Posted by: aboutalbion | March 30, 2020

Nature as therapy and medicine

I note with appreciation two quotations from the current edition of “The Big Issue” in an article by broadcaster and naturalist, David Attenborough, at the age of 93.

“In times of crisis, the natural world is a source of both joy and solace. The natural world produces the comfort that can come from nothing else. And we are part of the natural world. If we damage the natural world, we damage ourselves.”

and

“The plain fact is that every mouthful of food you eat comes from the natural world. There’s no food that nourishes you that doesn’t come from the natural world. Every lungful of air that you take is refined by the natural world, oxygen breathed out by plants. If you can’t breathe and you can’t eat, you don’t exist.”

[per The Guardian, 30 March 2020]

Posted by: aboutalbion | February 27, 2020

Is cult Britannia a death cult?

In the new politico/religious reality within the UK, I find myself searching for explanations of what is happening to my home country.

One explanation is that the current Elizabethan Brexit mirrors the Tudor Brexit of nearly five hundred years ago.  Hence the EU is seen as a politico/religious cult whose creedal message is, “Join us, and there will be no more wars on EU territory”.  And on this view the UK has left this EU cult in order to be its own politico/religious cult, cult Britannia, with its own anthem, “Rule Britannia”, sung annually in a very public space (and broadcast on free-to-air television).

Why has the UK turned its back on the EU?

The UK launch of cult Britannia at the beginning of February was into a headwind that was whispering, “That was a stupid decision … since no country in history has been better off in splendid isolation … just look at North Korea”.  By contrast, it seems that the UK cult leaders have been overtaken with unusual confidence by a politico/religious belief that there is now a once in a lifetime opportunity for the UK to show the economic supremacy of cult Britannia.

Our UK cult leaders appear to be inclined to the view that the pace of change in the global world village will increase to distressing and disruptive levels on account of three already embedded transformations.

First, there is the widely recognised expression of support for transformational populist politicians, who claim to have more appropriate non-traditional responses to the pace of change felt by electorates.  Second, there is the continuing digital revolution that is transforming all aspects of everyone’s residential and commercial lives.  Third, there is the ongoing transformation away from the use of fossil fuels to alternative forms of cleaner energy throughout the global economy.

And as all these transformations feed into an unstoppable ‘connectivity revolution’, the UK cult leaders are heralding the arrival of “Global Britain”.

So it seems to be an act of faith on the part of UK cult leaders that, as the late twentieth century arrangements break down, there are economic opportunities to be grasped for any politico/religious elite that can move fast with agility and finesse and proficiency.  With a belief like this, freedom from the EU seems to be all about the UK’s increased sovereignty of decision making and liberty of economic action.

To me, these same UK cult leaders are behaving as if they have had an audience with the goddess Britannia.  It appears that “she” has told them to grow the UK economy and to borrow more money in the money markets to top up the ‘public purse’ – so that that UK can make infrastructure investments which will facilitate this growth of the UK economy.  Stories appear to have been ‘planted’ in the media in the recent past that suggest that the new UK government’s upcoming first budget will “turn the spending taps on” in order to “level up the UK”.

For me as a fiscal conservative, intentionally managing the ‘pubic purse’ in a way that is ‘living beyond our means’ is a politico/religious moral matter.  Intentionally increasing the national debt is equivalent to mortgaging the future.  And ‘the future’ is my children and my grand-children and their descendants.

It’s worth pausing for a moment on the phrase ‘mortgaging the future’.  There seems to be some agreement among etymologists that the word “mortgage” has the linguistic meaning of “death pledge” [‘mort’ deriving from the Latin word ‘mortuus’ meaning ‘dead’, and ‘gage’ deriving from the Old French word ‘gage’ meaning ‘pledge’].  In other words, mortgaging the future of the UK’s ‘public purse’ is a ‘dicing with death’ gamble.

In line with the history of all politico/religious cults, cult Britannia requires human sacrifices, and one of those human sacrifices seems to me to be the financial interest of the descendants the UK’s current electorate.  The UK cult leaders ‘dicing with death’ gamble is that our UK taxpayers’ descendants will consent to inheriting an ever increasing national debt (currently approaching £2,000 billion) and to paying the interest charges on this debt mountain (currently approaching £50 billion each year).

It is this politico/religious gamble that leads me to ask myself if cult Britannia is a death cult.

Posted by: aboutalbion | January 31, 2020

Au revoir, Brussels ……. Hey, Washington

Tonight, as my homeland achieves the first [nisi] stage of a divorce from the EU, my mood remains that of deep sadness. I admit to tears as the EU Parliament sang ‘For Auld Lang Syne’ last Wednesday.

I remind myself that I wish to leave the EU when the time is right, but (for me) the time is not right at the moment.

My sadness is compounded when I realise that this strategic decision has been taken with no public discussion of whether or not it is in our national interest.to leave the EU. No one seems to have thought it worthwhile reviewing why the UK joined the EEC (as it was then) on 1 January 1973.

To my mind, the UK has chosen a course of action that creates a strategic military vulnerability. With the UK veto withdrawn, the EU is now free to make plans for an EU Army in the coming decades. And an EU Air Force and Navy could reasonably be expected to follow in subsequent generations. It seems to me that the pace of development of this EU military capability might well be set as much by the degree of commitment of the US to NATO as by the perception of threats from Russia and China. And the current Brexit commentary from the UK government shows no awareness of this nascent military vulnerability.

I believe myself to be a realist, and, as a realist, I’m unable to see a “new dawn” for the UK (with an insolvent public purse) going solo as “Global Britain”. So far as I can see, it goes without saying that the UK has lost the ability as a naval military power to protect our shipping on the high seas.

I also believe myself to be an optimist. So I search the politico/religious sky for heralds of hope and crumbs of comfort for my homeland’s unsatisfactory geo-political situation. And among the many voices that propose replacing the UK’s close relationship with the EU by an upgraded relationship with the US, I’ve noted one suggestion that arrested my attention.

This trans-Atlantic suggestion is far more comprehensive than a ‘free trade agreement’ (which may or may not materialise around the end of 2020). I’ve just noted this outline for the development of a long-term future for a UK-US relationship.

The UK has a constitutional monarch, and our monarch serves as Head of a Commonwealth of Nations – a voluntary association of 53 states – which is often informally known as the ‘British Commonwealth’. The most recent state to join (Rwanda) did so in 2009. The most recent departure (Maldives) was in 2016.

The US is a republic with overseas territories, some of these are incorporated [that is, they are part of the US proper, eg Palmyra Atoll / Island] and some are unincorporated [that is, they are not fully part of the United States and not all aspects of the United States Constitution apply to them].

What is stopping the US requesting associate membership of the British Commonwealth? And at broadly the same time, what is stopping the UK petitioning to become an unincorporated territory of the US? This proposal has an attractive symmetry about it, a ‘quid pro quo’, if you will.

That’s just the bare bones of an outline of the intriguing suggestion. As I study it more closely, I may well post more on it in the coming months.

Posted by: aboutalbion | December 24, 2019

2019 … a very short review of my year

To all readers of this post … I send my very best wishes for 2020.

I’m now becoming more familiar with my coastal community. At the same time, regular away-day visits to cities I’ve lived in before keep me in touch with my family and my past lives.

My voluntary work commitments have continued. With the vibrant local U3A, I’ve enjoyed continuing with my Ballroom and Latin American dance class, as well as becoming more involved with the paperwork in the office that supports the wide range of special interest groups that members really appreciate. And at the local well-run hospital, I’ve become more involved in supporting patients in the wards.

With my immersion in these activities, I’ve had to confess to visitors to my home that I’ve yet to open a pot of paint to begin the interior decoration … When I have had some ‘me’ time, I’ve continued to be drawn for relaxation and inspiration to the seashore promenade. “To go to the sea is synonymous with letting go”, as one researcher has put it.

I did manage a short break this year. I had the pleasure of house-sitting for a few days in rural Oxfordshire, which in turn enabled me to visit the evocative “Last Supper at Pompeii” exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum

I’ve also slain a dragon this year. Based on my experience as a teenager, I have always linked teeth extraction with pain and the need for a general anaesthetic. However, I had to have a tooth out and, such was the confidence I had in my NHS dentist, I consented to being awake with a ‘local’. What a relief … all my apprehensions from more than sixty years ago were evaporated in around ten minutes … quite amazing.

My remarkable daughters continue to hearten me with the challenges that they overcome. I’m full of admiration for their achievements this year. One daughter has survived having two of my grandsons on public examinations. Both achieved the grades they needed. And both have made transitions – one to a nearby university, and one to a local Sixth Form College. Another daughter is now getting used to having both of my grandchildren at school, and the family are now adjusting to her resuming appropriate part-time work with her former employer. Owing to relocation to another country, a third daughter has calmly settled three more of my grandchildren in a nearby British school.

As I write this, the very recent ‘general election’ is being interpreted as the second confirmatory referendum on EU membership. The decisive parliamentary result seems most likely to move the UK towards the exit door marked ‘symbolic political Brexit’ at the end of January. As I see it, a second exit door marked ‘effective economic Brexit’ then comes into view at the end of 2020 with the aspiration to conclude a ‘free trade deal’ with the EU. What disappoints me is that the party that has campaigned for (and won) this decisive parliamentary majority has not engaged in any public discussion of what the UK’s national interest is … To say that the government’s mandate is “to deliver on the people’s priorities” seems to me to be rather reckless, since it will involve increasing the National Debt, and hence increase the financial burden on our children and grand-children. And I remind myself that the social challenges of ‘housing’, ‘schools’, and ‘the NHS’ are independent of our membership of the EU.

And for a reality check, the most sobering statistic about the UK has just been published. It concerns our national ‘productivity’, and the Royal Statistical Society has named it the UK Statistic of the Decade. (I read that productivity is the key to every country’s long-term prosperity, and high productivity growth means a bigger economic pie, allowing for higher wage growth and more money for public services.) In the period before the financial crisis, our productivity was growing at around 2% each year, but, in the last decade, that has slumped to an average growth of 0.3% a year. Was I the only person who did not hear ‘productivity’ talked about in the election campaign?

Finally, this morning, the UK’s Prime Minister in his first Christmas message invites UK residents “to celebrate the good that is coming” … without explaining what he thinks “the good” is ….

So may the mystery at the heart of creation bless us all with hope, and give each of us peace of mind and heart in the days that lie ahead.

Posted by: aboutalbion | November 29, 2019

In praise of the sea shore

I’ve posted a series of photos over the summer in praise of the green walking spaces near my home on the south coast of the UK.  And now I find that I can go further and praise the benefits of blue spaces, of living near the coast.

This follows my reading of an online feature article from one of the UK’s ‘quality’ newspapers.  I shall simply ‘cut and paste’ a selection of sentences from the article.  (It is cited at the end if you wish to read the whole piece.)

“’People who visit the coast at least twice weekly tend to experience better general and mental health,’ says Dr Lewis Elliott [University of Exeter].

“An extensive 2013 study on happiness in natural environments … [revealed that] … marine and coastal [environments] were found … to be the happiest locations …”.

“… water has a psychologically restorative effect … inducing positive mood and reducing negative mood and stress …”.

“… the sea has a meditative quality – whether it is crashing or still, or you are in the water or observing from the shore.”

“’To go to the sea is synonymous with letting go,’ says Catherine Kelly [outdoor wellbeing researcher based at Brighton].  ‘It could be lying on a beach … it could be a wild, empty coast.  But there is this really human sense of, ‘Oh, look, there’s the sea’ – and the shoulders drop.”

[“Blue spaces: why time spent near water is the secret of happiness” by Elle Hunt.  Guardian online, accessed 3 November 2019.]

Posted by: aboutalbion | October 31, 2019

UK Electoral Commission needs further statutory powers

With the prospect of a UK General Election [GE] on Thursday, 12 December 2019, I’m putting my little spotlight on the role of the Electoral Commission [EC].

I note that (in its present form) the EC was created by the UK Parliament nearly twenty years ago, and that its role is (a) to regulate political party finance, (b) to regulate election time finance, and (c) to set standards for how elections are to be conducted.

I pause at this point to express my disappointment that Parliament omitted to task the EC with regulating how political parties behave towards the electorate.

To explain my disappointment, the nearest analogy that comes to my mind concerns leasehold property management companies and the leasehold tenants of a property.

Consider a property owner who owns residential property surplus to their long-term domestic requirements and who invites leasehold management companies to bid for the contract to manage the tenanted property.  The property owner will conduct ‘due diligence’ on the bidding companies, and then assess the proposals of the management companies.

For their part, the property management companies will be fully aware that the Government has approved a Leasehold Management Code of Conduct which (among other things) aims to promote best practice and the prompt administration (in relation to the tenants) of the service charge and the timely issue of a budget and year end accounts.

As I myself have experienced in the past, the publication of a service charge budget before the service charge year begins (covering routine expenditure as well as capital expenditure, and not forgetting the position of healthy reserve funds), its prompt approval by residents, and the brisk provision of end of service charge year accounts – these matters are mandated as best practice in the Leasehold Management Code of Conduct.  Furthermore, the Code advises that these financial documents should be presented in a standard format to allow year-on-year comparison, and should have sufficient detail to enable residents to understand the nature of the charges being levied and the rationale behind the levels of expenditure.

Since virtually all UK residents depend on our ‘cash economy’, I see no essential difference between the leasehold property situation that I have just reviewed and the political parties that are bidding to manage the UK ‘public purse’ after the forthcoming GE.

The UK political parties seem to me to be private companies competing to win the social contract to manage the UK residential estate by having control of the ‘public purse’.  Yet, for some reason unknown to me, at GE time, each and every political party refuses to publish a ‘public purse’ budget for its first year in office (covering routine expenditure as well as capital expenditure, and not forgetting the position of reserve funds) in a standard format to allow year-on-year comparison, and in sufficient detail to enable electors to understand the nature of the tax charges being levied and the rationale behind the levels of expenditure.

[My current understanding is that the annual ‘public purse’ budget is around £800 billion, and the reserve funds are (a) the National Debt of around £1.8 trillion, and (b) the gold and foreign currency reserves of around £130 billion.  As a fiscal conservative, I find this negative reserves position unsustainable.]

Instead, during the next six weeks of the GE, I am expecting to hear lots and lots of loud and simple statements about “trust us and our fully costed programmes” as the speakers throw an uncountable number of wet sponges at their political rivals.

I am saddened by this example of the failure of political parties to practise what they preach.  In my view, the standards which Parliament expects leasehold residential management companies to comply with in their relationship with residents are also good enough for UK political parties to comply with in their relationship with the UK electorate.

Sooner rather than later, I hope that Parliament will give the EC the additional statutory powers to regulate the conduct of political parties towards the electorate.

At this GE time, I do not want to read aspirational words or hear speeches about unreachable “sunny uplands”.  My preference is to read a transparent synoptic draft budget for the taxpayers ‘public purse’, and then to read straightforward explanatory words about this draft budget.

Posted by: aboutalbion | October 30, 2019

Green walking spaces … (7)

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Now that the UK has returned to GMT for the winter season, there is the opportunity to complete my series of images of picturesque walks near my home.  This photo shows the scene near the end of the walk featured in the last two months.

Posted by: aboutalbion | September 29, 2019

Stress testing

The stress testing that I’m commenting on today is the process of pressure testing potential ideas and strategies to identify the opportunities and risks involved with all the possible outcomes associated with their deployment.

I’ve noted two such examples in the past week.

First, it was the last UK Prime Minister but one (David Cameron [DC]) who decided to hold the in/out referendum that has led to the present deathly paralysis in our Parliament. And reviews of his recently published memoir have been published in the past few days.

One review noted that DC “prizes his ability to reach quick decisions”, and that suggests to me that he (and his close advisors) did not allow enough time to stress test his plan of an in/out referendum (apparently conceived as early as 2012).

If he had done so, then surely (among other outcomes) he would have had to engage with the risk of the supremacy of a questionable referendum result (with no time limit) displacing the supremacy of Parliament – which is the unedifying situation that the UK is experiencing at this moment.

Second, the current Prime Minister (and his close advisors) seem to have failed to stress test his recent plan to prorogue Parliament.

The power to prorogue Parliament is a royal power, and court judgments hold that a Prime Minister’s advice to the monarch on this matter can be subject to judicial review.

In the latest case before the Supreme Court [SC], a challenge was mounted to the current Prime Minister’s advice to the Queen to prorogue Parliament until 14 October. In a unanimous verdict, the SC upheld the appeal on the grounds that, in the current circumstances of a potential major change in the UK’s constitutional arrangements, the Prime Minister had not advanced an appropriate substantial argument for his unusually long prorogation advice to the Queen.

So I’m encouraged that the UK’s centuries old unwritten Constitution has provided adequate resources for the SC to conduct a public service stress test on an eye-catching Prime Ministerial initiative. More events in the near future may well to lead to the need for further stress tests in the SC.

Meanwhile, I hope last week’s experience will fortify all in the UK which, almost alone among nation states, continues to bear witness to the merits of a flexible uncodified Constitution (comprising a trinity of sources – law, court judgments, and conventions) over a rigid written Constitution.

Posted by: aboutalbion | September 29, 2019

Green walking spaces … (6)

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The park near my home that I showed last month continues to this expansive grassland.  I’m able to enjoy long walks in this generous green space.

Posted by: aboutalbion | August 27, 2019

HS2 is running into a Concorde-like speed trap

My working life coincided with the working life of the supersonic passenger jet aircraft, Concorde.

Concorde was a successful engineering achievement which probably led (by the principle of trickle down) to better mouse traps for everyone. But Concorde was also an expensive commercial failure. Tickets were sold at a premium price, and the passengers were largely people who had acquired an expense account. The market for double supersonic speed (halving the journey time across the Atlantic) was a niche one – for the few and not the many. And after one catastrophic fatal flying accident, even fewer chose to fly in Concorde. Not too long afterwards, its commercial life came to an abrupt end.

I welcome the recent decision by the Transport Secretary to appoint an independent review of HS2 on many grounds. A couple spring to mind.

First, it will enable the review to establish evidence as to whether or not there is a substantial demand to travel on 250mph trains among the many (and not just the few). My sense is that HS2 tickets will be sold at a premium price and will be principally bought by regular first-class rail travellers. As I see it, the forthcoming introduction of 5G digital technology will enable even more business conference meetings to take place online.

Second, it will enable the review to collect evidence to test the validity of the argument that HS2 will help to gentrify the north by sharing prosperity from London with the north. I would turn the attention of the review to the East Coast Main Line which was upgraded in the 1980s with electrification. Did that rail upgrade transport prosperity from London to all the urban areas around the stations on the route? Did Peterborough, Doncaster, York, Darlington, Durham, Newcastle, and Edinburgh all experience an economic uplift from faster rail connectivity to London?

Third, I commented over five years ago [8 January 20014 post] on the disconnect between HS2 plans and plans for London’s next runway. The latter has (apparently) been settled, and Government has given the go-ahead for Heathrow to build a third runway. However, there appear to be no plans to integrate these two big-ticket projects with a rail spur from Heathrow to HS2. And I can understand this because, from a passenger point of view, Heathrow is code for five (and soon to be six) discrete airports. Which terminal would host the rail link? And I never hear any discussion of the time and cost of transferring from one terminal building to another at Heathrow.

In conclusion, I have not come across any rational grounds for constructing HS2. I believe that the UK has the engineering capacity to successfully build HS2. But, like Concorde, I do not sense any widespread commercial demand to travel at twice the current speed of rail journeys. For myself, I would prefer to transfer the budget for HS2 to a list of less ambitious upgrades to our current rail network.

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