Athens

One feels for the EU-trapped Greeks, who are an exceptionally friendly and helpful people. Athens was always flawed as a city for visitors, one suspects – it’s not like Prague or Paris – but the lack of public money and successful business is certainly showing. Even so, some things are timeless.

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**it’s a big pic, click and press +, if you want detail

Great Landscapes: Turner

From a long but rewarding read by Daniel Johnson in the always interesting Standpoint magazine, considering the theme of Europe v the EU, through the lens of the life of Spanish intellectual  Jose Ortega y Gasset:

Ortega died in Venice, the maritime republic that had once embraced Orient and Occident, and I cannot help wondering if this was a coincidence. Venice was the bulwark of Catholic Europe in defeating the Ottomans at Lepanto, together with the Papacy and the Habsburg Empire. La Serenissima symbolises grandeur and decadence, the metaphysical city suspended between land, sea and sky. Venice is the antithesis of Brussels, the Europe on which Ortega had turned his back.

Venice as the antithesis of Brussels is a great concept, and entirely in keeping with the flavour of those cities. Venice is the one you want to revisit, for sure.

Many painters have tackled Venice of course, Brussels not so much (though this, from the greatest Belgian of them all, is stupendous). Turner, the most brilliant of all British artists, did many, many such scenes, and the one I’ve chosen is not a favourite as such, just a good example of  the prolific Turner’s stunning technical and creative facility. And it is indeed a metaphysical city suspended between land, sea and sky.

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Venice, Seen from the Guidecca Canal. JMW Turner, 1840. Victoria & Albert Museum

The Punk President

Donald Trump Crowns The New Miss USA Nana Meriwether
21st century renaissance man

Those people who are openly dismayed that they see Trump ripping up the institutions and processes of sane stable government are wrong.

They’re also missing the point.

Trump often has the manner and superfical effect of a wrecking ball, but since 1997 in the UK and 2001 in the US, both countries have been decimated by the slow motion wrecking balls of New Labour, the Bush foreign adventures and the Obama Terror. Do I sound like some sort of right wing Trumpian monster? Possibly I do, but like many voters I am not ideological other than in the vague ‘less government in our lives would be better’ way. And like all voters there are specific issues that I would like to see dealt with. We can disagree on our wants and our priorities, but whatever they are, most voters want pragmatic government that works.

Why do I think Trump is not destroying the institutions of power? Well, it’s in the evidence so far. Charles Krauthammer’s take six weeks ago is pretty much spot on:

The strongman cometh, it was feared. Who and what would stop him? Two months into the Trumpian era, we have our answer.

Our checks and balances have turned out to be quite vibrant. Consider: The courts Trump rolls out not one but two immigration bans, and is stopped dead in his tracks by the courts. However you feel about the merits of the policy itself (in my view, execrable and useless but legal) or the merits of the constitutional reasoning of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (embarrassingly weak, transparently political), the fact remains: The president proposed and the courts disposed. Trump’s pushback? A plaintive tweet or two complaining about the judges — that his own Supreme Court nominee denounced (if obliquely) as “disheartening” and “demoralizing.” The states Federalism lives. The first immigration challenge to Trump was brought by the attorneys general of two states (Washington and Minnesota) picking up on a trend begun during the Barack Obama years when state attorneys general banded together to kill his immigration overreach and the more egregious trespasses of his Environmental Protection Agency. And beyond working through the courts, state governors — Republicans, no less — have been exerting pressure on members of Congress to oppose a Republican president’s signature health-care reform. Institutional exigency still trumps party loyalty. Congress The Republican-controlled Congress (House and Senate) is putting up epic resistance to a Republican administration’s health-care reform. True, that’s because of ideological and tactical disagreements rather than any particular desire to hem in Trump. But it does demonstrate that Congress is no rubber stamp. And its independence extends beyond the perennially divisive health-care conundrums. Trump’s budget, for example, was instantly declared dead on arrival in Congress, as it almost invariably is regardless of which party is in power

Not that I necessarily agree with all these opposing moves, the point is that there is relatively little absolute power outwith national crises and wartime, and all presidents must exist within a system. That system is entirely intact. Of course, in those areas where Trump has shown real skill, he gets little credit from the establishment.

The real damage occurred with his predecessors. The same happened in the UK under Blair, it’s happening now in various parts of Europe courtesy of the EU. Australia and Canada come and go a bit, but it really has been a classical Gramsci/Dutschke ‘long march through the institutions’. There is no better example of the occasionally overt nature of this than the US Supreme Court wrangling – surely all judges should be politically neutral in their work? If only.

Trump and inevitably, Brexit, are the most prominent examples of pushback against this infiltrative game changing. That’s all. And despite the risks and occasional misdemeanours, I welcome both. Particularly when I consider the alternatives. The Trump presidency so far, like Brexit and the associated Remain sulking, has done nothing that changes my mind on this.

There is a good analogy. When I was a teenager back in the 70’s the British cultural and music scene was hardly vibrant. Superannuated hippies made dull long winded and overhyped LP’s, gigs were often tedious doped up snooze fests. Even one’s parents were comfortable with it all. Then came punk. Not just a musical phenomenon (though the best is still great), more of a kicking over the traces cultural paradigm shift that was in some ways absolutely tremendous. The country had a totally different mood. And the Establishment suffered acute Fear and Loathing in response. But there was no threat, no real damage, no real animosity. It was fun. By 1981 it was over, pretty much, as the appalling New Romantics took over, and we’ve never had it again. Four years max.

In fact, as I survey in middle age the current music scene (indeed, nearly everything since the mid 90’s) I shudder at the complacency and derivative boring rubbish that is out there. Punk was great.

And that’s how I see Trump (and Brexit).  How I hate the proclamations of stultifying conventional career progressing professional political types, of whatever party. Boring earnestness usually goes with platitudes, sanctimony, virtue signalling and complete ineffectivenness. That applies to all parties – though some are worse than others. If you become an apostate then the humourless horde try to destroy you. Trump is an antidote, possibly only temporary, like the Punk Era, but welcome all the same. He doesn’t give a toss, he’s spontaneous, he often means well, he’s unconventional**, deeply flawed, funny and rides his luck. His enemies almost uniformly underrate, dismiss and fear him, in one confused bundle. Good for him.

One of the mission statements of this blog is from the late John von Kannon: “If  I can’t have good government, give me entertaining government”.

And you only have to look at who’s against him (and Brexit), to get that little heartwarming glow.

 

**fascinatingly, the day after I wrote this, here is the highly experienced Robert Gates – former CIA and Defence Secretary, with bipartisan support – talking about Trump:

Broadly philosophically, I’m in agreement with his disruptive approach. So in government, I’m a strong believer in the need for reform of government agencies and departments. They have gotten fat and sloppy and they’re not user-friendly. They are inefficient. They cost too much. I also think on the foreign policy side that there is a need for disruption. We’ve had three administrations follow a pretty consistent policy toward North Korea, and it really hasn’t gotten us anywhere. So the notion of disrupting and putting the Chinese on notice that it’s no longer business as usual for the United States I think is a good thing. Now the question is, obviously, in the implementation of disruption. On the foreign policy side, there’s the risk of being too spontaneous and too disruptive where you end up doing more harm than damage. Figuring out that balance is where having strong people around you matters.

The SNP: decline and fall (9) – local election special

sturgeon juncker
It doesn’t get any worse than this…

Thanks to last Thursday’s local (council) elections, we have a new snapshot on the Scottish political state of play. Nobody usually cares much about these episodes, although they can be fairly consequential. These latest polls are getting attention – correctly – as a political barometer.

34.  The ‘Yes cities’ are not actually Yes cities

We heard a lot of guff about Scotland’s two ‘Yes cities’ after the 2014 referendum, these being Glasgow and Dundee. There’s a faintly patronising edge to the interpretation of this, that they voted Yes for independence because of their economic struggles compared to Edinburgh and Aberdeen. Maybe, but also maybe not. It’s one view, but not one that really favours the SNP’s independence cause – surely they would rather the punters were ideologically in favour of secession, not just after a bit more cash?

In any event, despite Economics Titan Alex Salmond boldly predicting an independent Scotland swimming in oil money, the bottom has still dropped out of that market, and decommissioning rigs is looking like the new mini-bonanza. Not a nation-building foundation, I would suggest. One doubts that the Scottish economy (flatlining at best) is going to turn Glasgow and Dundee around, and yet they still didn’t vote for majority SNP councils. In Dundee they actually  lost their majority (see ‘decline’) and in Glasgow, despite more advance publicity than a Led Zeppelin comeback gig, they achieved the much desired peak of  ‘no overall majority’.

I should add that both Glasgow and Dundee are perfectly nice places to live and should not be pawns in some weird Nationalist game. I’d rather live in either of them than most other places in Scotland.

35. Scottish people do not reflexively hate Tories, nor do they mysteriously love the EU***

…which are two of the Nats’ biggest claims. Who, even in France and Germany, loves the wretched EU?

Here’s the evidence, taken from the SNP’s own house rag, The Nat’onal:

le2017
Look at all that hatred of the Tories….er…hang on…

…and just as a reminder from Brexit Liberation Day:

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Doing the sums, the Scottish electorate was 3,987,112, and 1,661,191 voted Remain but 1,018,322 voted to Leave. That’s 642,869 more people wanted to Remain. A big number, but not a massive difference in some ways. I wouldn’t take it as a proof of a deep and abiding love for the EU. More than a million voters still wanted to leave. Looked at another way, given the turnout, 41.7% of the electorate (so less than half) positively wanted to Remain, and 25.5% wanted to Leave. I’m not claiming it was terribly close, but simply correcting the frankly daft notion that all Scots are gutted by the thought of leaving the EU. Far from it, and with a turnout of 67.2%, it should be noted that a third of voters couldn’t be arsed to express a view. I suspect that this lot are not all secret Eurofanatics, however. The UK turnout was 72.2%, so the Scots were notably more apathetic than the rest of the UK. That refers to the situation last year. It looks like the EU is a lot less popular in Scotland now.

Just saying.

Anyway, the SNP and the rest of us were all agreed that the local election results would be harbingers of the imminent general election. Suddenly they seem less keen on that line. Why would that be?

salmond juncker
….I spoke too soon

*** shortly after I posted this blog, this outstanding piece by the highly erudite and well informed Tom Gallagher (@cultfree54 on Twitter), appeared on Policy Exchange. Recommended

French election special ~ The W126 Mercedes SEC: men of taste and distinction

It’s always nice to have an excuse to go on about the awesome and beautiful SEC series of Mercedes coupes from the 1980’s. In fact the two previous posts on the topic (here and here) have been among the most popular things on this blog in the last 7 years. It’s partly the aesthetics, courtesy of the genius of Bruno Sacco (1, 2), and partly the sheer joy of zooming around in one, although they’re almost primitive by today’s standards. Such simplicity is is appealing in itself – and easier to fix when there’s a problem. I had a well used 560 SEC as a taster, I now have a 500 SEC, and it’s a keeper.

When you find out that it’s the favoured car of Clint Eastwood and the late Ayrton Senna amongst others – who could buy any car they liked – then you realise it must have a special allure, or pace the female readers, a certain manliness. It’s the antithesis of a highly capable yet boring and ugly modern car – the Nissan Juke, say.

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L’homme lui-même

Which brings me to today’s post. It takes a gallic sang froid to walk into the nearest Mercedes dealership to your appartement on the Champs-Élysées and order the absolute top of the range 560 SEC, with pretty much all the extras. The buyer in question, back in 1988, was Pierre de Bénouville, a prewar  literary critic who became a general and a hero of the French Resistance. Here’s a sample of his New York Times obituary:

…like many French rightists, he was a patriotic nationalist and a bitter foe of the Germans,” and he rejected the occupied government’s call to capitulation and collaboration and went into the underground. An ardent supporter of Charles de Gaulle, to whom he was close in his later political career, he was also a member of the Free French Forces during the war and organized French forces in Algeria. In 1944 he was promoted to brigadier general in the French Army because of his achievements as the commander of a unit of Moroccan sharpshooters on the Italian front. He went on to be a major general. A high-ranking member of the Legion of Honor, he received other decorations, including the Croix de Guerre and the Medal of the Resistance.

Impressive n’est-ce pas? Although he was a ‘rightist’, whatever that is, he was a long term pal of Mitterand (not necessarily a recommendation) and his post-war career was of a fiercely patriotic and successful establishment fixture. His views on the EU are not known to me, but as a Gaullist he was probably for it, as long as the French were in charge, and against the Brits. A couple of other obituaries make interesting reading (Guardian and Telegraph).

Tomorrow is the highly consequential French general election. What a patriotic and brave high achiever like de Bénouville would make of the lightweight effete Blair manqué Emmanuel Macron is a tricky one. His own career path has some similarities to that of Marine Le Pen’s dodgy father. My guess is he would emotionally sympathise with Le Pen but pragmatically vote for Macron, to keep le projet Union européenne alive.

So here, from the outstanding Mercedes Enthusiast magazine, is the full feature on de Bénouville’s exceptional W126 coupe. I’ve provided it as a jpeg and a pdf for any SEC geeks out there.

Vive la France, mais vive la différence!

Z
C’est magnifique

and….

Lest we forget: the Blair years revisited

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Powell

Time moves quickly. When I was looking for slides for an operation that I thought I’d done two years ago at the most, I found it was actually five years that had passed. It’s nearly 7 years since Dave became PM but  it frequently seems like only yesterday. The other side of the tempus fugit coin though is that significant events, and the relevant knowledge that they provide, slip away in the memory all too quickly.

The current drivel regarding Russia is a perfect example. When I was a lad Russia was only a bogeyman because of its central place in the Soviet communist empire, which fell apart twenty six years ago, roughly. That was why we had a Cold War, not because Russia = Bad. Whether we like it or not, Russia (and Iran/Persia) are big powerful proper countries (unlike say Iraq), with very long histories and very distinct identities. We would be mad to not talk to them, to assume a relationship of permanent enmity. That’s not to say you should trust them, it’s strictly business.

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Mandelson

You would guess none of the above from the hysteria that passes as foreign policy debate in much of the media.

Likewise, it’s salutary to remember that Britain was run by complete chancers for a long period – the Blair/Brown Terror – which seems pretty fresh in my memory, for lots of reasons, but if you are a first time voter this year, you were about 8 when we finally got rid of Blair and reasonably enough you would be unlikely to have useful political memories of the time.

Which brings me to an absolute zinger of a piece by the venerable Peter Oborne in today’s paper. He is reflecting on the nefarious past of an A1 hypocrite and member of the Blair Fixer Triumvirate, the other members of which were Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell, both sadly still making themselves available for their tired commentary. I refer to Jonathan Powell, Blair’s smooth and somewhat sleazy chief of staff.

Oborne provides a very timely synopsis of much that was wrong then, and hopefully we can learn, or relearn, the relevant lessons of corrupt cliquey government and its abuse. I can only quote a few gems, but do read the whole piece. Its relevance to the current EU debate is very striking:

I was a junior political reporter in the early years of the Blair government. I can testify that it was disgracefully responsible for systematically setting about destroying the career of any civil servant who was not prepared to be unthinkingly loyal to New Labour — and then replacing those who refused with trusted Labour cronies….

….Within days of winning power in 1997, Tony Blair bullied pliant civil servants into waving through special laws which gave Powell the power to give orders to top civil servants.

It is no exaggeration to say that Powell’s relationship to civil service integrity could be compared to that of serial killer GP Harold Shipman’s to medical ethics — or gangster Al Capone’s to law and order. From the moment he entered Downing Street with Blair in 1997 to the moment they left together ten years later, Powell worked ceaselessly to undermine and destroy it….

The brutal truth is that during the Blair Years, Powell’s conduct was scurrilously partisan and he constantly flouted codes of honesty and decency.

Time and time again, he was caught up in the most putrid corruption scandals. Lies about the threat posed by Saddam. The stench of the Hinduja passports scandal when Labour was said to have helped two billionaire Indian brothers obtain British passports after giving £1 million to the Millennium Dome — leading to Peter Mandelson’s resignation. The scandal over Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone’s £1 million donation to Labour.

Powell was always lurking, playing a key role.

If anybody brought back to British public life the corruption and ‘jobbery of the 17th and 18th century’, it was Powell and his friends Blair, Mandelson and Alastair Campbell. Indeed, an illustrated ‘map of power’ in Downing Street at the height of the Blair years, showed Powell at the apex.

His No. 10 empire — in a clear breach of the civil service ethics which Powell told the BBC yesterday he cared so much about — stretched to include power over the prime minister’s private secretary.

And who occupied that position when Powell held most sway at No 10? None other than a rising young civil servant called Ivan Rogers. What a small world we live in!

A brilliant piece that could only be written by someone who saw it all unfold at close quarters.

There are plenty of people now who tut tut about the Iraq lies and the subsequent war, but would have you believe that the other stuff from the Blair era was wonderful. Don’t be taken in….

…. remember kids, know your history!

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The Blair/Campbell, courtesy of Martin Rowson

Knifonomics (part 38): if you can understand this…

…then you can probably understand a large chunk of what matters in practical management of the economy and allied matters. So much economics is rubbish, witness the terrible track record of academic economists when they issue their fatwas on Maggie, Brexit etc.

The other consistent issue is the abuse of JM Keynes’ thinking and advice to justify almost any stupid politically inspired policy (see the last Labour administration). As it’s been pointed out:

Keynes was determined to establish for the post-war world a global exchange rate regime that placed equal obligations on deficit and surplus countries to adjust, thereby ensuring that the new system did not have a deflationary bias. This is most definitely not the system that we have today.

The extract is from a very good article by City economist Roger Bootle and businessman John Mills (a Labour supporter), both of whom have long argued that the pre-Brexit overvaluing of the pound has beeen very bad indeed, and that the current correction is essentially good **. The whole piece is sound, but here’s a key paragraph, looking at the basic concepts:

Moreover, there are links between the current account deficit and the UK’s other serious deficit, namely the fiscal one. The financial balance of the UK private sector, UK public sector and the overseas sector must sum to zero. Accordingly, if the government tries to improve its financial position (i.e. the gap between expenditure and tax revenue) without there being an improvement in Britain’s overseas balance, then this can only happen through a worsening of the private sector financial balance, which is often difficult to achieve. Another way of putting this is that policies of austerity often fail. By contrast, a spontaneous improvement in the current account of the balance of payments would usually improve the financial balance of both the public and private sectors. Higher incomes (from net exports) would automatically improve the financial balance of the private sector and, as they pay taxes on this income (and receive fewer state benefits because of increased income) the public deficit will fall.

You don’t have to agree with them***, but as a context in which to discuss the detail, it’s spot on.

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I’m unable to show you the grave in which JM Keynes would be spinning, frequently. His ashes were scattered here, at Tilton Downs

** see also the straightforward and prophetic Larry  Elliott, saying much the same thing

***and in fact, the astute and readable Tim Congdon by and large disagrees. Read his response to Bootle and Mills. At least the debate is healthy