Thursday 27 July 2017

Brexitwatch: the government should have....done nothing

Oh, the perils of failing to follow my advice. There would have been no referendum. Today we would still be happily in the EU not looking over the abyss of an economic collapse, we would not have had a spike in xenophobia and hate crime, and David Cameron would still have been prime minister with a workable majority.

If only he had taken note of what I wrote on 3 April 2015:


UK election: the next government nothing

One of the more bizarre criticisms of the UK’s coalition government was that in its latter stages, it entered a ‘zombie’ phase. In other words, for once, MPs were failing to carry out their supposed duty of rushing through poorly drafted new laws which they have not read properly, and which have disastrous unforeseen consequences.

It is the kind of mentality that saw Labour inventing 3,600 crimes in 11 years, and we wonder why the prisons are overflowing. Or that had the Tory-dominated coalition mounting yet another complete reorganisation of the NHS – something David Cameron had specifically promised not to do.

What we seem to get more and more is government by vanity project. After all, how is a politician meant to get into the history books by making sure the health service or public transport ran efficiently? No, they want to be the man or woman who shook up the NHS, or built HS2.

How many times have you heard governments promising to ‘cut red tape’? But power is so delightful, and the temptation to boss other people around just too great to resist. Back in the nineteenth century when a colleague demanded that Prime Minister Lord Palmerston should pass a new piece of legislation, he replied: ‘There are too many laws already.’

Somebody once said the trouble with elections is that whoever you vote for, the government always gets in. Whichever government wins this time, expect a flood of new laws and regulations.

More on this from Simon Jenkins -

Tuesday 25 July 2017

Storms and floods: Met Office says they'll get worse

New analysis from the Met Office says there is an increased risk of ‘unprecedented’ winter downpours in the UK, perhaps even worse than those that caused the major floods of 2014. Its supercomputers have calculated that for each year over the next decade, there is a one in three chance of record rainfall in an English or Welsh region.

In my book Storm: Nature and Culture (Reaktion 2016), I noted that four of Britain’s five wettest years since records began have happened since 2000. Globally, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which seeks a consensus from the views of thousands of eminent scientists all over the world, predicts fiercer rainstorms ‘over many areas’.

In my previous book Flood (Reaktion 2013) I quoted a United Nations report from 2011 which said the number of natural disasters had quintupled over the previous four decades, and that most of the increase could be attributed to what it called ‘hydro-meteorological’  events, including storms and floods.

I also wrote about a UK government report in 2012 which concluded that climate change would greatly increase the danger of flooding, saying the number of people at risk could more than double to 3.6 million by 2050.    

Monday 24 July 2017

The real 'Dunkirk'

Just seen Christopher Nolan’s film, Dunkirk. An impressive and gripping account of the evacuation of nearly 200,000 British troops from the beaches in 1940. 140,000 French and Belgian troops were also rescued.

Churchill, though, recognised that the campaign overall had been a ‘colossal military disaster’, with the British Expeditionary Force losing almost all its equipment as well as 66,000 men killed, wounded or captured.

One of the fascinating questions the film does not tackle is why Hitler made his rampaging army call a halt when the enemy appeared to be at his mercy. Was he concerned that in some parts of his force, half the tanks were now out of action?  

Had he been shaken by a British counter-attack near Arras or did he believe that surely at some point, the French – supposedly Europe’s greatest military power – must have a serious counter-attack in them?   Or was he convinced by Göring’s boast that the Luftwaffe could destroy the Allied forces on Dunkirk’s exposed beaches without any help from the army?

Whatever the reason, the result was ‘Dunkirk’.

For the full story see Britain’s 20 Worst Military Disasters. See also my post of 24 January 2012.

Sunday 23 July 2017

Brexitwatch: the compromise that could unite the UK

Heavily diminished Prime Minister Theresa May keeps saying she wants to unite the UK behind Brexit. This is a tough ask as tens of millions have long ago realised how damaging it will be, but all the same there is a potential strategy she has not yet tried.

The winning margin was very narrow – closer than 52% to 48% - but one thing that was striking was how many top Leave campaigners promised that even if we left the EU, we would remain in the Single Market.

Boris Johnson, Owen Paterson, Daniel Hannan, and the man who bankrolled Brexit, Arron Banks, were among those who took this line. So it is reasonable to assume a fair proportion of the 52% who voted to leave the EU wanted to STAY in the Single Market. Clearly all the 48% who voted Remain wanted this, so if you add to that the Leave voters who also wanted Single Market membership, you end up with a proposal that seems to enjoy considerably more support than the proposition to leave the EU, and could become a compromise around which a substantial majority of the country would rally.

But bizarrely, Theresa May ruled out Single Market membership, saying people had voted against it, even though they plainly had not. Even more bizarrely, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn supports Theresa May.

I personally believe the UK should remain in the EU because I cannot find any form of Brexit that will not be worse than what we have now. But if Leavers were prepared to implement their promise of leaving the EU but staying in the Single Market, this is a compromise I, and I suspect most of the country, would accept.

What a shame for the UK then that both Tory and Labour are ruling it out.

Thursday 20 July 2017

What was the Black Death?

Did bubonic plague really cause the Black Death? This was one of the questions tackled in BBC TV’s Decoding Disaster, which went out under the Timewatch banner.

What is certain is that the epidemic was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, disaster in history, killing perhaps 75 million people in Europe and Asia from 1346 to 1353 – 30 to 40 per cent of the population. The conventional explanation is that it was bubonic plague, carried by the fleas of the black rat, along with pneumonic and septicaemic plague which could be transmitted from person to person.

Sceptics, though, have suggested there were just not enough rats to spread the disease on the scale that happened, so other ideas have been suggested – notably anthrax or some kind of haemorrhagic plague, like Ebola. Others maintain that with a death toll on this scale, a number of different diseases must have been raging at the same time.

At the time, top academics at Paris University came up with their own explanation: a triple conjunction of Saturn, Jupiter and Mars in the 40th degree of Aquarius on 20 March 1345, but they were humble enough to acknowledge that some things were ‘hidden from even the most highly trained intellects.’

For the full story, see A Disastrous History of the World. See also my posts of 19 January and 31 March 2009, 1 September 2011 and 17 December 2013.

Sunday 16 July 2017

Brexitwatch: the Germans have two words for it

Even the most enthusiastic Brexit supporter surely cannot maintain the negotiations are going well. The EU side seems prepared, united and knows what it wants. The UK side appears in crisis: still unprepared, deeply divided, and with no idea of what it wants, let alone how to get it.

Two long German words might help us to do better – Gesinnungsethik and Verantwortungsethik. The first means ‘ethic of conviction’; the second ‘ethic of responsibility’. They reflect a conflict between idealism and pragmatism that came to the fore in the crisis that wracked Germany after the First World War.

Politicians who follow the ‘ethic of conviction’ believe in preserving their moral purity, following the course they ‘know’ to be right whatever the consequences. And if it all goes horribly wrong, that is not their fault.

Increasingly this ‘ethic of conviction’ is the ONLY argument we hear for Brexit: ‘it is the will of the people’. There is no real pretence that leaving the EU will make life better for the British people in any meaningful way. (I have already explained in my post of 15 December 2016 why the ‘will of the people’ argument is bogus.) This is odd in a nation that used to pride itself on its pragmatism.

Those following the ‘ethic of responsibility’ on the other hand, are guided by the likely consequences of their actions and decisions. What will they do to the people affected by them? If Theresa May and her government could switch to this approach, it might help bring them some much needed clarity and avert what is beginning to look more and more like an impending disaster. 

Sunday 9 July 2017

British battleship accidents

On this day…..100 years ago, the Dreadnought battleship HMS Vanguard sank in Scapa Flow in Orkney after a series of explosions. Of the 845 men aboard, only two survived.

Although the First World War was still raging, the most likely explanation for the sinking is thought to be an accidental explosion in the ship’s magazine. Certainly it sank almost immediately.

Nor was this an isolated incident. On 26 November 1914, a series of explosions ripped through the battleship HMS Bulwark as it was moored in the Medway (pictured). The ship was lifted out of the water then fell back in a thick cloud of smoke. There were only a dozen survivors from the crew of 750.

It being war-time, not many details emerged, but a court of inquiry heard that shells aboard were not stored according to regulations, and concluded that the probable cause of the disaster was that cordite charges, kept by a boiler room bulkhead, overheated.

For more, see A Disastrous History of Britain.

Wednesday 5 July 2017

My new book: 'Secrets of the Centenarians'

On Amazon, first sightings of my new book: 'Secrets of the Centenarians. What is it like to live for a century and which of us will survive to find out?' (Reaktion). Orders being taken now!