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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Not only the Weather getting turbulent!

JCB leaves CBI 'over Brexit stance'.

The construction firm JCB has left the business lobby group, the CBI, reportedly because of its anti-Brexit stance. A JCB spokesperson confirmed that the company had ended its membership of the CBI, but did not give reasons why. Sky news had earlier reported that it was due to the group's response to the referendum outcome JCB's chairman, Lord Bamford, was a prominent supporter of the Brexit campaign. During the campaign he said: "The UK is the world's fifth largest trading nation. We therefore have little to fear from leaving the EU." He also wrote to his 6,500 UK employees to explain why he favoured a vote to leave the European Union, saying he was "very confident that we can stand on our own two feet". The CBI, on the other hand, warned that a UK exit from the EU would cause a "serious economic shock", potentially costing the country £100bn and nearly one million jobs. A CBI spokesman said: "It's always a shame to see any member leave the CBI, but we recognise that businesses have competing priorities and we respect that."

Government 'planned to publish Brexit Green Paper'.

The government planned to publish a broad outline of its Brexit negotiation aims, sources have told the BBC. A "Green Paper" document was a "serious idea" but was dropped, sources told BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg. Downing Street denied the publication of a Green Paper was ever part of its plan. Ministers are facing pressure to set out what they want to achieve from the talks with the EU before formally triggering Brexit by the end of March. Prime Minister Theresa May has repeatedly refused to give a "running commentary" on the talks. But sources told the BBC the government had planned to produce a Green Paper - a consultation document setting out policy proposals - in the Autumn. "We were told there would be one in October," one source said, adding that the financial sector had been asked to provide "a data dump and a shopping list" by the end of September in order to facilitate the process. A separate source said they had been briefed by government officials that the Green Paper "was expected late September", while another added: "It's gone away - the only thing they agree on is so high level that there would only be one page...I'm not sure that there is a coherent plan." But a Downing Street source said the claims were "tosh".

Brexit: No vote on talks but MPs may have say on EU deal.

MPs will not get to vote on how Brexit negotiations are handled but could still be asked to approve the "final" deal, a government source has said. Several senior politicians, including ex-Labour leader Ed Miliband, have demanded Parliament gives its verdict on the UK's departure from the EU. But Brexit Secretary David Davis told MPs there was a difference between "accountability and micro-management". The UK's exit from the EU is expected to happen by summer 2019. Theresa May is visiting Denmark and the Netherlands for Brexit-related talks as MPs debate the issue in the Commons. The Leave campaign won a majority in June's referendum, with the prime minister announcing last week that the government would trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty - beginning formal negotiations between the UK and EU - by the end of March next year. The process will take up to two years, involving complex debates about issues such as immigration and access to the European single market.

Retailers warn government of Brexit price rises.

Failure to strike a good Brexit deal in 2019 will push up prices in the shops, The British Retail Consortium has warned. The trade body warned reverting to World Trade Organization (WTO) rules could see tariffs on clothes of up to 16% and on meat of up to 27%. "Years of deflation" would mean retailers would have to pass these import costs on to consumers, it said. It follows a similar warning from the CBI last week. Other items singled out by the BRC include Chilean wine, where the BRC says tariffs would rise by 14%. The BRC points out that as well as higher prices, some products, such as New Zealand lamb, are subject to EU import quotas, so could become cheaper outside the EU. But it stresses that overall prices would rise and shopkeepers would struggle to absorb those higher prices. The fall in the value of the pound since the referendum, a trend that accelerated last week to leave the pound at its lowest against the dollar for 31 years and at five-year lows against the euro, already means any goods brought in from outside the UK will cost more. The BRC argues that prices have been squeezed so low that profit margins are too small to be eroded further.

Pound steadies after recent slump.

The pound has recovered some of its recent losses, with analysts attributing the gains to the promise of a Commons debate on the Brexit process. The pound closed 0.6% higher on Wednesday at $1.22, but down from its best levels for the day. Against the euro, the pound rose nearly 1% to close at €1.11. Sterling has been sliding since Prime Minister Theresa May announced on 2 October that the formal Brexit process would start by the end of March 2017. Traders have been selling the pound, fearing the impact of leaving the single market. According to figures from the Bank of England, on Tuesday the pound fell to its lowest level in history on a trade-weighted basis. The trade-weighted index measures the pound against a basket of currencies, adjusted to reflect the importance of nations as trading partners. MPs have been demanding to scrutinise the eventual plan to leave the European Union before it is finally agreed, and on Wednesday the government agreed there should be a "full and transparent debate". But it added that the process should not "undermine" the government's negotiating position.

Brexit case 'of fundamental constitutional importance'.

The need for Parliament to give its approval before the Brexit process starts is of huge "constitutional importance", the High Court has heard. QC Lord Pannick said the case "raises an issue... concerning the limits of the power of the executive". The High Court is considering whether ministers can invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the trigger for formal talks, without MPs passing a new law. But the government said the EU would not be rejoined via "the back door". Ministers argue they are entitled to act under ancient powers of Royal Prerogative. Investment manager Gina Miller is among those contesting the government's authority to proceed without recourse to Parliament - arguing the principle of parliamentary sovereignty underpins the constitution and the rule of law in the country. Her legal team, headed by constitutional lawyer and cross-bench peer Lord Pannick, is arguing that invoking Article 50 will threaten the rights of individuals enshrined in the 1972 European Communities Act - which paved the way for the UK to join the European Economic Community. Only Parliament, they argue, can remove or reduce rights granted under law and Article 50 must have the consent of the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

All details above from BBC News website.

[Apart from the increasingly rabid calls for a swift exit from the EU (presumably to stop people actually reflecting on the consequences and pausing to actually THINK rather than hope that things will (eventually) turn out for the best), it’s all rather quiet here in pre-economic catastrophe land. I guess that things will heat up again once the Supreme Court comes back with its decision – I presume that the Government will lose its appeal but you never can tell if the ‘fix’ is in or not – and Parliament returns after their Christmas break. Once thing that I can say for certain is that 2017 is going to be a VERY interesting year all round!]

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Just Finished Reading: Skis Against the Atom by Knut Haukelid (FP: 1954)

When the Germans invaded Norway in 1940 a group of students, including the author, raced to the front lines in the hope that they could do something to aid the hard pressed Norwegian armed forces. Having little but hunting rifles and quickly aware that their country was being overrun they had some stark choices to make: Fight and either die or be captured, run and hide hoping that liberation or victory would eventually come or escape to England to keep the fight going from there. If they wanted to fight the occupying army that, it appeared, was their only path. So, as the fighting raged they left their beloved country and headed for England. Years later, after extensive training in sabotage, infiltration and weapons use care of the SOE (Special Operations Executive) training schools the author and several of his University friends return by parachute. Their mission, to provide vital intelligence to Allied forces and to begin training an effective underground organisation that could take control of the country once the Germans began to withdraw and to prevent any last minute destruction of Norwegian infrastructure. As things are being put into place and agents are recruited an urgent message is received from London. As an absolute priority the Heavy Water plant near Telemark must be put out of action immediately no matter the cost. If it was allowed to continue production the possibility of Germany developing the Atomic bomb ahead of the Allies – and winning the war – became a real possibility. After the failure of a Special Forces attack and Allied bombing missions proved just how tough a nut Telemark was to crack only the untested Norwegian resistance stood in the way of possible German domination of the world.

Forming half of the basis for the 1965 movie ‘Heroes of Telemark’ starring Kirk Douglas (the other book being ‘But for These Men’ by John Drummond) this was an interesting little book of a now largely forgotten part of World War 2. Both the Allies and the Axis powers were aware of the destructive capabilities of atomic power and both were determined to get the Bomb first. The odds of the Germans actually getting their first where long – the Allies and especially the Americans having the resources, security and most of the greatest physicists on the planet available – but even the possibility of German nukes gave the Allies serious nightmares. So when it was discovered the Heavy Water, a vital component in the production of usable quantities of enriched Uranium, was being produced at Telemark and being shipped to Germany something really needed to be done about it. Because of the nature of the Heavy Water plant the only option was either a Commando raid (one was tried and failed), bombing (likewise) or Partisan action. With that accomplished the Germans determined that Norway was just too dangerous a place to produce such a vital element for victory and so the equipment and large quantities of Heavy Water would be transhipped to Germany where the project could be completed. Again the Partisans struck sinking the ferry carrying this vital equipment and none of it made it to the Fatherland.

Oddly both elements – so vital to stopping the German nuclear programme becoming a reality – are covered in only a handful of pages. Most of the book, only 160 pages long, in concerned with the training received in England, the difficulty in parachuting back into Norway (as a result of the weather rather than possible enemy action) and the difficult task of surviving the Norwegian winter. It was very much a case of simple survival, as well as not being captured in the repeated sweeps of the area, that constituted victory of a sort. Not only did the Norwegian resistance survive its formative process but it grew and held down a disproportionate number of German soldiers in the process. It’s activities at Telemark and later were its defining successes but the fact that thousands of fighters stepped out of the woods as the Germans left and secured the infrastructure against wanton destruction as they left helped Norway get back on its feet after 1945. An interesting story if a little thin on dramatic detail at times.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Just Finished Reading: The Maze Runner by James Dashner (FP: 2010)

Thomas (played by Dylan O’Brien in the 2014 movie adaptation) wakes up hurtling towards and unknown future and, heavily disorientated, emerges into the Glade surrounded by a large number of young men. He has just become the latest member of the Gladers, a Greenie until the next boy arrives in another 4 weeks. This is how it’s been every month for the last 2 years. Each month another face, supplies and no clue as to what they are doing there or who sent them – short of an invented name: The Creators. Slowly over the next few days Thomas is shown around the Glade, introduced to its leading lights and is told the Rules that keep everything ticking along. Everyone has a job, no matter who they are, everyone has a profession that suits the abilities of the person and the needs of the collective – Farmer, Cook, Builder, Runner. The Runners are the elite – their task to ‘run the Maze’, that seemingly endless and ever changing conundrum surrounding the Glade, in order to find a way out. After 2 years they’re still looking, still mapping, still hoping. But they everything starts to change. Acting on impulse Thomas enters the Maze to help two Runners and is forced to spend the night in a territory no one is expected to survive it. For at night, when the Maze doors close, creatures called Grievers patrol its corridors looking for the lost, the injured and the foolish. Then only days later, rather than the expected weeks, a second person arrives – the first girl, Teresa (played by Kaya Scodelario) – with a message. She is the last Glader, ever….

I missed this when it came out at the Cinema and only caught up with it many months later on cheap DVD. Despite its rather sparse storyline and young cast (only 3-4 of whom I recognised) I thought that it was more than reasonable for what it was – fairly inventive, reasonably acted and with an intriguing backstory. It was much lower key that the other teen franchises we’d known previously (Hunger Games and Divergent – to say nothing of Twilight) so it made a nice change of pace. So when I saw the whole series of 4 books on offer in my local chain bookshop I picked all four of them up.

Inevitably there are differences between the book and the movie – after all they’re very different genres. The characters are largely the same except there’s a lot more back story in the book that had to be cut from the movie to save time. Thomas is essentially identical in both book and movie but I preferred the book Teresa to the film version as the book girl was much more of a hero(ine) than her movie sidekick version. She was also a lot ballsier in the book which made me smile quite a bit. Thankfully they dropped the telepathy from the book and it never made it into the film. I really couldn’t see any point in that! The Grievers where much the same in both book and film except that in the book they were more slug like and in the film essentially spiders. Both were still pretty scary though. I can imagine younger readers in particular having nightmares about them! The Maze and the way out where broadly similar as was the ending in both movie/book. Most of the middle – probably cut to save time and simplify things – was rather different in the book as we learned far more about WICKED and why the kids where in the Maze in the first place so the book ended up making far more sense than the movie ever did. I wasn’t hugely impressed by the movie sequel but I’ll be reading the book (and the other two) at some point. A reasonable book and a reasonable adaptation.  

Sunday, December 25, 2016

I think we all need a copy of this book!

Merry Christmas 2016! Have fun, hug a loved one and say a heartfelt thanks for the gifts!

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Starting to get a bit…. Messy.

Brexit: British expats sue EU's Juncker over talks.

British expats living in the EU are suing European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker over his order to prevent informal Brexit discussions. Mr Juncker insists there can be no negotiations until the UK triggers Article 50 - the withdrawal process. The expat group wants immediate talks about the implications of Brexit for Britons living in other EU countries. UK Prime Minister Theresa May has pledged to trigger Article 50 by the end of March. But she also called for "preparatory work" with EU governments - before the official negotiations - to help smooth the process of UK withdrawal. The non-profit association Fair Deal for Expats has issued a legal challenge against Mr Juncker at the European Court of Justice (ECJ). The group alleges that his "presidential order" concerning Brexit discussions is an "unlawful gagging order" which "must be annulled immediately". Croft Solicitors, representing the expats in the case, told the BBC that "there is no such thing as a presidential order" in the European Commission. Mr Juncker and some other European politicians have warned against an "a la carte" deal for the UK which might encourage other EU members to cherry-pick EU policies, unravelling the rulebook.

Business leaders plead against 'hard' Brexit.

A group of major business lobby groups have written an open letter urging the government to preserve barrier free trade with Europe. The letter is signed by leaders of the CBI and manufacturers' body the EEF. It says the way in which the UK leaves the EU and on what terms is critical for jobs and investment in the UK. It says defaulting to trading by World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules would leave 90% of UK goods trade with the EU subject to new tariffs. The letter says that would mean 20% in extra costs for the UK's food and drink industry and 10% for car producers. These significant costs would affect British exporters and importers, as well as those in their supply chains, it adds. "We respect the result of the referendum, but the government must make sure that the terms of the deal to leave ensure stability, prosperity and improved living standards," the groups write. "Every credible study that has been conducted has shown that [the] WTO option would do serious and lasting damage to the UK economy and those of our trading partners." The letter calls for the government to "give certainty to business by immediately ruling this option out under any circumstances".

Brexit: MPs should vote on talks, says Labour's Starmer.

MPs should vote on the terms of Brexit negotiations, Labour's shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer has said. Sir Keir told the BBC the referendum result "has to be accepted" but accused the PM of trying to "manoeuvre without any scrutiny" on how to achieve it. It follows reports of a cross-party move including Labour's Ed Miliband and Lib Dem Nick Clegg to seek a stronger role for the Commons on Brexit. The government intends to trigger Article 50 by the end of March 2017. Article 50 is the official process for exiting the EU and could take up to two years. At the Conservative Party conference, Prime Minister Theresa May said the government would strike a deal with the EU as a "sovereign, independent" UK but her speech has raised concerns among some that the UK is headed for a "hard Brexit" - without unfettered access to the single market. Sir Keir, who returned to Labour's front bench last week in a reshuffle following Jeremy Corbyn's re-election as Labour leader, told BBC One's Andrew Marr Show: "The referendum is clear and has to be accepted and we can't have a re-run of the question that was put to the country earlier this year. But, and it's a big but, there has to be democratic grip of the process and at the moment what the prime minister's trying to do is to manoeuvre without any scrutiny in Parliament and that's why the terms on which we're going to negotiate absolutely have to be put to a vote in the House. Because if we can't get the opening terms right we'll never get the right result," Sir Keir said.

Government has 'no plans' for royal yacht for Brexit trade talks.

There are "no plans" to commission a royal yacht to spearhead the UK's post-Brexit trade talks, a minister says. Mark Garnier said he would welcome a costed business proposal but it was "very unlikely" taxpayers' money would be spent investigating the scheme. Several Tory MPs have called for a new, publicly-owned yacht or for the last one, Britannia, to be brought back. Mr Garnier ruled out recommissioning Britannia, which was taken out of service in 1997. "Clearly it's well past its active life," he said. The old yacht, used to transport the royal family and to promote UK trade and industry, was turned into a floating tourist attraction in Leith, Edinburgh. Conservative MP Jake Berry, who has led the royal yacht campaign in Parliament, secured a debate on his plan in Westminster Hall. "I believe if Brexit is going to mean successful Brexit, it should also mean the return of our royal yacht," he said.

Pound falls further against the euro and the dollar.

The pound has extended its losses against both the dollar and the euro in late trading on Tuesday. Against the dollar it has fallen more than 2%, at one point dropping below $1.21, while against the euro it fell below €1.10. Sterling has now fallen about 19% against the dollar since the UK's vote to leave the European Union, to lows not seen since 1985. One analyst said it was "trading like an emerging market currency". At one point the pound hit $1.2088 against the dollar on Tuesday evening and against the euro it touched €1.0939. The pound is at its lowest level since Friday's flash crash, when it tumbled to around $1.18 before recovering. Neil Wilson from ETX Capital said the mood around the pound had been extremely negative in recent days and that it was "now trading like an emerging market currency." He also said comments by a senior Bank of England official had not helped. Michael Saunders, a member of the Bank's interest rate-setting committee, said earlier that the pound could still "fall further", but that the recent sharp drop was not an immediate cause for concern. Earlier in the day, some traders had said sterling came under pressure from reports that US banks Citi and Morgan Stanley could move staff out of London, adding to worries about foreign investment leaving the UK. "It really isn't terribly complicated. If we are outside the EU and we don't have what would be a stable and long-term commitment to access the single market then a lot of the things we do today in London, we'd have to do inside the EU 27," said Rob Rooney, chief executive of Morgan Stanley International. Traders also pointed to leaked documents, warning that a withdrawal from the EU single market could cost the Treasury more than £66bn a year, as a reason for the drop.

All details above from BBC News website.

[Well, the PM Teresa May has called for unity in the country post-Brexit in her Christmas address. In other words, you lost, we won, deal with it. To which my response is the tried and tested two finger salute. I may be forced to accept the decision of the Referendum (stupid as it was) but I won’t accept that it’s a good decision (which it blatantly isn’t) and I’ll continue to argue against it even after Article 50 is enacted next Spring. Oh, and I’m looking forward to the repeated use of ‘I told you so’ after every economic fuck up caused by the decision to leave the largest internal market we have (or had) privileged access to.]

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Just Finished Reading: 1066 – A New History of the Norman Conquest by Peter Rex (FP: 2009)

The Battle of Hastings in October 1066 – a mere 950 years ago – is arguably the most important battle to take place on British soil and (at least in my opinion) can be ranked with the Battle of Britain in 1940 in significance. If either battle had gone the other way the whole world would (again arguably) be a very different place. But, as the author rightly reminds us 1066 was the year of THREE battles rather than just one.

Any change of leadership in a country is potentially troubling especially in an age of powerful monarchs. Smooth transitions, when they happened, were normally through close kin or by agreement long before the event. Less than smooth transitions were the result of a lack of a direct heir or, worse, where a number of possible contenders for the throne exist and who are willing to prove their claim at the point of a sword. This was, it was claimed by the Normans at the time and by later Norman historians, the situation in 1066 after the death of Edward the Confessor. Despite naming Harold Godwinson as his legal heir rival claims from Norway and Normandy had to be dealt with. First came an invasion from Harald Hardrada, victorious when he met English forces at the Battle of Fulford then beaten roundly by Harald Godwinson at Stamford Bridge. Then, just as Harold was catching his breath Duke William of Normandy (who the author amusingly refers to by his earlier nickname of ‘the Bastard’ throughout his narrative) arrived off the south coast and landed his forces unopposed. Racing back from his earlier victory Harold gathered men on route and met William in Battle not far from Hastings. After an epic 9 hour battle, which was apparently a very close run thing, the English shield wall collapsed and Harald lay dead. With a single stroke (of luck?) William had not only defeated the English army but had also eliminated most of the potential leaders of any fightback.

Of course we learnt this well-trodden tale in school history class. We learnt a little of the controversy regarding the succession – who promised what to who - briefly discussed the battle itself (along with the much talked about feinted retreats) and then moved on to consolidation, castle building and the Doomsday Book. What we tended not to do it talk about what happened next which is often the most interesting bit. Now, even after all this time emotions surrounding the battle and 1066 in general can run rather hot. Even today there are those in the history profession who call each other names over which side they ‘support’. This author is most definitely not a Norman apologist. No reading between the lines is required to understand who he feels lost the war and who the illegitimate successor was. The language the author uses is most instructive and very modern. The deposing of Harald and his replacement by William was ‘regime change’, those in the upper echelons of Saxon society who accommodated to the new reality (mostly members of the Clergy) were ‘collaborators’, the Saxons who fought and rebelled for the next ten years were ‘insurgents’ or simply ‘resistance fighters’ not unlike the French Resistance under German occupation. One of the most famous, and most effective, was Hereward (wrongly called ‘the Wake’) who became a very painful thorn in William’s side for a considerable time.

All this, and more, was covered in the final 2/3 of the book dealing with the inevitable aftermath of invasion a defeat at the hands of the Normans who did not take any opposition to their rule lightly. Any resistance, and rebellion or uprising was crushed with terrible consequences for the people or area involved. A northern rising was dealt with so severely – the Harrowing of the North – that it took generations to recover anything like the productivity it once had and became a lawless wasteland for decades. The Normans were determined to hold what they had taken no matter the cost to the local population. I guess that this generally doesn’t get taught to children in school because they certainly don’t want to teach too much about rebellion unsuccessful or not. Nor do they want to delegitimise (even superficially) the idea of Monarchy or royal succession. After all where would such thinking possibly end?

This is a book full of information regarding the lead up to the battle, the battle itself (in quite graphic detail) and, more importantly, what happened next. I found it to be very well told and, despite reading several books on the subject and era before, I learnt new stuff too – which I always enjoy doing. One fact which particularly struck me was that the word ‘Murder’ came from the Norman French for killing by stealthy means and they had to introduce the word into English law because so many Norman’s were being killed in out of the way places or simply ‘disappeared’ as they went about their business. Whole villages were heavily fined in an attempt to stamp out the practice which took years to subside. Whatever else you can say about the Saxon population they certainly didn’t just roll over once the battle was over. Overall an excellent read for anyone interested in the period and I’ll be following this up with more from the author and from others on this most famous battle.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Just Finished Reading: 1356 by Bernard Cornwell (FP: 2012)

France, 1356. It’s the start of the new campaign season and Edward, the Black Prince, is marching across the country destroying everything in his path in the hope of forcing the French King to give battle. But memories of Crecy are still raw and the French army refuses to appear. Meanwhile Sir Thomas Hookton is given a special mission by his liege lord – to find a religious relic believed to give its owner power on the battlefield enough to make them invincible. The relic is a sword reputed to have been drawn by St Paul to defend the Messiah himself against the Romans who came for him on that fateful night so long ago. But the sword is also reputed to be cursed by God and a mortal danger to whoever wields it. No matter which story is true the English are determined to have it in their possession if only to deny it from the French. But the French authorities are hot on its trail led by a priest who plans to rise to the greatest of ranks – Pope. As the hunt continues the French King is convinced that now is the time to strike back at the hated English forces destroying the land – a Scottish lord has given him the secret of defeating them in battle and a fatal weakness in their massed archery has been discovered. If the relic can be obtained all three together might be enough to turn the tables and completely negate the feared longbow once and for all. The fate of two nations will be decided outside the walls of Poitiers.

I think it’s becoming redundant to say that a Cornwell book is a cracking read. I’ve now read more than enough of them to know exactly what I’m going to get: a great story, marvellous characters – both male and female, a strong side kick, a kickass female (or two), crackling dialogue, completely evil baddies, and wonderfully recounted (and often chaotic and bloody) battles. This novel had all of those in spades and then some. It even had (albeit briefly) an Irish side-kick for Thomas (read Richard Sharpe with a bow rather than a musket) which made me chuckle quite a lot.

I can see why Cornwell keeps returning to this era in English history. The 100 Years War is a large enough canvas with enough known about it but with enough detail missing that it’s like having a ready-made world minus the finishing touches. Plus the fact that the victories at Crecy, Agincourt and (to a much lesser extent) Poitiers are – or at least used to be – taught in every English classroom in the country as historic examples of our martial prowess (and it doesn’t do any hard at all that they were at the expense of the French who – somewhat surprisingly – a significant number of people in this country have a real dislike for. Needless to say that I enjoyed this a great deal I don’t believe that Cornwell has ever let me down in the entertaining read department and I should think, from experience, that he never will. I’ve probably got at least 5-6 more of his books buried in various piles and I need to dig them out. Definitely more Cornwell, in all his guises, to come. Highly recommended for anyone interested in the period or who just want a cracking tale well told.

Coming Next in Fiction: 10 Books made into Movies – which extra special guests 10 Non-Fiction Books also made into Movies.      

Saturday, December 17, 2016

No snow (yet)...........

Definitely NOT plain sailing………

IMF warns of hit to UK economic growth.

The International Monetary Fund has cut its forecast for UK economic growth next year as it warned that the global recovery remains "weak and precarious". Although the IMF raised its prediction for UK GDP growth this year to 1.8%, the figure for 2017 was cut to 1.1%. Its assumptions are based on "smooth post-Brexit negotiations and a limited increase in economic barriers". The IMF's latest World Economic Outlook predicts "subpar" global growth this year of 3.1%, rising slightly in 2017. Chief economist Maurice Obstfeld said: "Taken as a whole, the world economy has moved sideways. Without determined policy action to support economic activity over the short and longer terms, sub-par growth at recent levels risks perpetuating itself." A fall in US growth this year to 1.6%, down from the previous 2.2% forecast, will be offset by increases in countries including Japan, Germany and Russia and India, the IMF said.

Hard Brexit 'could cost financial sector £38bn'.

The financial industry could lose £38bn if the UK quits the single market, a report commissioned by a group lobbying on behalf of the City has said. The report, commissioned by TheCityUK, also said up to 75,000 jobs could go. The sector is concerned at the prospect of a so-called "hard Brexit", with the UK leaving the EU single market in order to regain control of immigration. On Sunday, the Prime Minister said "we are not leaving the EU only to give up control of immigration again". Her comments helped to trigger a fall in the pound, which dropped to a 31-year low against the dollar on Tuesday. The report, which was written by management consultancy Oliver Wyman, modelled several possible outcomes for the UK financial services industry after Brexit. In one scenario, it said the UK might retain access to the European Economic Area on similar terms, meaning it would be able to continue trading across the bloc without the need for individual country licences.

This would cause less disruption, it said, costing the industry up to 4,000 jobs and £2bn of revenues a year. However, another scenario would see the UK quit the bloc "without any regulatory equivalence". This would cost the industry up to £20bn and 35,000 jobs, it said - although the "knock-on impact" on related business activities could cost a further £18bn and 40,000 jobs. Hector Sants, head of Oliver Wyman and former chief executive of the Financial Services Authority, told the BBC's Today programme: "We are not taking a view on the outcome of the negotiations.  "What we have done here is to create a robust and independent database." He said he hoped the research would create a dialogue between the City and government. "We are confident that these are numbers that people can coalesce around and discuss."

Easyjet warns of £90m currency hit.

Easyjet has warned that the weakened pound will cost it £90m in its current financial year. That is more than double its original estimate made in July, when it warned of a £40m hit. Jet fuel is priced in dollars, so the falling pound has made it more expensive for Easyjet to run its aircraft. Easyjet expects a profit of between $490m and £495m for its financial year, which ends on 30 September. That would be down 28% on the £686m annual profit it made in 2015. It would also be the first fall in annual profits since 2009. Shares closed down by nearly 7% to 933.5p. "The current environment is tough for all airlines, but history shows that at times like this, the strongest airlines become stronger," said Carolyn McCall, Easyjet chief executive. The problem for Easyjet is that although it has been flying passengers in record numbers, those passengers have been enjoying lower ticket prices. Easyjet expects revenue per seat to be down 8.7% for the year and expects ticket prices to fall further in the coming months.

Fraser of Allander report: Brexit could cost 80,000 jobs.

Scotland could lose between 30,000 and 80,000 jobs as a result of Brexit, according to an economic analysis. But the Fraser of Allander Institute said the Scottish economy would be "cushioned" from the likely impact compared with the rest of the UK. A report suggested that Brexit could lead to more migration to Scotland from other parts of the UK. Prime Minister Theresa May has insisted Scotland and the UK could "get a better deal abroad" after leaving the EU. Holyrood's Europe committee convener Joan McAlpine said the outlook was "grim", and warned there could be a "huge constitutional crisis" if Holyrood was not consulted about the "Great Repeal Bill", which severs ties between the EU and the UK. The report from the Fraser of Allander Institute examines a series of potential post-Brexit scenarios. These range from an "optimistic" model similar to Norway's relationship with the EU to a "pessimistic" one based on a so-called "hard Brexit" outside the single market, based on World Trade Organisation rules. The group said the most optimistic outlook would see Scottish GDP drop by 2% within 10 years, causing the loss of 30,000 jobs. The most pessimistic model would see GDP 5% lower within a decade, with 80,000 fewer jobs in the economy.

Hammond urges calm over pound flash crash.

The Chancellor Philip Hammond has responded to the flash crash in sterling saying that market turbulence is to be expected, but the country is fundamentally strong. The pound was pummelled in the currency markets in Friday Asian trading, with traders blaming concerns over Brexit and a flash crash that hit the market. The pound fell 6% to $1.1841, the biggest move since the Brexit vote. The pound later recovered some of those losses but remained volatile. Analysts think a news report could have triggered automated trading systems to sell the pound heavily in a short space of time. Mr Hammond told the BBC: "Some of what happened over night was driven by technical factors, as the Bank of England governor has explained this morning. Markets will go up and down - markets respond to noises. We are going to go through a period of volatility, there will be lots of commentary going on and we can expect to see markets being more turbulent over this period and we should prepare for that. The important thing is to look through the movements of currency markets and short term movements of sentiment.... we go into this period of turbulence fundamentally strong." The pound was down 1.7% against the dollar at $1.2421, in afternoon trading in London, with analysts blaming concern over the UK's negotiations to exit the European Union.

All details above from BBC News website.

[We’re still getting very mixed messages from the Government over what Brexit actually means – apart from Brexit. There appears to be two sides, one going for ‘hard’ Brexit and the other going for a softer cuddlier version. Which to be honest sounds exactly like you’d expect the Conservatives to sound on the issue. Of course ‘hard’ Brexit is the equivalent of slamming on the brakes seconds before going over a cliff whereas ‘soft’ Brexit is more of a slow deceleration before driving off a cliff – so a difference of relaxing into disaster rather than the sudden jolt of it all. My guess is that we’ll go hard because if you’re going to fuck things up there’s no point in half measures.]

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Just Finished Reading: The Autobiography of Malcolm X with the assistance of Alex Haley (FP: 1965)

This was yet another of those books picked up on impulse in a second hand bookshop somewhere only to languish on my shelves for year after year until (more often than not) decades has passed. Why I picked this particular book all of those years ago I no longer have any idea. I suppose that, just like now, I felt the need to read famous – or in this case infamous – books in order to eventually fulfil my idea of being well-read. It seems like a good an excuse as any.

Well, finally I got around to reading it in good part because the 50th anniversary of the founding of The Black Panthers has not long past us by. I understand that Malcolm X influenced that foundation – although exactly how I’m unsure at present – so it seemed like a good place to start. I did actually start reading this with some trepidation. It is, as you can imagine, rather out of my comfort zone despite being politically radical even today. My knowledge of Black politics, Black activism, the Civil Rights movement and even something as fundamental as Racism is limited to the kind of thing you pick up whilst reading about or watching something else. I knew of the existence of Malcolm X, the Nation of Islam and his radically different stand on Black politics in contrast to the other great icon of Black Rights – Martin Luther King – but almost nothing of the details of his life or his struggle. I know much more now.

I had heard that this book was essentially racist and I can see why people would say that. An obvious example of that is the countless use of the ‘N’ word (which I won’t use) which to be honest took a lot of getting used to. I was several hundred pages in before I stopped winching every time Malcolm X used the word or told tales of others using it. I can also see why people would call Malcolm himself racist as, almost throughout the entirety of the book, he consistently called the white people he came into contact with ‘devils’. Knowing more about his personal and family history I can understand why he came to that opinion. With a dead Father, institutionalised Mother and siblings scattered across the State (all seemingly the result of the actions of whites) I’m not at all surprised he thought that.

Malcolm’s slide into crime (gambling, drugs, and robbery) was told at length and did start to become tedious after a while. Likewise his redemption in prison prompted by his brother who had come across the teachings of a Muslim guru and subsequent conversion into and activities of The Nation of Islam went on far longer than necessary to get his point across. There were interesting snippets along the way, just enough to keep me going forward, but it was honestly a slog at times to turn the next page. Then, quite close to the end, it got interesting. Indeed very interesting. Malcolm X went to Mecca on a pilgrimage and came back a very changed man.

I most definitely wouldn’t call myself any kind of expert on Islam but, throughout most of the book, I thought the Malcolm X’s knowledge of that religion seemed ‘off’ in some way. He relied in most things on the words and interpretation of his guru and his reading of (largely I think) American books around the subject and on Black History. It was only when, as a celebrity, he went on the pilgrimage that he was introduced to actual Islam unmediated by a guru that he began to see the distortions he had taking as ‘gospel’. But the biggest revelation was how he was treated in Arabia and Africa by people of all races (indeed he reflected on how well he was treated ‘even by white people’ in Europe). It was the start of a process of epiphany where he realised that the treatment of the Black population in America was much less of a race issue as a particularly American cultural issue. That was not to say that racism didn’t exist outside America but that it was on a different order of things within the borders of the US. Repeatedly Malcolm X expressed his shock at being treated as just another human being (despite being black) by many people he met on his travels and more shockingly (despite being black) treated with respect by some of the world’s leaders – and not just those who could get something from him and not just those who happened to be born into dark skin. From those days Malcolm X began to change his mind about things, change his ideas, change his plans and to become very, very dangerous to those who could previously label him as a dangerous (but foolhardy and delusional) minority Black leader. With his new found, and developing, maturity and especially with the ear of non-aligned and Third World leaders Malcolm X became, for the first time, potentially destabilising on a truly Global stage. It came as little surprise that, not long after realising that much of what he has previously thought was indeed wrong that he was assassinated in 1965 just before this book was published. I couldn’t help but think what might have happened if he had living and had been allowed to put his maturing ideas in print to allow their spread not only within the US but across the world. I think there’s a distinct possibility that the world of race relations could have been very different indeed.

For a modern white liberal audience this is not an easy book to read. It was written in an arguably much more racist time and it shows. Reading it more than 50 years after the events and thousands of miles away on the other side of the Atlantic with almost no experience of racism to call on I often found it bizarre and surreal. This did not help its readability. But I do think it’s worth the effort if only for the last 100 pages in which Malcolm X examined his own prejudices and found them wanting – so changed his mind! I don’t think many people could do that so completely and so publically and I was honestly impressed by his search for the truth no matter where it led and no matter how much intellectual pain he needed to bare to get him there. Impressive if you can make it to the end.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Moving into the Early Stages (Hold on to your Hats!)

Brexit 'rollercoaster' warning as Hammond axes deficit target.

Chancellor Philip Hammond has said he will prioritise spending on new homes and transport rather than following his predecessor George Osborne's aim to balance the books by 2020. He told the Conservative conference the deficit was still too large and would need to be tackled "in due course". But he said the Brexit vote may cause "turbulence" and business confidence would be on a "bit of a rollercoaster". He said that it was "common sense" to invest to support growth and jobs. In his conference speech, Mr Hammond said his predecessor's deficit reduction policies "were the right ones for that time" but that times had changed since the vote to leave the EU, which he said had caused uncertainty for business. "When times change, we must change with them," he said. "So we will no longer target a surplus at the end of this Parliament. But make no mistake the task of fiscal consolidation must continue. The British people elected us on a promise to restore fiscal discipline. And that is exactly what we are going to do. But we will do it in a pragmatic way that reflects the new circumstances we face."

Pound falls as Theresa May indicates Brexit date.

Sterling has fallen to a three-year low against the euro after Theresa May outlined the timetable for starting Brexit negotiations. It also hit its lowest level against the dollar since the beginning of July. On Sunday, the prime minister said she would trigger Article 50, the clause needed to start the process, by the end of March 2017. That means the UK is likely to leave the EU by mid-2019. In early morning trade, the pound fell by about 1% against the euro to €1.1433, but it had recovered slightly by late evening. However, the pound was still down almost 1% against the dollar. At one point it touched $1.2818, its lowest rate since 6 July when it hit $1.2797. Mrs May's announcement had "unsurprisingly, been bad news for the pound", said Connor Campbell, Spreadex financial analyst. "Sterling has been spooked by May's promise to trigger the dreaded Article 50 by the end of March 2017." However, the currency had been particularly unsettled by the prospect of the UK leaving the EU single market, he said. "The PM, in a move to appease the more rabid members of the Tory party but one that is set to cause revolt from the backbenchers, has signalled that curbing immigration is the top Brexit priority even if it comes into conflict with Britain remaining in the single market," Mr Campbell added. "Combine all this volatility together and the pound has been left at its worst price since the start of July."

Seize 'golden' Brexit opportunity urges Liam Fox.

Britain must seize the "golden opportunity" provided by Brexit and not "fritter it away", Liam Fox has told the Conservative conference. The UK was synonymous with free trade for centuries and must be so again, the international trade secretary said. But he said British firms need to raise their game when it came to selling their goods and services abroad. Mr Fox was criticised last month for suggesting that British companies had become "fat and complacent". Mr Fox, a key Leave campaigner who was brought back into government by Prime Minister Theresa May, is hoping to set up trade agreements after the UK leaves the EU. In his speech to Tory activists, Mr Fox said free trade was "the building block of who we are" as a country and the UK had a "tremendous opportunity to shape the world for the benefit of all" in the wake of the vote to leave the EU. Suggesting that the UK had "outsourced" trade policy when it joined the EU Common Market in 1973, he said Brexit would bring it back "to the heart" of government.

MSPs 'might block' EU Great Repeal Bill.

Scotland's Brexit minister has warned the Scottish Parliament might block Theresa May's "Great Repeal Bill". The prime minister has said the bill would remove the European Communities Act 1972 from the statute book as a prelude to EU withdrawal. But Mike Russell said it would require Scottish Parliament approval, which may be denied if Scotland's interests are not represented in negotiations. Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson said there would be full consultation. But she also stressed that the EU referendum had been a UK-wide vote and that "there is no veto for the Scottish Parliament". Theresa May has promised that a "Great Repeal Bill" in the next Queen's Speech which would remove the 1972 treaty but also enshrine all existing EU law into British law. This would allow the government to seek to keep, amend or cancel any legislation once Brexit has been completed. Under the "Sewel convention" the UK Parliament would not normally legislate with regard to devolved matters in Scotland without the consent of the Scottish Parliament. But nothing in the Scotland Act prevents the UK Parliament from legislating on matters which are within devolved competence.

Theresa May insists UK economy can withstand Brexit turbulence.

Theresa May has said the UK economy remains strong despite Brexit concerns which have hit the pound and seen growth forecasts for 2017 reduced. Sterling has fallen to a 31-year low against the dollar while the IMF cut its GDP forecast for next year to 1.1%. But, as the FTSE 100 rose to an 18-month high, Mrs May said the outlook was "more positive" than many expected. The PM told the BBC's Laura Kuenssberg that her job was to make the process of EU exit as "smooth as possible". But she also acknowledged it would not be "plain sailing" and there would be "bumps in the road". Mrs May will give her first leader's speech to the Conservative conference on Wednesday against a backdrop of Brexit-induced jitters in foreign exchange markets. The pound has continued to slide since the prime minister said official negotiations on the terms of exit would begin by next March at the latest and indicated that she was seeking restrictions on freedom of movement rules - a move seen as incompatible with remaining a member of the EU's internal market. In its latest economic analysis, the IMF said the UK would grow by 1.8% this year, slightly higher than previously forecast in July, saying consumer spending remained robust and market reaction to the EU vote had been "reassuringly orderly". As it released its report, the FTSE 100 share index rose above 7,100 for the first time since May 2015, close to its record high.

All details above from BBC News website.

[Well, with the Supreme Court deliberating and Christmas just around the corner it’s comparatively quiet on the Brexit front. My boss thinks I’m delusional holding out any hope that it’ll never happen but it hasn’t happened yet and it looks like even the Government who keep saying ‘Brexit means Brexit’ are getting seriously cold feet. Sometimes it feels like they’re getting people ready for the announcement that, all things considered, they’ve decided that the best course for Britain is to stay. If that day comes to pass I will be uncontrollable with laughter. Until that day I’ll keep hope alive!]