Politics: the democratic deficit

Thursday 21 October 2021  

To a considerable group of people, the advocacy of anthropomorphic climate change seems to have more in common with a cult than it does the pursuit of science. But, whatever might be an individual's standing in the debate – such that it is – some parties need to be reminded that, notionally, the UK is a democracy.

Although that status is increasingly being exposed as a hollow fiction, there nevertheless exists a residual belief in the principle that we should be governed by consent. In that context, as Philip Johnston writes in the Telegraph of prime minister Johnson's latest policy announcement on "net zero":
An absolute essential for any government pursuing a policy carrying such enormous costs and implications is that it has to bring the country along with it. That requires a compelling argument to be made for its achievement, a realistic timetable for doing so and widespread acceptance that it will make a difference and is not just being done for show or bragging rights at a summit.
Even those who accept some of the basic assertions relating to climate change might then also accept that there are different policy responses which might be made to the perceived problems. It might further be accepted that the actual direction we take as a nation might be influenced as much by the politics as the science of the issue.

For my own part, given that – at the very least - there is room for policy diversity, I certainly reject any idea that we should be railroaded into a single policy corral by a scientifically illiterate prime minister, who has clearly not thought through the implications of his proposals.

With that, if we explore the range of policy options available to us, there are probably three anchor points which could set the parameters for discussion. The first might be the "do nothing" option; the second might be the "minimum necessary", and the third might take us into Johnson territory where we cast ourselves as leaders, doing far more than strictly necessary, as an example to the rest of the world.

Depending on where one stands in the climate change debate, one of those points might define a reasonable starting point, on which to base a series of practical initiatives (or not, in the event of the first option), which might then be rolled out as a consequence of the initial policy stance.

The point here, though, is that whatever policy line which is to be chosen, the choice is not one that should be made unilaterally by the government or its leader. For a matter of such importance, there should be a very clear electoral mandate.

Yet here we have a situation not dissimilar to that which pertained to our membership of the European Union, where all three main parties supported the status quo. For the electorate, there was no meaningful way in which a preference could be expressed in a general election.

The only way to resolve the "consent" issue, allowing the electorate to decide on EU membership, was by arranging a referendum. Similarly, it would seem, the only way we, the people, could give our wholehearted (or majority) consent to a particular climate change policy would be via the mechanism of a referendum.

This is a device, the greater use of which we have long advocated through The Harrogate Agenda and now the need is greater than ever. Without a referendum, the current climate change policy lacks the explicit consent of the people and exposes a massive democratic deficit in our system of government.

There are some, however – like George Monbiot - who argue that the climate change issue is so important and the need for action so pressing, that we should mobilise society's resources on a wartime footing, leading people to accept the requirement for radical changes in their behaviour (and reductions in wealth).

Others, like Ambrose Evans-Pritchard asserts that, far from being a burden, "net zero" would deliver an economic windfall, based on "unstoppable leaps and bounds in known technology".

The net gain, he writes, is $26 trillion (£19 trillion), or $14 trillion under cautious assumptions, and the faster it happens, the bigger the benefit. It can be achieved in 25 years, beating the global target of 2050. Most changes, he adds, do not require lavish state funding any more than public money is needed to make mobile phones.

Both of these propositions are arguable. Their merits and weaknesses could easily fuel a vibrant public debate and significantly influence public attitudes to, and support for, a strongly proactive policy stance. But neither protagonist suggests that their views should be framed in the context of a referendum.

And yet, Philip Johnston's dictum is unarguable. Without the country behind the climate change policy, there is very little chance of the ambitious targets being met. Already, we see the emergence of public opposition, where a YouGov poll has 76 percent of respondents expressing concern about climate change, but with 27 percent indicating opposition to a ban on new petrol or diesel vehicles.

In the way of things, as the date of the ban gets closer, and more people start to focus on the practical implications (and the costs), attitudes will polarise and resistance may stiffen. At the point at which maximum support for the policy will be needed, the lack of popular consent may be decisive.

And while the UK car manufacturing industry might have been bludgeoned and bribed into producing all-electric cars, there will be plenty of foreign suppliers willing to fill the gap as the British government of 2030 – when the ban is due to come into force – is compelled to order a suspension.

Notably, the YouGov poll doesn't ask about heat pumps and the abolition of natural gas boilers. Presumably, with this issue only just coming into the public domain, the pollster might have thought that it was too early to seek a settled opinion on such a technical subject.

Certainly, greater public debate would help define the issues, and expose some of the considerable weaknesses in Johnson's position. At the moment, we are moving towards a ban on gas boilers in new houses, from 2025, and an ambition that all new heating systems installed in UK homes from 2035 should be "low carbon".

Bearing in mind that it is unlikely that hydrogen as a domestic fuel will be ready for a nation-wide roll-out until at least 2050 – if then – the only alternative on offer before then might be one form or other of the heat pump, at eye-watering costs to the average consumer.

But there are considerations other than cost. There are serious technical issues in installing these devices in older dwellings, with 23 percent of houses in the private sector having been built before 1919. Furthermore, 17 percent of the housing stock (4.1 million homes) fails to meet the government's "decent homes" standard, the larger proportion of these being privately rented.

Johnson wants the change-over to be market-led, but take-up is likely to be slow. Any economic advantages depend heavily on the availability of (non-existent) cheap electricity, especially as most heat pumps will be unable to heat sufficient water for most household needs, or to safe temperatures to suppress Legionella growth.

Supplementary electric heating will be required in most houses and, in many, it will be the only form of heating if the ban goes through – unaffordable to low-income residents. And private landlords, many of whom are already failing to maintain basic standards (in the context of lax enforcement), are going to need heavy persuasion to invest in expensive heating systems.

All of this points to the need for an intensive and searching public debate, and direct approval from the people, especially those who will be most affected – with major policy modifications where current ambitions are shown to be unrealistic. And, in such matters, informed democratic consent is not an optional extra. It is an essential precondition to successful policy implementation.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 21/10/2021 link

Politics: Arkell v. Pressdram

Wednesday 20 October 2021  

Like turning off a light, the politico-media nexus has decided we've done enough David Amess. He was a jolly good chap, salt of the earth, "dedicated and tireless" and a paragon of a good constituency MP. 

Amess's death was all down to ghastly plebs being nasty to MPs, so all the MPs need to do is pass "David's Law" to crackdown on threats to public figures and to end online anonymity.

What MPs don't understand here is that the role of social media is simply to amplify what was happening anyway. Before the internet, it was only at election times, when they came out of their cosy little burrows to canvass for votes that they realised how much they were hated.

For the short time needed to go through the motions of campaigning, the unpleasantness was just about tolerable. But now, though the miracle of broadband, the plebs can tell them every day of the week just what they think of their "democratically" elected representatives.

Soon, to be nasty to an MP will become a hate crime, punishable by a term in prison that rape victims can only dream of for those who attack them. And with that sorted, it is the duty of us plebs to pay attention to "Net Zero", to knuckle down and find the pennies to pay for heat pumps and costly electric cars. Only then can we dutifully fulfil our Great Leader's glorious ambitions to lead the world in a new, post-CoP26 Valhalla.

Looking at that wreck of a human being setting out his "green" agenda, though, we see the idiot bleat: "Britain will be 'Qatar of hydrogen'". So he wants the nation to be corrupt, introspective, supporting terrorist groups and meddling in the affairs of other nations? That sounds about right for a Conservative vision of our future.

Then the Muppet tries to treat us as morons, asserting that Britain could meet its ambitious net zero targets "without so much as a hair shirt in sight", telling us that by 2050 we would "still be driving cars, flying planes and heating our homes" but the cars would be electric, the planes zero emission and homes heated by "cheap reliable power".

The fool can't even get his story together with his own ministers, who are admitting that electric cars will not solve all our problems, stating that travel on foot or by bicycle to become the "natural first choice". When we're confronted with this sort of thing, knowing that the very last thing that will be sacrificed is ministerial limousines, I am disinclined to argue, or even attempt a measured response.

There is no point anyway. As Pete points out, our masters are not listening – they stopped listening a while ago, but now it's obvious. They don't care in the slightest what we think, what we want, or what our expectations are. Our role is not to speak – it is to listen and obey.

Thus, the only reply that I can muster is set out in Arkell v. Pressdram - a thousand times over, again and again, for as long as it takes. There is no other answer I am prepared to offer. They won't listen to that either, until millions of us on our doorsteps are saying the same thing to heat pump salespersons.

This is where the pious dreams and the cant of the climate zealots meets hard reality. This is where the talking stops and millions of us have to put down hard money – money, mostly we haven't got – to give form to those dreams. But Arkell v. Pressdram speaks louder than those dreams, as does this parrot (pictured).

There will be attempts to bribe us, as in the pitiful £5,000 grant offered to convert to heat pumps – as if money was the only obstacle to installing these absurd machines. There will be appeals to our better natures (we don't have any) and then will come the financial sanctions.

We can see it all laid out: gradually, they will top-load the price of natural gas, so that it becomes ever-more expensive – so expensive that, by comparison, installing heat pumps looks good value. And there will be fewer to fit by the time that stratagem works, as those pensioners not finished off by Covid succumb to hypothermia.

On the transport front, we will see the same strategy. Petrol and diesel fuel will become progressively more expensive, taxes and running costs will increase and, eventually, buying an upgraded golf cart will look like a good deal – those few who can afford one.

In the meantime, we must content ourselves with small acts of defiance. While our local rip-off merchants, Yorkshire Water, nag us not to run the tap while we clean our teeth – while gaily wasting three million litres of treated water every day - I run the tap whenever I choose.

As for smart meters, if they want to fit one in my house, they'll need a warrant – and armed police. Until then, they can send the meter-readers round. I am not going to make central disconnection easy for them – which is the real agenda of smart meters, as a means of managing power shortages, without resorting to area blackouts.

Similarly, as we only recently bought a new boiler, this is not going to be replaced in a hurry – or at all. It will probably outlast us, and the next owners can deal with the replacement.

The car will also stay. As Johnson and his evil cohorts progressively wipe out normal car manufacture – mainly by the artefact of setting car-makers electric car quotas, and fining them if they don't meet them - I can see a whole new industry emerging.

This one will be devoted to renovating second-hand cars, restoring them to "as-new" status. We will become the new "Cuba" with cars on the road now still running in fifty years' time. Bootleg fuel distillers will sell cans of diesel from the corners where drug-pushers once stood, to undercut the state fuel stations which will be trying to tax diesel out of existence.

There will be other Arkell v. Pressdram opportunities. In fact, that short phrase is becoming one of the most commonly-used in our household. For instance. every time a royal pops up, fresh from their flight in a private jet, to lecture us about climate change or whatever else they think us plebs should hear, out comes Arkell v. Pressdram.

That even goes for Queenie, now, I'm afraid, now that she has decided to break her self-denying ordinance, and intervene in a highly political issue. If she wants to play politics, then even at her advanced age, she must be prepared for the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

And, as the agenda becomes more intrusive, there are those who would directly and physically interfere with our lives. Then that two-word phrase will no longer be hurled against inert TV screens. "Hate crimes" will become the common currency, as real people are sent to enforce our masters' bidding and meet with a torrent of abuse.

That really is where all this madness is going to fall apart. It's not even as if the plebs will willingly confront their tormentors. But with inflation heading for two figures, utility prices increasing, Council Tax way up in the stratosphere, and every other thing you can think of costing us more, none of us will have the money to indulge our master's whims.

More to the point, as law and order continues to break down, and the epidemic of knife crime and random brutality spread – and our masters expend our money on protecting themselves – the rule of law will become one of those fond memories, like good governance and democracy.

Then, when we are forced to deal with the wave of savagery that has become the norm, casual rejection of our importunate masters' wishes will be easier to do. And if our masters resort to violence – as eventually they must - they will have lost their battle.

For the moment though we can console ourselves with the knowledge that the BBC has spent millions of our money on an image makeover. All's well with the world.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 20/10/2021 link

Politics: Two-Camels Amess

Tuesday 19 October 2021  

Before his murder, David Amess was chairman of an all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on Qatar, its aim "to foster good relations between the UK and the Gulf nation". Amess himself certainly has good relations with the Emirate. Until recently an obscure backbencher, he was on the day of his murder called "a great friend of Qatar".

It is not entirely clear when his relationship with Qatar started, but it certainly extends as far back as 2004 when he spent six days in Qatar as a guest of the government.

He visited again in May/June 2010, paid for by the Qatar government to the estimated value of £5,000, the ostensible purpose being to attend a "Forum on Democracy". Another visit followed in February 2018, again paid-for by the Qatar government, this time, as a member of the APPG.

That visit triggered a debate in Westminster Hall on 23 May 2018, opened by Amess. He referred to the trade "blockade" of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, joined by Egypt, the Maldives, Yemen and Libya. "over allegations of Qatari support for terrorism", with the severing of diplomatic relations.

Given the relations with the UK, though, Amess argued that it was "imperative" that ties "endure through the contemporary embargo". Our relationship with Qatar, he said, "should give us much to be confident about and serve as an example of how we are a truly global Britain".

In April 2019, Amess invited then ambassador, Yousef Al-Khater, to Southend, with a "big name business delegation", to discuss the prospect of inward investment in his constituency. This was seen as Qatar rewarding its "close British ally".

In February 2020, Amess, now vice-chair of the APPG, was back in Qatar, once more paid-for by the Qatar government. The declared purpose of the visit was to discuss the Gulf Cooperation Council crisis, workers' rights, bilateral relations and regional issues. On 10 December, the visit prompted a strong intervention from him in another Westminster Hall debate on UK Relations with Qatar.

Then, he told members that he had thought the "political and diplomatic blockade" on Qatar had been "unfair", and was "pleased that our Government have called for all sides to de-escalate and have pledged our firm commitment to our strategic partnership with the Gulf Co-operation Council".

The trip to Qatar ten months previously, he then revealed, had been "rather special". The highlight had been when the delegation had been taken to ride camels, following which the Emir had given him two camels. These had been delivered to the Amess household, where they were "grazing very nicely in our back garden". "Qatar is a magnificent country that is truly underrated", Amess opined.

MP Christina Rees, in the chair, thought this was all rather jolly, observing: "I do not think I will ever be able to forget the vision of the two camels", then asking Amess – to the laughter of members: "Shall we now call you 'Two-Camels' Amess?".

While David Amess was having such a jolly good time, Somalia - Oman's near neighbour across the Gulf of Aden – had not been having such a happy time. Having become an independent state in 1960, it has undergone continuous strife which, as the civil war intensified, brought about between 1990-92 an almost complete collapse of civil order.

It must have been about that time that a Somali national, Harbi Ali Kullane upped sticks and moved to London with his family, where his son Ali Harbi Ali was born in 1996. Harbi Ali Kullane, however, still took an active interest in Somali politics, becoming Director of Media to Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke, who served as prime minister from 2009-10 and from December 2014 to March 2017 before being exiled to Kenya.

Harbi Ali Kullane's family is said to be wealthy and remains connected to Somalia's political elite. His brother, is Somalia's ambassador to China, and his sister, Samira Gaid, is head of a security think tank in Mogadishu who has also advised the government.

In Somalia, however, a new regime is in charge, headed by president Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo, also known as "Farmajo". Not exactly a well-known in the UK, he was prime minister of Somalia for six months, from November 2010 until June 2011, and has been president since 16 February 2017. From 8 February 2021, he has been "acting president".

Qatari money allegedly played a role in influencing the Somali elections in 2012 and 2017, according to the Middle Eastern Institute (MEI), and is said to have supported Farmajo's election and is keeping him in power.

Qatar has allegedly used the fundamentalist Islamic group al-Shabab (with links to ISIS) to target groups it has identified as opposing its interests, including Somali politicians critical of Doha's role in the country and outside actors like the United Arab Emirates. In the past, Qatar has also allegedly funded the government's attempts to remove non-cooperative leaders of Somalia’s federal member states.

However, much to the frustration of opposition politicians in Somalia, Qatar's activities in Somalia have not prompted much external condemnation – according to MEI. The US and other Western governments have turned a blind eye to Doha’s destabilising role, even going so far as to make it an integral part of the international community's efforts to stabilise the country.

Another thing we have learned is that Harbi Ali Kullane is no longer in a position of influence in Somalia, and has taken a rooted dislike to Farmajo. Maintaining an active Twitter account, on 18 March of this year, he he wrote: Former President Farmajo does not want any form of elections to take place in #Somalia. Not now or in the foreseeable future. His term expired on 8 Feb 2021.

On 13 April, he tweeted further on the subject: "So malice that Farmajo utterly ignores the constitutional requirement of the Upper House approval. This man is tearing down the fabrics of this recovering nation, #Somalia". This was in response to a report that Farmaajo had signed a law extending his terms of office for two years, without the approval of the Upper House of Parliament.

On April 22, Harbi Ali Kullane responded to a tweet from Ahmed Hassan, who had written: "Farmajo's feat: brought back anarchy to Mog, bred contempt for the rule of law, politicised the security forces, botched constitutional review & failed to prepare the country for elections, tried to stay beyond his term & is currently awaiting to be driven out of VS by force". To this, Harbi Ali Kullane comment was: " Makes you ponder how he is still in power?"

On 27 April, he complained: "Farmajo is buying more time in order to fulfil his cunning delusions. It should not be allowed and the wacko should be omitted ASAP from been (sic) part of #Somalia politics. With the walls caving in he turns back again to brew another fake scenario".

On 6 May, we see an accusation that Qatar is lining president Famajo's pockets, in return for an energy investment deal. Then, on 9 June, although he doesn't name him, Harbi Ali Kullane is effectively accusing Farmajo of deploying young #Somali soldiers in Tigre via #Eritrea, which he describes as an: "insurmountable national treason and should not be swept under the carpet". There should, he says, "be accountability and retribution. We want answers now".

In July Amess accepts £700-worth of hospitality and accommodation to attend the Goodwood horseracing festival, which Qatar sponsors.

On 24 September, Harbi Ali Kullane writes: "Farmajo is not Deity who determines our future. He is mentally handicap with dictatorial tendencies. Now that he is compromised lets fast forward elections. The sooner the better chance of ejecting him".

On 5 October, he writes on Twitter that: "Since the Feb 17 we have unfortunately witnessed the unhealthy direct involvement of Qatar in the Somali political arena. It is time this notorious and ill-conceived relation was eliminated and utterly diminish its influence". Amongst his complaints is that Qatar is sponsoring a president who assumes he is "here for life".

On 9 October, the All-Party Parliamentary British-Qatar Group tweets: UK Parliamentarians were de-briefed on UK talks with Taliban by @MlongdenUK following his visit to Kabul - he praised Qatar's role in assisting evacuations and warned of dire economic situation

@MlongdenUK is Martin Longden, Chargé d’Affaires of the UK Mission to Afghanistan in Doha.

On 10 October, the ILO Project Office for the State of Qatar tweets: "Today we met with 15 United Kingdom MPs during their visit in Doha. They asked pointed questions about Qatar's labour reforms, the progress and challenges". One of the photographs posed features David Amess, with colleagues, at the meeting. Amess retweets the post.

On 11 October, Amess tweets: "As chairman of @QatarAPPG I was very pleased to receive an update from @MlongdenUK regarding the situation in Afghanistan and hear about Qatar's continued effort to help British families in Afghanistan.

On 12 October, Yousef Al-Khater, former Qatar Ambassador to the UK, tweets: "Many thanks to my friends from the UK Parliament for their noble sentiments during our meeting last night, and for their congratulations on my elections as a member of Qatar's first elected Shura Council. I look forward for fruitful cooperation in the future". On the same day, Amess tweets his congratulations.

On that day, Amess's twitter account also advertises on Twitter his next constituency surgery, to take place on Friday 15 October at Belfairs Methodist Church, Leigh-on-Sea. Amess invites appointments, publishing his email address and telephone number.

On 13 October, Amess returns from Qatar. The following day, he tweets: As Chairman of @QatarAPPG, I was very pleased to meet the Emir during our recent delegation to Doha. The subject was "strategic cooperation between Qatar and Britain". Amess posts a photograph of himself and the Emir (pictured).

On 15 October, Amess attends his surgery at Belfairs Methodist Church, where he is murdered by Ali Harbi Ali, son of Harbi Ali Kullane, in what is clearly a premeditated, targeted attack. Ali had booked an appointment to meet Amess, telling staff he had taken up residence in the constituency. He had taken the train from London, where he lived, to meet the MP.

The Qatar APPG then tweeted: "The APPG is deeply saddened to report the death of its Chairman, Sir David Amess, less than 48 hours after a very successful trip to Qatar. A man of huge energy, vitality and compassion, he impressed all with his sense of humour and patriotism. He was a great friend of Qatar".

Ali Harbi Ali, meanwhile, has been arrested for the murder of Amess and is being held incommunicado, pending further investigations. Although The Times reports that, "the close ties between Sir David Amess and the Gulf state of Qatar are being investigated by police after his murder", the media in the main are focusing on Ali Harbi Ali's fundamentalist Islamic links.

Whether indeed Ali Harbi Ali has been "radicalised" and slaughtered Amess for that reason, remains to be seen. But it must be fairly reasonable to conclude that there are more than a few Somalis around who were uncomfortable with Amess's uncritical support for a Qatar government which is seen as dragging their country back into the Dark Ages.

Was Sir David Amess, member for the Southend West constituency, dabbling in things he didn't understand, and has paid the ultimate price? That also remains to be seen.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 19/10/2021 link

Politics: the chasm widens

Monday 18 October 2021  

The eulogies on the saintly David Amess continue to pour in, recalling amongst other things the campaigns fought by the veteran MP.

Strangely though, one of those which hasn't been mentioned yet is the spirited campaign he ran on behalf of his son – of the same name – after he had been imprisoned for four years after smashing a man over the head with a champagne bottle, after "wielding it as a club.

Amess Senior was partially successful after his son's sentence was cut to three years on appeal, even though judges rejected claims that the conviction had been "unsafe". After the hearing, a statement from the Amess family said: "Some progress has been made in our endeavour to clear our son's name and to secure justice for him. That we intend to pursue with renewed vigour".

There is no record of whether that "renewed vigour" achieved its intended effect, but there is certainly no lack of vigour in the wake of the Amess Senior's murder, as MP look at measures to enhance their own safety. It is axiomatic that, if they prevailed on the government to pursue measures to curtail Islamic extremism, we might all be a little safer. But if MPs are at all concerned about enhanced public protection, they have been extremely reluctant to show it.

Nor have we seen Johnson, Starmer, Patel or any other of the Southend mourners hot-footing it up to Glasgow to lay wreaths at the site of the latest knife murder, this one of a 14-year-old boy who was stabbed outside a railway station. It seems that politicians are reserving their public displays of grief for their own.

No one, of course, can be anything but horrified by the barbaric murder of David Amess, but that should not stop us observing that the reaction of the establishment – the politicians and media - are as inept after the event as they were before. Thus, the opportunity to unify the nation in a common cause has been lost, while the issues – if the Observer most-read list is any guide (pictured) – have been lost in a wave of public indifference.

Those looking for broader public support will not be encouraged by the MP's defensive responses, which can do little to bridge the chasm between "us and them".

Under consideration is a system where constituents who book in meetings with their MPs could have their backgrounds checked. All of us will be treated with the same degree of suspicion as an Islamist terrorist, changing forever the relationship between the public and their elected representatives.

An individual requesting a meeting with an MP would have to allow their details to be checked against terror watch lists. Other databases, such as lists of known criminals and the electoral roll, could also in theory be cross-referenced, with the latter revealing whether the person seeking a meeting lives in the constituency.

Other ideas include getting police officers to attend constituency meetings, airport-style security to check voters before they enter and MPs being urged not to meet voters alone. No one is as yet suggesting armoured screens, but anything is possible.

The ideas so far proposed follow an intervention by speaker Lindsay Hoyle, in the Observer, who wants "an end to hatred" against MPs and "a kinder form" of political discourse.

Hoyle is worried that, while the security offered to MPs must now be reviewed, there is a wider problem about the levels of hatred and intimidation in politics that must be addressed. "If anything positive is to come out of this latest awful tragedy", he says, "it is that the quality of political discourse has to change. The conversation has to be kinder and based on respect".

Many MPs privately confide that they face death threats on a regular basis on social media. One senior Westminster source said the numbers of people now in prison or awaiting trial for threatening MPs or abusing them was "staggering". The source says, "It is a British disease. The numbers are horrifying. It is an epidemic".

Conservative MP Shailesh Vara says the kind of language used by people when communicating with MPs, either on social media or by other means, is becoming more hostile and aggressive all the time, affecting MPs' staff as well as elected representatives.

"To call me the C-word or to refer to politicians like me as bastards and to use unpleasant and aggressive tones is normal for some people these days", he concedes. "What they don’t realise is that it is not just us they are abusing. It is our staff, people who are just trying to do a job, trying to earn enough to put food on the table, pay their mortgage and the bills".

The MP also tells us that, with the volume of correspondence received, staff are essential. "Not so long ago", he says, "MPs would get about 20 letters a week, they shared one secretary between them all and an MP could write 20 handwritten letters to those constituents and all was well and good. Now I can get more than 25 emails in less than an hour".

Another senior Tory MP, Charles Walker, says: "Living in fear has become a routine part of many of my colleagues' lives. Many have the incredible ability to compartmentalise that part of their existences but it should not have to be that way".

The Observer also cites Jade Botterill, a former assistant to Labour MP Yvette Cooper. She left politics because of the abuse directed at her boss. "I would get in and all I would do is go on Facebook and report death threats and delete them", she said. "I reckon I reported over 1,000 death threats. I couldn't sleep".

All this has Hoyle observing: "The hate which drives these attacks has to end. Disagreements with politicians should be solved at the ballot box not via threats, intimidation or murder". And therein lies more evidence of the divide. Hoyle is no more realistic in putting his faith in the ballot box than are those who would further restrict our access to MPs.

But one has to marvel at Hoyle's naivety. He must be the only person in the country who is unaware that the political system is broken and that elections have become an empty charade. Would that he knew it, much of the hostility MPs and their staffs experience simply reflects people's frustration with the broken system.

But it must also reflect the growing dismay at the inability of parliament to curb the power of the executive, or to hold it to account. After the Brexit debacle, with policy wreckage strewn around like discarded confetti, people now face impositions such as heat pumps, and massive hikes in energy costs, supply shortages and galloping inflation – while military age Muslins rock up at Dover in their thousands, with no effort to stop them. Can there be any wonder that MPs are roughly handled?

At least the Sunday Times has it half right about the safety issue, acknowledging that MPs "should take greater precautions in the way that they interact with the public, and they should, if necessary, be given greater resources to make themselves, their staff and other constituents attending their surgeries more secure".

But, the paper says, "what we should not do is allow this senseless murder to change one of the essential features of our democracy. That would give the terrorists, assuming this is proved to be a terrorist attack, a victory that they do not deserve".

"If MPs were deprived of direct contact with their constituents", it adds, "the democratic process would suffer and the country would be poorer as a result". David Amess, who was aware of the dangers, would not have wanted that, the paper concludes: "Neither should anybody else".

But there needs to be more than clichéd generalities. On the one hand, the Guardian reports that UK Muslim groups are braced for a rise in "hate crime", while the Telegraph warns that "Britain faces 'wave of terror attacks plotted by bedroom radicals'".

In the middle is MP Rupa Huq, who typifies the vacuous "something must be done" brigade. "After two killings, serious thinking and action is needed to drastically reduce the chances of there being a third", she says.

Like the rest of her ilk, she has little idea of what should be done, and there is nothing worthwhile on offer from any other quarter. Thus, this ghastly drama still has a long, long way to go, and it seems that the only direction is down. If MPs feel unloved now, in a year's time they might be looking on this period as a golden age.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 18/10/2021 link

Politics: if not now, when?

Sunday 17 October 2021  

There is a great deal that doesn't add up about the murder of David Amess and even now details are frustratingly sketchy.

With information culled from multiple sources – all of which must be considered provisional - we learn that the killer is 25-year-old Ali Harbi Ali, although the police have not named him and are not confirming the name. It has been reported that he is a British citizen and that his family fled war-torn Somalia in the 1990s, where his father had been a former communications adviser to the prime minister of Somalia.

Harbi Ali is said to have been born in Britain, and his family is said to have lived in London after they had moved to the UK as refugees. Immediately before the attack, Harbi Ali lived in a council house in Kentish Town, North London, in a street of £2 million three-storey town houses.

It is believed that he may once have lived in Amess's Southend West constituency and he is understood to have family ties there. Security sources are suggesting that he planned the murderous assault more than a week in advance, having told Amess's constituency staffers that he had recently moved into the area. He had travelled by train from London to attend the surgery, where he was witnessed stabbing the MP multiple times.

The suspect is said to share details with a person previously referred to the government's anti-terror Prevent programme, and is believed to be a "self-radicalized" lone operative, known to counter-terrorist police. Police and security agencies are said to be looking at whether he was motivated by al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda subsidiary operating in Somalia and Kenya.

What is as yet unknown is why David Amess was targeted in the first place, as he appears to have been. And if he was, this might change some of the security calculations, which are uppermost in MPs' minds. Random and planned attacks each have their own implications. For the moment, though, any analysis must hold fire until we have more detail. There is no value in further speculation on the reasons for the attack.

As to the broader issues, what we are now seeing is a quite remarkable coalescence of sentiment between the media and the politicians, both for their own reasons anxious to affirm the value of MPs and the constituency surgery – one of the least examined institutions of British politics, according to Rafel Behr, in yesterday's Guardian.

As such, many voices aver – as does Behr – that that the attack on Amess represents "a chilling assault on British democracy", with concerns being expressed that additional security will create barriers between the public and their representatives, to the overall detriment of the democratic process. Certainly, I expressed my own views yesterday, about the dangers of MPs further distancing themselves from their electorates.

In this context, Behr makes great play of the surgery, the process allowing MPs to make "the human connection between the institutions of democracy and the people who are represented there". In the aftermath of Amess's murder, he says, "we forget them-and-us. We are reminded: they are us".

But no, they're not – MPs are not "us". The political class has grown distant from the public they supposedly serve, and the resultant chasm is not measured in units of length. It spans the differences in perceptions and expectations, and the feeling amongst ordinary mortals that politicians no longer have any real understanding of their concerns.

No fleeting contact with a small number of constituents is going to have a material effect on that sentiment, when the two primary functions of MPs are law making and scrutiny of the executive – and both functions are performed badly.

For MPs to turn themselves into over-paid social workers – which is what tends to happen in these surgeries - is a poor compensation for their broader failures. This makes the surgery a vastly over-rated institution, where many of the issues brought to the MPs have nothing directly to do with them, and would be better dealt with by local councillors.

To a very real extent, it is precisely because MPs are so useless at their primary functions that the surgery has evolved as such an important part of a constituency MPs role. Many MPs employ case workers and numbers of administrative staff to process the issues brought to their attention – something for which the office of member of parliament was neither designed nor intended.

Here one is reminder of the views of the great 18th Century parliamentarian, Edmund Burke. In a speech to the electors of Bristol in 1774, he told them that parliament "is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates".

In his view, parliament was "a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole". Thus, he told his electors, "you choose a member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not member of Bristol, but he is a member of parliament.

"If the local constituent should have an interest, or should form an hasty opinion, evidently opposite to the real good of the rest of the community", he said, "the member for that place ought to be as far, as any other, from any endeavour to give it effect".

"To deliver an opinion", he had told his electors, "is the right of all men; that of constituents is a weighty and respectable opinion, which a representative ought always to rejoice to hear; and which he ought always most seriously to consider".

But when I've talked to MPs, they tell me wearily that opinions on the affairs of parliament – the matters to which MPs should be addressing themselves – are rarely covered in surgeries, where MPs are expected to be a cross between agony aunts and personal crisis managers.

It is a reflection of how far we have drifted from Burke's view of the role of parliament – who famously never visited his constituency once he had been elected - that the Telegraph writes of the surgery process, having MPs conducting the country's affairs at Westminster and then "returning every week to the modest committee rooms and church halls in their constituencies to deal with the worries and problems of their voters".

These sessions, says the paper, "are the very essence of British democracy", thereby illustrating the fundamental inability of the media to understand what democracy means. It talks of surgeries as "a cornerstone of our way of life".

These meetings, we are thus informed, "have taken on the aspect and the name of doctors' surgeries because of the fact that voters, like patients, wait in line for a consultation with the man, or woman, who represents them in Parliament and who they hope may make their lives better".

This paragons of virtue are supposed to help their constituents "by securing that council house, or fixing the potholes in their street, or helping to get their child into the school of their choice".

To perform that solemn duty, the paper intones, "our tribunes and their constituents must be free to come and go as they please, to speak plainly to each other and, as is the British way, to exchange insults as well as pleasantries without let or hindrance".

It is that "almost sacred bond between MP and voter" that was shattered in the most brutal fashion by the murder of David Amess, the paper believes, thereby – perhaps unwittingly – opening a debate about what MPs, and parliament in general, are for.

If that might not have been its intention, it certainly seems to have been one of the effects of Amess's murder. It is certainly a debate which is needed and, despite the tragic circumstances that have opened up the opportunity, we should make the most of it. If we don't do it now, there may not be another chance.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 17/10/2021 link

Politics: some more equal than others

Saturday 16 October 2021  

Orwell, thou shouldst be living now. Having penned the immortal words in Animal Farm about the [in]equality of animals, he would no doubt have some trenchant views about the reaction to the death of David Amess, after "allegedly being stabbed several times" – as the Guardian put it.

It is not so much the outpouring of the media and public figures about the saintly character of the deceased which is so noticeable, as the lack of response almost amounting to indifference to the endless carnage on our streets, as barely a day goes by without one or more people being stabbed to death.

So frequent have these murders become that most don't even warrant reports in the national media, with some meriting only the briefest of accounts in local papers before disappearing from public view.

What seems to be common between the Amess murder and the general street carnage, though, is the absolute determination of the BBC to avoid revealing the ethnicity of the perpetrators, in this case the murderer being described on the front page of its news website as "a 25-year-old man, said by a government source to be a British national".

This is despite Telegraph and others leading their reports with the description of a man of "Somali origin", after initial reports had witnesses describe the police taking into custody a man of "African appearance".

In due course, more details will emerge about the background of the killer, and it will be interesting to see the reaction of the left-leaning media if he turns out to be an illegal immigrant – more so if his route of entry was by dinghy across the Channel.

Given that Amess is described as "robustly right-wing", while the deputy Labour leader most recently characterised Tory MPs as "scum", it might be difficult for the left to sustain any long-lasting outrage over the murder of a figure who represents everything they detest.

On the other hand, after the death of Jo Cox has been so effectively weaponised, the "right" now have their own martyr. It will doubtless be sufficient that Amess has been murdered by a black immigrant, but their cup will floweth over in the event that the knife-wielder is shown to be an illegal dinghy traveller.

Interestingly, Amess hasn't always been seen as the saintly figure that he is currently painted to be, having featured in a small way in the MPs' 2009 expenses scandal. He was again profiled in October 2012 (almost to the day), when he had been found to have rented out his London flat, while claiming hotel expenses for his stays in London, despite also having an empty house in the city, acquired with the help of the taxpayer.

Branding him as a "rent-swapper", who during the original expenses scandal had hidden in a hairdressers after being doorstepped over his "greedy second home claims", an outraged Guido Fawkes noted that Amess had been in parliament for nearly thirty years. "Now would be a good time", it suggested, "for him to announce his retirement…".

It is perhaps ironic that, had Amess followed this advice, when he was in his sixtieth year, he might still be alive today, albeit slightly less well-off without a further nine years of taxpayer-funded expenses.

By convention, of course, one does not speak ill of the dead – although this tends to be honoured more in the breach than the observance. But one could still make a general observation that MPs are best protected from violence by the respect for their roles and their positions in the community, making it unthinkable that they should be attacked.

Once respect is eroded, it is sadly the case that all MPs are more at risk, and it is a disturbing feature of contemporary politics that they are subject to endless vitriol and multiple death threats. In this respect, it has to be said that MPs have contributed to this situation, having turned parliament and the political process into objects of contempt.

It is hardly going to be the case, though, that a Somali immigrant would have booked an appointment with Amess at his surgery – as he apparently did – only to stab him to death when he arrived, in response to the diminished respect in which politicians and parliament are held.

However, MPs have been partly responsible for the wholly inadequate enforcement of Britain's immigration laws, and have been complicit in allowing successive governments to pursue a policy of multi-culturalism, without the slightest attempt to secure an electoral mandate.

In that context, Amess may be the unfortunate whose role has been to reap what he and his colleagues have sown. And if from his murder, there emerges a realisation that MPs as well as the general population are at risk, we might possibly see efforts made to restrict the flow of dinghy people and other illegals, and robust measures taken to restrict immigration.

More likely, though, MPs will learn the wrong lessons from this event, seeking to increase their own personal security – placing more barriers between themselves and the constituents they supposedly serve.

It was once the case that one could saunter unchallenged into the parliament building in Westminster, and demand at the desk to see one's MPs. But now our "democratic" representatives skulk behind blast-proof barricades, subjecting visitors to onerous and time-consuming security checks, under the gaze of machine-gun toting rapists and the occasional uniformed murderer.

Even if one was wholly indifferent to the fate of MPs, it only takes one visit to Westminster to invoke such passion and loathing that one would happily cooperate in the slaughter of the entire breed. Should MPs further distance themselves from the electorate, they might learn the true nature of the term "endangered species".

This, whatever the outcome of the inquiry into Amess's murder, it is already being described as a "terror attack", linked to Islamist extremism. Police officers have raided two homes in London, in connection with the attack.

But, in addition to further fracturing community relations, an amount of damage has already been done, in highlighting the contrast between the treatment of his death, and those of ordinary mortals who have been stabbed to death by their peers. In this pestilent land, where prestige and rank determines so much of our treatment, it is clear that we have never fully emerged from a feudal society.

It is also significant that Amess, a white, wealthy male of some standing, should have been butchered by a black man, although typically (and especially in London), knife crime is a black-on-black offence – even if it is distressingly frequent in most communities.

That again is something which desperately needs addressing where, as Pete notes, the shocking Soweto-style machete gang attack in broad daylight in Hyde Park has become part of the new normal. If MPs decide that knife crime must be taken seriously, then something good will come of Amess's horrible death.

I do have a suspicion, though, that a black immigrant slaughtering an MP points up deep rifts in society and exposes long-standing policy failures so profound that there will be no appetite for addressing the implications. After the initial outpourings, the establishment is more likely to close ranks and fend off any pressure for reform.

If the government is prepared to expend vast fortunes on improving MPs' perception of safety, that may well be a sufficient response to quell voices in parliament and the media, leaving us plebs where we have always been, out in the cold, having to deal with the consequences of the indifference of our masters.

Sadly, it is going to take more than the butchery of another MP for us to see any lasting change.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 16/10/2021 link

Energy: a good time to panic

Friday 15 October 2021  

It was in 1972, nearly 50 years (49 to be precise), when this nation first experienced the phenomenon rolling blackouts. They were brought about by the 1972 miners' strike, when electricity was switched off on a rota basis between 7am and midnight each day from the middle of February. Consumers suffered power cuts from six to nine hours.

The experience was repeated at the end of 1973, after the oil shock following the Yom Kippur War, when the miners again decided to flex their muscles, this time with an overtime ban. And in 1974, even with Ted Heath's three-day week, launched to manage the dwindling coal stocks, as many of 10-15 percent of the population was disconnected at any one time.

Since then, we have had nothing like it on the same scale. Given that the median age of the UK population is just over 40, that means that more than half the population has never experienced prolonged power cuts. Furthermore, there can hardly be any working journalists under the age of 60 who reported on the events of the time.

For the majority of the British population, therefore, blackouts are a vague folk memory, recalled in history books and nostalgic retrospectives in popular newspapers. For most, prolonged blackouts are not events tempered by personal experience.

It is understandable, therefore, that while lip service is currently being paid to the possibility of blackouts during this coming winter, there isn't the same presentiment of doom that we experienced in the 70s. Then, as each winter approached, the prospect was a near certainty, to be taken very seriously indeed.

And yet, if were are to pull together all the factors which might give rise to major power outages, the possibility should be considered very real – real enough for some basic precautions to be taken (by those who can), such as procuring emergency light sources, and stocks of basic foods in case supplies in the shops are further depleted.

On a national scale, key service providers, such as hospitals, should be checking that they have sufficient backup generation capabilities, adequate fuel reserves and contingency plans to keep essential operations running. And, if there are no widespread power cuts this winter, efforts won't have been wasted. Risks of disruption are likely to increase with every year for the next decade and beyond.

With that, there should probably be far more media activity than there is at present, especially after Jim Ratcliffe's warning yesterday that Britain could run out of gas in a cold winter. Given our reliance on gas for electricity generation, that would almost certainly mean extensive power cuts.

But, apart from the fact that the government is in denial on blackout risks – thus damping down speculation – there are several reasons why it is easier for the media to raise a hue and cry after an event, rather than taking upon itself the responsibility for warning of ills to come.

One of those reasons undoubtedly reflects modern media practice, where most news is conveyed to us in visual form - either in television broadcasts, in photographs published in newspapers or, increasingly, online.

As such, it is much easier to illustrate something which has already happened or is in the process of happening. Visuals can then be used as a backdrop for the much-favoured "secret squirrel" style of reporting, where self-regarding journalists can "reveal" that someone, somewhere, deep in the recesses of government or some important body, predicted what has just come to pass.

Before events occur, there are usually only talking heads and dry, often complex documents that no-one can be bothered to read, and fewer can understand. And for every event correctly forecast, there might be dozens of potential catastrophes which attract premonitions of doom, but which never happen.

Thus, unless there is official sanction for a nation-wide alarm or credible evidence that there is a problem already in the making (such as the recent fuel supply crisis), the media will tend to play it safe.

So it is with the prospect of widespread electricity outages where even Jim Ratcliffe's warning – repeated in yesterday's Independent is restricted to the risk of closing down British industry. He doesn't draw the obvious conclusions about the security of the electricity supply.

But then, Ratcliffe is not alone in failing to blow the whistle. It does seems as if the caucus of energy "experts" are just as reluctant to talk of potential blackouts. A good example might be an article by Michael Bradshaw in today's Guardian, exploring the current gas crisis.

Bradshaw is professor of global energy at Warwick Business School and a co-director at the UK Energy Research Centre, so might lay claim to some expertise in the field. Yet, he choses for his theme not the question of security of supply but, as per the heading of his piece: "The UK's reliance on gas imports leaves us open to unpredictable prices".

One cannot avoid being a little worried though, when the "expert" Bradshaw parrots the official line that the UK benefits from "a diverse range of supply sources and sufficient delivery capacity to more than meet demand", effectively ensuring "physical security of supply".

Around half the gas we consume, writes Bradshaw, comes from the North Sea "and we get the rest directly via pipeline from Norway – via two interconnectors from continental Europe – and as liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the global market". It is the case, he adds, "that the UK has enough pipes and terminals to deliver all the gas that we may need and more".

With security thus settled, for Bradshaw the crisis is all about "price security" - the price UK consumers need to pay in order to attract sufficient gas to meet national demand. Here, he is echoing Kwasi Kwarteng's line that the UK will have enough gas this winter, as long as we are prepared to pay for it.

Looking at the figures, Bradshaw's assertion about the proportion of home-produced and imported gas, looks about right. According to government sources, for 2020 we produced 48 percent of our gas and imported the remainder. However, that was for 2020 when demand was suppressed by the Covid-19 pandemic and we consumed less gas than normal. Now, as the economy picks up, demand is increasing. Against declining UK production, therefore, the amount of imported gas we need is increasing, as a proportion of our supply, as well as in absolute terms.

The bulk of those imports has most recently come from Norway – and not "via two interconnectors from continental Europe" as Bradshaw would seem to imply, but from three separate pipelines, direct from the Norwegian fields.

In 2019 though, that source accounted only for 57 percent of our imports, while LNG accounted for around 39 percent. Qatar was the primary supplier, at nearly half of all volume. Russia and the US collectively accounted for 33 percent.

Most of the balance came from the continental interconnectors, sourced from Dutch fields, topped up with Russian pipeline gas which also supplies the European grid.

And there lies the rub. As UK demand is increasing, so too is European demand. On the other hand, Dutch and Norwegian supplies are declining and the Russian pipeline gas flow has been reduced. This leaves the UK chasing scarce LNG supplies which, with massively increased demand from China and other Asian states, are not available at any price. Even if it was, there isn't the shipping to carry it.

Thus, while there exists more than enough physical capacity to import the gas we need through pipelines and interconnectors, there simply isn't enough pipeline gas on the international market to meet our import requirements. LNG is in critically short supply, as is the means to deliver it.

The price signals we are getting, therefore, are a reflection of the demand-supply imbalance and, as supply tightens, prices will increase further beyond even the current inflated levels. But price does not directly equate to volume available. What little there is will be eye-wateringly expensive, but there may still not be enough.

On that basis, the UK could be facing a "perfect storm", where we are not confronting either physical security or price security, but both problems at the same time. Now is a good time, I think, to panic.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 15/10/2021 link

Politics: the wrong type of issue

Thursday 14 October 2021  

With Northern Ireland back in the headlines, I'm almost tempted to write about something completely different, such as the mating habits of the lesser spotted shrew, if there is such a thing, just to register my protest about how this stunningly overstated issue has been allowed to occupy such a dominant place in our politics.

The situation is not made any better by the rantings of an ex-government employee whose compulsive attention-seeking has just sufficient plausibility to make it attractive to weak minds, and to engage those with a limited grasp of the issues.

One can only hope, therefore, with the adults back in the room, EU’s offer to scrap up to 80 per cent of checks on goods entering Northern Ireland that we are on our way to a temporary resolution of the issues (nothing is ever permanent, when it comes to Northern Ireland) – enough at least to take them out of the headlines and return the province to the obscurity that it so profoundly deserves.

Had I been capable of dredging up enough interest, I might have been tempted to review the detail of the Commission proposals, but the recently ennobled David Frost might be treating these as a "starter for ten", seeking to imprint his mark on them in much the same way a dog might urinate on its bounds, to mark out its territory. Thus, what we see is not necessarily what we will get.

Certainly, that is the way the Telegraph seems to be reporting the latest developments, with the headline: "Let the talks begin, says Lord Frost as EU offers new Northern Ireland deal".

Frost, thereby, seems to be assuming that the Commission's offer is mere foreplay, a precursor to another interminable round of talks which will allow him to gain further concessions – particularly on the role of the ECJ - thus affording him the opportunity to ride off victorious in the general direction of the sunlit uplands, to the applause of General Johnson and his merry band of nonentities.

What the Commission gets out of this is anyone's guess, although the Independent is bearing on its front page, the legend: "EU prepares for worst as Brexit divide remains".

Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic wants Frost to engage "earnestly and intensively", when they meet tomorrow for renewed talks. But Frost is merely saying that he will look "seriously and constructively” at the proposals "over the coming weeks".

Frost is drawing his line in the sand on the removal of ECJ jurisdiction over the deal. Thus, we are told, he is setting the scene for a "Christmas showdown", with observers unsure whether the EU's initiative has provided enough "wriggle room" for Frost and his boss to back down.

This is almost a question of "who cares, wins". The chances of this drama gripping the nation through into the festive season seems to be rather less than the UK government meeting its quota for foreign lorry drivers applying for temporary visas.

So far, we learn, just 20 have been issued to HGV drivers from abroad, with about 300 applications received – somewhat short of the 5,000 that the government is prepared to offer to tide us over until the end of next February.

Meanwhile, multi-millionaire Ranjit Singh Boparan, the owner of Bernard Matthews and 2 Sisters Food Group, is calling for a "reset" on pricing to reflect the true cost of producing food – presumably to top up his personal fortune, where adverse trading conditions have left poor man's fortune dwindling down to his last £500 million.

None of us could possibly disagree that we need lectures from multi-millionaires about the price of food, with Boparan sternly admonishing us that rising inflation was "decaying the food sector's supply chain", while complaining that the government cannot fix the problem.

"The days when you could feed a family of four with a £3 chicken are coming to an end", he says. "We need transparent, honest pricing. This is a reset and we need to spell out what this will mean", he adds, telling us that, "Food is too cheap, there's no point avoiding the issue. In relative terms, a chicken today is cheaper to buy than it was 20 years ago".

In a different universe, I probably would agree with him, although the message coming from the mouth of a multi-millionaire, in whose poultry plants slave workers have been found, is a little hard to take.

Nevertheless, this and parallel issues, in the run up to Christmas, might be more likely to seize the popular imagination than the arcane matter of whether the ECJ has the final say over interpretation of some technical aspects of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Similarly, people might be more entertained by the growing backlog of imports at Felixstowe, estimated to be worth in the order of £1.5 billion.

Felixstowe used to be the poster child for the efficiency of Britain's private ports system, but it has been dogged by problems with its cargo handling software which have taken the shine off its reputation. The immediate problem this time is the backlog of containers, apparently caused by the shortage of HGV drivers, delaying some of the docking of large ships and increasing unloading times.

Shipping company Maersk says that congestion at the port has been building for the past two weeks, forcing the company to dock as many as one in three of its large vessels at continental ports such as Rotterdam. Containers then destined for the UK will then, presumably, be offloaded and despatched to the UK on HGVs, further intensifying the driver shortage.

Even now, while the Westminster bubble is obsessing over the Protocol, the Mirror is running the "shortages crisis" on its front page, with the headline, "Rush to save Xmas", the story warning consumers not to delay buying their Christmas gifts.

Behind all this, the gas crisis grumbles on. Yet another two energy suppliers have bitten the dust, making 14 so far this year, with no indication that they will be the last. And, despite assurances to the contrary from Kwasi Modo, billionaire industrialist Jim Ratcliffe is warning that Britain could run out of gas in a cold winter, forcing industry to shut down.

I suppose we might be ill-disposed to take such warnings from a billionaire, but this one is the boss of Ineos, the petrochemicals giant. From this vantage point, he says that gas prices were likely to remain high throughout the winter and that it was possible there would be insufficient supplies for consumers and businesses alike.

Actually, such is the risk that this blog is not accepting assurances that energy supplies are secure over the winter. If we escape power cuts, it will be more by accident than design. We are taking measures, therefore, to ensure continuity of service, even if the electricity supply goes down.

Bluntly, it is such real-life problems such as these – and the attendant expense – which are of far more concern than the posturing of Frost over matters which should have been settled long ago, and which have simply gone on far too long.

But there is perhaps a new peril in the willingness of the EU to make concessions over Northern Ireland. One might see the Commission using the reduced checks on goods as leverage to secure a similar deal for EU goods entering the UK – thereby locking in the trading disadvantages suffered by agricultural and other sectors.

At that point, farmers – and the rest of us – might rediscover that inalienable law of the universe: no matter how bad things are, they can always get worse.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 14/10/2021 link

Politics: the wrong type of disease

Wednesday 13 October 2021  

More than 18 months after I first intimated that the government, in attempting to control the Covid-19 epidemic then rampaging through the country, was following the wrong plan, the joint Health and Social Care and Science and Technology Committees have come to the same conclusion - almost.

In their report, formally published yesterday, they tell us that there was an "overreliance" on pandemic influenza as the most important infectious disease threat. This, the committees say, "meant that the emphasis of detailed preparations was for what turned out to be the wrong type of disease".

However, to suggest that there was an "overreliance" is a significant misstatement. As I pointed out in my post, dated 25 April 2020, this hardly described what amounted to an obsession with pandemic influenza, in which SARS-like diseases (of which Covid-19 was one) had been written out of the picture.

This, in my view, is the single most important strand of error. It not only skewed the initial response to the epidemic, but also ensured that neither the personnel, the equipment nor the systems were available to mount an effective response. Furthermore, locked into their influenza paradigm, the first responders were schooled to react in a way that would maximise the spread of the disease.

The significance of this is easy to understand. Anyone planning a water-pistol duel will go equipped and prepared to squirt water. If the spat turns out to be a tank battle, it's a safe bet that you're going to get creamed.

With that in mind, I worked out the timeline of the planning failure and added my findings to the latest edition of Scared to Death published in August last year. More recently, I sent a version to the Committees, only to have it completely ignored.

Instead of focusing on the lack of effective planning as the primary point of failure, the Committees chose to highlight "decisions on lockdowns and social distancing during the early weeks of the pandemic - and the advice that led to them", asserting that these must "rank as one of the most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced".

Knowing that the media would find it hard to resist such a bold claim, this amounts to classic misdirection, diverting attention from the core failure. So successful has this been that the Guardian used the "failures" quote for its headline, referring to the focus on "the wrong type of disease" only in a caption to a picture, rather than in the main text.

The Telegraph was another paper taken in by the misdirection, reporting only that the report "also concluded" that Britain's pandemic planning was "too heavily based on influenza, and had failed to incorporate lessons from outbreaks of Sars, Mers and Ebola". But missed entirely by this paper – and the bulk of the media – is the singular fact that the control models for influenza and SARS are almost polar opposites.

In dealing with influenza, health teams had available a range of anti-viral drugs, well-rehearsed treatments, and the expectation of a vaccine available within six months of the pandemic strain being detected. Thus, beyond measures to ascertain the presence of the disease in the country, a test and trace programme, as a precursor to containing the disease, was regarded as "a waste of public health resources".

On the other hand, with Covid-19 (the manifestation of SAR), there was no immediate expectation of pharmaceutical interventions – either anti-virals or vaccines – leaving a mass "test and trace" programme as the main proactive option. Covid controls could not be folded into an influenza plan. They had to be developed and resourced separately – necessitating the advance planning.

However, with the commitment to the influenza model and no provision for SARS, the capability for carrying out a mass test and trace programme had been dismantled. The national resource had been allowed to wither away, almost to the point of extinction, the number of trained personnel available dropping from thousands to mere hundreds.

One does not have to be at all cynical to speculate as to why the Committees did not wish to emphasise this strand of failure, which left the lockdown as the only viable policy alternative. One chair of the joint committees which has launched this report is Jeremy Hunt, a former health secretary.

It was he who was cited in The Times on 23 April 2020, complaining that the "Whitehall pandemic strategy [was] focused too much on [the] flu threat", rather than on a previously unknown disease like the 2003 SARS outbreak. No, the Committees have acknowledged this, but Hunt has not admitted his culpability.

He was, of course, not the originator of the errors which were to send us down the wrong path. These go way back to the period after the threat of SARS emerged in 2002 and after 2005 when the WHO instructed members to prepare a specific response to SARS, warning that this disease could become a public health emergency of international concern.

The initial response was down to the Blair administration, under the aegis of two health secretaries, initially John Reid, who was in office until 6 May 2005, and then Patricia Hewitt, who seemed more concerned with initiating a ban on smoking in public places.

This pair, presiding over the departmental response to the WHO instruction, failed to distinguish between SARS and pandemic flu, accepting the conflation of the responses to two very different diseases into one document. So began the fatal confusion which was to skew the 2020 epidemic response.

This error was missed by the WHO, by our own Cabinet Office and the European Commission. It was repeated by Gordon Brown's administration in 2007, which focused entirely on a "National Framework for Responding to an Influenza Pandemic".

The faulty planning was then locked into place by the Cameron administration in 2011, under the aegis of Andrew Lansley as health secretary, whose NHS "reforms" were to destroy any last vestige of capability that could have managed a timely and effective response to Covid-19.

Thus, when Hunt took over the department on 4 September 2012, most of the damage had already been done. Nonetheless, he signed off Public Health England's "Pandemic Influenza Response Plan", which was published in August 2014, perpetuating the errors made by his predecessors.

Intriguingly, that year, Hunt's department had also published a Scientific Evidence Base Review on the "Impact of Mass Gatherings on an Influenza Pandemic". There is little if any direct evidence, it said, to support banning mass gatherings, suggesting that only voluntary rather than legislated restrictions could be implemented as part of a package of other public health measures.

Of particular concern to policy-makers was the lack of scientific evidence upon which to base guidance on mass gatherings. This, it was felt, was particularly important given the need to weigh any potential benefits against the economic and social disruption that banning or restricting such gatherings could have on society.

It was this document which raised questions about the "limited evidence" to determine whether respiratory viral prevalence was increased in mass gatherings, when compared to background rates or unexposed groups. These shaped the government's attitude to allowing the Cheltenham Festival to continue, early in the epidemic, and the Liverpool v Atletico Madrid football match at Anfield, Yet the Select Committee report questioned the decisions, without referring to the department's scientific advice.

Following that, the cumulative errors had been compounded by the removal of SARS, as a named disease, from the Cabinet's National Risk Register in 2017, downscaling the generic threat to a mere "100 fatalities". However, this was only one failing in over a decade of flawed decisions.

However, even though Hunt's role in the overall scheme of things ended up being relatively minor, he was in post for nearly six years, first under Cameron and then Mrs May. He handed over in July 2018 to Matt Hancock, who had the misfortune to drink from the poison chalice. During his tenure, Hunt had ample opportunity to change direction, had he seen fit. Under no circumstances, therefore, should he have headed the parliamentary inquiry. He should have been the other side of the table, as a witness to events.

On this, I'm not entirely alone. The Times has it that Chris Skidmore, a former junior health minister, questioned whether Hunt was well-placed to criticise the government, given that he had been health secretary for almost six years.

"This is about having a clear strategic plan, long-term, in place, developed by the Cabinet Office and the Department of Health. It wasn’t there", Skidmore said. He adds: "I find it a bit rich to have a report produced today by a former health secretary who's not willing necessarily to take also part of the blame for actually producing a plan that we needed to have in place when that pandemic happened".

Even the Guardian accepts that both committee chairmen are also former Conservative cabinet members. There can be no pretence that this preliminary review constitutes anything approaching a fully independent verdict, the paper says.

Demonstrating the gulf between what should have been, and the perception of the bubble, Damian Gramaticas, acting as political correspondent on yesterday's BBC TV 6pm bulletin, thought that each of the committees which jointly produced the report being headed by former cabinet ministers made them "very powerful".

And yet, we've been here before. In 2009, on my Defence of the Realm blog, I reported on how defence procurement minister, James Arbuthnot, had presided over the disastrous Phoenix UAV programme for the Army. The drone was so bad that it lasted in service less than seven years - at an overall cost of £345 million. Its removal left the Army with a vital capability gap at the height of the Iraq campaign.

Arbuthnot was later to be appointed chair of the defence select committee, where he ensured that this, and others of the procurement disasters he had handled, never suffered a critical word while he was in office.

To my mind, no former minister should ever be a member of a select committee – the primary function of which is to hold the executive to account – much less hold the post as chair. As such, Hunt is the very last person to lead a "lessons learned" inquiry into the Covid epidemic. His presence simply epitomises a corrupt political class washing its own laundry.

As such, despite this report, we are no further forward. Similar in some respects to the government's refusal to facilitate increased storage of natural gas, the Covid debacle was primarily a failure in the political decision-making process.

The joint committees don't seem to have understood this, and the media have gone with the flow, displaying no more understanding than the MPs on which they are reporting. Thus, no lasting lessons have yet been officially identified. The lessons are still to learn.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 13/10/2021 link

Energy: no global crisis

Tuesday 12 October 2021  

I once did a count of the number of different stories in the wartime Observer, compared with the modern-day paper. Roughly, there were as many on a page in the wartime editions as there are in the entire paper, these days.

As to the number of issues, in times of crisis, there is definitely a tendency in the contemporary media (newspapers and broadcasters alike) to concentrate on one main event, offering saturation coverage to the exclusion of all else. Ironically, in the early days of Ukip, we were often accused of being a single issue party, but now we tend to get a single issue media or, to be more precise, a media that can only deal with one issue at a time.

Where this translates into coverage of the crise du jour, as we have seen of late, this creates something of a problem for our single-item media when there is more than one crisis on the go at a time. The hard-pressed journos are often forced to choose their favoured topic and neglect the rest.

There is, however, an alternative stratagem, which is to link different crises so that they merge into a single blob of disruption and despair, even if the causes and impacts are very different.

We've seen something of this recently when the panic buying on fuel was linked to the HGV driver shortage, the pig logjam and a number of other problems, to present an all-singing, all-dancing, multi-purpose crisis with which to keep us entertained, furnishing endless opportunities for speculation and pontification.

Now, it seems to be the turn of energy. As the story matures and journos feel the need to inject new life into a stagnating agenda, there seem to be distinct efforts in some quarters to break out of the constraints of national reporting and to turn this into a global crisis.

A half-hearted and somewhat incoherent attempt at this is being made by the "reliable and trustworthy" US broadcaster CNN, handicapped by the insistence of American writers to describe liquid fuel as "gas", even where the subject matter also covers the real thing.

Despite attempts to stitch together a global dimension, though, in the eyes on CNN, the crisis is a one-dimensional matter of demand increasing as the world economy reopens after Covid, with supply failing to keep up.

Largely, therefore – apart from some local difficulties – the crisis is seen as a price shock, entirely focused on the costs of competing fossil fuel – coal, oil and natural gas - with no mention of the role of renewables (or even nuclear), the impact of the "green" agenda, or geopolitical aspects, such as the interplay between Putin's Russia and the European Union, or China and Australia.

And, although lip service is paid to the global impact, the article is in fact, determinedly US-centric, especially when it explores the interchangeability between oil and natural gas. "Oil has long been there as a potential substitute for natural gas", the broadcaster says, "except until recently, it didn't make any financial sense".

This is because, for much of the past dozen years, natural gas prices have been very low, making switching to oil uneconomical. But, in Europe, "where natural gas prices have gone from below $2 per million BTU last year to as much as $55 this fall", power plants and factories may increasingly turn to a relatively cheaper fuel source for electricity: crude oil.

Thus, we get the Bank of America warning that a cold winter could boost oil demand by half a million barrels per day, lifting Brent crude to $100 a barrel. That in turn "would cause more sticker shock for American drivers because gas prices are priced off Brent crude". Noting the potential confusion between gas and natural gas, this means that a change from gas to oil could mean an increase in the price of petrol.

Only a marginally better job at exploring the energy crisis in its broader geographical dimensions is done by iNews, although this paper's scope falls short of embracing the entire globe.

Instead, it links just four countries as the headline declares: "Germany, China and India join UK in facing energy crisis over gas, oil and coal shortages and soaring prices". "This winter", the narrative runs, "millions of homes around the world will be faced with little to no power as energy such as coal, gas and oil are in alarmingly low supply".

"The continuing crisis in the UK", we are told, "has left some energy companies going bust and homes and businesses struggling to pay soaring costs and bills". China is rationing electricity in some areas – a measure already seen in India, where the situation could become worse as the country's power plants are close to running out of coal.

These disparate events are thus labelled "the power crunch", which is said to be threatening supply chains and "raising questions about whether the move to renewable energy should happen sooner", whence we are treated to a collection of disparate national accounts which, in the UK, lumps in "the petrol crisis, with drivers queueing for hours at the pumps".

Here, I am not sure the narrative works at all, as there are two very different problems at play. The first – the focus of the CNN report – is the price shock, and the second, at the moment confined to China and India, are supply problems. Europe, including the UK, is not suffering shortfalls as yet, and we in the UK are assured that the lights will stay on this winter – if we can afford them – unless France has other ideas.

If electricity shortages are a measure or crisis, though, in addition of China and India, we can look to places such as South Africa where what is euphemistically called "load shedding" is now so common that it doesn't even feature on the international news agenda, even though users are braced for five years of disruption.

Then there is Brazil, where the energy crisis is so acute that the country is facing a widespread shortage of electricity by the end of 2021. As for Venezuela, blackouts have become a normal feature of life, while Cuba is no stranger to periods of enforced darkness. And closer to home, Lebanon has just suffered a national power outage.

Interestingly, the Financial Times doesn't seem to be looking at the "power crunch" in China and India in doom-laden terms relating to global energy supplies. Rather, it sees the local coal shortages in economic terms, warning that there are "casting a pall over Asia's economic prospects and raising the risk that inflationary pressures may ripple through the region".

Thus, despite attempts at linkage, it seems there are no particularly good grounds for turning the "energy crisis" into a global affair. Each problem area arises through a combination of its own specific circumstances, with very little in common with other areas.

For instance, the causes of China's power shortage include: its boycott of Australian coal imports; local governments restricting coal-fired power generation in order to comply with Beijing’s emission targets; slackening of coal-fired generation as the country transitions to renewable energy; and price caps on electricity which mean that demand is unaffected by increasing costs of coal and other inputs.

India, on the other hand, has been experiencing a sharp uptick in power demand as the economy recovers from the Covid-19, which has coincided with a lower than normal stock accumulation by thermal power plants in the April-June period.

This has been exacerbated by continuous rainfall in coal bearing areas in August and September which led to lower production and fewer despatches of coal from coal mines. Then, there has been a consistent move to reduce imports which, coupled with high international prices of coal, has reduced the supply of coal.

None of these issues bear any similarities with the travails being experienced by the UK, or in Europe. This, while the climate zealots would love there to be a global energy crisis to take with them to COP26, it doesn't seem to exist. What we really have is a series of disparate regional crises, with very little in common between them.

The mess we're in, therefore, is our own mess. It is for our own politicians to solve it.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 12/10/2021 link

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