Brexit Party has blown the United Kingdom's political system to pieces. And paradoxically, it's made it more “European” in the process. . . . We’ve been slowly moving away from two-party politics in the U.K. for decades now. The European election results might be the moment when we finally kiss it goodbye.
The EU
  • The secret of the advance of the new Right is that it practices what the old Left used to preach. It is a new international alliance with a shared message, a shared vision of social change, shared adversaries and now a shared political platform. It does all that while cultivating local roots and speaking a language that people understand. Instead of classes, it speaks of nations; instead of politics, it speaks of culture; and instead of capitalists, it speaks of immigrants. Yet it is a paradox that those political forces most hostile to European integration have also been the only ones to formulate a common vision for Europe. More here
The USA 
  • A famous chap called Wendell Phillips (1811-1884) once commented: You can always get the truth from an American statesman after he has turned 70, or given up all hope in the presidency. This was in pre-Fartian times, of course. 
  • Word of the Day: Brote
  • Riña de Gatos: Catfight.
Finally . . .
  • I bought a bird-feed 'hopper',  to give the poor sparrows a chance against the aggressive team of at least 4 greenfinches on my existing bird-feeder. Guess who immediately dominated it . . 

So, I've moved it to the front garden, where - so far - no bird of any type had happened on it.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Thoughts from Galicia, Spain: 29.5.19

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable. 
                  Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain
  • A useful map from The Local.
  • And some even more useful tips from the same folk.
  • Given what it means for Spain's view of itself - not to mention the vast sums which have flowed this way - it's not terribly surprising that the Spanish remain among the most pro-Europe people in the EU. Bucking a trend, it says here.
  • Two out-of-favour Catalans won seats in the EU parliament on Sunday. Sr Puigdemont is in self-exile in Belgium and Sr Junqueras is in prison. Understandably, it's unclear if they'll be sitting in the place any time soon.  
  • Oh, dear. Temperatures at either end of Spain between Thursday and Sunday will be polar opposites - reaching up to 37ºC in the south and barely reaching 14ºC in the north.
The UK
  • The number of contenders for the leadership of the Conservative party has reached 127, I think. All of them demonstrably insane.
  • There's a nice article below on this leadership election process.
The UK, Brexit, and this EU Election Results
  • There is plenty of scope for everyone to interpret the facts to suit their existing preferences. 
  • Richard North yesterday: One of the most fundamental defects in the reportage is the failure to evaluate the results in the context of what in fact is a low-turnout, low-interest electionThe very essence of the support for Farage was that it was a protest vote in an election which didn't matter, where people were prepared to take a risk-free punt. In a general election, however, it gets serious. People know that they are electing a government and are thus less inclined to take risks. Thus, time after time, where we see outliers in peripheral elections, the electorate tend to focus on the parties most likely to be able to form a government. 
  • The German political establishment is reeling after most voters rejected the two historical parties of government for the first time in a nationwide ballot.
The EU
  • Richard North addresses the critical issue of its democratic credentials here. Click if you want to know what he means by: The most refined form of bullshit known to man.
The Way of the World 
  • Here's a non-surprise about we atheists. Especially we ex-Catholic ones, I guess.
  • A nice cartoon from the wonderful Mike Williams:- 

Finally . . .
  • My neighbour Amparo's younger son has returned from a year in the USA, with a notable mid-Western accent. And a change in music tastes. I used to have to endure loud boom-boom, techno stuff. But now it's country and western. Which is a change for the better, I guess. 
  • Here's one of the fat, greedy greenfinches that dominate the bird feeding station in my garden:-


For Tory candidates, it’s all about kerb appeal: Rachel Sylvester

Voters get a feel for politicians before they know them, which is why trying to ape the Brexit Party would be disastrous

‘They will feel you before they hear you”, James Brown, the godfather of soul, told his friend Al Sharpton, the civil rights campaigner, when he was running for president of the United States. The advice is now quoted by Beto O’Rourke, the charismatic Texan who is seeking the Democratic nomination, and it is a message that the Tory leadership candidates should also take on board. Leadership is about character as much as it is about ideas.

In his book The Political Brain, the American psychologist Drew Westen argued that one of the main determinants of electoral success is what he calls “kerb appeal”, the feeling voters get when they “drive by” a politician a few times on television and form an emotional impression. It is often nothing to do with what they say. In one study people were asked to look at photographs of the winners and losers of House and Senate races — their instinctive assessments of which looked most competent correctly predicted the winner about 70 cent of the time. Policy matters, of course it does, but personality and plausibility also count.

Theresa May’s inability to form an emotional connection with either her colleagues or the voters was perhaps her greatest flaw as prime minister. When participants in a focus group organised by the consultancy Britain Thinks were asked which drink she reminded them of, one suggested eggnog, explaining that: “You’re offered it because somebody’s made it and you have to accept it but you’d probably rather tip it into a plant pot.”

By contrast, Tony Blair at the height of his popularity had an extraordinary ability to make people feel he was on their side. Before the 1997 election, voters from different social and economic backgrounds were asked what he would order in a pub. Each of them opted for whatever it was they themselves would choose.

Public perception is more like an impressionist painting, made up of splodges of colour, than a clear black and white line drawing. One government aide says that “every politician is driven by their own self-belief matched equally by their own insecurity” and it is the balance between those two forces that determines how desperately they want to form a connection with the voters. There is no MP in whom this tension is more obvious than Boris Johnson, a narcissist who also craves the approval of others.

The former foreign secretary is an entertainer who has an ability to cheer the nation up but he is a buffoon who leaves chaos in his wake too. The image of him hanging from a zip wire has stuck in the public mind because it perfectly captures this combination. Although he has a bust of Pericles in his office his favourite cartoon character is Dennis the Menace. He is a disrupter, and these are serious times. It would be risky for the Tories to choose their own favourite buccaneering Brexiteer who makes them feel happy, because he elicits rather different emotions in others.

The assessment of the emotional impression created by politicians is inevitably subjective but candidates can hone a certain image. In his television appearances, Dominic Raab evokes the memory of Alan B’Stard, the right-wing Conservative MP played by Rik Mayall in the 1980s comedy The New Statesman, who will stop at nothing to further his career. Having promised to slash 5p off the basic rate of income tax, and take Britain out of the EU without a deal if there are no more concessions from Brussels, the former Brexit secretary refused at the weekend to disown his earlier suggestion that feminists were “obnoxious bigots”. It may be no coincidence that an MP from a rival camp reports hearing one of his supporters arguing that the next Tory leader must not be a woman because Mrs May has done such a bad job.

Matt Hancock is going for a vibe of energetic youth, with a trendy image makeover and a modernising message. Esther McVey is a “blue-collar Tory” whose own background as a Barnardo’s child embodies her theme of working-class aspiration. Jeremy Hunt is presenting himself as the grown-up choice, Andrea Leadsom conveys an image of brisk efficiency and Sajid Javid wants to be seen as a bridge-builder. Rory Stewart is intriguing because of his experience outside Westminster and his willingness to put personal ambition to one side. Michael Gove, seen as a potential unity candidate, is respected in the party as a reformer who can win an argument, but he still grates with a chunk of the wider electorate after his divisive period as education secretary.

The truth is that parties as well as leaders have a character that they convey to the electorate. Sir Oliver Letwin, the former cabinet minister calls it an “aroma”, which voters can smell without even looking at the menu of policies contained in a manifesto. In the 1990s the voters were quite well disposed to certain proposals, until they found out that they were supported by the Conservatives. As Mrs May famously warned, the Tories gave the impression of being the “nasty party” and they are in danger of falling into the same trap again by putting ideology before the national interest.

After the disastrous European election results, most of the Tory leadership candidates are competing to show they can “close down” Nigel Farage by sounding as similar to the Brexit Party as possible. This may work in the short term, winning over the Conservative activists they need in order to get their hands on the keys to No 10, but it will be disastrous at the next general election when they need to appeal to the electorate as a whole. According to a YouGov poll earlier this month, two thirds of Tory members support leaving the EU without a deal, compared with less than a third of all voters and the overwhelming majority of young people want to Remain.

In 2016, the official Vote Leave campaign — that was supported by most Tory Brexiteers — only succeeded by distancing itself from Mr Farage and the rhetoric of his xenophobic “Breaking Point” poster. Afterwards, Mr Gove admitted that he still felt uncomfortable about the focus on immigration and would have preferred a campaign with a “slightly different feel”. Yet now the Conservatives are queuing up to ape the “bad boys of Brexit”, with some even contemplating a pact with Mr Farage. It is huge mistake. The voters feel parties as well as leaders before they hear them and if they sense the Tories are becoming extreme, they will not even listen to what they have to say.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Thoughts from Galicia, Spain: 28.5.19

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable. 
                  Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain

  • The socialist PSOE party was again the big winner in Sunday's EU elections, though it lost the Madrid and Barcelona mayoralties in the local elections. 
  • But our glad-handing camino friend in A Pobra de Brollón failed in his bid to become the PSOE mayor there. And I can't find any evidence that the winner - from the Galician Nationalist Block - shares his intention to convert the old Guardia Civil barracks into a 'pilgrims'' albergue and museum. Bang go my investment plans!
  • When I brought my border collie to Pontevedra in 2000, he was unique. He certainly wouldn't be now. And there seemed to be dozens of them in the rural zones of the camino last week. My fault?
  • I was passed by 11 'pilgrims' on the bridge into town yesterday. This is almost double the number we saw in 7 days 10 years ago on this Camino Portugués. It can only get worse. I might have to go and live on the Camino Invierno, until this gets popular too.
The UK and Brexit
  • A couple of the millions of observations on the EU elections:-
- The big winners were those parties with the least ambiguous stance on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union.
- A compromise Brexit deal looks increasingly untenable. This is now a fight to the end between an increasingly polarised electorate.
  • See the article below by one of my preferred columnists: After 3 years of sound and fury, bloodcurdling threats, diatribe and disputation the country’s position is – almost exactly where it was 3 years ago.
EU polls
  • It's not only in the UK that things are, well, messy:- For the first time since the creation of the European parliament in 1979, the centrist conservative European People’s Party and Socialists have lost control of the Brussels assembly, ceding 106 seats between them, with huge implications for how the EU works. It heralds months of fractious negotiations over this summer and a messy fight for top Brussels jobs, the political balance of the European Commission and policies. 
  • See the second article below on the would-be king in the crumbling castle.
Social Media
  • Snapchat is now a ‘haven’ for child abuse. Criminal use of the app has become so widespread that police are now handling about 3 child sexual exploitation cases each day. How much longer?
The Way of the World
  • Be concerned. Very concerned:-
- A single selfie from your social media could be used to create a video that appears to show you talking, laughing or shouting. 
- Algorithms can now be used to spread political disinformation or to blackmail people. Doctored videos are being use to destroy trust and undermine democracy. What was once the province of conspiracy theorists is now mainstream political currency. This spells disaster for the shared sense of reality that underpins democracy, the law — and civilisation.

The USA/Nutters/Shysters Corner
  • Here's a video which has left at least one blogger wondering why so many people take Christianity seriously. Well, at least the variety which believes we're entering the End Times, when some of us will be Raptured, I understand. BTW . . . I wonder what Bakker's nodding, muttering, wind-tunnel wife used to look like. And why the devil needs an instruction in Spanish.
Finally . . .
  • I went to one of our many Chinese 'bazaars' in the city last night, to get a small battery. It took me a while to figure out that the owner was asking me if it was for a watch. This is because he pronounced the word reloj as something like weloh. As opposed to the sound given here. The Chinese traditionally have difficult with an initial R. How much worse it must be when it's pronounced as a double R, as here.
  • Which reminds me . . . Years ago, in Hong Kong airport, I was trying to buy some perfume which a Japan Airlines stewardess had told me was called Koeh. Searching where the woman at the counter had told me it would be, I failed to find it and went back to ask again where it was. The conversation went:-
I can't find Koeh where you said it would be.
Yes, it's there.
Ah, do you mean Chloe?
Yes, Koeh.


1. After three years of Brexit sound and fury, we are almost exactly where we were three years ago: Janet Daley

Message to all those demanding a second referendum: you’ve just had it. Or, at least, you’ve had the clearest possible indication of what its result would be. 

After three years of sound and fury, bloodcurdling threats, diatribe and disputation the country’s position is – almost exactly where it was three years ago. The share of the vote won by the brand new party which argues for the hardest possible Brexit is virtually identical to the combined votes of the two parties, the Lib Dems and Greens, who support Remain.

Since we must assume that at least some proportion of those voting for the two latter parties were actual Lib Dem and Green supporters as opposed to those who were treating them simply as proxies for the Remain cause, and that a proportion of those who voted Conservative or Labour would favour a softer kind of Brexit than the one advocated by Nigel Farage’s outfit the result is – almost weirdly – identical to the 2016 referendum: the Leave vote is a few points ahead of Remain.

So we are now precisely where we were then. As somebody once said, nothing has changed. The real news of the night is that Labour got a worse kicking than the Tories and that they have responded to it in a peculiarly stupid way.

The suggestion is that they should now belatedly demand a second referendum even though, as we have just seen, it would be a futile waste of time and money because it would produce the same outcome as the first one. Or else – even more cynically – that the party should endorse Remain so as to seize back votes that went to the Lib Dems and the Greens.

That move would bring a final, irrevocable rupture between the Labour party and its traditional core vote. They would become as extinct in the North of England as they are rapidly becoming in Scotland. And worse even than the consequence for the party would be the social and cultural desperation of those working class communities who would now see themselves as utterly abandoned by mainstream Westminster politics. (The predictable bad result for the Conservatives is less damaging because their chief liability is, mercifully, seen to be gone and they are about to re-invent themselves.)

So what about the future of government at Westminster? Will this triumphant march of the Brexit party continue through to the next general election? Answer: no. And will the Lib Dems – who have climbed out of their damp grave to walk the earth once more – return to a full and active life on the national scene? Answer: possibly, but probably not.

Has there been a dramatic realignment of national party politics that will alter the power structure of Parliament for a generation? Answer: almost certainly not. Virtually nothing can be extrapolated from this result about actual changes in national party politics because it wasn’t an election: nobody was voting for anyone who would take power, or even be expected to hold office.

The clever British electorate who are experts in voting tactically saw that this was a second referendum in all but name and used it for precisely that purpose.

2. Europe’s crumbling centre - why Emmanuel Macron is becoming kingmaker in a falling down castle: Peter Foster

It was not just in the United Kingdom that the mainstream parties had a sobering night in the European elections - all across Europe the traditional groups of the left and right saw their influence visibly waning.

On the Right, in Germany Angela Merkel’s ruling Christian Democrats (CDU) party suffered the worst night in its history for EU elections, while in Spain the traditional centre-right Popular Party managed only 20 per cent of the vote; in France the Gaullist Republicans, a shocking eight per cent.

On the left, there was some good news for the mainstream Socialists in Spain, but elsewhere the bad news kept coming - in Germany the SPD managed only around 15 per cent, in France the Socialists, the Party of Francois Hollande, barely seven per cent.

The result provides confirmation that Europe’s political centre is breaking under the strain of a multitude of competing forces - from the new technologies of the fourth industrial revolution, to immigration and a decade-long squeeze that followed the financial crisis.

This fracturing of the centre-ground has been forced in part by the flowering of alternatives on both the left and the right - from the ‘Green surge’ which will see them jump from 50 to 67 MEPs, to the Populist right which remarkably look to have topped the polls in both Italy and France.

These are truly seismic shifts which mean that the two big centre-right and centre-left groupings in the European Parliament have now lost their combined majority.

Most prominently, these results look to have broken stranglehold of the big-tent centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) which has held sway over Brussels policy making for nearly 20 years after being reborn under the influence of the former German chancellor Helmut Kohl.

It means both the EPP and the centre-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D) losing around 37 seats each - enough to mean they will now have to form a ‘grand coalition’ with the Liberals (ALDE) of Guy Verhofstadt.

It is into this space that the French president Emmanuel Macron hopes to interpose himself, even though his La République En Marche (LREM) party narrowly lost the national vote in France to Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party.

Mr Macron wants to break the old political monopolies (as he has in France) and reunite Europe in what he is calling a “Renaissance” - and yet he himself has become an increasingly divisive figure.

The broad centre-ground of EU politics may have held last night, but in its place there is a confusion of competing parties, including Mr Macron’s.

Weakened by both the Yellow Vest protests and Sunday night’s results, Mr Macron has at times sounded shrill and isolated in recent months, taking on the rest of Europe over granting the UK a Brexit extension or opening trade talks with the US.

So while, as Mr Verhofstadt observed, these results mean there will be “a new balance of power in the European parliament”, it is far from clear that Mr Macron has anything like the authority need to translate that into a new balance of power in Europe itself.

Mr Macron made this election a test of his personal authority, and while his narrow defeat is not a disaster for him, it unmistakably further tarnishes a crown that has been slowing slipping ever since his astonishing rise to power in 2017, which was itself built on a fracturing centre in France.

Because it is not only Mr Macron and the Liberals who want to change the face of Europe - those on both the populist right and left are themselves rushing to fill the emerging void left by the end of ‘old’ politics.

In Italy, Matteo Salvini’s anti-immigrant Lega won the national vote by a clear 10 per cent, while the internet start-up Five Star Movement - in many ways kindreds political spirits of Mr Macron - slumped to less than 17 per cent. New parties can come and go.

Elsewhere on the nationalist Right - in Poland and Hungary - the ruling nationalist parties used their populist messaging and their growing capture of the media and state to post big  winning results.

The margin of victory was starkest in Hungary, where Viktor Orban’s anti-immigration Fidesz party won a staggering 52 per cent of the vote, taking around 14 seats in the European Parliament, crushing his nearest rival on just 16 per cent.

“We are small but we want to change Europe,” said Mr Orban who during the campaign has been openly courting the likes of Mr Salvini to the fury of leading figures in the EPP, the centre-right bloc to which Fidesz still nominally belongs.

Whether Fidesz will quit the EPP will be one of the key questions in the coming days. Mr Orban has already been suspended from the EPP for his anti-European diatribes and disregard for fundamentals of democracy, like media freedoms, but he has not jumped ship yet.

Just as Mr Macron wants to lead his ‘Renaissance’, so Mr Orban wants to force the political centre of gravity of the Christian Democrats back to the right, and if he stays in the EPP (where his 14 MEPs would be a painful loss) he may yet succeed.

Alternatively, Mr Orban will join Mr Salvini or another right-grouping where along with other nationalist parties he will seek to frustrate the liberal project dreamed of by Mr Macron and Mr Verhofstadt.

In short, while the headlines might crown Mr Macron ‘kingmaker’, the reality is that the ancient foundations of the European political castle are cracking and there are plenty of enemies at the gates.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Thoughts from Galicia, Spain: 27.5.19

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable. 
                  Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain
  • Earlier this year, the Spanish government decided to do something about the country's poor international image arising from what it regards as 'disinformation' around Catalan developments. Particularly the trial of several local politicians. So it launched This is The Real Spain and gave it considerable funds for counter-PR. Here's the estimable Guy Hedgecoe on the initiative. I love his top-of-his-head list of the things Spain means to him, with which I readily relate.
  • Being positive, here's a recent article from on the subject of Spain's wonderful tapas culture.The admiring reference to the unrelenting energy of the locals that surround you is surely a nice way of describing people shouting at each other simultaneously.
  • Being negative, take a look at reader Sierra's comment after yesterday's post, on his voting experience as a foreigner entitled to vote in the local elections of yesterday.
  • There's a very Galician song festival coming up in Santiago de Compostela. It'll feature lots of local and national artists, plus that well-known Celtic performer, Iggy Pop. Oh, and the Black Eyed Peas. There are events all around Galicia but, sadly, Pontevedra seems to be missing out.
The UK and Brexit
  • Well, the best comment on the (very low turn-out) EU election results is that they produced just what the country didn't want - even more confusion. Richard North puts it at greater length thus: No doubt, there are endless ways of playing with the figures and there will be differing interpretations from the rival factions. Suffice it to say, though, that the great Farage "victory" seems to owe more to the voting system than it does the overall number of votes. In fact, Farage seems to have under-performed on the day, taking 31.6% of the vote, compared with the 37% some of the opinion polls were giving him. The overall results, therefore, are ambiguous and settle nothing. Certainly, with less than a third of the vote, this is no mandate for a no-deal Brexit. 
  • Poor Mr Corbyn still doesn't seem to grasp realities. He promises that parliament will prevent a No Deal Brexit, ignoring the fact that this is the default option in the absence of an agreement between the UK and the EU. Which still looks remote. No wonder the pound has lost all its recent gains. If there's no deal by end October, then - to avoid the UK crashing out of the EU - there'll have to be yet another extension - over M Macron's dead body? - or a revocation of the letter which triggered Article 50.
  • Meanwhile 1: Nobody knows who will be the next prime minister, but it is already clear that, like Mrs May, they will fail to restore strong and stable government.
  • Meanwhile 2How true . . . The number of Tory MPs threatening to throw their hats into the leadership ring risks turning the contest into a circus. 
  • Finally . . . Election trivia: What are the odds? In the EU's 'South East Region' there were 2 people called Alexandra Phillips, standing for different parties. 
The EU
  • Not a good night for M Macron. He went head-to-head against the leader of the far right party - Marine Le Pen - and lost. Although his defeat was a narrow one, it's seen as a personal blow to his national and EU ambitions.
  • See below the article I cited yesterday, entitled: Battle for top EU jobs ‘like Game of Thrones with ugly people’.
The USA/The Way of the World
  • UK politicians are wont to go on and on about a 'special relationship' between Britain and the USA. The reality is that almost no one in the USA is aware of the concept, and there's precious little evidence that any US government has ever taken it into consideration. 
  • Here's a very relevant article -  from the current issue of Prospect - on the ruthless hegemony of the US.
  • As for the US itself  . . . Here's a video from exactly a year ago on Fart and the rule of law.  It's even more accurate and relevant now.
  • More positively, the second article below describes the very positive effect on UK culture of the temporary residence of hundreds of thousands of US troops back in the 1940s.
Finally . . .
  • Until this morning, I had no idea that the Italian for 'football' is calcio, as against futbol in Spanish.

1. Battle for top EU jobs ‘like Game of Thrones with ugly people’

When the leaders of the European Union gather for a dinner in Brussels on Tuesday to begin the long process of wrangling over who will head its institutions for the next five years, sparks are expected to fly.

“It’ll be like Game of Thrones, only without the dragons or good-looking people,” quipped one official last week.

Five heads must be appointed to the key institutions in the coming months in the largest shake-up of top jobs in the EU’s history. Matters are likely to be complicated by a surge in support for populist parties in the elections to the European parliament.

In theory, the most high-profile appointment, the successor to Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission, should be dictated by the results of the poll, which are expected from tonight.

Under the so-called Spitzenkandidat or “lead candidate” system — used for the first time five years ago when Juncker was picked — the role should go to the nominee of the political grouping that wins the largest number of seats.

This is almost certain to be the European People’s Party (EPP), which includes the Christian Democrats and other centre-right groups.

The EPP’s choice this time, though, is Manfred Weber, a 46-year-old German MEP who is light on charisma and almost unknown outside his native Bavaria or EU circles.

Despite his shortcomings, Weber has support from most of the eight EPP heads of government, including the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, who on Friday night described him as “a bridge builder . . . the right person” and pledged to fight for him to get the job.

Yet Weber’s succession is far from certain because of the fragmentation of European politics expected to be revealed by the poll results.

Traditionally, the EPP and the Socialists have an absolute majority, giving them the numbers to achieve the parliament’s required backing for their candidate.

This time they look set to fall short, thanks in part to the rise of the populists who could receive up to a third of the seats. This could make kingmakers of the Liberals and the Greens, who both refuse to back Weber.

Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, is a more formidable obstacle. He has said the next EU chief should have senior experience in either government or the commission. Weber has neither.

“I don’t feel bound by the Spitzenkandidaten system,” said Macron, whose En Marche! MEPs will join the Liberal grouping in the parliament. “There are leaders among these candidates that have the qualities I alluded to. There are also leaders around the council table that can be pretenders to [the commission presidency].”

This could block Weber. “It is inconceivable that a new commission president could take office without the support of the French head of state,” said Mujtaba Rahman of Eurasia Group, a political consultancy.

He said Weber could fall victim to Macron’s veto. The victor could be Michel Barnier, the Frenchman who has won admiration in EU capitals for his handling of the Brexit negotiations.

Macron was initially reluctant to support Barnier, favouring Liberal names such as Margrethe Vestager, the competition commissioner, but he is believed to have changed his mind.

“Undeniably, Michel Barnier is a man who has great qualities and he demonstrated this once again in the way he handled negotiations with the British,” Macron told the Belgian newspaper Le Soir last week.

Yet while Barnier may have some support in Paris there is only muted enthusiasm for his candidacy in other capitals. His age — 68 — may count against him. Christine Lagarde, 63, managing director of the International Monetary Fund — and who, like Barnier, is from the centre-right — is another French candidate in the mix.

As part of the horse trading that accompanies such appointments, choosing a French candidate to head the commission could open the door for Jens Weidmann, the hawkish head of the Bundesbank, Germany’s central bank, to take over the helm at the European Central Bank (ECB).

“The price of a French-led European Commission could well be a German-led ECB,” said Rahman.

It will also have implications for the other jobs that have to be filled, given a need to provide a rough balance of parties, ages, gender and geography.

If either Barnier or Lagarde gets the top job at the commission, that would favour Liberals such as the Belgian prime minister, Charles Michel, or his Dutch counterpart, Mark Rutte, to succeed Donald Tusk as president of the European Council.

Frans Timmermans, the Dutch commissioner, is the centre-left’s Spitzenkandidat and that grouping will want at least one of the five key appointments. Dalia Grybauskaite, the voluble Lithuanian president, could emerge as a compromise candidate, but she has no major party affiliation which could dent her chances.

Although the bargaining will not last as long as Game of Thrones, it could drag on through the summer, leaving a leadership vacuum on both sides of the Channel.

2. The Friendly Invasion: how American soldiers reshaped Britain during the Second World War: Peter Caddick-Adams, author of Sand & Steel: A New History of D-Day  

Hitler plotted the conquest of Britain, but 3m US troops achieved it — armed with Spam, swing music and swagger. After D-Day, 75 years ago, they left behind a nation transformed

Along the coast of southwest England 75 years ago, they gathered in their hundreds of thousands. They are largely forgotten now, apart from memorials in small harbours such as Weymouth. There, an easily missed monument on the seafront remembers “the American assault force which landed on the shores of France 6 June 1944”. The statistic that follows is mind-boggling. “From the Weymouth and Portland harbors . . . From 6 June 1944 to 7 May 1945, 517,816 troops and 144,093 vehicles embarked.” It’s a hint of the huge American presence in the country during the war years.

The US “friendly occupation” of Britain is all but forgotten. Yet in 1944 Cornwall and Devon, Wiltshire and Dorset, and Gloucestershire and Somerset were overwhelmed with Americans preparing to invade France. Stan Jones, recalling his childhood in Wiltshire, said: “My home town of Trowbridge was one huge tank park: they lined Union Street and from our bedroom windows we could look down into the turrets. Up Middle Lane half-tracked vehicles were parked on the grass verges. Over the hedge old Farmer Hancock was still keeping his cows, driving them down to market through lines of tanks and supplying us with milk.”

Many US servicemen were billeted with local families, who shared precious rations, inviting GIs to sit before warm fires. Sergeant Forrest Pogue was visiting his brother in the 703rd Tank Destroyer Battalion in Mere, Wiltshire, when caught in a downpour. He recalled on reaching his brother’s civilian hosts: “Mr Gray built up a roaring fire and hung our wet things in front of it while we warmed ourselves. Despite the severity of rationing, he and his wife soon set out cakes and tea, not only for us, but for the dozen chaps who came in during the four hours that we stayed there.

“These people, not because we were Yanks to be welcomed, but because they were friendly folk, wrote our parents back home not to worry, and did for us the wonderfully thoughtful things that make up true hospitality.”

The invasion of the UK had started early in 1942 with US ground troops trickling into Northern Ireland. However, by the year’s end, 60,000 US air force personnel were building bases in Britain, the majority in East Anglia. With its flat, open fields, the region proved the perfect springboard for endless streams of heavy bombers to attack German-held Europe. Within two years, 71,000 GIs were stationed in Suffolk, meaning one in six residents was American. When the Yanks occupied Wiltshire in May-June 1944 the ratio would be one in three.

The airmen were followed from 1942 by more than 10,000 men of the US naval construction battalions (USNCBs, known as Seabees), who erected coastal bases throughout south Wales and along Britain’s south coast.

Daniel Folsom was a Seabee billeted in a private house just before D-Day. “We had been instructed to eat only our own rations and not to eat anything the English had because they had only their poor food. In my billet this woman had a cat; next morning she invited us for breakfast and I saw this dark meat on the table. And — until I heard the cat meow — I wouldn’t eat that meat,” Folsom reminisced with a smile.

The Yanks brought with them Spam, canned peaches, bacon, sugar, rice and peas. Coffee, too, arrived not just in tins of beans, but in the form of granules — the nation’s first real introduction to instant coffee. Their guidebook, Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain, warned: “The British don’t know how to make a good cup of coffee. You don’t know how to make a good cup of tea. It’s an even swap.”

New year 1943 brought hundreds of thousands more Yanks, mostly ground forces. By May 1945, 2,914,843 American servicemen — and women — had arrived in the British Isles by sea, plus well over 100,000 more by air. The impact on the resident population — then 40m — was huge, because many of their menfolk were fighting overseas. This meant — with a third of a million Canadians, and as many Free French, Irishmen, Poles, Norwegians, Dutch, Danes, Czechs and Belgians strutting around the UK in combat dress — that about 20% of the adult male population between 18 and 40 were foreigners, mostly Americans.

The Yanks appeared with their jitterbug dances and the tones of Glenn Miller. While transatlantic musical influences were slowly infiltrating the UK, notably jazz and blues, the regular dances held at American bases spread the popularity of swing, boogie-woogie and bebop, genres generally disdained by the BBC.

The influx of 130,000 black GIs both dwarfed and predated the postwar Afro-Caribbean Empire Windrush generation. The former were extraordinarily well received by their new hosts, if not the British government, which chose to back the official US army policy of separating those of colour from their white brethren in restaurants, pubs and dance halls.

A wider bone of contention was the average Yank’s huge spending power. Clad in smart walking-out uniforms with shirts, ties and shoes, GIs were accused by their jealous rivals of pinching their girls and being “overpaid, oversexed and over here”. The standard US riposte was that the British were “underpaid, undersexed and under Eisenhower”.

It was a truism that even the lowliest GI private — earning the equivalent of a British captain’s net pay — could dine out in the best London establishments — but only if he could negotiate his way past the imperious doorman.

All of this has to be seen in the context of the GI generation who grew up in the Great Depression. In little more than a decade they had gone from chronic unemployment to being able to afford the finest hotels. Wonders indeed. The consequent status of all Americans as big spenders — in their eyes and those of the average Briton — has lasted since.

Many young boys learnt to chew gum or smoke at this time because of the generosity of GIs; but there was usually an ulterior motive: in exchange for cigarettes or large bars of chocolate, a photograph of a sister or aunt was expected, with the promise to arrange a date. One Nottingham 19-year-old with stars in her eyes recalled the 82nd Airborne Division invading her city: “Just take the uniform the American paratroopers wore. It was fantastic and we were attracted to them straight away. You must imagine what it was like back then. Before the war, all we could do for entertainment was to go to the pictures, and most of the films we saw were made in Hollywood. So for us to actually meet and hear these young men talk like our screen idols was, to us, like something out of this world.”

Hollywood was all that young British women — like the rest of the population — knew of America. Estimates suggest about 9,000 war babies were born out of wedlock as a result of transatlantic liaisons. Others were more honourable. As US soldiers were permitted to marry at their commanding officers’ discretion, about 45,000 young women became GI brides, emigrating at the end of the war.

The friendly occupiers changed British life in other ways. On the arms of their Yank admirers, women invaded that ultimate working-class preserve — the public house. “Every night a truckload of 15 or 20 Yanks would arrive at the Queen’s Arms,” remembered Dougie Alford of his local in St Just, Cornwall. “When the GIs arrived, that was the beginning of women going to the pub in our village.”

Troops were amused when pub landlords, at the end of licensing hours, would call out: “Time, gentlemen, please — and you bloody Yanks, too.” In quieter country pubs, GIs learnt not only the game of darts and the rules of shove ha’penny, but also words of a dozen naughty songs. “It was our job to buy the drinks and lose at darts,” one surmised.

The approach of D-Day saw the number of newcomers soar. In Wimborne, Dorset, Patricia Barnard observed that “in April 1944 we began to see the arrival and build-up of American soldiers on our roads. Their trucks suddenly appeared, parked up everywhere throughout the countryside and back inland for 20 miles. Thousands and thousands of them. They talked to local people as we went by, and made friends with families in whose gateways they were parked.”

Then Operation Overlord took them all away to France, and as suddenly as they had arrived, they were gone. The concrete runways of a few East Anglian airbases, the odd road leading to a south coast harbour, and seaside memorials are the only physical reminders of the 3m from across the pond.

Yet they left their indelible mark in the memory, as Vera Anderson neatly summarised of the friendly invasion: “I am so glad I did not miss those years. Everyone helped and shared what little we had and it left me with so many memories. When the Americans came to Britain, it was a huge boost for us all and I am so proud to have known them.”

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Thoughts from Galicia, Spain: 26.5.19

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable. 
                  Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain
  • The 10 most beautiful villages in evergreen Asturias.
  • Spain is fighting to improve its international reputation, it says here. And here.
  • The EU has reduced sardine quotas. Expect higher prices for this summer's fiestas. And in tapas bars and restaurants, of course.
The UK and Brexit
  • Allison Pearson, echoing both Richard North and Mrs May: You know the worst thing. With Theresa May’s reluctant and long-awaited resignation, we are now back exactly where we were in June 2016. 
  • In other words, to coin a phrase: Nothing has changed. 
The UK
  • It's hard to believe any person in his/her right mind would want to be the UK Prime Minister right now. So, how to view the ever-growing number of aspirants who've put themselves forward? Can they all really be psychopaths?
  • Historian, Tim Bouverie: If Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn becomes prime minister then we might, unlikely as it now seems, look back on the May premiership as the good old days.
The EU
  • Says one observer: The battle for top EU jobs is like 'Game of Thrones' with ugly people. I'd understand this better if I'd ever seen an episode but I get the gist.
The Way of the World 
  • Checking on my guest's departure flight, I searched 'Ryanair Oporto Hamburg 25 May'. Up came the details, along with both his name and his seat number. Neither of which I'd entered in my computer at any time. Email and Google, I guess. Useful but eerie.
The USA 
  • An amusing short video on the most apt  'I word' for the man-child in charge of the world's most powerful country. The - alleged - leader of the free world . . . 
  • The latest dirty trick from the folk in Fart's camp, who don't seem to be aware of the mote in the eye of their man. But surely are.
  • Niall Ferguson puts the growing US-China 'cold war' in an historical context below. The implications of his analogy, he avers, are 'not cheering'. Oh, dear. Thank god one of the combatants has an intelligent, mature leader who knows what he's doing and can look further than the day after tomorrow. Perhaps it won't end in the flow of tears. Not to mention blood.
  • Here's a challenge for native Spanish speakers: In the blurb about a hotel we stayed in last week is says: We're a five minutes of millenary patches in the Miño river. I'm stumped. Any guesses?
  • Is there a more over-used and useless adjectival phrase than "world class"? This is the preferred description for those services for which British politicians and civil servant have ambitions/promises. Healthcare and education in particular. What's wrong with 'excellent'? Or even 'good'?
Finally . . .
  • My bird-feeder used to be the preserve of rather a lot of nervy sparrows. But it seems to have been taken over by at least 2 - now rather plump - greenfinches on the feeder itself and pairs of wood-pigeons and collared doves who feed on the seeds that have dropped to the ground. And then there's the rats who compete with the groundlings. I feel for the sparrows and wonder if the bullying greenfinches will ever migrate, rather than stay as squatters. Or possibly explode.

Donald Trump should know, the world cannot afford another Thirty Years’ War: Niall Ferguson, Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford

History suggests the US-China conflict will need a Westphalian resolution

Regular readers of this column will not have been surprised by the outbreak of the Second Cold War. Ever since Donald Trump imposed the first tariffs on Chinese imports last year, I have argued that the trade war between the United States and China would last longer than most people expected and that it would escalate into other forms of warfare.

The tech war — exemplified by last week’s US measures against the Chinese telecoms company Huawei — is now in full swing. The passage of the destroyer USS Preble through the Taiwan Strait was a reminder that shows of military force are also part and parcel of a cold war. And the propaganda war is now well under way, too, with Chinese state television digging out old Korean War films in which the Americans are the bad guys.

If you still think peace will break out when Trump meets Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in Osaka next month, you’re in for a disappointment. Zhang Yansheng, chief researcher at the China Centre for International Economic Exchanges in Beijing, predicted last week that the friction could continue at this level until 2025.

Historical analogies are powerful. More than any formal model from the social sciences, they help us make sense of contemporary events. As the former US defence secretary Ash Carter said at the recent applied-history conference at Harvard, in the corridors of power “real people talk history, not economics, political science or IR [international relations]”. The first question they ask is: what is this like? And, yes, this sudden escalation of Sino-American antagonism is a lot like the early phase of the Cold War.

But the next question the applied historian asks is: what are the differences? Before the idea of the Second Cold War gets so well established that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, it’s time to take a step back and acknowledge that 2019 isn’t 1949, not least because of the profound economic, social and cultural entanglement of America and China, which is quite unlike the almost total separation of the United States from the Soviet Union 70 years ago.

The networked world forged by decades of commercial aviation, globally integrated markets for commodities, manufactures, labour and capital and — above all — the internet is radically different from the segmented and half-ruined world that Harry Truman and Joseph Stalin carved up between them. In the late 1940s it was possible for Soviet Russia to bring down Winston Churchill’s metaphorical Iron Curtain because the limited channels of communication between eastern and western Europe were so easy to shut down. Although the phrase “digital Iron Curtain” is doing the rounds, I am frankly doubtful that such a severance of ties is possible today.

Because the internet and the smartphone have enlarged, accelerated and empowered social networks in the same way as the printing press did in the 16th and 17th centuries, today’s strategic rivalry is being played out in a near-borderless world, altogether different from the world of early John le Carré.

The 17th century had it all: climate change (the Little Ice Age that often froze the Thames), refugee crises (as Protestant zealots crossed the Atlantic), extreme views (as Catholics and Protestants sought to smear one another) and fake news (as witch-finders condemned thousands of innocent people to death). But its most familiar feature to our eyes is the erosion of state sovereignty.

Catholics and Lutherans had been given a certain amount of clarity by the Peace of Augsburg of 1555, which left it to each individual prince to decide the denomination of his realm without fear of outside interference. But that principle seemed under threat by the early 1600s. In any case, it had created an incentive for the proponents of the Counter-Reformation to replace Protestant rulers with Catholic ones. The war of religion had no respect for borders: Jesuits infiltrated Protestant England just as Russian trolls now meddle in western democracies.

The Thirty Years’ War was as much about power as it was about religion, however. Unlike the Cold War, which was waged by two superpowers, it was a multiplayer game. The Holy Roman Emperor sought to reimpose Catholicism on Bohemia. Spain wanted to bring the rebellious Dutch back under Habsburg rule. Despite being Catholic, France sought to challenge the power of both Spain and Austria. Sweden seized the moment to thrust boldly southwards. Although also Lutheran, Denmark ended up as Sweden’s foe. Although also Catholic, Portugal threw off Spanish rule.

In the same way, today’s world is not bipolar. America may tell others to boycott Huawei, but not all Europeans will comply. China is the biggest economy in Asia, but it does not control India.

The Cold War created vast tank armies and nuclear arsenals, pointed at each other but never used. The Thirty Years’ War was a time of terrorism and gruesome violence, with no clear distinction between soldiers and civilians. (Think Syria today.) Then, as now, the worst-affected areas suffered death and depopulation. There was no deterrence then, just as there is none now in cyber-warfare. Indeed, states tended to underestimate the costs of getting involved in the conflict. Both Britain and France did so — only to slide into civil war.

The implications of this analogy are not cheering. The sole consolation I can offer is that, thanks to technology, most things nowadays happen roughly 10 times faster than they did 400 years ago. So we may be heading for a Three Years’ War, rather than a Thirty Years’ War. Either way, we need to learn how to end such a conflict.

The end of the Thirty Years’ War was not brought about by one treaty, but by several, of which the most important were signed at Münster and Osnabrück in October 1648. It is these treaties that historians refer to as the Peace of Westphalia. Contrary to legend, they did not make peace, as France and Spain kept fighting for 11 more years. And they certainly did not establish a world order based on modern states.

What the Westphalian settlement did was to establish power-sharing arrangements between the emperor and the German princes, as well as between the rival religious groups, on the basis of limited and conditional rights. The peace as a whole was underpinned by mutual guarantees, as opposed to the third-party guarantees that had been the norm before.

The Cold War ended when one side folded. That will not happen in our time. The democratic and authoritarian powers can fight for three or 30 years; neither side will win a definitive victory. Sooner or later there will have to be a compromise — in particular, a self-restraining commitment not to take full advantage of modern technology to hollow out each other’s sovereignty.

Our destination is 1648, not 1989 — a Cyber-Westphalia, not the fall of the Great Firewall of China. If we have the option to get there in three years, rather than in 30, we should take it.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Thoughts from Galicia, Spain: 25.5.19

Spain is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable.
                       Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain
  • Weather news.
  • It's often forgotten that in Spain, GDP per capita rose by a factor of ten between 1960 and 1975.
  • More on popular Spanish names here.
The UK/The EU/The World 
  • Richard North yesterday: [The UK] has been doubly cursed, having suffered not only the worst prime minister in living memory – if not our entire history - but also a staggeringly incompetent opposition. Between the two, they have destroyed public faith in our system of government, to the extent that even rather dubious demagogues begin to look attractive to the feeble-minded.  It would be a mistake, though, to think we are alone in our problems. Most countries in Europe are experiencing some degree of popular disillusion with their politics and, across the Atlantic, the spectre of a divided nation is just as real. It is not just our party political system that it at fault. There is something fundamentally wrong with the way we do politics, not just here but in many other countries. . .  Viewed in context, the UK's travails over Brexit might be seen in the broader context – possibly in terms of the gradual disintegration of the post-war settlement in Europe. Every now and again, the political tectonic plates do shift and, with three-quarters of a century having elapsed since 1945, we are probably ripe for change.
The UK and Brexit
  • Richard North today, referring to:-
    1. Guess who: A serial plagiarist, a known liar, thief, bully and thug – with a record of incompetence in office.
    2. The situation as of/at the end of May: Getting rid of Mrs May has achieved nothing at all of any consequence.
The EU
The Way of the World/Social Media
  • Sir Nicholas, May told the nation, had recommended to her the importance and value of compromise: “Never forget that compromise is not a dirty word. Life depends on compromise.” Those words are undoubtedly true.  . . .The problem Theresa May faced is that she became prime minister in a post-compromise world, where it had, in fact, become a dirty word to many in politics. Every prime minister before her has had to find a compromise between their party and the electorate, which is exactly how countries should be run. But it is not how the political world is today. . . Political opponents are now seen as enemies who need to be splattered with milkshakes and shouted down whenever they try to speak. Disagreement with another person’s view is no longer enough – only outright hatred of that viewpoint is now acceptable. Where once we might have agreed to disagree, now we hate those who disagree, and call them and their party not just wrong, but evil. The other side aren’t just mistaken – they’re child murderers, warmongers, traitors. They are dehumanised.
The USA/Nutters Corner
  • A tale suffused with irony.
  • Which reminds me . . . Yesterday Fart repeated that he's 'a truly stable genius' and accused Nancy Pelosi of being 'a crazy woman' who had 'lost it'. More accusations that are confessions.
  • Word of the Day: Majo 
Finally . . .
  • Here's something for those who haven't found today's post particularly interesting.
  • More seriously . . .  But for looking in my wing mirror yesterday, I wouldn't be writing this. As I signalled to turn left and then slowed down, the driver behind me duly stopped. But the one behind him didn't, speeding past both us. Death is never far away.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Thoughts from Galicia, Spain: 24.5.19

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable. 
                  Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain

Note: One or two of the items below have been borrowed from Lenox Napier's Business Over Tapas of yesterday.

  • A nasty Trumpian hit to Spain's olive producers.
  • This is news which makes one happy to be living in the North of Spain, rather than the South.
  • A Catalan vineyard offers a cannabis-infused wine and is, naturally, exporting it to the UK. It's cunningly disguised under the name Cannawine.
  • This Asturian festival reminds me of an enjoyable one I attend every year here in Galicia.
  • Impressively, Spain has the 5th highest proportion of parliamentary females in the world at 47% - behind Ruanda (61%), Bolivia (53%), Cuba (53%) and Mexico (48%). 
  • The Local explains here why Spain has more pets than kids.
  • Talking of which - kids, not pets - the most common forenames in Spain continue to be Antonio and María Carmen. Things change rather slowly here.
The UK and Brexit
  • There's universal incredulity/disgust at Mrs May's stance and a growing belief she's only got hours left in office. I continue to wonder whether, in fact, she's a strategic (Remainer) genius who's planned to get to this point from the very outset - in preparation for either a unilateral withdrawal of the exit application or a second referendum that'll surely kill it. As we wait to find out whether this is true or not, Mrs May seems to have rowed back from a promise(?) to present a revised deal to parliament in early June. I'm reminded of the chap who said: "I'm a man of principles. If you don't like these, I've got another set in my briefcase".
  • Below is a nice plague-on-both-parties article from a Times columnist.
The UK and the EU Elections
  • Whatever happens, the results will be over-interpreted. The turnout will be far lower than at the referendum or a general election. And the party that will win most votes will almost certainly not exist in its present form at a general election. The current Brexit Party has no members and its policy will be what Nigel Farage — the key to its financing and organisation — says it is. 
Finally . . .
  • I went to the spot - Kilometre 146.9 on the N550 - where I was clocked speeding on May 2. If you're coming from Porriño, you move from 80 to 60 and then to 50 - for 100m - where there's a crossing. And you benefit from a large sign warning of a radar machine ahead. In contrast, when (like me) you're coming from Redondela you climb a long way at 80 and then suddenly hit a 50 sign - and the radar machine - at the top of the hill, without the benefit of a warning. The machine makes so much money for El Tráfico that it featured in articles in both the Voz de Galicia and the Diario de Pontevedra back in December 2017. In the latter, a driver is quoted as saying that, if coming from Redondela, you suddenly have to break hard but are almost sure to be caught. For non-locals, "It's a set-up", he says. Which sounds about right to me. Having never been fined in more than 30 years' driving  in several countries, I've been caught in several of these traps over the past 18 years. Very irritating but best seen as, effectively, a tax on non-residents by a branch of the Hacienda. At one of these, years ago, the traffic cop actually told me it was a shame I didn't live locally, as everyone knew about the trap.
  • BTW . . . The letter was dated 10 May but arrived on 23 May, giving me 20 days to pay and get a reduced fine. Or 7 days from its arrival.
Camino Reminders
  • You can see all Geoff Jones' many great fotos of our camino here.
  • And you can see all his blog posts here, including that of his last - tough - day, when he walked alone.

Remainers are as bad as Brexiteers: Philip Collins

The polarisation of this debate has isolated moderates who want to honour the 2016 vote without damaging Britain

The toxic exaggeration of Europe is set to claim another prime minister. All power has drained from Mrs May. Her mangled withdrawal agreement is dead. Andrea Leadsom, the leader of the House of Commons, resigned rather than bring it back to parliament. In the European elections the Tories will be punished for failure and Labour for obfuscation. Everyone has wrestled everyone else to a standstill and there is now every prospect of Nigel Farage winning a nationwide election and Boris Johnson becoming prime minister. Well done to everyone concerned for ensuring that nobody wins except the least pleasant people in the place.

When Mrs May and her deal disappear, Brexit will become a fight to the death. All along, there have only been three options: to leave without a deal, to leave with a deal and to remain via a second referendum. The country, though, has been so held to ransom by purists that the only available deal has been torn up. Perhaps the new prime minister will re-open negotiations. Perhaps the European Union will concede points denied to both David Cameron and Theresa May. Perhaps Boris Johnson’s famed politeness and diplomatic prestige is all that’s needed to turn a complex problem into a simple solution. And perhaps not.

In the likely event that the Commons cannot find a deal that commands a majority, Brexit will become a straight contest between one group of extremists who kid themselves that leaving the EU without an agreement is worth the collateral damage, and another group of extremists who put their fingers in their ears so they cannot hear the banal truth that thwarting the 2016 referendum result comes at a severe political cost. Neither group is interested in shifting from the central demand. Leave. Remain. They froze in June 2016 and they have never thawed. They never will. These convictions have come to define them and they are willing to take it to the wire. Only one set of purists can win and they are both utterly certain it’s them.

The principal culprits, by a long way, are the fools who pretended Brexit would be easy. It would be gratifying to hear just one prominent politician or writer who egged us on into this fiasco admit that it has turned out to be vastly more complex than they envisaged. For those of us who took the conservative position that the status quo was preferable to all the fuss and palaver of change, the sheer difficulty of this transaction was an important incentive to vote Remain. You would have thought that at least one of them might have had the self-awareness to admit they got it wrong. Not a bit of it. The Brexit purists are certain of their own righteousness. It’s all Theresa May’s fault for not doing it properly.

The Remain crowd do not bear anything like the same responsibility — it’s not their stupid idea after all — but they have, sadly, developed exactly the same cast of mind. They don’t appear to realise the same face looks no more attractive when they pull it. The second referendum zealots ought to take a look at the Francois and Baker tendency in the Tory party and, like Caliban, see their own face in the glass. To say that a second referendum is the only option they’re prepared to accept is, in point of fact, to reject all viable options. To insist upon it is, as they well know, just a more sophisticated way of scuppering the whole thing. Indeed, that is their objective.

In a hung parliament two groups of irreconcilables, two groups entirely uninterested in conversation, can ensure that nothing gets through. They have perfect destructive power. But what neither of them have is the first idea how to get what they want. It is the height of arrogance to keep demanding, over and over again, that the perfect world be delivered and yet not have the slightest notion of how. This is the only word that matters in this debate now. Yes, hard Brexiteer, I know what you want. Yes, second referendum advocate, I heard you last time. The pair of you are unutterably boring on the subject and all I want to hear from you now, and it’s getting pretty urgent, is how? How are you going to get to utopia?

Let’s consider a few precursors. In Thomas More’s original book Utopia, Raphael Hythloday (which means a speaker of nonsense) finds the perfect society in full working order in the ocean. In When the Sleeper Wakes HG Wells uses the same divide as Edward Bellamy in Looking Backward: we fall asleep and when we wake up everything is just as it should be. Go to sleep in a nightmare and wake up in a dream. I do worry that these examples have rather more practical wisdom than the zealots’ own plans. No matter. They no doubt have a magic wardrobe in their back bedroom. How? How? How are they going to do it? It’s the only question; it’s their question.

The alliance of opposite purists has left the rest of us — those of us unfashionably concerned to carry out the result as best we can and prepared to negotiate — with nowhere to go. I apologise to the pure in heart for the craven reasonableness of this position. I wish, like them, I were one of the best who lack nothing for conviction. They have won, though. I have given up. The shouty people have winnowed down the choice. It is the economic loss of leaving without a deal or the obvious political resentment caused by a second referendum.

In fact, here is the point at which the extremes touch. The death of Mrs May’s deal does violence to the second referendum because its advocates have lost a key element of the question they planned to put to voters. If there ever is a referendum it would have to pitch no deal against Remain. Having expended all that energy to rule out no deal, the purists will bring it back by accident. And no deal really could win; this is the risk you are running in rejecting my appeal to compromise as the quisling’s work.

If the new prime minister takes the purist course and we end up in this pathetic blood-sport of a politics, then I suppose, with regret and a heavy heart, I should be on the Remain side. And all I can say, to the insistent thwarters with whom I shall be forced to make common cause, is this: you had better win.

Neither you nor I have any idea how your grand plan is to come about but you have chosen to increase the stakes. You have approached every possible compromise in entirely bad faith. It’s over to you now and you had better win.