by Peter Franklin
Thursday, 13
February 2020

Please Boris, let HS2 be your last white elephant

The PM should check his attraction to 'grands projets'

Have you read about the plan to build two gigantic dams — one between Scotland and Norway, the other between Cornwall and Brittany? The idea is that this would protect a huge chunk of low-lying coastal Europe from rising sea levels. The price tag? £250-500 billion.

A bonkers idea, so let’s hope no one tells Boris Johnson — who’s never met a crazy infrastructure project he doesn’t like (apart from Heathrow).

This week he gave the final go-ahead to the 200 mile money pit that is HS2 — and also got serious about the idea of a bridge between Northern Ireland and Scotland. At a mere £20 billion, this would link somewhere outside Belfast with the heaving metropolis of Stranraer. ...  Continue reading

by Peter Franklin
Tuesday, 11
February 2020

Why shouldn’t modern buildings be beautiful?

Beauty doesn't always need to serve a structural purpose

It’s not often that I disagree with the brilliant Mary Harrington, but her post this week about architecture is a rare and partial exception.

It’s reported that Donald Trump wants all new government buildings to be designed in the neoclassical style. Mary is sceptical (and probably right to be) — but this is the bit I had trouble with:

In buildings constructed before the age of steel girders and reinforced concrete, pleasing decorative features such as brick arches over windows are as much a structural necessity as an aesthetic choice. But modern structural engineering has removed the need for these necessities, meaning their addition becomes an optional aesthetic extra. Thus unless Trump were to ban modern construction methods in federal buildings, stipulating neoclassical style is little more than an aesthetic gloss over a postmodern engineering approach to the built environment that has no need to be constrained by place, limits or context
- Mary Harrington

Go to any of the great Victorian train stations. Typically these feature cast-iron pillars and glass canopies — cutting-edge technology for the time. However, the ironwork is often also richly ornamented — the metal teased into intricate designs that serve no structural purpose. ...  Continue reading

by Peter Franklin
Tuesday, 11
February 2020

Dominic Cummings must win the battle of the SpAds

A reformed cadre of advisors is an important first step

Another day, another hit piece on Dominic Cummings. Or two or three or more. Supply and demand is elastic.

What’s going on? This, from a piece by Dan Hodges in the Mail on Sunday, tells us everything we need to know:

Last Thursday, I was having a drink in a secluded East London pub with a Government special adviser. The topic of our conversation was Dominic Cummings – Boris Johnson’s brilliant but increasingly controversial senior aide – and his edict Government special advisers should no longer drink with journalists.
- Dan Hodges

Increasingly controversial? I’d have thought that securing Britain’s exit from the European Union was the high point, controversy-wise; but no, it seems that interfering with the SW1 gossip factory is what really matters. Hmm.

Compared to the enormity of the challenges facing the nation, the number of people that a Prime Minister can appoint directly to get things done is tiny. Not counting the Whips, there are less than a hundred ministers. There are a hundred or so special Advisors, about fifty unpaid Private Parliamentary Secretaries and a few other waifs and strays. So, altogether, about 300 appointees with varying degrees of influence over a government machine of hundreds of thousands of civil servants. ...  Continue reading

by Peter Franklin
Thursday, 6
February 2020

What Walter Bagehot would say about the State of the Union

The essayist understood the difference between the political and ceremonial

It’s not been a good week for American democracy. First there was the omni-shambles of the Iowa Democratic Caucus. That was followed by the State of the Union address (SOTU), a supposedly solemn occasion which this year descended into a childish game of tit-for-tat.

SOTU is as close as the US gets to a Queen’s speech. Given the regrettable absence of a monarch, it is the President who addresses a joint session of Congress — not to mention a television audience of almost 50 million.

Facing re-election — and riled by the attempt to impeach him — Trump’s speech was bound to be highly politicised. (In any case, this is the President who delivered a rambunctiously partisan address to the Boy Scout Jamboree.) ...  Continue reading

by Peter Franklin
Wednesday, 5
February 2020

Boris is right — mercantilists are everywhere

Unilaterally adhering to free-market ideology doesn't seem to be working so well for us either

Boris Johnson’s speech at Greenwich this week was a paean to the virtues of free trade. At times his language was every bit as ornate as the ceiling of the Painted Hall (‘Britain’s Sistine Chapel’) where he was holding forth:

“…free trade is God’s diplomacy — the only certain way of uniting people in the bonds of peace since the more freely goods cross borders the less likely it is that troops will ever cross borders.”

But as well as the vivid flourishes, there were darker strokes:

“Free trade is being choked… The mercantilists are everywhere, the protectionists are gaining ground.” ...  Continue reading

by Peter Franklin
Tuesday, 4
February 2020

In (partial) defence of Grace Blakeley

The commentator is right to say that alternatives to neoliberalism are being heard

Grace Blakeley stirred the pot this week with a series of tweets attacking “vitriolic socialist-hating journalists” who “used to be socialists themselves.”

I’ve no idea who she’s referring to, but her argument is that these dastardly turncoats have exaggerated the significance of the 2019 general election because they so nearly found themselves “on the wrong side of history” in 2017: “Which is why they are so keen for 2019 to be our generation’s 1983 — they’re desperate for us to abandon socialism and prove that we are just like them.” ...  Continue reading

by Peter Franklin
Thursday, 30
January 2020
Seen Elsewhere

Coronavirus leaves no room for cultural sensitivity

In a globalised world we need to hold our neighbours to higher standards

Coronavirus is a blast from the past. A reminder of the not-so-distant days when most deaths were deaths from infectious disease.

As recently as 1900, infections killed nearly 1% of the population every year (in England and Wales). In the 20th century that toll was reduced by an order of magnitude.

Vaccines? Antibiotics? Yes, those helped a lot — but, as Jason Crawford reminds us in a fascinating blog post, our progress against pestilence began before those scientific breakthroughs:

 …death rates began to fall in some parts of Europe by 1740 (and in some parts possibly as early as 1670)… declines in disease mortality were a significant part of this. “In contrast to this timeline, very few effective medical treatments were in widespread use until the late 1930s. Before that time, only a handful of vaccines for major diseases were in use (most notably for smallpox); and there were only a couple of effective pharmaceuticals…
- Jason Crawford

So what made the difference before modern medicine? In a word: sanitation. Improvements in things like food handling, sewerage and the disposal of corpses saved countless lives by preventing infections. ...  Continue reading

by Peter Franklin
Wednesday, 29
January 2020

The House of Lords should become the Future Chamber

It's time to turn the 'revising chamber' into the 'long term chamber'

It’s great that we’ve had such a vigorous debate on whether we should let the Chinese rebuild the internet. Well done to the media for making time in their busy schedule of discussing minor royalty and fifty pence pieces.

Unfortunately, it’s all come a bit too late. The Government has merely confirmed a decision that was already made. We should have had the argument about 5G and Huawei a long time ago. And, yes, today’s dilemmas could and should have been anticipated.

Just as 4G superseded 3G, it was inevitable that one day 5G would replace 4G. We had years to look around and see who was taking the lead on the new technology; years to ask whether our emerging dependency on China was something we might want to do something about; years to ask whether flogging off our leading tech companies to foreigners might limit our options in years to come. ...  Continue reading