Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Abandoning the Commonwealth...

Britain's leading position in international trade was built primarily on networks of private businesses. It was not until the 1930s that these began to be replaced by governmental networks. Traditional networks, and here we can include the Commonwealth, were erode during the 1950s and the 1960s. It was also at this time that we began to see the end of the London Docks as a major hub for global trade. Rotterdam has replaced London.

Politically, the tide also turned against the Commonwealth. The failed adventure in Suez in 1956, (which involved the invasion of a former Commonwealth state), brought into question Britain's position as a leading world power. Then when the Macmillan government ceased investing in traditional partnerships, and began to move towards Europe, the African dominions were largely abandoned economically and forced to develop new links and trading blocs.

Canada, which had the second largest economy in the Commonwealth, was already more closely tied with the US in economic terms. Australia, which tried to turn to London for much needed development aid after the Second World War had been refused and instead took a loan from the World Bank of $100 million in 1950. This was due to the inability of Britain to resume its place on the world stage as a major capital exporter. Efforts to persuade Britain to invest in other development projects met with little success - the money was simply not there - and so commonwealth states were forced to turn to the US. Canada had become a significant capital exporter, although its investments were mainly in the US. Britain's inability to supply capital was replaced by the 1960s with unwillingness. Britain was rapidly losing face, and the Commonwealth states were rapidly developing new networks.

Harold Wilson made some half-hearted attempts to restore the trade networks with the Commonwealth, but these were unsuccessful. When Macmillan began the process of applying for EEC membership, he was forced to scrap Commonwealth food preferences in favour of the Common Agricultural Policy. (Britain had promised that in negotiations with the EEC, Commonwealth food preferences would remain in place, but did not deliver on the promise). Nations that depended on exporting to the UK, such as New Zealand, were faced with losing their markets. In agricultural exports, as in finance, the Commonwealth states were forced to develop new networks.

Some minimal compensation was obtained for those countries that lost their markets when we did eventually join the EEC, and it is interesting to note that some of them, including New Zealand, are to be compensated for loss of trade as a result of Romanian and Bulgarian accession.

Does the Commonwealth need us?

Too often, when people talk about turning to the Commonwealth, they really mean 'English speaking white people'. When Nigel Farage, in answer to President Barroso's state of the union address today, spoke about the Commonwealth as our "Kith & Kin", I wonder exactly how he is related to the people of Rwanda, Pakistan, Nigeria, Lesotho, Tonga etc.

The Canadian economy is now largely integrated with that of the US, and the country is a member of NAFTA. Australia is emerging fast, and the Australia - Japan Free Trade Agreement is probably far more interesting to them than an attempted rapprochement with a tired and disoriented country on the other side of the world. Those who long for the days of the old Commonwealth are missing one vital fact - the partners we abandoned in the middle of the last century want to live in the future, not the past. They simply don't need us!

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Collapse of the Eurozone?

A very interesting meeting today at which the possibility of the breakup of the Eurozone was discussed.

There are a number of factors, each rather serious, that have combined to make a crisis appear inevitible. Lack of agreement on the European Stabilisation Fund (ESF) that means it is still not operational, uncertainty even at this stage as to the size of the fund, the state of public´finances, and of European banks.

We learned that the 3 largest American banks have a combined debt equal to 35% of US GDP. The 3 largest French banks have a combined debt of 250% of GDP. France is also likely to see its triple A rating downgraded in coming weeks.

Across Europe the picture looks grim. Unemployment is rising in Belgium against a backdrop of a deficit of around 100% of GDP. Unemployment in Spain is at 22%.

No nation has ever recovered from such a crisis as Greece now faces without substantial devaluation of its currency. But Greece cannot do that, as it is in the Eurozone.

Hopes are being pinned on the issue of Eurobonds - but wait for this one - Eurobonds are illegal under German constitutional law, and so the economic driver cannot touch them. 80% of Germans now oppose Merkel's policies on supporting the Eurozone, and the Bundesbank is openly criticising the European central Bank and EU policy.

Four options appear to be open to the Eurozone. To sit back and take more of the same, fighting crisis after crisis until the money runs out. Greater political union. Exit of the weaker economies. Exit  of the stronger economies. There are more cons than pros to each of these options, and it is hard to see how any of them could overcome their inherent problems.

These are interesting times, and whichever way one looks at it, it is hard to see a way forward for the Eurozone.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Cartwright to the Rescue! The last thing a woman needs....

For a 6 year old boy, scrumping apples for the purpose of feeding goats is a bit of a hoot. And so yesterday George and I headed for the Maximillian Park, a city farm in the centre of Brussels.

When we arrived it was closing. This was 7 hours earlier than the advertised time, but in Brussels this is quite unremarkable. Nobody here can do a full day's work, which explains why the country is so poor. George was a bit disappointed, so we visited a shop where I bought him a lolly. This was a bit of an unusual lolly in that it came with a large pair of joke lips attached. I was thinking of getting one for myself, but instead I settled on a can of Saudi Arabian Vimto.

Leaving the shop, we passed the gates of the farm, and this is where it gets good. One would assume that before closing for the day the staff might actually check that there was nobody still on the premises. But remember - this is Brussels.

And so we found a distraught young woman and an equally distraught child trying to get out of the farm. We went to help.

You really have to see this from the perspective of the mother. She is trapped, with a girl who I would guess was about 4 years old, surrounded by goats and sheep, and it is starting to rain. All is lost - but wait - here comes help! At this moment, probably the last thing a lady in distress needs is a bloke in a lurid Hawaiian shirt and a Stetson hat, accompanied by a 6 year old Mick Jagger impersonator. At this point both mother and daughter began to weep.

We were able to give her the telephone number posted outside the farm for emergencies.She got through to a voicemail message that informed her that Jean-Luc would be on holiday until August 25th.

It is very important at such times not to laugh. Sadly I let the side down a bit at this point.

Then her family began to arrive.The lady, who I was starting to get rather fond of, appears to be descended from what I can only decribe as a line of pantomime Arabs. Only Peter Ustinov was missing from the cast now, and even George was starting to realise that we were living through moments that could never possibly have been planned better, and that were unlikely ever to be repeated.

Then the wailing started. To be fair it was not much of a wail, and it was only one lady, but to me it signified the pinnacle of a marvellous afternoon's entertainment. I suggested that it might be appropriate to call the police, at which point two shifty looking guys vanished at great speed.

Eventually George and I said goodbye to our friends. Fortunately the rain passed in minutes, and I hope they managed to escape. I may pass by later today just to see....

Monday, 5 September 2011

The Alternative Reality Party?

A study by the University of Cardiff has revealed that 82% of Britons are in favour of wind energy. The Danish island of Samsø takes 100% of its elecricity from wind power, and now exports energy to the mainland, and guess what - the lights don't go out when the wind stops blowing! Last year, wind generated elecricity in Spain peaked briefly at 52% of total national demand. UKIP, however, has a different take on all this. A few years ago an e-mail was circulated by a UKIP member stating that it takes a single wind turbine 2 years to generate enough electricity to boil a kettle. Most famously, a UKIP researcher once wrote that wind turbines adversely affect the rotation of the Earth.

UKIP is now in danger of becoming the 'Alternative Reality' party.

The party's Head of Policy is one Christopher Monckton, a man who has recently been chastised for pretending to be a member of the House of Lords. Prior to the Copenhagen conference he claimed to have seen a secret treaty that would be signed by world leaders handing over power to a new world government. That this failed to happen, is something he has yet to address. His testimony to the US Congress on climate change was greeted with derision, and he was again humiliated over his claim to be a member of the House of Lords.

On the day the eurosceptic MEP Derk-jan Eppink presented his excellent book 'Bonfire of Bureaucracy in Europe' in Brussels, UKIP MEPs were supporting the launch of a book about the Bilderburg group. Personally, I am not particularly worried about the activities of an NGO, but some seem to think that this group is planning world domination. Another one of those 'secret governments'?

Society needs dissent. Dissent is good for debate, and it is good for democratic integrity, as it keeps the centre ground fluid. A stagnant polity is vulnerable in terms of the strength of its democratic process. Dissenters come in two types - 'disclosers', who are there to challenge the system and ensure transparency, and 'contrarians', who serve little purpose at all. UKIP now falls into the latter category, with all received wisdom seemingly being rejected on no firm basis whatsoever. This is a great shame, as UKIP made a huge contribution by being the catalyst and rallying point for many thousands of people who felt that their voices were not being heard, or that their concerns about the EU were not being taken seriously. Good people who had grown disillusioned with the established parties got out onto the streets, delivered leaflets, challenged their MPs, and stood in elections they knew they could never win. The contribution of UKIP to British politics has been immense - that makes it even sadder to see what the party has now become.