Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The "Not the Official Target" List

Opinions in the party seem to run the whole gamut from "we're all doomed" to a quiet optimism that we shall hold most of our existing seats, with Lord Ashcroft's polling suggesting our MPs score highest on esteem from constituents, which has to help in engendering the "incumbent factor".

I have spent some time gazing at the target list (created by Andy JS) lately and wondering a few questions.

The first question is what this list looked like in 2009...? Obviously some of these seats weren't on that list because we held them! And some that were not necessarily our top targets were won...

This list is predicated by swing needed to win and merely for reasons of shifting demographics and rising or falling of branch numbers (and councillor numbers) we shall have more or less oomph in some of these places than we did last time. I have written before about the intriguing decision to make Newbury (which we held until 2001) a target seat. You have to look farther down the list to find this seat than one would normally for a target, I still don't get it..

In any case, most of the Labour seats near the top of the list would seem to be out of reach. This tempted me to ponder my own target list.. what we need to achieve this outcome is some more economic recovery, UKIP fading a little (but not too much), some Labour infighting, and more airspace between us and the Tories. All of that is eminently doable or guaranteed (Labour infighting, in particular). Nick C has started to steer the supertanker more to the centre left. Now we need to pad out our policy offering and make our ministers look like they make a difference.

I thought I might cast my bread upon the water and list my winnable seats out of this target list:

1. Camborne & Redruth
3. Oxwab
5. Ashfield
7. Truro & Falmouth
8. Newton Abbott
13. Harrogate & Knaresborough
16. Montgomeryshire
20. Weston super Mare
21. Hereford & Herefordshire South
22. Devon West & Torridge
23. Winchester
25. Cornwall South East
29. Richmond Park
38. Romsey & Southampton North

I would welcome challenges on these and also some suggestions on other "less than obvious" winnable seats and why.... let the battle begin..

Breaking the Banks - Williams & Glyn's Bank and TSB

I wrote some time back about the policies that are occurring sotto voce on the watch of Vince Cable of firstly liberating the TSB from the dead hand of Lloyds Bank and now the imminent recreation of Williams & Glyn's Bank out of the smoking ruins of RBS, the once great Royal Bank of Scotland. This admirable trend raises two questions. The first is why is Vince Cable being so coy about this trend (dare we call it a policy?) and the second question is why not more (and what next)? 

The obvious next target would be liberating the once great NatWest from RBS's deathlike grip. 

I spoke of the TSB development back when it first launched. It had some teething problems but seems to be puttering along.

Now its the turn of the Williams & Glyn's construct to go down the launch ramp. Originally the plan was for 318 branches of RBS to go into this spinout. That was to be made up of 311 RBS branches in England (supposedly focused on the Northwest) and seven Scottish branches of NatWest. The most recent number being touted is 314 branches. I have not been able to find a list of these branches to identify how regional this bank will really be but its head office will be in Manchester. There have been vague mutterings of the new bank aiming to service small business.  It will have a 5% share in the SME market, and 2% of the current account market. After the recent revelations of RBS's predatory attitude to small business the separation will be timely indeed. 

In way of some background we would note that  Williams & Glyn’s was created in 1970 when RBS merged its two subsidiaries Williams Deacon’s Bank in England and Glyn Mills & Co in Scotland. In 1985 Williams & Glyn’s was absorbed into RBS fully. RBS, which is currently 81% taxpayer-owned, was forced to put the branches up for sale in order to comply with European rules around its 2008 government bailout. In reality the RBS structure should never have been allowed to be put together in the first place. A need for a an anti-trust rule in banking is clearly an issue that Vince Cable should be voicing more concern on. If he won't then I hereby offer the suggestion that the LibDems need an anti-concentration policy in banking and should bring it in as soon as possible. 

The business to be hived off into the new entity had total assets of £19.7 billion, customer deposits of £22.2 billion and risk-weighted assets of £13.3 billion, as at 30 June 2013. It generated an operating profit of £168 million during the first half of 2013, providing a post-tax return on period end notional equity of ~16%. A key point to note is that 4,500 employees are moving over to the new structure and the full complement will be 6,000 when a new head office is instated with all the bells and whistles (forex desk, money market desk, IT etc) that go with a full-service bank. 

The new owners of this entity were announced in September of this year after a bidding process of fluctuating intensity with various suitors (notably Santander) popping up then disappearing. The winning bid was put in by consortium of Centerbridge Partners, Lord Jacob Rothschild’s RIT Capital Partners  and Corsair Capital, whose chairman is former Standard Chartered head Mervyn Davies, and includes the Commissioners of the Church of England.  Standard Life is also in talks to join the group, along with a number of other domestic and overseas investors.

The business will be run by chief executive John Maltby, Lloyds former commercial banking chief, alongside chairman Philip Green, the former chief executive of United Utilities. Lord Davies, the former trade minister who is vice-chairman of Corsair, will be a non-executive director.

While it is being styled as a spinout in fact the separation is only a technical splitting out of a business division in the short-term. The Corsair consortium will run the Williams & Glyn’s business with RBS, preparing its technology platform, separating accounts, and rebranding the unit. The pair must also establish a new trading company, and acquire a banking licence. It will be run as a division of RBS until separation. This will be engineered through  the new bank floating on the London Stock Exchange in late 2015. 
The Church of England's First Commissioner Andreas Whittam Smith said the new bank would uphold “the highest ethical standards”. That would be a welcome change! 
The funding of the new entity  deserves some attention as a potential model for further dissection of the RBS remnants. The new bank will receive a £600 million investment through a bond issue, which will be fully subscribed, with the consortium paying £330 million in cash and the RBS markets division putting up a further £270 million. If you think RBS are selling out (yet) you are mistaken for RBS, will retain a significant minority investment in Williams & Glyn’s, of no more than 49% at the point of IPO. In essence, the consortium will act as a major cornerstone investor ahead of the eventual float.

On top of the £600m, the investors have agreed to pay up to an additional £200m dependent up
on Williams & Glyn’s share price performance in the 18 months following the IPO. The performance top-up of £200m will help fend off complaints of the government (and its factotum, RBS) of having sold too soon. 

Hopefully if all goes to plan the proceeds of selling part of the RBS stake at the IPO and later, will flow back into RBS and hopefully ameliorate the taxpayer's misery with these leftovers of Labour's flirtation with the City's worst elements.

Well may we ask as LibDems though as to what assurances there will be that W&G shares, TSB shares, the final tranches of Lloyds' shares and hopefully NatWest shares (and RBS shares many years into the never-never) will be prioritised for distribution to the public (a la Maggie Thatcher, dare I say it) instead of clients of Goldman Sachs (a la Vince Cable, dare I say it)?

And what is our policy on forcing RBS to divest NatWest? Such a disgorgement (love that word when it comes to miscreant banks) is only right and fitting in putting RBS back into its rightful perspective and getting the payback for the public in this lifetime rather than that of some future government. Vince is doing good stuff (except when he tarries with the Vampire Squid) and yet is seemingly a shrinking violet when it comes to trumpeting such moves and the LibDem role in expediting them.  


Sunday, 24 November 2013

The March to a Deal with Iran Began on 30th of August

We awake today to find a deal done with Iran. The train of events that led to this began on the 30th of August with the defeat of the motion for bombing of Syria toute de suite by Obama, Cameron and, alas, Nick Clegg and Paddy Ashdown.

At the moment the party seems to be intellectually divorcing the virtuous turn of events from the actions of those of our MPs who voted with the Tories to start flinging bombs.

Make no mistake, there is absolutely NO WAY that the accord with Iran could have been achieved without the failure of Cameron's motion. The bombs would have started flying and the fuel would have been thrown on the Sunni-Shia (Alawite) divide that is at the root of so much Middle East misery. After being suckered by Blair (and Bush) into the Iraqi adventure (which our party fortunately and wisely eschewed) it was greatly disappointing that we had any truck with the "bomb first" faction just ten years later. 

At the time of the "failure" of the vote various pundits spoke of the irrelevance of Britain. They could not have been more wrong. It was by what we did not do that the chain reaction led to a deal with Iran. 

The danger in our party not having a foreign policy any more is that it can be more easily railroaded into "coalitions of the willing". It's time for foreign policy to become a subject of lively debate, even in off-off-conference smoky rooms, where the leadership never deign to visit.

Remember if you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything...

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Naval Intelligence Redux - Room 39 Reborn

While rummaging around collecting research on the Naval Intelligence Division (NID) I stumbled upon an intriguing article on a website called FutureIntelligence.co.uk. Maybe I am just out of the loop but it was news to me even though the contents were over three years old. Traditionally Room 39 was the euphemisim for NID when it was located at the room of that number at Admiralty House on Whitehall.

Not unsurprisingly the government didn't want to trumpet the development as it was a de facto recognition that an action taken as long ago as 1965 had seriously compromised the Royal Navy's ability to operate safely. In effect, naval intelligence had been compromised.

The article revealed that the Naval Intelligence Department was being brought back to life. While the article goes on with the light hearted spin that the NID was the stamping ground of Ian Fleming during the Second World War. it carries with it a message that essentially the decision to merge the NID with other services' intelligence units had been a mistake. As I have written elsewhere, it was not the least of the mistakes made at that time as pertains to the Royal Navy. In that piece I advocated the re-establishment of a separate Naval Intelligence Division and locating it in Gosport, a traditional Navy town.

The NID was scrapped in 1965,  when it became part of the Unified Defence Staff. The article in Future Intelligence cited insiders saying the reason for Naval Intelligence’s revival was a result of a number of embarrassing incidents in the Gulf culminating in the seizure of 15 naval personnel by Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the Shatt Al-Arab waterway in March 2007 that first shook the Royal Navy and have now stirred them into action.

During the incident a party of sailors and marines searching a suspicious ship were detained by eight Iranian boats. The British party had got back on board their boats when the Iranians approached.

The article then cites a source as saying "It’s become pretty clear that some intelligence has to be circulated about conditions on the ground in certain places and that policy has to be looked at again in some areas.”

“The current orders to deal with an incident like that in 2007 still tell naval personnel to re-embark vulnerable craft like the open topped inflatables used to board that ship. It makes much more sense for them to stay behind the safety of bits of metal and wood.”

The source added that it would be the job of Naval Intelligence to also collect information on the likelihood of hostilities and the potential tactics used. It seems surprising that it took 45 years to realise that the merged intelligence division was not up to snuff. Moreover with my suspicious mind working I wonder just how much of the intelligence the Unified Defence Staff were working with was "Garbage in, Garbage out" with a strong element of US input (and dare I say it, control) when the US has been scarcely a paragon of military intelligence over the intervening decades. USS Cole anyone?

Recently I have been reading a thesis by Anthony Roland Wells, entitled STUDIES IN BRITISH NAVAL INTELLIGENCE, 1880 - 1945, University of Durham, the author of which subsequently became a Royal Navy Officer before going over to the US side. In summing up the between the wars situation he says: "The decline of naval intelligence was symptomatic of the lack of direction in several areas of British Defence thinking from 1919 to 1939."

He goes on to comment: "Where the N.I.D. should have shone during the inter-war period was as the main adviser to the Naval Staff, and through them
to the Board, the C.I.D., and thence the government of the day, since in theory it was the only repository of data and the independent and objective commentator, and if need be, critic of and for naval policy. This was not to be. Hence many of the decisions made at all these levels, were often based on little or no sound data, untested hypotheses, and inaccurately analysed findings of past naval actions, some of which were irrelevant to the present, and certainly the future..."

Essentially the inter-war lessons were not learnt and not only was NID sidelined, but it was in fact extinguished. 

That is until now...

Future Intelligence also reported that a spokeswoman from the MoD denied that the re-emergence of Naval Intelligence had been caused by any particular incidents but that it had happened because of an awareness of an increased need.

The spokeswoman confirmed "that 30 extra officers would not (now?) be joining the Joint Naval HQ Northwood".

“It will be headed by a Captain RN based at the Joint HQ at Northwood, Middlesex, and accountable to C-in-C Fleet through Commander Operations. The name of the Captain is yet to be announced.”

What this whole incident reinforces is that Naval Intelligence was the baby thrown out with the bathwater in 1965 (by Labour) and that decades of Labour and Tory governments kept the Royal Navy blinkered on the intelligence front in the interests of some unknown agenda (Atlanticism?). Additionally the Navy headquarters should NOT be at Northwood anyway.

I reiterate again the Royal Navy is too important to be left in the hands of feckless and negligent Labour and Tory ministers in the future, as it has been in the past, and that the Liberal Democrats should demand the re-establishment of the Admiralty and have a LibDem MP appointed as Minister (indeed First Lord of the Admiralty). 

Monday, 18 November 2013

Picking up the Tab for a New Britannia - Gladly

In my launch piece on Royal Navy policy I threw out a comment on building a new Britannia that I left danging for future elaboration. In some ways me tossing a new royal yacht into a Royal Navy policy is not entirely accurate for whomever in British industry or diplomacy that has ever been involved with the vessel in its glory days knows the Britannia was much more that a floating hotel suite to keep the royals out of the grotty local hostelries. It was in fact a veritable one-vessel marketing armada that burst through more trade barriers than any of the privateers that nation encouraged to prowl the high seas during the post-war decades.

The chairman of the company of which I am the CEO used to be a mining executive in Ghana during the 1980s and 1990s and commented to me that the biggest impact that was made locally by the British on trade and influence always seemed to emanate from the arrival of Britannia in Accra where an invite on board was "to die for" in local business and political circles. These anecdotes about around the world.

It is also no surprise that it is industrial and trade interest groups that would like to see a new Britannia sailing the waterways of countries where we wish to make trade or diplomatic inroads far more than royalists pining over a departed manifestation of imperial might. For these reasons the debate on whether the Royal Navy or the Royal Household budget should be funding a replacement is moot because it should really be DTI leading the charge and footing the bill for the new vessel. Moreover the new vessel should be built at the Portsmouth shipyard as the first vessel to go down the slipway under renationalised ownership.

In way of some background we should refresh that the demise of the vessel (or rather of its replacement) was an example of Tory inaction and Labour parsimony. Britannia was obviously not cool enough for Tony Blair as he could not park it and his ego in the White House rose garden where he felt his destiny belonged. 

In 1997, John Major's Conservative government committed itself to replacing the Royal Yacht if re-elected, while the Labour Party declined to disclose its plans for the vessel. Following Labour's victory on 1 May 1997 it was announced that the vessel would be retired and no replacement would be built. The Conservative government argued that the cost of the vessel was justified by its role in foreign policy and promoting British interests abroad, particularly through conferences held by British Invisibles. When cancelling the replacement of the vessel, the new Labour government argued that the expenditure could not be justified given the other pressures on the defence budget (from which it would be funded and maintained). Proposals for the construction of a new royal yacht, perhaps financed through a loan or by the Sovereign's own funds, have since made little headway.

Schemes since that time to revive the project have fallen foul of small-mindedness, leaks, anti-Royal Family sentiment (which wasn't doing so well in the wake of Diana) and the feeling that the Queen was not as steady on her sea-legs as she had formerly been. The small-mindedness comes with the UK political territory but the arguments about the Queen no longer wanting to be a sea-dog fly in the face of the new generation(s) appearing on the scene and the fact that the boat can have other, more important, uses than mere accommodation. The Britannia was a unique selling tool.

At this time when bogus arguments for shuttering Portsmouth's shipyard are being trafficked around, it would be a very neat solution for our party to enunciate a policy (with strict cost controls) of a new Britannia built at Portsmouth. Industry could help with the cost or moreover, as it will be a floating showcase, provide furnishings, carpeting and fittings that display the "Best of British" in arts, crafts and technology. This would go down REALLY well in Portsmouth and across a swathe of the country where we have Tory-facing challenges in 2015 as well as being well-viewed in British industry. 

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Getting left with the tab at Kool Britannia

I was pondering the other day a good simile for the mess that Tony Blair, Gordon Brown et al. left for us to clean up in 2010. There is a conceit to the current Labour efforts to distance themselves from the whole panoply of buzz and spin that emanated from the collection of sleazeballs that surrounded Number 10 in that period.

The one that particularly grates for me is Cool Britannia (or should I spell "Cool" with a "K"?).

The whole concept reminded me of the type of night out one encountered in one's twenties when one of a gang of friend's would suggest going out to a new eating spot.. which for the sake of argument we shall call Soho's latest hotspot, Kool Britannia. This new  place has a celebrity chef and is cutting edge and we are all told the evening out can be done within our usual cheap and cheerful budget.

We arrive, the background music is good... the food tastes fine.. the decor is funky and cutting edge.. the people in the line outside "ooh" and "ahh" at our good fortune to have been able to get into this "must have" destination. Sometime around dessert time, the member of the group that suggested the place, lets call him Tony for the sake of simplicity, announces he has another date and has to dash.. Tony's a cool guy.. bit of a minor public school twit.. but he bathes in the reflected glory of his American millionaire friend, George and always get his friends into the coolest places...

So Tony does some quick maths in his head. Takes the cost of an average dish on the menu, guesstimates the wine bill (divided by thirteen) and throws down his share and departs. His Scottish friend (we all know how canny they are with cash), who we will call Gordon, is delegated to work out the bill when the rest of the group finish up the meal. Tony of course forgot to factor in that he had had the lobster main course... while everyone had pasta... but as pasta was below the average dish price this should "all net out". Tony also forgot to factor in the service charge/cover/tip. He's a busy man so we should excuse him his forgetfulness..

Then the fights begin. Several want to shave the tip to make up for Tony's shortfall. Others don't have enough cash to make up their share. The restaurant doesn't want to accept credit cards or breakup the bill. Gordon ends up telling the rest of the group they have to pay a lot more than they have ever had to pay before on a night out with Tony and his ilk. 

The group disperses into the night grumbling about Kool Britannia being a clip joint, Tony being a sponger and Gordon being not as good with money as had long been rumoured. Understandably, none of the disenchanted group will ever go to Kool Britannia ever again. They swear to give Tony a bollocking the next time they see him but his mobile is now disconnected and rumour has it he is selling snake oil nostrums in the US. Even George doesn't talk to him anymore, as he is hiding from his own friends that feel he bilked them.  

Despite the thronging crowds at the launch, the enthusiasm has waned fast, Kool Britannia has gone into receivership owing a heap of cash to some buddy of Tony's who works at Royal Bank of Scotland.  

Tony had a friend called David, who also apparently is now selling snake oil in New York. David had a brother called Ed, a feisty little chap who talked a good game, but was always that annoying younger brother type. He keeps calling the group trying to tout some new eatery he has a stake in... probably best to put him straight to voicemail. 

Ah well, we live and learn...

Syria Policy - An Alternative Policy to Simplistic Bombing

The party's leadership were all too keen to start flinging the bombs in line with Cameron's Atlanticist program but have they exercised their minds over a more comprehensive solution to the Syrian debacle since? The answer is "no" because no sooner were they thwarted on the bomb run (a frustration which ironically produced Syria's chemical disarmament), than the leadership returned back to stony silence on the Syrian conflict. The fact that the US doesn't have a strategy and the Tories  don't have a strategy doesn't mean that we do not need to be similarly clueless. With Ming Campbell exiting the stage in 2015 (at least from the Commons) the party's foreign policy stance will be even more threadbare than it is currently. 

In some ways though the current Syrian schemozzle dates back to actions of a previous Liberal administration, that of Lloyd George which in the midst of World War I cooked up a secret deal with France known as the Sykes-Picot agreement. This was followed by the San Remo conference in 1920, that furthered muddied the waters. Haggling over the future of the Mosul province ended up with the Kurds being denied independence, with the Kurds being delivered into an ill-starred Iraqi "kingdom" rather than being carved out as a separate mandate. All of this was to keep the nascent oil discoveries in Mosul out of Ataturk's hands. Subsequently the ineffectual actions of the French in the late 1930s, ended up with Turkey grabbing the Sanjak of Alexandretta from the French Syrian mandate and forestalling the creation of an Alawite  (a sub-sub sect of Shiaism) entity along the Mediterranean coast which would have obviated the Alawites ending up in (and controlling) the post-colonial entity that was Syria.

The Alawites are a mere 12% of the Syrian population but dominate the administration (with other minorities, such as the Druze and Christian groups, and even the Shias) because the French trusted them in the Mandate military over the Sunnis.

The ultimate result of this is the Syria we have today in which an Alawite minority (and their coalition of other minorities) led by the Assad government are engaged in a life and death struggle against Sunni forces to avoid the almost inevitable ethnic cleansing of Alawites et al. that would follow a Sunni victory. In Syria the actions of Assad have to be seen in the light of the 1400 years of oppression suffered by the Alawite sect. 

Ironically the tide has turned in Assad's favour since the chemical disarmament. We should not discount though that the Gezi Park uprisings in Turkey weakened Turkish resolve to tacitly support Syrian rebels, which also helped to give Assad a boost. The West has also seemingly been less anti-Assad leaving Saudi Arabia as the lone supporter of note for the rebel forces.

Is Assad regaining total control of Syria's historical territory in the best interests for the long term or does it just delay an inevitable outbreak of the same problem all over again at some future date? In the meantime there has been a massive death toll, displacement of population and damage to a nation, which despite some oil resources is not rich by any means. This is not a Kuwait that can pick itself up from a debacle and dust itself off. 

It might seem strange to advocate a Bosnian solution but frankly the Bosnian solution is one that works. Syria is in many ways a repeat of Bosnia, but without NATO intervention to bring about the ultimate resolution. In the end of the the Bosnian War, the outcome was ethnic separation and a rejection of post-WW1 border delineation along random lines. Syria needs the same as part of a peace negotiation. Syria needs to be broken up and the ethnic groups that were so blithely overridden in 1920-22, and again at independence, need to be given territory for their own self-determination.

Who should power this evolution? Certainly not the Americans for we should remember an important thing, which is that the US hates partitions... Bosnia's solution was ethnic borders and that was only engineered through the European intervention.. I worked for a US thinktank in the early part of last decade and the guru who ran it was rabidly opposed to the breakup of Yugoslavia. I asked an economist who worked with me there "what's up with him?" and he said "he is a Lincolnian".. that pretty much said it all.. the US is scarred in a deeper way than one might imagine by its civil war. And retrofitting the justification for one part of a nation denying another part a desire for their "own way" requires one to oppose breakup of nations ad aeternam..

Most of us who know anything of the history of the Middle East would agree that Britain and France badly executed their split up of the Ottoman Empire's Arab extensions. However the US is again rabidly determined to avoid the breakup or Iraq and Syria, when setting the Kurds free and making space between the Sunni and Shias in Iraq makes sense and likewise in Syria. 

Assad is fighting like hell's fury to hang on because he doesn't want to be Paletinisanised in a post-Alawite regime when what should really happen is that the Alawite territory (amusingly called Alawitestan) should be created while the Kurdish part of Syria should be attached to an enlarged Kurdistan. Since 2012, much of Syrian Kurdistan has been controlled by Kurdish militias as part of the Syrian civil war and in November 2013 representatives from Kurdish, Arab Christian and other smaller minorities declared a de facto government in the region. 

Neither should one forget the interests of the Druze, who have gone backwards in status from the days of the French Mandate when they had been doled out some hope of self-determination that never eventuated as they were corraled into the Baathist state. The Druze are a monotheistic ethnoreligious community, found primarily in Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan. Druze beliefs incorporate elements from Abrahamic religions, Gnosticism, Neoplatonism, Pythagoreanism, and other philosophies. Druze is an offshoot of Ismailism, a branch of Shia Islam, and thus ripe for persecution in any sort of Sunni-dominated state, should Assad fall. 

The central Sunni Arab section of Syria would become its own state. As to whether it descends into Wahabi/Al Queda-inspired fanaticism depends upon how the US manages its client, Saudi Arabia, which has shown itself over and over again to be lukewarm on constraining radical strands. Nobody else panders to them in the same way the US does, so whatever evolves there is up to the US. 

The old map below is a fascinating example of the ethnic patchwork from the days of the French Mandate. It includes the now Turkish province of Hatay, where an Alawite majority were railroaded by a rigged 1938 plebiscite into annexation by Turkey, weakening for the Alawites, their own claims to an independent state post-Mandate. And lo and behold, that is what happened with the Alawites being forced into a Greater Syria construct. 

And here is the key to the ethnicities:

So what of partition? The US would instinctually oppose such ideas.. One almost gets the feeling the US prefers the ethnic mishmash of the current Syrian make-up as a counterbalance to a Saudi-inspired Sunni (read Wahabi) state. But frankly who cares what they want. They have been authors of so many botch-ups in the Middle East that they are now beyond enumeration. Ironically the break up of Austro-Hungary into nation states was an invention of Woodrow Wilson who, notably, was a Southerner (from Georgia) and thus not freighted with Lincolnian baggage... Those who do not know history are destined to repeat it.

The Russians should make common cause with the Europeans on this and sideline the US if they want to be a dog in the manger. The Alawites should have their homeland on the coast (just as the French had pondered pre-WW II) with Latakia (the Russian naval base) as its capital. The Druze should likewise be freed from the danger of Sunni oppression in a post-Assad regime by getting their own state. There are roughly 700,000 of them in a part of the country that could make a small new state. As for the Kurds in the far north-east corner, they would obviously make more sense combined with the Iraqi Kurds in a standalone Kurdistan. Strangely the US has fought this concept tooth and nail to avoid offending Turkey, while Turkey is equally furiously cutting deals with the Kurdish powers-that-be in Iraqi Kurdistan to secure energy supplies, be it oil or natgas. The US yet again is stuck in a time warp while its client-states have moved on.

Having said that not everyone in the US is unprepared to ponder the inevitable we did however find this fascinating map that was published by the New York Times recently.

Is breaking up Syria difficult? After so much devastation it would certainly be better to have a series of new states in the area that are not engaged in fratricidal civil war than rebuilding a pacified Syria just to have it explode again in ten years from now for exactly the same reasons. Was it preferable to have Bosnia broken into constituent parts or have it as a bloodbath... if only Bosnia had been preempted by such a breakup then a vast mass of lives and destruction would have been saved. The exact same goes for Syria. 

And if you need any reminding of why we need to have a policy on Syria that is more than just a visceral follow the US leader, I found this tongue-in-cheek poster on line, which despite its bluntness pretty much sums up the disgraceful, unthought-out response of the bulk of the parliamentary party in late August's vote.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Nice Place to Visit.. But You Wouldn't Want to Live There

One is tempted to laugh, but then again crying might be the better response looking at the rather superior Islington-dinner-party view of housing estates in the Guardian newspaper's survey of the "10 best council housing estates":


Before one dismisses out of hand this exercise in highfalutin architectural patronising of the residents of what are mainly high-rise slums one should think of the reality of these "gems". 

When some pensioner was mugged in the stairwell of the Park Hill estate in Sheffield did she get a frisson of relief in that she is at least getting mugged in an architecturally significant slum. Likewise did Erno Goldfinger's light touch with concrete provide inspiration for generations of inner suburbanite youths. 

As for Davy Place at Loddon in Norfolk, the only thought that comes to mind is "where is my bulldozer when I need it". How one can swoon over a particularly mediocre English take on the American "ranch" home, specially adapted by being crunched together in a series of alleyways crossed with an allotment, is beyond me. When compared to Poundbury (below), it's no contest. 

While some of these buildings may have moved on to better things, being hipster magnets now, the smaller (lesser?) examples of these "Cool Britannia" buildings still provide daily misery for their occupants and are arguably worse than some of the Victorian slums they replaced, if for nothing else than their deficient community relationships compared to the dim alleyways and smoky by-ways of the inner cities pre-WW2 where at least the residents' were mainly at eye-level.

Before dismissing this as a rant against 1950's architecture I would note that I am highlighting this because the very people that write such articles and revel in such structures still represent the oligarchy of planning in this country and given their druthers would have all the rest of living in such things.. while they are firmly ensconced in their Georgian rehabs in inner northern London. 

Monday, 11 November 2013

Coalition with Labour? Even Harder to Divide the Spoils....

If you thought coalition negotiations with the Tories were tough going then just wait until you have to do them with the many-headed Hydra of Labour.

One has to chuckle at those of the more Leftist slant within our party who departed in disgust when we ended up in bed with the Tories. Ironically the portfolios that the departees most care about would have been off-limits to the Liberal Democrats because these too are the hotly contested favorites of the Labour faithful and delivering them over to the "wet behind the ears" LibDems would have caused massive recriminations on their side. As it was the talks with the Tories involved us being thrown fish the Tories didn't want on their plate, but that LibDems go weak at the knees at the very mention of, such as Scotland and energy. 

So it's a case of be careful of what you wish for because any putative talks on a Coalition with Labour will run into ructions not on opposed interests, but on the common ones. So verily I would liken the task to the Judgement of Solomon (pictured below) which was only solved by the true mother renouncing her beloved. How many in our ranks will go into shock to see Energy and Climate Change slip out of our hands to be replaced by the role as Secretary of Basketweaving and Advanced Macrame?     

The problem here goes beyond common interests with Labour, but over-focus on interests within our party. At a recent party event I attended I was dismayed by the narrowness of the discussion... it might have been a Green Party event.. I love green issues but... while the Greens can proudly say that they do not have (nor want) policies on a lot of things, that is fine as they are focussed on what they do and at least in the UK they don't have pretensions to be a party of government. 

I see wide swathes of public policy where we not only have weak or non-existent policies but we don't have spokespeople any more (as we did in opposition) because we have "left that to the Tories". Good examples are defence, foreign affairs and finance. It was amusing to see a survey recently in which party members were polled on what ministries we should hold in future coalition talks and the top polling post was that of International Development. That role reminds me of a past US vice president who described his role as "not worth a bucket of warm spit". Maybe we have (lots of) members whose idea of self-actualisation is drilling water wells in South Sudan BUT... the broader public are not going to change their votes for a party for which this is the main priority.

Now that Nick has seen the light (presumably under goading from Ryan Coetzee) on the need to make some airspace between himself and David Cameron (note how much rarer the joint photo ops have become) and space between us and the Tories on the issues of repressed contention (immigration, privacy etc) we still are not challenging on the areas which we have ceded to Tory domination. However, if we were to end up with Labour in a coalition then would the roles that we have wanted to grab in the last four years (energy, climate change etc) be ones which Labour would want to hold for itself? We would have a far better chance of ending up with financial regulation, defence and maybe even the Foreign Office in a coalition to our Left. Are we ready for that?

I might also mention that if Scotland votes for "in" and Labour "win" the election (and end in coalition with us) then there is no way we get to keep Scottish Secretary role... anyone care to brush up on Northern Ireland....? That's what will come of being in coalition with a party with which one has too much in common!

A Trickle Down Solution to the Spare Bedroom Tax - Using Some Basic Maths

Quite a goodly chunk of the recent South Central Regional conference was devoted to the debates on the HS2 (already covered in one of my policy posts) and the so-called Bedroom Tax. While I have discussed the Bedroom Tax before, I thought it good to elaborate on theme most particularly in relation to the housing policy (or lack thereof) of the party at this time. 

As for the actual debate, I found it pretty amusing, not for what was actually said (though there were a few laughs), but because the arcane discussion of clauses to include and exclude reminded me of the Marx Brothers' famous Contract Scene. On YouTube here for those who have never seen it:


The 800 lb gorilla in the room for me was that the debate was about the amelioration or different modes of application of the tax, and even of its morality, without virtually any mention of the root cause.

As I noted in the previous posting, the problem is the failure in recent decades to construct sufficient one bedroom units. Even now when I read about new social housing developments, the promoters proudly boast of the number of two- and three-bedroom units that the new complexes and estates will contain. This of course does not solve the problem that the Bedroom Tax seeks to rectify (punish?).

There is a number floating around of 660,000 units effected by the Spare Room Subsidy (I shall rather tongue-in-cheek use the official spin). So let's just use this number.. what this implies is that there are 660,000 singles or potentially a maximum of 1.32mn people (in couples) occupying two bedroom (or more social housing). Or in another potential calculation there might be a couple with one other dependent occupying a three bedroom housing unit where there is thus a spare room (so maybe even 1.8mn people).

The exact mix of how the 660,000 units is made up is not a number I have been able to find. But it should be a key number for this debate. So for the reasons of argument we shall posit that there are 660,000 units that are made up of:

  • 400,000 units of two bedrooms or more occupied by a single or a couple
  • 260,000 units of three bedrooms (or more) occupied by a couple and a dependent
This is a lot of units by any measure. In fact if the social housing stock was properly configured and allocated we might have a very substantial number of people in right-sized housing that are currently languishing on waiting lists. Moreover, we are currently building units to house the wait-listed people who could conceivably be catered to within the current housing stock.

What should be our policy beyond mere hand-wringing? Well, Labour have come out and made some hefty projections of how much social housing they would build per annum over a five year term. Like so many of the policy initiatives at their most recent conference it had the look of shooting from the hip: typically unfunded, unelaborated and unnuanced. 

What would be the effect if we committed to the construction of 200,000 units over the term of the next five year parliament? What if that commitment was ONLY to construct one bedroom units? What would be the effect? 

Well, if two hundred thousand singles and couples were moved into right-sized accommodation, then 200,000 units with two or more bedrooms would be freed up. Thus the maths is relatively simple, ergo:

  • 200,000 new residences
  • rehouses between 200,000 and 400,000 people
  • and frees up 200,000 units of two or three bedrooms
  • for potentially 200,000 couples with one dependent or two dependents (i.e. 500,000 or 600,000 people)
  • or 200,000 single parents with one or two dependents (i.e. 400,000 or 600,000 people).

So by building 200,000 net new one bedroom units provides net new housing for between 400,000 to 600,000 people.

The effect of the number of those hit by the Spare Room Subsidy might be even greater. For as couples and singles move into one bedroom accommodation, two bedroom residences would become available for those couples with one dependent to move down from three bedroom units, thus freeing up spaces for larger family groups to occupy. 

OVER AND BEYOND all this, we still have a residual problem of those aged over 65 who are occupying over-sized space. While the Subsidy is clearly designed to give them a free pass, it might also potentially allow a single 66 year old sitting in a two or three bedroom unit until they are into their 80s. Only actuarial calculations (or put more bluntly the Grim Reaper) will fix this problem and the lead time is open-ended..

Clearly tempting such an individual (who might indeed have taken in a lodger or relative) to downsize is going to be a tough task, except if one was able to offer sufficiently tempting one bedroom units that they would voluntarily cede the space they are currently occupying.

All this should be read in context of my previous scribblings on the subject of replacement of the more mediocre examples of the social housing stock that were created in the 1950s and 1960s that are now no longer "fit for purpose".

And I shall finish by noting that verily as I was leaving the conference in High Wycombe that Saturday, what did I spy right in front of me at the exit gate?

... but my favoritest thing in the world... four mediocre 1950s (?) one bedroom units taking up the space that could easily be occupied by 12 (or indeed 20) modern one bedroom units... I rest my case..

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Recruiting Posters?

In a more light-hearted vein and prompted by this week's rolling over by the powers that be in the face of the Portsmouth shipyard closure, I took two old Navy recruiting posters and gave them a new twist:

Friday, 8 November 2013

Why Naval Policy Should be Better Off in Liberal Hands

I don't feel I owe Nigel Farage anything (does anyone?) but he proved useful this week when his appearance on Question Time (which was otherwise less than scintillating) dished up the news nugget that the Ministry of Defence had given supply ship construction contracts to  Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering's yards in Korea in a £452m contract for four tankers in early 2012. Quite rightly one can feel that this was an event that goes quite a way towards explaining this week's "rationalisation" of the Portsmouth naval shipyard. 

This sent me scurrying for the back story and indeed it was back in February last year that the the original deal was announced by the then Tory Defence Minister, Peter Luff.

The story was reported here:

Interestingly at the very end of the article, the writer made the comment: 
"Last month the Mail told how BAE Systems was considering closing the naval dockyard in Portsmouth as part of a review of its warship business, bringing to an end 800 years of shipbuilding".

I am not in the business of affording the mail with prescience but they certainly got it right there. Maybe one of their Tory cronies was using them to break it gently to the public, but then again the article was nothing but gentle. 

While recent days have seen the government hiding in the Fuhrer Bunker sending our hand-scribbled messages saying "don't blame us, its a commercial decision", as usual a bit of scratching shows that the thin gruel of the current shipbuilding program was going overseas verily as the Portsmouth shipyard was already under threat. This is the disgrace of the current turn of events.

Frankly while I am not warming to BAE I can also say that the real blame now most definitely lies with the Tory-controlled MoD. Sounds like an even better reason for the re-establishment of the Admiralty as a separate ministry for it is pretty obvious that the mandarins of Whitehall would NOT have got their way if the relationship between decision makers and the Royal Navy had been at less of a remove as it is in the monolithic and army-centric MoD. 

The author of this bright idea was Peter Luff who was then Minister of Defence and is now heading towards retirement in 2015. Meanwhile the country is potentially left without a naval shipyard.

At the time the Mail reported that "Critics said the decision was a blow to Britain’s declining shipbuilding industry and to the proud naval tradition of what was once the world’s greatest seafaring nation". 

The anonymous critics (maybe Tories?) also were reported as having accused: ".... the Government of ‘shameless hypocrisy’ after David Cameron criticised India earlier this month for snubbing British industry when it awarded a £13billion deal to supply 126 fighter jets to France".

Clearly DC is not averse to playing the role of the pot calling the kettle black. But once again where were the leaders of the LibDems on all this? Throwing up their hands and saying "not our bailiwick!" as they did this week? Or hiding somewhere and saying "thank god, we don't have a defense policy of our own"? 

The four Military Afloat Reach and Sustainability (Mars) tankers, from which helicopters will be able to operate, are due to enter service from 2016. They are, ostensibly, being bought ‘off-the-shelf’ from South Korea and will maintain the Navy’s ability to refuel warships at sea and will provide support for amphibious and land forces close to shore. They are intended to replace single-hulled Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships, which were built in the 1960s.

The new 37,000-ton vessels are 650 ft long and can pump enough fuel to fill two Olympic-size swimming pools each hour.

The Ministry of Defence covered its posterior by saying that several British companies expressed an interest in building the tankers but none submitted a final bid for the contract.

A source close to the Defence Minister initially said there was no capacity to build the tankers in UK dockyards. The Daily Mail said this claim was denied by shipbuilding firms. The source also said there was ‘no proven track record’ of building tankers in the UK, even though the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Ships had clearly been built in the UK back in the 1960s.

The Mail quoted a defence industry deepthroat saying: ‘The MoD made it clear they wanted a commercial tanker and from day one it was as plain as the nose on your face that no UK company could compete against the low labour costs.’

At the time, Luff said British firms "would benefit from £150 million of associated contracts including providing navigation systems and equipment for the tankers". Gosh, isn't this an old saw we have heard before. Does this claim, more than 18 months on stand up to any sort of scrutiny?

In an example of tautological gymnastics that was clearly one of the reasons he is no longer Minster of Defence he said, the deal "demonstrated the best value for money for the taxpayer and that ‘complex’ warships would still be built in Britain". When in fact he is saying that a commercial tanker, which is much simpler to build than a "complex" vessel is better off built elsewhere. By inference, Britain is keeping the value-added work and the Asians can built the simple stuff. When it looks like Britain will pretty soon not be building anything.

Let's ask the workers at Portsmouth whether they feel insulted to be building "mere" tankers when the alternative is the dole queue and the extinction of more of the skills base.

Our party has a policy on apprenticeships that it has been trumpeting lately and yet how does that gel with shutting down one of the major engineering skill-bases in the south of the country (not to mention the cuts in Scotland). Even if Nick et al. cannot get their brains around a naval policy maybe they could see a light to stir them from their slumbers and go into bat for the foreshadowed damage to apprenticeships that the closures in Portsmouth (et al.) will result in. 

To reiterate the obvious yet again.. we should have a policy that the Portsmouth yard should be returned to Royal Navy ownership/control and that, if the Tories aren't interested in the Navy then the portfolio be given to the Liberals to manage. 

After all could we do any worse of a job than Fox, Luff and Hammond...?

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Renationalise the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard

One of the more obvious and strategically disastrous side-effects of the bloated and ill-starred carrier program is that the Portsmouth Naval Shipyards are now threatened with closure. Its hard for our party to respond to this action: which is bad for the nation, really bad for the Royal Navy and atrocious for our seat of Portsmouth South, when the best we can offer as an alternative is our half-page pdf defence policy. 


Thus how can the party effectively respond to this retrograde development, except by the valiant efforts of Gerald Vernon-Jackson, the Leader of the Council at  Portsmouth (a city controlled by us) and our MP there Mike Hancock. But, it is not difficult for me at all to respond. 

This is exactly the type of short-sightedness that prompted me to write a few weeks ago advocating the re-establishment of the Admiralty as a separate entity to the Ministry of Defence and the return to using the title of First Lord of the Admiralty. 

In response to the latest developments the party should be arguing for nationalisation of the BAE-owned facilities in Portsmouth. If BAE want to be a dog in the manger on this and not cooperate then suitable actions to "encourage" them to see the light should be taken. This is a perfect opportunity for the party to go in to bat for the interests of our constituents in Portsmouth (and potential ones in seats like Gosport). BAE should realise (or be taught) that the relationship between defence contractors and the defence establishment is symbiotic NOT predatory.  

I would attribute a direct linkage between the closure announcement and the cost overruns in the carrier program. The first of the carriers, Queen Elizabeth, is due to begin sea trials towards the end of the decade. A decision will not be taken until 2015 about whether the second carrier, Prince of Wales, will ever be operational; it could be sold or mothballed. The carriers were planned to be built by a consortium that included BAE.

This appears to be yet another example (HS2 anyone) of a "big toys" strategy that creates much collateral damage in its wake. The projected cost of the two carriers has risen by a further £800m to £6.2bn, according to a Financial Times report. The latest increase means the bill for the 65,000-tonne ships will be almost double the £3.5bn estimated when the project was agreed by the Labour government in 2007.

The Guardian today reported that the
Ministry of Defence said how BAE "rationalise their business" is a matter for the company. "Negotiations between the MoD and the Aircraft Carrier Alliance regarding the rebaselining of the Queen Elizabeth carrier programme are at an advanced stage," it said. "No final decisions [on the programme] have been taken." If the Admiralty had been re-established as we proposed elsewhere, could be realistically expect such a blase response as the Ministry of Defence offer here.

Apparently if shipbuilding is wound down at Portsmouth, the  Ministry of Defence will have to bear costs that could run into hundreds of millions of pounds under a 2009 agreement guaranteeing BAE a minimum of £230m a year in shipbuilding and support work over 15 years. The agreement can be cancelled, but the Ministry of Defence would be liable for closure costs and compensation to BAE for its lost investment. Renationalising the shipyards (in lieu of compensation to BAE) is the solution.

Beyond those directly effected there are an additional 2,900 BAE staff employed in the Portsmouth area on tasks that include maintaining, servicing and upgrading the Royal Navy ships at the naval base. The Guardian reports that their jobs are not expected to be affected by the announcement. The only rattling of the sabre these days is BAE making these threatening noises towards the clueless Ministry of Defence. BAE should be told if it doesn't play ball then the other functions related to servicing the Royal Navy shall also return to the Admiralty's control. 

The Tories' Minister of Defence Philip Hammond tried to deflect concerns about the rising costs by announcing that he has renegotiated the project to build the carriers on terms more favourable to the taxpayer. And seemingly in a fit of pique BAE have come out with this threat to shutter Portsmouth (and some Scottish yards).

A report a few days ago in the Financial Times, suggested the government would move that further cost overruns beyond the new £6.2bn baseline for the carriers will be split 50-50 between the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the contractors – whereas previously they had fallen mainly on the government.

An MoD spokesman said: "Negotiations between the MoD and the Aircraft Carrier Alliance regarding the re-baselining of the Queen Elizabeth Carrier Programme are at an advanced stage.

"No final decisions have been taken and the department will make an announcement in due course."
 The shipyard announcements are clearly BAE's attempt to get ahead of the carve and blackmail the government into a backdown on the over-run sharing.

This all has the look of the old private sector shakedown where the latest ructions over the price escalation in the carriers threatens to kill one of the two carriers. So what do they do? Claim inadequate work, and then get the government to take some kneejerk measures to save the day, i.e. subsidies or holding fire on pushing back against cost overruns.

I would prefer to think that the carrier project is in the wrong hands and that the shipyards would be better off back in Royal Navy ownership. Its time to take the Portsmouth yards back into Royal Navy hands and say goodbye and goodnight to BAE. 

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Naval Policy - Projection Through a Base Strategy

With the rather shambolic retreat from Empire in the decades following the Second World War, little thought was given to a Weltanschauung of what Britain's remaining possessions and its military would look like. Too often the shots were called by the US as part of the Special Relationship.

The Special Relationship has stood the test of time but has done very little for Britain in the meantime, beyond entangling us in various ill-fated military adventures in the Middle East. The real test of matters was the Falklands War where the US effectively sat on its hands and made soothing lip movements, as the graduates of their School of the Americas ran their extermination machine within Argentina (in what was euphemistically known as the proceso de reorganisacion nacional) and went gallivanting into the Falklands. They were later to claim they had received mixed signals from the US on its attitude to an invasion.  

Ironically, Britain had provided military largesse to the US in the 1960s in the Indian Ocean bending over backwards to allow the US to have control of the island of Diego Garcia (in the British Indian Ocean Territory) even going so far as expelling all the inhabitants to Mauritius (the Chagossians) to clear the way for the US to import Filipinos en masse to work as gastarbeiters at the base it built there. 

In any case the US is now in steep decline. Its reputation is in tatters on numerous fronts, and its welcome is less than effusive in many places. The US stands on the cusp of its own "post-Suez moment". Been there done that.. Britain is fifty years ahead of you..  

Great Britain, on the other hand, still has a reach that stretches around the globe in colonies and territories that it still controls and where the local residents have little or no interest in being micro-sized independent nations. 

I had to laugh in the wake of the successful blocking of the Syrian bombing putsch by Obama when the UK supporters of the bombers claimed that its showed Britain's irrelevance and "lack of projection". These critics have scarcely been heard since, now that the rejection of the bombing motion has actually led to the dismantling of the entirety of the Syrian chemicals arms complex within the space of a mere two months, and without a single bomb being dropped. Funny that...

These belittlers of Britain fail to note that the nation has a much better reach (and reputation) around the world than the US does. However, as I noted in my recent musings on Naval policy, the UK has let its premier service be sidelined under the Special Relationship and subsumed into the Ministry of Defence and left at the mercies of the likes of Liam Fox (and friends)..thankfully now departed..

In that previous note I mentioned the concept of the Navy's projection and mentioned the possibility of building a Naval base at Port Stanley. One of the most remiss aspects of policy since the 1982 war has been the avoidance of development plans for the Islands for fear of creating offense. One is reminded of Basil Fawlty's admonition to his staff about the German guests to "not mention the war".  

Instead the islands have been developing under their own steam with the population growing, industries evolving and cruise ship visits taking off. Ironically, international cruise lines in the southern summer are using the place more than the Royal Navy is... 

With the retreat from Army presences on Continental Europe, and the many and various US adventures, the strategy for the Armed Forces is somewhat in disarray. The LibDems have a policy statement on defence that is a mere half-page pdf. When we challenged one of our MPs on this last week he was rather flustered to hear that policy was (literally) so thin. 

In recent days the public have been let in on the secret that the aircraft carrier program has suffered a massive blowout to over GBP 6bn due to overruns.. and moreover the carriers are still over six years away.  

The alternative to a carrier strategy (though ideally an adjunct) is a base strategy. The Royal Navy website has Portsmouth (a LibDem seat), Plymouth and Clydeside listed as the roster of bases. This is rather thin gruel indeed for one of the world's premier navies. It is even more damning when one takes into account that we have far flung territories that constitute a ready made set of potential base locations. With the Army in decline why should the Royal Navy not be in ascendancy capitalising upon the nation's traditional strengths and interests? 

A base at Port Stanley would peg out the South Atlantic as a sphere of influence and also provide a base at which our NATO allies could resupply. Moreover it would provide a major boost of hundreds, if not thousands, of new residents. 

Such a base would also make the Falklands more impervious to sabre-rattling from its neighbour to the West. If the Falklands had been a significant base in 1982, would the adventurous junta members ever have dared their attack?

Going beyond the Falklands we might signal here a further thought that a sale of Diego Garcia to the US for a suitably large amount of money might enable us to disengage from a nation that clandestinely used our territory for illegal renditions over the last decade. A British naval base could be built on one of the other islands.  

Alternatively they could depart and we retake control (reinstating the Chagossians) and make the Diego Garcia facility into a British naval base in the Indian Ocean.... then we shall see who lacks projection on the international stage..

We shall end with the thought that as a party of government, should we abdicate defence policy to the other partner when the best they can serve up is the likes of Liam Fox? He may be gone but the lack of direction carries on... Nature abhors a vacuum and there is no reason why the LibDems should be as compliant on defence (and foreign) policy as has been the case hitherto.