If State Aid rules were broken, is the State not responsible?

Away back in February, I explained why the Irish Government is quite happy to let a huge, wealthy corporation like Apple not pay any tax. The previous January I noted that this was not without penalty to the humble customer.

This August, the intervention came. Let us assume that the European Commission is right and State Aid rules were breached by Apple’s rather favourable tax arrangements in Ireland (even though I make no such assumption, personally).

Who established those tax arrangements? Was it Apple, or Ireland?

Quite obviously it was Ireland. And this is not a victimless crime. Who is to say that Apple would not have preferred the lower labour costs available in Northern Ireland, were it not for the fact that it could enjoy such favourable arrangements South of the border? In effect, Ireland applied tax arrangements which were tantamount to “cheating” within a Single Market in which other jurisdictions compete for business such as Apple’s. That is why State Aid rules exist.

So, er, why exactly is the effective fine being applied to Apple and not to Ireland?

How will the UK leave the EU

After last week’s post on “Brexit” we can now safely say Brexiteers have no idea. Literally, at least with regard to those reading this blog. Asked to come up with a proposal, none responded. Interesting, but unsurprising.

So, never mind how the UK should leave the EU (which, of course, it shouldn’t), how will it?

This is the scary bit. At heart the problem with referendums is they imply that 50%+1 get all they want and 50%-1 get nothing. As politics moves to the “right” while Labour simply leaves the field of play to others, this will only be even more markedly the case with regard to the means of exiting the EU.

David Davis may “want” an open border, but then Neville Chamberlain “wanted” peace. The fact is, as a consequence of his and his mates’ actions, the reactionary right-wing view on immigration won a referendum and will now expect its victory to be recognised before the next election. In this twilight zone of a post-factual world, that means absolutely controlling the border by May 2020.

And that is what will happen. It will make no difference at all to immigration, of course; nor will it bring down housing waiting lists, make it easier to see the GP or reduce traffic on the M25 and M6. But apparently what the people want they must get – and they will.

The consequence, of course, of “taking back control” will mean that the UK loses free and direct access to the Single Market. With absolutely no trade deals in place, there will then be only one option open to the UK – to become a “large Guernsey”.

Using its “control” of its border, the UK will choose rich and skilled immigrants, attracting them with low taxes (immediately, for example, it expressed an interest in bringing in Apple from Ireland, implicitly on the basis of it not having to pay Corporation Tax in the post-Brexit UK). This will also be a way to protect the Finance Sector, which will lose some business but also gain some from the wealthy incomers. As a consequence, property prices will rise, meaning that those who already own property will become apparently even richer and another consumerist binge will take place, creating (an illusion of) considerable economic growth, but all while the low-tax regime strains government revenues which are increasingly being eaten up in paying pensions rather than providing services or working-age welfare.

I can see how some on the traditional “right” were and are attracted by this vision. Quite how anyone on the “left” is, is beyond me, yet they seem disinclined to do anything about it (prioritising instead the big issues like, er, post-work drinks).

I don’t suppose it’s great news for Guernsey either…


Is the sporting media responsible for social breakdown?

I saw an article today entitled “Who could Arsenal get in the Champions’ League draw?”

There are TV sports channels which advertise “All the Build-up to the Champions’ League draw”.


I mean seriously, what?!

How about we just wait to see who Arsenal do get in the draw, and then talk about it? What is the precise point of such irrelevant conjecture?

And how can there be “build-up” to  a draw? “Build-up” to a match is bad enough, full of irrelevant nonsense from “pundits” who have the tactical nous of a tortoise.

And we haven’t even reached “Transfer Deadline Day”, until we find out which Paraguayan defender no one had ever heard of (even people in Paraguay) is going to turn Everton into world beaters (with absolutely no concept that football is a team game and, in any case, we have no idea of the personal circumstances of this random player who may or may not settle in Merseyside, may or may not speak English, and may or may not be any good).

Yet all of this stuff seems to attract enough commercial interest to make it worth producing. In other words, some people must be watching it. No harm, but is that not quite alarming? Frankly, should people not have something more socially useful to do with their day than watch the “build up” to someone drawing bits of paper out of a plastic ball?

There must be something better they could be doing. They could even write a blog…

What is “learning” a language?

A sensible question raised after last week’s post was: what does “learning” a language mean?

This is, of course, quite similar to the question: what does “speaking” a language mean?

As with so many things on matters linguistic, there is no concrete answer to it. It depends from circumstance to circumstance.

Nevertheless, there is a question that anyone should ask before embarking on learning one: what is the purpose of learning this language?

Language learning is a surprisingly under-researched subject. Nevertheless, one thing which is clear (and intuitive even without research) is that a prime indicator of success is motivation. So, as with anything, if you do not know why you are doing something, you are less likely to succeed in doing it.

Then there is the need, having established the purpose, to be realistic about the goal. As established in my “speaking a language” post, native proficiency is not a realistic objective for an adult, even if resident in the country where the target language is spoken. This in itself may put many people off; but that would be a little like saying you should not take up a sport aged 39 because you will never be an Olympian. That is not, surely, the purpose.

Clarity about the purpose is important for anything, of course. So, are you trying to “learn” Italian so you can get by when ordering a meal or reserving a hotel room while there? Are you trying to “learn” French because you have seen a university course there you want to take up? Are you trying to “learn” Dutch because you want to try your luck seeking employment in the Netherlands or Belgium?

Then it is necessary to assess what exactly that means, given not just the level to which you wish to “learn” the language, but also the socio-linguistic situation.

For example, with a fairly widely spoken language such as Italian, it will be relatively easy to find a course and a phrase book to “learn” it to be proficient enough to go there on holiday and have a clearer idea about what is going on around you. (A course or a phrase book may not be the best way to achieve this, however!)

With French designed for use on a university course, you will want the basics but not necessarily much more than that as you will be able to “learn” once there through immersion (for many people, this is the best way). Many evening courses will deliver such an outcome; online courses or tapes are also possible, although they may in fact focus too much on vocabulary.

If you were to approach a language like Dutch, however, the socio-linguistic situation becomes very pertinent. A comfortable majority of people in the Netherlands and Flanders, particularly in the services industry where you may be seeking employment (as per the above scenario), speak good to excellent English. This is a serious problem, not just because it denies you the chance to practise (and “learn” through immersion), but also because it takes away motivation. If it becomes apparent that you may be able to get by without Dutch, then that becomes a tempting option over making the effort to “learn” it. That this denies you the chance to immerse yourself fully in the local culture may not be such a big issue, given in any case there is no sense of loss because “you don’t know what you don’t know”.

For all that, no matter what is meant by “learn”, there are a few universals which apply to “learning” at any level for any purpose. For example:

  • you will make mistakes, and indeed they are necessary to “learn” (just as you would if you took up a sport or any other sort of hobby);
  • it is good to know the socio-linguistic situation of the language compared to your purpose (a little like the New Year gym subscription, ask yourself honestly: are you really going to make the effort?);
  • it is good to establish if (and how) the target language is related to any other language you know (this may make it easier, and of course familiarity breeds motivation – I would happily have a go at Portuguese given my knowledge of Spanish, but Polish is rather more distant and Chinese is hopelessly unfamiliar);
  • it is good from the outset to establish the character of a language – whether it has a preference for noun phrases over verb phrases (as with German v Spanish); whether it places adjectives before or after nouns; whether it likes to end words in vowels or (certain) consonants; what sort of differentiation between tenses it makes; what intonation it uses (this is hard to explain in writing, but listen to a French person, a Swede or a German speak English and you will hear the different intonation from their native tongue); etc etc;
  • music (with lyrics in the target language) is always good;
  • focusing on areas of your own interest for reading articles or listening to reports will always maintain motivation and interest; and
  • remember, generally native speakers are keen to help you “learn”, although they too may make mistakes (and they may be hopeless for explaining why certain things are the way they are).

If you are realistic and clear about your objectives, learning a language is like learning anything else – with motivation and effort will come success. However, it does pay to be clear about the purpose, and thus what “learning” the language with your particular goal actually means.

Focus on Tourism is misplaced

I was invited on to BBC Nolan this week on the back of a perfectly innocent comment that the focus of the new flight from Belfast to Berlin, contrary to media reports, should not be “tourism”.

This quite obvious point, to which I added that Tourism is almost universally an industry of low value added and consequently low wages, caused some debate. That debate is important, because it is at the core of Northern Ireland’s economic failings.

Let us firstly be very clear that low wages are a problem. It is staggering that we should have to be clear about that, but it appears some people have forgotten. Low wages do not just mean that people struggle to get by, but also that they are more vulnerable to external shocks – such as the decline of Sterling putting up the cost of living or removal of tax credits. Given that their time is already taken up working, and they will generally lack transferable skills due to an educational system which does not value vocational training sufficiently, they have no flexibility to deal with such external shocks, and are thus thrust towards serious debt (and, in too many cases, real marginalisation). Northern Ireland has the lowest wages in the UK, and low wages are, in other words, the single biggest scourge in Northern Irish society.

To make an obvious point, therefore, all our economic efforts should be placed into increasing wages. However, this cannot be an artificial thing. You increase wages by increasing the value of what the economy produces. To make again what should be an obvious point, if you provide services and products of high value, people will pay you more for them, enabling you to pay higher wages. That ultimately, for example, is how a country like Denmark ends up paying its workers higher wages than even the UK as a whole (even when Sterling’s exchange rate is favourable), despite the fact they work fewer hours.

In the industrial age, Belfast was very good at the high-end stuff, of course. We know, from past generations, that high-value industries inevitably deliver higher-value output and thus the ability to pay higher wages. But that was then and this is now.

Another peculiarity to point out a week after results came out is that Northern Ireland has the best qualified school leavers in the UK (excluding Scotland, admittedly, which cannot be meaningfully compared), yet has the worst qualified workforce. Let us ask an obvious question: if Northern Ireland were a land of high-value industry paying high wages, would this be so?

So, it is established that Northern Ireland has a serious brain drain, and that it has the lowest wages in the UK. Surely no one disputes this is a problem?

Tourism is of course a useful by-product of direct links to places like Berlin. However, it is in generally a low-value-added industry (primarily because it does not require bespoke skills in the way that computing, finance or manufacturing do). Therefore, it pays low wages. This is not an “insult” and it is not specific to Northern Ireland – it is true of the tourism industry everywhere. Countries and regions which focus on tourism, such as in Southern Europe, experience their own problems with low wages and a brain drain. Countries which focus on other industries, such as Denmark above or, to use another obvious example, Germany itself, enjoy higher wages.

So, to make an obvious point again, a direct link from Belfast to Berlin should not be and is not primarily about tourism (although, to emphasise, that is a useful by-product). It is primarily about creating a direct link to a growing economy, in association with which we may be able to create considerable wealth to create high-skilled, high-wage jobs right here at home – perhaps most obviously in this case in the creative industries and all associated aspects (which potentially even include computing for animation, finance for project management, and bespoke manufacturing for things such as the tools in Game of Thrones), to use a really obvious example.

There are lots of really obvious examples and really obvious answers there! The key to creating air links to Germany, promoted countless times on this blog, is not for Northern Ireland to remain a peripheral low-wage economy. It is for Northern Ireland to become more central, more innovative, more skilled, and fundamentally wealthier. To set a really obvious objective…

A guest blog will follow explaining why much of what I have written above is nonsense…

“Proxima Centauri b” biggest story of 2016

2016 has been a dramatic year – one which may well be looked back upon as a serious society changer in a similar way to 1968.

There is no question at all, however, about what is the biggest story of the year.

Pale Red Dot

This artist’s impression shows a view of the surface of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Solar System. The double star Alpha Centauri AB also appears in the image to the upper-right of Proxima itself. Proxima b is a little more massive than the Earth and orbits in the habitable zone around Proxima Centauri, where the temperature is suitable for liquid water to exist on its surface. Source: space.com

The discovery of Proxima Centauri b is potentially the most profound astronomical event since 20 July 1969, and perhaps the most profound discovery for four hundred years (since Galileo).

It was only within the last generation that the very existence of planets outside the Solar System was confirmed. With Kepler, thousands have been discovered, although still overwhelmingly planets with are larger than Neptune and close to their star (far closer than any planets in the Solar System are to the Sun, in most instances), and only around the 15% or so of stars which are relatively similar to the Sun. Although it was long considered likely that there were other planets out there, what was most exciting about this is that we can now reasonably infer that almost every star we look at in the night sky has a planetary system. That is exciting – and profound, because it raises the probability of life to very high, and of intelligent life to much higher than we had previously been able to assume.

Every now and then, of course, a planet has been proposed and subsequently confirmed which is within the “habitable zone” (sometimes known as the “Goldilocks zone” – not too cold, not too hot, but just right to support life). Often, further observation has made the crucial existence of an atmosphere to support life less likely. Nevertheless, the important thing is that it captures the public imagination (frankly then making continued funding for this vital research for humanity more politically and socially palatable).

In recent years and months, a much wider range of planets have been discovered, confirming that small planets (like ours) are in fact quite common, even though they were not initially easy to find. Gradually the data are moving to include planets as far away from their star as the Earth is from the Sun, and then further, to give us a much clearer idea of how typical or atypical the Solar System is. Increasingly the odds suggest it is fairly typical – and that is, in itself, very exciting because it cannot be bad for the prospects of finding life (and intelligent life).

Then came 2016. Proxima Centauri is much smaller than our Sun, but is also part of a three-star system, so in fact it was the type of Star initially ignored in the hunt. We now know, significantly, that even such a star can support a planet and, what is more, a planet in the “habitable zone” (that zone is much closer than in our Sun’s case).

The Sun would be visible to the naked eye in the night sky on a planet or moon up to around 80 light years away; although of course there are much larger stars visible to the naked eye on Earth which are much further away than that. However, that roughly 80-year radius seems reasonable because, unlike intergalactic distances and such like, we can easily comprehend it – it makes the average star visible to the naked eye and it means that light reaching us now left those stars within the average healthy/lucky human’s lifespan (for example, light from the sun reaching any alien who can see it with the naked eye left within my father’s lifetime).

Proxima Centauri is just over four light years away – milimetres, in cosmic terms. It is the very closest star to our Solar System; it has a planet around it; and that planet is within the habitable zone. That is stunning – and profound.

It is not profound because there may be intelligent life on that planet. There probably isn’t.

It is not profound because there may well be life of some sort on that planet. If it isn’t intelligent, that confirms life exists somewhere else – which is profound, but actually would confirm something most people (at least, most people who think about it) now assume to be the case anyway.

It is profound because all of us, when we are lucky enough to get a clear night (ideally away from the city lights), look up at the stars in wonder. There is now, for the first time, a reason to go to one of those stars; because we have found one which has a planet absolutely worth visiting. And it is profound because it is possible, within a human lifespan (i.e. when people now living are still alive), that humanity will see images taken directly by a human-made space probe from a habitable planet around another star. We may already know by then that there is life out there, or that probe may be sent to explore whether there is; we may already know by then that the planet could be inhabited, or that it is not but once may have been; we may indeed already know by then that alien civilisations exist, or that they do not within any relevant range of us. Regardless, the very notion of humans already alive seeing directly taken images from the surface of a planet in another system is something which will be looked back upon, just as Galileo is, for centuries.

Ultimately, we humans are not economic units. We are emotional explorers. It’s how we have come to be what we are. And it is how we will be what we come to be. This discovery, therefore, gives us just a hint – quite possibly long after religions, nation states, or even economies have ceased to exist – of what we will come to be. We are truly lucky to be alive to experience it.

How is UK to leave EU?

My former colleague Gerry Lynch recently posted this on Facebook:

The will of the people must be respected. Which will is that? The will that the UK can get its cake and eat it with the EU more than it already had, with all the benefits and none of the costs of membership? Or the will said the UK is a great country and can thrive entirely outside European structures and has no need of the single market? Or the will that said that immigration was too high and the undoubted costs of leaving the EU were worth getting the level of immigration under control? Or the will that said immigration was great and the UK should lead the world as a tariff free, regulation free, country with the minimum possible border controls? Or the will that just wanted to stick the finger to Cameron and Osborne (both of whom have been forgotten in an amazingly short space to time)?

Too right. 

So here is a straightforward challenge to those who want the UK to leave the EU – tell us how. And here is a straightforward platform – do it right here, on this blog!

Any comment on this blog post either directly here or on Facebook will be taken as an offer of a guest blog post, next Tuesday (and Tuesdays thereafter if there are more than one). Let’s hear it!

Meanwhile, here is how I would do it. Well, of course, I wouldn’t leave at all. But here is how I would attempt to respect the will of the people without collapsing the economy or causing constitutional chaos.

I would put an offer to the heads of government across the rest of the EU stating as follows:

  • from 1 July 2017, for six years, the UK will place a cap on the number of people allowed entry to the country from the Schengen Zone for the purposes of work, announcing that cap six months in advance each year;
  • also from that date, the UK will take over the full operation of its international aid budget (knocking around £20-£30 million off its contribution to the EU budget);
  • during that seven-year period, the UK will remain a member of the EU on the terms negotiated by David Cameron, but will agree to leave the room for discussions pertinent to the Single Currency or the Schengen Zone;
  • after four years (from June 2021), the UK will negotiate with the European Council the terms under which free movement within the Single Market will work into and out of the Schengen Zone, and on the basis of that negotiation the UK will then make a decision specifically on whether or not to remain within or leave the Single Market (determining its future relationship with the EU on the basis of that decision).

What is in this for the various sides?

For everyone (the European Council, the UK Government, Leave supporters and Remain supporters), the headache of how precisely the UK goes about leaving the EU is postponed for a reasonable duration while it is worked out.

For many Leave voters, the UK reclaims “control of its borders” – forever, if it so chooses (but on the understanding that maintaining such “control” into the next decade means restructuring the economy to leave the Single Market). This should appeal at least to some of those who voted on “sovereignty”, and to almost all those who voted on “immigration”. Those who don’t much like “international aid” will also see this restored to the UK and thus some money brought back to the UK (even if this is actually somewhat irrational).

For Remain voters, the debate is shifted to where it should be – the Single Market. Ultimately the future decision is not EU or no EU, but Single Market or no Single Market. This is a recognition of the reality that the UK does not get to set the terms alone of remaining within the Single Market.

For the European Council, there is at least a window of opportunity to re-define the EU somewhat, making the “core EU” (Single Currency and Schengen Zone) distinct from the “associate EU” (the Single Market without the Single Currency and Schengen Zone). Not only might it be possible to avoid any member state technically leaving under this new dispensation (the obvious risk being if the UK goes, so might the likes of Sweden), but it may even be possible to tempt countries such as Norway and Iceland in, since the “associate” membership option is not far from EEA, but with a common and clear framework.

For the UK Government, there is the chance to reflect that concerns raised in the referendum about immigration have been fully taken into account; but also that concerns raised concerning economic reconfiguration and the difficulties with the legal changes required to leave the EU have also been given time for resolution.

For Scotland and Northern Ireland, there is at least time here to determine exactly what they would do, should the UK opt to leave the Single Market; and, presumably, to make the case not to. For the Republic of Ireland, there is also a window of opportunity to consider exactly what its interests are with regard to free trade and movement with the UK, versus with the rest of the EU.

The UK Government’s external core argument would be that it is a little rich for other EU member states to lecture on how important absolute free movement is, when in fact only the UK (alongside Ireland and Sweden) implemented it upon the EU’s expansion in 2004. It would be precisely because the UK took in so many EU citizens from that date that it would be making the case for not having to do so now; as well as being on a separate land mass and outside the Schengen Zone. Its internal core argument would be that leaving the EU takes time and needs to be subject to further detailed consideration, but that the direction of travel is now established without a reasonable counter offer towards a looser EU.

Surely, of course, the European Council would reject such an offer? Well, maybe. But maybe not. You don’t know until you try. Actually my bet is the European Council would accept the offer – after all, there is no institution in the world more expert at can-kicking-down-the-road.

Impossible? Impractical? Not actually respecting the will of the people? Well then, your turn… right here, next Tuesday…

GB not yet an “Olympic Superpower”

There is no doubt Team GB’s performance at this month’s Olympic Games was outstanding. To edge ahead of the London medals total was a superb achievement, and all those who made it happen should be rightly reflecting in the afterglow.

However, it should not be overstated. The most obvious recent comparison, Australia around 2000, gives food for thought.

When I was growing up, Team GB (although it was not then so branded) typically scored five gold medals in the twenties total medals in a typical Olympic Games (five and 24 in Seoul 1988 was actually above par at the time). That was also the total typically scored by countries such as France and Italy (of equivalent population and wealth), and somewhat behind West Germany (likewise). It was also typically marginally ahead of Australia, a country with considerably fewer people but considerably greater sporting interest.

Suddenly, having been awarded the 2000 Games, Australia burst out of the blocks – at the previous games, in Atlanta in 1996, it scored nine golds and 41 medals, a marked improvement on past performance. When the time came to host the games, this rose to 16 golds and 58, and Australia was talked of as an “Olympic superpower”. Yet, astonishingly, at the subsequent games in Athens in 2004, Australia did more or less as well – in fact improving to a whopping 17 golds, while declining only slightly to 51 overall medals, still markedly better than any previous remotely comparable performance away from home.

At the time, it was thought that hosting the games had seen Australia rise not just temporarily to Olympic superpower status as hosts, but in fact permanently. It was thought the Sydney afterglow would last forever. In Beijing in 2008 there was a slight slip to 46 medals (agonisingly one behind the “Poms”), but this was still better than any pre-2000 performance. Superpower status seemed confirmed.

Yet, by 2016, Australia had slumped to just 29 medals. This is still historically respectable and is not a bad total for a country with less than half the population of England alone. However, it is just half the Sydney total and nothing like the heights reached even away from home in 1996-2008.

Team GB did something similar. In 2000 and 2004 the team improved slightly, but still only to an average ten golds and 29 medals (in line with the likes of France and Italy, as in the past). However, having been awarded the games, the team then improved dramatically even at the previous games, with an at-the-time-astonishing 19 golds and 47 medals in Beijing in 2008 for fourth place in the medals table. As hosts, performance then took another leap up to 29 golds and 65 medals and third place, and this was then retained (as was more or less the case with Australia in 2004) to secure 27 golds and 67 medals at the subsequent Olympics in 2016, good enough for second.

If Team GB were to track Australia – and that is a reasonable proposition – performance in Tokyo in 2020 would remain marginally better than it was in Beijing in 2008, but inferior either to London 2012 or Rio 2016. This would still, by historical comparison, be a good result and would probably be reported as such. However, the subsequent 2024 Olympics would be expected to see a sudden dip, still to slightly better than the historical average but markedly worse than anything since 2004, before settling back at a more typical performance from then on (which, given the wider range of sports now at the games, would probably mean around 10 golds and 30-35 medals, similar to Italy and marginally better than Australia as in the past, from 2028).

In other words, it is by no means yet established that Team GB is a true “Olympic Superpower” as some have reported. Vastly improved coaching and facilities must have had an effect, of course, but the test is whether they really put the British up with the Russians and Chinese a decade from now. There is much still to do if that is to be achieved!

Which language should I learn?

Linked to recent posts on here, and also an article in The Economist two weeks ago, is the question of which language a willing learner should choose.

Experts in The Economist made the case for French (on the grounds it is still widely spoken as an administrative language in various parts of the world), Spanish (on the grounds of rising numbers of native speakers and access from it to Italian and Portuguese), Brazilian Portuguese (this one lost me a bit so we will leave it there!), Mandarin (on the grounds of the rise of China) and Latin (as a conduit to lots of other languages).

Of these, I find only the case for Spanish convincing. On top of that, one obvious candidate was missed – German.

The article was extremely good but one really obvious issue – touched in last week on this blog – was missed altogether. You have to assess how motivated you will be to learn the language.

Are you really going to learn Mandarin? I mean, really? This cannot reasonably be done taking half an hour in the evening to do an Internet course from a flat in Bristol. It will require spending a considerable length of time in (a relevant region of) China – like, living and working there – and even at that being committed to immerse yourself rather than just seek out Westerners while teaching English to get by. Even in hugely favourable circumstances with real dedication, you will still probably come away with at best conversational proficiency (and very limited literacy), which you will then have to dedicate yourself to maintaining (by regular trips back to China, in all likelihood). How likely is that?

The same applies, in a way, to Latin. It appears more familiar of course, but in its case you really have no way of using the language (unless for some reason you have engaged in learning a language to reading fluency just to read ancient literature). I am not against a grounding in Latin by any means, but the best language you can learn? Dubious…

French is, of course, a fascinating language, but is at an immediate disadvantage because historically it differs markedly from other Latinate languages (with one consequence that it is difficult, objectively, to pronounce), so is limited in being a conduit towards them. Furthermore, the case for its geographical extent is limited, covering only North Africa and, at a push, Indochina. Compare that with the social and economic might of the whole Spanish-speaking world (or even the Portuguese in the longer run), and it comes out unquestionably worse. It has its uses no doubt (not least its retention as a formal administrative language by the likes of the UN and IOC), but its practical 21st century extent is restricted.

There is undoubtedly a case for Spanish. First of all, there is the motivation almost no matter where you are in the world – both Europeans and North Americans can find it instantly useful at a range of common holiday destinations for a start. Secondly, it has remained fairly close to Latin, as have Portuguese and Italian, and is thus a useful conduit to them. Thirdly, it is also relatively simple to use after just a little learning. Best of all is our exposure to it – it is quite common for Spanish-language hits to make it into the US or UK charts, and Spanish is increasingly used in US drama series (the main language of “Narcos”, a significant language in “Power”, and a peripheral but important one in many more). Nothing succeeds like exposure! Tie this to a large and growing number of native speakers with increasing economic influence, and the case for Spanish being the language to learn is close to unanswerable.

However, there remains a case for German. Approached the right way (as per the link), it is not as inaccessible as the scary word order and complex case system initially suggest. It is also, by far, the language I have found most useful – I have found it necessary to fix electronic items (shipped with menus set in German), to set up TVs (I received one with instructions only in German), help out tourists (both in Northern Ireland and elsewhere), operate on holiday (this year in Italy German was a lingua franca at our site and locations around it), and manage business (there may be something of a bias here, but I am asked for German translations or courses more often than any other, by far). This is scarcely a surprise. German is the most commonly spoken mother tongue in the world’s largest trading bloc, and the language of the world’s second biggest exporter – and is thus of vastly more significance than French and potentially ahead of Spanish (particularly from a European perspective). It is also a conduit to Dutch, and to some extent to Scandinavian, thus covering all Europe’s most prosperous economies. It is important to maintain motivation (so that visits to Germany or Austria result in you practising German on the natives and not natives practising English on you), but there are a lot of reasons for doing so.

Faced with the choice between Spanish or German, a lot of other considerations come into play. However, on the basis of geographical proximity, social use, economic value and linkage to other languages in the longer run (and thus basic motivation, the most important thing of all), the “language to learn” is definitely one or the other of those two.



Judge Trudeau on delivery

In the midst of the craziness – as Farage visits Trump while Putin licks his lips – Canadian PM Justin Trudeau seems to outsiders like a breath of fresh air. His 50% female cabinet, apologies to native groups, and attendance at LGBTQ events have been a welcome relief for social liberals; his knowledge of quantum physics, commitment to healthy living and even pro-activity on the national anthem (removing a specific male reference) have provided a real role model for those looking for a response to the global retreat to isolationist conservative nationalism.

No wonder he has, therefore, attained hero status among the social liberal “elite”, stung by political reverses almost everywhere else. It may be (and indeed I hope it is, as I would have voted and campaigned for his party without reservation) that he lives up to his billing.

It is worth noting that history does suggest otherwise, however. Remember, he hasn’t actually done anything of practical significance yet. (And even though it is not his fault, social liberals themselves should always be uneasy about someone who has attained artificial prominence because of his surname.)

Mr Trudeau’s current global popularity reminds me very much of a certain Mr Blair’s at a similar stage in his premiership. That same Mr Blair did deliver some quick wins – from the Belfast Agreement to a successful (often now forgotten given what came after) military intervention in Sierra Leone. Youthful, good-looking and charming, initially it appeared Mr Blair could do no wrong. Remember that?

I recently spoke to a close friend in western Canada to whom I had not spoken in some time, not least because child care is so hopeless that almost all her time (and money) as a working mother is taken up with that. There had also been health issues in the family for which there had been no option but a long waiting list to use an inflexible service. Traffic is also a significant problem. One example only, but immediate evidence that all is not exactly perfect. My friend backed Mr Trudeau – but is still waiting for some action to address such issues. It is inconceivable she is alone in that; and even more inconceivable that she will forgive him if she has to wait much longer.

Quick wins – like changing the words to the national anthem – are good for setting the scene (and are welcome), but actually they make no practical difference to people’s lives in the long run. Let us see some of the practical delivery before we engage in too much hero worship. Let us learn from history, in other words…