Friday 4 March, 2022

The Hound of Arles

Seen on a wall in that wonderful town during the annual Photography Festival some years ago.

Quote of the Day

”The essence of war is violence. Moderation in war is an imbecility.”

  • Admiral Sir John Fisher

Which is why armies use fragmentation bombs, poison gas and other ways of killing civilians.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mark Knopfler | Cannibals (A Night In London | Official Live Video)


Long Read of the Day

Russia’s War on Ukraine: A Roundtable

This post from Bari Weiss’s Common Sense blog is also a ‘long listen’ if you prefer to listen to the podcast of the conversation between Niall Ferguson, Walter Russell Mead and Francis Fukuyama. But she also appends a good edited transcript of the conversation. What’s intriguing (to me, anyway) is the extent to which they disagree — especially as they come from the same neck of the ideological woods. Two of them (Ferguson and Fukuyama) are from the Hoover Institution, which Wikipedia describes (accurately IMO) as “a conservative American public policy institution and research institution that promotes personal and economic liberty, free enterprise, and limited government”. That of course doesn’t mean that they’re not interesting but…

Anyway, hope you find it interesting.

’Limits to Growth’ 50 years on

It’s 50 years since The Limits to Growth, a book based on a simulation model of the world created using the Systems Dynamics  modelling tool developed by Jay Forrester at MIT, was published. It caused a storm when it was published, but that subsided over succeeding decades until — ironically — attempts to model climate change brought simulation modelling back into fashion.

Of the team that built the ‘Limits’ model, only Dennis Meadows is still around. (His wife, Donella, who also worked on the model, died in 2001.) The not-for-profit website had the good idea of interviewing Dennis Meadows on the 50th anniversary of the publication of the book. I found the transcript of the interview fascinating, not least because I did a live, transatlantic interview by phone with Meadows for the BBC way back in 1973. And two of the PhD students I supervised did dissertations on the L-to-G model. So this is a topic dear to my heart.

Here’s how the conversation started:

Q: First, how is reality tracking with the scenarios you and your colleagues generated 50 years ago?

Dennis: There have been several attempts, recently, to compare some of our scenarios with the way the global system has evolved over the past 50 years. That’s difficult. It’s, in a way, trying to confirm by looking through a microscope whether or not the data that you gathered through a telescope are accurate. In fact, accuracy is not really the issue here. Our goal in doing the original analysis was to provide a conceptual framework within which people could think about their own options and about the events that they saw around them. When we evaluate models, we always ask whether they’re more useful, not whether they’re more accurate.

Having said that, I will also say that the efforts which have been undertaken have generally concluded that the world is moving along what we termed in our 1972 report to be the standard scenario. It’s an aggregated image of the global system, showing growth from 1972 up to around 2020, and then, over the next decade or two, the principal trends peaking out and beginning to decline. I still find that model very useful in understanding what I read in the papers and in trying to think about what’s coming next.

Worth reading.

’Talking Politics’ bows out

Yesterday’s edition of the Talking Politics podcast was the last. After six years, its host, David Runciman, his colleague Helen Thompson and their producer, Catherine Carr, gathered in David’s office in Cambridge to bring it to a graceful close.

Its passing leaves a gap not only in my week but also in the public sphere. There was nothing quite like it in the exponentially-exploding podcasting world. TP built up a massive audience across the world because it offered a unique opportunity for people everywhere to hear David and Helen and other prominent scholars of politics, international relations, economics and technology put events of the day into the wider and deeper contexts on which true understanding depends. Many middle-school pupils in their final years were influenced by it to consider studying politics at university. I know that if it had been around when I was a teenager, I might have taken that route rather than studying engineering.

But all good things come to an end. Six years is a long time doing a weekly show in the middle of busy professional lives. And if any educational bureaucrat wants to see what real public ‘impact’ is like, then Talking Politics provided a pretty good paradigm. It’ll be a very hard act to follow.

Londistan: favourite city of Russian oligarchs

My Observer colleague, Nick Cohen, had a fine column on Sunday about how Putin’s wealthy friends have used the UK’s swingeing libel laws to silence and censor journalists who find out too much about them.

In the safe space of the House of Commons, Labour MP Chris Bryant quoted from leaked government documents, which stated Roman Abramovich should be watched because of “his links to the Russian state and his public association with corrupt activity and practices”. God help anyone who says as much outside when the government has not put him on its sanctions list.

Bear the costs of challenging wealth in mind when you wonder how London became a centre of corruption. Anglo-Saxon law brings class justice rather than real justice. The verdicts of individual judges are not to blame – whatever their faults, they do not take bribes. But the price of reaching a verdict is so high that few dare run the risk of being left with the bill. A system can be rigged even if the people in charge of it are honest, and there is institutional prejudice in the English justice system in favour of wealth that is as pervasive as institutional racism in the police.

Let one example stand for thousands. The Parisian intellectual Nicolas Tenzer tweeted that the French equivalents of George Galloway and Nigel Farage acted as the Kremlin’s “useful idiots” when they appeared on Putin’s propaganda channel RT. RT sued, claiming that not only had Tenzer libelled the station but that he was guilty of an “encroachment on the dignity” of its journalists – as if security guards did not strip its hacks of dignity every time they went to work. Naturally, the French courts found against RT. Astonishingly to anyone involved in the struggles for free speech in the UK, the cost of the case was just €10,000 (£8,400).

Compare that with the price of writing about the Putin regime in the UK. In January 2021, after Putin’s agents had poisoned him but before he was jailed, the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny praised Catherine Belton’s Putin’s People. It is indeed the book of the moment, which shows how KGB men created the world’s most dangerous rogue state. Abramovich, three other Russian billionaires and Putin’s energy company Rosneft sued.

The case was trivial. Belton’s publishers HarperCollins settled it agreeing to make changes to the text most readers wouldn’t notice. Yet although it never went to a full hearing, the case, it was revealed to me, cost HarperCollins £1.5m – 178 times the price of the libel trial in France. In effect, HarperCollins was fined a small fortune for publishing an anti-Putin book by the English legal system.

One of the most nauseating aspects of the Tory government’s sudden resolve to go after Putin’s buddies in London is that it took his murderous assault on Ukraine to embarrass them into action. They have presided over a period in which London became the world’s leading money-laundering centre for the dodgy super-rich from abroad. Many of the city’s fancy law firms have gleefully (and profitably) tendered to the legal needs of visiting plutocrats, and the co-chairman of the Tory party, Ben Eliot, not only raised nearly £2 million of Russia-linked donations for the party (according to the Financial Times), but makes his living running an outfit called Quintessentially, which the paper describes as,

a luxury concierge company that launched its Russia office in 2006, and has expanded it to roughly 50 employees at its base in Moscow.

The concierge group removed some content related to its Russian operations from its global website this week after Vladimir Putin, the country’s president, launched his invasion of Ukraine.

However, it has not taken down its separate Russian-language site with the slogan: “Access the inaccessible. Achieve the impossible.”

The FT goes on to explain that Quintessentially (which has membership fees ranging from $20,000 to $40,000 a year) has

boasted of how it helped wealthy Russians in London find properties, advise on the best schools and staff such as nannies”. One former staffer said the group often helped its Russian clients hold lavish parties.

As I write this, the owner of this ‘concierge’ service is still the joint chairman of the UK’s governing party.

My commonplace booklet

And while we’re on the subject of London’s role as the money-laundering centre of the world, why not tune in to hear the Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford and Abingdon reading out (under Parliamentary Privilege) the names of the 35 London-based oligarchs named by Alexei Navalny.

This Blog is also available as a daily email. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, Monday through Friday, delivered to your inbox. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already!