9 July 2017

Deciders meet deliverers

On 4 April 2013 David Cameron was “winched from a helicopter onto HMS Victorious, one of our Trident nuclear submarines” to quote from his own account later that day. According to a local newspaper, the Lennox Herald:
Mr Cameron joined the submarine at sea as it finished an 88-day mission and spent time with crew members on board the giant strategic missile submarine and visited the vessel’s operations room, messes and living spaces.
Photographs of Cameron on board HMS Victorious at the end of the 100th Trident patrol appeared in the national press the following day (see above).

Then on 8 April the death of Lady Thatcher started a flood of media articles in the days before the funeral on 17 April. One was by Angela Huth in the Daily Mail on 11 April:
Back in 1986, a producer friend at the BBC suggested that a book I had written, The English Woman’s Wardrobe, would make a good documentary film. The book was not about fashion, but about women’s feelings about their clothes. Princess Margaret was the star of the printed version: we wanted Mrs Thatcher to take that role in the film. Amazingly, she agreed.
At Number 10 the PM
… led us into the sitting room. There, some 20 different garments were hanging before us on a long clothes rack. She had abandoned her lunch break to heave them from her bedroom into the sitting room. … Mrs Thatcher remembered the history of everything on the rack, and described each one with merry recall. She pointed to a severe beige suit. ‘This we wore on a visit to the Polaris missile,’ she explained, with a touch of nostalgia. The ‘we’ she referred to meant, I think, she and her dressmaker.
The beige suit is probably the garment fourth from the right below.

A clue to “Polaris missile” can be found on the Margaret Thatcher Foundation’s (MTF) excellent website, which has recently made available her private files for 1982:
On 31 July MT paid a visit to HMS Resolution, one of the four Polaris submarines carrying Britain's strategic nuclear deterrent, a visit held so secret in advance that her appointment diary was left blank for the day: we only have timings for it because she kept the tiny engagement card she received each morning detailing the appointments for the day ahead. (Generally those cards do not survive.) Admiral Fieldhouse accompanied her and afterwards she wrote to him (10 Aug):  
It was a marvellous experience - made wonderful by the superlative and yet modest qualities of the commander and crew. The feeling of comradeship and yet discipline and respect were marvellous to see. We are fortunate indeed in the high personal qualities of our ordinary folk - if ordinary is the word to use: they all seem so able to demonstrate extraordinary qualities when called upon to do so. …
A couple of aspects of this seem noteworthy. Firstly, the somewhat de haut en bas reference in 1984 to “ordinary folk”, although qualified, and the use of a regal “we” to Huth in 1986 suggest that Mrs Thatcher’s feet had lost contact with the ground earlier than indicated by some of the accounts of her despatch in 1990 by her exasperated colleagues. The well-known “We have become a grandmother” was in 1989. Secondly, and more interestingly, it raises the question of how many other Prime Ministers have taken the trouble to visit Polaris or Trident submarines. Why should they? Peter Hennessy devotes a whole chapter of The Secret State Preparing for the Worst 1945-2010 to “The Human Button: Deciders and Deliverers” and makes the point:
… the premier [with the Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS)] makes up the first of the pairs that comprise the firing chain from the prime ministerial bunker to the Royal Navy Trident submarine on patrol. (page 358)
The Royal Navy became “Deliverers” at the start of the first Polaris patrol in 1968 since when there have been eight “Decider” Prime Ministers, four Conservative and four Labour. Of the Conservatives we know for certain that Cameron and Thatcher have been on board HM submarines carrying the nuclear deterrent. John Major may have been – he visited the Faslane base in August 1996 and made a speech at the ceremony to mark the decommissioning of the last Polaris submarine, HMS Repulse, by which time the first two Trident submarines were operational. Whether Ted Heath made such a visit in the Polaris period between 1970 and 1974 is uncertain. Margaret Thatcher was Heath’s education secretary so the MTF is making papers from his government available on-line. One is a record of a conversation between Heath and President Pompidou in November 1973 indicating the former’s interest in future nuclear cooperation with France rather than the US (page 8/9). So perhaps not.

Again, it is yet to be established whether or not any of the four Labour PMs (Wilson, Callaghan, Blair and Brown) visited a Polaris or, in the case of the latter two, Trident submarine. Of course, not doing so, or not wanting it to be publicised if they did, does not mean that they failed to take their Decider responsibilities seriously. Hennessy records Lord Guthrie’s comment on his briefing when CDS of Tony Blair as to the Trident force and its capability:
He was quite quiet when he actually heard what was at the country’s disposal. (page 310)
In France, a country which embraces égalité (but is run by élites) and where a Socialist President is unencumbered by a left wing with unilateralist tendencies, the Decider can go to sea early on in his time in office to mix with les gens ordinaires who are ready to do the delivering (François Hollande on Le Terrible in July 2012, below).


Well, don't the years go by! Another French president made a visit to the same submarine (as reported by BBC News, Emmanuel Macron aboard France's Le Terrible nuclear submarineon 4 July apparently.

Will Theresa May follow in her predecessor's footsteps?  Too much else going on one would have thought.

24 June 2017

On age advantage in general elections

There have been 20 elections in the UK since the end of the second world war. A recent post looked at the vote share of the two main parties (Conservative and Labour) in these elections. Another, perhaps less well-grounded, updated the remarkable record of graduates of Oxford university being the winners – now 18 times out of the 20.

Yet another, but not altogether serious, statistic about elections which is easily captured is the age difference between the contenders (Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition), shown for the post-war period in the chart below.

The green shadow indicates where the election generated a change of governing party. 1945, following the wartime coalition led by Winston Churchill, and 2010, leading to a Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition led by David Cameron, are assumed to be changes of party. Eight of the 20 elections were then of this kind. In the four elections from 1966 to 1974 the age difference between the contenders was insignificant, Harold Wilson being born in March and Edward Heath in July 1916. For this reason, no conclusions can be drawn about the 1970 and February 1974 changes of government. However, in five of the remaining six elections in which there was a change of party, the successful challenger was younger, on four occasions by 10 years or more. The only older successful challenger was in 1951, when, having failed to displace Clement Attlee in 1950, Churchill returned to the Prime Ministership.

In the 12 continuity elections (ie with no consequent change of governing party), Wilson’s successes against Heath in 1966 and October 1974 are as before insignificant as far as age differences are concerned. Cameron’s success in 2015 against Ed Miliband, who was three years younger, and John Major’s in 1992, when a year and a day older than Neil Kinnock, are probably best regarded as inconclusive as well. In the eight remaining continuity elections, three of the victors had an age advantage of more than 10 years and two were more than five years younger. Three were older, Margaret Thatcher’s defeat of Kinnock in 1987, when more than 15 years older, being easier to understand than Harold Macmillan’s of Hugh Gaitskell in 1959 when more than ten years older.

Is there any underlying significance to all this? It could be that for the electorate to move a party from opposition to government, there has to be an appetite for change and the case for fulfilling it can be made more convincingly by a younger person – Wilson in 1964, Margaret Thatcher in 1979, Tony Blair in 1997, Cameron in 2010.

And what should the two parties’ strategies be for the next election if they were to take age advantage seriously? Labour would, it seems, be more likely to succeed in selling change to the electorate with a much younger leader than Jeremy Corbyn, 68 but now not easily dislodged. It is worth noting that while Cameron at 43 in 2010 was the youngest PM since 1812, Justin Trudeau became Canadian Prime Minister in 2015 at the same age and Emmanuel Macron was elected president of France this year at 39. Labour might well want to wait for the Tories to move first but ought already to be considering that their man or woman should be much more than five years younger than Boris Johnson or Amber Rudd (both currently 53) and significantly younger than Michael Gove (49, going on 60) or Sajid David (47). The Conservatives (on the assumption that Theresa May is no longer PM by then) should aim to nullify any future Labour leader’s age advantage by choosing someone in their early forties. It would also be to the Tory’s advantage to play it long and keep Labour waiting.   Oh, and if they'd been to Oxford ...

Anyone thinking of starting up a new party under, say, David Miliband, should remember that he is 52 next month. How time passes.

Update 27 June 2017 

On 25 June, the Sunday Telegraph carried an article by Ben Riley-Smith, Tory plot to skip 'toxic' generation and install younger face as next leader.
Tory MPs and donors are plotting to “skip a generation” and install a younger MP as their next leader after concluding the front-runners to replace Theresa May are too toxic. A growing number of Conservatives believe that Boris Johnson and David Davis have “had their day” and only younger faces can revive the party’s fortunes.  
… Hopes are now turning to the “golden generation” of Tory MPs first elected in 2010 to win back younger voters who voted for Jeremy Corbyn en masse at the election.  Sajid Javid, the Business Secretary, Dominic Raab, the Eurosceptic justice minister, and Priti Patel, the International Development Secretary, are all being talked up by colleagues.  Other ministers from the 2010 intake such as Jesse Norman, Brandon Lewis and Jo Johnson - the brother of Boris - are also mentioned as possible contenders.  
Supporters of the plan point to how David Cameron, the last Tory to win the party a majority, was barely known when he joined the leadership race in 2005.  
“If and when this happens, we need Year Zero – a real radical revolution,” said one 2010 MP about a leadership switch.  “We need an equivalent to Ruth Davidson [the Scottish Tory leader] – someone completely counter-intuitive. She is a lesbian kick-boxer who doesn’t fit the mould. When she first got elected she didn’t have much cut through. But because they are new and different it will gather stream [sic].” 
One veteran MP warned that “all the front-runners are contaminated in one way or the other". Another younger MP said: “They’ve had their day and it hasn’t worked. For the current lot – Boris and the rest of them – their time is up.

Raab is 43; Patel, 45; Norman, 55; Lewis and Jo Johnson, both 46.

19 June 2017

Macron on campaign

Just after Emmanuel Macron’s election to the presidency in May, the French television channel TF1 showed a documentary, Emmanuel Macron, les coulisses d’une victoire (behind the scenes of a victory), directed by Yann L’Hénoret. It is now available on Netflix as Emmanuel Macron: Behind the Rise, subtitled in English. Macron and his campaign team were filmed and recorded over the 200 days that culminated in his victory speech at the Louvre. Apparently, the film was inspired by The War Room, a 1994 film about Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign. I think that most people in the UK with an interest in contemporary politics, not just in France, would find it worth watching. 

One scene seemed particularly relevant to democratic politicians everywhere. Between the two rounds of voting in the presidential election, Macron is on a visit to the troubled Whirlpool factory in Amiens and finds that his rival, Marine Le Pen, is in the car park talking to the strikers. There is a discussion with his team as to whether, once she has left, he should do the same, including this at 1:18:20:

Woman Aide: We looked at the security angle.

EM: Don’t listen to the security guys. I’ll never be safe. That’s how the country is now. We have to take risks. We have to go to the heart of the fight, every time. Listen to the security guys and you end up like Hollande. You may be safe but you’ve died.

Parce que si vous écoutez les mecs de la sécurité, vous finissez comme Hollande.  Peut-être que vous êtes en sécurité mais vous êtes mort.

16 June 2017

Doing it properly for JR

John Rentoul tweeted this on 15 January and commented on my reply:

I’m sure he knows what an x-axis is and the limitations in that respect of the chart he tweeted, especially for periods when elections are spaced other than 4/5 years apart – like now. Anyway, this is possibly a slightly better way of presenting the same data for the vote share of the two main parties:

Really, it should be a histogram for each election, the data having no meaning in the intervals between elections. But joining up the data points appears to reveal a cyclic pattern of several election intervals duration.

Superimposing the percentage of the total vote which goes to parties other than the Conservatives or Labour seems to indicate the end in 2017 of what had been a very long-term trend. It was in the 1970s when the non-Labour, non-Tory share of the vote was last as low as in 2017. There were five general elections in the ten years from October 1964 to October 1974 - if there were a cycle, it was a short one. But it might be unwise to rule out a revival in Liberal Democrat and UKIP fortunes in the next few years.


This is the full link to Cowling's data: drive.google.com/file/d/0B5Ik-g

11 June 2017

The Oxford Incumbency continues (just)

It was back in October 2013 that I posted about the very high proportion of elected British Prime Ministers who were Oxford University graduates. The table I produced then is due for an update following the general election on 8 June 2017:

As are some the points which I made:

In 18 of the 20 general elections since 1945, the winning Prime Minister was educated at Oxford.

Of the 11 elected Prime Ministers since 1945, nine went to Oxford; of all 13 PMs since the war, ten went to Oxford.

On only one occasion, 1951, did an Oxford-educated incumbent, Clement Attlee, lose to a non-Oxford person –the “Former Naval Person”, Winston Churchill.

In only one election, 1992, had neither candidate been to Oxford.


(1) Harold Macmillan did not graduate from Oxford, his studies having been interrupted by war service.

(2) Known as University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire in Neil Kinnock’s time there.

(3) Cameron, a Conservative, led a coalition from 2010 to 2015.

19 May 2017

Keeping the peace in Europe

In the previous post, I disagreed with Emmanuel Macron’s remark that “Europe is what has enabled us since 1945 to preserve peace … in our continent” rather than NATO. This view is not unique to the President of France, for example, as expressed in this tweet, much liked and retweeted, from Andrew Stroehlein* on Europe Day:

But if we zoom in on the period since the end of the Second World War in 1945, something is not quite right:

NATO was established in April 1949, the date apparently being staked out for the EU flag. The latter was designed in 1955 and adopted by the Council of Europe in December that year. In 1985 it was also taken up for the European Communities from which the EU inherited it in 1993. The Council of Europe**, which like NATO was founded in 1949, is distinct from the EU and aims to uphold human rights, democracy, rule of law in Europe and promote European culture. No doubt it can be regarded in doing so as contributing to the preservation of peace, whether its existence is sufficient for it is another matter. Something similar could be said to apply to the first of the pan-European institutions which subsequently led to the EU, the European Steel and Coal Community, founded in 1951. 

Meanwhile NATO, to quote, possibly apocryphally, its first Secretary General, General Ismay, got on with its job: "to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down".

*Stroehlein is European Media Director of Human Rights Watch, based in Brussels.

**Not the European Council which is part of the EU, as is yet another body, the Council of the European Union.

9 May 2017

Who Do You Think You Are Kidding, Mr Macron?*

On Sunday 7 May the Downing Street spokesperson on duty that evening said that Theresa May had congratulated Emmanuel Macron on being voted French president and that
“The leaders briefly discussed Brexit and the Prime Minister reiterated that the UK wants a strong partnership with a secure and prosperous EU once we leave.”
They “looked forward to meeting and holding discussions at the upcoming NATO and G7 summits”. 

So it’s now definitely worth reviewing Macron’s opinions on Brexit and the UK. Eleven months ago, just before the Brexit referendum, when he was economy minister and still a socialist, he gave Le Monde an interview:
How would you vote in the “Brexit” referendum? 
If I were British, I would resolutely vote "Remain" because it is the UK's interest. Leaving the EU would mean "guerneseyfication" (the île anglo-normande [Channel Island] that is a British crown dependency but not part of the EU) of the United Kingdom, which would then be a small country à l’échelle du monde [literally “on the ladder of the world”, so on a much lower rung in the world, or, more loosely, on the world stage]. It would become isolated and a trading post, a place of arbitrage on the border of Europe. 
If the British choose Brexit, what should be their status? 
The European Council of 28 June must collectively have a very firm message and timetable in the event of a negative vote. We cannot, in the interest of the EU, leave ambiguity floating and too much time elapsing. One is in or out. The day after the departure, there will be no financial passport for the British institutions. The European Council will have to issue an ultimatum to the British on their [the UK’s] intentions and the President of the Republic will be very clear on this aspect. If the UK wants a commercial treaty to access the European market, the British will have to contribute to the European budget like the Norwegians or the Swiss. If London does not want it, it must be a total exit. 
"When we are no longer capable of providing a project for Europe, we give room for doubters. Our challenge, the day after, is twofold: to avoid contamination and immediately relaunch the dynamic of a positive project for Europe".
In February 2017, Macron made an En Marche! campaign visit to London which included a visit to Downing Street. It is informative to contrast the versions of what he said outside Number 10.  One was intended for francophone consumption, emphasising the importance of cooperation on defence and counter-terrorism, but in English Macron chose to stress that he wanted to put in place:
… a series of initiatives to get talented people in research and lots of fields working here to come to France. I was very happy to see that some academics and researchers in the UK because of Brexit are considering coming to France to work. It will be part of my programme to be attractive for these kinds of people. I want banks, talents, researchers, academics and so on. I think that France and the European Union are a very attractive space now so in my programme I will do everything I can to make it attractive and successful.
More recently, Macron was interviewed by Monocle magazine:
M: Let’s talk about Brexit. What is the best response to the UK when it comes to negotiations? 
EM: I am a hard Brexiter. I think that Europe has made a mistake negotiating the inter-governmental accord [the “special status” deal David Cameron struck with the EU in February last year]. It created a precedent, which is that a single state can twist the European debate to its own interests. Cameron was toying with Europe and we agreed to go along with it, which was a big mistake. Britain must understand that our interest in the medium to long term is to have clear rules. So if Britain wants to trade with Europe it has to choose a model, such as the Swiss, Norwegian or Canadian. We have to accept that there are losses. But it’s the British who will lose the most. You cannot enjoy rights in Europe if you are not a member – otherwise it will fall apart. Europe is what has enabled us since 1945, in an unprecedented way, to preserve peace, security, freedom and prosperity in our continent. The British are making a serious mistake over the long term. [Foreign secretary] Boris Johnson enjoys giving flamboyant speeches but has no strategic vision; the turmoil he created the day after Brexit proves it. [Former leader of Ukip] Nigel Farage and Mr Johnson are responsible for this crime: they sailed the ship into battle and jumped overboard at the moment of crisis. Theresa May has handled it but what has been happening since then? On the geopolitical level as well as on the financial, realignment and submission to the US. What is going to happen is not “taking back control”: it’s servitude.
These remarks were made during the period when Macron had one eye on the Elysée and some expectation of a second-round contest with Marine Le Pen, distinctively anti-euro and anti-EU. His views as President will perhaps be more nuanced. However, his forecasts for the UK of "guerneseyfication", slipping down the échelle du monde and servitude, combined with his belief that “Europe is what has enabled us since 1945 to preserve peace … in our continent” rather than NATO, suggest that, however brilliant an énarque he may be, his judgements are founded on a view of how France would like the world to be rather than realism.

Ahead of the late-May NATO and G7 summits referred to earlier, here is a reminder of where the UK is currently placed on the global ladder:

An échelle du monde
So when the UK leaves the EU, the latter will lose:
one of its three G7 members,
a key member of NATO and one of the four EU members of NATO which currently meet the 2% of GDP defence expenditure requirement (but see below),
one of its two permanent members of the UN Security Council (P5),
one of its two of the five Nuclear Proliferation Treaty Nuclear Weapon States (NWS),
its only member of the ‘5 Eyes’ intelligence community,
one of its three members of the Commonwealth.

None of this is likely to worry Macron who seems to be focused on Germany as a partner, not in a servile way of course, as he explained to Monocle:
M: What role can France play with Germany on the global stage? 
EM: Paris and Berlin have to reinforce a much stronger partnership that is in line with our common interests. Angela Merkel is well aware of the current dangers and challenges. Germany is becoming a great military power again. Two per cent of its GDP will be spent on defence – more than France, which hasn’t happened since 1945. Burdened by its history, Germany cannot handle this alone. France is not strong enough economically to play the role it once had at international level. Paris must reinforce an independent diplomacy and at the same time build new areas of discussion and co-operation with Berlin.
Bon chance with that!

*Pastiche of the theme song of Dad's Army (a British TV sitcom set during World War 2).

30 April 2017

Caledonia and Catalonia

There were 11 posts here between 2012 and 2015 labelled “Scottish Independence”, a subject of interest to this blog because it might have led to the relocation to South West England of at least part of the Royal Navy (the deterrent submarine force). Now, 30 months after the decisive No vote of September 2014, the independence issue has been revivified by Brexit and “Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will”, although apparently with no mention by the SNP so far of the nuclear weapons issue.

In 2015, before the EU Referendum, I pointed out that the departure of Scotland (Caledonia to the Romans and the poetically inclined) wouldn’t be such a disaster for what would remain of the UK (Not so Little England) as some Remainers were suggesting. But whether the arrival of Scotland would be welcomed with open arms by some of the remaining 27 EU member countries is another matter, particularly for the Spanish, as this except from a BBC Scotland article by Nick Eardley on 10 March suggested:

What of the Spanish problem?

The SNP's Europe Spokesman was in Madrid earlier this week. He's been one of the party figures travelling around Europe trying to drum up support for Scotland remaining a key player, in spite of Brexit. He says the SNP will remain neutral on Catalonia - arguing the case of the want away Spanish region is different from Scotland. Some will interpret that as a way of trying to make Scottish independence - with full EU membership - more palatable to Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

Esetban Pons MEP is vice chair for Mr Rajoy's People's Party in the European Parliament. He told me: "If Scotland in the future wants to come back they have to begin the procedure as any other country." 

But, I asked him, would Spain try and veto Scotland re-entering? 

"No because if you are thinking about Catalonia the situation is very very very different to the Scottish situation."

So what constitutes different? The first table below compares the UK and Spain and Scotland and Catalonia and also the impact of the latter pair’s removal on the former pair. The major loss would be Spain’s in terms of population and the economy whereas for the UK it would be more significant in terms of physical area.

The next tables show the impact on the UK and Spain for area and population relative to the other EU countries (the UK will be in the EU until 2019 at least) of these losses and where Scotland and Catalonia would enter.

The final table shows the impact in GDP terms. Five countries out of 28 (Germany, France, UK, Netherlands and Italy) provide nearly 90% of the EU budget. Another five countries are the source of the rest.

However, there is one highly significant difference between Scotland and Catalonia. UK public expenditure  per head in England is lower than in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland, in effect a transfer of resources (currently around £9 billion in the case of Scotland) which has the effect of reducing differences in living standards. By contrast, Catalonia was sending a similar amount to the central Spanish treasury in 2011. Perhaps not so surprising then that there is a continuing majority in Scotland against independence, even post-Brexit, nor that the opposite is the case in Catalonia!

But perhaps a more intriguing aspect of post-Brexit Spanish-UK relations than Scotland vs Catalonia is Catalonia vs Gibraltar. The latter both owe their present status to the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713, as this article from the Guardian in 1977 (recently tweeted by @dentard) reveals:

All statistics from Wikipedia unless otherwise indicated.

17 March 2017

Sussex Modernism at Two Temple Place

I posted here in 2013 about Artists in Cornwall, the second annual Winter Exhibition held by the Bulldog Trust at Two Temple Place on the Victoria Embankment, London. Their current and sixth show, Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion, brings together some of the art, craft, photography and architectural design which flourished in that area* between 1900 and 1950.

Many people will be aware of the presence of Eric Gill (Icon 1923, below top left) at Ditchling, the Bloomsberries (Duncan Grant, Bathers by the Pond c1920-21, below lower) at Charleston and Roland Penrose and Lee Miller (1952 photograph, below top right, of Henry Moore with Mother and Child 1936-37 – on display at Two Temple Place) at Farley Farm House. However, Sussex’s rural nature combined with its proximity to London would attract other cultured and creative spirits, although the extent to which they were aware of each other’s presence, let alone its influence, is probably unknowable. Nonetheless, it is almost certain that they would all have been conscious of the avant-garde arts of their time and can quite fairly be accommodated under modernism.

The show at Two Temple Place has brought together a fascinating selection of items, many from local collections, revealing Sussex’s twentieth century cultural heritage. Two examples are by Edward Wadsworth from 1940, at the tail end of 1930s English surrealism, Light Section from the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery (below top) and Bronze Ballet from the Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne (below lower):

Other exhibits have come from further afield, like Edward Burra’s Landscape near Rye, 1934-35 (in the poster above). A striking item of furniture on display is the Mae West lips sofa designed in 1938 by Salvador Dalí and Edward James for the latter’s home in West Sussex (below top). The De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill on Sea, designed by Mendelsohn and Chermayeff in the mid-1930s and one of the UK’s most important Modernist buildings, is represented by photographs and its original architectural model (below lower):

Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion is a free exhibition and ends on 23 April 2017.

*’Sussex’ consists of the English counties of East and West Sussex bordering the English Channel and the seaside conurbation of Brighton and Hove. The great circle (shortest) route from London to Paris passes through East Sussex, close to the Newhaven-Dieppe ferry route established in the mid-Nineteenth century.

27 February 2017

Those two impostors

When the Sunday Times ran an exclusive on 22 January 2017 about a Trident missile having “experienced an alarming failure after being launched from a British submarine off the coast of Florida in June last year”, they went into the “What did they know, and when did they know it?” mode much-beloved of investigative journalists. Readers of the story, which derived from “a senior naval source”, were told that
The incident happened shortly before Theresa May became prime minister but she omitted any mention of the failed test when she persuaded parliament to spend £40bn on new Trident submarines in her first big Commons speech on July 18. The revelations are likely to cause a political storm. MPs will want to know why such important information … was withheld …
As Cameron remained PM until 13 July, this line was not exactly supported by
The source had told this newspaper that the test took place at the end of June – about the time of the Brexit vote on June 23.
or by a story in The Times the next day, US urged Britain to keep Trident blunder secret:
Officials from the Obama administration asked David Cameron’s government not to comment on the malfunction during a test of the Trident nuclear deterrent in June, it is understood.
The Sunday Times returned to their story on 29 January, sticking with “the serious malfunction [having] been covered up by Downing Street” but shifting the emphasis to “problems with the gyro within Trident’s guidance system” and US documents, backed up by “A source close to the US military”.

Neither of the Sunday Times reports made anything of the closeness of the British Trident test (actually on Monday 20 June – see below) to the date of the EU Referendum. A post here last year looked at the opinion polling in the days leading up to the Referendum and any impact of the death of Jo Cox MP and suspension of the campaign on Thursday 16 June. Parliament was recalled on 20 June and campaigning resumed the following day. At this point Remain seemed to be doing better in the polling than hitherto, or as it turned out, on the day.

The Sunday Times’s political editor, Tim Shipman, has written in depth about the Referendum in a highly-regarded book, All Out War.  At the end of a chapter on the aftermath of Cox’s death, he records:
… Another senior figure in the campaign described Jo Cox’s death as ‘a disaster’ for Stronger In: ‘That weekend , I bet the papers would have splashed on a five-point Leave lead in the polls, and I think on Monday and Tuesday the markets would have crashed. We would have had a cycle which was much closer to Scotland. Actually it took the sting out of the campaign. It meant that the bounce back to the status quo never really happened. That was something we were banking on happening”. 
Cox’s death also meant Mark Carney’s final intervention on the day of her killing received almost no publicity. ‘He was just wiped off the news agenda, and that was devastating from our point of view’, a Tory source said. … (page 388)
The next chapter of Shipman’s book deals with the final ‘Great Debate’ of the campaign held at Wembley on Tuesday 21 June. By then the news of the test failure would have reached Whitehall - which raises an interesting point: what effect, if any, the news might have had on the campaign.  In so far as it could appear to the public as being a loss of face for the government and the prime minister, it might have been considered as unhelpful to the Remain side and even as undermining its authority. 

Two other, albeit less intriguing, points about timing lurk in all this. Firstly, if the story didn’t break surface last summer soon after the event, why should it emerge in January, seven months later? Perhaps it should be noted that President Obama’s period of office ended on Friday 20 January and the new Trump staff in the White House would have had no interest in responding to The Times’s story on Monday 22nd, if they were even aware of it.

Following the Sunday Times story, a Labour MP, Kevan Jones, put down an Urgent Question on 23 January:
To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the test firing of a Trident nuclear missile in June 2016.
The Defence Secretary, Sir Michael Fallon, responded:
In June last year, the Royal Navy conducted a demonstration and shakedown operation designed to certify HMS Vengeance and her crew prior to their return to operations. It included a routine unarmed Trident missile test launch. Contrary to reports in the weekend press, HMS Vengeance and her crew were successfully tested and certified as ready to rejoin the operational cycle. We do not comment on the detail of submarine operations, …
Lines which he continued to take in response to questions. Another MP, John Spellar (Labour Minister for the Armed Forces, 1999-2001), asked:
Will the Minister confirm that in Lord Hennessy’s book “The Silent Deep” there is a full description of a previous firing?
Spellar could have asked the book’s author who must have been in Westminster, for later the same afternoon in the House of Lords, Earl Howe, Defence Minister, repeated the statement Fallon had made earlier (although the words “In June last year” were replaced by “On 20 June”) and Lord Hennessy would speak:
My Lords, I declare an interest in that I witnessed the launch in question from the survey vessel two and half miles away from where the missile came out of the sea. I put it to the Minister, with great respect, that it would make it much easier for those of us who very powerfully support the independent deterrent, and the building of the four “Dreadnought” submarines in the successor class, to make the case generally in the country when we are interviewed in the media if the Minister could assure us that a full analysis has been successfully made of whatever went wrong—I have no knowledge at all of the nature of what went wrong—and that remedies have been put in place. I understand that every particle of a D5 missile is riddled with the highest security classifications, but in this case, such an assurance could be possible and would be very welcome.
Earl Howe replied:
My Lords, the most important assurance is the one that I have already given: this is a system in which we have absolute confidence. It has never been the practice of government to give Parliament details of submarine operations or of the systems and subsystems that are tested during a demonstration and shakedown operation. But I hope I have said enough to reassure noble Lords about our deterrent and its reliability.
Peter Hennessy, as well as witnessing the June 2016 launch, had been present at launches in May 2009 and October 2012 (The Silent Deep, page 638). By yet another near coincidence of timing, the paperback edition of his book had come out on 2 June 2016. The Submarine Service seems to have embraced Hennessy as warmly as the civil service used to in the days when his books on Whitehall would admiringly recount how “down these mean corridors a man must go”. But perhaps he shouldn’t book his flights to Florida for 2020, say, too soon, in view of Fallon’s response to Spellar’s question above:
… I have already made it clear that, of course, earlier Governments in different circumstances took different decisions not to share details with Parliament, but to release information publicly about the completion of tests. We have to take our decision in the light of the circumstances that prevail at the time and the national security considerations.
And if 2020 turns out to be the next year a British submarine tests a Trident missile, do not expect it to take place before 7 May!

Fallon must have been left wishing that in the past others had adopted the reticence implied in Kipling’s advice:
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster  
And treat those two impostors just the same

20 February 2017

Elisabeth Frink at Hauser & Wirth

Two previous posts have been about exhibitions at Hauser & Wirth Somerset in Bruton: in 2014 their opening exhibition was of works by Phyllida Barlow who will have a solo show in the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2017; last year, drawings by Louise Bourgeois. Their current show in Bruton is Elisabeth Frink: Transformation.

Elisabeth Frink (1930-1993) was a major figure in British sculpture from the early 1950s until her death. The sculpture and drawings selected for this show concentrate on the 1950s and 1960s. Birds appear frequently in her early 1960s work:

 and in semi-abstract form in her drawings:

The male form, often nude, appears frequently in her work, never, it seems, the female:

Birdman, 1960
Her large male heads, particularly the Goggle Heads from the late 1960s, are well-known in her late works:

Goggle Head I, 1969 (left) and Desert Quartet III and IV, 1989 right
It may seem carping when there is no charge at Hauser & Wirth for their exhibitions, but to me this show was woefully under-curated. The exhibits were not labelled, or even numbered, so their titles, dates and provenance had to be gleaned, and then only to a limited extent, from the press release and from a commendable Education Guide. It surely would not have been a major effort to overcome these deficiencies, most of the information presumably having to be collated for insurance purposes if nothing else. Annette Ratuszniakh’s Elisabeth Frink Catalogue Raisonne of Sculpture 1947-93 would have been of help.

Elisabeth Frink: Transformation continues until 7 May 2017.

19 February 2017

Peter Mandelson and Alternative Facts

From the transcript, the first question that Marr (AM) put to Mandelson (M) this morning: 


 AM: Peter Mandelson, Brexit is going to happen, isn’t it?

 M: The question Andrew is, on what terms? And what we’ve learned since the referendum and obviously the government has to respect, and parliament has to respect the decision, the majority decision expressed in the referendum, even though it represented only 37 per cent of the public who voted to leave. …

Only 37%?  Wasn’t the result 51.89% Leave, 48.11% Remain (I certainly thought so when I posted this the other day)?

But the turnout was 72.21% and, guess what, 72.21% of 51.89% is 37.47%, hence Mandelson’s “37 per cent”. However, on that basis the Remain vote would be 72.21% of 48.11%, ie 34.7%. And, anyway, it wasn’t “37 per cent of the public who voted” – perhaps the non-voters didn’t care or didn’t know, they can’t be assumed to be Remainers!

Mandelson always regarded himself as the architect of Blair’s 1997 election victory when Labour secured a 179 seat majority. Using Mandelson’s measure above, Labour’s 43.2% of the votes cast on a 71.3% turnout would have amounted to “31 per cent of the public who voted”!