Britain. What Is They? Who Are It?

640px-Nations_of_the_UK

The final result of the Scottish Independence Referendum is still some hours off, so I will avail of this last chance to speculate. What will happen to Great Britain if Scotland really does leave?

Well nothing. Great Britain is the name of an island, not a country. Not even the proper name for it in fact – the more historical one is simply Britain.

So where did the “Great” come out of? I get the impression that a lot of British people vaguely think of it as a title their country was awarded somehow. At a country show, presumably. I have even heard people who should know better espouse the folk etymology that Britain refers to the combination of England and Wales, which became Great Britain with the addition of Scotland. That is of course completely made up.

Great Britain is simply the English for the French name for Britain – Grande Bretagne – and might be more accurately if prosaically rendered “Big Britain”.

Little Britain in this instance being Bretagne – or as we call it, Brittany – a province of France that was settled by people from Britain and where a language closely related to Welsh is still spoken today, now and again. Somewhat ironically perhaps, these British colonists were actually refugees, fleeing from the foreign invader we now know as the English.

Well partly, them – to be honest they were being invaded from Ireland too. After the Romans withdrew from Britain it was basically a warrior’s free-for-all.

So Britain was called Great Britain merely to avoid confusion with the French name for a Welsh colony. It’s like an irony layer cake. But French was the dominant language of much of Europe – and indeed, of Britain – for many centuries, so the “Great” stuck.

And still sticks today, and becomes ever more sticky. It is now kind of embarrassing, used when they can’t think of an idea for a cooking programme, or for politicians to clutch when they have reached the absolute nadir of rhetorical inspiration. It is high time a way was found to retire the term. And if Scotland does ever leave, that would be the moment. To refer to what remained as Great Britain after that would sound like sarcasm.

But what else could the remaining country be called? Well the answer is obvious, and I’m surprised it didn’t come up more in the debate. It would of course be the United Kingdom of Southern Britain and Northern Ireland.

I think it has a ring to it, no?

The Price Of Victory

Think of it as the world’s worst industrial accident

It’s a little weird if you tune into a British TV show around this time. Everyone is wearing red paper poppies in commemoration of soldiers killed by wars in general, and what is still sometimes called the Great War in particular. Strange, not just because they happen to be fighting one even as they mourn the tragedy of it all, but because debate rages over this conflict even today. Was it, as some argue, a stupid and pointless waste of human lives? Or as others say, an utterly mindless massacre of innocent people? We may never know for sure.

There really have been attempts recently to rehabilitate this war. It was once common to explain it as a tragic chain of circumstances. Surely such a terrible tragedy could only have been unintentional.

But it is becoming more common now to hear that, far from being accidental or tragic, it was a necessary and even heroic action to curtail the ambition of a warmongering Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. Is that true? It certainly is a more positive way to see it.

The only problem is, it differs from the British propaganda of the time in almost no respect.

Yes, Germany had been getting more belligerent. Wilhelm was indeed a war-happy idiot, childishly envious of his cousin’s ships. His empire had been growing in wealth and strength rapidly since its formation nearly half a century before, and was eager for opportunities to flex its muscles. That opportunity came with what might otherwise have been a local Balkan conflict, as the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires scrambled for the territory of the (even more) moribund Ottoman one. Turning it into a Europe-wide conflict gave Germany a chance to elbow aside France and dominate the continent.

True enough. The only problem with this narrative is that the British in their turn were only too happy to escalate a European conflict into the first ever global war.

Having pioneered industrial manufacturing Britain was still the greatest power on Earth. It had however watched the rise of German industry, technology, and military might with trepidation. The imitator looked like it would one day outstrip the master. An arms race had being going on for over a decade and some believed that war with Germany was inevitable – and that therefore the sensible (if Machiavellian) choice would be to have one sooner rather than later. This is really the only way to explain why the largest empire in the world went to war over the invasion of Belgium. I mean think about it. They couldn’t have liked chocolate that much. Britain was eager for war. We often hear that they kept saying it would “all be over by Christmas”. What we forget is that they said this because they liked to think of the Germans as a bunch of primitives they could crush without much effort.

Without the entrance of history’s largest empire into the conflict, what would have happened? We can never know of course – hell, we can barely know things in the past that did happen, never mind ones that didn’t – but it seems more likely at least that France would’ve fallen and Germany would have been able to concentrate on a war with Russia that might have continued for years. I’m not sure if it’s even technically possible to defeat Russia. How would you know you had?

But eventually Germany probably would have gained hegemony in continental Europe. Big deal. And without its population devastated, Britain would have continued as a global power for much longer. The Russian revolution wouldn’t have happened, the US wouldn’t have had its first taste of global military intervention – or experienced the boom that turned into the Great Depression either. The conditions that gave rise to the Second World War would never have been in place. And of course, millions fewer would have died.

I think there are a couple or lessons here. One is that war is always inevitable if you want it to be. The other is that, it tending to have vast and profoundly unpredictable consequences, it might be better to hold off on war until you really do have no other choice. But that wouldn’t be a welcome message just now.

 

The Road To Finland

Svenska: Volvo Ocean Race 2008/2009, Stopover ...
Svenska: Volvo Ocean Race 2008/2009, Stopover Stockholm, SWE 3 + SWE 4 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I sit in the lovely Japanese Wa Café, passing time before my bus leaves, having my hearing loss enhanced by what might best be described as zombie Thin Lizzy. Bizarre to see a band effectively become a tribute act to itself. This is all part of the carnival for the Volvo Ocean Race. It’s not why I’m leaving town, but it is one reason I’m glad to be.

This isn’t resentment over the Occupy affair. It’s true that there is something uncomfortable about holding the final of a mega-expensive luxury yacht race in a country that has been plunged into almost unimaginable levels of debt. But I hope it does all sorts of good for local business. It could use all the boost it can get.

But the crowds! Lord Jesus and his pals, the crowds. It is like an extra Race Week in July. This may be the time of year when Galway’s business makes its money, but can they really not find a less cram-the-streets-with-loud-drunken-unpredictable-crowds way? It’s a topic I often reverted to in Microcosmopolitan; as a place with little elbow-room and even less good weather, what the hell are we doing trying to be an event tourism mecca? How about specialising in something more calm and relaxing – there’s real money to be made if you can establish yourself as the place that’s best at one certain combination of things. I suggest we make ourselves the global capital for librarians. Who practise yoga.

In flotation tanks.

We Need A Fiscal Compact

One size is not going to fit all

Sure we do. Just not this one.

It is good to have a clear plan for getting out of debt, and it is eminently reasonable to have a budgeting agreement between countries sharing a currency. We should all be playing by the same rules if we’re sharing the risks and benefits.

Just not these rules.

Let’s leave aside the pros and cons of the ESM if we can. Even if we never need it – and I don’t think we will – we should join it anyway; to support other vulnerable Euro members and discourage market speculation against the currency. We shouldn’t be looking at this mechanism as if we’re desperate to join. It’s a mutual benefit scheme that we should contribute to – if we can.

But if the price of joining the ESM is this Fiscal Compact, then the price is too high. And I don’t mean too high for what we get in return. I mean too high as in we can’t afford it, full stop.

Even if the ESM were a free rainbows and ponies club, even if membership entitled us to have cash sprayed over us from a hosepipe, we cannot join if we don’t have the price of admission. And we simply don’t.

We have a vast budgetary shortfall, imposed on us by the appalling financial mismanagement of the last government. Since then however we’ve been top of the class, attacking spending with a chainsaw, losing that deficit as fast as humanly possible. We’re suffering for it. We’ve seen employment, health services, education and welfare devastated. We gave away our pension reserve to save other people’s pension funds. But we have made exemplary progress.

The Fiscal Compact – which we join if this referendum is passed – requires us to redouble that cutting.

Look at the state of our public systems now. Imagine if we made cutbacks at nearly twice the current rate. I mean that, imagine it. What would it be like? What would you do, in a country like that?

Get out, mainly. Anyone who can will. We’re going to haemorrhage young, basically. The rest of us… Well, we’re pretty much buggered. We’re going to see an already shrinking economy fold like a ruptured Zeppelin, as further destruction of the tax base turns a nascent recovery into a plughole pirouette.

We’ll be another Greece.

Deficit spending can often be the wrong thing to do, a too-easy option in difficult times. But sometimes it is exactly the right thing, and it has paid off in the past. The Fiscal Compact however means that we can never do it again. No matter what the people vote for, no matter who is in government, even if we can borrow from other sources. It’s an economic straitjacket, one that no country could put on and still call itself free.

What’s more we have to force ourselves into that straitjacket, in far less time than is reasonable, humane, or indeed possible. If we pass this referendum we will be making a commitment that we simply cannot keep. We will be fined for being broke.

This Fiscal Compact was not designed for Ireland’s circumstances, but to stop major Euro economies like Germany and France from doing again what they did wrong before. It will punish us not for our sins but for theirs, prescribe diarrhoea medicine when we’re constipated, bring a wrecking ball when we need scaffolding.

Reject a treaty that will be our worst mistake since the bank guarantee.

A Cat Video (To Celebrate The French Election)

Our cat here will demonstrate the relaxed and optimistic feelings that are induced by knowing Sarkozy is no longer leader of France. Until she becomes distracted by her own tail.

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah… The relief is palpable.

OK, it’s not exactly a revolution. The fact that Hollande won by just a few percentage points against the man who presided over some of France’s biggest disasters in decades is hardly inspirational. But he does stand for things that actually require standing for, like social equality and regulation of the finance industry. It is at least a crack in the panic-induced consensus of social sadism.

So maybe now please we can have some actual debate about the Fiscal Compact?

Austerity, That’s What We Need More Of

austerity
austerity (Photo credit: 401K)

So Britain has gone back into negative growth, fairly conclusive evidence that budget-cutting your way out of recession is like clearing a path through the forest with a flamethrower.

Yet in the eurozone, we seem determined to repeat the error. The forthcoming Fiscal Compact is a legal undertaking not to go into budget deficit. A good thing in principle; of course a country should, in the good times, be creating budget surpluses that will see it through the bad. That’s just prudent. The thing that appears to be escaping them here though is that these are not the good times. These are, in point of fact, the really, really bad times.

We can sign a treaty to promise to balance the budget, sure. What we cannot do, is balance the budget. Not without the wholesale destruction of not simply welfare and health systems, but everything. Policing, education, investment, the fabric of the state.

So are we signing this treaty with the intention of breaking it? Perhaps it is meant purely as a pro forma sop to the markets, Or indeed to the German taxpayers, who seem to forget that they profited vastly from the eurozone boom and so have to be wheedled and cajoled now that it’s come to payback time. “Yes yes, of course everyone is going to balance their budget.” That doesn’t seem a proper way to go about things.

I don’t mean that a fiscal compact is a wholly bad idea. If we’re going to share a currency there have to be some rules. But remember, we had rules. We had the Stability and Growth Pact, of which this is merely a sterner reiteration. Did we break those rules in the boom? Nope. Right up to the Crash of 2008, we ran a surplus. France and Germany broke them, reckless to the effect that had on other countries. They benefited from the conditions that drove our economy to meltdown, and yet somehow it’s we who have to suffer again. This new treaty is the Big Two’s more rigorous attempt to discipline themselves, but what is merely chastisement to them may beat us to death.

Here in Ireland, our Supreme Court has judged that this compact amounts to a new international treaty with constitutional ramifications, and must be put to the people. This is a great aspect to our Constitution, but it means we’re yet again going to have a fraught and confusing public debate. Highly technical and highly political, the text of the treaty is hardly going to make for clear and balanced discussion. So it’s unlikely to be for the right reasons whichever side wins.

The Yes camp will be monging fiscal fear: If we don’t pass it, we won’t be able to raise the money we desperately need to keep the country afloat. But wait, in order to borrow money we should pass a law against borrowing money? It doesn’t make a lot of sense. The No camp on the other hand will be upholding our economic sovereignty. A brave stand, which has been likened to defending the virginity of sex workers. There is only one economic sovereignty, and it’s called “having money”.

At the moment, it looks like we’ll pass it. The incorrect arguments of the mistaken pragmatists will be more persuasive than the incorrect arguments of the mistaken idealists. But it is not too late to change direction. We have a chance here to make a real and lasting difference.

Sure, the last time we turned down an EU treaty they pretty much gave us another chance to say the right answer. All we really did was delay it. But this time, a delay could make a difference. The cavalry – in the form of Hollande winning the French Presidential election – might just arrive in time. He has announced his intention to reopen the treaty, and at least take some of the emphasis off austerity. (Oh those crazy reckless Socialists.) Meanwhile, the other eurozone countries have a chance to absorb lessons like that coming out of the UK.

So Ireland could play a key role here in saving the EU from a tragic, destructive mistake. Enforcing balanced budgets in the long term is a sensible idea. Enforcing balanced budgets during an already murderous recession is not economics, it’s applied sadomasochism.

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Let’s Get Fiscal: Women’s perspectives on the Austerity Treaty

Anyone in Dublin or Galway interested in a public meeting on austerity policies, with particular reference to their impact on women? You can attend the event physically at Feminist Open Forum, Central Hotel, Exchequer St, Dublin, or by live streaming at the One World Centre, 76 Prospect Hill, Galway.

Tonight, THURSDAY 26 April at 7pm.

Sarkozy – Little Brother Is Watching You

EPP Summit October 2010
He'll protect France, even if he has to turn it into a fascist police state

Unable to pass up an opportunity to move his country further to the right, Sarkozy is introducing a law that criminalises visiting sites about violence and hatred “habitually”. Whatever that means.

Can we please apply the brakes of sanity to that? Imagine if there was a law against “habitually” reading books about violence and hatred. Or indeed about habitually reading anything. Or a law against conversations about violence and hatred? Unthinkable. Yet those are the only two things you can do by visiting a website. Read, and discuss. A website is just a form of document after all – indeed, the form that is rapidly replacing books, newspapers and magazines. Yet leaders are eager to make sure that the replacement for printed literature is a thousand times more circumscribed, monitored and controlled than literature has been the birth of democracy. And not only controlled, but controlling – because now we have books and newspapers that can read you back, check you out when you check them out, write reports on you. If it sounds like an old Soviet Russia joke, there’s a good reason for that.

But surely monitoring people’s reading habits is unthinkable in a democracy? Nope, not at all. In fact such laws already exist. It’s just that they’re specific to child pornography. But all around the world, laws that undermined a basic principle of democracy for just that one extra-super-special, won’t-someone-think-of-the-children case are being broadened and repurposed – precisely as predicted.

All you need to pull this off is an urgent threat to security. Say, the threat to security that a shooting spree by one madman who’s now dead so clearly represents. Once you establish the principle, it becomes perfectly legitimate to police people’s reading. And so easily, you have made it a crime to be the sort of person you think might commit a crime.

They’re All Bastards

Reaction to Irish banking and financial crises...
The people do not feel well served

Jesus. The UK’s Channel 4 had a documentary this evening called “The Man Who Killed Michael Jackson“. Did they make that last night? Maybe they went through a documentary they already had, bleeping out the word “allegedly”.

News has been extra weird today. A US Presidential candidate vows to shut down the Department of Education, and the most remarked thing is that he couldn’t remember the name of another agency he wanted to close down? Under the influence of the Tea People the Republicans are turning from the party of the American rich into the party of American national suicide.

In France meanwhile, Sarkozy is mooting a two-speed Europe. In this version there will be an ‘inner’ group of stronger economies using the euro, and an outer using… something else. There are merits to this idea. The part that makes least sense is his assumption that France belongs on the inside.

Who owns the banks in Ireland? You would be forgiven for thinking that we had some sort of controlling interest, after having mortgaged our children’s lives to save them from bankruptcy. Apparently not though, because both Bank of Ireland and AIB have point-blank refused a government request to pass on an ECB interest rate cut. You see, they have to obey the laws of the free market. Or all except the one where losing incredible sums of money means you can’t be in business any more.

We should send them a signal. One bank – selected at random – should be allowed to collapse. Just to remind the rest what reality is.

Just Sign Here Here Here And Here

Shelby County Courthouse, Memphis, Tennessee, USA
"So what's the surpri... Was that a click?"

This is worrying stuff.

You’d hardly notice, but we’re being asked to change the Constitution this Thursday. Twice. Yet nobody is acting like this is much of a deal. The amendments are being thrown in with the Presidential election like some sort of democratic side order, and getting about as much attention. This despite the fact that a Constitutional amendment actually, you know, changes something, while a ceremonial President – in spite of the impression they try to create in their election campaigns – can change about bugger all.

These are not trivial matters either. One would remove the bar on reductions to the pay of judges, something placed in the Constitution deliberately to prevent the sitting government pressuring the judiciary. The other would allow the houses of the Oireachtas¹ to conduct their own quasi-judicial investigations. That would seem to give them quite a lot of power. How much? Well according to part of the proposed amendment:

4º It shall be for the House or Houses concerned to determine, with due regard to the principles of fair procedures, the appropriate balance between the rights of persons and the public interest for the purposes of ensuring an effective inquiry into any matter to which subsection 2º applies.’

So only the Oireachtas can say how much power it can give itself. Though it is of course restricted by law. Which the Oireachtas also creates.

Yes parliaments often have powers of investigation, but this seems very broadly drawn, and likely to make power in this country even more unbalanced. Government in a democracy is generally divided into three main branches: The executive, the legislature, and the judiciary. There is meant to be a measure of conflict between these roles, in order to ensure that everyone is watching what everyone is up to.

We’re a parliamentary democracy though; that immediately reduces internal contention because it means there is no effective difference between the executive and the legislature. Unlike countries with an executive presidency such as France or the US, the legislature elects the executive – which then pretty much dictates everything else the legislature does.

Another safety mechanism is a bicameral legislature; two houses each with oversight of the other – House/Senate, Commons/Lords, etc. Our upper house though is effectively the creation of the executive, which appoints the majority of its members. So no balance there either; whatever party wins most seats in an election just sweeps the board of executive and both houses.

That only leaves the judiciary as an independent power, and we are being asked to pass two amendments to our constitution, one of which will take away its chief protection against undue government pressure, the other of which will usurp some of its functions. Still wonder why I’m worried?

 

  1. Parliament/Congress

Patents – The New Rock ‘n’ Roll

Phone patent litigation in US courts alone ©The Daily Beast

With what I want to believe was ill-disguised glee, Samsung has taken out injunctions against sale of the iPhone 4S in France and Italy over alleged patent infringement. Why just there? It’s difficult not to believe that they’re keeping it commensurate with Apple’s blocking of Galaxy Tab sales in Germany and the Netherlands, that basically they’re saying “If you want to go there, we can go there”.

Do they have a case? Who can tell. The only thing certain is that patents are the new Rock ‘n’ Roll.

And not in a good way. Like Rock ‘n’ Roll in its heyday, the mobile technology world is turning into a filthy quagmire, with pretty much everybody accusing everyone else of stealing about everything – as the illustration shows. The main reason Google purchased Motorola‘s mobile arm was that otherwise the two companies could have sued each other out of existence¹. R&D is rapidly becoming the new A&R, with phone makers patenting about anything in the hope of finding the one elusive hit technology that will rake in unimaginable sums. This wasn’t very good for music, and it won’t be so good for technological innovation either.

While being able to profit from research and invention is a good thing, current law allows companies to charge exorbitant fees or even refuse to license their patents, essentially granting them a monopoly to a lucrative technology. While this was fine in the days when you might patent a tangible device like a mousetrap, now they can be used more or less as intellectual property land-grabs, claiming rights to possible designs. A cause célèbre of course is the granting to Apple of patents so fundamental to a multitouch interface on a mobile touchscreen device that it is hard to see how anyone can now create one without infringing them. Yet Apple did not invent either the multitouch interface or the mobile touchscreen, they were merely the first to put one on the other. Does that really mean they deserve to control the entire concept for the next twenty years?

What might work much better is a short period – maybe only a year or two – of exclusive use. That would decrease the incentive to take out speculative patents on everything, and greatly increase the incentive to, you know, innovate.

  1. To give the actual science of this: When two corporations collide at sufficiently high financial energies, they either fuse into a single entity or annihilate one another in a shower of fundamental business particles known as “happy lawyers”.