CategoriesInternational AffairsPoliticsThought of The Day

Trump and the Massacre in Goa

Oops: I should have applied sunscreen today. My face is red. Silly me.

 

I’m typing in a hotel bar, then sipping my first Venezuelan rum. Here in North Tenerife, it’s raining, as it has done for most of the day, but with a brief interlude – hence my mild sunburn. I haven’t stayed in such a basic hotel since I holidayed in Albania, ten years ago. It does the job, though. Just.

 

Over the last few days, I have spent my time with a British couple, who are selling their business. I’m interested, very interested indeed, in acquiring it. If nothing else, here in Tenerife the ambulances, hospitals and emergency call-handling, all function.

 

Back home in Broken Britain, good luck getting medical care today. “Don’t do anything remotely dangerous today” instructs Sunak’s Government – (such as allowing 50,000 excess deaths). In more sensible times, presiding over so many unnecessary deaths and a falling life expectancy would be grounds for a lengthy custodial sentence. But most of the public are distracted by Prince Harry.

 

But enough about that. Over the last few weeks, I have been chewing over an issue which vexes me.

 

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Let me tell you a story.

 

Twenty-one years ago, on 9/11, an hour or so before those awful events, my good friend – let’s call him “J” – collected our Iranian visas from the Iranian embassy in London. We were going to Iran!

 

Then, two planes later, our travels plans were changed, as was the world. Instead of travelling from Greece to Burma/Myanmar overland, given that travel insurance to most of the Muslim world was voided, we went to India instead.

 

By the third week in India, we found ourselves – as a backpacking cliche – in Goa. We hired scooters – of course we did – bumming around the beaches and bars, before retiring to our 50p per night hostel. Rinse and repeat, day after day.

 

Everything changed one fateful day when J ordered a chicken sandwich from a hut – a hut which didn’t have a refrigerator. We had been the first – and last – customers of that day. We both recall the look on the faces of the staff as J bit into that sandwich.

 

Delhi Belly beckoned: horrendous for him and vicariously for me, given that we were sharing a crummy room. As J’s condition deteriorated, I summoned a doctor: pills were prescribed, so was the strong recommendation that we checked into accommodation more salubrious.

 

Not far from our lodgings, I found better huts, with intermittent warm water in the shower. Unusually, these new digs had a swimming pool. At £5 per night, shared between us, it was comparably expensive. This attracted a different sort of backpacker.

 

As the days passed, J’s condition improved. Eventually, he was well enough to swim. In the pool, the could-have-done-with-some-filtration water was far too low, making it quite taxing to clamber out.

 

One sunny afternoon, J noticed that there were dozens of frogs drowning in the pool. They were, he thought, marooned, unable to get out. Ever the nature-lover, J swam around, carefully scooping the frogs out of the pool, depositing them safely on solid ground. Mission accomplished.

 

Listening to my Walkman, I watched with fascination, proud of my friend’s good work. Then, almost imperceptibly at first, the surrounding trees became increasingly lively with movement: birds – lots of them and goodness knows the species – began to assemble, like onlookers to a playground fight.

 

In sync, the birds dive-bombed towards the pool, scooping-up every last frog, before returning to the trees to devour lunch. It was a feeding frenzy. J was crestfallen. Every frog met its maker.

 

(Only later did we appreciate that the frogs were, in fact, cooling down, and could easily get out of the pool when they wanted.)

 

Loosely, tangentially, this incident reminded me of, one, Donald Trump.

 

Trump is vile, with every unpleasant description of him, justified. He’s the very worst example for children. But notwithstanding his awfulness, dispassionately, we should remember his many good deeds and sound predictions.

 

Trump crossed the DMZ between North and South Korea, which delivered a short-lived rapprochement between these two warring parties. For a time, “Little Rocket Man” stopped firing rockets. Now, under Biden, North Korea routinely fires its rockets over Japan.

 

In the Middle East, spearheaded by Trump, several Arab nations signed peace deals with Israel, under the Abraham Accords. More Arab countries will follow suit. On Trump’s watch, let’s not forget that the Taliban didn’t control Afghanistan and Russia didn’t invade Ukraine, nor did China routinely fly into Taiwanese airspace. Although Trump was addicted to tweeting childishly, the world was more peaceful on his watch. A prospective nuclear exchange was not, as it is now, a possibility.

 

And we should be fair to the Donald, for on multiple occasions Trump demanded that other NATO countries paid their fair share for their own defence, reasonably asking: why should US taxpayers pay a disproportionate sum to protect Europe from Russia? And most presciently, Trump repeatedly advised Germany not to rely upon Russian gas. If only Germany had listened, Russian might not have felt emboldened to attack Ukraine. He was a vile embarrassment, but on the international stage – and I cannot believe that I am writing this – the world was safer with him in the White House.

 

I won’t comment on Trump’s tenure from an internal US perspective, for I don’t feel suitably qualified to express a fair view. And, before any reader point it out, Trump was wrong on environmental issues.

 

I remain troubled that my friend – J – with the very best of hearts and with impeccable motivation, inadvertently killed dozens of frogs. Conversely, Trump – whom I detest on a personal level and was most probably erroneously motivated – performed acts worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize. Obama received a Nobel Prize for his vision and oratory, but deeds are infinitely more powerful than words. Internationally, do we need Trump again? Do you feel safe today? I don’t.

 

I am compelled to conclude that the world is even more complicated than I had thought. Good people can – by commission and by omission – cause mass suffering and, conversely, dreadful human beings can do so much good. My homework? To re-evaluate what I look for in a leader.

 

CategoriesHealthEnvironmentInternational AffairsTravelPolitics

The Sick Man of Europe

(Written during take-off from Tenerife South, Airport)

 

Travelling on a rickety bus in rural Thailand, back in 2000, I had my only epiphany. The vast distance from home – turbocharged by the cultural punch in the face that South-East Asia delivers with aplomb – afforded me 20:20 insight into how my life was going, and what the future might look like.

 

And it wasn’t a pretty picture.

 

For context, I had just finished my second year at university: a year I could barely recall due to too much booze, insufficient studying and little progress on the friend front. Frankly, I was a mess. As I realised, to continue on that trajectory would lead only to a 2:2 degree – or worse – with the resulting deleterious impact upon my career.

 

Encouraged by the bone-jangling bus – where only moronic backpackers sit at the back, being the most bone-jangly seats – I made myself a solemn promise. On return to the UK, I’d get my act together, and achieve a 2:1.

 

One year later, it was mission accomplished.

 

Travel does that, doesn’t it? It provides the gift of perspective. Perhaps perspective is the best reason to just go – and to go anywhere. And it’s from my literal vantage point, as I type, 30,000ft up, zooming away from Tenerife, that I feel confident to write the following.

 

The UK is poorly, not irreversibly sick, not yet on life-support, but we are in desperate need of a reset. Deep down, I think all Brits know this. Naturally, we have much to be proud about; the high net migration figures is sufficient proof that we live in an enviable land. But we are on the decline.

 

……

 

One week earlier, leaving the UK, from Leeds-Bradford airport (which is it: Leeds, or Bradford?), is a traumatising, harrowing experience. A national embarrassment. Twice now, in a matter of months, I have nearly missed my plane due to the unfathomably lengthy queues to get through security. And neither time was I travelling during peak season.

 

This time, with the knowledge that another horrible queue awaited me, I had ummed and ahhed about having special assistance at the airport, for I had been feeling somewhat unsteady on my feet those preceding days. I opted against help. I’d brave it, I thought.

 

Big mistake.

 

Feeling like something that you would scrape off your shoe, standing for 90 mins, with heavy hand luggage, it was tougher than a marathon. And I’ve run two. All around me, patient Brits – and all other nationalities – queued without grumble, for this is the national sport.

 

Conversely, at the far busier airports of The Canary Islands, security and passport control is so speedy that I do not recall the experience. Financially, the longer people wait in queues, the less that they can spend. Intellectually and economically, how can British airport operators justify such a delay? And why should we highlight our incompetence to the world by making travel to the UK so disagreeable?

 

Anyway, after a mad dash to the plane, setting-off over gorgeous, awakening and misty Yorkshire, several – just a few – relentless, small wind turbines, brought me joy. But within an hour, my joy had turned to despair, for we were flying over rural Ireland, which was carpeted by far larger, functioning glorious wind turbines. Why does Ireland get it, but we don’t? Growing up, Ireland was the butt of every joke. But who’s the fool now?

 

Never forget that David Cameron essentially banned onshore wind turbines, and no Tory leader since has changed the policy since (though Truss had covertly planned to do so). Future generations will be rightly furious. I’m enraged now.

 

To compound my misery, arriving in Tenerife, I was greeted by legions of massive turbines, standing proudly, purposefully, environmentally. See: Brits are the odd ones out! Onshore wind is a no-brainer.

 

What’s more, wind turbines and airports aside, in The Canaries I have repeatedly observed that the traffic flows; the hospitals function; ambulances arrive, with the utmost haste; pavements pose no danger; parking is easy and free; the people are warm and polite; the children are driven and respectful (I witnessed a language school in operation); there are public electric charging points, unlike in Harrogate; inflation is lower; life is slower; and the general costs are cheaper. Sure, not everything is better, but this isn’t the world’s 5th largest economy I was travelling in.

 

And what really hammered home the difference between the two countries was a sign outside of a lawyer’s office which stated that the firm closed at 2pm every day! Just imagine that, lawyers.

 

Perhaps the Spanish mainland has the same sort of problems that we have in the UK; I cannot say. Possibly, until recently, the blank canvas provided by The Canaries – for they are volcanic islands – allows for more sensible policies, uncoupled to outdated ways. Perhaps what we need in the UK is a metaphorical volcanic eruption of our own; to let us start over, taking the best bits of the UK and scrapping the worst parts. Perhaps Brexit was that eruption. Only time will tell.

CategoriesInternational AffairsPolitics

Cuban Missile Crisis 2.0

We are living through a more dangerous period than the Cuban Missile Crisis, yet nobody is talking about it.

With Russian ground forces getting pulverised, with its air force still without air superiority, with its navy hiding and with 300,000 poor conscripts mobilsed, Russia is in a jam of its own making. Russia is losing: it is no longer a conventional war threat to NATO countries.

Last week – the same week as Putin road-tested his nuclear capabilities – Russia blamed the United Kingdom for the following:

  • Training the Ukrainians in how to create a dirty bomb.
  • Deploying personnel on the ground in Ukraine, which directed a number of successful drone attacks on the Russian Navy.
  • Blowing up Nord Stream 1.

In addition, in a speech, Putin highlighted Liz Truss’s nuclear sable-rattling during the Tory leadership contest. This is war talk.

In normal times, such allegations would be all that sensible people would be talking about. But we are in a de facto war against a nuclear nation and still people are not talking about how we have become, after Ukraine, target number 2 in the world. Not only are we supplying Ukrainians with weapons, but we are also training tens of thousands of their conscripts here in the UK. It seems to me that we are way beyond just waging a proxy war against Russia.

I am not arguing that our policies are wrong, rather, I am highlighting the fact that we are an increased risk of annhilation and yet this is not what people are talking about. During previous threats of nuclear catastophe, some people stockpiled food and built nuclear shelters.  But why not now?

Before the conflict, Dominic Cummings blogged about the possibility of a nuclear accident triggering a war. He wrote:

“The cumulative probability of disaster grows alarmingly even if you assume a small chance of disaster. For example, a 1% chance of wipeout per year means the probability of wipeout is about 20% within 20 years, about 50% within 70 years, and about two-thirds within a century. Given what we now know it’s reasonable to plan on the basis that the chance of a nuclear accident of some sort leading to mass destruction is at least 1% per year. A 1:30 chance per year means a ~97% chance of wipeout in a century…”

During peace times, we have become accustomed to living with the risk of a nuclear accident wiping out mankind. Oddly, in times of war, it seems that, for most people, the calculus has not altered. I’ll level with you: I am worried, particularly as a Brit living near a US spy base – Britain, island nation, severed from Europe both physically and politically.

With power cuts expected this winter, hospitals in dire straits and with Tory Austerity 2.0 en route, these are the most precarious of times. I can understand why people would want to leave. One perverse crumb of comfort is that, as Putin expects, the difficulties Europe will face in winter might tip the balance towards settlement. Secondly, though nobody noticed, read Sunak’s words about Ukraine as he stood outside Number 10 as Prime Minister:

“…after all the dislocation that caused in the midst of a terrible war that must be seen successfully to its conclusions …”

Now contrast those words with Lizz Truss’s leaving speech regarding Ukraine:

“We must be able to outcompete autocratic regimes, where power lies in the hands of a few. And now more than ever we must support Ukraine in their brave fight against Putin’s aggression. Ukraine must prevail.”

Barely, imperceptibly different, but different in emphasis. Perhaps I am reading too much into it, but my estimation is that Sunak will be less hawkish on Russia and will likely prioritise the economy over Ukraine. If so, hopefully a negotiated settlement can be reached.

Whilst this plays out, I shall remain dismayed that my fellow countryman are disinterested in the risk to us, here in the UK. But As Twain puts it: “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”

CategoriesInternational AffairsPoliticsThought of The DayBusiness

Seven Recent Observations 

  1. On the Budget from Dumb and Dumber

As I highlighted in my penultimate blog, Truss is an ideologue. She doesn’t hide it. Her recent budget was a piece of work: never has a new Prime Minister committed political suicide so quickly. I will, though, defend Truss to some extent.

During the unfathomably and unforgivable leadership campaign, during which we had no functioning Government, despite being mired in crisis, and with Reckless Boris taking two holidays – holidays he could have taken following his jettisoning from office – few people would have noticed that Truss said in an interview that the ideological, swingeing cuts to the State between 2010-2015 carried out by – until this week – the worst Chancellor in British history – George Osbourne – went too far. That is an understatement, but she was right. Those cuts triggered a double-dip recession, a rarity in post-war Britain, because they damaged confidence in the economy (as well as diminishing the State’s massive spending power). I shall award half marks to Truss for understanding half of the lesson from that period and having the guts to say so.

For me, campaigning against those wicked cuts in or around 2010 remains something that I am proud of (though I might have gone too far by making our baby deliver leaflets in the winter).

andrew gray cuts

To her credit, Truss understands that economics – and I studied it – is no science. Truss knows that modern economies, particularly ones built on the service sector and the housing market, react to psychological factors, more than anything else. Hence her misjudged budget of boosterism on steroids.

This was not the time for financial imprudence, as Sunak kept telling the Tory members, but they didn’t listen. Cuts to taxes, particularly to stamp duty, with the hope that this will stimulate our economy, would always be counterproductive if the independent Bank of England had to rapidly increase interest rates to stave-off a run on the pound. This last week has wreaked havoc to the nation’s economic psychology and guarantees an end to Tory rule, with Labour enjoying a massive poll lead, even though they have nothing to say.

Although flawed and damaged goods, at least it was Truss who had to handle the Queen’s passing. My guess is that Reckless Boris’s tenure embarrassed the Queen. It remains fascinating and more than coincidental that she died so quickly after the ejection of Reckless Boris. Classy to the end.

  1. On Dealing With Putins

Having litigated for 17 years, I have learned a thing or two about disputes, particularly about the psychology of a dispute. One memorable and nasty piece of litigation I was involved with, reminds me of the situation facing Ukraine today.

In my case, the Defendant had all the appearances of a smart, sophisticated and logical opponent, but they then made decisions which dumfounded my colleagues and me. As a litigator, we are taught to put ourselves in the position of our opponents, in order to second-guess what moves they will make. In this case, our opponent made illogical and self-defeating moves. Rather than emboldening us, we were left – and still remain – bamboozled. Settlement followed due to the erratic nature of our opponent, despite the weakness of their position. The litigation was hellish but as Robert Louis Stephenson once said: “Compromise is the best and cheapest lawyer.”

Litigation is a form of war – war in a legal context, and with some rules, which are zealously enforced. War, on the contrary, is not really bound by any enforceable law. My view is that the situation for Ukraine is, sadly, unwinnable. The threat of nuclear escalation is real: what might deter a tactical nuclear strike is the prevailing wind. Of course, Russia isn’t going away any time soon and any successor to Putin might be more competent as well as being equally determined to seize Ukrainian land. In international affairs, bullies with nuclear weapons succeed – that is realpolitik.

Absent any new world policeman – which of course is prevented due to the Russian veto on the Security Council – a rapid settlement is urgently needed. Although I have seen not one single report of recent settlement talks, the only signal of a possible settlement is the Truss-Kwarteng budget. If peace is declared, the real – and psychological – world-wide boost, will promote financial growth internationally. In that case, the Truss-Kwartang budget was clever, but premature. (For clarification, absent an immediate ceasefire, the budget was lunacy.)

  1. On Doing Business Deals

From my experience as a lawyer and an entrepreneur, I can tell you that exchanges of emails, or letters, is the worst way of negotiating business deals. If you can, do it in person, when everyone has eaten and had enough sleep. The written word can be poison. The same word spoken always lands more gently and is therefore more conducive to finding agreement.

  1. Thoughts on the Queen

By far the most interesting analysis I have seen on the passing of the Queen was from Professor of Psychology, Jordan Peterson, here. Peterson was delivering a live Q & A when the news of the Queen’s death landed, so he had to think on his feet. To cut a 14-minute monologue short, Peterson’s key point is that the alternative to a constitutional monarchy is an elected Head of State. Peterson said that most people cannot handle the fame of being Head of State, pointing to Donald Trump, who acted like a Tzar. To have one family, albeit a financially hyper-privileged family, carrying the burden of fame and constitutional power, solves many of a nation’s difficulties. I don’t like the idea of a monarchy, but perhaps the alternative is worse.

Peterson’s second point is that there is wisdom baked into our monarchical system. He said that the Queen was able to intimidate the 14 Prime Ministers who served under her – and listening to former PMs talk about her, it seems that Peterson was onto something.

Would I want to live with a President Johnson? No. Would I like to live in a country with an elected President in addition to a Prime Minister? Probably not. Who is the President of Germany? Exactly. On the countless times that this nation was embarrassed internationally by Reckless Boris and now by Truss, at least these two were not our only figureheads.

But would I bow to a Queen or a King? Never. Would you? I should add that I pity the royal family: just imagine having your relative’s funeral televised for billions to see. No thank you very much.

  1. Magic Mushrooms and Philosophy

Someone recently told me of the psychedelic effects of eating the “right” type of mushrooms – mushrooms which grow throughout Yorkshire. For clarity, I don’t support, nor recommend, such actions: it seems dangerous to me, as well as being illegal. The description of the mind-altering “qualities” reminded me of my recent experience of Nietzsche’s key findings (I know this sounds pretentious.)

But I challenge any reader not to be thrown by Nietzsche’s ideas, particularly that of nihilism. Nothing clears my mind better than a batch of Nietzsche – the YouTube videos do a superb job of summarising his work, as his writings are, for me, mostly impenetrable. This quotes sums up his work for me:

“You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.”

Meditate on that if you will: imagine that there is no right way – no right way, of anything, of being, of thinking! All value structures fall away: now that is mind-altering!

  1. On Onshore Wind

Over the last few months, I have become increasingly interested in onshore wind. With the country facing an energy crisis (years in the making), we must remember that it was Cameron’s Government which made onshore wind virtually impossible, due to their draconian planning regs. This point was hammered home by opposition MPs during the recent House of Commons fracking debate.

But what was most interesting about the debate on fracking is that – not once – did Jacob Rees Mogg let on that anything would change in relation to onshore wind, despite the barracking he was taking. Then, the next morning, without fanfare, his department declared that they would permit onshore wind. You couldn’t make it up. At last, commonsense has prevailed.

  1. On Inflation and Crypto

Where has all this inflation come from, people are asking. Simple: although I have seen wildly different figures, between 40-80% of all dollars in circulation in the world – remembering that dollars are the world’s reserve currency – were printed since Covid. Digest that fact.

This printing of money, deployed by most countries in the world, is the main factor behind inflation. High inflation is no surprise. If there is an iron law in economics, then is it that the printing of money will eventually lead to inflation. And when there is inflation, coupled with low interest rates, there is no point putting money in a bank account, hence why people buy assets, which then inflate prices. High inflation post-Covid was obvious.

As an owner – and an advocate – of crypto currencies, my view is that crypto or other digital currencies soon to be deployed by governments, stand to gain significantly from global high inflation. So far, this hasn’t occurred. On the contrary, crypto is down this last 6 months, due to the strength of the dollar, because, in tough times, people buy dollars. But give crypto time.

If inflation remains a global issue, which I suspect that it will, particularly if Ukraine and Russia settle, my ignorant recommendation is to have a portfolio of crypto assets, if only £10 here and there, just to get a feel for how it works.

CategoriesPoliticsThought of The Day

Babysitting: In Liz we Trust?

Today, Truss took on Starmer at PMQs. Across both sides of the aisle, the atmosphere was flat. Evidently, Truss lacks the support of the majority of her MPs. Public speaking is not her forte.

Nerdy, seasoned PMQ-watchers, like me, enjoyed the Blair v Major, Blair v Hague and Starmer v Johnson, for it was often rip-roaring stuff. With Starmer v Johnson it was war, with both men despising the other. (Reportedly, Reckless Boris loathed Starmer because Carrie had been the victim of the Black Cab Rapist and, supposedly, Starmer’s CPS performed a poor job of the rapist’s prosecution).

After Johnson’s approach to PMQs of bluster and deceit, today’s sparring was a welcome relief. Opening, Starmer welcomed Truss to the position. In turn, Truss thanked Starmer for his support on Ukraine: it seemed genuine. A far more decent human being is now in power, for Johnson would have gone on the offensive, attacking Starmer for working under Corbyn. Starmer seemed surprised at her civility.

Starmer’s questions were short and sharp, focusing on one theme: why will the Government not levy a windfall tax on the energy companies, leaving working people to pick up the energy price freeze? Because Tories don’t believe in walloping corporations, replied Truss candidly.

Each Starmer question was met with a straight-forward and ideological response. As a result, PMQs was dull, but instructive. Mendacity and ego has been replaced by an ideologue.

Of course, I refused to watch any of the Tory leadership debates and avoided reports of the various spats, for the entire process lays bare our broken constitution, which clever Johnson frequently exploited. Even Putin today commented on our democratic deficit. With Truss’s break with Johnson’s policies on National Insurance and on Corporation Tax, the fact that 99.5% of the British people had no say in her elevation, any competent Leader of the Opposition would have proposed a new constitutional settlement: but Starmer has nothing of note to offer.

Truss has crystal clear Tory orthodoxy as her North Star. Starmer’s North Star – that of not being Reckless Boris – has left him directionless, hamstrung, lost. He needs some ideas.

In his autobiography Tony Blair wrote about his “country test” to see if a country was any good: if people are fleeing a country, then that is a bad country; if people want to come to a country, then the target country is a good one.

For Prime Ministers, I propose the babysitting test, which admittedly is a rather low bar: would you leave your children for the night with [insert name of possible Prime Minister]? For me, it is a resounding “yes” for both Starmer and Truss as babysitters. No sensible parent would have left their kids with Boris – not for any sinister reasons – but because he couldn’t be trusted to ensure that the children would be in the house by the end of the night. Although Reckless Boris had some positive policy positions, I am relieved that the most morally unfit MP no longer occupies Number Ten.

 

CategoriesHealthPoliticsHarrogateThought of The Day

UFOs, Covid deaths and Poverty

Partygate, the despot-like re-writing of the Ministerial Code, Russian aggression and energy price hikes, all dominate the British news. Remember Covid? Well, Covid news has been – thankfully – consigned to the dustbin of history. But what ought to be on everyone’s lips is the US Congressional Hearing into UFOs.

Only 90 minutes of the hearing was held in public, but during this time, those of us who bothered to engage with it learned that, in simple terms, the US Government believes that UFOs are real. Sure, the Pentagon officials under questioning did not categorically say “UFOs exist”, however, they could not say what else the numerous UFO sightings could be. These officials stated that US pilots have been reluctant to make reports of UFOs for fear of looking foolish. Just imagine if all pilots, not just in the US military, felt able to make such reports – then how many incidents would need investigation.

In a rational world, the confirmation of UFOs ought to be a cause for great intellectual debate, but it isn’t. Social media, coffee shops, workplaces and anywhere else where conversation takes place, would, in a world populated by rational humans, be awash with talk about UFOs. For a start, all religious belief and history would be in need of reappraisal.

It seems to me that, we, as a species, cannot countenance the admission of something which, in its acceptance, would mean that we have to reconfigure of all our hitherto-held views. We are unable to process this information. So, we shut our minds to the facts. Ignorance is bliss. Let’s hope that aliens do not share the human desire to colonise others.

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But, what do UFOs have to do with Covid? Let me explain.

Only political nerds like me follow Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. Several months ago, one such request – not made by me, I should add – piqued my interest. A wily individual asked Harrogate Borough Council to set out the number of deaths, each year, from 2015 to 2021, split between cremations and burials.

Now before you scroll down, I challenge you to affix, in your head, answers to the following questions. I have asked the below questions to a number of intelligent people, none of whom came even remotely close to accurately guessing the answer to question 3.

  1. In Harrogate, do you think that deaths are broadly even for the years before Covid – 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019?
  2. What, if any, impact did Covid have to deaths in 2020? Up or down, and by what percentage?
  3. Then, with those guesses fixed, ask yourself: what happened to deaths in Harrogate in 2021?

The following is the data provided by Harrogate Borough Council.

Year               Cremation                                 Burial

2015 1580 171
2016 1581 137
2017 1609 184
2018 1640 145
2019 1543 175
2020 1890 155
2021 512 47

 

Is that what you expected, particularly for 2021? I very much doubt it.

If, like me, and like everyone I have previously asked this question to, you didn’t foresee that the average deaths fell in 2021 by 68% from pre-Covid levels of an average of 1,753 people per year to just 559, then why were we all so wrong? At the time of writing, circa 75% of the population have had Covid. If Covid was so potent (which it was in 2020), why are more people alive today in Harrogate than there ought to be, given the number of people who have had it? Covid is still here: a number of my colleagues have recently had it and it was nasty and long-lasting.

Evidently, Covid was a massive threat in 2020, increasing the number of deaths in Harrogate by 14% (an extra 300 deaths). But, astonishingly, deaths then fell by 1,194 in 2021, which means – bizarrely – that Covid has saved lives in Harrogate. I struggled to write the previous sentence, but I must be led by the evidence.

The reasons behind these surprising stats must be multifactorial and should be forensically interrogated. What did Harrogate do right? Or was this just a case of wealthier, greener areas faring better than other places?

Most people confronted with this evidence usually retort, with: “The reduction in deaths must be down to the reduction in road traffic accidents.” Not an unreasonable suggestion, but an inaccurate assertion predicated on a miscalculation of the number of road traffic deaths per year. Pre-covid, circa 1800 people were killed on the roads in the UK, each year. Covid reduced these deaths by around 11%. By my estimations, Covid might have saved the lives of circa 6 people in the Harrogate area who, in normal times, would have died on the roads. This does not explain why more people are alive in Harrogate thanks to Covid.

Frequent readers of my blog will know that I was and remain fiercely critical of the Government for its slow response to the pandemic. As Dominic Cummings has stated, our Government’s clear and obvious early errors killed thousands of people. But deaths from Covid, based on Harrogate data, appears to have petered out much before vaccines were rolled out. Certainly, Covid is frequently a very unpleasant illness, with Long Covid having many similarities with my maladies. However, unless you broadly guessed the death figures for 2021, you must admit that you have been hoodwinked, when considering the Harrogate case.

Given that nobody I had spoken to was aware of these facts, I sent the story to two local news outlets. One editor published the story and the second did not. The second editor thought that this data – and its concomitant questions it raises – wasn’t newsworthy, much to my disbelief. The first editor, who ran the story, subsequently told me that this was one of the least read stories that the publication had had!

Like with UFOs, perhaps people don’t want to face facts. We simply cannot countenance re-evaluating everything that we thought we were sure of. But as Karl Marx once replied, when asked what his favourite maxim was, he said, “Question everything”.

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So shocked I was by Harrogate’s figures that I decided to FOI Blackburn and Salford councils, given my connection to the areas and given that their populations significantly differ from Harrogate – ethnically, socially and economically. Here are their figures:

Blackburn

 

Year 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021
Cremations 1217 1250 1238 1298 1,260
Burials 382 387 396 536 511

 

Pre-Covid, Blackburn saw an average of 1,623 deaths per year. The first year of Covid saw – similar to Harrogate – an increase of deaths by 13% (Harrogate was at 14%). However, unlike in Harrogate, deaths in 2021 were 9% above pre-Covid levels: a significantly different direction of travel to that of Harrogate. Covid has been lethal in Blackburn.

 

Salford

 

Cremations

Number

2017 1824
2018 1746
2019 1742
2020 2183
2021 1800

 

Full Burials
2017 276
2018 285
2019 261
2020 325
2021 278

 

Pre-Covid, Salford saw an average of 2,045 deaths per year. In 2020, deaths increased by a whopping 22.7%, with an additional 463 deaths. Undeniably, Covid was very dangerous to the population of Salford in 2020.

In 2021, there was an increase in deaths on pre-Covid levels of 22 poor souls, up 1.6% on pre-Covid levels. As with Salford, the pattern in Blackburn was markedly different from the Harrogate experience.

My thesis is that these figures speak to the general lower life expectancies in poorer areas. Nothing new in that analysis, of course. Assuming that we as a country find these stark differences unacceptable, surely to even-up life expectancies (including between men and women, with women living on average 4 years more) ought to be central to our national conversation, but it isn’t. Rational aliens have nothing to fear from us.

 

CategoriesInternational AffairsPolitics

Ukraine

Like many people, these last few weeks, I have been glued to the news regarding Russia’s appalling invasion of Ukraine. I have read and watched vast amounts about the conflict in the hope that I could form a sensible view. My experience as a Burma campaigner taught me to be sceptical of popular opinion – opinion usually based on scant knowledge of the subject.

On Twitter, I have seen hundreds of smashed and deserted Russian tanks, armoured personnel carriers, artillery pieces, land rovers and logistics vehicles. I have seen circa one hundred captured Russians, mostly conscripts, and, sadly, seen dozens of dead Russian soldiers and slain civilians. I have watched Russian planes and helicopters be shot down. I have seen Russian cruise missiles fly overhead and watched Russian cluster munitions land in residential zones. The “pornography of war” available for those who seek it, all consumed on my phone.

Furthermore, I have watched some right-wing US pundits applaud Putin – reminding their audience that Biden’s son was caught up in some sort of scandal in Ukraine. I have listened to Democrats remind us that Trump’s impeachment centred on a call to the Ukrainian president.

Like many caring British people, I have been appalled by our Government’s shameful attitude to refugees. Our European friends have taken 2.6m, whereas we have taken – reluctantly – a few thousand. Even Ireland has taken 5,000.

I have watched most news channels show their audience how the Ukrainians are creating stockpiles of Molotov cocktails, and I have seen some be thrown on Russian vehicles to deadly effect. I think of how most media outlets treat the wars in Yemen and between Israel and Palestine, and note the double standards.

Today, our family signed up to offer our spare room to a Ukrainian family. We would have signed up yesterday, but the website crashed. Sadly, I have little confidence that the Government will accept our offer, or the offers of the other thousands of people.

My personal analysis of these last few weeks:

  1. The background to the conflict goes back decades and is complex. The West, NATO, EU and Ukrainians have all contributed to the state of affairs: however, as complex as it is, I believe that this is a conflict that demands that sides are taken. And I side with Ukraine. In my lifetime, this is a resistance which satisfies all the criteria of the Just War doctrine. I see parallels with why George Orwell fought fascism in Spain in the 1930s (and nearly died).
  2. The response from the West, including the reportage, makes it clear just how racist most of us are, and that how – we humans – are content with the mental contortions of double standards. I ask myself: would our family have signed up to host an Afghan family, in the way that we have volunteered to house a Ukrainian family? The question was never asked, but I don’t know that we would have done. I am ashamed to write that sentence. I need to interrogate this thought.
  3. It can come as no surprise to watchers of this Government that they did not foresee the risk of a humanitarian disaster, even though they had been predicting an invasion for some months. And it comes as no surprise that the Government’s instincts towards Ukrainian refugees was inhuman, bureaucratic and at times patently dishonest. Their instincts and ability to govern – the two key areas of competency for any government – are not fit for office.
  4. The Russian armed forces, though numerous and though fighting in their backyard, are largely clueless, lacking in professionalism and leadership; devoid of ethics; ill-equipped, with poorly maintained equipment; lacking in logistical support, air support and modern communications; and their soldiers lack the will to fight, given that they have been misled.
  5. We, in the UK, are at war, just not a kinetic one. These days, war is fought through economic policy, cyber attacks and good, old-fashioned supplying your enemy’s enemy with weaponry. I doubt that most British people are aware that we are waging war. We are, so expect a Russian response.
  6. The Russians offered settlement last week, yet few outlets properly reported it and its terms are not being discussed. Very simply, Russia demanded recognition of Crimea as Russian; recognition that Donbas and Luhansk are independent states; and amendments to the Ukrainian constitution to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO and the EU. From where I am sitting, this offer ought to be accepted. The lack of attention on this settlement proposal should give us all pause for thought: who benefits from the continuation of this war?
  7. Putin has gravely miscalculated the response from the West and over-estimated the capabilities of his forces. It is doubtful that he is receiving accurate information. I suspect that his health is in serious decline.

I have no idea what might come next.

CategoriesPoliticsHarrogate

Harrogate District Consensus launches

It has taken me a lifetime to come to the point where I have this week (though I feel dreadful) launched www.HarrogateDistrictConsensus.org.

A Tory at school, then in Labour, with a one-year stint with the Lib Dems, with a dalliance with Change UK, I feel unusually placed to launch this political tool. Other than fascists, I admire all people who engage in politics, particularly those who stand for election, of all stripes. Giving your time and experience to matters political is an altruistic pursuit: to want to help people you will never meet – who will never thank you – is humanity at its finest.

Inevitably, technology will begin to play a role in our democracy. We must test the available technology. The Harrogate District Consensus uses Polis: I didn’t create this awesome technology. Polis was created by the wonderful people at the Computational Democracy Project in Seattle. Polis will improve and perhaps other technology will supplant it.

The granular polling data which Polis produces will assist all decision-makers, officers and candidates in advance of May’s important elections.

For posterity, here are some of the news reports written about HDC by the local democracy reporter, Jacob Webster:

https://www.harrogateadvertiser.co.uk/news/politics/the-new-anonymous-voting-tool-to-find-harrogates-consensus-on-key-issues-3590895

The new anonymous voting tool to find Harrogate’s consensus on key issues

CategoriesEnvironmentPoliticsBusiness

The Crowd Wisdom Project

Welcome to the world: The Crowd Wisdom Project!

 

Spawned from my passion for, and frustration with, standard party politics, particularly local party politics, 2022 sees me launch the CWP. Founded as a birthday present to myself in 2020, had my health not been so topsy-turvy in 2021, CWP would have launched six months ago.

 

CWP springs from my prediction (which must be a borderline future fact) that the way we vote today – with a pencil and paper in a voting booth – will modernise. With bank branches closing, so that most people – regardless of age – now do their banking online, voting – the last vestiges of a bygone era – will – must! – change.

 

The recent election for the Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner in North Yorkshire witnessed a shameful 13.5% turnout. The victor – who remains a councillor twice over AS WELL AS BEING the Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner – secured circa 3.5% of the possible votes. This is not a mandate: this is a stain on our democracy.

 

My hope for the CWP is that, in a small way, CWP nudges us towards a fairer, more consensual system of decision-making.

 

So, what is the Crowd Wisdom Project?

 

CWP – run through the not-for-profit company, Consensus Politics Limited (by guarantee, not by shares), uses open source, copylefted machine-learning technology – Polis – to run online conversations. These facilitated conversations are living, breathing, thinking affairs, unlike all other survey tools before it. Polis has been used to seismic effect in Taiwan, revolutionising their decision-making, whilst quelling antagonism. (Taiwan certainly has much to teach us about responding to a pandemic.)

 

Polis was created by some altruistic geniuses at the Computational Democracy Project in Seattle, led by Colin Megill. My hope is that I contribute to the development of, and awareness of, Polis – a tool of enormous potential.

 

Polis allows all voters to anonymously suggest statements and for all voters to vote on all statements. Polis then finds the consensus points and the cohorts within a group of people. Polis allows shy people (like me, believe it or not) to ventilate their thoughts. Social media works by pouring petrol onto disputes: whereas Polis is interested in the best ideas, not the ideas most shouted about.

 

When a Polis conversation is over, transparent organisations send the detailed reports to the voters. Of course, organisations don’t need to adhere to the discovered consensus points, but if they do, they know that the issue has been fully explored and that the best ideas have come to the fore.

 

With CWP, I offer my time, expertise and resources to environmental groups – at zero cost to them – to help them to find the best ideas and help build consensus, and compromises, around these positions. With New Year’s Day being the hottest on record, I fear that this limited effort is too little, too late. To save the planet we all need to make dramatic compromises in how we live: Polis could help us to find those compromises.

 

CWP will also help community groups at the half the cost we charge businesses (business being charged £150 per Polis). For business, as I have found with my law firm, anonymous Polis conversations work very well for navigating tricky issues such as Covid risks, as well as for planning for future business strategy. I also believe that Polis’ anonymous modus operandi could work well for improving the mental health of a workplace.

 

I have always been obsessed with the power of good ideas: what CWP does best is to unearth the finest ideas. Humans have it within us to solve all human-caused problems. With my health uncertain (and isn’t this so for us all?), I want to be as potent as I can be in 2022. Wish me luck!

And if you know of any business, environmental group, community group or political group who are brave enough to try the very best of technology, please give them my details.

 

CategoriesHealthPoliticsHarrogate

Tory Contenders and Covid Deaths

Reflecting on the shameful vote this week by the majority of Tory MPs to support disgraced Tory MP Owen Paterson, and then for the Government’s immediate volte-face, my sense is that a potential challenger to Reckless Boris will soon break cover.

It is noteworthy that 109 Tory MPs didn’t vote for the Andrea Leadsom’s Putin-esque amendment (including Harrogate’s Andrew Jones and Ripon’s Julian Smith), with six Tory MPs voting against. Of the six, my analysis is that only Mark Harper MP is a potential challenger to Reckless Boris.

Harper previously stood for leader and has been critical of lockdowns. Candidly, I have not heard any chatter of Harper standing, but in most parties there is usually someone waiting in the wings for their moment to usurp their leader and this is such a potential moment. Thatcher had Heseltine, Major had Redwood, Blair had Brown, Cameron and May had Reckless Boris. But who challenges Boris?

If not Mark Harper, then Skipton and Ripon’s, Julian Smith MP – who took the unusual decision to demand the resignation of Phil Allott – is an unlikely, but potential, contender. He may trigger a leadership race so that others break cover.

My reading of him is that he is an honourable MP who is embarrassed by the Tories – yet again – descent into sleaze. By most accounts, Smith is meant to be a safe pair of hands, as judged by his time as Northern Ireland Secretary. In addition, Smith is unassailable in his constituency. By attacking Reckless Boris, with Brexit done, Smith is unlikely to suffer censure by his local Conservative Association, for the people in this area – particularly in Skipton, home to Skipton Building Society – abhor financial impropriety.

Watch this space.

…………………………………………………………………….

Out of the 830,000 people estimated to be living in North Yorkshire, according to figures collated by the North Yorkshire Outbreak Management Advisory Board, since Covid arrived in February 2020 there have been 559 excess deaths. According to Public Health England, in the same period, there have been 1,227 deaths where Covid was mentioned on the death certificate. Most deaths occurred during the first and second peaks.

Working on the assumption that dozens of deaths would have occurred indirectly because of Covid – for example, because people didn’t summon an ambulance for fear of catching Covid in hospital, and then dying at home; or because cancers went undetected – my educated guess is that around 400 residents of North Yorkshire sadly perished directly due to Covid.

There are 634 days between 1 February 2020 and 31 October 2021. Circa 400 deaths, in 634 days, for an above average-aged population, in a fairly prosperous and spaced-out population. Dreadful, but if you ask residents of this area, as I have done, what their own estimates of deaths in this area is, most likely you will get estimates into the thousands. In my social circle, the highest estimate I have heard was 10,000. Now that, if correct, would be rightly terrifying.

Each death, each Long Covid survivor, is tragic. But the figures, dispassionately analysed, are a cause for optimism. With our vaccines and boosters, armed with our knowledge and experience of this virus, though we must be cautious, though we must crush all new variants, we must enjoy life again.