29 August 2011

Eric Schmidt's MacTaggart lecture

On 26 August, Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google (and unknowingly host of this blog of course), gave the keynote MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival. The full text is available at the Guardian website, but I found that the section headed ‘The golden age is coming’ resonated with some previous posts. Having suggested that the UK (in the form of Sky, ITV and the BBC) had great strengths in producing content, and in supplying it on demand through, for example, the iPlayer, Schmidt then went on:
So what could go wrong? Well, everything. If I may be so impolite … your track record isn't great! The UK is the home of so many media-related inventions. You invented photography. You invented TV. You invented computers in both concept and practice. … Yet today, none of the world's leading exponents in these fields are from the UK.
So how can you avoid the same fate for your TV innovations? Of course there is no simple fix, but I have a few suggestions. First: you need to bring art and science back together. Think back to the glory days of the Victorian era. It was a time when the same people wrote poetry and built bridges. Lewis Carroll didn't just write one of the classic fairy tales of all time, he was also a mathematics tutor at Oxford. James Clerk Maxwell was described by Einstein as among the best physicists since Newton - but was also a published poet.
Over the past century the UK has stopped nurturing its polymaths. There's been a drift to the humanities - engineering and science aren't championed. Even worse, both sides seem to denigrate the other - to use what l'm told is the local vernacular, you're either a 'luvvy' or a 'boffin'.
I suspect he was a little misinformed: I thought ‘luvvies’, was a term used unsympathetically by the British satirical magazine Private Eye for members of the acting profession and its hangers-on (example from the issue of 5 August). More importantly, there is a well-established argument that it was much more than a century ago that the UK first lost interest in technology. Martin Wiener’s English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit: 1850-1980 was first published in 1981. His thesis was that the children of the early Victorian industrial entrepreneurs were sent to public schools (ie expensive private boarding schools) which favoured training in the classics over science.

Schmidt continued that we needed to start with education, not only in schools but:
At college-level too, the UK needs to provide more encouragement and opportunity for people to study science and engineering. In June, President Obama announced a programme to train 10,000 more engineers a year. I hope others will follow suit - the world needs more engineers. I saw the other day that on The Apprentice Alan Sugar said engineers are no good at business. Really? I don't think we've done too badly!
If the UK's creative businesses want to thrive in the digital future, you need people who understand all facets of it integrated from the very beginning. Take a lead from the Victorians and ignore Lord Sugar: bring engineers into your company at all levels, including the top.
A post here in June was in reaction to Sugar’s comments, where Schmidt has surely got it right. What seems to have eluded him though (or he was too tactful to mention) is that British television is dominated by arts and humanities graduates rather than ‘luvvies’. These people come from a narrow section of society, almost entirely London-based, famously Guardian-reading and certainly having little interest in science and technology, although enthusiastic users of iPads and the like. They are a key part of what the Independent’s John Rentoul refers to as the LBLM&C (London-based liberal media and culturati) – himself included.

An interesting question is how did the BBC get itself to be in the favourable position that it is with digital broadcasting, the iPlayer and so on? The answer is probably down to one controversial figure, John Birt (now Lord Birt), who was BBC Director General from 1992 to 2000. He introduced numerous reforms to the way the BBC was run and introduced much of its new technology, but exhibited a fondness for management speak which many of the LBLM&C in the BBC found hard to take. Private Eye still runs the occasional column of examples which, if nothing else, show that the cultural changes and tensions Birt introduced to the BBC continue to the present (example from the issue of 20 June). Birt had worked in television since leaving Oxford, but, unlike most of his contemporaries at the top of the media, he was an engineering graduate.

Birt gave the MacTaggart Lecture in 2005, when he predicted:
A single, wireless system in the home - one box at its hub - may manage your media, your communication, your computing, and your household security and utilities. The battle in the home will see the telcos and cable operators in the red corner trying to build a box to connect your TV and the rest of your home to broadband - a passport to an on-demand world. And in the blue corner - surprise, surprise - Sky, creating an enormous memory in your Sky Plus box, in which you - or they! - can store thousands of hours of treasures, a box Sky can build to be your home hub supplying all the functionality I outlined earlier.
So watch out over the next decade for a new battle of the boxes, with BT and Sky likely to be the two Goliaths fighting it out to the death. The next generation of technology will pose substantial issues for policy makers and public service broadcasters alike.
I’m not sure that six years later it’s actually working out like this. The originators identified by Schmidt (and Google’s YouTube) are holding the repositories of content which are accessible through the internet to the latest TVs or Blu-ray players. These seem to be subsuming the role of Birt’s ‘box’. The telcos seem to be stuck with providing internet connectivity to the wifi modems servicing TVs, and the household galaxy of iPads, BlackBerries, Kindles etc.


The Financial Times this morning picks up another thread in Schmidt’s lecture:
The UK does a great job at backing small firms and cottage industries. But there’s little point getting a thousand seeds to sprout if they’re then left to wither or get transplanted overseas.
and goes on to point out:
The agreed takeover of Autonomy, Britain’s biggest software champion, by Hewlett-Packard of the US is a blow to the UK’s hopes of building a “global gorilla” in the sector, even if its operations remain in Britain. But more worrying, as Strathclyde University’s Prof Colin Mason pointed out in a letter to the FT on 23 August, are the smaller technology companies acquired by large foreign ones.
As Mason had explained:
Elizabeth Garnsey and Vivian Mohr of Cambridge’s Institute for Manufacturing found that 42 per cent of high-growth companies in the Cambridge cluster were acquired between 1998 and 2008 – double the 1980s’ rate. Almost half the acquirers were foreign. … emerging companies are likely to be much more vulnerable to being uprooted, especially if it is their intellectual property that makes them an attractive acquisition target. I recently heard of one Scottish life sciences company that had attracted six potential buyers, four of which would have closed it down if they had acquired it, because of the competitive threat that it represented.
The FT echoes his conclusions:
In many ways the UK has advanced as a technology centre over the past decade. Some companies grow to a decent size and there are more repeat entrepreneurs who reinvest their expertise into new ventures. But many sell too soon. Is this because entrepreneurs lack staying power, or because the funding system is flawed, with business angels or venture capitalists seeking too quick a return? Vince Cable, business secretary, is fond of reviews. This is surely worthy of investigation.
Perhaps any investigator could take the time to look out a copy of Martin Wiener's book (not available on Kindle!).

28 August 2011

Giovanni Di Gregorio’s ‘The Salt of Life’

In 2008 Giovanni Di Gregorio directed and acted in Pranzo di ferragosto which was released a year later in the UK as Mid-August Lunch. The central characters were Gianni himself and his aged mother, played by Valeria De Franciscis who was making her acting debut at 93 (Di Gregorio is 62). The comical and charming story centres around hard-up Gianni, very much at mamma’s beck-and-call, having to organise a lunch for her and her equally aged friends in their apartment in central Rome. It was recently shown on BBC4 and is well worth seeing on DVD, if you can find it.

Earlier this year Di Gregorio’s new film, Gianni e le donne (lit: Gianni and the women), was released in Italy and has now appeared in the UK as The Salt of Life (why – there’s a mention of Himalayan salt?). This is a companion piece to Mid-August Lunch, rather than a sequel, perhaps it would have come off better as a comedy if it had been. This Gianni has a wife and daughter and his mother (De Franciscis again) is wealthy but alarmingly spendthrift. Just into early retirement, he can’t come to terms with becoming another old man in the street, and decides to start chasing after young women. Predictably he ends up making himself ridiculous and getting into scrapes, while being totally unsuccessful in his pursuits. Obviously he should have taken up blogging instead.

25 August 2011

IPPR’s Three Tribes

An old joke recycled: There are three kinds of people who believe that there are three kinds of people: those who do, those who don’t and those who don’t know.

In the Guardian in July Allegra Stratton reported that Graeme Cook, from the think-tank IPPR, is proposing that the electorate has changed and that it no longer helps to think of swing voters and core voters, and in terms of the upper, middle and working classes. Instead he offers ‘three new tribes, and they do not have life-long loyalties to political parties’:
Pioneers (41% of Britons) are global, networked, like innovation and believe in the importance of ethics.
Prospectors (28%) like success, ambition, seek the esteem of others and if they think a party can help them help themselves, they are on board.
Settlers (31%) see things in terms of right and wrong, are wary of change, seek security and have a strong sense of place – patriotism and national security motivate them to vote.  All the social classes split up in roughly the same proportions. Settlers were most numerous after 1945, but as people became steadily more affluent, "post-material attitudes" dominated and so now Pioneers are the largest group.
Cook points out that:
"The question is which politician can harness the Pioneer, the Prospector and the Settler in a convincing way." The trick for politicians is to match up the different interests of the three groups like on a fruit machine. It is a complicated manoeuvre but it's what Miliband has managed to do on phone hacking.
… After the Milly Dowler hacking revelations, a campaign suitable for Pioneers suddenly became appealing to Settlers too. Prospectors joined in as it became clear to them at some point that Miliband was "winning".
Miliband's natural base is Pioneers. But the Lib Dems and Greens appeal to this group too.
and the Tories also know which buttons to press:
Cook reflects that: "When Gove talks about school discipline, he is talking to Settlers. When Cameron talks about increasing aid to 0.7%, he is talking to Pioneers. And when George Osborne is talking about the deficit and tax, he is talking to Prospectors."
I looked for more about Cook’s research on the IPPR website, but it seems to be a work in hand and should be reporting later in the year. It certainly seems to be a different approach from the legendary ‘C2 housewives over 30’. To test out his proposal, I thought it might be informative to look at some recent polling results on major issues.

The key findings from an Angus Reid poll about Europe in July were:
57% say EU membership has been negative for the UK; 32% believe it has been positive (11% not sure)
49% would vote to leave the EU in a referendum; 25% would vote to stay in (27% not sure or wouldn’t vote)
81% would vote against the UK adopting the euro; only 8% endorse this idea (11% not sure or wouldn’t vote) 
This seems to suggest that even the ‘global’ Pioneers are divided over Europe.

YouGov@Cambridge polled in June about attitudes to International Aid for PoliticsHome and found that 41% were very or somewhat favourable towards it, 38% very or somewhat unfavourable, 17% neither.  This would give a good alignment of pro-aid and Pioneers only if none of the latter were neutral on the subject.

In August, Survation surveyed attitudes to crime and punishment including the death penalty for the Mail on Sunday. Its re-introduction for certain crimes was supported by 53%, opposed by 34% and 13% didn’t know.

The measure seems to appeal beyond the Settlers.

The factor missing from the IPPR typology (at least as described in the Guardian) is that of age, though it is implicit in the suggestion that Settlers have been in decline since 1945 and Pioneers are on the rise. The three polling examples indicate how important it can be. YouGov@Cambridge conclude that ‘Older voters are far more likely to be opposed to the principle of international aid than young people’ as can be seen in their chart below:

The Angus Reid poll also shows an increasingly negative view of Europe in older age groups, and the Survation poll showed an increasingly tough attitude about the death penalty for groups over 40:
The Survation poll also showed that on certain issues, gender has a significant effect on attitude:
The educational experiences of different age groups reflect the continuing expansion of opportunity over recent decades. Among the over 55s, about half finished full-time education before the age of 16, whereas about a third of the under 35s had finished under 18. (Source: Populus poll June 2011)

A much higher proportion of the full-time education has been at a university (in name) in recent years (data from an earlier post):

Whether older people’s attitudes reflect biologically-driven changes in psychological outlook due to ageing, or past levels of formal education is something that will become clearer over the next few decades. Perhaps by the time people reach 60 it is the experience gained on courses in the 'University of Life’ which counts.  However, formal educational seems to be inversely related to propensity to vote, for example in terms of turnout at the 2010 General Election, cited by MORI. The gender difference seems to be slight except for females under 25 who seem to find politics even less interesting than their male contemporaries. 

Britain, thankfully, has become an increasingly less class-conscious society, in which the majority of people now regard themselves as ‘middle class’, however squeezed they may be feeling. It therefore seems worthwhile to seek out categorisations other than the old favourites of A, B, C1 etc. It will be interesting to see whether Graeme Cook develops his Pioneer, Prospector, Settler model to accommodate those two eternal aspects of the human condition - age and gender, particularly when the former seems to be a major factor in variations in shaping opinions and in propensity to vote across the electorate.


Grame Cook has now published Still partying like it's 1995 on the IPPR website which fills out his views on the 'political sociology' of modern Britain in some depth.  He seems to have moved away from the three types above, and looks at age as a factor in determining political opinions, if not gender.

23 August 2011

Farewell Aerodrome

The lexicographers who compile the Chambers dictionaries have decided that some words have fallen out of use to such an extent that they should no longer appear in their smaller volumes. Among the words to be relegated is ‘aerodrome’, as used the title of a novel by Rex Warner (1905-86) which is still in print. It was first published in 1941, and as a wartime economy Penguin in 1944:

Although the author called it a ‘love story’, it can be regarded as an allegory contrasting the ruthless efficiency of the Air Vice-Marshal and the new aerodrome and the nearby bucolic English village with its Rectory, all seen through the eyes of a young man who had grown up in the village but had joined the air force. Being very much of the pre-war period, the story can be interpreted at one level as a contrast between the emergent Nazi Germany and a pacific Britain, at another between order and chaos. However, by 1941 and after the Battle of Britain, the RAF had come to be regarded as the nation’s saviour in the form of Fighter Command, and the only means of taking the war to the enemy homeland through Bomber Command.

The aerodrome resembles one of the numerous RAF stations constructed across the country under the 1934 Expansion Scheme put in place as a response to the rapidly increasing capability of  the Luftwaffe. These photographs are of the older parts of RAF Mildenhall which are now maintained in their 1930s appearance by the USAF 100th Civil Engineer Squadron.  In some ways The Aerodrome is touched with surrealism, which had had some artistic attention in the UK in the  1930s, the International Surrealism Exhibition (below) in London in 1936, for example:

Warner had spent his childhood in Gloucestershire, SW England and went on to Oxford in its 1920s ‘Brideshead’ period. He later became a successful translator from the Greek and Latin classics, and an academic. He was one of those unusual individuals who marry, divorce and re-marry the same woman.
(Revised 27 August)

18 August 2011

‘We don’t have to stay, Henry’

The review section of the Daily Telegraph on 15 August offered readers its Pick of the paperbacks, starting with Leading from the Front by General Sir Richard Dannatt, ‘A searing indictment of how Labour failed the armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan’. (Back in May, I commented on Dannatt’s appearance at the Hay Literary Festival in connection with this book, and in April posted on Matt Cavanagh’s articles on Labour and the generals.)

In contrast, but also on 15 August, Sir Rodric Braithwaite reviewed in the Financial Times Frank Ledwidge’s Losing Small Wars:
… a savage indictment of the military leadership that got British soldiers into one impossible situation after another in Iraq and Afghanistan. His conclusion is stark: “The reputation of the British army has been seriously damaged. The British were at sea in both places, devoid of viable doctrine, without awareness of their environment, lacking adequate forces and minus any coherent strategy to pursue. All this was coupled with a hubris which attracted its inevitable riposte – nemesis.”
Braithwaite concluded:
The generals can be blamed, as Ledwidge says, for not insisting that they were given objectives that were clear, consistent, adequately resourced, and achievable within a reasonable time. Instead, they assured ministers that they could do whatever was asked of them, in a misguided desire to show off their prowess and secure their future budgets. They acquiesced, may even have believed, in the dubious proposition that we needed to follow the Americans to Iraq and Afghanistan to pay, in Tony Blair’s distasteful phrase, “a ‘blood price’ to secure [Britain’s] special relationship with America”. No wonder they failed to produce a convincing military plan. It was, however, a failure of moral fibre rather than strategic thinking.
The real problem, however, goes far beyond two failed wars and it is not only the politicians and generals who are to blame. The British public, too, seems to want the country to have aircraft carrier and missile submarines so that we can “punch above our weight”, sending military expeditions hither and yon, provided the price in blood and treasure is not too high. That will not change until Britain finally works out what sort of country it is – a floundering former empire still dreaming of a global reach, or a serious medium-sized power with a realistic view of its national interests. Then it can decide what kind of armed forces it really needs and is prepared to pay for. Meanwhile, Britain will have no coherent strategy and its foreign and defence policy will remain in its present sad muddle.
Sir Rodric has been UK ambassador to Moscow and Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), and is the author of the recently published and well-regarded Afgantsy, a history of the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan. So lesser mortals ought to take care when picking over anything he writes, but nonetheless …

Firstly, was it ‘Tony Blair’s distasteful phrase, “a blood price” ’? In 2002, prior to a visit to the US, Blair gave an interview for a BBC Two programme, Hotline to the President. The BBC News website still has an item (image below) on the programme, headed Britain will pay 'blood price' – Blair, and starting with:
Britain must be prepared to pay a "blood price" to secure its special relationship with the US, Prime Minister Tony Blair has told the BBC ahead of talks on Iraq with President Bush.
But further on it reads:
Hotline to the President presenter Michael Cockerell asked Mr Blair whether one of the elements of the UK-US special relationship was whether "Britain is prepared to send troops to commit themselves, to pay the blood price".
Mr Blair replied: "Yes. What is important though is that at moments of crisis they (the USA) don't need to know simply that you are giving general expressions of support and sympathy.
"That is easy, frankly. They need to know, `Are you prepared to commit, are you prepared to be there when the shooting starts?'"

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem likely, according to the BFI, that this programme will be turning up soon on YouTube or anywhere else. But from the BBC webpage it appears that it was Cockerell’s ‘distasteful phrase’, not Blair’s. Unless, of course, Blair had used it earlier, somewhere off the record, and Cockerell was primed to spring it, gobbet-style. Although an admirer of Cockerell’s work for many years, I knew very little about him, so his entry on Wikipedia (which, of course, may not be accurate) proved worth reading. He is 71 this month and has had seven children from three relationships, two former wives coming from high Tory circles.

Secondly, Sir Rodric’s remark ‘The British public, too, seems to want the country to have aircraft carrier and missile submarines’ touched on something I posted here, much less elegantly, earlier this month:
Perhaps in 2011, if the UK is envisaged in some quarters as having accepted being on the way to minor power status (eg eventually abandoning its nuclear deterrent, aircraft carriers and a serious intelligence capability), keeping on good terms with the US is not seen as worth the price. However the UK would need to be confident that it could address the current and future threats to cyber security without close cooperation with the US.
and I quoted the National Security Strategy:
2.11 Our strong defence, security and intelligence relationship with the US is exceptionally close and central to our national interest.
It’s difficult to argue against a former Chairman of the JIC if he thinks it a ‘dubious proposition that we needed to follow the Americans to Iraq and Afghanistan’, but I wonder what Sir Rodric would make of the programme Document broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 15 August. (Don’t worry, dear reader, you have the rest of your life to catch up – apparently it will be ‘Available until 12:00AM Thu, 1 Jan 2099’; hopefully so will the BBC).
Mike Thomson investigates the collapse of the US UK special relationship in 1973, via a revealing transcript of a phone call between President Nixon and Henry Kissinger which suggests the split was deeper and more severe than previously thought.
As Britain joined the EEC, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger became increasingly annoyed at the lack of support by Edward Heath's government for American foreign policy. Mike uncovers papers which suggest that in retaliation, the US switched off the supply of intelligence to the UK.
Among those Mike speaks to are former Defence and Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington and Lord Powell, later Margaret Thatcher's Private Secretary.
The problem which arose in 1973 had been described in Richard J Aldrich’s GCHQ, and he appeared in the programme. This is an extract from the chapter, Trouble with Henry (pages 289-90):
Kissinger was looking for a symbolic area to hit that would send a clear message to London. He chose the intelligence relationship. The next day, intelligence relations between the two Countries were halted. NSA went quiet, and officials told Heath that the CIA had 'suspended the supply of certain intelligence materials to us’. NSA and the CIA had been instructed to cease intelligence exchange with GCHQ and SIS. British officials regarded this as ‘sinister’.  ... the JIC discussed Anglo-American intelligence relations at four consecutive meetings during late August and early September as it struggled to address the problem. Kissinger's 'cut-off' had the desired effect, and sent shock waves through the British establishment. This event is so sensitive that even after more than thirty years have passed, the Cabinet Office still [2007] refuses to declassify further documents on the subject.
The reactions of the American intelligence agencies to Kissinger’s insistence on a cut-off varied. NSA offered a legalistic response, insisting that its relationship with GCHQ was governed by 'a binding international treaty", so it would have to investigate and see what could be done. This was a polite way of telling Kissinger that it intended to ignore him. The CIA also fudged its reply on the matter of human intelligence or reports from agents that were supplied to SIS. Certainly at a station level, some cooperation continued. The area that was hit hardest was imagery the supply of top-secret photographs from spy planes and satellites. The senior RAF officer tasked with collecting this sensitive imagery, who travelled to Washington once a week on an RAF Comet airliner, turned up and found that 'The bag just was not there.'
The Document programme had uncovered a recorded telephone conversation between Nixon and Kissinger. The President’s exasperation with the emergent EEC led him to remark: ‘We don’t have to stay, Henry’ [ie we can withdraw US forces from Europe].  Document ended with contributions from Powell and Carrington, the former very pro the UK/US special relationship, the latter now very sceptical – “ … a figment of the British imagination”. Aldrich records (page 282) Carrington’s attitude at the time:
Carrington explained that the Anglo-American partnership was perhaps a natural one, given that the two allies' 'geography and size are so different'. Although the scope and scale of Britain's residual empire was continually declining, the small remnants were nonetheless supremely valuable. Carrington continued:
Because of the number of our remaining island dependencies, we are able to provide the Americans with facilities which they would get from no one else on a comparable scale. Indeed, the very fact of our possession of these dependencies enables us to make a considerable contribution to an alliance which is important to both of us but in which otherwise our respective contributions might be very ill-balanced.
All this allowed Britain to benefit from what he called 'the massive American military technological and intelligence machine'. Carrington argued that the hidden reciprocal benefits to Britain were in three areas: nuclear weapons, research and development, and intelligence. While these things were relatively invisible compared to the requested British real estate, they were nonetheless extremely valuable. Without American intelligence, he argued, 'and particularly that derived from the NSA/GCHQ Agreement', Whitehall would be unable to assess the key military developments inside the Eastern Bloc and China, and indeed would struggle even to produce good intelligence on lesser threats in the Middle East.
Sir Rodric is surely right to propose that Britain should ‘… decide what kind of armed forces it really needs and is prepared to pay for.’ However, what if the UK concludes that it must have the capabilities provided by ‘aircraft carrier[s] and missile submarines’? Since RN submarines are equipped with either Trident or Tomahawk missiles, both from the US, and the future carriers are likely to carry the F35 Joint Strike Fighter, perhaps we should not forget what happened in 1973. The film, Fair Game, recently released on DVD, is a reminder of the US’s intolerance of anyone who wasn’t ‘with us’ in 2002. Whether Bush’s White House would have behaved like Nixon and Kissinger’s is something that only insiders can judge.

11 August 2011

Does Britain need a French-style CRS?

This month London and other English cities have been through a spasm of rioting and looting. Countering such lawlessness is the responsibility of the police service which includes units which specialise in controlling public order. These go under a variety of names: Tactical Support Group, Tactical Aid Unit etc, the best-known and biggest being the Metropolitan Police’s Territorial Support Unit. This is in contrast to the French approach where policing and public order are organised nationally, rather than by constabularies responsible to the Home Office. The unprecedented problems in the UK in August 2011, and the possibility of their recurrence in future years, will doubtless be the subject of various inquiries in the coming months. One issue which may arise is whether the UK would be better served in future by the French model.

France has two national law enforcement agencies under the control of the Interior Ministry (Ministère de l’Intérieur), the civilian Police Nationale (PN) and the Gendarmerie Nationale (GN) formerly under the Ministry of Defence (Ministère de la Défense). There is also a civilian customs and border service. Only these three can make arrests. Municipal police in the large towns enforce local by-laws, but can only notify general illegality to the other agencies.

The division of roles between the PN and GN is essentially that the PN concentrates on urban areas of more than 15,000 people, the GN on smaller urban areas, suburbs and the countryside. The GN, although now under the Interior Ministry’s budget, retains military status. There are about 120,000 policiers and 100,000 militaires. In England and Wales there are about 140,000 police officers (nearly 25% in the London force) with another 100,000 or so support staff. In Scotland there are about 17,000 police officers and 7,000 staff and in N Ireland about 7,500 full-time regular police officers and 2,700 staff. There are also UK MoD, Transport and civil nuclear police forces of about 7500 police officers and staff. This gives totals of about 170,000 police officers in the UK as opposed to 220,000 PN and GN in France. Direct comparisons are difficult to make for various reasons: lack of support staff numbers for France; the PN and GN functions do not match exactly with those of the UK police services; the PN and GN also have responsibilities in overseas departments and territories. Emma Duncan (deputy editor of The Economist) stated in The Times(£) on 11 August: ‘Britain is fairly thinly policed: England and Wales have 257 police officers per 100,000 people, compared with 301 in Germany and 369 in France’. Presumably her figures allow for the issues mentioned – certainly the impression is that France has a larger number of police for its population than the UK.

Both PN and GN have sections whose duties include riot control, the CRS (Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité) and Gendarmerie Mobile (GM)  respectively, the latter in contrast to the main GN which is organised by Department (Gendarmerie Départementale). The CRS is better-known in the UK because its appearances during major manifestations in Paris receive international media coverage. The CRS has other responsibilities which in the UK are undertaken by the Border Agency and the Metropolitan Police’s Diplomatic Protection and Special Escort Groups. Similarly the GM has roles which in the UK are discharged by HM Forces, including ceremonial duties and Special Forces tasks.
Gendarmerie Mobile

In the eyes of the French law-abiding majority, who have a distaste for disorder, both groups are ‘respected but not loved’. Civil libertarians tend to regard them as over-aggressive and as having racialist tendencies. The GM are known as la jaune (the yellow) because of their golden rank insignia, (the Gendarmerie Départementale are called la blanche after their white insignia). The GM (number unknown) wear black uniforms, whereas the CRS (about 15000) wear blue uniforms with a large red CRS patch, hence les rouges (?). Their deployment has the advantage of sending a clear signal to demonstrators that a firm line is going to be taken.

The CRS approach is based on mobility of deployment, and, once deployed, the capability to use advanced control techniques such as tear gas and rubber bullets. They are based in barracks outside the cities to which they are likely to be deployed, so, CRS from, say, Bergerac could be called to police Bordeaux, Toulouse or even Lyon. In that sense their use is antithetical to the community oriented policing approach of the UK.

The financial cost of establishing an English equivalent to the CRS outside the Metropolitan Police and County Constabularies would not be trivial. In fact, France is taking some steps in bringing the PN and GN together (rapprochement). Probably three or four bases (say one for London and the South East and two or three others) would have to be acquired (perhaps MoD surplus) and to judge from the recent riots, rapidly deployable groups of hundreds of officers would be needed to make an early impact. A total establishment of thousands of officers would be costly to maintain and their contribution to normal policing would be limited. The advantage would be the ability to suppress disorder efficiently, albeit at some cost to community policing. However, having witnessed recent events, many communities might now accept the need for heavier policing to head off problems before they get out of hand. None of this addresses the more fundamental problems of command and control. There is no UK equivalent of the French département and préfet system of central government supervision through which decisions to deploy the CRS and GM seem to be made.

To answer the question at the start, ‘Does Britain need a French-style CRS?’, the answer is probably not, but there do seem to be shortcomings in the present English system. These may in part be due to resourcing, but there may also be separate and more significant issues to be addressed as to decision-making on the deployment of the resources which are available.


8 August 2011

The Iraq Inquiry and ‘Warning Letters’

After last month’s media firestorm over phone hacking, quite a few people in Fleet Street and in Downing Street must have been pleased to see the headline of 31 July’s Mail On Sunday (MoS) focussing on something quite different: ‘The damning of Tony Blair: Former PM to be held to account on Iraq in Chilcot report on war’. David Cameron had attempted some hosing down of ‘Hackgate’ on 20 July in the Commons when he made a ‘Statement on Public Confidence in the Media and Police’ and took questions at length. During one of his replies he said:
[Interruption.] From a sedentary position, the shadow Chancellor says, “We didn’t hire Andy Coulson.” Look, you hired Damian McBride. You had Alastair Campbell. You had Alastair Campbell falsifying documents in government. You have still got Tom Baldwin working in your office. [Interruption.] Yes. Gotcha!
Whether the remark about Campbell was an unguarded response to Ed Balls, who the PM seems to find very irritating, or whether it was a ‘gobbet’ intended for release in response to any criticism of the PM's having employed Coulson, we may never know. However, as explained on his blog, Campbell immediately emailed the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell (GOD):
Dear Gus,
The Prime Minister said in the Commons today that whilst working in Downing Street I falsified government documents. He said this without qualification, and without providing any evidence to substantiate the claim.
As you know, I have appeared before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, the Intelligence and Security Committee, and the Hutton Inquiry. All three thoroughly probed allegations made against me with regard to inserting false intelligence into government documents in the run-up to war in Iraq, and all three concluded that the allegations were unfounded. Similarly, no evidence has been presented to the Chilcot Inquiry, to which I testified for several hours, that I falsified government documents.
I am writing to ask on what basis the Prime Minister made the claim that he did, under parliamentary privilege, and what evidence he has to justify it.
If he concludes that no such evidence exists, I would hope that he could withdraw the allegation via a letter from you.
Yours, Alastair Campbell
It took over a week, and presumably a fair bit of aller retourner between No 10 and the Cabinet Office, and perhaps others, to produce GOD’s letter in reply on 28 July:
Dear Alastair,
Thank you for your email and apologies for the delayed response.
The Prime Minister is aware that the allegations made against you in relation to the WMD dossier presented to Parliament by his predecessor in September 2002 have been investigated by several inquiries. Let me assure you that, contrary to some of the media reporting of his comments about you in the Commons, that was not what the Prime Minister had in mind.
In what was a very lively Commons debate, the PM was referring to the briefing paper you commissioned on Iraq’s infrastructure of concealment and deception which, because of the failure to attribute material taken from the work of an academic, became known as ‘the dodgy dossier’.
Whilst I know you were unaware of the mistake by a member of your team which led to this controversy, you did take responsibility for it at the time, when you appeared before the Foreign Affairs Committee.
You are well aware of how heated things can get in the Commons and I can assure you the Prime Minister’s statement about you was no more than political knockabout which got a bit carried away.
I hope you will accept my assurances. I understand that No10 have and are continuing to make it clear that the PM was casting no aspersions whatever in relation to this, and it is right that they do so.
Campbell concluded:
Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell today replied to my complaint of a week ago about the allegations made by the Prime Minister in the House of Commons that I falsified government documents. I am very grateful to him for the reply, and to the Prime Minister for the explanation offered; that this was ‘political knockabout which got a bit carried away,’; that contrary to some of the media reporting of his statement last week, he was not referring to the WMD dossier presented to Parliament by Tony Blair in 2002, and that he was ‘casting no aspersions.’ So far as I am concerned, that is a satisfactory conclusion to the matter.
Three days later (or probably the next day, Friday, when the Sundays usually decide on their main stories), the MoS claimed:
The Mail on Sunday has been told that the former Prime Minister will be held to account on four main failings:
* Bogus claims that were made about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.
* Not telling the British public about his secret pledge with George Bush to go to war.
* Keeping the Cabinet in the dark by his ‘sofa government’ style.
* Failing to plan to avoid the post-war chaos in Iraq.
Well-placed sources say the reputations of Mr Blair and key allies will suffer major damage when the report by Sir John Chilcot’s Iraq War inquiry is published this autumn. Mr Blair, former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and ex-Downing Street spin doctor Alastair Campbell are all expected to be criticised.

The Mail on Sunday understands that the inquiry rounds on Mr Blair for telling Parliament that intelligence suggesting Saddam had WMDs was ‘beyond doubt’.
Most of the MoS’s report was a selection from material published by the Inquiry which supported the main thrust of their story:
The inquiry report is also expected to criticise spin doctor Mr Campbell, whose denial that the dossier on Saddam’s weapons was designed to ‘make the case for war’ was challenged by former spy chief Major-General Michael Laurie, who was head of intelligence collection for the Defence Intelligence Agency.

And earlier this month an unnamed MI6 officer said Mr Campbell acted like ‘an unguided missile’ in work on the intelligence dossier. The spin doctor had ‘a propensity to have rushes of blood to the head and pass various stories and information to journalists without appropriate prior consultation’.
However, the MoS statement that:
… Sir John Chilcot's Iraq War inquiry is published this autumn
was contradicted in the London Evening Standard (LES) the next day: ‘Sir John Chilcot Iraq verdict won't be published until January’. This was because:
Under the rules of public inquiries, anyone taken to task must be told in advance and given chance to respond. But the so-called "Salmon letters" have yet to be sent out, and a source said the process would put the report back until the new year.
- not quite the expectation of the MoS. It will be interesting to see which paper is right, and whether the LES ‘source’ turns out to be closer than the MoS’s ‘well-placed sources’.

So what is ‘the process’? According to the Inquiry website’s FAQs:
35. Will you notify witnesses/individuals before you mention or criticise them in the report?
The Inquiry’s Witness Protocol makes it clear that if the Inquiry expects to criticise an individual in the final report, that individual will, in accordance with normal practice, be provided with relevant sections of the draft report in order to make any representations on the proposed criticism prior to publication of the final report.
What might ‘in accordance with normal practice’ involve? For non-lawyers, a helpful explanation is available on law firm Field Fisher Waterhouse’s website in the form of ‘A practical guide to commissioning and conducting investigations and inquiries’ by Ed Marsden and Martin Smith. Among many other things, it explains the “Salmon letter” mentioned by the LES:
For inquiries conducted under the Inquiries Act 2005, the Salmon letter procedure has been codified in to a process of “warning letters” (see section 13 of the Act). This provides that the chairman may not include any explicit or significant criticism of a person in a report unless he has sent a warning letter to a person who:
(a) He considers may be, or who has been, subject to criticism in the inquiry proceedings; or
(b) About whom criticism may be inferred from evidence that has been given during the inquiry proceedings; or
(c) Who may be subject to criticism in any report or interim report.
Section 14 of the Act creates a statutory duty of confidence between the recipient of such a letter, the inquiry team and the recipient’s legal representative. The duty persists until such time as the inquiry’s report is published or the chairman waives the duty.
The contents of warning letters under the Act are set out in section 15. They must:
(a) state what the criticism or proposed criticism is
(b) contain a statement of the facts that the chairman considers substantiate the criticism or proposed criticism
(c) refer to any evidence which supports those facts.
But is the Iraq Inquiry being conducted under the 2005 Act? Presumably it is, but some of the key provisions are not being exercised, eg Section 17(2): Power to take evidence on oath and Section 37: Immunity from suit. The latter is interesting, in that according to Marsden and Smith:
The law provides that where a statement is made by one individual about another which is false and damages that person’s reputation, that person may commence proceedings for damages on grounds of defamation.
Those conducting inquiries, and those giving evidence in such proceedings are as susceptible to an action for libel (in respect of written statements) or slander (oral statements) as anyone else.
However, where “qualified privilege” attaches to an inquiry it serves to protect the statement-maker where they make a false and disparaging statement in the course of the inquiry providing the statement is made in good faith. This is not the case, though, where the statement-maker is motivated by malice.
For inquiries conducted under the Inquiries Act 2005, section 37 codifies the previous common law understanding of the qualified privilege defence to defamation proceedings. Section 37(3) provides as follows:
37(3) for the purposes of the law of defamation, the same privilege attaches to
(a) Any statement made in or for the purposes of proceedings before an inquiry (including the report and any interim report of the inquiry)
(b) Reports of proceedings before an inquiry
As would be the case if those proceedings were proceedings before a court in the relevant part of the United Kingdom.
However, the Iraq Inquiry FAQs state:
27. What protection did [do] witnesses have to speak freely?
The hearings are not covered by Parliamentary or other privilege. The Committee expects all witnesses to provide truthful, fair and accurate evidence. The Inquiry welcomes the fact that the Government and Services have extended an immunity from disciplinary action to serving officials and military personnel who give evidence or otherwise assist the Inquiry, as this will help reassure witnesses that they can provide frank and honest evidence.
Returning to the ‘Salmon letter’, Section 14 of the Act (see above) refers to the ‘recipient’s legal representative’. Witnesses should have been offered the opportunity to bring a friend or legal representative to their interview, though it should have been made clear that the investigators’ questions will be directed to the witness. Of the three whose reputations the MoS expects to see suffering major damage, two, Blair and Straw, were barristers before entering politics. Whether they or Campbell (who met up with a well-known and eminent QC about 25 minutes into Episode 7 of Jamie’s Dream School, as broadcast on Channel 4 earlier this year) have sought, or will be seeking, legal advice on how to deal with any criticisms from the Inquiry, we may never know. But one cannot help wondering if the other witnesses, in making their comments, fully appreciated the possible implications of an absence of privilege, if this is actually the case. Presumably, in the event of a legal action concerning a defamatory statement, the defence costs would be borne by the witness’s employing department. In these circumstances, however, evidence would be under oath and subject to cross-examination by a barrister.

As for the MoS’s ‘four main failings’, I don’t see the latter two (sofa government and post-war planning) being made that much of – the former already addressed by Lord Butler and the latter potentially awkward for the present incumbent of No 10, given the uncertain outcome in Libya. As for the ‘bogus WMD claims’, the Inquiry might feel it should come up with something new. Going back to GOD’s letter above, the ‘dodgy dossier’ was explained, and apologized for, by Campbell at the Foreign Affairs Select Committee (FAC) on 25 June 2003
Q1152 Sir John Stanley: I would like to turn to another apology which I think is very seriously outstanding and on which you may wish to correct your evidence. If I heard you correctly you suggested the Government had made an apology to Mr al-Marashi. Mr al-Marashi's work was lifted off the internet without attribution; it was used in a highly political context to help make the Government's policy case for going to war against Iraq which was a matter which concerned him very greatly. His thesis or his article in the Middle East Review in certainly one crucial respect was substantially changed to suggest terrorist linkage between the Saddam Hussein intelligence agency and al-Qaeda which was not what he said in his Review article, and members of his family were endangered. I questioned him on the issue as to whether he had had an apology, "Has the Government made any expression of regret or apology to you for the plagiarisation of your thesis? Mr al-Marashi: I have never been contacted directly, either by phone call nor in writing, since February 2003 up to the present. Me: Do you think you might be owed an apology. Mr al-Marashi: I think the least they can do is owe me an apology." I do not believe he has received an apology, I think Mr Campbell you said earlier he had, I hope he will receive a personal apology from you.
Mr Campbell: As I say, I take responsibility for that paper. I have explained why the mistake was made. I am happy to send an apology to Mr al-Marashi on behalf of the entire communications team at No 10 and the CIC, I am happy to do that. As I said earlier, the moment this mistake was exposed by Channel 4 and subsequently by Mr al-Marashi himself on Newsnight, that next morning the Prime Minister's spokesman has never attempted to avoid it, hands up, it should not have happened, we are going to look at how it happened, we are going to put procedures in place and that has been done. I have no desire here at all to do anything other than deliver that apology and do that sincerely. If it would help to do that in writing to Mr al-Marashi, I am perfectly happy to do that.
Campbell also provided the FAC with a memorandum and a supplementary memorandum. The latter explained the drafting changes he had proposed during the development of the September 2002 WMD dossier referred to by GOD. Unless the papers seen by the Chilcot Inquiry invalidate this explanation, there doesn’t seem to be much justification for the MoS’s expectations of Campbell’s being criticised.

The other Blair failing cited by the MoS was ‘Not telling the British public about his secret pledge with George Bush to go to war’. Ignoring the point that British PMs invariably will have secrets they don’t tell the public, the ‘pledge with George Bush’ was addressed in the second Blair evidence session on 21 January 2011 (page 48 et seq):
[BLAIR] … So in a sense what I was saying to America was "look" -- and by the way I am absolutely sure this is how George Bush took it "Whatever the political heat, if I think this is the right thing to do I am going to be with you. I am not going to back out because the going gets tough. On the other hand, here are the difficulties and this is why I think the UN route is the right way to go".
SIR JOHN CHILCOT: The Andrew Rawnsley book quotes you saying at about the end of July, so it must be the same event, Rawnsley quotes you as saying, having said to President Bush, quoting from Rawnsley, quoting you: "You know, George, whatever you decide to do, I am with you." Is that about right?
THE RT. HON. TONY BLAIR: No, it is not what I said. What I said is what I said in the note, and with the greatest respect to Andrew Rawnsley I don't think he was present at the meeting.
SIR JOHN CHILCOT: No. He was quoting what you said to him.
THE RT. HON. TONY BLAIR: What I said to him.
SIR JOHN CHILCOT: So I understand.
THE RT. HON. TONY BLAIR: I have not heard about that.
A footnote explains: ‘Andrew Rawnsley in his book The End of the Party refers to interviews with officials as the basis for his material.’
SIR JOHN CHILCOT: I suppose just to round off on this, because it is very important and central as to how far there was a commitment and what the nature of the commitment was, thinking also about what you said to Donald Rumsfeld on 5th June, you said in your statement to us about that: "I could not and did not offer some kind of blank cheque in how we accomplished our shared objective." But if you used the sort of language that Rawnsley cites or that we have seen in the note you sent to President Bush, are those wholly consistent in terms of the understanding that the Americans formed?
THE RT. HON. TONY BLAIR: Sure. I don't think the Americans were in any doubt at all about what was being said and why it was being said. I can't recall all the precise conversations I had, but by the way, this is entirely also consistent with what I was saying publicly. I don't think it was a great secret that I was right alongside America after September 11th and continued to be, and one of the reasons why when we had the Crawford meeting there was so much international focus is that Britain and America were standing together.
What I was saying to the Americans was this, because I was trying to get them very substantially to amend their position. Their position had been "We are going to do it". Then their position had been because I had asked them "Okay with an ultimatum." Now their position with huge opposition within his system was going to be "We are going to put this back in the lap of the United Nations". Some of the people in his administration were saying "You are crazy. You are going to put it back into the bureaucracy of the UN. They will swallow it up. You will be back to all this playing around. In the meantime you have this guy doing what he is doing, sitting there and nothing happening."
So I was having to persuade him to take a view radically different from any of the people in his administration. So what I was saying to him is "I am going to be with you in handling it this way. I am not going to push you down this path and then back out when it gets too hot politically, because it is going to get hot for me politically, very, very much so."
I did this because I believed in it. I thought it was the right thing to do. I also believe it is consistent with my public statements and, frankly, whatever phrasing I used, I accept entirely I was saying "I am going to be with America in handling this. However, we should handle it this way". That was in the end what he agreed to do. The single thing that is most important over anything else in this whole business about the politics about the decision before we went to war, is that 1441 represented a huge compromise on his part and a huge opportunity for the international community to get its act together.
Once it became clear that Saddam had not changed but was carrying on in the same way, I think it would have been profoundly wrong of us to have gone back to the Americans and said, "I know we said that we would be with you in handling this, but now we are not".
The Chairman then concludes, rather opaquely:
SIR JOHN CHILCOT: Thank you. I'd like to ask Sir Roderic to pick up on Resolution 1441. Just before I do I think I would like to say for the record, because I said to the Cabinet Secretary that we were disappointed that it was not possible to see the statement, which, of course, we have seen, and that disappointment continues, but there it is.
Presumably he is referring to his introduction earlier to this part of Blair’s evidence (page 46)
… In the Inquiry's statement request to you, Mr Blair, we asked about two specific statements, the one you made to President Bush after the meeting of 23rd July 2002, and also to Defence Secretary Rumsfeld in June 2002.
The Cabinet Secretary would not agree to their disclosure. In communicating his decision to us, the Cabinet Secretary wrote and I quote:
"A UK Prime Minister may be less likely to have these exchanges or allow them to be recorded if he is concerned that this information would be disclosed at a later time against his wishes."
Are you content to tell the Inquiry what was in these statements?
THE RT. HON. TONY BLAIR: I am very content to discuss the basis of them. What I do believe and I am not going to hide behind the Cabinet Secretary -- it is not my way -- I think it is extremely important that the British Prime Minister and the American President are able to communicate in confidence, and if something is given in confidence it should be treated like that, but I am very happy to tell you the basis of what I said.
What the Chairman meant by 'it was not possible to see the statement, which, of course, we have seen, and that disappointment continues' is difficult to interpret. However, neither his remark nor Blair’s statement would seem to support the existence of a ‘secret pledge with George Bush to go to war’. Of course the Inquiry may have seen other documents which do. The MoS also states that the ‘inquiry rounds on Mr Blair for telling Parliament that intelligence suggesting Saddam had WMDs was “beyond doubt”’. Blair’s foreword to the September WMD dossier stated:
What I believe the assessed intelligence has established beyond doubt is that Saddam has continued to produce chemical and biological weapons, that he continues in his efforts to develop nuclear weapons, and that he has been able to extend the range of his ballistic missile programme.
Although he later pointed out:
The case I make is that the UN Resolutions demanding he stops his WMD programme are being flouted; that since the inspectors left four years ago he has continued with this programme; that the inspectors must be allowed back in to do their job properly; and that if he refuses, or if he makes it impossible for them to do their job, as he has done in the past, the international community will have to act.
I believe that faced with the information available to me, the UK Government has been right to support the demands that this issue be confronted and dealt with. We must ensure that he does not get to use the weapons he has, or get hold of the weapons he wants.
Subsequently, as we all know, the evidence for Saddam’s WMD programme was not forthcoming. If only minor evidence had surfaced, the ‘beyond doubt’ issue would not have arisen.  Nonetheless, it is worth considering the alternative. If Blair hadn’t been so sure, would it have been in the UK’s interest for him to have gone to Bush and said “… we said that we would be with you in handling this, but now we are not"? Bear in mind that Blair had, with misgivings, supported Clinton a few years earlier over Saddam. Being able to say ‘we told you so about the WMD’ afterwards would hardly have helped restore the UK’s standing with the Bush White House. Waiting for Bush’s successor would hardly have been a practical optioneither, and, as it has turned out, Obama has been criticised by the Tea Party for many things, but not yet for anglophilia.

I quoted in an earlier post from Jim Naughtie’s The Accidental American about the significance of the UK/US relationship as perceived by Blair in 2004. Perhaps in 2011, if the UK is envisaged in some quarters as being on the way to minor power status (eg eventually abandoning its nuclear deterrent, aircraft carriers and a serious intelligence capability), keeping on good terms with the US is not seen as worth the price. However, the UK would need to be confident that it could address the current and future threats to cyber security without close cooperation with the US. London, the City and the services they provide, are fundamental to the UK’s returning to prosperity over the rest of the decade. The National Security Strategy published last year has as one of its key aims their protection, along with the rest of the nation’s infrastructure, against ‘Hostile attacks … by other states and large scale cyber crime’. It also states:
2.11 Our strong defence, security and intelligence relationship with the US is exceptionally close and central to our national interest.
On a more trivial note, is it really likely that the Iraq Inquiry report (assuming it appears in early 2012, a year later than originally envisaged) will, six months before the London Olympics, engage in major criticism of the former Prime Minister who secured them for the UK against French competition in particular?


Yesterday, the Observer reported that:
The official inquiry into the UK's role in the build-up to the Iraq war might not issue its report until next summer at the earliest, more than a year after many expected it to be made public, the Observer has learned.

A source close to the inquiry, chaired by Sir John Chilcot, a former Whitehall mandarin who has advised both MI5 and MI6, suggested that its findings are unlikely to be disclosed until June.
Just before the Olympics then , unless, of course, there's another postponement ...

The Observer  also said:
The inquiry's findings are expected to be critical of a number of senior politicians within the Labour government, their aides, and intelligence chiefs. There is speculation that the former head of MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove, will bear the brunt of the criticism.

While Blair is expected to be criticised, in particular for not consulting sufficiently with his cabinet, there is speculation that he won't be condemned as strongly as some had expected. But his relationship with his chief legal adviser faces acute scrutiny. The inquiry heard that eight months before the invasion, Lord Goldsmith told Blair an attempt to topple Saddam would be a serious breach of international law.

4 August 2011

Cost of diesel in euros, pounds – and francs!

Last week I bought some diesel fuel (gazole) at a French hypermarket. There are two things which make it a little less boring than most receipts:

Firstly, the price of €1.32 per litre: at the prevailing exchange rate of £1 = €1.13, this was equivalent to about £1.17 when the best price in southern England was around £1.38 – so about 15% cheaper in France. Hypermarket petrol (essence) on the other hand was €1.51, so about £1.34, much as in England. (Any US readers – this is about $8.30 for a US gallon of gasoline, lucky us!). Incidentally, the French government maintains an online database of all retail fuel prices, with a journey planner.

Secondly, like a lot of receipts in France, it explained, pour information naturellement, that the cost in French Francs would have been FF479.44, this being at the rate of 6.559570FF/€ as fixed on 31 December 1998. A useful aide memoire should France ever leave the Eurozone, which may seem unlikely, but France has a medium-term (2013) deficit problem that will be difficult to address, particularly in view of the presidential election timetable and the country’s historic approach to public expenditure. One obvious measure would be to increase the duty on gazole to the level on essence, but it would certainly be unpopular.

Vintage Petrol Pump in SW England

The photograph above is of a vintage petrol pump encountered recently in SW England. I thought it would be interesting to see when the dials had been frozen, and finally came up with enough data to produce the graphs below, as well.  
UK Historic Motor Fuel Prices, p/l and adjusted for inflation

The second graph, which has been adjusted to 2010 price levels using long-run RPI data, is more informative, but still ignores wage inflation, mileage trends, engine efficiency improvements, and so on. The third shows the proportion of the price which the UK government has taken over the years. It seems likely that if the price of oil drops in the near-term, the government will raise fuel tax to keep prices at about current levels and increase revenue.
Percentage of Fuel Price which is Tax

Older readers (who will remember having to learn arithmetic for 12 pence to the shilling and 20 shillings to the £) may notice that the pump in the photograph was wrongly set up. 4 gallons at 2/5 would have given a “THIS SALE” of 9/8, not 17/8. Alternatively, 17/8 for 4 gallons would be at a “PER GAL” of 4/5, the price prevailing circa 1953, and equal to 4.85p per litre in cash terms.

The fuel and tax data came from the AA up to 2005 and the UK Petroleum Industries Association thereafter. Petrol is ‘leaded 4*’ up to 1988, unleaded thereafter. Long-run RPI data up to 2003 is from O’Donoghue, Goulding and Allen’s very useful ‘Consumer Price Inflation since 1750’ published by the ONS, with CSO RPI data thereafter.

3 August 2011

Eric Lartigau’s ‘The Big Picture’

Go into a bookshop in France, and you get the impression that a lot of novels and thrillers are read in translation, and, not surprisingly, many are American. It’s not surprising either that French film-makers adapt the books’ plots into scripts for shooting in local settings, an example being Guillaume Canet’s Tell No One (Ne le dis à personne, 2006) which was based on Harlan Coben’s thriller (title as the English film).
Eric Lartigau’s L'homme qui voulait vivre sa vie has now appeared in the UK as The Big Picture, the title of Douglas Kennedy’s US thriller, and the source of the story, with the action moved from Manhattan and Montana to Paris, Brittany and Montenegro. Romain Duris’ intense acting style and the camerawork grip enough to suspend incredulity over successive aspects of the plot right up to the ending.  The film also provides the second appearance of Catherine Deneuve this summer on British screens, and a useful tip on how to get a man’s body into a deep freeze. 

1 August 2011

Top Politicians: Birth Order and Handedness

David Cameron recently guest-edited The Big Issue, and in its My Younger Self column he remarked that in his childhood he had lived in the shadow of his brother. Alex Cameron (47, and three years older than David) is a successful criminal barrister in London (SEE UPDATE 9 November 2015 below).  By coincidence Tony Blair’s brother, William (61, and three years older), has also been a barrister and is now a judge in the Queen’s Bench Division. Gordon Brown’s brother, John (62, and two years older), is less distinguished, as was John Major’s (PM before Blair), late brother Terry, (10 years older). Before Major, Margaret Thatcher had an older sister, as did her predecessor as PM, James Callaghan. This means that the last first-born child to win a general election in the UK was Harold Wilson in 1974, when Edward Heath, another first-born, left office having beaten Wilson in 1970.  

Probably the best-known younger brother in current British politics is the Leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband, who in a surprise outcome last year beat his first-born older brother, David (four years senior), in the contest for leadership of the Labour party. So is there something about younger brothers, (or more generally, sibling birth order), that seems to take them to the very top in modern politics?

The significance of birth order seems to be disputed within psychology, but work which might shed some insight has been undertaken at University of California, Berkeley by Dr Frank J. Sulloway. He concludes:
In general, firstborns tend to be more conscientious than their younger siblings—mainly because they serve as surrogate parents—whereas laterborns tend to be more agreeable, extraverted, and open to experience (in the sense of being unconventional). Measured as direct sibling comparisons, birth-order differences in personality are somewhat larger than those associated with age but somewhat smaller than those associated with gender. The extent to which these birth-order effects may be inflated by stereotypes is still an open question. So too is the question of whether such stereotypes reflect real behavioral propensities, and whether these stereotypes may also augment these propensities.
Looking at recent British political history, it would be tempting to trot out the views (as quoted by Sulloway) of Freud’s erstwhile colleague, Alfred Adler, in the 1920s: firstborns as “power-hungry conservatives”, middleborns as competitive, and youngest children as spoiled and lazy, but Sulloway offers no support for this.

There is, however, a contrast between British and American experience since the early 1970s, although it may just be the spurious product of small number statistics. Of the ten presidential elections since the early 1970s, six have been won by first-born sons, the last won by a second-born, George HW Bush, being in 1988. The majority of US presidents have been first-borns, and so far all have been male.
More intriguing is something revealed in a photograph of David Cameron and Barack Obama during the latter’s visit to the UK earlier this year – they are both left-handed. Since the Second World War only Callaghan and Cameron have been left-handed out of 13 Prime Ministers. In the US five (or six) out of the last 12 presidents, four (or five) of last seven, have been left-handed. (Reagan wrote right-handed but could well have been forced to do at school in the 1920s, and in reality been left-handed.)

About 10% of males are left-handed, so the number of PMs is about right but the incidence among US presidents seems surprising. One theory seems to be that the left hemisphere of the brain generally handles language, but in left-handed people, this division is less pronounced, leading to enhanced communication skills.

So, one could theorise wildly that to get to be Prime Minister by winning elections, you need to be extravert and unconventional, and perhaps can then cope better than first-borns with the adversarial nature of the House of Commons.  To become US head of state, the ability to project conscientiousness and presidentiality, and make use of exceptional communication skills during an enormous marketing campaign are required. Of course, in reality, only very unusual (or perhaps rather weird) people get anywhere near the top anyway.

By the way, is Ed Miliband left-handed?


Analysis of some family size statistics quoted by Naomi Finch of the Social Policy Research Unit att the University of York (UK):

suggests that about 50% of children in the UK are firstborn.

Blair’s two closest consiglieri, Alastair Campbell and Jonathan Powell, both have older brothers (two in Campbell’s case).

The two current favourites to succeed David Cameron, Boris Johnson and George Osborne, are both firstborns.

UPDATE 9 November 2015

Reading Call Me Dave by Michael Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshott has made me aware of Cameron's having an older sister as well as brother.  So any conclusion which can be drawn should be confined to middle-born not just second-born.  Jeremy Corbyn is the youngest of four sons ...