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China Diary

29 September, 2016 (22:02) | Uncategorized | By: Ian Burdon

Some reflections on our recent visit to China can be found to the top right of the page (click ‘China 2016′). Alternatively, go here.


14 August, 2016 (12:17) | Uncategorized | By: Ian Burdon

A quick punt for a new post on my other blog.

Also, I submitted two stories to a new magazine looking for pieces for its first issue. I’ll say more when I hear if they have been accepted or rejected.

Stronger Together

9 August, 2016 (17:43) | Uncategorized | By: Ian Burdon

Melissa Benoist as Supergirl

Melissa Benoist as Supergirl

I’ve been catching up with Supergirl. I didn’t watch it when it was broadcast (I avoid Sky) so I’m semi-binge watching it.

Possibly a surprise for me, I’ve been enjoying it. It does exactly what it says on the wrapper; the core actors are good and Melissa Benoist does a great job (and gets better through the season). Sure, it can be somewhat saccharine, but that’s OK.

And yet.

In my head I have been contrasting and comparing it with Sense8, because the differences are interesting.

Firstly, I find Supergirl surprisingly old-fashioned. It conforms precisely to a familiar template for US Network TV shows: each episode runs to around 42 minutes plus ads; there is quite a strong story arc through the season, but it still sticks to an episodic structure with a ‘monster of the week’ for our heroine to defeat. By contrast, season 1 of Sense8 was written with binge watching in mind. It is a complete story told in 12 parts. Although there is an episodic structure, it is not to the fore, and this fundamental structural difference informs many things, not just the narrative; it informs the acting, the direction, the choices of lenses and cameras, the framing, the colour palette and the sound design.

Secondly, although there is mention of Supergirl protecting the planet, and the bad guys often pose a planetary threat, ‘planetary’ too often is co-terminus with the boundaries of National City, where the show is set. Sense8 really does operate on a global scale. No doubt it has a more substantial budget, but, like Game of Thrones, you can see that budget on screen.

Thirdly, the writing. There is nothing wrong with the writing on Supergirl within its own parameters, and it nicely uses some familiar tropes to make strong points about family, loyalty, and morality. Yet a lot of the stories have an air of familiarity about them, echoes of other shows. Stargate was there; so was Star Trek. “Manhunter” reminded my of the ST:TNG episode ‘The Drumhead'; the headset in episode 19 and 20 looked distinctly like something designed by the Cybermen in Dr. Who.

Sense8 really doesn’t remind me much of anything else except previous work by the series’ creators; most obviously the Wachowski’s Cloud Atlas.

I said at the top that the lead performers in Supergirl do a good job and Melissa Benoist is very good in the lead. There are times when some of the cast (except Calista Flockhart) reminded me of the Linda Gray school of facial emoting as exemplified on Dallas, but that’s par for the course. Sense8 operates in a different dramatic and narrative world. Both shows deal with love, loss and grief, but Sense8 is resolute in its commitment to ‘show, don’t tell’, whereas Supergirl has a habit of telling as well as showing just be certain you got the point.

Tuppence Middleton as Riley Blue

Tuppence Middleton as Riley Blue

Sense8 episode 9, which I really like, is available on line as well as on Netflix, and forms the example for my final thoughts. I’ve written before at length about the scene in the Diego Rivera Museum that begins at 21 minutes into the episode. It deals explicitly and in detail with themes that Supergirl (and, in fairness, most other mainstream shows), will not go anywhere near. More germane to my point, the long scene featuring Riley in the Icelandic graveyard (it begins at 35.59) is a masterclass in portraying profound grief, to which Aml Ameen and Chichi Seeii make pitch-perfect contributions from around 40.40.

Now: it would be wrong criticise Supergirl for not being something that it has never set out to be. Supergirl is no more Sense8 than Mary Poppins is an homage to Akira Kurosawa. And that’s fine, it takes all sorts to make a mix of entertainments. I enjoyed Supergirl season 1 and I’ll no doubt enjoy season 2 when it comes along.

But Sense8 seems to me to be an event which will be a reference point for future writers, directors and producers in the same way Twin Peaks, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Star Trek were and are. Supergirl is entertaining and fun, but it isn’t a game-changer.

I’m No Fan of Theresa May, But…

13 July, 2016 (17:23) | Uncategorized | By: Ian Burdon

One of the stranger aspects of the past few days has been the number of times I’ve found myself saying: “I’m no fan of Theresa May, but…” And it is true: I am no fan of Theresa May.

And yet I do find myself saying and writing it, in part because (without wishing to be ungallant) she was the least worst of the candidates available for the post of Prime Minister. This includes those on the opposition front benches: the Labour Party, to which I naturally incline, is toast.

I am intrigued that Theresa May has been tacking to the centre this past week, and making some strategic statements designed no doubt for the ears of those floating Labour voters who aren’t already in the welcoming arms of UKIP or the SNP. What Mrs. May understands and Mr. Corbyn and his acolytes do not, is that the aspirational working and middle classes are not socialist. To be sure they lean generally leftwards in most social attitudes, but they are also the children of the cohort that bought their council houses under Mrs. Thatcher, and voted for a Blair government three times. It is a cohort that distrusts ideology of any kind in favour of an undefined sense of “fairness”, albeit that the past couple of weeks have shone light on some grubby beasties hiding under stones.

Britain has changed hugely during my lifetime as have the attitudes and expectations of Britons. For the most part I think these changes have been for the better. It really will not do for the Labour Party operate on the basis of early 20th century economic and political ideology expressed in the language of a second-rate nineteen-seventies sociology tutor.

As matters stand as I write this, I reckon the Conservatives will be in government, probably with a very substantial majority, until 2025 at the earliest. And it is for that reason I find myself regarding Theresa May with my fingers crossed.


10 July, 2016 (10:34) | Brexit | By: Ian Burdon

More Brexit.

I had a discussion with my MSP on Twitter last night. Alex (Lib. Dem.) retweeted his party leader. The discussion went as follows:

What troubles me about the Lib Dem position is the underlying assumption that the result of the referendum is something to be overturned by people who know better, blithely discounting the expressed votes of those who voted Leave. That is exactly the sort of attitude that, it appears, many Leave voters reacted against, and seems to me to be profoundly anti-democratic.

We can discuss until the cows come home whether referendums are themselves flawed instruments (I think they are), but we had one, and having had one we should think long and hard before dismissing the result, and the views of our fellow-citizens, simply because we disagree with them.

Dancing Down the Stony Road

3 July, 2016 (18:09) | Brexit | By: Ian Burdon

This isn’t the post I was going to write.

I spent time yesterday trying to sketch down some further thoughts about Brexit, but abandoned them when I realised they were guff.

No change there, then.

What I was thinking about yesterday was finding an upside to the Brexit clusterfuck. I toyed with the notion that if we are out then it might be best were we out completely, without playing with notions of the EEA, which looks like an expensive band-aid to cover a gaping wound. It struck me that the benefits of joining the EEA, either for the UK as a whole or Scotland in particular, are uncritically assumed rather than established on well-articulated and analysed evidence.

I’d like to think an analytical case could be made weighing up the various options, but I think it’s probably too soon for that to have been done, and, anyway, we seem to be in an era of policy based on social-media sloganeering.

So yesterday I was thinking that it ought to be possible to aim for a Britain that remained egalitarian and cosmopolitan, a Britain that sought to compete as a trading nation, and to build strategies around that objective.

My provisional conclusion is that all of that is just a nice aspiration. I have three reasons:

  • A trading nation succeeds because of innovation and competitive energy from SMEs. While the UK (and certainly Scotland) is an SME-based economy, our governance structures are stuffed with people who only understand large-corporate culture. Lip-service is paid to SMEs and their importance, but there is no indication government has the first idea how to approach growing an SME economy.
  • I realised I need to look at my own assumptions. The bits of Britain I find most congenial are egalitarian and cosmopolitan, but they are unevenly distributed. One theme of the referendum seems to be that a large number of Leave voters see the very things I find admirable as manifestations of “the elite”, and representative of a life they do not share, often because of social and financial inequality.
  • A hallmark of competitive trading nations is more or less free movement of people and capital, the former of which is another strand that Leave sentiment, on both left and right, finds objectionable.

Change is coming to the UK as the consequences of Brexit work through the system; effective change follows desire paths of least resistance. Politicians since Thatcher have been pushing notions of an entrepreneurial culture (which seems to me to be a requirement for a trading nation) but we don’t really have one, or at least not one that fits the bill.

I look in vain for signs of understanding in our political parties, but I don’t see it.

I’m not sure where I’m going with all of this yet, though I already see some aspects that lead to business opportunities. But even if Brexit does not eventually occur (and my working assumption is that it will), change–and challenge–is in the air.


And finally…

In the days after the referendum I muttered about finding ways to get round the outcome. Over the course of the week I’ve seen a lot of arguing about the Constitutional niceties of triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, and several people whose views I listen to argue that the trigger will never be pulled. Well, maybe it will and maybe it won’t.

But I’ve stopped muttering.

After the Scottish referendum in 2014 I took the view that the decision was made and that was that. Of course the outcome in that referendum was one I agreed with. I didn’t have (and still don’t have) a lot of time for folks trying to re-fight that battle through Twibbons and flag-waving. But, of course, I have to apply the same standard to myself: I don’t like the result, but it is what it is.

In Every Dream Home a Heartache.

27 June, 2016 (20:01) | Brexit | By: Ian Burdon

As you might have noticed, the Brexit clusterfuck has been on my mind. Much as I’d like to think there is a way out of it–and there may be–my working assumption is that it will go ahead. The potential way out is in the election of a new Conservative leader, and hence Prime Minister, in September and an October general election in which a party campaigns on an explicitly “Remain” ticket. I think that’s unlikely to succeed, but I may be wrong. An alternative, that I’ve seen mentioned a lot, is that a Parliamentary revolt could scupper triggering of Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon. The problem with that is that triggering Article 50 is within the Government prerogative and not a matter for Parliament (also the Civil Service view I think)

Of course MPs might pass a motion suggesting the Prime Minister not do it, but the PM is under no obligation to comply, although the political dilemma would be unbearably stark.

So let’s assume an incoming Prime Minister triggers A50 in November 2016. We then have two years to negotiate an exit, ie to November 2018. Several, including on the Remain side, say it could take longer and they’re right–but only if the European Council unanimously agrees. However the European Council is under no obligation to agree, and we cannot at this stage assume that they will. In fact, given the ripple effects of Brexit through national economies in Europe, I’d say unanimous agreement was next to impossible. If there is no agreement, and no joint agreement to extend negotiations, then we are automatically out, on my suggested timetable in November 2018.

It follows that our negotiating position is best described as “over a barrel with a tub of Swarfega handy.”

Forget the fantasies promulgated by “Leave”: the EU is under no obligation to treat us well and any Treaty that is drafted can still be vetoed by Member States, a qualified majority of which is required to approve it. Personally, I suspect there’ll be a veto of anything controversial because we’ve pissed too many people in Europe off, but maybe I am too misanthropic. Of course there will be some pragmatic concessions, but we’ll still be over the barrel begging for scraps.

So, let’s assume the worst case, as any prudent planner has to do, and we are out without any Agreement in or around November 2018. What then?

Well, we’ll have to sort out our position under World Trade Organisation Rules. This means tariffs between the UK and the EU and also new Treaties with all of the 50 nations with which the EU presently has a Treaty on behalf of all members. Once again, we can expect no favours, and, like the Brexit negotiations, the position is profoundly asymmetric in the other guy’s favour.

Time to buy some more Swarfega.

Some have suggested that we have the negotiations first then another referendum on the resulting terms. The EU has already told us to fuck off on that score and I’m pretty sure they mean it. Their stance is “no negotiation until A50 is triggered” (and the Treaty contains no explicit procedures for revoking the A50 declaration if we don’t like the outcome).

This is a lot of work, you might think; just as well we have lots of highly trained negotiators waiting to set about it in parallel sessions. Unfortunately, thanks to public sector cuts, we do not have anywhere near sufficient people.



And so to Scotland.

Back when we were trained in negotiation techniques during my Diploma in Legal Practice, we were told that it is always good to know:

  1. What you will ask for,
  2. What you really want, and
  3. What you’ll settle for.

Nicola Sturgeon, who, though I don’t agree with her, is playing a blinder, is asking for some kind of variation of Independence in Europe (more or less). I think there is virtually no reasonable chance of this happening, and think so for three reasons:

  1. The EU has made it clear that they won’t talk until the Member State triggers A50. The implication is that an Indy Scotland would have to reapply under A49 of the Lisbon Treaty, and Scotland is in no position to do that.
  2. Indy without some form of fiscal transfer from rUK is suicidal. That has not changed since the Referendum of 2014 except that, with the collapse of oil, the problem has been made even worse. The alternative would almost certainly be loans from the ECB or German Banks, which worked out really well for Greece (and Portugal, Spain and Italy aren’t too happy either).
  3. If she succeeded there would have to be a Scotland/rUK Border because it would be an EU/rUK Border. This is something Nicola has explicitly stated she does not want.

Nicola knows all this, and she is strategically astute. So what does she really want? I reckon that she wants to emerge from the current constitutional anarchy with a seat at the top table in the UK, for example in some kind of federal structure where Scotland benefits from shared institutions, notably a central bank, a currency, and fiscal transfers. She could then, plausibly, claim to be preserving Scotland’s interests in the best way she could in the circumstances.

Of course, such a federal structure would also have to address issues with English nationalism, and that may be just too hard to do in the time available, what with a collapsing economy, probable recession, and, I fear, increasing civil and racial unrest to deal with.

Consequently, even if the outcome falls short of a federated structure, Nicola could still settle for a much louder voice in the UK and claim success.

The net result is I do not expect to see an Independent Scotland operating as a Member State in Europe at the end of all of this, and don’t expect to see an IndyRef2 any time soon, if at all.

Note: as I prepared this post, this initiative was announced by Scottish Labour. I haven’t had time to think about it.

I have no idea who, if anyone, ever reads this stuff, but happy to take comments from anyone who knows more about this stuff than me.

(note: edited slightly re requirement for unanimous agreement to extension of negotiations and link to Italian banking problems)

Brexit Schmexit

26 June, 2016 (23:43) | Brexit | By: Ian Burdon

I was going to write a lengthy post today, but really I’m still too down about the referendum result, and, I have to say, increasingly angry. Meantime, I’ll just leave this here.

The EU is cutting us some slack because it recognises that in 4 days we’ve become a basket case (although the message is clear, it just wants us to go, and who can blame them?) Four. Days.

Basket Case

Basket Case



The Morning After the Night Before

25 June, 2016 (12:48) | Brexit, Dead Water | By: Ian Burdon

In the 1992 Film “A Few Good Men”, PFC Louden Downie, not the sharpest knife in the cutlery tray, doesn’t understand why he has been given a dishonourable discharge from the Marines. “What does this mean?” He says. “I don’t understand…”

I was reminded of this when word came through that Cornwall, having voted “Leave” in last Thursday’s referendum, is looking for guarantees it will still receive EU funding. If the Indy is to be believed, the Council had been assured by the “Leave” campaign that the funding wouldn’t be lost. The mendacity of the Leave campaign and the naivety of the Council are both noteworthy, and I think we’ll be seeing a lot of this now as funding dries up for infrastructure and research.

Yorkshire is also in the same position, it seems, as, I believe, is the whole of Wales.

It is still too soon after the result to comment with complete rationality. My personal reaction has been a kind of numbed disbelief in the stupidity of it all. To the extent that I’m angry, it is not at people who voted Leave for reasons that felt real to them, it is that we had the damned referendum at all. Writing in the FT, James Blitz says that this was a tactical failure by Cameron. It strikes me as fundamentally a strategic rather than tactical failure, but the point is now moot.

And, of course, there is Scotland.

I thought the text of Nicola Sturgeon’s statement yesterday was very interesting. Of course the IndyRef2 stuff is the raw meat for the “Freedom!” brigade, but the whole of what she said was more nuanced. It was nuanced because there is a problem with the dreams of Europe I am seeing.

Yes, there are benefits of staying in Europe under the terms currently negotiated by the UK as a Member State: that, after all, is why I voted Remain.

But that isn’t what we’ll get if we have IndyRef2 and a subsequent Scottish accession to the EU, whether fast-tracked or not. What we will get is accession under the terms of the Copenhagen Criteria, and we will get them as a peripheral nation/entity with severe economic problems. Scotland does not currently meet the Copenhagen Criteria. The criteria are to have:

  1. stable institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities;
  2. a functioning market economy and the capacity to cope with competition and market forces in the EU;
  3. the ability to take on and implement effectively the obligations of membership, including adherence to the aims of political, economic and monetary union.

It is the third criterion that is the main problem for an “independent” Scotland–adherence to the aims of political, economic and monetary union.

Negotiations for joining the EU cover the conditions and timing of the candidate’s adoption, implementation and enforcement of all current EU rules. These rules are divided into 35 different policy fields (chapters), such as transport, energy, environment, etc., each of which is negotiated separately. You’ll find them here.

Naturally, they include all of the things from which the UK, as Member State, negotiated an opt-out, notably use of the Euro, and Schengen. They are not negotiable. Nicola knows this, which is why her statement was nuanced and why I think we are unlikely to see IndyRef2 any time soon. As David Ross noted on Twitter

More when I’ve thought about this some more.

Never Again

16 June, 2016 (19:25) | Brexit | By: Ian Burdon

I grew up with the myth of the post-war consensus. I’m a child of the fifties (just) and a child of hope. The generation before mine had come home from WW2 vowing “Never Again” and set about putting together the things that helped my generation grow in a healthy, free environment–the NHS, expansion of education, pensions, and housing. Before the end of my first decade, men walked on the moon. By the end of my second decade I had a grant to attend university in the days when academic curiosity was a valid reason to be there, and it wasn’t just seen as an instrumental activity en route to a gilded career. Even the Thatcher years, with their mean-spirited gurning at notions of social solidarity and society didn’t erase that, try though they might.

Since the Scottish referendum of 2014, I have very deliberately kept out of any debates on social media about politics. Of late, that means making almost no comments about this awful EU Referendum. Burning up the keyboard doesn’t help, doesn’t convince, and, in the end, doesn’t much matter. I’ve stood back when otherwise sensible people post nonsense and repeat lies, contenting myself with muting their voices until things get back to normal.

Except they’re not going to get back to what we thought of as normal: too many genies are out of too many bottles; too much poison is in the water supply, too much foetid miasma in the air we breath. And that poison has today led to the murder of Jo Cox MP.

This is not the country I grew up in; it is not the way my parents brought me up to think and behave; it is not the way I have tried to bring up my own kids. It falls short of what it ought to be, scratting and snarling around in a fouled gutter of pettiness and unkindness.

I said the post-war consensus was a myth, and it was; but it was a pretty damn good myth. And, like all myths, it is at heart a creation myth that embodies an understanding of what we ought to be, what we could be. It is the myth of a good society emerging from the ashes of war (as, for all its imperfections, is the European Union).

I find Nigel Farage to be a disgraceful, lying shit of a man, who for too long has dripped his small-minded foulness into our daily lives. However I agree with him on one thing: I do think it is time to reclaim the country, but to reclaim it for what it ought to be. This nonsense around us is not who we are. We are better than this.