Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Al Gore – What if

By Erik Charlton from Menlo Park, USA

When I am home alone, I usually eat with some video accompaniment. At the moment that is dominated by Trump’s impeachment hearings and the commentaries by Seth Meyers, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, Samantha Bee and Trevor Noah. Meyers has his near-daily, ten minute “Closer Look” monologue (search through Youtube). Funny, interesting, intelligent. And when it ends, the algorithm directs me to more of the show which is quite show-biz focused. Not my bag. Last night, however, it took me to clips of him interviewing Al Gore, the former US Vice President who almost became President in 2000. We got Bush instead. In light of my previous reading of Rob Hopkins’ book, What if? What if? But we are where we are.

OK, it seems that I’m now bingeing on Al Gore. Back in 2008 he did a TED talk. I watched it this morning over my lonely breakfast. Two observations to share with my readers. First, When Gore was VP, he had to deal with conflicts which he classified as local, regional and global/strategic. Each level requires different skills, organisational forms and resource allocation. This is the essence of decision, to reference the title of Graham T. Allison’s famous book. Environmental issues, argues Gore, fit into three categories, too. Climate change, however, is global/strategic. That means global organisational forms, global resource allocation and a pooling of skills and knowledge.

Second, investments in tar sands and shale oil are “sub-prime carbon assets”. Remember, this was just at the time of the financial crisis. On reflection, he is wrong. Sub-prime mortgages nearly brought down the the global economy; in the end it enriched those who had caused the crisis. No bankers went to prison, austerity was inflicted on the victims of the crimes not the perpetrators. The bankers were rewarded with positions in Government (Trump administration, for example). By contrast, climate change will bring down civilisation. Those investing in the extraction of carbon from the earth and burning it will not be rewarded this time around. Economics is within our control, it is a human construct. Climate change is physics. We’ve got 10 years. We’ve got the technology.

In the UK there is a general election next month. Let us start there. Let us make GE 2019 the climate election, not the Brexit election.

Post script: Gore says, I paraphrase, let us make it that in the future great orchestras, poets, playwrites are able to create their art with the knowledge that the current generation of leaders did indeed do the right thing.

Hopkins on imagination and What If?

I’ve been working my way through Hopkins’ book (left) over the last few days. It has left me thoughtful. As readers already know, this book prompted me to end my addiction to Twitter – without which I would currently be reading tweets rather than writing and reflecting.

But what is “what if”? It is predicated largely on the realisation that things have to change. There is one thing the climate emergency absolutely forces us to do, that is to conceive of a climate catastrophe. We cannot avoid it. It makes “what iffing” so much easier. We can get roads closed – albeit temporarily – and turn them into green spaces, play areas, spaces to meet, discuss, choose, decide. This is what happened in Tooting High Street in London, the bus terminus turning circle, was closed on Sunday in July 2017; the A259 trunk road through Hastings, where I live, was closed for a day in September 2019 and transformed into a music stage, a bicycle repair workshop, an arena for a wheelie competition and a  political discussion and debating area, amongst other things.

“What if every university declared a climate emergency and all of its courses were taught through that lens? What if we created a fossil-fuel-free energy system within 20 years? What if every new house built generated more energy than it consumed? What if urban agriculture became utterly common place? What if our cities became huge biodiversity reserves? What if single-use plastics were something we only saw in museums?” Schools are perhaps more aware of climate change than are universities, but they maintain a pedagogy that, according to Hopkins, suppresses imagination in their forced pursuit of grades, regulatory approval and attendant rankings.

Hopkins takes us to various places where examples help with our often depressed imaginations: Totnes in Devon (not so revealing); Liège in Belgium (ever so revealing). Liège, a city I pass through frequently on my way to Munich by train, set itself a challenge back in 2013 to create the means to grow the majority of the City’s food on the land in the immediate surrounding area. Liège now has mass co-operative food projects, vineyards, organic mushroom growing off coffee waste, a brewery, sustainable distribution and restaurants. There is a Co-operative of Co-operatives that has political and economic bargaining power. What if?

The book is not just about climate change. Readers are asked to consider wider issues mediated through liberated imagination,  but that itself requires major structural changes to education and the reversal of trends against art in schools. Unrestricted play – play of the imagination, unmediated by technology – argues Hopkins, needs to start in school and migrate to the workplace and community.

Another major inhibitor of “what if-ism” is our own health. Modern life is stressful and society itself is plagued by anxiety and deeper mental health issues. These block imagination in a way, perhaps, that is functional for the economic and political forces of inertia that at best shape our lives, at worst, destroy our humanity and with it the environment that sustains us. But stress is also a chemical process that impacts on the Hippocampus – our “hub of memory” in the brain. We damage it at our peril, affecting both long- and short-term memory. It is the interaction between the two, notes Hopkins, that facilitates imagination – and with it, future scenarios.

Then there is nature; actually, we are at our least stressed when with trees and listening to birdsong, it seems. From my own experience, I know my own blood pressure is reduced by contact with nature. Here in Hastings, a walk along the beach is only matched by half a bottle of wine in efficacy. One of these is healthier and indeed cheaper than the other. This realisation makes the transformation of our towns and cities into green zones logical and politically feasible: parks, playing fields, city farms, swimming pools and gardens are all exploitable in this respect.

We have a general election imminently in the UK. There are rumblings of alternative models – the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, was laughed at when he suggested that we should work only for four days per week rather than five, despite there being plenty of evidence that such working arrangements do not come at the expense of productivity. Working longer does not benefit society. To be laughed at over this is bizarre. The PM, Boris Johnson, was laughed at when he claimed trust was important in government and society. That I can more understand as a response.

We have to get smart.

 

My current climate change reading

I have been writing some short entries on my LinkedIn page recently. I thought it might be worth adding them to this blog.

  1. One of the issues with climate change is that we are finding that the estimates of, say, the rate of glacier melt, ice sheet loss, etc. is greater than we anticipated. This gives deniers the opportunity to say that the science is wrong. Why do scientists get the estimates wrong? A recent scientific American blog (https://lnkd.in/eP4k_k8) offers an insight into this. In a nutshell, there are different groups working on the estimates. “Consider a case in which most scientists think that the correct answer to a question is in the range 1–10, but some believe that it could be as high as 100. In such a case, everyone will agree that it is at least 1–10, but not everyone will agree that it could be as high as 100. Therefore, the area of agreement is 1–10, and this is reported as the consensus view.” The consequence is that if the few researchers estimating on or near to 100 are actually correct, their estimates are not reported. Instead, the consensus view is taken as a correct estimate rather than one that itself is subject to some error and judgement rather than as fact. Scientists make judgements on the basis of data; some may feel, understandably, that there are insufficient data to shorten the estimates. Essentially more work is needed. In the meantime, the ice melts.
  2. Furrer et al Business & Society (2012) 51(1). surveyed banks to investigate the concept of decoupling, the process by which firms enact policy relating to a theme or topic, but do not sufficiently integrate it into the core business, such that it is rendered non-strategic. The identify three types of bank in the context of climate change – hesitators (they have a policy but do not do much beyond buying electricity on a green tarrif, but are the majority); Product Innovators (products are linked to environmental impact of investments, but are not linked into the value creation of the bank); Process Developers (have created inimitable climate-sensitive processes and products that potentially give competitive advantage, but still insufficiently developed in the value creating activities of the bank), Forerunners (integration of climate-sensitive products into the banks’s value-creation processes). Interestingly forerunners are the bigger global banks. There does not seem, in any statistically significant way, to be a link between local environmental imperatives and flexibility in the banks’ policies, suggesting that all policy is set centrally, probably globally. This might explain why European banks may not sell services around emissions trading for their clients.
  3. Böhm, Misoczky and Moog (2012) Organization Studies, 33(11) have another look at carbon markets. As suggested in earlier posts, carbon trading was pushed in Europe by the British partly because of a distinct possibility that some firms, like airlines, could make money out of the trading process. Böhm et al consider emissions trading between members of economic blocs (the EU) and between nations of the North and South both (the formal Clean Development Mechanism and the informal Voluntary Offset Market). Their conclusion – in line with the work of Newell and Paterson (2010) – all of these initiatives constitute climate capitalism which enables firms and elites further to accumulate, find new markets and exploit the poor (polluting, land accumulation, etc.). They are badly – or corruptly – regulated and are manifested in, often, unrecognisably-green large capital projects. Essentially, emissions trading is not a viable regulator of carbon production in its current form. The question is, can it be reformed or is Green Capitalism an oxymoron?
  4. Continuing on my informal literature review on business management and sustainability, yesterday I read a couple of papers. The first by Natalie Slawinski and Pratima Bansal, “A matter of time: the temporal perspectives of organizational responses to climate change”, Organization Studies (2012) 33:11 makes the following point: firms can be classified as short-term or long-term. Short-termers are firms that invest in and utilise technology towards reducing environmental impact such as carbon capture, with a view to reducing costs. Long-termers are not so good with the technology, but are more holistic, invest in alternative sources of energy, where cost reduction is not the primary objective. Neither is better than the other, necessarily. The second paper from the same journal, volume and issue, Gareth Veal and Stefanos Mouzas, “Market-based responses to climate change: C02 Market design versus operation” discusses carbon trading as a mechanism for reducing carbon emissions using the European Emissions Trading Scheme as a study. There is a lot of discussion about whether commodifying carbon is a good mechanism. I did learn that in the mid 80s when the UK held the EU presidency, it led on devising and implementing this scheme and ensured that European airlines were subject to it.
  5. Today I’ve read research by Lesrud and Meyer (2012) in framing climate change. Their empirical work involved surveying professional stakeholders in Alberta’s shale oil and tar sands industries. Not surprising there is some scepticism about human-generated climate change. What I did not know was that Canada withdrew from the Kyoto protocol in order to exploit these carbon-intensive resources.
  6. I’ve just been through the 14 most recent volumes of Strategic Management Journal and found not a single article on climate change. There are a few articles discussing CSR and stakeholder perspectives, but these are not focused on climate change; rather shareholder value.

Pond update

Regular readers will know that we built a pond.  My beloved has been working hard to turn it from a wet hole-in-the-ground to a living ecosystem. And what an amazing transformation. Ok, it has become a bit green with algae, as anticipated. However, there is now an extraordinary bit of filter technology at work (top right corner of picture, Oase Durchlauffilter BioSmart UVC, 14000) which is slowly managing algae growth.

There is now an array of water plants, including lilies, establishing themselves in the water.The pond was slightly  extended after my original dig in order to create a few steps on the three sides whose original form created an unhelpful sheer drop. The extension has enabled a few plants to be located around  all sides, not just one.

Stones have been placed on some sacking (which covers residual pvc pond lining). Though that in itself is a bit of a story. The local crows (right) were watching and decided, quite rightly, that sacking is a good building material for nests. It is spring after all.

Birds are, of course, rather privileged in our story. Their ability to scan the environment from vantage points helps in the pond’s development. A few days’ ago the pond was visited by a couple of mallards (left). And the first amphibian has arrived, a newt. One at the moment, but we are anticipating the newt word will get around.

 

 

Plants that are now living in the pond:

 

Greta Thunberg – she’s got them rattled

Greta Thunberg (left) has risen from unknown Swedish schoolgirl to omnipresent climate emergency ambassador and conscience. I first heard her speak – not in person, but through a link in my Twitter feed – when she addressed COP24 in Katowice, Poland. My first impression was one of awe, not because of what she was saying, but that her message was given in perfect English and in front not only of the international delegates, but the world’s media as well. Some feat for any 15 year old. But Greta Thunberg appears not to be just any 15 year old. And I think some in power are beginning to realise that.

She went to the World Economic Forum at Davos (on the train) where the real unelected power wielders and brokers go annually to make things worse. She told them – and us – that she and her peers are not looking for hope but rather action. She wants us to panic and act as if the house is on fire, because it is on fire. Again, I marvel at the language skills and composure. The message is unequivocal.

But then I fall back into Brexitland. Thunberg has had her platforms. Great theatre. But surely it is time for her to go back to school (she has been on school strike, each Friday, since September)? Seemingly not. She fronted an international school strike on Friday 15 February 2019. And this really got the goat of the politicians. In the UK, the British Prime Minister berated the strikers accusing them of wasting teaching time (that of their teachers and increasing their workloads)* and damaging their own education as a result. Her spokesman said “That time [school time] is crucial for young people, precisely so they can develop into the top scientists, engineers and advocates we need to help tackle this problem.”This was a well rehearsed ignorant response to the strikers.

In the USA, veteran – and I mean this in a pejorative sense – Senator, Dianne Feinstein (right), patronised a group of young people lobbying her to support the Green New Deal – claiming that her long service in the Senate and her recent re-election vindicated her position and that they should wait their time and listen a little bit more.

As the young people keep trying to tell policymakers, there are plenty of top scientists arguing for action to little effect. And by the time the young people become scientists, policymakers, etc. it will be too late. That seems genuinely difficult for the politicians, in particular, to understand. I have two observations. First, the politicians are rattled, being upstaged by articulate children who are supposed to comply. Even if the British Prime Minister does not understand the climate change emergency she reveals the true deficit in the democracy – and political system more generally. The system cannot manage fundamental change of the kind needed to meet the challenge with its hackneyed metrics for “wellbeing” such as economic growth (GDP) which positively counts environmentally destructive activities such as deforestation, but not positive elements such as caring, non-consumptive leisure, re-use and most conservation including energy efficiency. It cannot countenance universal incomes, reduced working hours or wealth redistribution.

My second observation is a concern. Thunberg is now 16 years old. She was at COP24 and Davos. These are invitation only. And neither were cost-free. Who is behind her? Now I sense that she is not going away in a hurry; but the going will get tough as she fronts up more action in the coming months and years. Politics is an ugly business and the gloves will come off. I hope there are some good people behind her. Please.

*  The irony here is that the government through targets and prescriptive teaching has wasted more teaching and learning time than any school strike could match.

Update – Thunberg goes to the EU: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/video/2019/apr/16/greta-thunbergs-emotional-speech-to-eu-leaders-video

Pictures:

Thunberg: Jan Ainali

Feinstein: Now This News

Brexit – playing chicken

So, whilst on her flight to Sharm El Sheikh to attend an EU summit that also incorporates Arab countries and leaders, the Prime Minister, Theresa May, confirms that she is not ready to put her deal back to the Parliament for a “meaningful vote” – and maybe not until 12 March. Her “team”, she says, is off back to Brussels on Tuesday to resume “negotiations” with the Commission. This is a game of chicken, and one would not bet against her holding her nerve, even if she loses the vote again. Matthew Parris recently wrote the following extraordinary capitulation to what for many had already been clear, she is not like the rest of us confronted with serious reality:

Then there is Giles Fraser. To be fair, one of the few leavers trying to offer positives to Brexit (though not very well or convincingly). His line of argument, inferred by some as being fluent, is that Freedom of Movement has caused family breakdown and taken away the sense of responsibility that offspring should have towards looking after elderly parents, particularly female offspring. If we did not have freedom of movement, we’d likely stay close to where our parents live (even though they may have retired to the coast, or indeed Spain) and keeping a sense of community. I trust the Honda employees in Swindon will bear this in mind when the factory closes in 2021. The most cogent critique comes from Frances coppola. Worth a read.

Interestingly, the Brexit debate has only recently turned to the negative aspects of freedom of movement. For the government, this is an inherently good thing. It is perhaps the sole reason for all of May’s red lines that so restricts the country to one option, hers. But of course, the implications are that it gets more difficult – by which I mean bureaucratic – to travel across Europe. Visas are probably going to be necessary, and additions to driving licences. Petty, but tangible restrictions on movement. The irrepressible Julia Hartley-Brewer recently celebrated her arrival in Switzerland where new signs welcome EU citizens and British passport holders to the same channel. However, the Swiss know that British passport holders are important tourists. One wonders whether the same will be true of travel to Slovenia after Britain’s top diplomat, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, described the country as a former vassal state of the Soviet Union? He’s got form at the moment. He upset the Japanese by writing to them to tell them to get a move on over a Free Trade Agreement. And as we know, the nationality of his own wife is a bit of a mystery to him.

Has political leadership ever been so incompetent and the discourse so facile?

The Terrestrialists – Bruno Latour’s new-materialists

Regular readers will know that I have taken a little time out away from my regular work to read a few books to try to get an understanding of where we are, how we got here and how we might get out of here. Alive. Some discomforting answers are supplied in the reading of Eatwell and Goodwin’s book on nationalist populism; the latter, I think, can be extracted from Bruno Latour and his new book (left). I am sure there are many others, however (for example, Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics and Diane Coyle’s (2014) unpackaging of GDP as a measure of  national wellbeing).

Both Eatwell and Goodwin and Latour are pretty clear that liberal democracy is a cause. Moreover, we must keep reminding ourselves, for example, that liberal democracy is relatively new in human history. Baby boomers and their offspring (myself included here), however, have no experience of other forms of democracy, illiberal or otherwise (illiberal democracies are now to be found in Hungary, Poland and increasingly in Italy). It has been the underpinning of economic growth and – what seemed until recently to be – inexorable globalisation. I am grateful to a single essay by John Gray to help me with this also.

I have not really had much reason to consider Latour’s work; I have probably been more scared of it than I should have been. I was nudged towards it after reading an article in the NYT magazine about him, his methodological perspective (actor network theory) and its applications. Often seen as post-modern French philosophy – now conveniently rebranded by others as a philosophy of post-truth – it can be inaccessible.

Bruno Latour, 2017

There are four major events that Latour uses in constructing what he deems to be a hypothesis. Hypothesis because he does not try to prove anything. He recognises that he comes from a landed bourgeois family and is, himself, a boomer. But dismiss him – or his reasoning – at our peril, I sense. So, the events are: the Brexit vote in the UK; the election of Trump in the USA; the resumption of mass migrations caused by wars, failed attempts at economic development and climate change. The fourth event, however, is the most significant for Latour and it, itself, comes in two parts. First, the signing in Paris on 12 December 2015 of the Climate Change Accord; second, Trump’s policy to withdraw from the Accord.

On the former Latour says: “…on that December day, all the signatory countries, even as they were applauding the success of the improbable agreement, realized with alarm that, if they all went ahead according to the terms of their respective modernization plans, there would be no planet compatible with their hopes for development. They would need several planets; they have only one.” (p. 5). On the second, “By pulling out of the Paris Accord, Trump explicitly triggered, if not a world war, at least a war over what constitutes the theater of operations. “We Americans don’t belong to the same earth as you. Yours may be threatened; ours won’t be!”” (p. 3).

Latour’s method is systematic, if a little post-modern and hence, non-linear. Liberal democracy is capable of delivering the Climate Accord, but not implementation. Even if all signatories tried to implement the Accord, liberal democracy with its growth, modernisation, globalisation and universal wealth (measured in material terms) philosophy is incompatible with delivery. At some point, leaders – obscurantists, in Latour’s parlance – have to tell electorates that under the current economic and political models, “climatic catastrophe” is unavoidable. Latour, however, interprets Trump in an interesting way. I have often thought that climate change deniers actually believe that climate change is not caused by human activity out of ignorance and failure to look at the evidence. For them, it is merely a natural phenomenon that governments need to prepare for. Depriving people of the benefits of capitalist modes of production, trade and consumption would, therefore, not help the environment. However, my naïvety, as is often the case, is clear. The actuality is that the climate change deniers are of two kinds – literally for Latour – the “Out-of-this-World” types who care little for evidence (p. 34, and maybe Trump is the cheerleader here?) and those who know only too well that human activity is the cause not only of climate change, but also of the increased rate of change and the cause of the 6th Great Extinction.

Let us add more to this; socialism is no better at dealing with climate change than is economic liberalism. The left, just like the right, is bi-directional. There are those deep internationalists who believe that modernisation, which usually incorporates economic and political globalisation, is equally important for the socialist realisation of equality (just like the economic liberals). There are also those who think about the local – tradition, the familiar, predictable, local production, etc. Increasingly this perspective captures the so-called “left behind” or “abandoned” on the left who seek controls on immigration, protection for strategic industries and sovereignty (whatever that is). As Latour puts it, “those who value ethnic homogeneity, a focus on patrimony, historicism, nostalgia, inauthentic authenticism”  (p. 53). The UK Labour Party is trying to reconcile these two perspectives against the backdrop of Brexit and goes some way towards explaining the Labour leadership’s support for withdrawal. Many modern social democratic parties in Europe are trying to do the same but losing out to overtly populist parties and Greens alike. For Latour, they are un-reconcilable in one party.

So far there have been three “Attractors” – global and local (both with plus and minus elements, winners and losers) and “Out-of-this-world” those for whom reality triangulated by science and presented by educated elites, scientists, publishers and seemingly opaque institutes has no meaning. There is one more Attractor; namely the Terrestrial (p. 40). This is neither left nor right. In Actor Network terms, Latour’s thing, the Terrestrial is an actor itself. The other attractors are all about human history, human geography, human advancement, the modernisation of the human condition. The Terrestrial, argues Latour, puts human beings back into nature. That nature includes living things as well as the biosphere. It is the critical zone on the planet that makes life – human, animal and plant – possible. The Terrestrial, therefore, is an actor because, in Latour’s terms, it has agency and fights back (p. 41) – or at least responds to stimuli, largely human induced. Civilisation (human of course) is the product of the last 10 millennia of human (often brutal) interaction.

Terrestrialism is, essentially, a third-way. We’ve seen third-ways before. New Labour in the UK was packaged as such back in the late 1990s informed by the work of Anthony Giddens. But that was perhaps a third way in name only. It was an old consensus, a neo-liberal one at that. Latour’s Terrestrialism is a third way not between left and right, but between global and local, plus and minus and climatic catastrophe. Nice theory, but as Latour honestly notes, this is an essay written from the comfort of a Paris residence with no empirical underpinning. There are a few suggestions for how “we” might become Terrestrialists. That is the subject of another – later – blog entry.

References:

Diane Coyle. GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014

Anthony Giddens. Beyond Left and Right: The Future of Radical Politics. Cambridge, England, UK: Polity Press, 1998

Bruno Latour. Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime. Cambridge, England, UK: Polity Press, 2018

Picture: Latour KOKUYO

Some final thoughts before the end of the year

I spent New Year’s Eve last year in Seville. At the stroke of midnight we drank wine and ate grapes – twelve are required to do it properly. Not sure we quite managed that. Maybe that is why the year has struggled to live up to its potential. I’ve always been a shade reticent with “celebrating” the new year; not only is time – as Douglas Adams would say – “an illusion” (in particular with reference to lunchtime) and hence not particularly meaningful, but also it was clear that 2018 was going to be a disappointment. I certainly had no expectation relating to the competence of the British Government to deal with Brexit, and so it proved. Celebrations for 2019, therefore, are likely to be strained as, once again, the expectations are low. Even lower.

That does not stop me from trying to understand what is going on. We are being assaulted in so many directions and not dealing with it. As I write, drones are disrupting the operation of Gatwick Airport. It is an attack and the “authorities” are finding it very difficult to deal with it, despite the resources at their disposal. Moreover, last evening I read that a senior, well published and prize-winning journalist, Claas Relotius, working for Der Spiegel amongst other mainstream news outlets, has been faking his stories for 8 years without editors noticing. These stories and investigations have been covering important issues, but it turns out to be fake news. These are supposed to be the people that we rely on to inform us. Undermining to say the least.

But how do I understand Brexit and the rise of the Right? I have turned to the work of Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin (above left) in my ongoing book reading – which is one of the positives of 2018 after I committed to buying books from a local independent bookshop rather than buying from the destructive behemoth, Amazon.

It is not easy reading, despite being written in the classic, accessible style of Pelican Books. It is not easy reading because there are some truths that are demonstrated empirically that prick the bubble that I live in, working in a university as I do. First of all, populism and fascism are not the same thing. However much I want to label Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian Prime Minister, a fascist, he’s not (currently). He is a national populist, the distinctions are real and important.

Equally disturbing is the realisation that liberal democracy is not the norm and not necessarily desirable (certainly not for the majority who are not particularly well-served by it). I recall after the Brexit referendum a series of short talks by intellectuals on BBC radio reflecting on the causes of the result. I remember John Gray providing a particularly troubling insight making this very point. Human history is not defined by liberal democracy and is not humanity’s end point.

Eatwell and Goodwin also provide a useful history lesson of the 20th Century. In particular, they trace the development of the EU from its initial foundations, expansion (for example, the UK in 1973) as the EEC, the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties and further deepening with proposals for shared foreign policy and possibly armed forces. What is clear from this history is that the people, the citizens, did not get much of a say in the key decisions and treaties. In just six cases were referendums held, and even then, they provided only tepid endorsement. Elites have indeed run the EU. The European Parliament, we must remember, does not initiate legislation. Not surprising then that it has been held in contempt by national electorates when its members are chosen every five years.

Hence the backlash from the disenfranchised, goes the argument, was inevitable. Aided and abetted by some rather opaque finance being spent by avowed racist populists using social media platforms, the outcome is lose-lose apart for the very few who specialise in disaster capitalism and bigotry. Moreover, the calibre of politicians that we have in a time of crisis such as the British in particular are in, is risible. Liberal democracy is culpable here. On the one hand it is the democratic form that underpins capitalism. It is – possibly counter-intuitively – captured by elites and perpetuates the inequalities that are currently tearing societies apart.

I read on. No grapes this year, as I will not be in Seville. The weather is looking good, though. Happy new year!

Even my football team is at the bottom of the league

My home team, Hull City, have twice competed in the English Premier League, and twice through incompetence been relegated. The team is now working hard to get relegated to the third league. Conceding a 93rd minute goal against a relegation challenger on Saturday sums it up.

As Douglas Adams might have said, “but that’s as nothing compared to Brexit” (he actually likened the dimensions of space with a walk down the road to the chemist/pharmacy). Talking of which, if the incompetence of the government and the paralysis of the UK Parliament persists, there will be no point in walking to the pharmacy because there will be no drugs. Or the supermarket, for that matter, as there will not be any food. It is coming a bit of a cliche on Twitter to say things like, “I cannot believe I am saying this in 2018” in the context of food and drug shortages.

But of course, we are.

Not in my lifetime have I experienced the British political system so dysfunctional. I was well aware – if not of voting age – when the IMF bailed out the UK economy in the 1970s. I remember the limited excitement of the 3-Day week and power cuts. We had a gas fire with an electrical timer without which the fire would not work. How nuts was that? I lived through Thatcher, the miners’ strike. I was there with the million others trying to prevent war in Iraq. But I never felt that the polity was in crisis, only that I was on the wrong side. This time is different.

Competition over the tracks: the EU seems to learn nothing from the British experience?

Back in the 1990s I a wrote a PhD thesis. It was about railways. The privatisation of the UK rail system. Actually, it was two theses. The first part was about privatisation; the second, contrasting part, was about the Beeching years where the network was significantly reduced. Anyone wanting to read it can do so here.

The UK passenger rail industry was privatised using a franching model. The infrastructure management was separated from the provision of train services. Contrived competition came as a result of competition for 7-year franchises, not between trains running over the same track. However, there was to be limited “open access” whereby new operators could have rights over train paths in competition with franchise holders. Out of that provision came Hull Trains (now owned by FirstGroup) and Grand Central (Deutsche Bahn) linking towns and cities that were essentially cut from the Intercity services on privatisation. These open access services have been, arguably, some of the successes of rail privatisation.

I remember at the time the “blame” for privatisation by advocates as coming from the EU. It was true, back in 1991, the EU required national rail operators – largely state-owned providers – to account for infrastructure separately to train services. All in the name of transparency, seemingly. What the EU did not require was wholesale route or infrastructure privatisation. The UK got both; though after a spate of accidents, the privatised infrastructure provider, Railtrack, collapsed and the assets were re-nationalised. The rest is history.

It would seem, however, that the EU’s intention was, after all, to force national operators to liberalise their services and, by implication, allow competitors access to all routes, not just the minor ones as is common at the moment. In Bavaria, for example, Transdev, the French multinational, has run the BayrisheOberlandBahn (BOB, left) under this limited franchising model since 1998. Deutsche Bahn bought Arriva in 2010 but had to sell its German Arriva rail franchises to comply with EU competition policy.

The current European scenario is familiar to British rail observers. In Germany the new operators may well be major coach operators. Now coach operation is a relatively new thing in Germany. Who needs a national coach network when there is a comprehensive national rail network with connecting buses to non-connected locations? Well, one was created and, as might be anticipated, there was a flurry of new operators which, over not very much time, consolidated into a new dominant operator. In particular, I point to Flixbus. In the UK it was Stagecoach, FirstBus and GoAhead leading the bus-to-rail charge.

Flixbus was founded in 2013, has three main backers (General Atlantic, Holtzbrinck Ventures and Silver Lake Partners) and operates throughout Europe and in the United States. Taking on Deutsche Bahn is an interesting diversification. Another entrant is thought to be Leo Express, a Prague-based start-up. But more interesting is perhaps competition from other state operators. In Germany, for example, we might expect the French national operator, SNCF, Dutch national railways (Nederlandse Spoorwegen), Trenitalia and Spain’s RENFE to enter?

The EU’s position seems to be championing of customers. The argument goes something like this:

  • rail travel is too expensive across Europe;
  • monopoly providers keep fares artificially high due to producer interests at the expense of passengers;
  • more competition leads to lower fares.

Lower fares have implications. In this case, as has been seen in the UK, national operators subsidise their existing operations by taking on potentially lucrative operations in other countries. In the UK, services run by Deutsche Bahn/Arriva and Dutch state railways (Abellio/Nederlandse Spoorwegen) qualify in this respect.

Cheerleading this nonsense, as ever, is the Economist. Take the case of the Czech Republic: “new operators have achieved costs per seat kilometre that are 30-50% lower than those of the state operator. Passengers are benefiting: the average ticket price from Prague to Ostrava has fallen by 61% since 2011, when the state rail firm lost its monopoly.” The Economist notes also that it leads to greater yield pricing similar to what airlines use. The closer to time of travel – or on particularly-known busy times – prices go up to choke off demand. Great! OK, the opposite is also true, fares go down at quieter times. But trains are not like planes; people use them because they have to and have limited flexibility. Rail has a social purpose, planes, largely not. Innovation is not what is needed per se. Reliability is what is needed.

The Economist goes on. Nederlandse Spoorwegen carry more passengers in the UK than in the Netherlands!  Scotrail had to be bailed out by its parent, Deutsche Bahn, to the tune of £10m, presumably making services in Germany even less-well funded? Liberalisation and privatisation fracture national networks and reduces network effects (the Germans already know about declining network benefits; British passengers have understood this since privatisation).

The Economist then highlights what it knows about such firms when put under pressure. Surprisingly they use their control and knowledge over the infrastructure to gain an advantage. They collude. They even sever track across borders (Lithuanian Railways on rail link with neighbouring Latvia – detailed in the Economist article).

Let us finish on Economist optimism: “And the high costs involved in starting a new railway firm mean that it will take time for the full benefits of competition to be felt by EU passengers, says Lorenzo Casullo of the OECD, a think-tank. Europe’s railways are on a long journey, but commuters will surely be better off down the line.” Same old, same old.

Economist article published 30 June 2018

Photos: Flixbus: Florian Fèvre