Tuesday 29 May 2018

Marx @ 200: Concluded

So now for an assessment of anything we can salvage from Marx**.

Firstly, he is clearly right that capitalists often seek to establish monopolies.  Maybe all capitalists dream of cornering their markets.  But this is hardly unique to capitalism.  Monarchs since time immemorial have either maintained for themselves, or sold to others, monopolies on all manner of goods, generally with serious profit in mind.  Any intelligent ‘capitalist’ government - and indeed intelligent business people themselves – know this and, for the long-term good of the system, resist it.  (On a personal note I have spent a large part of my commercial career fighting monopolies in the energy sector, and the constant threat of their re-emergence.)  We may agree that, on a cyclical basis perhaps, there are periods in the history of the last 200 years when some pretty baleful monopolies have taken root – often in newly-hatched industries when governments and regulators were not on their guard (e.g petroleum in the Rockefeller era; and various aspects of IT more recently).   But it’s a big stretch to say that capitalism (or any other system harbouring greedy people) moves inevitably towards its own destruction because of this ‘tendency’.

Secondly, Marx’s colourful account of how the Revolution comes about has an exciting narrative flow, with some obvious points of contact with the here-and-now.  With some fairly extreme (though hardly unprecedented) concentrations of wealth forming after a period of relative egalitarianism, and plenty of dramatic developments in automation to be cited, several of the revolutionary preconditions Marx listed could be seen as starting to stack up.  Given the seriousness of what's at stake - and with John McDonnell waiting in the wings, Heaven help us - it behoves us to do a bit more than dismiss it all outright.

But, frankly, Marx's 'decline and fall' prediction has the ring to it of one of the more grandiose science-fiction plots set in a galaxy some little distance away.  One can certainly see some localized issues that may be described under the headings of his preconditions for Revolution – particularly in ‘the west’; and, yes, there’s political turmoil aplenty.  But there have been several even more scary periods of political crisis in the past 150 years.  Technology and automation have been steadily marching forward for centuries, without any manifest self-destructive end-game in sight.  ("Drones predicted to give British economy a £42bn lift by 2030" - from today's Grauniad!)  And – gigantic surpluses?  Wholesale unemployment among the 99%?  Worsening immiseration on a global scale?  Elevate your gaze from parochial worries, you western lefties: a large part of the globe is getting steadily better off!

We are no more compelled to accept Marx’s prediction for how all this ‘inevitably’ plays out, than we are to buy Plato’s account of how “tyranny naturally arises from democracy”.  We can, in the spirit of heeding the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, find the respective accounts salutary, and hopefully recognize the potential dangers being described - so as to avoid them by adroit political actions.  But there is no obvious reason to accept any of Marx’s forecasts as being preordained.  (Quite the reverse: the history of capitalism has been one of endless surprises, mutations and adaptability, to the dismay of embittered lefties. As the more-or-less-marxist American philosopher Brian Leiter acknowledges: “Marx misjudged the smarts of the capitalist class”.  It’s worth noting also that marxists’ belief that history is on their side can be a major psychological weakness, since it gives them an excuse for taking their feet off the pedal just when they may be in danger of nosing ahead.  I have long thought that one of the reasons the Soviets didn’t come across the IGB at their point of maximum pre-Reagan military advantage – pace Mr BQ - was that the risk seemed altogether disproportionate when they ‘knew’ it would all come their way eventually in any case.)

Finally, and for me the most interesting, we come to Marx’s thesis that wage-slaves can be (and maybe mostly are) fundamentally deluded about what’s really going on as regards both their own exploitation and their best economic and human interests.  In this, he is adding to a characteristically C19th strand of new(ish) thinking emanating most notably from Nietzsche, Marx himself and Freud.  These Germanic gentlemen all surmised that in important ways we have reasons to be systematically suspicious about what people say – and indeed what they actually believe - about themselves and their own feelings, drivers, reasons, motives etc.  Each thinker has a different angle, and they are all well worth considering.  Freud emphasizes the importance of ‘suppressed’ sexual drives and childhood experiences.  Nietzsche is difficult to summarise but, in just a few words, reckons that what we might term the articulated conscious is, for complex reasons he discusses at great length, a systematically warped version of what is ‘really going on inside’.

And Marx, of course, thinks that the ‘false’ consciousness of the proletariat has been systematically moulded to suit the economic and survival interests of a manipulative capitalist class, aimed in particular towards a compliant quietism amongst the workers in the face of their own growing misery.  (Personally, I suggest that underpinning all of these three accounts in their Victorian context is the work of Darwin, establishing the idea of blind, unconscious processes affecting the fates of organisms and species, ‘whatever they think is happening’.  Marx explicitly acknowledged Darwin’s contribution to his own thinking: his work “is most important and suits my purpose in that it provides a basis in natural science for the historical class struggle”.)

Darwin aside, though, just how new is Marx’s economic determinism as it impacts subliminally on individuals and classes?  There are clear pre-echoes in Adam Smith (another authority recognized by Marx), for example when he writes that “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest” – however much the butcher may protest to his customers, or indeed to himself, of a higher purpose (or “mission”, as so many companies these days fatuously term their commercial motivation) behind his business endeavours. 

We can accept Marx’s far-ranging social-psychological insight on these matters at face value, without imagining he has come up with the most profound, innovative or definitive contribution on the subject.  It isn't the preserve of lefties to be caustic about Rupert Murdoch, or the BBC, or any other agency seeking to throw a warm suffocating blanket over honest efforts to see the truth prevail, whether those efforts be directed towards economic relationships or anything else an ‘establishment’ would choose to deflect attention from.

So: an interesting thinker, is old Karl - but the aspects of his voluminous output that survive critical review are not particularly, ahem, revolutionary.  Nor does his fame rest upon those; but rather, on the overblown 'scientific' political predictions he makes that are such tosh, so gratifying and stimulating for all manner of bitter social malcontents, and that have made him a quasi-religous cult figure. 

We may yet, however, have to suffer once more from his baleful cult.   


**If it seems a bit rich to summarise in a few paragraphs the work of a man that some spend their whole lives studying - then take a look at Don Cox's comment on yesterday's thread ...

Monday 28 May 2018

Weekend Essay: Marx @ 200

May 2018 is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx.   Not so many years ago, just about the only mention you’d find of the man was in Marxism Today edited for decades by Martin Jacques. Nowadays of course Marx has a serious revival, nay, a positive vogue.   Lefties from John McDonnell, Paul Mason, Little Owen Jones, all the way to Brian Leiter and Chris Dillow – are pleased to associate themselves to a greater or lesser extent with the bearded one. 

So – given C@W’s declared interest in Kapital, what do we think?  Marx 1.01 starts nicely with his opening paean to capitalism.   “What did the capitalists ever do for us?”  He had a fulsome answer for that and credited capitalism with relieving the western world from the horrors of the peasant way of life.  Plus a whole lot more achievements and public goods besides – science, technology, enlightenment, the lot. 

From this perceptive and auspicious start, he headed off in two directions: some absolute dead-ends, and some useful insights. It’s not hard to be dismissive of several of his most famous themes: the ‘labour theory of value’; his historical determinism and belief in ‘dialectical materialism’ as a science (taken from Hegel, always a risky move); and of course his view on the timing of the Revolution - like early Christians and the Second Coming, he saw it as being pretty imminent. (This latter error indicates in turn that he was not at all capable of good judgement regarding the implications and outworkings of his own theories: he should have recognised that the pre-conditions he laid down were nowhere near being met in C19th.) 

For all his overblown theorizing and system-building, there is no merit in throwing the insights out with the turgid bathwater. I would highlight two, before getting back to the good old Revolution again.  

The first is a matter of social psychology.  Marx identified the phenomenon whereby capitalism’s wage-slaves fundamentally fail to recognize what’s really going on as regards both their own exploitation and their best interests.  There could be a lot of factors at work here but the main interest for Marx is how the ruling class reinforces its own interests by instituting a popular culture to mislead the workers systematically, and neutralize discontent.  “Religion is the opiate of the people” is perhaps the simplest way of summarizing a diagnosis that extends more broadly than religion, of course.  Another important coinage is “false consciousness” which bears reading up on, and to which we will return.  And, bridging the first and second insights, he also describes the “alienation” of the worker from his true humanity and potential.  

The second interesting strand of observation, then, is a view on how capitalism evolves in terms of a cluster of market dynamics. Capitalism tends to foster monopolies and concentrations of ownership.  At the same time, it leads to ever greater technological advances, not least in the means of production and, importantly, automation; so that it is capable of generating the most extraordinary surpluses of goods with an ever smaller workforce.  But the flipside of this impressive coin is that the 99% become ever more alienated, immiserated and – perhaps most problematically for the 1% - impoverished, so that ultimately there is no-one left to sell all that superabundant stuff to.  Capitalism sows the seeds of its own downfall.

So where does Marx think this all ends – and how?  Well, Revolution of course: but the precise answer is quite important.  Recall that, thanks to religion, false consciousness etc, the workers don’t actually have a good grasp of what’s really going on.  Nevertheless, driven by their increasing misery, they eventually intuit - I think we are invited to see this in a Darwinian kind of way as a broadly unconscious evolutionary process - that (i) the 1%-99% split of ownership is so extreme, and (ii) the surplus of productive capacity and stuff is so great, that (iii) any change whatsoever in the socio-political set-up must leave them better off than they are at that point in time.  With the added rider that Marx anticipated this would happen globally all at the same time, this folks is the Revolution. 

The final Marxist kicker is that all this is absolutely inevitable under his supposed ‘science’ of the direction of human history.  It’s not difficult to see how attractive this is to a certain kind of Murdoch-despising malcontent, and how easily it translates into an ideology for a bitter, revanchist political programme. 

Tomorrow, assuming the Revolution isn't set for the Bank Holiday, I’ll come back with some thoughts towards putting all this heady stuff into context, and offer my own humble evaluation.  In the meantime, with the caveat that Blogger has changed some of its functions post GDPR - Comments is open …


Friday 25 May 2018

Homebase goes for £1

That is quite a hit, an Australian outfit called Westfarmers buys the place for £340 million two years ago and has now sold it for £1 to Hilco - a group of retail turn-around experts, who can actually turn things around. The total write-down for Westfarmers on the whole farrago is £454 million, so more than the cost of acquisition. Ouch!

So why did it go so wrong for Westfarmers...

1) Business Rates - these are simply rising too quickly on larger premises for either landlords or tenants to maintain margins . Retail operates at 3-5% margin and |Rates are often increasing over this which is pushing up rents, even as occupancy falls across the UK retail space.

2) Amazon - Continues to eat everything that moves, it has lower rates and higher volumes, it is happily eating the whole high street and out of town sector.

3) Housing - UK disposable income has been very tight and doing up your garden or bathroom is only very occasionally a necessity so DIY has had a hard time of it. For the benefit of the nation , it is a long time since all TV was wall to wall property shows.

4) They sacked the management on acquisition and tried to make it like the Australian Bunnings business which put Homebase - aimed at DIY enthusiasts - into a place where instead they had more limited ranges to compete with Wickes. Thus instead of moving the market, they destroyed their margins and business.

I am pretty confident of a turnaround that will save more than 50% of the business.

The usual Company Voluntary Agreement will paste the landlords and deal with point 1. Point 2 is horrid, Point 3 may turn in due course and is about market dynamics (non-food is declining for now) and Point 4 is where the action is and something can be done.

So Hilco have a shot at recovering the business, but the loss of £20 million a month means there is significant risk of closure to much of the business.

Wednesday 23 May 2018

Marks out of ten

Marks and Spencer have had a shocker.


Marks & Spencer has reported a sharp fall in annual profits as it revealed a deterioration in clothing sales and huge store closure costs.
Pretax profits at the retail giant slumped 62% to £66.8m after a £514.1m bill for restructuring costs that included £321m to pay for a store closure plan. 

100 stores to close over four years. A mix of lease expiry and poor performers and duplicate space.

Here at C@W we have used M+S as a test for retail. Everyone knows them. And most readers use them. Or, more accurately, used them.Because M&S have been on a journey. To nowhere good.

If I could find the evaluation that my old firm did as a training exercise on M&S, i'm fairly certain the same conclusions would apply. Even fifteen years later on.
Too much space. Too many employees. Too old. Too unfashionable, or even too weirdly unfashionable. Using a ladies style no lady wants to wear. Too expensive. Too poor quality. 

And to that list, a decade plus on, too much competition. The decline of their neighbourhood has declined the overall retail footfall. The rising rents and rates. The incredible percentage increase of minimum wage at a time of falling profits. And ..the avalanche that was always going to sweep retail away, too much online competition.

M&S has relied on its superb food offering to carry the rest of its brand for a long time. But the decline of the supermarket has finally caught up with Marks too.

The really odd thing about retail at the moment, is that those happy few doing well, are doing all the wrong things. Primark are opening larger and larger stores. They don't operate online. If you want their stuff, you have to come to town. And people are happy to do so.
H+M are also opening what today are considered large stores.

 Its easy to suggest that because anyone can buy anything from Amazon they will. But Amazon is never the starting point for a cheap price. Ebay can give you anything copied and made in China, shipped from China, exempt of customs and subsidised by a universal postal agreement. And all cheaper than it can be made or shipped in this country.

Asos, the fashion online giant, is unaffected by the Chinese seller. Asos sell their Asian imports here. 
Toys R US collapse was at the same time as 'The Entertainer' revealed its usual, annual, 3-5%growth.
The Entertainer does do online, yet does not open its High Street stores on Sundays.
{A whole other discussion - Are the doors closed savings higher than the doors open trade?}

When we have examined the case study of a lost way retailer, Marks, before, comments have revealed little love for the once mighty giant. With 'terrible fashions' being top gripe.
Even the once visionary link up they had with Tesco was under fire last time.

Has anything improved since last time we looked? Marks share-price has risen up quite happily today.Investors hoping costs will come under control and losers will be dropped.

Or is retail having its own managed industrial decline? Will M+S be the last pit closeure of the high street in 2030?

Tuesday 22 May 2018

UK April 2018 Government borrowing falls to lowest leve since 2008

So the good news is that in April, Government borrowing fell to £6.2 billon, down from £7.3 billion the year before. Okay so as a percentage of UK Government spending who cares about a billion here or there, but as ever these things add up.

The critical piece is for me yet again this will show up the Bank of England forecasting and prediction capabilities. Last month they were quite happy to quote the UK GDP slows to 0.1% growth in Q1 of 2018. On the back of this they held interest rates at near record lows and enabled yet another spasm of Remainer questioning of Brexit.

However, when you see that the ONS also showed Public Sector Net Borrowing was down from £2.1 billion to £1.3 billion in March - also a ten year low, then we might wonder why.

Is Government spending much less? Well that is unlikely as our overall debt to GDP ration is still rising.

What is happening are rising tax receipts, Corporate tax, Inheritance tax and Stamp duty taxes have all shown strong growth over the past year. Rising tax receipts can only realistically happen in a growing economy unless they have been raised or reduced around the Laffer curve.

So for me something is amiss, there is no way the economy is producing a few billions in extra taxes over the first months of the year whilst also posting sclerotic growth - one of these numbers has to give.

My guess will be the first three months of the year will be revised up to around 0.3% GDP growth, not stunning but adequate in the circumstances. The annoying thing is that for the Remainiacs this will not affect their mantra of the economy is crashing due to Brexit when there is simply no evidence of this and to date all the evidence has been the to show that threat of Brexit has either no effect or a slight positive to date.

Monday 21 May 2018

Blast from the Past: Pete & Dud - Glidd of Glood

The Capitalists are rather busy just now, so here's a pot-boiler for y'all.  One of the all-time classics from Pete 'n' Dud.  Many of you chaps will be too young to have seen this first time around - or maybe ever!

(And it's SFW ...)


Saturday 19 May 2018

C@W SCOOP! Where Meghan's Mum Gets Her Hats!

The BBC sub-title writers have a theory.   "Doria looks beautiful in a hat ...

© 2018

Friday 18 May 2018

Interesting things to do this weekend

Not sure what to do with yourself, there is a plethora of things to do..which do you prefer?

1. Watch a Wedding on the Telly

2. Watch a football match on the Telly

3. Read The Observer cover to cover

4. Go on a rally to protest over Hamas/IDF somewhere in London

5. Mend the Garden fence

Or something else entirely....

Wednesday 16 May 2018

The madness of pensions maths

Great article here by Royal London, posing as a news article in the Evening Standard.

I guess the pension company PR think they are pushing a great line here about how we all need to save more and give more money to them so they can get more fees.

To me (this is a 'rant alert' phrase), the result just goes to show how completely crazy the pension system has become. Let's take them at face value, you need £260,000 as an average person to have a decent retirement. I have a great job in the city and am very lucky. I have worked for twenty years, if I work for another twenty I am still unlikely to get to that level of pension saving.

Indeed, over the past 10 years on a cash invested basis, my pension savings are negative - i.e. it would have made more sense to put money in the mattress than into work pension funds. As far as I can ever work out this is because the multiple fees they take out at the beginning of a years and other management fees consistently are higher than any returns I might make on their products.

However, I digress, if only to show that I am less than convinced saving into pensions is such as good idea for the savers. Moreover, to save £260,000 in today's money over 40 years requires saving £6,000 a year, or around 1/3rd of the average salary post-tax. This already includes the state pension and benefits top ups and assumes you have paid your mortgage, if you rent then it is a mere £440,000 needed - or just over half your salary for every year you work (assuming the average wage of £26,000 a year).

It would of course help if the pensions funds offered some compound growth on your investments with them but they try very hard indeed to avoid this outcome - for them, every penny kept is pure profit. The same with the crazy annuity rates which, thankfully, the Government has moved away from enforcing.

Logically, none of this is any good. The best way to save will remain taking out the largest mortgage you can afford at any time, paying the interest and relying in the capital growth. Alternatively, paying off the mortgage too if you feel that is less risky (I happen to think that long-term the risk is with the Bank not the borrower, but each to their own). Then upon retirement, sell your property and move to Greece, Thailand or wherever you can get some value for your hard work. On no account try to live in the UK on pension saving sin the future, this will not work out for you even slightly. All the media today is hued by the many millions of people on final salary pensions which today would require literally millions of pounds in pension savings, of which there will be near zero in the next few years as those schemes were closed long ago.

So in summary, Royal London are mad to think this strategy of reminding people how impossible it is to save will be a long-term benefit for their company - they should stick to lobbying the Government to make pensions compulsory which they have done successfully and then go for making higher contributions compulsory - but don't tell their victims this!

Tuesday 15 May 2018

Bank of England - Big Data Guru

Where do you work? At my place of work the col thing to do is to walk around and say let's get oodles of data on stuff and then analyse it. This methodology is apparently foolproof and will give us the answers to the known universe.

Of course, a little while ago I would sit in the techie meetings and say things like 'Does it scale?' whenever there was a period of silence. Many of the techies now see me as some sort of wise counsel, in the same way I still see them as a naïve group very able at doing things but truly unable to understand why!

So Big Data is the new thing, the power of computers is unmatched and we will soon all learn it is about the data. O course, in the City, there are a huge amount of quantitative analysts who are very happy with any developments that improve their job prospects.

But data to me as two huge issues, accuracy and interpretation. More bad data is still no better than less bad data, perhaps worse even. Interpretation is key - are sales falling because of a declining market or an inefficient sales force - can data tell us this? What if the data says one thing but it turns out later it was the other?

In the Great Financial Crash, data was telling the CEO's of banks their risk of failure was tiny - then lots of banks went bust, quickly. The data had been interpreted spectacularly wrong.

Anyway, the link is to an article where the Bank of England is going to try to use a wider data set to make decisions. This of course is a waste of time, I can quite happily predict what the Bank is going to do with very limited data - it is going to set rates nice and low to keep the Zombie economy going and allow the Government to create too much debt. It has been doing this for over a decade with no sign of change - how is a bigger data set going to make this a different decision?

Of course it won't and this is some sham PR exercise, as per usual.

Saturday 12 May 2018

Weekend Footnote: Friction among the Physicists

Along with the laughable Co-op document, something else that dropped through the letterbox this week was a newsletter containing a fulsome tribute to Stephen Hawking by his former tutor and long-time collaborator, cosmologist and first-rank mathematician Roger Penrose.

It makes for interesting reading (sorry, I haven’t found an online link - though he also wrote a straight obit in the Graun) and certainly contains glowing praise for Hawking’s determination, skills in maths and physics, insight, profundity and enjoyment of life.   But … away from the formalities of a national newspaper write-up, Physicist Penrose can’t help himself.  In the newsletter - you have to smile - he goes on to set out how he reckons Hawking took a wrong turn in his work on black holes; how he was barking up the wrong tree when he ought to have stuck to the earlier conclusions he reached when they were working together; and how Penrose’s own alternative theory would have it.

Never let a good intellectual feud drop ...  these academics, eh?


Friday 11 May 2018

Iran shows how the US calls the shots

It is quite interesting, perhaps more to those not au fait with financial markets, how America can use its power to end trading relationships with a Country, globally.

The US will re-instate its sanctions on Iran shortly, on the same terms as they were before the Obama deal.

What this means is that all companies that have any US customer so subsidiaries will have to stop trading with Iran. Take Airbus for example, an order for 100 new planes from Iran Air.

But, Airbus trades with US too of course, so they can be sued in the US by the Government for sanctions breaking.

More critically this applies to Banks, if you have a US subsidiary then you can get fined for any kind of lending or transaction servicing for any deal to do with Iran or where there is an Iranian Party.

In 2014, BNP Paribas got a $9 billion fine from the US for 'sanctions busting' Of course in the US no BNP entity had broken sanctions it was a third party transaction between French and Iranian companies.

So US Sanction end a countries ability, thank to these extraterritoriality rules, to trade in effect with any Western Bank, but also most banks full stop. Iran will have to look for finance to Russian banks or other odd third-world banks. Without finance oil trading is very hard. One thing I have seen this week is the gold price increasing, gold can be used here as a form of finance, I have heard alleged that this is how Turkey manages to buy the ISIS oil and now Iranian or illegal Kurdish oil and avoid sanctions.

Anyway, all the posturing by Europe will come to nothing, America is the ruler of global finance and if it says stop then tough on you!

Wednesday 9 May 2018

And so Brexit dies...?

After all the effort and pain of many years campaigning for a referendum, the deed itself of voting, the developments of the last week show the holes in Representative Democracy and perhaps foretell of the long march back towards authoritarianism of 'Managed Democracy.'

The House of Lords, unelected and representative only of the political class and other elites in the Country, have continuously voted down all Brexit motions put by the Government. The House of Commons has a Remain majority within it, despite on paper Leave backing areas have more seats in the last General Election. The Prime Minister is a very reluctant leaver who is surrounded in her office by Remain civil servants, all conspiring to not produce any Leave based policies or strategies.

Against this background, plus that more expected one of the EU and its constituents like Ireland playing very hard ball with the UK, together with the international business lobby desperate to see no 'damage' to their low wage UK base, there is no appetite to follow the Referendum outcome and for the UK to Leave the EU.

As with much of Democracy, many of the 48% who voted to Remain are elated to see victory where they had faced defeat and are uninterested for now in thinking about any healing but instead just wish to Remain and continue to laugh at the thick, racist yobs who had dared to vote Leave.

But without the votes in Parliament for any Leave policies then there is little point in Leaving. The current false flag about the customs union hides the real prize which was core to the vote - controlling immigration. For in a Customs Union the 'four freedoms' (an Orwellian term indeed) apply. If the UK is denied control of its borders then even I agree we may as well stay in the EU as leave to no effect or purpose.

Thoughts must now turn to the existential crisis that will be created by the betrayl of the voters by the political class. It seems to me the voters will hugely punish the Conservatives for leading such a pointless and merry dance for the past 3 years. The down side to that will be victory for a crazed Marxist clique that will perhaps, when its policies start to fail quickly, move to restrict press freedom and Democracy. Already the Labour party demonises the Tories and calls them murderers it is not much more to go to stop them standing in elections when they are so far down the path of 'hate not hope.'

It's going to be very messy indeed!

Tuesday 8 May 2018

What is it with Lefties and 'Diversity'?

A good number of years ago I ran an arm of a software company.  One of our biggest clients was a German utility and I was visiting their HQ to check on progress of a very large software implementation our guys were doing.  The senior German manager who was my main point of contact asked me into his office, closed the door and said he needed to ask me for a big favour.

His company was preparing their annual report and some accompanying brochures - the usual big glossy numbers - and they wanted to show the world what a liberal, modern, progressive operation they were running.   Unfortunately ... all his staff were, ahem, German, blond and white.   Would it be acceptable to me if photos were used in the reports and brochures that would include some of my team?

It wasn't difficult to imagine which members of my team he had in mind:  Oliver, of Nigerian descent;  George (Malay Chinese); Lavanya and Nilesh and Ram (Indian and Sri Lankan).  Somehow, Alec (Canada) and Gordon (Ipswich) weren't wanted ...  Sure enough, when the publications came out you'd think the pictures had been taken in the foyer of the LSE.

I was reminded of this when onto my mat dropped the Annual Report of the Co-op (London District) of which I am a member.  No, I haven't turned leftie in my old age; it's for their rather good grocery offers.  And here is the picture it contains of their National Members' Council.  Yes, the little carrot-top in the front row is Hazel Blears.

Now I thought that for a number of years it has been utterly compulsory for, well .... for Oliver and George and Lavanya et al to be included in things - particularly lefty things!  Seems I was more progressive in my nasty little capitalist software company than these gits.  People's Party, my arse.

Harbouring anti-semites?  That's only the half of it.  The left is a cosy, doctrinaire, white middle-class club - redheads don't count, BTW Hazel - that exists to tell everyone else what to think and do; a great deal less representative than the Tory Party it affects to despise.  My local Conservative Association would no more publish a photo like that than fly over the moon - it couldn't, because that's not what we look like any more!


Saturday 5 May 2018

Weekend Review: Chess (the musical)

One of my most treasured possessions is an old 78 of Rhapsody in Blue, Paul Whiteman's orchestra with Gershwin lui-même at the keyboard**.  Even through the crackles, we can tell how it's supposed to be played!   Which means there is always scope for instant disappointment when hearing a new performance, however open one tries to be to new interpretations. 

Mrs D and I went to see the revival of Chess this week with much the same trepidations, having been enthralled first time around.   Like Bruckner symphonies, Chess is very rarely staged because technically it is fantastically difficult, and a lot of effort has gone into this new ENO / Michael Grade production.   Matters were not helped by the late withdrawal of Murray Head, part of the original 1980's crew - for 'personal reasons'; thirty years on, perhaps he can't manage the songs any more, which wouldn't be a big surprise.  His replacement did OK, but hadn't had time to learn all the words, which doesn't help in songs as well-known as One Night in Bangkok and Pity The Child, with words that are so good and surely so, errrr, memorable!   One assumes this will be corrected night by night.

Chess is in a category with West Side Story and Oliver! - quite outstanding musicals by writers who just never delivered again (for different reasons in each case:  retirement in the case of Chess; hubris with Bernstein, and drugs'n'booze with Bart).  The score is by Benny and Björn who were at the absolute peak of their powers, just before they called it a day: several of the songs are as good as (I would say better than) anything they had come up with in ABBA.  And the lyrics are by Tim Rice, also on top form and by then newly-separated from Lloyd Webber.  Again, for my money, he was well shot of ALW who struggled to achieve one song per show that could bear comparison with at least half a dozen from Chess.  And while it's fair to say the result includes a number of pastiche set-pieces emulating Gilbert & Sullivan, Rogers & Hammerstein and Sondheim (they wipe the floor with him), also included are straight-down-the-line masterworks.  

ALW is supposed to be the classically-trained one; but there is more effective classical technique here than anything he ever managed: counterpoint, polyphony, and in Pity The Child, the best modulation you'll ever hear in the rock-pop genre.  (Paul McCartney was pretty good at it, but how much he owed to George Martin I'm not sure.  The BeeGees were exceptionally good but they threw it off for fun [Chain Reaction].  Pity The Child uses it for awesome emotional effect.)  And the outright orchestral pieces are as good as any film music ever written.

So how does the revival do?  The critics have been fairly harsh, but if you read them carefully they are really saying they don't like the musical itself, or the SFX.  The Murray-Head replacement can be forgiven for his slips, but the ENO Chorus cannot and their evident lack of rehearsal was a bit of a shocker.  But the set-piece songs were mostly done very well.  Michael Ball is a helluva pro.  We give it 8/10 and considered it an evening well-spent.  In a week or two it may be even better.


** You can check Gershwin out too for yourself on youtube

Friday 4 May 2018

Local UK Elections 2018

As always these are a bit 'meh' - really who cares about some gal getting a non-paying job in a village the other end of the country?

It all makes me think though, what on earth is the point of all of our local Government - apart from make work jobs?

How can we possibly need the lowest level of democratic scrutiny being a small army of NIMBY's per village and then layered onto that regional, town, district and county councils? I am all in favour of participatory democracy but I can't see how this system adds to transparency or empowers anybody beyond the small-time busybodies who get involved.

There must be a case to hugely streamline the roles of the lower levels of local government and focus the budgets and services on fewer councils that have real power - this then would lead to people eventually paying more attention in elections where over 30% turnout is currently considered 'good'!

I look forward to Nick Drew's rebuttal of my position....

Thursday 3 May 2018

Custom-made Capitulation

There is really no end to Brexit and the stress it is causing our Government.

The EU are playing crazy hardball, the new Irish leader, Leo Varadkar is egging them on to do so. All in all, it appears the EU is very confident in its strategy that pushing the UK towards 'hard' Brexit will result in the Government falling and Brexit being averted somehow.

Now, honestly, this has come as a bit of surprise to many Brexiteers and soft remainers like the Prime Minister. They thought the EU would ultimately be rational and reasonable in its demands and they may have been correct to start with. But as time has gone on and the Remain capture of the Media has only increased, the EU has become more hardline, seeing this as a game it can win outright.

The Customs Union is a classic one, for all the talk of trade there are about 5 solutions such as Swizterland, Norway, Luxembourg, New Technology or new Free Trade agreement that could solve it if both sides chose to. None of these are acceptable to the EU for the UK, even though they have been implemented elsehwhere in the Union currently - this is pure political grandstanding by the EU and at all times the blame is laid on the UK. The anti-British hysteria in Brussls appears from afar not so different to that of Moscow.

Equally, for the UK Government, they are too terrified to say that the real reason they can't agree the EU terms are the four freedoms and so lack of control over immigration.

This is the Irish dilemma, solve the created 'Irish Crisis' (it is created, we had no border with eIreland bar for security before the EU, it is the EU, see link above, suddenly deciding it is the arbiter of the Good Friday Agreement when in reality of course it was the yanks pulling IRA funding) and with it allow free movement. Or stop free movement but only at the cost of an economy punishing hard brexit.

It is very tough and I note, that as much as there is far more good work being done behind closed doors than ever being said in public, that the EU constantly say the UK has no answers when in reality they just reject every offer made and have none of their own bar splitting the UK or taking the Remain option.

Weirdly in the current scenario, Corbyn is a good thing, as a useless pro-Brexit populist it means the EU has to be consider what it is wishing for - my personal worry is it is wishing for a very realpolitick outcome. A hard brexit then a hard left Government to lay waste the UK and bring opportunity to France and Germany instead.

Wednesday 2 May 2018

The Sage of North Korea

We've previously had occasion to recommend the wit & wisdom of Dilbert author Scott Adams.   

Adams is (inter alia) a trained hypnotist, an acute observer of human behaviours, and has an illuminating line in analysing issues of considerable political interest via explanatory 'filters'.   What's more, he even goes in for detailed and often contrarian predictions - and (unlike many a forecaster) is honest enough to keep his stuff up on the website, so it's easy to check what he's said over the months.

I first got interested in his writing when he predicted - with detailed reasoning - Trump's nomination and ultimate victory.  At that point there were still ten or so Republicans in the game, and his ideas could seem faintly ridiculous.  His regular explication of Trump's 'persuasion' technique is all part and parcel.  But he's no partisan: he lauded one of Hillary's plays during the US election, complete with explanation of how clever it was.  Check it all out for yourself.    

Anyhow, from early on in Trump's administration he's been posting on how the unique abilities of The Donald are just what's needed to resolve the North Korean thing.  Adams is not slow to blow his own, errrr, Trumpet** and has helpfully compiled an omnibus blogpost listing all his writings on the subject.   Suffice to say here, he's been a lot more enlightening - and close to the truth - than anyone else.  Remarkable stuff.  

Read his account for yourself - and how he reckons it could all end up.



** As an American boss of mine once gravely informed me: if you don't blow your own trumpet, someone else will use it as a spittoon