Posts Tagged ‘Europe’

Your indefatigable correspondent doing what he does best, Dear Reader

Your indefatigable correspondent doing what he does best.

You find us on our occasional travels this bright autumn day, Dear Reader, this time to Italy again, to see the immortal Southampton Football Club scale the tobacco-smoke-filled heights of Inter Milan at the San Siro Stadium. Which lofty ambition was thwarted by our customary inability to score from a hatful of golden chances, while Inter Milan scored from their only shot on goal of the game, much of which they spent with eleven men behind the ball and employing every niggly, nasty, time-wasting tactic imaginable, which makes their baby-snatching victory all the more galling, but heigh ho, that’s football. And anyway, what can you expect from a game administered by an obviously blind namby-pamby incompetent fool of a referee, played against a bunch of [insert nakedly inappropriate insults here], who have made a virtue of winning by playing so badly the other team subsides in a heap of confusion and frustration. Bah, humbug and curses to youse all.

We would not use our precious leave to re-visit a country we have explored before, in reality, were it not for the precious nexus of European football and a bunch of good mates traveling to see the game, but Italy is one of those wonderful, shambolic, loveable, infuriating experiences that makes a return trip enjoyable under any circumstances.

If one can ever get there, that is.

Having left home 36 hours before one finally schlepped up to our Milan hotel bedroom, one could be forgiven for thinking the Arab states have got it right and it is, per se, perfectly appropriate to cut the hands off whichever idiot air bridge operator crashed their charge into the side of our plane, thus occasioning all of us to get off again and spent an uncomfortable few hours inside Dubai terminal C waiting for a new one to complete the hop to Milano. Or whatever it is they do to ground crew who mistake their handling of what must be the slowest vehicular transport known to man for racing their new Mercedes and proceed to crash it into a $250 million Airbus, leaving an unsafe dent in the fuselage. “So sorry, Effendi, I just didn’t see it there.” Yes, medieval torture has its place in modern jurisprudence, especially when its 40+ degrees outside and your credit card isn’t working any more than the airport air-conditioning so you can’t even indulge in an iced Starbucks as you disappear into a puddle on the immaculately scrubbed floor. Even the mid-day call to prayer over the loudspeakers fails to lift our spirits. If Allah existed surely he wouldn’t let bad things happen to good people, right?

Milan is, of course, the jewel in the crown of northern Italy, home to fashion and fashonistas, and wandering its streets waiting for the game to start it is hard not to be struck by the fact that everyone is, well, not to put too fine a point on it, beautiful. The women are beautiful – effortlessly, so, with their immaculate coiffure and laughing eyes, high on life. The men are beautiful – boldly so, with their perfectly cut clothes in impossible, improbable colours. There is an air of stylish self-confidence evident everywhere. The short fat people are beautiful. The tall skinny ones are beautiful. Beauty is ageless – the retired indulge the autumn of their lives by dressing in designer fashions that actively defy death and wrinkles. Even the homeless guy pushing a trolley does it with a certain panache as he greets the street vendors who know him. The African migrants trying to sell useless tatt table-to-table in the piazza have adopted their hosts’ insouciant air of belonging, and the street-mime working the restaurants for tips is genuinely funny in a knowing, mocking manner. This is a city high on art culture, so that performance permeates its very fabric. Performance is the core standard. Everyone has an eye on everyone, and knows for sure that everyone’s eyes are on them. It is, frankly, as invigorating as it is scary. So one pulls in one’s belly fat and smiles at the impossibly gorgeous girl at the next table with what you hope is an appropriate devil-may-care atteggiamento. To your astonishment, she flashes you a warming smile back that would melt a Milanese gelato at a dozen paces. This stuff really works. It’s a psychological conspiracy, adhered to by all. We are all beautiful. Keep the faith. Pass it on.

churchSomewhere, a bell tower tolls the hour. Very loud. And very near. And all around, other bell towers take up the tune. The saints clustered around their tops stand impassively calm as the wild clarions ring out, as they have for centuries. They ignore the bells, as the walkers in the street ignore them, as we ignore them. Only the pigeons are startled, but not for long, and return to walking over our feet looking for crumbs.

Our hotel does not disappoint.

It is purple, for a start. Purple from top to bottom.

The grout in the bathrooms is purple.

The walls are purple.

The artworks are purple.

The helpful advice folder in the room is black type on purple paper, so that it can only be read when held under the bedside light at about two inches distance, at which point, like an ancient Illuminati text in the floor of a cathedral, it reluctantly gives up its arcane knowledge of the impossibly complex local train system.

table-and-chairsModern art furniture assails the eyes. Somewhere a table and chairs in the shape of a glass and two steins beckon the unwary. Stay .. drink … relaaaaaax. Tom Hanks rushes into the lobby, crying out to anyone who will listen that it’s not the Metro we allhotel need, but rather the slow suburban S2 line, except they’re on strike. He rushes out again, pursued by a bald monk with evil intent. Or it may have been a postman.

The carpet in the lobby is purple. Your head spins, and not just because ten minutes before you’ve gone arse-over-tit on the laminate floor in your room and you’re no longer quite sure what day it is. Ah yes, it’s match day.

Two Limoncello, please, and two beers.

The ubiquitous lemon liqueur turns up in frozen glasses that are surprisingly beautiful. That’s the aching knee fixed. Onward. Forza!

The game happens.

Having paid a king’s ransom to sit in the posh seats, we exit the ground quickly and safely, with all the fearsome Inter fans (their collective reputation marginally worse than Attilla the Hun’s) shaking our hands with courtesy and smiles and something that looked like pity, as they are enduring a season of shocking failure and they seem to say, “we know what you’re going through, we love you, we share your pain”. Halfway down the stairs, young men and women share the single toilet to serve hundreds, as the male lavatory is inexplicably padlocked, and as they wait in comfortable unisex discomfort they smile, and chatter, and look nothing more nor less than a slightly disreputable renaissance painting come to life. Caravaggio, perhaps.

We are not in Verona, but we might be. There Romeo. There Juliet. There, Tybalt, drunk of course, intent on lechery and perhaps a brawl. All beautiful.

To prevent a brawl, our friends are locked into the stadium for 45 minutes after the game, and then eight thousand Southampton fans are grudgingly permitted to exit down a single narrow staircase. As we stand outside shivering in the suddenly bitter late-evening breeze, they are greeted by a hundred or so police in full riot gear, as clearly the fact that every single one of them is cheerful and good-natured and very obviously they wouldn’t riot if you stuffed a cracker up their collective arse means nothing to Il Commandante Whoever, and having pumped millions into the Milanese economy and behaved impeccably they are now treated like morally dissolute cattle, and dangerously so, too. One stumble, and hundreds could have perished. Criminal stupidity from the authorities, who are obviously only interested in lining the pockets of their carabiniere with unnecessary overtime, as groups of young men in ridiculous gold braid with sub machine guns strut first one way, then another, then back again, noses in the air, sniffing for trouble. They glower. Only word for it. And it isn’t beautiful. It isn’t beautiful one little bit.

But after that distasteful experience, essential Milan reasserts itself, and we walk, semi-frozen and tired to a nearby restaurant owned by a friend and head of the Italian Saints supporters group, and the restaurant is tiny and warm and welcoming, and as feeling returns to our fingers and toes we are treated to a sensational repast of local salami and proscuitto, followed by the most ineffably delicious and unlikely Osso Bucco-topped risotto with creamy rice so imbued with butter and white wine and saffron that the plate almost glows as it comes to the table, and the Osso Bucco topping is gelatinous and rich and the bone marrow in the veal is luscious and braised for hours so that it melts in your mouth. And at the next table are members of the local Parliament representing the curious Legia Nord, the byzantine regional and federalist party which is anti-EU and anti-Rome, fiercely proud of local traditions, socially-conservative, and essentially a party of the right (especially in its anti-immigration activism) yet containing many socialists, liberals and centrists too, who care more for their local area than they do about mere matters such as political philosophy. We remind the leader that we had met previously, at Wembley Stadium, no less, and exchanged happy banter, even though he is Legia Nord and we are socialists. “Of course I forget you if you are socialist!” he laughs amiably, and then says, perfectly seriously, “We need more socialists in Italy. All our socialists are not really socialists, they all agree with the right. This is not good for democracy. How do you like the risotto? It is a local speciality. Best risotto in Italy! More wine?”

panatonneAnd his colleague at the next table waves his serviette in the air as he makes an important debating point about bureaucrats in Brussels and sets it alight on the candle, which seems as good a reason as any for everyone to adjourn to the doorway for a cigarette. And the wind has dropped so the sky is clear and cold, and in the distance a police siren cuts through the still and smoky air and the patron announces “We have Panettone!” which is served with sweet mascarpone cream and it is explained that this doughy, fruit-filled dish is really only served on Christmas Day, but in honour of our visit they have made it specially tonight. And our hosts make it clear that they, not us, are paying for dinner, and we must come again soon. And they really mean it. And everywhere is smiles and gentility and the Gods of football work their magic.

And tomorrow, naturally, the trains are all on strike, so we will not be visiting the Cathedral to see the Last Supper, so we will have time to write this.

And it is beautiful. They are beautiful. Life is beautiful. Italy is beautiful.

And mad. But mainly beautiful.

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Lorries drive along a protection fence, preventing access to a circular road leading to the port of Calais. PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP

Lorries drive along a protection fence, preventing access to a circular road leading to the port of Calais. PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP

 

The story of the youngest-ever refugee killed trying to enter UK from Calais should be made into a movie. It would change people’s minds about the topic overnight.

The fifteen-year-old Afghan boy  – who cannot be named until his family in Afghanistan are officially informed of his death – was trying to stow away on a lorry in Calais.

He was technically eligible to receive asylum in the UK but the paperwork had been taking a long time to come through.

Paperwork. Government code for “deliberately dragging our feet to avoid our legal responsibilities and pander to sick, anti-refugee sentiment”.

He was out with his cousin, a 17-year-old refugee staying in the same camp, in the early hours of Friday morning. The two boys managed to climb onto the roof of a lorry. Witnesses said the driver noticed them and swerved from left to right to knock them off.

We ask: How is that not murder?

The youngest boy was thrown to the ground, in the path of oncoming traffic. Witnesses told Care4Calais.org he was run over three or four times. It’s also been reported the drivers didn’t stop to check on him.

Other refugees came to the aid of the boy and police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd. When police noticed the body they called an ambulance, but he was dead by the time it arrived, 15-20 minutes later.

Again: the boy had a legal right to claim asylum in the UK. His brother is already resident in the country so he should have been given permission to join him, but he was fed up of the feet-dragging of the authorities responsible for his papers.

While he waited he was living in squalid conditions and had begun taking matters into his own hands, trying to hide on cross-channel lorries and even creeping onto the axles of vehicles.

The as-yet un-named young boy.

The as-yet un-named young boy.

Friends and relatives said he was desperate for an education.

He’d fled Afghanistan months earlier, aged 14, after the Taliban prevented him from attending school and tried to force him to become a suicide bomber.

His father feared for his life and sent him away.

The teenager had already travelled through Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia and Germany. Imagine. A fifteen year old. Imagine he was your son.

“He was a kind boy with a good mind, he was trying to learn English in the camp and hoping to go back to school when he reached the UK,” said Abdul, an Afghan friend from the camp.

Calais-based charities say his death is the 13th this year and he is the third child to have died.

“Every day the British and French governments continue to delay taking appropriate and timely action more and more desperate children and adults gamble with their lives. This senseless loss of life must stop,” said Clare Moseley, founder of Care4Calais.org.

Be part of the solution. Share this tragic story. Change minds.

eu puzzle

We have a habit, Dear Reader, of predicting elections (and referendums are a bit like elections, aren’t they?) BEFORE the result is known. We do this for a number of reasons. When we get it right (which is almost always – although some would argue we didn’t pick a majority for the Tories at the last British General Election, whereas we would argue we did flag it as at least a possibility) we like to stick it up those less perceptive types who think we know nothing – childish, we agree, but very satisfying – and also it’s just plain fun to try and get it right. Everyone’s gotta have a hobby, right?

We have said, all along, ever since the referendum was announced, that Leave will not win. Our reasoning was and is very simple, and quite different to all the other reasons advanced by pundits.

It is simply this.

The “Steady As You Go” argument

 

Electorates are inherently conservative. They tend to vote for the status quo, and especially when they are uncertain of the advantage of changing things. That is why, for example, that the received (and correct) wisdom is that Governments lose elections, Oppositions don’t win them. (And that’s why the Coalition will be returned to power in Australia, incidentally, as they have not done enough cocking up, in enough people’s opinion, to actually lose the whole game.)

In the EU referendum, in our view, the Leave campaign have done an excellent job of ramping up xenophobia and leveraging generalised disgruntlement in the electorate. They have worked on crystallising the anti-politics fever that seems to be gripping most Western democracies, as people rail against the admitted inadequacies of representative democracy. We see it everywhere – the visceral hatred from some for President Obama, the embrace by Trunp by those in America who feel themselves disenfranchised by “Washington”, the rise of the far right in Denmark, Austria, France and Russia, the apparently unresolvable divide in Thailand, the growth of micro parties and third parties in Australia, (reportedly about to push towards nearly 30% of the vote at the July 2nd poll), and so it goes on.

Brexit has leveraged this angst effectively through a ruthless application of rabble-rousing.

In our view the support for Brexit – which has risen by between 5-10% over the last 12 months – is at least as representative of a general mistrust of the establishment as it is a reflection of genuine anti-EU sentiment. In this context, the EU is just the establishment writ large, and the Leave campaign knows this, and has presented it as such with commendable, if amoral, consistency.

By choosing the wayward buffoon Boris Johnson, the plainly odd Michael Gove, and the determinedly esoteric and individualistic Nigel Farage as their lead acts, Leave have presented themselves as the natural anti-establishment choice.

But despite Leave’s efforts, at least 14% of the British electorate still report themselves to the pollsters as “Don’t knows”. Abut 5 million people entitled to vote in the referendum apparently haven’t got a clue what they think, despite literally years of coverage of the matter.

One has to have sympathy with them. Both sides in the debate have fudged statistics and relied on barbed soundbites rather than any serious appeal to the intellect to sway the electorate. There has been a deal of outright lying going on.

In fact, this referendum has been an appalling example of the comprehensive trivialisation and failure of British political leadership, and almost no major player comes out of it with any kudos.

But assuming these 14% are not simply too embarrassed to embrace either of the sides, it is highly likely that the majority of them, if they vote at all, will lump (without any great enthusiasm) for Remain. “Don’t knows” nearly always overwhelmingly back the status quo. (For the same reason, the bulk of Independents in the USA will break for Clinton, not Trump. “The devil you know” is a powerful motivation.)

Yes, there is a chance they are enthusiastically pro-Remain but don’t wish it to be known because they are frankly confronted by the aggression of the Brexit camp and yes there is a chance that they are enthusiastically pro-Leave but don’t want it known as they fear being painted as irresponsible. If either of those things turn out to be true then the winning margin will be much higher for one side or the other than is currently predicted.

The current Daily Telegraph poll of polls has Remain leading Brexit by 51-49, having had Brexit ahead for at least some of last week. If those “undecideds” break very strongly one way or the other that calculation could be way wrong.

When the dishes are all washed at the end of the night, we think they will break disproportionately in favour of the status quo, and also that a good proportion of them won’t vote at all.

For that reason, we feel more comfortable with a prediction of about 55%-45% in favour of Remain, and if that turns out to be the result then everyone in the Chardonnay-sipping commentariat will throw their hands in the air and say “Well, what was all that fuss about? It was never really close, no one got that right!” Except we did. Today.

The ‘Polling Discrepancy’ argument

Our second reason for making our prediction is that telephone polls overwhelmingly favour Remain by a bigger margin than the overall polling is showing, because online polling has the two sides much closer.

Screen Shot 2016-06-23 at 12.24.00 pm

As the chart above highlights, polls where people answer questions on the phone suggest higher EU support than polls conducted on the internet. Since the start of September last year, phone polls suggest a nine per cent lead for Remain, while online polls have it at just one per cent. Why would this be? Well, that depends really on whether one is a conductor of phone polls versus online polls. A lively debate has been going on between the polling organisations.

In our view, it is because people respond differently in different social situations.

They may feel more encouraged to speak their mind to a real person, for example, or exactly the opposite, they may feel less free to state their views.

They may be more inclined to tell the truth when clicking on a survey question on a screen, or they may be more prepared to give a tick to something they actually don’t intend doing when they get into the polling booth proper. There will be a difference between phone polls where you actually speak to someone and where you use your keypad to respond to recorded questions.

Bluntly: polling is an inexact science.

What polling does do very well is track trends accurately. On that basis, there has undoubtedly been a move towards Leave in the last two-to-three weeks, but it may well be that Leave support peaked a week early, as it now seems to be weakening again. It is as if voters walked to the brink of the abyss, had a look, and stepped back. If this turns out to be the case it will be promoted as a triumph of campaigning by the Remain camp, but that would be a mistake. It’s simply the innate fear of change kicking in again. It’s one thing to tell a pollster you are voting Leave when it doesn’t matter because Leave has no hope of winning. Quite another to tell them that when it appears you may carry the day.

Two other factors, we believe, has bolstered the Remain cause.

The ‘Nigel Farage Gaffe’ argument

Screen Shot 2016-06-23 at 12.35.23 pm

The first was the badly judged UKIP poster promoted by Nigel Farage that showed a huge queue of universally black and brown immigrants waiting to enter the UK. (They were actually photographed trying to enter Slovenia, but that’s splitting hairs.)

Tory, Labour, Liberal Democrat, Scottish Nationals and Green MPs immediately united to condemn the poster, accusing Mr Farage of ‘exploiting the misery of the Syrian refugee crisis in the most dishonest and immoral way’. Popular Scots Nats leader Nicola Sturgeon called it “disgusting”. Others lined up to condemn it as “reprehensible”, “vile”, and “quite revolting”. Even Farage ally Michael Gove said the poster made him “shudder” and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne also aid the poster was “disgusting” and compared it to Nazi propaganda. Social media lit up with actual examples of the poster set against eerily similar Nazi propaganda from the 1930s to make the point.

The poster will play well with the neo-racists, anti-immigrationists, Little Englanders and out and out racists that make up the majority of UKIP’s dwindling band of supporters. But that’s simply Farage shoring up support for his views amongst people who were never going to vote for Remain anyway. We strongly suspect that the majority of Brits, who are, at their core, a fair minded people, will recognise the poster for what it is – an intimation of what Britain would be like under a hard-right Government that could well follow a successful Brexit vote. We think a small but significant number of people will have moved back from Leave to Remain as a result.

The ‘This Has Got Out Of Hand’ argument

Our last reason for suspecting Remain will win with relative comfort is the near-universal shock we have observed over the death of Labour MP Jo Cox, who was callously shot down while going about her daily business, allegedly simply because she held pro-refugee and pro-EU views. This awful event has shaken the British people rigid. Attempts to wave off any connection between the shooter and far-right groups, let alone the Brexit camp, and to characterise him as merely “mentally disturbed”, have, it seems to us at least, failed. Just as the Farage poster offended the British sense of fair play, at least for some people, so the assassination of Jo Cox has driven home to many how divisive and ugly the whole EU debate has become. Families have descended into recriminations, lifetime friends have fallen out with each other, and there have been multiple examples of violent fractiousness from all over the country.

The British people have now had more than enough of this unpleasant debate, which was foisted on them by a bitterly divided Conservative Party and a weak and vacillating Prime minister, and they heartily wish to be rid of it.

Staring down the barrel at what could be years of a messy dis-integration from Europe starts to look like a very poor option to a majority.

In 24 hours, Europe will be calmer again. With Britain inside it, and by then, presumably, permanently.

You heard it here first.

In the last 24 hours or so polling conducted for The Guardian has shown the “Leave” campaign in the British EU referendum to have jumped into a small lead over the Remain campaign.

This has excited much comment, cheering from the Brexit mob, and even a run on the pound. (Just like the good old days – Ed.)

Before the Little Englanders get too excited, though, they would do well to consider the following:

Betting market

By far the most accurate “poll” on upcoming elections has been shown – again and again – to be the betting markets. This is because they are made up of people who are not answering questions  on the phone or online, but people actually wagering real money – their own money – on their considered analysis of the likely result, assuming the risk for their opinions.

This is not to say that the betting market is always 100% accurate – that would be an over-statement – but it very accurately measures trends. So what is really interesting is always the MOVEMENT in the odds, just as the TRENDS in opinion polls are what are extremely accurate, not any individual poll.

The political betting market in the UK is very large, which also increases its accuracy.

These odds show a small movement towards “Leave”, but nothing like enough to see them winning the vote in three weeks’ time. The general consensus is still in the region of 4-1 (at least) ON a Remain victory, and as wide as 3-1 AGAINST (or higher) on a Leave win.

This small shift towards Leave is also picked up by the FT poll of polls, which shows Remain winning despite the ICM poll. It should also be noted that a cursory glance at the poll of polls show that ICM have consistently rated Leave higher than other polls, suggesting there is something in their methodology that is fractionally favouring the Leave side. Of course if they are proven right they will be cock-a-hoop, and good on them if it proves to be the case, but that rarely happens in such examples.

What really WOULD put the cat among the pigeons would be if the slight drift to Leave was picked up by other polls, or became a growing trend. That is not yet the case.

One thing that is clear is that the Leave campaign is polling far better than Prime Minister David Cameron would be happy with, and it may well be that a sizeable “out” vote will undermine his already eroding position within the Conservative Party.

He was urged by many (including then Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg) not to play around with a referendum to de-fang his Eurosceptic right but loftily chose to ignore that advice. As things stand, it may be that any victory in the election will be close enough that he, personally, is stripped of personal authority and mortally wounded. It may turn out to be a gross miscalculation.

When true leadership was required, he squibbed it. And the penalty for that is always, inexorably, inevitably, political death.

No. Europe 2016.

 

Europe

eu puzzle

“What did the EU ever do for the UK?”

You hear it asked by well-meaning people all the time. And to be fair, the EU has had its share of bad publicity. We all know it’s bureaucratically top-heavy. We all know it’s clunky and sometimes passes really silly laws. But that said, how has Britain fared from it’s membership of this unique social, economic and political experiment?

We have consistently been supporters of the EU, but not for reasons to do with economic matters.

But with the referendum looming we thought it a good time to re-post this great letter by Simon Sweeney in the Guardian newspaper. Frankly, if you still think “Brexit” is a good idea after reading this, then you’re simply not interested in facts.

“What did the EU ever do for us?

Not much, apart from: providing 57% of our trade;

Providing structural funding to areas hit by industrial decline;

Regulating for clean beaches and rivers;

And cleaner air;

Insisting on lead free petrol;

Making restrictions on landfill dumping;

Instilling a recycling culture;

And arranging:

cheaper mobile charges;

cheaper air travel;

improved consumer protection and food labelling;

a ban on growth hormones and other harmful food additives;

better product safety;

single market competition bringing quality improvements and better industrial performance;

the break up of monopolies;

Europe-wide patent and copyright protection;

In the EU we have:

no paperwork or customs for exports throughout the single market;

price transparency and removal of commission on currency exchanges across the eurozone;

the freedom to travel, live and work across Europe;

funded opportunities for young people to undertake study or work placements abroad;

access to European health services;

labour protection and enhanced social welfare;

smoke-free workplaces;

equal pay legislation;

holiday entitlement;

the right not to work more than a 48-hour week without overtime pay;

the strongest wildlife protection in the world;

improved animal welfare in food production;

EU-funded research and industrial collaboration;

EU representation in international forums;

bloc EEA negotiation at the World Trade Organisation;

We have become used to:

EU diplomatic efforts to uphold the nuclear non-proliferation treaty;

European-wide arrest warrants for criminals;

cross border policing to combat human trafficking, arms and drug smuggling;

better counter terrorism intelligence;

European civil and military co-operation in post-conflict zones in Europe and Africa;

support for democracy and human rights across Europe and beyond;

and investment across Europe contributing to better living standards and educational, social and cultural capital.

All of this is nothing compared with its greatest achievements: the EU has for 60 years been the foundation of peace between European neighbours after centuries of bloodshed.

It furthermore has assisted the extraordinary political, social and economic transformation of 13 former dictatorships, now EU members, since 1980.

Now the union faces major challenges brought on by neo-liberal economic globalisation, and worsened by its own systemic weaknesses although it is taking measures to overcome these. We in the UK should reflect on whether our net contribution of £7bn out of total government expenditure of £695bn is good value. We must play a full part in enabling the union to be a force for good in a multi-polar global future.

Simon Sweeney,
Lecturer in International Political Economy,
University of York

Despite this, the anti-EU campaign will have the full force of Murdoch’s and the other 4 extremist right-wing media billionaires papers whose straightforward agenda always has been, and still is, to weaken or remove all our human rights and reduce working people to contemporary serfdom.

Over 80% of UK papers are owned by just five extremist right-wing media billionaires: Rupert Murdoch, (Sun/Times), Barclay Brothers (Telegraph), Richard Desmond (Express) and Lord Rothermere (Daily Mail).

Murdoch is Australian/American living in New York, Rothermere lives in France, the Barclay Brothers live in the tax havens of Monaco and Guernsey.

So key question – is in light of the above list of the EU’s successes – why have these billionaires and their loopy political fellow travellers for decades tried to destroy the EU’s democratic institutions? Hmmm?

Don’t be conned. Get the facts, and share them.

Again.

Seven dead after Greek coastguard vessel hits migrant boat

The lifeless body of a young child was carried out of the water after a migrant boat sank after colliding with a Greek coastguard vessel.

 

This the tragic moment a young child’s dead body was pulled from the sea after a Greek coastguard ship collided with a migrant vessel near the island of Lesbos.

At least seven people, including four children, died when the wooden boat travelling from Turkey to Europe sank on Thursday. The boat sank within minutes of the crash with a 30-metre patrol vessel on Thursday morning, in circumstances that were being investigated. Sources said the boat was seeking to evade the patrol vessel.

Three other victims, “a woman, a man and a minor”, were found later, the coastguard said as Greek rescuers backed by a Portuguese ship and an EU border agency Frontex helicopter combed the waters for the missing.

The 31 survivors who were brought to safety had reported a total of eight people missing.

 

An AFP photographer who witnessed the crash from the shores of Lesbos said the boat went down just two or three minutes after the collision, which took place some two kilometres from land.

The photographer saw rescuers scrambling to pull people out of the water, with a second coastguard vessel and a Frontex helicopter arriving on the scene around 10 minutes later.

The nationalities of the migrants is not yet known but Greece is the primary destination of Syrian migrants fleeing the civil war, via Turkey, trying to find sanctuary in the EU.

 

Two men carry a woman's lifeless body from the sea after she drowned off the coast of Lesbos. Source: Reuters.

Two men carry a woman’s lifeless body from the sea after she drowned off the coast of Lesbos. Source: Reuters.

Scores of migrants have died making the perilous Aegean Sea crossing from Turkey to Greece.

On Wednesday, a woman, a young girl and a baby died after their boat sank off Lesbos. In total, more than 450,000 people have arrived in Greece, most of them fleeing the civil war in Syria. The International Organization for Migration says more than 600,000 migrants have landed on Europe’s shores since January, while more than 3,000 had died or gone missing in the attempt. Approximately 4 million Syrians are internally or externally displaced.

What this latest tragedy underscores, yet again, is the crucial need for the countries surrounding the Middle East to open up more legal channels for people fleeing war and persecution, so that they do not have to risk their lives to reach safety, a point made repeatedly by the UN refugee agency.

refugees

Refugees are not breaking the law. They should always be treated with respect, and with courtesy. They should not be met with armed guards and batons.

They are not the problem. They are the result of the problem.

When our countries sell arms to dictators to attack their own people, we create the problem.

When through our own lack of care those arms find their way through nefarious means to extremist groups, we create the problem.

When we prefer war-war to jaw-jaw, we create the problem.

When we allow, through our indifference, those that rule us to carve up the world into opposing camps that jostle and claw for preference, we create the problem.

When we demonise those we disagree with as sub-human, not-like-us, dirty, feckless or dangerous, we create the problem.

Every time we applaud a simple slogan uttered by a self-seeking politician or media commentator, instead of working harder and seeking to understand the depth of a situation, we create the problem.

When we keep the wealth of the world gathered into our hands instead of sharing it fairly, when we allow traders to destabilise whole country’s economies to achieve a profitable statistical blip on their trading charts, and when as night follows day when those countries dissolve into riots and civil strife, then we create the problem.

Refugees are not the problem. They are the result of the problem.

And we cause the problem.

 

child

If you want to make an immediate donation to help 4 million Syrian refugees, the most direct way will be via the UNHCR. Click here.

As we said, seemingly alone amongst politics-watchers, the storm in a teacup – albeit a very big, expensive teacup – is duly passing.

Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras votes during a session at the Greek parliament in Athens early 23 July 2015

The Greek prime minister secured the votes after a debate into the small hours

Greece has taken a crucial step towards a bailout after its parliament passed a crucial second set of reforms.

The passage of the measures means that negotiations on an €86bn European Union bailout can begin.

The reforms include changes to Greek banking and an overhaul of the judiciary system.

Thousands demonstrated outside of parliament as the bill was debated, with protests briefly turning violent as petrol bombs were thrown at police by a few anarchists.

There had been fears of a rebellion by MPs but Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was easily able to must the support required. In total, the measures received 230 votes in favour and 63 against with five abstentions. Among those who voted against were 31 members of his own Syriza party. However, this represents a smaller rebellion than in last week’s initial vote. Demonstrating the breadth of understanding that the reform package had to pass,former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis was one of those rebels in the first vote who returned to vote with the government this time.

Speaking before the vote, Mr Tsipras stressed that he was not happy with the measures that creditors had imposed. Well, he could hardly have appeared chirpy, could he? That would have been political suicide.

“We chose a difficult compromise to avert the most extreme plans by the most extreme circles in Europe,” he told MPs.

Representatives of the European institutions that would provide the bailout funds will begin negotiations in Athens on Friday.

Last week, Greece passed an initial set of austerity measures imposed by its creditors. These were a mix of economic reforms and budget cuts demanded by the eurozone countries and institutions before bailout talks could continue.

This second set of measures passed early on Thursday morning were of a more structural nature, including:

  • a code of civil protection aimed at speeding up court cases
  • the adoption of an EU directive to bolster banks and protect savers’ deposits of less than €100,000
  • the introduction of rules that would see bank shareholders and creditors – not taxpayers – cover costs of a failed bank

More contentious measures – phasing out early retirement and tax rises for farmers – have been pushed back to August. As we said, these issues were always going to be the can that got kicked along the road. The political fallout will need to be managed by the Greek Government and that cannot occur in a few days.

Negotiations will now begin on approving the terms of a third bailout, with the aim of completing a deal by the middle of next month. It’s a tight timetable but doable. What is not clear is that Mr Tsipras still has to decide whether a successful conclusion of negotiations should be followed by early elections. Our bet is not.

The deal explained

On Wednesday, the European Central Bank (ECB) increased its cash lifeline to Greek banks.

The emergency injection of an extra €900m (£630m), the ECB’s second in a week, came just hours before the vote.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) confirmed on Monday that Greece had cleared its overdue debt repayments of €2.05bn and was no longer in arrears. The repayments, which included €4.2bn to the ECB, were made possible by a short-term EU loan of €7.16bn.

Greece’s next major deadline is 20 August, when it must pay €3.2bn owed to the ECB, followed by a payment of €1.5bn to the IMF in September.

Essentially, the deal is akin to a Bank lending money to a drunken defaulting home owner to repay the mortgage they unwisely lent them in the first place. There is a lot of talk about how irresponsible the handling of the Greek economy has been by successive Greek Governments – not to mention that tax avoidance is something of a national sport – and that is all true.work greeks

What has been especially annoying in much recent commentary has been the characterisation of the Greek people themselves as lazy. In fact, the opposite is true. They put in some of the longest hours of any workforce in the EU. Needless to say, the Greek people know this, and their anger at having to carry the burden of the stupidities of generations of those that rule them is justified. That they could be working more productively is hardly the point. At some stage, the role of both private management, union leadership and political governance needs to be taken into account. It’s not all the fault of the “bleedin’ workers”.

What also needs to be factored in is that for decades now Europe has been lending Greece money for Greece to spend on vanity infrastructure projects supplied to them by Europe – arms is a classic example, manufactured mainly in Germany – Greece has a ridiculously large navy, for example – so the EU is at the very least as culpable in helping the Greeks to get into this mess in the first place.

Historically, Obama’s intervention to urge the Europeans to settle with Greece will be seen, for those attuned to geo-political balances – as the tipping point. What is encouraging is that some of the other economic basket cases in Europe have not instantly put their hands up for extra funds. It appears that brisk diplomacy – along the lines of “Shut up, guys, we need to sort this out, we’ll look at your situation down the track” – has worked in a timely fashion. But the Eurozone is not out of the woods yet.

One good start for Europe would be to substantially reduce the overhead structure of running the EU itself. The peoples of the constituent countries might be more amenable to pulling their heads in if they see the bloated and out of control Euro bureaucracy being made to do the same. No matter how pro-EU anyone is – and we are pro-EU, for political reasons more than economic ones – the Eurocrats need a serious haircut, and fast.

Graphic: BBC

Graphic: BBC

 

(BBC and other sources)

greek flag

The “bad news is good news” principle has been running hot again in the last couple of weeks with all the interest in Greece and its sovereign debt crisis. Economics reporters from around the world have been banging the drum with ferocity signalling that the end of the world is nigh. Very nigh. People gulp their coffee nervously. Stock markets are jittery.

But is a Greek exit from the Euro really likely?

The short answer is No. Oxi, in fact.

That the problem requires resolving is undoubted. Greek banks are very strapped for cash, and the stage is set for people being unable to access their savings. This is the nightmare scenario as far as civil peace is concerned, let alone international trade and business confidence.

But some factors are being ignored in the breathless doom-laden reporting. We summarise the key ones here.

The debt is unsustainable, so some of it will end up being written off. The question is when.

In or out of the Euro, Greek debt has reached levels that are unsustainable by an economy of its size, under any circumstances. It just can’t generate enough trade or tax receipts to pay it back at any sort of meaningful rate. Why this has been allowed to happen is another story, but it doesn’t matter now. It is what it is.

parthenonThe IMF has recognised this, and said that some form of “debt relief” is required.

In other words, writing off debt. (Probably about half of it.)

This will have to happen whatever the future relationship of Greece to the Euro will be, because unsustainable debt levels will make the Greek currency effectively worthless, which would be to no one’s advantage and would cause much greater ripples through the world economy than writing off some of the debt would.

The problem is political, not economic.

The money is, in effect, “gone” already, dispersed throughout the Greek business community and general population in lending, social support payments and so on. There’s no getting it back, and no way to generate it. What Angela Merkel and others have to do is “sell” retiring the debt to their own taxpayers, which is going to be made more difficult by the hard-edged rhetoric they have employed in recent months. Nevertheless, it’s worse than the alternative, so they will bite the bullet and do it.

What will happen?

A portion of the debt will be forgiven – probably about half – but to make this politically acceptable in the rest of Europe some or all of it may be theoretically rescheduled on the “never never” – the debt pushed out by 20 or 30 years – in reality, never to be repaid.

No one wants Greece in turmoil again.

The Greek civil war was recent, and very bloody, Here right wing militia display the heads of their victims.

The Greek civil war was recent, and very bloody, Here right wing militia display the heads of their victims.

It is easily forgotten that for the “mother of democracy”, Greece is a relatively recent convert to democracy. It was a military dictatorship as recently as the 1960s, and endured an horrendous civil war in the immediate aftermath of World War II. To see the country descend into chaos again is unthinkable for both the “European project” and for the geo-political balance in the region.

Long embroiled in conflicts with their neighbours, an aggressive dictatorship of left or right could spread uncertainty and trouble to Cyprus (dangerously near the Middle East), Albania, Macedonia, and worst of all, Turkey.

None of the people that really run the Western world are going to stand idly by and watch that happen over a pot of money, no matter how big that pot is.

What will happen?

The Western powers will stumble haltingly towards a solution to the debt crisis that keeps Greece stable. Expect to see the rhetoric and the bombast toned down significantly on both sides in the next few days, ahead of a compromise that sees Greece stay in the Eurozone and reduces the fractiousness inside the country. The unexpected discarding of the combative Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis by Greek Prime Minister Tsipras is a symbol that this process is already underway in earnest.

The Russia factor

Everyone in the West knows that a newly aggressive Vladimir Putin would like nothing more than to bail out Greece (which he has the money to do), both to thumb his nose at Europe (with whom he is enduring real on-going problems over Ukraine), and by bailing them out win an ally where he could base his Red Sea fleet actually on the Med itself. Which would be his price for the support.

What will happen?

America will never let Russia make such a move. So the lines are running hot between America and Europe right now telling the Europeans that they’ve had their fun and to pull their heads in. “Settle it before it gets worse” will be the message.

The European ideal

It is often forgotten – most often by those on the Right – that the EU is about much more than economics.

Greece suffered as much as everyone else in WWII. In 1953, they

Greece suffered as much as everyone else in WWII. In 1953, they “forgave” the new-born German state the debts it owed them.

It always was designed as a device to impose stability on a region that had been at war for thousands of years, and most horribly within living memory in 1939-45. It was rarely sold to the voters like that – who tend to be much more amenable to hip-pocket issues like how much tax they’re paying and whether or not they’ve winning or losing from EU contributions – but that is nevertheless the driving morality behind the whole project.

And as recently as the Balkan conflict Europe has been reminded of the capacity of the area to dissolve into internecine feuding. Issues of economic security dominate over economic efficiency.

That’s why the EU project consistently ignores bleating about “loss of sovereignty” from political parties and national parliaments and stresses instead the role each country plays in “running” Europe. This makes the EU top-heavy, over-centralised, frequently the butt of satire about its tortuous legislative burden, and unpopular. Nevertheless the blow to the European ideal of seeing a “Grexit” (which might lead to similar problems from other small countries) would far outweigh the benefit of disciplining Greece further.

What will happen?

The European ideal will triumph over neo-con economics. It won’t be sold like that, but that’s what will happen.

There is no legal mechanism to force Greek out of the Euro.

greece euro xendpayOne of the oft-repeated canards in the last few weeks has been that Europe will “kick Greece out”. The problem is, they actually can’t. There is no legal mechanism by which a member of the Euro can be made to exit it against their will.

As no-one in Greece actually wants to leave the Euro, whatever their attitude to the austerity measures Europe seeks to impose, Europe is stuck with Greece as a member whether Europe likes it or not. This scholarly article explains the law behind the situation.

What will happen?

The only way Greece can exit the Euro is if it chooses to. Greece won’t, as it knows a “New Drachma” does not have the gold backing to survive as a viable currency in world economy. The new currency would devalue by 25-50% overnight, destroying savings and making trade with Greece virtually impossible. No external traders or countries would trust the new currency. What’s more the very first step would be the IMF having to lend what has been estimated as $25 billion of new money to support the currency, which really would be good money after bad. It’s one thing to write off debts you’ve already factored into the balance sheet, quite another to keep making the balance sheet looking worse.

So what’s in it for Greece to leave? Nothing. So they won’t.

Commonsense will prevail.

In or out of the Euro, Greece is going to default in its debts, whatever it ends up being called.

It’s a bit like an ordinary working individual borrowing a home mortgage of ten million bucks to build a palace, and then turning round and saying “Oops, sorry, can’t pay you back. But the money’s gone: the home is built.

Sure, the lender can take back possession, but they still have to sell it to get their money back. Then they discover the home is actually made of ticky tacky and it’s really only worth $500,000. They’re going to eat the $9.5 million.

The bank can rail all it likes about how unfair that is, but the guy who built the house has now died, and his son is only 18. He claims – fairly – that he is not responsible for the lunacy of his father, over which he had no control.

Sure, be angry at the now dead home builder. And sack the idiot who gave him the ten million in the first place. But it still doesn’t solve the problem, and the bank still wants the son as a customer.

The only question at stake is by how much will Greece default, and when.

What will happen?

Given that Greece out of the Euro is even worse for Europe than Greece in the Euro, the hard heads are currently saying to each other “Damn, they called our bluff, we’re out of options, we have to make a deal.” What you will see (probably tomorrow night) is is a few crumbs thrown by the Greeks to the Germans so that the central bankers and Angela Merkel can save face.

The wash up will be that the Greek Government will appear willing to continue to reform the Greek economy and live in a $500,000 house rather than a $10 million one. And there are signs that, on their own terms, they are willing to continue the reform process, especially as regards fixing tax avoidance, which is a national sport in Greece. Whether they will increase their consumption tax or give pensions a hit is imponderable, but some small ground may even be yielded on those sticking points to sweeten the pill. And the lenders will settle for that. They have no choice. The money’s gone. What they will do is dress it up so that every other indebted country in the EU will not then immediately say “OK, us too, please.”

protestThe crisis will have to be resolved in the next 48-72 hours. We expect it will be. With Greece inside the Eurozone.

Which will be very boring for those journos that like nothing more than to stir up panic because it sells papers – or hits on websites, today – but there it is.

The long-term damage to the concept of Europe for its citizens is more difficult to predict. This heartfelt article should make us all pause and consider.

 

 

So, if you’ve going to Germany to experience Oktoberfest for beer and sausages this European autumn, chances are you might want to stay away from the wild boar while you’re there: sausages and stews made from which are a delicacy in the forested areas of Europe.

A new study from the German government, reported by The Telegraph, shows that more than one in three wild boar killed by hunters in the region are too radioactive to be safe for humans to eat.

Since 2012, hunters in the Saxony region of Germany have had to get any wild boar they kill tested for radiation. In one year, the state reports that 297 of 752 boar tested contained more than the safe limit of 600 becquerels of radioactive material caesium-137 per kilogram for human consumption. Some boar tested had radiation levels dozens of times higher than the safe limit.

Saxony is 700 miles from Chernobyl, where a 1986 explosion at a nuclear plant sent radioactive material into the atmosphere.Subsquent rain and wind carried the radioactive material far and wide across Europe.

It’s thought that boar are more susceptible to radiation contamination because their diet consists of mushrooms and truffles that are buried in the ground and hold radiation longer than other vegetation. As a result of the contaminated meat, the German government has paid out thousands of euros in compensation to hunters, which have to destroy anything that tests as unsafe and cannot sell it for profit.

Even though it has been 28 years since the Chernobyl disaster – we remember it like it was yesterday – The Telegraph points out that experts say the radiation could be around in unsafe levels for another 50 years. Yummy.

This very important article in Vox, based on Russian research, reveals an apparently staggering level of support for ISIS in Europe, and in France in particular, where one in six people report supporting the extreme terrorist Sunni group that has been slaughtering Christians, Shias, Sunnis who don’t agree with them, and anyone else who gets in their way.

And the level of support rises as respondents get younger.

 

Very, very worrying.

Very, very worrying.

 

We somewhat doubt the veracity of the research and wonder if people are confabulating “ISIS”, “Gaza” and “Hamas” in their minds. In any event, it’s a sad and sorry finding even if it’s only partly accurate, and the radicalisation of Islamic youth is one of the most distressing and tragically predictable outcomes of the growth of so-called “identity politics”, which is now playing out throughout the West, and increasingly in a new black-white divide in America, as well.

But despite this survey it would be wrong to see this phenomenon as something unique to young followers of Islam. Indeed, as one of the sources quoted in the article remarked:

The rise of identity politics has helped create a more fragmented, tribal society, and made sectarian hatred more acceptable generally. At the same time, the emergence of “anti-politics,” the growing contempt for mainstream politics and politicians noticeable throughout Europe, has laid the groundwork for a melding of radicalism and bigotry. Many perceive a world out of control and driven by malign forces; conspiracy theories, once confined to the fringes of politics, have become mainstream.

It is so. This isn’t a religious thing. It’s all about contemptuous disenchantment and disempowerment.

That said, the fact that we actually find most interesting in the graph above is the much LOWER figure – virtually negligible, in fact, in polling terms – in Germany.

In our analysis, this can be explained by three simple factors.

Whilst there is racial tension within Germany – particularly where the Turkish immigrant population is concerned, it is less of a problem than elsewhere.

Even with the persistent (if small) growth in Neo-Nazi skinhead violence, the vast majority of Germans utterly reject the balkanisation of politics based on race. Given their recent history, and the efforts the State makes to prevent racial abuse or anything that smacks of it, this is laudable and not at all surprising.

Another differentiator, of course, is that much of the Islamo-fascism currently being exhibited in the world is explicitly anti-Israeli and by extention anti-Jewish, and expressing sentiments that could possibly be interpreted or misinterpreted as anti-Jewish in Germany is still well-nigh impossible, again for very obvious reasons.

The third reason, and this is very significant, is that the German economy is significantly wealthier and more successful than the British, or the French. There is plenty of education and work to be had, and both are the perfect balm for the vast majority of young people, of all racial backgrounds, who might otherwise be led into more extreme conclusions about society.

Recent riots in France were painted as "Islamic" by commentators, in fact, as the placard being carried by one demonstrator, it was more accurately an explosion of frustrated youth violence, like previous riots in the UK and elsewhere.

Recent riots in France were painted as “Islamic” by commentators, but in fact, as the placard being carried by one demonstrator says, it was more accurately an explosion of frustrated youth violence, like previous riots in the UK and elsewhere.

Unemployment – especially youth unemployment – is the perfectly fertilised and endlessly productive seed bed for extremism of all kinds, whether you look at 1789 France or France last year, 1917 Russia, 1933 Germany, 1970s Northern Ireland, the “Arab Spring” of 2011, or America, France and Britain today.

And where that unemployment falls most onerously on any particular racial or religious groupings, particularly a grouping that considers itself as a minority, then you have a recipe for immediate and predictable disaster.

But even when that miserable judgement is made, it is the generalised “anti politics” trend that concerns us most – even more than any passing fad for Islamic extremism that threatens us today.

The simple fact is that when people perceive their leaders as corrupt, when people perceive them as petty, when people perceive them as habitual liars, (with plenty of evidence), when people perceive them as lacking in required levels of intelligence or leadership skills, then they do not blame the individuals as much as they blame the system. And variously, they turn (and they can turn very quickly) to revolutionary creeds – Marxism, Fascism, religious extremism: whatever is around and easily grasped as a panacea, really.

Anti-democrats don't start out carrying a sign saying "crush democracy". They know it frightens the horses. And they can be alluring - Stalin was quite a hunk as a youngster.

Anti-democrats don’t start out carrying a sign saying “crush democracy”. They know it frightens the horses. And they can be superficially attractive – Josef Stalin was quite a hunk as a youngster, for example.

This is precisely why we have frequently labelled America a ‘pre-Fascist” state* – not because we believe there are organised groups of people seeking to subvert the American constitution and replace it with some Hitler-style figure – there are such groups, but they are still largely fringe dwellers, and there are also big money groups that wield far too much malign financial power over the political system, such as the Koch brothers, but their influence is still basically visible and trackable – rather, it is because the fracturing of America into potentially warring tribes is so very palpably obvious when viewed from a distance, matched (equally obviously) by an increasingly careless disregard for civil rights and privacy from the authorities.

A frightening realisation that often comes later in life is that democracy, in all its expressions, contains within it the seeds of its own destruction. The very thing that makes democracy so worth preserving – freedom of opinion and the resulting freedom of speech – is the very weapon that can tear it down.

History teaches us, again and again, that there is a tipping point when a majority of people despair of the system and when they do they are prepared to consider a replacement – any replacement. Or it can be a highly motivated minority, with good organisational skills.

Shorn of the wonderful, soaring rhetoric of its core principles by the behaviour of its key players – our political leaders, and the media – democracy simply seems increasingly and hopelessly out of touch and irrelevant. All it needs is a half-credible populist to repeat the people’s complaints alluringly, and the complaints are worldwide, and they are devastatingly simple and enticing:

“I don’t trust them”, “They’re all just in it for themselves”, “They don’t know what to do”, “They’re just taking the piss out of the rest of us, and we’re paying”, “They don’t care about us.” “What can I do? They won’t listen to me.”

At one and the same time, powerful cabals in business and the military foolishly consider they can take advantage of such unrest to position themselves to take over as “a strong voice”, to run things (skimming off the top, of course) while the hubbub of dissent dies down, until – inevitably – they realise they have seized a tiger by the tail, and they can’t control it. “Temporary” restrictions on freedom become permanent, and apply to these fellow travellers as much as they do to the rest of us. They imagine themselves isolated from the crackdown by their money, except – as they invariably discover – they are not.

Anti-politics. It is louder in the West than we can remember at any time since we started paying attention in the 1960s.

“They don’t care about little people.” “Just a bunch of snouts in a trough.” “They’re all stupid.”  “There’s no real difference between them, anyway. It’s all a game.” “I just don’t trust ’em. Any of ’em.”

Indeed, as we write these phrases, it is all we can do to stop from nodding in agreement. They are so seductive.

A son of the aristocracy, Churchill never lost his early passion for democracy that was often found in those days in the ranks of the independently wealthy.

A son of the aristocracy, Churchill never lost his early passion for democracy that was often found in those days in the ranks of the independently wealthy.

Except if we are seduced by them, we will hate what comes after. As Winston Churchill supposedly famously remarked:

“Democracy is the worst form of government, it’s just better than all the others.”

Actually, and somewhat ironically, the most famous defender of modern democracy might not have actually generated those words, although in his lifetime he did say a lot about democracy, especially when its survival was threatened with the horrors of German and Austro-Hungarian Nazism, Italian and Spanish Fascism (amongst others), and Soviet-style “marxism”.

Churchill did say something like this in the House of Commons on  11 Novem­ber 1947) but it appears he was quot­ing an unknown pre­de­ces­sor. From Churchill by Him­self, page 574:

Many forms of Gov­ern­ment have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pre­tends that democ­racy is per­fect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democ­racy is the worst form of Gov­ern­ment except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

So, although these are Churchill’s words, it is an amusing historical footnote that he clearly did not orig­i­nate the famous remark about democracy. We wonder who did. Anyhow, here are some orig­i­nal things that the great man did say about democracy over 70 years in public life:

If I had to sum up the imme­di­ate future of demo­c­ra­tic pol­i­tics in a sin­gle word I should say “insurance.” That is the future — insurance against dan­gers from abroad, insur­ance against dangers scarcely less grave and much more near and con­stant which threaten us here at home in our own island.
Free Trade Hall, Man­ches­ter, 23 May 1909

At the bot­tom of all the trib­utes paid to democ­racy is the lit­tle man, walk­ing into the lit­tle booth, with a lit­tle pen­cil, mak­ing a lit­tle cross on a lit­tle bit of paper—no amount of rhetoric or volu­mi­nous dis­cus­sion can pos­si­bly dimin­ish the over­whelm­ing impor­tance of that point.
House of Com­mons, 31 Octo­ber 1944

How is that word “democ­racy” to be inter­preted? My idea of it is that the plain, hum­ble, com­mon man, just the ordi­nary man who keeps a wife and fam­ily, who goes off to fight for his coun­try when it is in trou­ble, goes to the poll at the appro­pri­ate time, and puts his cross on the bal­lot paper show­ing the can­di­date he wishes to be elected to Parliament—that he is the foun­da­tion of democ­racy. And it is also essen­tial to this foun­da­tion that this man or woman should do this with­out fear, and with­out any form of intim­i­da­tion or vic­tim­iza­tion. He marks his bal­lot paper in strict secrecy, and then elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives and together decide what gov­ern­ment, or even in times of stress, what form of gov­ern­ment they wish to have in their coun­try. If that is democ­racy, I salute it. I espouse it. I would work for it.”
House of Com­mons, 8 Decem­ber 1944

Stirring stuff. And how unlike any modern politicians that come to mind, except, perhaps, the trio of dead American heroes, JFK, RFK, and MLK. Little wonder that they seized the imagination so thoroughly, and are still revered to this day, even though their feet of clay have been comprehensively documented. They talked about the principles of Government, not just the outcomes.

Democracy is more than a system, it is a concept.

Democracy is more than a system, it is a concept that breeds a system.

In today’s world, once again – and urgently, in our view – we need to make the argument for democracy itself. Not for nothing do the appalling leadership of extremist Islam, epitomised at its most horrible by ISIS, reject the very concept of democracy at the very same time as so-many of their co-religionists seek to acquire and embrace it. ISIS and others of their ilk know they are engaged in a death struggle for their narrow view of the universe against the very principles that democracy uniquely espouses: the principle of protection under the law whoever you are, whatever your creed, sex or colour, true justice that is separated from the government and which can hold the government itself to account, freedom to express oneself fearlessly, genuinely participatory government, the rights of women and minorities to be treated as equals, and much, much more.

For our own internal stability, and in defence of those who dream of democratic freedom everywhere, we need to make our passion for democracy loud and clear, recapturing why we believe it to be superior to the alternatives.

Even if we don’t care about personal freedom, let us carol from the rooftops that it has been shown to be more economically successful – and more sustainably – than any other system.

Even Communist China, containing fully one-third of the world’s
population, enjoying its hugely successful democracy in chinaexperiment in State-directed capitalism, is increasingly recognising that it cannot endlessly stifle the opinions and behaviour of the governed.

They have recognised that they can release a gale of innovation and improvement by asking the opinion of their own people (a truly alien view for the whole of Chinese history thus far) and thus they are taking faltering steps to introduce more freedom into their system without triggering a cataclysm of change.

As just one measurement, the level of openly critical comment in China today is measured in vast multiples compared to even ten years ago, as is the nationwide passion to tackle corruption, which has been endemic in China since time immemorial.

How ironic that the People’s Republic of China – until recently a vile and periodically vicious autocracy – is cautiously embracing a belief set that we seem essentially content to see wither on the vine. Certainly when measured by the public behaviour of our elite.

If nothing else, our leaders and opinion formers should be arguing for the success of liberal democracy as an economic vehicle – not, please note, arguing in favour of unfettered capitalism – as the proven way forward for humankind.

The evidence is that democracy spreads wealth better than any other system, to the widest possible number of people, even while it grapples with the excesses of the runaway freight train of capitalism. Democracy actually restrains the worst features of capital’s behaviour – environmental vandalism, for example. (And if you want to see the results of capitalism that is not fettered by democracy, both in terms of economic failure, cronyism, violence, and environmental vandalism, just have a look at Russia today.)

But more than mere words, more than argument, we need to make democracy work for the governed.

As a beginning, we need to act with utter ruthlessness when evidence of corruption or rorting the system is uncovered.

Sad Statue of LibertyWe need to be deeply suspicious of centralising power, and passionate and enthusiastic about devolving power to the lowest practical level concomitant with effective decision-making.

(For this reason, we are tentatively in favour of Scotland voting for its independence next month, despite acknowledging that it might not appear to be a sound decision economically, at least in the short term. Not that we think it will.)

We must watch our security services and police like hawks, ensuring that the work they do is effective, but that their understanding of the proper limits on their powers is thorough and genuine.

We must defend and encourage media diversity, because a plehtora of opinions expressed openly is the best possible way to generate the ideas we need to successfully navigate our new century and beyond. Anything that compresses media ownership into fewer and fewer hands, blithely covered up with promises of editorial independence that everyone knows are false – is actively dangerous. NewsCorp, and those like unto it, are bad for the health of democracy. “State-owned” news outlets – unless protected by the most rigorous legislation – are a contradiction in terms, wherever they are.

We must encourage bi-partisanship, not because we want our democracy reduced merely to fudge and lazy compromise, but because the public needs to see – to witness – people of good faith working together on their behalf or the social compact with the governed will collapse.

It follows that the role of Opposition is to oppose what it truly believes to be wrong, rather than simply “everything”, and that Government should habitually respect and consider the opinions of those who disagree with it. The impasse between Obama and the Congress in recent years was an economic annoyance, to be sure. But it was a political catastrophe.

Where disagreement is genuine, then the debate should be conducted with civility. Even when one considers another person foolish in the extreme, misguided, or lacking perception, the skill is to make that point in such a manner that they will at least consider you may be wiser or in possesion of a better idea, and also so you may carry public opinion with you. And so that the public can see your good intentions, and not just your muscular antagonism.

We “dumb down” our debates at great cost and at our peril.

If something is “dumb”, the people know they can do without it. When politicans dumb down their discourse, when they are relentlessly trite or scathingly negative, encouraged, aided and abetted by a media that has an increasingly – vanishingly – small attention span, they are not playing some clever stratagem.

In risking a backlash against democracy itself, they are lining themselves up to be thrown in a prison, or worse, by the tidal wave that replaces what they blindly thought was inexorable and irreplaceable. They are beating ploughshares into pikes, and putting them into the hands of those who – when they aren’t even offered complex, thoughtful or educated opinion to consider – can see no reason why they shouldn’t adopt simpler ideas expressed in slogans.

working mensAs democracy swept across Europe in the mid-late 19th century and into the 20th century, it was buttressed by wise souls who ensured that every village, every town, had facilities for the dis-semination of ideas and knowledge, for the edification of the working poor, (such as with the Working Men’s Institutes of Britain), so that they would become participatory members of a new compact.

The privileged who led these conscious efforts to uprate the skills and learnings of the poor were driven by belief, not by an empirical calculation that they were providing a safety valve for the expectations of the people. They believed that a government of all cannot exist if the all is disenfranchised through ignorance or lack of opportunity. So they set about creating the knowledge that would let people fully participate.

Yet today the efforts of those great communicators have been hijacked. Today they are largely directed into providing an endless diet of sport, or reality TV, or mind-numbing time-consuming soap opera and unedifying “popular” drama. Modern media resembles nothing more than an electronically-delivered diet of “bread and circuses” – a tactic for mind control, remember, employed by the Roman dictatorship very successfully for 400 years. “Don’t worry about how we are governing, or who for – here’s a load of bread and a free ticket to watch the gladiators. Come back tomorrow for more of the same.”

And today, devoid of any understanding of why democracy matters, the governed have essentially lost interest, and satiate themselves instead on a diet of moronic “entertainment”.

Ask yourself: where are the civics classes in our schools and universities? Where are our unions, who taught people not just how but why they should defend their rights? Where are the rhetoricians, stirring our minds with ideas and concepts? (Answer, making a “Ted Talk” to their fellow intellectual and financial elite.) Why have our political parties shrunk to be miniscule mockeries of their former selves, with memberships so ludicrously small as to make them nothing more than stripped-down bureaucracies, homes for duelling apparatchicks?

Un-engaged and uncomprehending, the people are ripe to be captured by that simplest and most terrifying of ideas.

“It’s all their fault. Let’s go get ’em.”

Who “they” are varies from theatre to theatre, of course. Alarmist? Look at that graph at the top of the page again.

Democracy is not the natural form of government for humanity. Violence is. Democracy has been hard won with the stout arms and often the lives of millions, for over 2,000 years.

Democracy will not persist if it is dysfunctional. Democracy will not persist if it is not protected. Democracy will not persist if we lose the argument.

Think about it. Discuss.

 

*For history buffs, there is a famous quotation, “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”

  • Many variants of this exist, but the earliest known incident of such a comment appears to be a partial quote from James Waterman Wise, Jr., reported in a 1936 issue of The Christian Century that in a recent address here before the liberal John Reed club said that Hearst and Coughlin were the two chief exponents of fascism in America. If fascism comes, he added, it will not be identified with any “shirt” movement, nor with an “insignia,” but it will probably be wrapped up in the American flag and heralded as a plea for liberty and preservation of the constitution.
  • Another early quote is that of Halford E. Luccock, in Keeping Life Out of Confusion (1938): When and if fascism comes to America it will not be labeled “made in Germany”; it will not be marked with a swastika; it will not even be called fascism; it will be called, of course, “Americanism.”
  • Harrison Evans Salisbury in 1971 remarked: “Sinclair Lewis aptly predicted in It Can’t Happen Here that if fascism came to America it would come wrapped in the flag and whistling ‘The Star Spangled Banner.'”

Decision Day for Europe

Marine le Pen of the National Front in France: "The sovereign people have spoken loudly to say they want to be master of their own destiny".

Marine le Pen of the National Front in France: “The sovereign people have spoken loudly to say they want to be master of their own destiny”.

Chain-smoking, pint-drinking Nigel Farage has proved widely popular, despite admitting some of his own party's ideas are half-baked. His populist plain speaking has amused and encouraged some as it has appalled and worried others.

Chain-smoking, pint-drinking Nigel Farage has proved widely popular, despite admitting some of his own party’s ideas are half-baked. His populist plain speaking has amused and encouraged some as it has appalled and worried others.

UKIP is course for an emphatic victory in the European elections in the UK – with leader Nigel Farage promising to use it as a springboard for next year’s general election. It is a trend repeated throughout Europe.

Highlights
(Based on exit polls/provisional results)

France National Front storm to victory – 25%, 25 seats; Centre-right UMP 21%; President Hollande’s Socialists a poor third with 14% – lowest ever EP score

Britain Eurosceptic UKIP in first place, with 27%, Conservatives on 24% and Labour about 25%, Greens beating Lib Dems.

Italy Centre-left PM Matteo Renzi scores strong 40%, fending off ex-comic Beppe Grillo’s anti-establishment Five Star with 22%, and ex-PM Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia with 16%

Germany Angela Merkel wins another election – 35% for her Christian Union, 27% for the centre-left SPD. Eurosceptic AfD score strong 7%

Greece Partial results show far-left Syriza on 26%, PM Antonis Samaras’ New Democracy on 23%. Far-right Golden Dawn set to get three MEPs, with 9%

In the UK, Labour’s vote is up significantly on 2009 but it is currently neck and neck vying with the Tories for second place. The Lib Dems have come fifth behind the Green Party in most areas and have lost all but one of their seats.

An early breakdown of the major parties in the UK looked like this:

UKIP 28.73% +11.67% 22 seats won Up 10
Conservative 24.19 -3.68% 16 seats won Minus 5
Labour 23.98% +8.84% 14 seats won Up 5
Greens 7.78% -0.66 2 seats won Up 1
Liberal Dems 6.91% -6.82% 1 seat won Minus 8

Only Scotland, London and Northern Ireland have yet to declare. As we report these results, it looks as if UKIP may have taken at least one seat in Scotland as well, which will bolster their argument for being a truly “national” party. (Note: Labour have gained slightly on the Conservatives since this table was prepared.)

UKIP has topped the poll in six of the nine regions to have declared so far, with their strongest performance coming in the East Midlands, where their vote was up 16.5%. Nigel Farage’s far-right anti-immigration anti-EC party has made 10 gains so far and has 22 MEPs

Labour topped the poll in Wales, and the North-West of England, its strongest showing so far with an increase of 13.5%, and the North-East of England and has made five gains so far. The party has returned 14 MEPs.

The Conservatives have lost five seats so far and have returned 16 MEPs.

The Lib Dems have lost eight seats so far but avoided an especially humiliating wipe-out by winning a single seat in the South-East of England. Internal manoeuvring to replace Leader Nick Clegg has been gathering pace since the party’s disastrous local election results last Thursday. The party’s losses in local elections since the formation of the Coalition with the conservatives now number over 1,300 Councillors.

Despite a small reduction in their overall vote the growing Green Party have got two MEPs so far, gaining one seat in the South West at the expense of the Lib Dems, who lost one of their longest serving MEPs and previous group leader in the process.

In his victory speech at the South East of England count, UKIP leader Nigel Farage said: “The people’s army of UKIP have spoken tonight and have delivered just about the most extraordinary result in British politics for 100 years.”

He said the three main parties in Britain had led the country into the Common Market but had “twisted and turned” over an in/out referendum on EU membership.

“The penny’s really dropped that as members of this union we cannot run our own country and crucially, we cannot control our own borders.”

Far from being confined to the centre right of British politics, UKIP had also bitten into old Labour heartlands, he said.

“We’re genuinely a United Kingdom Independence Party. Our people’s army will go from here to Newark and move on to the general election. You haven’t heard the last of us.”

Roger Helmer, UKIP’s candidate in the forthcoming Newark by-election, was elected an MEP as the party’s lead candidate in the East Midlands.

Disaffection

Conservative party chairman Grant Shapps said the results were acting as “a command for Britain to get a better deal” in Europe – but he rejected calls by Tory grandee David Davis to bring forward the in/out EU referendum to 2016, saying negotiations on this could not be rushed.

Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman said UKIP had tapped into people’s disaffection with politics, adding that it was important to her party that Labour beat the Tories into second place.

Lib Dem President Tim Farron said the results “looked as bad as I feared”.

He claimed the Lib Dems had been the only party to stand up to UKIP and anti-Europeanism, but said that policy “may have cost us votes”. He told BBC News: “Nick Clegg has fought and led our campaign bravely … we took the unpopular side of the argument, and we have been punished. But I tell you what, I would do it all over again.”

British National Party leader Nick Griffin lost his seat in the North-West of England, after his party lost 6% of its vote.

Anti-EU parties from the left and right are expected to gain significant numbers of MEPs across all 28 member states in the wake of the eurozone crisis and severe financial squeeze. In particular, the far right anti-EU National Front was forecast to win in France, according to exit polls. In Denmark, the anti-immigration Popular Party is also reported to be ahead in exit polls.

Pro-EU parties are still expected to hold the majority in parliament. Turnout across the EU is up slightly at 43.1%, according to estimates.

In the European elections five years ago, The Conservatives got 27.7% of the total vote, ahead of UKIP on 16.5%, Labour on 15.7%, the Lib Dems were on 13.7%, the Green Party on 8.6% and the BNP on 6.2%.

UKIP has been celebrating gains in Thursday’s council elections in England, which saw it add 161 councillors and led Mr Farage to predict it could get its first MPs elected next year.

The Green Party of England and Wales has set itself a target of tripling its representation from two to six MEPs and of finishing ahead of the Lib Dems in fourth place.

The BNP won two seats in 2009 after getting 6.2% share of the vote but opinion polls have suggested their nationwide support has fallen sharply since then and they could struggle to retain these seats.

‘Closed list’

In total, 30 parties contested the European elections in the UK, including the SNP, Plaid Cymru, Sinn Fein, the Democratic Unionist Party and Ulster Unionist Party, which all won seats in 2009.

Britain is one of eight countries to use a “closed list” system where people vote for a party, rather than an individual.

The parties – here is the BBC guide to each of them – decide who goes on the candidate list for each of the electoral regions, with the ones at the top standing the best chance of being elected.

The way seats are allocated within each European constituency uses the D’hondt system, which is a form of proportional representation.

Across Europe as a whole, 751 MEPs will be elected to the European Parliament, in proportion to countries’ population size.

The powers of the parliament, which sits in both Brussels and Strasbourg, have expanded since the last election in 2009.

MEPs now negotiate legislation with national government ministers in what is called “co-decision”, before parliament votes on the laws.

They have a say on budget areas including agriculture and regional aid.

(The BBC and others)

Tony Benn

Those who think being “business friendly” (or “Conservative Lite” as I like to call it) is the way forward for the UK Liberal Democrats should keep a close eye on the German Federal Election this weekend.

The Lib-Dems’ long-term European ally the Free Democrats may be effectively wiped out at the election by failing to meet the 5% hurdle to enter Parliament and remain in the governing Coalition.

Essentially the FDP’s support has either drifted to the majority party with whom it has been in Coalition on and off for a generation (the CDU under Angela Merkel) or it has wandered off to a variety of other options on both left and right, according to whichever way members of the party’s somewhat amorphous supporter base lean.

The same fate applied to the Australian Democrats a while back, when they got too close to the then Conservative government and passed a regressive tax package, although leadership wrangling played just as much of a role in their demise.

Back to the future: the day Tony Benn predicted the Lib-Dem’s current crisis to me.

I well remember chatting for some time to Tony Benn at a Liberal Party conference at Harrogate deep in the last millennium, at which he was addressing a fringe meeting.

Opinions on Benn differ – I considered and still consider him a national treasure, and I read his famous diaries voraciously – in a discursive conversation that especially covered his views on the essential non-independence of elected Governments, which his Wikipedia entry summaries as follows:

By the end of the 1970s, Benn had migrated to the left wing of the Labour Party. He attributed this political shift to his experience as a Cabinet Minister in the 1964–1970 Labour Government.

Four lessons

Benn quoted four lessons:

1) how “the Civil Service can frustrate the policies and decisions of popularly elected governments”;

2) the centralised nature of the Labour Party allowing to the Leader to run “the Party almost as if it were his personal kingdom”;

3) “the power of industrialists and bankers to get their way by use of the crudest form of economic pressure, even blackmail, against a Labour Government”; and

4) the power of the media, which “like the power of the medieveal Church, ensures that events of the day are always presented from the point of the view of those who enjoy economic privilege.

As regards the power of industrialists and bankers, Benn remarked:

“Compared to this, the pressure brought to bear in industrial disputes by the unions is minuscule. This power was revealed even more clearly in 1976 when the IMF secured cuts in our public expenditure.

These [four] lessons led me to the conclusion that the UK is only superficially governed by MPs and the voters who elect them. Parliamentary democracy is, in truth, little more than a means of securing a periodical change in the management team, which is then allowed to preside over a system that remains in essence intact. If the British people were ever to ask themselves what power they truly enjoyed under our political system they would be amazed to discover how little it is, and some new Chartist agitation might be born and might quickly gather momentum.”

That was essentially Benn’s thesis as we talked. He shared a few examples which it would be inappropriate for me to repeat here, as it was a private conversation. I was left profoundly convinced that – even though I disagreed with much of his prescriptions to solve these obvious problems – his analysis of the hidden state-behind-the-state that influenced the public behaviour of governments was totally accurate.

I genuinely don’t think it was his obvious charisma and passion that led me to conclude he was correct, although Benn is undoubtedly a very attractive and convincing individual, especially for a young Parliamentary candidate in his twenties. It was more that the stories he told me simply “rang true”.

As I nursed a pint and Benn enjoyed his perennial mug of strong tea and a pipe – he has been both a lifelong teetotaller and longtime pipe smoker – the conversation moved onto the manner in which essentially left wing parties may nevertheless sometimes be required to enact unpopular social policies, specifically cutting public expenditure as the wider macro-economic situation demanded.

I have never forgotten these words

And Benn said something to me that I have never forgotten, and which I later heard him repeat on various occasions on TV in the coming years, especially as Labour sunk deeper and deeper into the Blairite fog.

I am paraphrasing, but it ran thus:

“We are not the bastards” he said, somewhat whimsically. “The public know we are not the bastards. When we try and act like bastards, we do a poor job of it, and the public know our heart is not really in it. If they want the bastards, they’ll vote for the real ones – the Tories. If we try and pretend to be Tories, they’ll simply kick us out and go get the real thing.”

This weekend, the FDP will pay the ultimate price for deserting their community-focused, small business friendly, “small is beautiful”, environmentally aware, co-operative roots. They will be decimated, and may well end up a footnote to history.

Nice Clegg

The Liberal Democrats led by Nick Clegg and the right-leaning cabal he has gathered around him – or the Lib Dems led by someone else – should listen and learn, or they will face the same fate – and frankly, what’s more, they will deserve to.

“They don’t want us to pretend to be the bastards.

If they want the bastards, they’ll vote for them.”

Liberal Democrats: you have been warned. Don’t say you weren’t.

UPDATE

"What's the similarity between Becks and the FDP? They've both got 4.9%."  Oh, those crazy whacky Germans.

“What’s the similarity between Becks and the FDP? They’ve both got 4.9%.” Oh, those crazy whacky Germans, eh? How cruel to say they don’t have a sense of humour.

Well, our direst forecasts have proven correct. As has Benn’s essential thesis. Some 2.2 million FDP voters switched directly from the FDP to Merkel’s ruling CDU to deliver her one of the biggest election victories since the war.

(An interesting aside: If she stays in power for the next four years, as she has said she intends to, she will pass Margaret Thatcher’s record as the longest serving female leader in modern European electoral history.)

The FDP’s vote collapsed to 4.9%, tantalisingly close to the 5% they needed to ensure survival, and denying it seats in the lower house of the Bundestag, effectively making them and the country’s Vice Chancellor Philipp Roesler (ironic, huh? Vice Chancellor … Deputy Prime Minister … geddit?) utterly irrelevant to Germany moving forward.

And by the by, denying Merkel a natural coalition partner despite her electoral triumph; she will now have to laboriously try and stitch together either a “Grand Coalition” with her natural rivals the SDP, or cobble together an arrangement with the Greens.

Both options look problematical. Ironically, Merkel now has both unparalleled authority in her country, and a real chance that she may struggle to govern effectively, which given Germany’s key role in re-shaping the Eurozone is hardly good news both for Europeans and the rest of the world who are hoping that the economies Greece, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Portugal et al are going to continue to avoid collapsing entirely, which would plunge the world back into a credit crisis.

Vince Cable - a burr under Clegg's saddle, but wisely so.

Vince Cable – a burr under Clegg’s saddle, but wisely so.

After four years of bickering and failure to deliver on its tax-cutting pledges German voters overwhelmingly bled to the “real bastards” (exactly as explained above) and for those who couldn’t make that switch there were a variety of more left-wing options to try. What they didn’t do was stay with a party that didn’t seem to know why it exists.

We maintain the Lib Dems need to work much harder on effectively differentiating themselves from their larger Coalition partner or face the same fate.

Buying the Tories’ free market schtick holus bolus is most certainly not the way to do that.

Senior economic spokesman Vince Cable is often criticised by those on the right of the party for his often mournful warnings that the Tories talk at least as much crap as they do good sense about reducing deficits and applying austerity measures to cure the country of its bloated welfare culture.

As Cable has appositely pointed out, Jeremiah might have been a miserable old curmurdgeon, but his famously depressing prophesies were correct.

Er ...

Er …

Meanwhile, Merkel’s continuing onward march gives us an excuse to tell again our very favourite completely politically incorrect joke.

So Angela Merkel turns up in her stretched Mercedes at the border with Greece.

An Immigration Officer wanders over to the car. “Name?”

“Angela Merkel,” says the Chancellor as she passes over her passport.

“Occupation?” asks the officer, as he flips through the pages.

“No, ” smiles Merkel sweetly, “just a holiday this time.”

FOOTNOTE: We were saddened to see that the seemingly indomitable Tony Benn was admitted to hospital this week after feeling unwell. Let us hope he recovers fully and our thoughts are with him and his family. Agree with him or not, his contribution to modern political debate in the UK and beyond has been colossal. We are also reminded of his famous quip in 2001 that he was retiring as an MP “to concentrate on politics”. Maybe Nick Clegg should view the Deputy Prime ministership with similar askance humour sometime soon.

Baldrick: “What I want to know, Sir is, before there was a Euro there were lots of different types of money that different people used. And now there’s only one type of money that all the foreign people use. And what I want to know is, how did we get from one state of affairs to the other state of affairs?”

Blackadder: “Baldrick. Do you mean, how did the Euro start?”

Baldrick: “Yes, Sir, if it please you, Sir.”

Blackadder: “Well, you see Balders me lad, way back in the good old 1980s there were many different countries all running their own economies and using different types of money. Oh, the messy, wild fun of it all!

On one side you had the major economies of France, Belgium, Holland and Germany, known to those of us in the know as “the rich bastards”, and on the other, the weaker garlic-munching dago-type nations of Spain, Greece, Italy and Portugal, and of course, the Irish, who aren’t dagos but are drunk and feckless.

So one fine day, my little dung heap, they all got together and decided that it would be much easier for everyone if they could all use the same money, have one Central Bank, and belong to one large club where everyone would be happy and laugh all day. This meant that there could never be a situation whereby financial meltdown would lead to social unrest, wars and crises”.

Baldrick: “But this is sort of a crisis, isn’t it Sir?”

Blackadder: “That’s right Baldrick. You see, there was only one slight flaw with the cunning plan”.

Baldrick: “I see, Sir. And what was that then, Sir? Can you explain it in a simple way for someone like me
to understand?”

Blackadder: “Certainly, dear fellow. It was complete and utter bollocks to begin with”.

An old friend of mine from the UK emails me with a rant against the idiocies of the European Union. Unusually, I find myself agreeing with much of what he writes, and sympathising with his rage at paying extra taxes to support Greek taxi drivers who, well, er … don’t.

Civilian casualties in WWII

Since 1939, civilian dead have outnumbered combatant dead in conflicts by more than 10-to-one

As a liberal of some forty years conviction, friends will not be in the least surprised to discover that I am “pro” European integration. However, I have always been a sceptical pro-European, because I don’t think the pro-Europe cause is helped by blinding ourselves to the EU’s obvious failings.

The bureacracy IS bloated, expensive, top heavy, and petty. The compliance regime IS ludicrous. The Euro DOES distort markets – I mean, after all, it’s supposed to.

However, I am old enough to remember the effects of World War Two. My Dad, having served for six years, died of too much stress, two many fags and two many drinks at 47. He was a cheerful man, but broken. And he got off lightly.

For many of us, European Union is the best (and most successful) solution to the eternal problem of too many competing powers crammed into a very small space.

The murderous collapse in the former Yugoslavia revealed the result of NOT enforcing political union. And the United States is built on the same principle, even though they fought a nasty civil war to bed it down.

That’s why political union has always been a goal of mine, and it inevitably leads to some sort of economic union, messy, unwieldly and occasionally downright chaotic as it is. In my opinion, the pro-Europe lobby has for far too long been afraid of admitting it is wholeheartedly in favour of political integration – gutless lack of leadership – and the core of the argument has got lost in the mists of time because of it.

Well, I stand with my head proudly above the parapet, knowing that most Brits would gladly shoot it off right now. A disfunctional European Union is a better option that a disfunctional Europe. Just ask my Dad.