Labour wisely accepts ‘anti-cuts’ rhetoric nonsensical

British Labour’s biggest problem going into the next election is that its own Leader looks as weird and out-of-touch as the incumbent Prime Minister. Perhaps his most awkward intervention before the bacon sandwich debacle was his appearance at an ‘anti-cuts’ Union rally when he tried to pretend he was with the crowd. His party confirmed at the weekend that he really isn’t – and rightly not.

 

Labour now accepts it was talking nonsense about the ‘Squeezed Middle’ and would in fact tax those on middle incomes more; and it also now accepts opposition to the Coalition’s spending plans (which see public spending rising in absolute terms but falling in real terms) is nonsense. This makes Labour a vaguely credible government – and it marginalises the ‘anti-cuts’ brigade who are, quite simply, wrong.

They are wrong because public spending isn’t actually falling in absolute terms; they are wrong because public spending reductions are not the same as ‘cuts’ (they may simply mean doing things more efficiently – to be supported, surely); and they are wrong because, as everyone now accepts, you cannot simply keep public spending ballooning when revenues are vastly lower than expected. Be very clear – anyone opposed to this is denying reality and not to be trusted.

It is worth repeating why revenues (at least over this parliament) have been so much lower than they were and, more relevantly, than they were projected to be. It is quite simply that the UK is a significantly poorer country than it was or, more accurately, than we thought it was in about 2007. Within three years of the run on Northern Rock, the UK Treasury’s revenues had fallen to 14% below where they were projected to be three years previously – the equivalent figure almost everywhere else in the West (aside from Southern Europe and Ireland, understandably) was around 5-6%.

In other words, the UK is 14% poorer than we reckoned. To sort that, we need to invest in skills, technology and innovation particularly where export-focused – as, in many cases, we are. But let’s be very clear, we cannot just spend money no one’s actually gone out and earned.

You don’t “defend yourself” by creating martyrs and encouraging terror

Okay, reluctantly, I’m going to bite and enter into the Middle East “debate”…

Like most people who have actually visited Israel and the Occupied Territories (i.e. both, albeit in my case the West Bank not Gaza), my first response to the all too regular outbreaks of murdering and maiming in the region is human concern. These are by and large fine, diligent, fun people who just want to get on but realise they are pawns in somebody else’s game. It doesn’t help to “take sides” partly because dividing the world into “goodies” and “baddies” is generally neither helpful nor legitimate, but mainly because it creates the view that this is some sort of sport where we have “our team” and “their team”. Actually hundreds of human lives are being wasted, and thousands of friends and relatives are being left in despair. It is more helpful to show concern at innocent lives being wasted through the actions of warmongering idiots than to pick a side on the basis of national or religious affiliation.

Closer to home, of course, we have the particular and frankly unbelievably irritating spectacle of thousands of people who have never been near the Middle East picking their “side” to legitimise their view of Northern Ireland rather than the basics of democracy, the Rule of Law and Fair Play. It is borderline pathetic to see people pick “Palestine” or “Israel” in the precise same way they pick “Celtic” or “Rangers”, and then justify or condemn everything from that ill-defined and frankly ridiculous position. It was the Israelis who kicked the British out in pursuit of a national homeland, and the Palestinians who (generally) seek partition, but, well, you know…

My good friend Richard Price pointed out the outrageous offence these parallels cause. The Army and RUC may have done some bad and illegal things, but they never carpet-bombed Newry; so shame on those who endorse equivalent actions elsewhere. Many people on all sides may have suffered from terror, but never on the scale of those on the Israeli/Palestinian border right now and on countless previous occasions; so stop pretending we “understand”. Most of all, we were never blatantly pawns in a global game, powerless in reality to do anything about our own society’s future – as we proved in 1998.

Then of course there’s the “well-meaning” but in the end almost equally non-sensical attempt to propose solutions which apparently “worked” elsewhere, which almost always involve for some reason involve South Africa. Let us leave aside the complete coincidence that Mandela’s release came five months after the Fall of the Wall (when the West no longer needed the White South Africans to defend Southern Africa from Communism) and 15 years after the ANC more clearly defined its goals and means of attaining them through popular protest and internal sanctions of a kind. Get this: South Africa is South Africa; Northern Ireland is Northern Ireland; and Israel/Palestine is Israel/Palestine.

Of course, there are universals in seeking peace and democracy, but so determined are we all to take “sides” or make “parallels” which happen to suit us that we tend to miss them. Firstly, if you want peace, it’s a good idea to stop killing each other; anyone doing so is to be condemned without reservation no matter what – and, for the record, you certainly don’t create peace by bombing hospitals and murdering children (an inevitable consequence of current Israeli action, no matter whose narrative it suits). Secondly, there’s more to democracy than voting – if people vote Likud or Hamas, be clear you’re not moving towards democracy (see above). Thirdly, and here’s the real biggie, people need to be motivated to seek peace – never underestimate the power of a populist seeking to justify violence for their own (not their people’s) ends.

On Israel/Palestine I will say this: we are all complicit in demotivating those who seek peace. The West has clearly decided that it is in its interests to prop up Israel, no matter how many children it murders; or even dare I suggest to promote instability in the Middle East no matter how many millions of lives it costs. I can only guess at the reasons for that, but I would guess they are at least indirectly almost all to do with oil. Until we in the West decide it’s actually in our interests to seek a degree of stability in the Holy Land through actions not words – and to deal with the short-term economic penalty (presumably a rising cost of living) to do so – we can put out all the hashtags we like, nothing will change. Honestly, I don’t expect to live to see that day – sadly.

Putin’s not under pressure at all – except to act even more aggressively

Vladimir Putin is “under pressure” (to sue for peace) apparently after the apparently obvious and inexcusable Russian involvement in the horrific downing of a civil airliner, killing 298.

No he isn’t. Not by a long stretch.

Yet again, the West can’t see outside its own bubble – unable even to play devil’s advocate. Yet few play the devil’s advocate better than Vladimir Putin.

A devil’s advocate would point out that Ukraine was always a borderland. It has always been split between various large states (actually usually empires), from Poland-Lithuania to the Soviet Union. To Russians, Russia is “Great Russia”, Belarus is “White Russia” and Ukraine is “Little Russia” – Eastern Slavic brothers, in other words. What they saw in Ukraine in February was Western meddling within Greater Russia.

A devil’s advocate would continue to note that no such Eastern meddling would be allowed by the United States anywhere in the Americas or within other spheres of interest. The United States has brought down unhelpful regimes in the Western Hemisphere many times. Of course, it has frequently intervened in the Middle East, geographically well away from home – even bringing down an Iranian civil airliner on one occasion.

A devil’s advocate would continue to reference the point I have frequently made that ethnic or linguistic Russians within the Western sphere of influence (e.g. NATO or the EU) are treated as second-class citizens, effectively disallowed even the vote in some cases (whereas they are allowed a vote in Russian elections, note well).

Looked at that way around – and the whole of Russia does look at it that way around – and you see that far from being “under pressure”, Vladimir Putin will in fact be encouraged to act more aggressively to put a complete end to the apparent Western meddling within Greater Russia.

Why are the Western media and civil society so unable to see this obvious – and frankly exceedingly dangerous – point?

McIlroy shows NI can be the best when it tries

His is a very distinctive, and confident, strut down the fairway. Few global sports fans would not recognise Rory McIlroy now, striding to another victory.

Rory McIlroy with the famous Claret Jug (Paul Ellis, Agence France)

Rory McIlroy with the famous Claret Jug (Paul Ellis, Agence France)

He will probably not dominate in the way Nicklaus or Woods once did, but that is only because golf is a more global sport now – the top ranks in yesterday’s Open included Americans yes, but also Italians, Irishmen, a Spaniard, a Frenchman and so on. Recent major-winning countries include Korea, New Zealand, Argentina and Germany. Above all of those, Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell can challenge, and Rory at his best can soar. It is remarkable – and he’s ours!

It bears repeating then – if we can do golf, why not other stuff? Why not aspire to a social model others may wish to copy, to business innovation others may wish to buy, to public services others may envy?

If a young man from Holywood can do it, so can the rest of us. A bit less negativity and a bit more confident strutting, and we’d be a better place!

UK needs more German students

Germany’s victory at the World Cup was interesting in the sense that most people in the UK reacted to it positively – a great sign of a thawing in attitudes towards Germany in the UK; a shift ongoing since Germany hosted the tournament in 2006.

Yet it also saw an increase in appalling mispronunciations of German words and general misunderstandings of the country itself in the media. One commentator suggested Germany’s anthem is still called “Deutschland über alles” (a phrase whose basic meaning is misunderstood anyway); there was a whole discussion about a “specific German word” to describe the process of taking a penalty in a shoot-out (in fact Nervenstärke merely means “strength of nerve”); and there was constant reference to Angela Merkel as “Head of State” (she is equivalent of Prime Minister, i.e. Head of Government; the President and Head of State, who was also in attendance at the final, is Joachim Gauck).

It would be helpful, first off, if we simply understood more about what is a highly influential country. For example, the Nazis actually replaced “Deutschland über alles” with their own anthem; many “specific German words” merely derive from the German tendency to put words together in writing; and Merkel’s and Gauck’s rise to prominence both involve astonishing scandals the latter of which, in particular, offers a particular challenge to German democracy (the removal of Christian Wulff, Gauck’s predecessor who was forced to resign for a number of minor alleged misdemeanours hinted at by certain elements in the media but all of which were then thrown out in court, was a fascinating disgrace challenging the whole concept of privacy and the free press).

Of course, it would be easier to understand the country if we spoke its language. Here, the disgrace lies firmly in the UK. Fewer students took German A-Level in the UK this year than took it at Higher Level in Ireland – in other words, more Irish students (in total, not proportionately) speak reasonable German than in the whole of England, Wales and Northern Ireland put together. This is scary; for a start, it makes Ireland a vastly more attractive trading partner for Europe’s largest economy.

We need to do more to understand Germany better; and not just for the sake of our football teams!

Real German lesson: say yes to austerity!

It is an incredible thing – and indicative of how it has become entirely confused – that the “Left” repeatedly used the word “austerity” and does so with the supposedly automatic contention that it is a bad thing.

This is the same “Left” of course, which rightly argues against “excess”. It is indeed an outrage that City Execs get paid 180 times the average wage; that entertainers get such ludicrous recompense on the licence payer or the commercial viewer; or even in some cases that senior quangocrats get so much. Here’s the thing – the opposite of “excess” is, er, “austerity”.

Germany doesn’t get everything right by any means, but it is hard to dispute its recent sporting and economic success. Such success is not down to chance. One of the prime reasons for it is that Germany is a vastly more austere country and society than the UK, France or Spain.

Even in football this shows. The BBC and ITV both had a main presenter, a stadium presenter, a main commentator, a co-commentator, three studio pundits and usually also a stadium pundit – eight, in total. German TV tends to make do with one presenter, one pundit and one commentator – three!

Another obvious area is supermarkets. The big Tesco or Carrefour superstores of the UK and France are replaced in Germany by Lidl, Aldi and others very similar – based on the recognition that it is pointless to pay, in effect, to pay for the privilege of looking at products you’re not going to buy in the name of “choice”. It is the austere German version which is now coming to the fore in the UK and France, not he other way around.

The same applies to housing. While the social housing argument centres around the age at which children should not share a room in the UK, even the children of German professionals often share into their teens; thirtysomething Germans may still live in single-room flats; ownership in the exception in Germany, not the norm.

This austerity works, therefore. Underlying the German social model is the notion of what suffices, not what shows off. As a result, there’s rather more to go around – because, as a direct result of the promotion of austerity as a good thing, outrageous excess is frowned upon. Even successful businesses or indeed football clubs are absolutely expected to maintain community links and loyalty.

This is of course a consequence to a large degree of German history, particularly the lessons of the last War and its immediate aftermath, in which social and economic ruin was the prospect. Whatever about that, the simple fact remains in 2024 that all of these things are good and admirable – and austere. Austerity is a good thing. In this of all weeks, there is a German lesson we can all learn.

 

England needs thousands of miles of new motorway

England is an astonishing country for many reasons. One of those, it became obvious to me as I spent literally a full waking day in total of my holiday trapped between four particular junction of the M25, is that its M-designated motorway network has actually decreased in size this century.

Other than upgrades to stretches of already dualled A1, England has not built a meaningful stretch of motorway since the mid-’90s – the only addition this century was a small part of the M74 across the Scottish border which was already expressway. Scotland, meanwhile, has continued with the M74 extension and plans for other stretches; Ireland, of course, has built the most comprehensive motorway network in almost its entirety during that period.

In England, it is a particular grave concern because figures in late June showed it has the fastest growing population in the European Union bar Sweden. Much of that growth is concentrated in the south, within 100 miles of London. The road network there is not creaking – it has collapsed. On two separate days of my holiday it was taking people more than an hour to cover 10 miles of the M25 at more than one particular location. This is intolerable – for movement of goods and labour, and for the quality of life in general.

There is a peculiar reticence to mention the word “motorway” in England and Wales. The first toll motorway in the English Midlands was deemed a failure and plans for similar in South Wales thus abandoned. Otherwise, the very mention of the word “motorway” is avoided for fear, presumably, of sparking another “Swampy” protest.

It is nonsense of course. Few countries are more environmentally friendly than Denmark – only 20% of commuters into its capital city travel by car, and it leads the world in wind power technology. Yet it has built tens of kilometres of new motorway in a country whose population is a tenth of England’s this century – and even has plans for a new motorway bridge to Germany which it will fund wholly on its own. Denmark sees the benefit – yes, the environmental benefit – of ensuring long-distance traffic is not caught in endless jams with the fumes they create.

Motorways – specifically motorways, as they have to have limited access to focus on moving long-distance traffic quickly – are an absolute pre-requisite for a functioning economy and the UK is being left behind, with a network less than half as long as reasonable comparators (Germany, Spain, France etc). It is time not only to get over the reticence for using the word “motorway”, but to build lots of them quickly. They are, in fact, somewhat more important than high-speed rail links…

Unionists need to admit: so-called “British” culture is nothing of the sort

Unionists have been busy putting out joint Statements a lot recently – not necessarily a bad thing, in fact. The DUP claims this led to a better Twelfth. I’d be inclined to agree.

In fact, it bears noting that the Twelfth this year was something of a triumph for Unionism – precisely because it was largely respectful and usually fun (the same cannot be said for some of the events the previous evening, but let’s focus on the positive for now). The picture of the Orangeman doffing his hat to the Priest at St Patrick’s should live long in the memory – it represented the real Orange Institution and the real NI.

However, one statement in particular caught my eye – because with direct reference to parades disputes, it referred to “British culture”.

The problem is that what they describe as “British culture” is nothing of the sort. The even greater problem is they really need to admit it, for their own sake.

I spent much of my break – inadvertently in fact, due to the passport crisis – in England. More so than in my youth, much of which was spent there, England is now a very “English” place – not the mistaken type of “English” which mistakes “Englishness” with “Britishness”, but a very specific, patriotic and even multi-cultural “Englishness”. This is both bad and good news for Unionists (of any variety).

It is bad news for Unionists in NI because the post-devolution has seen the strong, and to my eyes positive, development of a clearly English identity. English flags are more prominent than Union Flags in England; the word “English” and “Englishness” is now used unashamedly (and, to repeat, to mark a clear distinction from “Britishness”); the English have decided, and not before time perhaps, that the correct response to the development of devolved identities elsewhere in the UK is the development of their own. I have long cautioned that the biggest danger to the Union (i.e. the UK union) may come from England, when the English decide it simply isn’t worth it any more.

On the other hand, it is good news because in my youth there was a real risk that “Englishness” would become adopted, frankly, by racists (closet or otherwise) and that “English” would come to mean not “British-Scottish/Welsh/Irish” but “English-immigrants/blacks/others”. That it has become a positive expression of clear and unifying identity (for the most part) is evidence that such a turnaround can happen – once the basic problem (in the case of “Englishness” the on-going differentiation with “Scottish” and “Welsh”, even politically) is accepted.

This development – as well as positive expressions of Scottishness, Welshness and a grown-up 21st century not particularly Anglophobic Irishness – has left Unionists lost. What they describe as “British culture” is totally foreign to 98% of Britons – in other words, it isn’t. They are left in a trap, claiming a “Britishness” they have in common with no one in order to distinguish themselves from the “Irish”, who have a worldwide diaspora. Whereas their Nationalist neighbours share a broad cultural identity with residents of the Republic of Ireland and millions of people of Irish heritage globally, Unionists do not share a cultural identity with anyone – not even their own professional class. It is this which leads to displays not of “British culture”, but of obvious insecurity.

This insecurity is not anyone’s fault, in particular. However, it is people’s fault if they choose to ignore it. It is time we all stopped using the term “British culture” for cultural displays which, while for the most part wholly legitimate displays of Ulster-Protestant culture, are actually anything but “British”.

England won’t learn German lesson

It was the most astonishing series in international football I had ever seen. For a team of such serious World Cup heritage to concede four goals so easily, without offering any resistance and in such a mentally fragile state, was a truly unbelievable sight to behold. I am speaking, of course, of Germany – specifically Germany’s throwing away of a four-goal lead in the last half an hour in a World Cup qualifier at home to Sweden to draw 4-4 barely eighteen months ago.

Much is already being written about Germany’s World Cup triumph, and mostly correctly: it was a triumph of youth development; of involving clubs in the national team’s development; of top-quality coaching at every level; of promoting the game with a community sense and not just a business one. Yet another point is often missed – namely Germany’s remarkable ability to perform when it really counts.

This is a German team which recently lost at home to Australia; which got stuffed two years ago at home by the same Argentine team it beat in this year’s Final; which is decidedly average even in the occasional competitive qualifier. Yet it has appeared in every World Cup quarter-final since 1954 – a scarcely believable statistic, especially when added to a joint-record three European Championship wins in that period.

In fact, since 1954, Germany’s overall win-loss record is scarcely better than England’s. Yet Germany has now won the World Cup twice as often as England has even reached the semi-final; since 1966, Germany has reached the Final as often as England has reached the quarter-final.

There is a specific skill, even within tournaments, to managing performance – one the Germans have mastered. Take a quick glance at World Cup history and note how even Germany’s group games follow the same basic pattern – usually an opening win to get off the mark, followed by an average second game (sometimes even a defeat), and then the result required to get through; alternatively, if they happen to win the second game, they’ll often lose the third (to, say, Denmark or even in one case East Germany!) The team then begins to gather pace through to, and usually beyond, the quarter-final.

Even if the English got the youth development right, the coaching right and the club linkage right (and there is evidence they are getting somewhere with the first two of these at least), there is little evidence they understand how to be a Turniermannschaft - how to manage a competition and the level of preparation (mental and physical) required.

Thus, we should probably expect Germany’s fifth star before England’s second.

Back in a fortnight…

It’s July – time for a fortnight off!

Thanks to all readers of this blog – any (reasonable!) thoughts on it, let me know below!

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