31 January 2014

Where are think tanks coming from?

In the UK’s 2015 election campaign, now well under way I’m afraid, among the many things that the parties will throw at each other are selected conclusions reached about all manner of things by think tanks. In the last week, the Centre for Cities has been arguing for the devolution of powers to cities, the RUSI has opined on the value of the nuclear deterrent being at sea continuously, the IFS picked fault with Ed Balls’ claims about the revenue that a 50p tax rate would raise, claims made at the Fabian Society’s New Year Conference.

Most think tanks seem to be described in the media as “leading” or “respected”. Their leading lights provide articles and appear on TV and radio news programmes and before parliamentary committees, nearly always with an unquestioned assumption about their objectivity and neutrality. Think tank press releases seem to be translated into news stories – often on the front page - without very much scrutiny. Prospect Magazine has part of its website. the Prospect Think Tank Pages dedicated to them:
This website is a hub for think tanks around the world and for debate about their best new work on political, social and economic policy. It is also the home for the Prospect International Think Tank Awards, [which] set out to give credit to the independent organisations that produce the most original, influential and rigorous work on the most pressing challenges facing people, governments and businesses. The awards, described by the BBC’s Radio 4 as “the Oscars of the think tank world,” are an annual celebration of this work across the globe.
Centre for Cities, by the way, won the Prospect 2013 One to Watch award, while their UK Think Tank of the Year was the Resolution Foundation (I commented here on some work by them three years ago).

But are these think tanks as neutral as they are often portrayed? The only attempt I am aware of to assess where they stand on the political spectrum is by an economist, Andrew Whitby. His method was based on the Follow patterns of think tanks by the UK MPs who are on Twitter and he posted the resulting chart last August:

No great surprises, although few come out as strictly neutral, and worth bearing in mind in the months ahead.

29 January 2014

In no small measure

It seems odd when something reminds you that 20 years ago John Major was Prime Minister. In fact he was the last Conservative leader to win an election, in 1992, and was in office from November 1990 to May 1997, not as long as Thatcher or Blair but well above the duration of most 20th century prime ministerships.

By coincidence, two references to Major’s John Major The Autobiography, published in 1999, came up recently. Christain Wolmar, authority on railways and potential candidate as Mayor of London, contributed a “counter-factual” column for last December’s Prospect Magazine (£), What if…British Rail had never been privatised? It can be read in full on his website. He explains:
The grey prime minister somehow allowed rail privatisation into the manifesto for the 1992 election but it did not matter since they were going to lose anyway. When the Tories surprisingly won the election with an overall majority of 21 seats, enough to see through a five year Parliament, panic set in over the commitment to sell off the railways as no one had thought through how it could be done.
and concludes:
If there is one telling aspect of the whole process, it is that John Major does not mention rail privatisation in his 816 page autobiography, even though it was a key area of controversy throughout the 1992 – 7 administration. I recently bumped into him and asked about this omission. He answered that he had wanted to include it ‘but we ran out of time’. Shame the same did not go for his rail privatisation plans.
And then in January after the revelations about Francois Hollande’s private life, BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour invited former MP Edwina Currie, who had had an affair with Major in the 1980s, and French journalist Anne Elizabeth Moutet to discuss “the aphrodisiac of power”. Currie explained, possibly not for the first time, that in 2002 she had spilled the beans about their relationship because she had been omitted from Major’s autobiography.

It occurred to me that in its 816 pages there might be something which could have informed two posts here last year: one about Prime Ministers’ audiences with the sovereign, the other, Deciders meet deliverers, about their visiting the submarines which provide Britain’s nuclear deterrent. In fact, as far as I could tell, there was nothing relevant to either topic. However, I did come across this on page 144:
Over Christmas at Finings I closeted myself away from the festivities with papers prepared for the pre-budget discussions at Chevening. When I was reading them on Boxing Day Elizabeth, whose eighteenth birthday we had celebrated the previous month, asked me what I was doing. I explained to her that the Chevening weekend had become something of an institution. 'So has Christmas,' she said. 'Put the papers away.'
which goes to show how nature imitated art in the form of Private Eye’s 1990s parody, John Major: The Secret Diary of John Major (aged 47¾). This gets revived from time to time, most recently following Currie’s appearance on Woman’s Hour:

But if you want to read it in full, buy the current Private Eye (No 1358)!

The ‘Other’ thing about polls

Some opinion polling earlier this week showed that Labour’s lead over the Conservatives had dropped to 1 or 2%. This generated excitement among those who like the narrative that recent indications of economic improvement in the UK should be followed by an upturn in Tory support. Over-excitement in the case of the normally level-headed and fastidious Iain Martin:

At the time I was working on the previous post about the consequences of the main parties having the same share of the vote, so some statistics to be kept in mind were readily available and are described below.

In the UK we have the two main parties who have had vote shares in general elections since 1945 in the 30 to 50% range, and the Liberal Democrats (Liberals up to 1987) who have been somewhere between 2.5% and 25%. In the 2005 election UKIP, a party founded in 1993, had 2.2% of the votes and 3.1% in 2010. However, in the opinion polls for the last three years, UKIP’s support has been similar to that of the Lib Dems, as the chart below shows (from the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham blog, Ballots and Bullets):

It could be argued that we now have two main parties and two secondary parties – but then what about the rest? The next chart shows the size of the “Other” vote in elections from 1945, defining “Other” as being not Conservative, Labour or Lib Dem, and not UKIP after 2005:

In no election since 1945 has “Other” been more than 10%. The Ballots and Bullets chart above implies that on a smoothed basis “Other” is 11.5% currently. So what about individual recent polls? Some from UK Polling Report for the last couple of weeks are shown in the table below, concentrating on the polling organisations which generated the ‘excitement’ referred to at the start of this post.

Those two polls are highlighted and, interestingly, show anomalous levels of support for “Other” which is usually 7 to 9% - the level in the last four general elections. The 20 January YouGov/Sun poll showing an 8% Labour lead also looks like an oddity.

Some advice for the commentariat, don’t get too excited about a poll if “Other” is less than 7% or more than 9%.


Two more YouGov/Sun polls have appeared. The second shows a 10 point Labour lead, something which Iain Martin seems to have missed.

Scepticism is in order for both by my criterion above, certainly for the second one.

28 January 2014

In the unlikely event of a draw

Mike Smithson’s PoliticalBetting.com styles itself as “Britain’s most-read political blog – and the best online resource for betting on politics” and “2004-2014: The view from OUTSIDE the Westminster bubble”. Smithson comes 33rd on PeerIndex’s list of the most influential people on Twitter aged over 50, and, if there were a list for the over 65s, he would no doubt be second to Hilary Clinton. No sour grapes here – I read his blog and follow him on Twitter, where I was alerted to this on 21 January:

and it’s been making me think about some of the issues it raises, in particular what happens if the two main UK parties were to get the same percentage share of the vote in the 2015 general election.

I looked at the outcomes of the 18 general elections between 1945 and 2010:

It can be seen that, firstly, in only 3 of the 18 were the percentages within 1% and none between 1 and 2%:

so it isn’t a common occurrence, and,secondly, the percentages of votes given to the two main parties have been reducing over the period. This comes out in the next chart which shows that since the 1950s the “Market share” of the two main parties has been declining and has usually been below 75% for the last 40 years, and that the difference between the two main parties has been over 5% for most of the last 30 years. 

The final greyed out columns are not for an election but the recent position as concluded by the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham blog, Ballots and Bullets (whose work I have quoted here before). I’ve taken their recent chart and extrapolated it (linearly!) to the assumption made by Smithson in his tweet relating to 7 May 2015 of Conservative and Labour drawing at 35%:

I thought it might be useful to make use of Electoral Calculus to conduct some sensitivity testing of Smithson’s result. The next chart (a bit of an eye-glazer for those who aren’t chart-minded) explores what happens in terms of seats won if the Lib Dem share of the vote is fixed at 8%, and the two main parties tie at 33 to 38%. UKIP gets squeezed from an 18% share at the 33% each level to only 8% if they get 38%. (The percentage of the vote given to Greens, Nationalists etc is kept at 8% level Smithson used.)

For reference I’ve added the Smithson point (35%/35% for the main parties, 12% UKIP, 10% Lib Dem). This, and other sensitivity testing which I haven’t plotted here, reveals that for likely situations in which the two main parties tie, ie in the 35% region and without a total collapse in the Lib Dem vote or a major upsurge in UKIP’s, the outcomes lie inside the dotted ellipse.

The final chart puts these outcomes in the broader context of securing a majority in a 650 seat House of Commons. For interest, I’ve added the results achieved in the two previous elections where the main parties had very close shares of the vote, 1964 and 1974, (these shares and the Lib Dem percentage shown) and were close to the number of seats to form a majority (1974 below, 1964 just above). Further elections followed soon afterwards.

If there is any precedent for a draw in 2015, it seems to be 1974 but such close shares of the vote are uncommon.

20 January 2014

The fatness of French women (and men)

In the wake of the revelations about François Hollande’s triangular private life, there has been a spate of articles in the British papers about French women, particularly married ones and how different they are from their equivalents on the other side of the Channel. But books on this subject have been a publisher’s staple for a while and are usually more concerned with appearances and the tricky subject of weight than with adultery.

Prospect magazine’s website has a review by Lucy Wadham of French Women Don’t Get Facelifts by Mireille Guillano. Wadham is the author of The Secret Life of France, which according to her website, is “an account of Lucy's relationship with France, her adoptive land, was published by Faber in July 2010 to great acclaim and updated in 2013. You can read more about her there and on Wikipedia. In her review, she is gunning for “… books from a growing branch of the self-help tree, all inviting me to think, look, and generally be more like a French woman”. “Guillano’s book exemplifies many of the worst traits of the genre”, but it’s not her first and:
Thanks to [their] worldwide success … French femininity, as a global brand, has become accessible to the masses, perhaps for the first time. It is, by extension, a model for everything we Anglophone women have lost in our post-feminist, consumerist world: refinement, discretion, moderation, and above all sexiness.
How did this loss come about?
The school of feminism that advocated policing the private sphere as well as the public one seemed to bypass France during the 1960s and 70s. French feminism, esoteric as it was, left the roles traditionally played by men and women virtually untouched, nor did there seem to be any appetite among the population at large to revolutionise private relations between the sexes. … there has been little movement in France towards equality in the bedroom. French gender roles are not contractual (nor indeed are parent-child relationships) but hierarchical. That’s why there’s relatively little conflict. Judging from the success of books such as Mireille Guillano’s, we seem to find this state of affairs refreshing compared to the pitiless transparency of male-female relations in Britain and America.
And on top of that:
Anthropologists often distinguish between what they term “shame cultures” and “guilt cultures.” Britain and America, according to this division, are predominantly guilt cultures while France is a shame culture, still steeped in notions of pride and honour. These ideals override those of truth-telling and transparency. In shame cultures, appearances are all-important (this might explain the elegant but highly conformist style and rigorous dress code so admired in French women) and there are dos and don’ts that serve as effective regulators 
... By contrast, Britain and America’s Protestant heritage emphasises the individual’s conscience over the code. Social control is achieved, not through norms of behaviour but through the feelings of guilt triggered by an act of transgression. The internal policing inherent in our culture means that pleasure can easily become a trap. ... In America in particular, the excessive emphasis on diet has turned the eating of fatty foods—which French girls supposedly love—into a sin.
Wadham concludes
So what lies behind the French woman’s ineffable charm? For a start, because she hasn’t been entirely reconstructed by feminism, she’s playing a more traditional role. Secondly, she’s relatively free of the guilt that seems to emanate like toxic fumes from all areas of Anglo-American life—from parenting, to sexual relationships, to food. And lastly, she has a much more flexible relationship with the truth: none of my French girlfriends have any scruples about lying when it comes to dieting or plastic surgery, even to their closest friends.
The books Wadham is sniping at are probably best regarded as the non-fiction equivalent of Chick lit – Chick nonfic, one might say. Marina Hyde tilts at the same windmills in a Guardian opinion piece, French Women don't get fat – or live in actual France, and comes to a similar conclusion but without anthropologically-based comparisons with Anglophone women:
As for how quite how much French Women have to do with French women … well, there are plenty who maintain that so-called Swinging London was actually limited to 17 people and Mick Jagger, and one can't help but sense that, were one to click one's fingers and teleport right now to a regional French high street, to say nothing of one of the HLM housing projects in which one in six people in the country lives, it would become clear that the France of the proverbial French Women actually involves 23 Parisians. And at least half of those are being economical with the actualité of how they truly live. 
Who am I, a mere male who visits, but isn’t resident in, France, to disagree with all this? And there may be an element of truth in the contrast Wadham on the one hand, makes between the “modern French “girl”—at least the middle-class, Parisian version of her” and “we Anglophone women” and, on the other, between Hyde’s 23 Parisian women and the 16% in the cités HLM.

The OECD publishes data which shed light on the issue of “fatness”, ie the state of being overweight or obese. Their data are in terms of Body Mass Index (BMI) so the first chart below is an international comparison of adult obesity, defined as a BMI more than 30). The Anglophone world seems to be concentrated at the high end on the right, whereas France is well to the left, although its position relative to other European countries seems to have deteriorated between 2000 and 2010. It’s difficult to see how Wadham’s shame culture/blame culture model can explain the anomalous position of Luxembourg relative to its cultural neighbours, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany and France.

The table below shows the underlying data for UK, US and France for overweight (BMI 25 to 30) as well as obesity for men and women.

The second chart allows this data to be viewed as a comparison of women and men which adds the percentages of both not falling into either the overweight or obese categories. It shows that French men and women are always healthier than their US and UK equivalents, that there are more overweight men than women in all three countries and that in both sexes the UK is worse than the US in being overweight.

Interestingly, although there is more obesity in the US than in the other two nations, men and women are not significantly different when it comes to obesity, unlike being overweight. Wadham’s shame/blame model doesn’t explain why French men are more likely to be overweight than French women. However, her remark that “French gender roles are not contractual … but hierarchical” might suggest that French men think they can get away with being overweight without censure but, coming from a nation of hypochondriacs, tend to avoid the risks to health of being obese.

The Chick nonfic assertion that French women don’t get fat does seem to be supported by the statistics for almost 2/3 of them, and fewer than one in seven is obese.

(Anyone with a BMI over 30 or below 18.5 should be seeking medical advice.)

12 January 2014

Should a blogger be anonymous?

Last November a well-known journalist and commentator, after writing about the occurrence of racism on Twitter and elsewhere, concluded by calling for “the end of anonymity on social networks". This made me ask myself why I have chosen to appear here as Western Independent and not by the name on my birth certificate. I'm assuming that I haven't revealed so much about myself up to now as to be easily identifiable among male adults in my (apparent) age group living in (presumably) SW England - several hundred thousand of us.

I certainly agree that there is no justification for using anonymity on the internet or anywhere else to conceal an identity with intent to abuse or harass for racialist or other deviant purposes. However, in reality for most paid journalists (admittedly not those at The Economist) their non-anonymity, that is to say their byline, is a key part of their being able to make a living. Many have embraced social networks like Twitter with enthusiasm, and seem pleased to have as many followers as possible who will dutifully click on the links they provide to their latest pieces. Of course, the more hits the better for both William Boot and BeastOnline.co.uk, and today’s Lord Coppers will probably be taking an interest in the amount of traffic generated.

For even a moderately successful professional journalist, the existence of an established byline will affect their self-presentation in everyday life. Family, friends and the people they encounter from their GP to the technician who comes to mend the central heating, depending on their place in the market know what they do and why, and may even choose to engage them about it. This might be a little tedious at times, but is surely an acceptable price to pay for even a small degree of public recognition and being one of the relatively few who are famous for more than fifteen minutes.

For an ordinary Joe Blogger like me life is different. For a start, should I tell people about this blog? Almost certainly this would risk my being regarded as a bore or eccentric, and immodest to boot. On the other hand, what if my blogging existence is uncovered indirectly in the course of a search by someone I know? What benefit would come from being known to offer the world gratuitous opinions about "Art, politics, cinema, France and other things" (my pretentious Twitter self-description)? At best I might be regarded as a clever dick with a high opinion of himself, at worst more than a bit odd. After all, most people choose to confine expression of opinions to the weather or the English cricket team's deplorable performance, and don't offer inexpert views on the balance of power in the Western Pacific or the works of Paul Klee.

I do what I do here to amuse myself while avoiding disruption of normal relationships with people who know me. If a few of these posts are of interest to anyone out there, so much the better. A cynic might say that a blogger is someone who is indulging in vanity publishing but is too mean to pay for it. On the other hand, I earn nothing from writing this blog and I don’t think it unreasonable to want to retain some of the privacy which a paid journalist inevitably foregoes.

(Above: Man Writing by Jacobus Josefus Eeckhout undated, Southampton City Art Gallery)

8 January 2014

Paris Exhibitions (3): Art Deco and Male Nudes

Previous posts covered two recent retrospectives of Braque and Vallotton at the Grand Palais in Paris which will be transferring to other locations. This post is about one exhibition which continues and another which ends shortly and seems unlikely to transfer.

Art Déco

1925, quand l'Art Déco séduit le monde (1925, when Art Déco dazzled the World) is at La Cité de l’architecture & du patrimoine at the Palais de Chaillot. It centres on Paris’s 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs and Industriels Modernes, the name of which led to the coining of the term Art Déco, but extends overs the interwar period from 1919 to 1940. (At the outset the relationship of Art Déco to the preceding style of Art Nouveau is explained and its evolution in art (Tamara de Lempicka’s Portrait de Suzy Solidor,1933, left), architecture, furniture, fashion, cars (1927 Bugatti type 40 in front of a mural, La Vigne et Le Vin (The Vine and Wine) by Jean Dupas, for the Bordeaux pavilion at the 1925 Expo, below) and other areas are all covered in depth. However, despite the exhibition’s title, its point of view is French rather than global. The emphasis is also on the highest levels of design and elaborate workmanship (and selling price at the time no doubt) rather than the mass market manifestations of the style. There is also little about Art Deco internationally where, in its more monumental forms, it probably deserved the label of “Aztec Airways” (enthusiasts might find a V&A webpage on the 1925 exhibition and this recent book review by Bevis Hillier interesting).

1925, quand l'Art Déco séduit le monde now finishes on 3 March.


Masculin / Masculin. L'homme nu dans l'art de 1800 à nos jours (Masculine/Masculine The Nude Man in Art from 1800 to the Present Day) at the Musée d’Orsay is what they say it is. It comes with the almost inevitable warning “some of the pieces presented in the exhibition may be shocking to some visitors (particularly children)”. Which presumably the curators felt is still the case, having taken advice from the Leopold Museum in Vienna who put on nackte männer. von 1800 bis heute (nude men. from 1800 to the present day) last year. Although Margaret Walter’s The Nude Male: a new perspective was published as long ago as 1978, the subject remains controversial as reactions to the release of the video for the show (now on YouTube) demonstrated last year.

The Musée d’Orsay was able to draw mostly on French sources for the ancient sculpture and high academic studies of the (exclusively) male nude and then widens out from, for example, Muybridge’s photography to an increasingly international and homoerotic selection covering the last 100 years or so. The British contribution includes a Bacon triptych, a Hockney ‘splash’ and a Ron Mueck (Dead Dad, 1996-97, below William Bougereau’s Egalité devant la mort, 1848 (Equality before death) above) but no Beardsleys. Presumably because it includes a nude female, Tate Britain’s Stanley Spencer, Double Nude Portrait: The Artist and his Second Wife, 1937, perhaps one of the most unsparing depictions of male nudity, would have been excluded. France’s own Pierre & Gilles are well-represented among the contemporary artists (Mercury on the left of the poster above and Vive La France, left).

The exhibition concentrates on Western art and its starting date would have excluded any of the erotic 17th-century Japanese shunga (again usually with females), as on show recently at the British Museum. I suspect that the British, inventors of the seaside postcard and home to Grayson Perry’s Scrotal Sac, may find the tone of Masculin / Masculin resolutely high-brow, an exception being Orlan’s L’Origine de la Guerre, 1989 (The Origin of War; find it here, an ironic comment on Courbet’s original which was discussed in a post here last year). 

Masculin / Masculin ends after an extension on 12 January, and, although transfer to another location was discussed, then closes finally, as far as I can tell.


Anyone interested in the classical male nude might like to read Brian Sewell’s review of The Male Nude: Eighteenth-Century Drawings From The Paris Academy at London’s Wallace Collection (ends 19 January).

5 January 2014

2014 and All That

Like Sam Cooke I “Don’t know much about history … But I do know that one and one is two” and know enough maths to be sceptical about what non-mathematicians call round numbers, the ones that end with one or more 0s. But, probably because homo sapiens has two hands with five digits and therefore adopted the decimal system, we want to attach significance to the occurrence of numbers like the millennium in 2000 and the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. The latter looks as though it will provide a journalistic field day for at least a year. For example, in an article, China must not copy the Kaiser’s errors, last month in the Financial Times (£), Martin Wolf asked:
Will we sustain an open global economy while also managing tensions between a rising autocracy and democracies in relative economic decline? That was the question posed by the arrival of imperial Germany as Europe’s leading economic and military power in the late 19th century. It is the question posed today by the rise of communist China. Now, as then, mistrust is high and rising. Now, as then, actions of the rising power raise risks of conflict. We know how this story ended in 1914. How will the new one end, a century later?
and the big 100 has set off high-powered academics like Margaret MacMillan who has produced a Brookings Essay, The Rhyme of History, (horrid to read on-screen, the text having been invaded by the graphics) in the ‘dreadful lessons’ genre. For her:
While history does not repeat itself precisely, the Middle East today bears a worrying resemblance to the Balkans then.
China is a rising power but its preoccupations are likely to be focused on Asia. Further afield it will concentrate, as it is doing at present, on securing the resources it needs for its economy, while probably being reluctant to intervene in far-off conflicts where it has little at stake.
Reassuring, then. But what about two distinctly non-round numbers, 76 and 74, which arise not from the difference between now and 1914, but now and 1938 and 1942?  I recently came across a post by Geoff Wade on The Strategist - The Australian Strategic Policy Institute Blog called China’s six wars in the next 50 years. It’s definitely worth reading in full – he is commenting on:
... an article which appeared on the website of the Chinese news agency Zhongguo Xinwenshe (Chinese, English translation here) in July this year. Entitled ‘Revealing the Six Wars China Must Fight in the Coming 50 Years’ (曝光中国在未来50年里必打的六场战争), the article is another manifestation of the hyper-nationalist attitude seen within some parts of the PLA. However, that an article of this nature was carried by a PRC national news agency suggests that it was approved at a very high level. 
The six ‘inevitable’ wars suggested in the article’s title are presented in the chronological order in which they will take place: 
1. The war to unify Taiwan (2020–2025) 
2. The war to recover the various islands of the South China Sea (2025–2030) 
3. The war to recover southern Tibet (2035–2040) 
4. The war to recover Diaoyutai and the Ryukyus (2040–2045) 
5. The war to unify Outer Mongolia (2045–2050) 
6. The war to recover the territory seized by Russia (2055–2060) 
… the claims to territories which this article avers need to be ‘recovered’ through warfare are long-standing and are remarkably congruent with a 1938 map of ‘China’s shame’ authorised by the Ministry of the Interior of the Republican Government which shows the areas torn from China by imperialists — European and Japanese. (See map below) The ‘lost’ Chinese territories on this map include not only the Russian Far East, the Ryukyus, Taiwan and the South China Sea, but also Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, the Malay Peninsula and Singapore, Myanmar, Nepal, parts of Pakistan and most of Central Asia.

The map reminded me of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, the programme for Imperial Japan’s expansion and aggression which reached its maximum extent in 1942. The best map of this that I’ve found is:

At which point an Infographic by John Saeki, AFP graphics editor in Hong Kong, on the China-Japan military balance (or the China-Japan+US military balance) might be food for thought:

This is based on data from the International Institute for Strategic Studies, so it seems appropriate to draw readers’ attention to an article by their Director of Transnational Threats and Political Risk, Nigel Inkster, Conflict Foretold: America and China, published last October. Again definitely worth reading in full, not just because of the author’s background, but also for the incisive summary of the main academic security-dilemma theories which it provides (none based on round numbers), and the fact that he chooses to concentrate on space and cyber as areas of contention and uncertainty. He concludes:
… the Sino-American relationship has to be seen in terms of a dynamic involving one power in relative decline, though still globally pre-eminent, coming to terms with another which is rapidly rising and naturally driven to challenge the status quo imposed and policed by the former. It must also be viewed in light of two guiding political philosophies that are more or less in polar opposition to one another. Even in the best of circumstances, this would be a recipe for tension and competition, exacerbated by the chronic inability of each state’s policymakers to see the world from the other’s perspective.


Busy with  other things, I missed a significant article by Liu Xiaoming, the Chinese ambassador to the United Kingdom, which appeared in the Daily Telegraph on 2 January. Called China and Britain won the war together, its thesis was that “Japan’s refusal to face up to its aggressive past is posing a serious threat to global peace”. The particular issue it focussed on was Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister, paying homage at the Yasukuni Shrine, an action which the Chinese clearly perceive as offensive. The article is skilfully written for a UK audience, starting with a reference to Harry Potter:
In the Harry Potter story, the dark wizard Voldemort dies hard because the seven horcruxes, which contain parts of his soul, have been destroyed. If militarism is like the haunting Voldemort of Japan, the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo is a kind of horcrux, representing the darkest parts of that nation’s soul.
and ending with a reference to the forthcoming film, The Railway Man:
It tells the tragic story of a British PoW tortured by the Japanese in the Second World War. The film is not only about the atrocities committed by his Japanese captors, but also how one of them is harrowed by his own past. His redemption is only effected through deep remorse and penitence. 
China and Britain were wartime allies. Our troops fought shoulder to shoulder against Japanese aggressors and made enormous sacrifices. Sixty-eight years have passed since that horrible war. Yet there are always some incorrigible people in Japan who show no signs of remorse for war crimes. Instead, they seek to reinterpret history. They pose a serious threat to global peace. The Chinese will not allow such attempts. I am sure British and all other peace-loving folk will not remain indifferent. 
China and Britain are both victors of the Second World War. We played a key role in establishing the post-war international order that has delivered great benefits for mankind. Our two countries have a common responsibility to work with the international community to oppose and condemn any words or actions aimed at invalidating the peaceful post-war consensus and challenging international order. We should join together both to uphold the UN Charter and to safeguard regional stability and world peace.
Rather different in tone from the Beijing Global Times which pointed out last month during David Cameron’s visit to China that:
The Cameron administration should acknowledge that the UK is not a big power in the eyes of the Chinese. It is just an old European country apt for travel and study. This has gradually become the habitual thought of the Chinese people.
Today, Keiichi Hayashi, Japan’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, had his say in the Daily Telegraph, in an article, China risks becoming Asia’s Voldemort. He defends Abe’s visit to Yasukuni, the most recent of many by Japanese prime ministers, and points out that:
As in the case of the Japan-UK relationship, exemplified in the meeting between Eric Lomax and Takashi Nagase described in the book The Railway Man, the only way to heal the wounds of the past is through the pursuit of reconciliation. But, critically, it takes two for this to be achieved. 
… East Asia is now at a crossroads. There are two paths open to China. One is to seek dialogue, and abide by the rule of law. The other is to play the role of Voldemort in the region by letting loose the evil of an arms race and escalation of tensions, although Japan will not escalate the situation from its side. The answer seems obvious. Although China has so far refused to enable dialogue between our leaders, I sincerely hope that it will come forward, rather than keep invoking the ghost of “militarism” of seven decades ago, which no longer exists.
I can’t help wondering whether Japan and China are taking advantage of this old European country’s timezone and being anglophone to express their views because it would be too provocative to do so directly in the US.


 The Daily Telegraph today has a third piece on this subject by an ambo, in this case our former man in Hanoi, John Everard, who was British Ambassador to North Korea, 2006-2008. His article, Are China, Japan and South Korea fanning the flames of war?, provides a  summary of  one of the island problems and the recent ADIZ and points out the lack of any regional forum in which they could be addressed.  The article could have done with a map and ends with a 1914/2014 round numbers homily.

This map from Money Morning is helpful and shows that Senkaku/Diaoyu is just one part of a problem which involves states other than the three Everard mentions.

3 January 2014

David Cameron’s Spectator Interview

The Christmas issue of the Spectator published on 14 December carried an article, David Cameron on tax, coalition, ‘green crap’ and Team Nigella, by its editor, Fraser Nelson, based on an interview which he had secured with David Cameron. To some extent, it was a precursor to an article Cameron wrote for The Times (£) on 1 January and his New Year’s Day message. The interview generated some media attention at the time of its publication in December, for example, the PM’s remark in the context of the constraints imposed by being in coalition with the Lib Dems:
I’m happy to tell you — and Spectator readers — privately that there’s a good list of things I have put in my little black book that I haven’t been able to do which will form the next Tory manifesto
… he is ‘obsessed’ with Why Nations Fail, by two American academics who argue that a nation’s fate is determined not by the quality of its politicians but on the strength of its institutions — courts, schools, banks, government. ‘Someone said to me: you only like this book because it’s two academics who have written a very complicated book that confirms all your prejudices. I said, well, what’s wrong with that?’
and his “Team Nigella” remark which probably caused more comment than the PM or Nelson would have expected.

But I thought it would be interesting to analyse the article from another point of view, starting with the logistics:
It’s 9.30 a.m. on a Friday and David Cameron is about to head for his Oxfordshire constituency and work from home.
There is no date but presumably it was Friday 6 December because:
This morning, he has paid a visit to Tech City, London’s answer to Silicon Valley, and travelled to South Africa House to pass on his condolences following Nelson Mandela’s death. His last appointment, which will last for as long as it takes to drive to Beaconsfield service station, is an interview with The Spectator.
According to Google, it takes about 45 minutes to drive from South Africa House in Trafalgar Square to Beaconsfield service station, just off the M40. Nelson’s article attributes about 600 words as being spoken by Cameron. On 1 January Isabel Hardman posted the PM’s New Year message on the Spectator’s Coffee House website on YouTube and as text. In a tad under three minutes (2’ 58”) he delivered 478 words, so he was speaking at more than 150 words per minute. So the 600 words in the article would have taken him only four minutes out loud.

Nelson, when I’ve heard him on BBC2 Newsnight or Channel 4 News, is an articulate Scot with plenty to say, so one might think that his questions could easily take longer than the PM’s answers. However, on 26 December, again on Coffee House, Nelson published a supplementary to his magazine article titled David Cameron: the press may regret its defiance over regulation. This included some verbatim Q & A text where Nelson’s 99 words of questioning received 245 PM words in response. There were another 299 new words of Cameron direct speech as well.

So, in summary, the Spectator has now provided its readers with about 1150 words direct from the PM’s mouth which would have taken him less than 10 minutes to utter. If Nelson was more prolix than his Q& A section suggests, he might have spoken for 10 minutes too. From which it seems that less than half of their time on the car journey can be accounted for by the Spectator reports so far. Nelson started his Coffee House piece:
In my interview with David Cameron in the current Christmas edition of The Spectator, there wasn’t enough space for everything.
Well quite. Even allowing for pleasantries and perhaps a few guarded telephone calls (one assumes Nelson's phone would be deferentially in airplane mode), as much again as was reported must have been said but was certainly not intended for the consumption of “Spectator readers — privately”!

1 January 2014

New Year Predictions 2014

At the start of the year I post about some of the predictions which people have come out with in the previous 12 months –for the record so far, see my post a year ago. This year I’ve picked three (and a half), mostly about the UK 2015 election, the outcome of which may well become apparent in the next 12 months. I’ve avoided the opinions of politicians – obviously Michael Gove is going to say he’s convinced that the Tories will get a majority in 2015, whether he believes it or not. Instead here are some opinions from observers, not players.

Firstly this from John Rentoul in his Independent Eagle Eye blog in July:
I suspect much of the Labour Party has lulled itself into a false sense of Swedenism* because some polls suggest that people think Osborne is an objectionable piece of work. Of course they do; he is a politician and he is currently in government. What this poll does, however, is to compare his policies with those of the other lot, had they been in the despised position of being in government. 
If Labour haven’t persuaded the voters that things would have been better under them by now (and I’m one of the 32 per cent in that last question, incidentally), they are unlikely to do so by the time of the election, now that the economy is picking up a little. And if Labour cannot do that, it cannot win. 
*Swedenism, n: The attribution to the electorate of generous social-democratic qualities.
Next an Oxford academic, Steve Fisher, in October, all very quantitative and objective at 559 days in advance, in a post on his Elections etc blog, pithily titled: A long-range forecast for a 2015 British General Election based on current polls and historical polls and votes:
Forecast Election Day Shares and 95% Prediction Intervals 
Con : 40.2 plus or minus 11.8 i.e. between 28 and 52 
Lab : 31.8 plus or minus 6.6 i.e. between 25 and 38 
LD : 11.8 plus or minus 14.5 i.e. between 0 and 26 
Forecast Election Day Seats 
Con : 337 
Lab : 265 
LD : 21 
Con majority of 24
Another quant with a high reputation is Nate Silver, “the man who knows everything” according to Will Pavia in The Times (£) in April:
What about Britain’s coalition government, I say. Will it survive? He thinks for a moment. “So, I’ve never quite understood,” he says. “What are the Liberal Democrats getting out of the coalition exactly?” He really does ask the most acute questions. As I struggle to supply an answer, he says: “And does Labour have a charismatic leader?” His prediction, based only on the fact that “you have had a rough several years economically”, is that David Cameron will not be re-elected. 
“He’s awfully unpopular right now,” he says. “Look, this is dangerous, because I can extrapolate from the political science literature in the US. In the US context, the economy is not everything, but it’s an awfully large factor and the personalities of the candidates don’t matter very much in nine out of ten cases. I’m not sure if that’s as true in the parliamentary system. I think the economy bit has generally been shown to be true across different parts of the world.” Cameron might as well call in the removal men.
The “half”? Later in the year, Silver also gave his opinion on the outcome of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum in the Scotsman:
... [he] said polling data was “pretty definitive”. “There’s virtually no chance that the Yes side will win”, he said. “If you look at the polls, it’s pretty definitive really where the No side is at 60-55 per cent and Yes side is about 40 or so. “Historically, in any Yes or No vote in a referendum, it’s actually the No side that tends to grow over time, people tend not to default to changing the status quo. 
… “If there was a major crisis in England – if the Eurozone split apart and there were ramifications economically (for the UK) – the maybe things would reconsidered a little bit. But he added: “For the most part it looks like it’s a question of how much the No side will win by, not what the outcome might be.”