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Friday, July 29, 2005

Busman's holiday

I am having an excellent time in Vancouver. The weather is outstandingly good.

The article below I was going to put on my blog before I went, but I had a memory lapse. Neil Clark is a very interesting bloke intellectually wise. he is Very old Labour & doesn't have much time for post-68 generation leftist worldviews. Also he is rather soft on Slobodan Milosevic (I say this as someone who thought the West should have stayed out of the ex-Yugoslavia, full stop). However, this article is top notch. Orwell would be proud of it.

I'm going to the beach after this...

Reformers and hardliners

What do Iran, Venezuela and Belarus have in common?

Neil Clark
Tuesday July 12, 2005
The Guardian

Iran's new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is one. So are Belarus's Alexander Lukashenko and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. These men, we are repeatedly told by CNN, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, are "hardliners". But what exactly is a hardliner - and why are some world leaders hardliners and others not?
In a dictionary you will find hardline defined as "definite and unyielding". But if so, why is hardliner used so selectively to describe world leaders?

As Mahmoud Ahmadinejad celebrated his landslide victory, another election was taking place in Bulgaria. For the past four years the prime minister, Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, has presided over a privatisation programme that the Iron Lady herself would have drooled over. His neo-liberal agenda has left half of Bulgaria's 8 million people surviving on less than two euros a day. Yet unlike Ahmadinejad, Lukashenko or Chavez, the Bulgarian premier has not been labelled a hardliner - for his "definite and unyielding" policies - but instead is referred to as a reformer and a moderniser.
It's a similar story across eastern and central Europe. The Hungarian prime minister, Ferenc Gyurcsany, whose government is following the most aggressively neoliberal policies in the EU, recently announced plans to privatise healthcare. Hungary has no more money for hospitals - but did find £7.7m to buy air-to-air missiles from the US and £34.5m to "adapt" its armed forces to the demands of Nato and EU membership. To many, a policy of putting guns before health would be considered hardline. But not the western media, who laud Gyurcsany as a "centrist reformer".

Look further and it is clear; if you run your country for the benefit of international capital and orientate your foreign policy towards the US, you will be a "reformer", "moderate" or "moderniser" - regardless of how extreme your polices are. The rule applies even if you served in an SS unit (like the neoconservatives' favourite Islamist, the late Bosnian leader Alija Izetbegovic) or, like the shah of Iran, had one of the most feared secret police forces in the world.

If, on the other hand, you run your country for the benefit of your people and refuse to pay Danegeld to the most powerful empire the world has seen, you will be called a hardliner. Ahmadinejad is "hardline", not for the social and religious conservatism he shares with the non-"hardline" leaders of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, but for his policy of empowering Iranian working class people and defending his country's right to develop nuclear power. Lukashenko is "hardline", not for his authoritarianism, but because he wishes to maintain the last planned, socially owned economy in Europe: an alternative economic agenda that has seen his country climb from 68th to 49th in the UN human development index. And Hugo Chavez is "hardline", not because he once led a failed military coup, but because he wishes to use his nation's vast oil wealth to benefit Venezuela and not US oil corporations.

It is for standing up for the interests of their own people that these three men are labelled "hardliners". For those genuinely concerned with social justice, derailing the US behemoth and creating a world in which people come before profits, the more "hardliners" - and the less "moderates" and "reformers" - that are elected to power, the better.

· Neil Clark is a writer and broadcaster specialising in Eastern European and Middle Eastern affairs

Friday, July 15, 2005

All quiet on the Western front

After my recent flurries of activity on this blog there won't be much for a while. I have a week at work on nights from Monday, followed by 3 weeks in Vancouver for my hols. I intend to have a good break. Then I am back on nights for 3 weeks. So I won't have much time to update this blog. Thought I'd better warn you.

Before I go...I am annoyed by all those pro-war commentators, who are using last Thursday in London as a pathetic post-facto justification for the invasion of Iraq. What makes me laugh if that these writers (i) are hardly used to military service (the phrase "chickenhawk" comes to mind); (ii) are too overweight to serve in the military (wannabe bouncing bombs Stephen Pollard, David Aaronovitch & Johann Hari come to mind); or alternatively (iii)they look like the 6 stone wimps who used to get sand kicked in their faces in the old Charles Atlas adverts (ie Nick Cohen, Michael "Harry Potter" Gove & Mark "Conrad Black's Vicar on Earth" Steyn). Morever, the thought of fighting in the last trench with Christopher "the drinks are on me" Hitchens would hardly inspire one with much martial fortitude, and I doubt whether the Israeli army is so short of female recruits that they need Melanie "Big Nanny Is Watching You" Phillips to blow up Palestinian civilians for them. Perhaps it is the pent-up aggression of desk bound jobs (or mammoth expenses paid lunches) which make them aggressive towards others. Perhaps they should get out more.

Until next time...

Helped Needed, Part 2

I have also spent a long time trying to write an article comparing the life/works of JRR Tolkien and George Orwell. I have read a lot (maybe too much) on both, and again made plenty of notes, but I suppose I need a hypothesis (sorry this sounds so academic) is needed. I have a provisional title "Power, Nature & Englishness", which gives you some idea of where my thoughts on the whole project are going. However any help would be appreciated. All help will be acknowledged. Thanks!

Help Needed, Part 1

For more time than I wish to remember I have been trying to write an article on how aspects of Canada's Federal system of government could be applied to a possible English/British Federal/Regional system of government. I've read a few books on Canadian government (they do exist!!) and made plenty of notes, but I think I should know more. If anyone out there can help, I'd much appreciate it. All help will be acknowledged. Thanks!!

More Larry Gambone

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Apologists for capitalism like to lay claim for all the good things developed during the last 200 years. Wouldn't have happened without capitalist entrepreneurs, they say. And this is the reason that these entrepreneurs must be rewarded with colossal salaries and patent monopolies.

Trouble is, with this happy scenario, is inventors don't invent to become fabulously wealthy. There are legions of garage and basement-based inventors, and none of them are rich. Some like Edison and Ford do become rich, but in the beginning they weren't and yet they still invented. Inventing is their art, and like artists they will do so whether they are financially rewarded or not.

While financially successful inventors become capitalists as a matter of course, few inventors are themselves capitalists to begin with. The most common source of invention in the 19th and early 20th Century was the skilled worker. Edison and the Wright Brothers are the prime examples. Morse, Fulton, and Ericsson were artists. Watt an instrument maker. Edison a railway telegrapher. Kelvin, DeForest, (radio) Farnsworth, (TV) Bell, Faraday, Davie were scientists. Eastman (camera) an office clerk. Ford, and Howe (sewing machine) were machinists. Cyrus McCormack was a farmer.

Note that all great inventions are connected with a person's name. Inventions are made by individuals (Or two brothers as with the Wright Brothers and les freres Lumiere) and not by corporations. Corporate capitalism invents nothing. It might buy out someone's idea, or adapt an existing concept, but produces nothing new. Corporations develop ideas, but in a bureaucratic fashion. This explains the poor quality and impracticality of so much contemporary design. (1)The old inventors were practical people trying to find the simplest and most workable solution to a problem. The bureaucrats are merely looking for a marketing angle or a way of cheapening the cost, to which they will cheerfully sacrifice design.

Capitalism, and this is well known, suppresses inventions if they harm profits. Way back in the 1830's steam powered buses were running across England. The coaching industry and railways crushed the steam coaches by getting Parliament to enact the infamous "red flag law".(2.) Nicola Tesla found a way to transmit electricity without wires, his backer, J.P. Morgan, pulled the plug on him and a campaign of slander against Tesla was launched in the newspapers. A tacit agreement among the Big Three auto manufacturers in the US put the revolutionary Tucker car out of business.

Apologists for the corporate system claim that capital's promotion through advertising and large scale production brings new improved goods to the masses and as a result brings the price down. But people know a good thing when they see it and don't need to be propagandized into buying something. No mass advertising was necessary to switch from flint and steel to matches, or candles to coal oil lamps and then to electricity. Advertising is mostly a way of getting people to buy what they don't need or to get a larger share of the market for a product that is in no way different from that of the so-called competition. (Think of Coke vs. Pepsi)

While it is true that an economy of scale is needed to produce complex goods like aircraft, automobiles and large ships, it really doesn't apply to most items and services. (3) Does the world really need and benefit from multinational corporations frying hamburgers, brewing beer, baking bread, manufacturing cheese, bottling soft drinks, or providing janitorial services? I think not. The quality of these goods and services is usually much better when delivered by small or local firms. If you want good beer you buy from a microbrewery not Molsons or Coors. Good bread is only found at local bakeries, mass production bread is only fit for pigs. MacDo burgers are crap and Kraft cheese has no taste.

1. Things have gotten insanely and unnecessarily complex. Why should you need a manual to operate your car radio-CD player? Why did they abolish the on-off switch for cell phones and pagers? Why are "help menus" so unhelpful?
2. The law by which any "horseless carriage" had to be preceded by a man bearing a red flag. This law, which wasn't killed until 1896, effectively gave France and Germany a big head start in the auto industry.

After the bombs

I was wrong to suspect the tube explosions were caused by bombs on the lines. Like most people I'm still trying to get my head around the possible long-term consequences of the bombings being carried out by UK-born suicide bombings. One good bit of news is that the British National Party did badly in a council bye-election in Barking, one of the areas of East London where the stiff-armed tendency have got a hearing for the last 100 years. While Al-Qaeda types try to split us along religious lines, the BNP try it along racial lines. Its all reactionary nonsense in the end though, isn't it?

A book I thoroughly recommend is Jason Burke's Al Qaeda: the True Story of Radical Islam ,published by Penguin, which came out last year. The article below I saw in last Sunday's Observer.

Who did it - and what was their motive?

The world's leading expert on al-Qaeda analyses the mindset of bombers who believe all tactics are justified - and asks what their movement's next step will be

Jason Burke
Sunday July 10, 2005
The Observer

The journey has become wearily familiar. From the office to the airport and then on to places thousands of miles distant where there is pain, grief, death and fear. Last week, though its direction was reversed, its purpose was the same. I flew thousands of miles from somewhere hot and dusty to cover a story in a place where there was pain, grief, death and fear. This time in my own city.
And the questions were the same too: How was this done? Who did it? Why? And what happens next?

The first is the easiest to answer. Someone detonated four bombs, probably made from commercial high explosive, on three tube trains and a bus. Their timers were relatively sophisticated. The bus bomb might have been an accident.

The second question - the identity of the bombers - is harder to answer. When local right-wingers destroyed a government building in Oklahoma 10 years ago, pundits instinctively, and wrongly, blamed Muslim bombers. That said, the prime suspects for last week's atrocity must be radical Islamic militants.

The bombers are likely to be male, though women have become more prominent in recent years in radical Muslim groups. They are likely to be aged between 18 and 30 and in a cell that contains fewer than a dozen active members, possibly only two or three. They will have been closely bound by friendship or family ties or, possibly, shared time in Afghanistan, Iraq or another 'theatre of jihad'. If previous examples are any guide, they were led by one, probably older, individual, with more experience and motivation.

A key issue is their nationality. The most likely scenario involves a mix of recent immigrants and British nationals. In 2001 security services believed the main threat to the UK came from foreign nationals being sent into the country from overseas. Then they focused on immigrants and asylum seekers. More recently, particularly since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the sense has been that British nationals, radicalised and mobilised by hardline propaganda that plays on feelings of alienation and anger, are the greatest menace.

What is certain is that, unlike the 9/11 hijackers, those responsible for the British attacks are not likely to be directly linked to Osama bin Laden and the rump of 'hardcore al-Qaeda' leaders based on the Pakistani-Afghan frontier. The idea that al-Qaeda is a close-knit, tightly structured hierarchical organisation has now been almost completely discounted, at least outside America. If they are Islamic militants, then those behind last week's bombs were acting autonomously. Which brings us to the question of why they did what they did.

With early 'al-Qaeda' attacks, such as that on American embassies in 1998 and even 9/11 itself, the broad motivations of those responsible were clear. Bin Laden made his own agenda clear in a series of public statements. The Islamic world was under attack from a belligerent West set on the domination and humiliation of Muslims, he said, and it was every believer's religious duty to fight back. It was not a case of 'hating freedom', he claimed, but of desiring freedom from supposed American-led oppression. He repeatedly listed the various parts of the world - Palestine, Kashmir, Chechnya, Afghanistan and, latterly, Iraq - where he felt Muslims were oppressed.

Bin Laden's attacks aimed to radicalise and mobilise the Islamic world. The purpose of holing American warships or destroying the Twin Towers was primarily to scare or damage America, but was also intended to inspire those in the Muslim world who had hitherto rejected his extremist message. Bin Laden realised that many were pleased to see the US wounded and humiliated and went to great lengths to ensure that only targets that would be widely regarded as legitimate were hit. Suicide bombers were an integral part of this strategy, supposedly demonstrating the power and righteousness of their cause by their own self-sacrifice.

But, as bin Laden's grip has loosened, so the bombings have become more indiscriminate and the motives more difficult to perceive. The propaganda content of the strikes has fallen away. Commuters are symbolic of nothing more than the drudgery of going to work.

Those behind the London attacks have no broader strategy. They believe there is a war between right and wrong, faith and falsehood, civilisation and barbarity and that all tactics are justified in the last-ditch struggle to defend what they believe in. They do not see London's population as civilians, but as accomplices to acts of murder and violence.

If they are British, the bombers have long forsaken any national identity and no longer consider themselves as anything other than members of the ummah, the global community of Muslims, on whose behalf they are waging war.

The final question is what happens next? Terrorist movements and insurgencies tend to follow a clear trajectory. Though problems may have been bubbling up for some time, they typically come to public attention with a single major attack. Often those responsible for the strike initially command considerable public support, not least because their organisation and ideology is rooted in long-term grievances familiar to large portions of the population.

Historically, this first attack usually prompts the state security machine, after a short delay or period of indecision, to swing into action. Repressive legislation is introduced, intelligence agencies boosted and key militant leaders are killed or imprisoned. This results in more indiscriminate, brutal violence as the terrorist movement, leaderless and rudderless, mutates and fragments. With resources scarce and security high, soft targets are favoured.

What follows is crucial. Egypt and Algeria suffered Islamic militancies in the early 1990s that followed the above pattern. After nearly a decade of increasing horror, they peaked in grotesque violence. In Algeria, more than 100,000 died. But rather than boost the militants, this had the opposite effect. Public support for extremists collapsed; the 'martyrs' became 'murderers'. Reviled by former supporters, the militants became easy prey for security agencies. Now, only a criminalised rump of violent men remains in both countries. Movements that once threatened the existence of the state are effectively finished. And the critical factor throughout was the support of the bombers' own constituency.

The insurgency labelled 'al-Qaeda' fits this paradigm in many respects. The spectacular attack (9/11), then the response (the Patriot and anti-terrorist Acts, Guantanamo Bay). The degrading of the leadership (the invasion of Afghanistan, thousands of arrests ), now a brutal, indiscriminate phase as individuals buy into a hate-filled ideology (Madrid, the Beslan school massacre, London) and conduct freelance operations.

It may be argued that, as Algeria and Egypt (and Northern Ireland and the Basques) were on a national scale and the 'al-Qaeda insurgency' spans the globe, we are in untrodden territory. But I believe the basic conclusions drawn from smaller-scale examples remain valid. No one can claim, given the diversity of this attack's victims, that they were striking simply at the West. The casualties, in our wonderfully varied city, are as globalised as the ideology that caused them. This is a global militant movement working to an agenda that can inspire or repel anywhere on the planet.

Early last week I was in the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut, where 1,400 Palestinians were massacred in 1982 by Christian gunmen with the tacit consent of the Israelis, and got into a discussion with three brothers. Did they back the executions of Westerners in Iraq? Mohammed said that such deeds were unIslamic and totally unjustified, Bassam maintained that the murders were legitimate given the oppression of Muslims by the West and Hassan was undecided. Hassan's view - and that of his counterpart in Bradford or the East End - is critical. If he decides that the attacks, in Iraq or London, are entirely unjustified, the global 'al-Qaeda' insurgency will wither and die within a decade or so. If he throws in his lot with the militants, we will be plunged into a welter of violence for the foreseeable future.

In our interconnected world, the people who now count most are not our security and emergency services, brave and competent though they are, but the hopes, fears, expectations and views of 1.3 billion Muslims, whether in Beirut, Bradford, London, Riyadh or Kuala Lumpur. They will decide who are martyrs and who are murderers.

Friday, July 08, 2005

London can take it

Well it is 24 hours or so since the bomb attacks here. Some arm of the "Bootboys for Allah" have claimed responsibility. I'm not surprised.

Just before going to type this I saw some of the latest police press conference on the tv, and they don't so far think it was suicide bombers, and the explosions seem to have been inside bags on the floors of the carriages/bus. Myself, I get the feeling that the tube bombs could well have been on the rail lines themselves. I know from experience (and thinking of the Madrid train bombings last year) that rush hour tube carriages in central London just before 9 on a weekday morning would be packed. You are talking at least 50 people in a carriage. By now we would know there would be hundreds of deaths confirmed, instead of the 50 or so thus far. Some of the eye witnesses I heard on the tv yesterday say the tube trains were derailed, rather than blown apart, like the trains in Madrid last year. Also if the bombers wanted to cause maximum damage, why didn't they set bombs off in bags at Waterloo, Baker Street, Bank/Monument (ie the really big interchange stations here)? If they had let bombs off at those 3, there would be no tubes running today, and you would be talking deaths in the high hundreds. So if it is found that the bombs were on the lines, that raises questions of access.

That's all I really wanted to say. Life in London goes on. After the initial shock, people seem to carry on and muddle through. That's how the 2012 Olympics will be like!!

Thursday, July 07, 2005

The European Round Table of Industrialists

I hope this article will start to appear in various pulibications in the nearish future.

A Rough Guide to the European Round Table of Industrialists

The European Round Table of Industrialists (ERT) has been in the forefront of encouraging further EU integration for over twenty years. However, many Euro-realists appear unaware of the ERT. Intended to increase awareness, this article will merely sketch the ERT and its activities. Making no claims to originality, [1] the article briefly examines the ERT’s origins; its structure; its world-view and working methods; and its “achievements”.

The ERT’s origins

In the early 1980s the erstwhile European Economic Community was unable to respond effectively to the economic "stagflation" which Western Europe had been suffering from for almost a decade. At the same time there had been little movement towards further integration within the EEC. However, Pehr Gyllenhammar, Volvo’s CEO started campaigning for an overall scheme “to spur growth, and build industry and infrastructure” in Western Europe. Working closely with Fiat’s Umberto Agnelli, Philips’ Wisse Dekker and the EEC Industry Commissioner Etienne Davignon, Gyllenhammar drew together a group of leading European CEOs into the ERT with the objective of “relaunching Europe.” Gyllenhammar declared “Europe really is doing nothing. It’s time for the business leaders to enter this vacuum and seize the initiative,” [2} while Dekker argued that “If we wait for our governments to do anything, we will be waiting for a long time. You can’t get all tied up with politics. Industry has to take the initiative. There is no other way.” [3] In April 1983 the ERT’s inaugural meeting was held.

The ERT’s structure

The ERT now has 50 members, representing companies from 18 European countries, including three non-EU states (Norway, Switzerland, Turkey). [4] Its current chairman is Gerhard Cromme of Thyssenkrupp, with Alain Joly of Air Liquide and Jorman Ollila of Nokia Vice-Chairs. Other companies represented on the ERT include DaimlerChrysler, Ericsson, Fiat, Nestle, Renault and Siemens. Membership is personal, rather than corporate, and strictly invitation only.

ERT members meet in twice yearly plenary sessions, which determine the ERT’s work programme and priorities, budget and publications. Decisions are made by consensus. Much of the ERT’s work is done by Working Groups established at Plenary Sessions. [5] The ERT’s Secretary General is in charge of a small Brussels-based Secretariat which co-ordinates projects, acts as a contact point, provides administrative support and publishes ERT reports. [6]

“This is not just another lobby organization” (Pehr Gyllenhammar)[7]

The ERT may sound like another pressure group lobbying Brussels. However, it was formed with the express intention of furthering EU integration and shaping it to benefit those European-based transnational corporations with “a significant manufacturing and technological presence worldwide” represented on its board. The ERT believes that "industry is entitled EU which functions like an integrated economic system with a single centre of overall decision making." [8]The ERT has consistently supported the removal of national vetoes and other forms of "fragmentation" within the EU; "The problem is that in the individual countries the politicians have to gather votes”. [9] By way of analogy, “The United States could do nothing if every decision had to be ratified by 52 states”. [10] At the same time the ERT claims to be primarily interested in the economic consequences of further EU integration, and not be overly concerned with the political consequences: "Our job is to say that potential gains are much more important...It is not for us to make speeches about the political unity of Europe." [11]

The ERT is also distinctive from other lobbying groups, as it does not bother with detailed legislation: "We don't deal with national issues. We only talk about the overall questions." [12] It is also distinctive in its ability to gain access to major players in the EU, both at national and supra-national level. The ERT's website boasts that:

"At European level, the ERT has contacts with the European Council, the European Commission, the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament.
"Every six months the ERT strives to meet the government that has the EU presidency to discuss priorities.
"At national level, each member communicates ERT's views to its own national government and parliament, business colleagues and industrial federations, other opinion-formers and the press." [13]

In short, the ERT's aim is to set the agenda at the highest levels of the EU, most notably the European Commission The evidence of two decades suggests that it has been extremely successful.

The Irresistible Rise of the ERT?

By 1993 “Other lobby groups, when questioned about the influence of the ERT, respond[ed] that the ERT is no longer a lobby group, but has become part of the EU apparatus.” [14] There seems a fair amount of evidence over the past two decades to support this assertion.

The Single Market: For Jacques Delors, the ERT was "one of the main driving forces behind the Single Market." [15] In late 1984 the European Commission put forward a package of proposals to remove trade barriers within the EEC, eliciting little enthusiasm from either member governments or business. However, in January 1985 Wisse Dekker published Europe 1990: An Agenda for Action, which proposed eliminating trade barriers, harmonising regulations and abolishing fiscal frontiers within the EEC by 1990. Europe 1990 was part of an ERT document Changing Scales, which was sent to EEC heads of state. Three days after Dekker presented his Europe 1990 initiative, the newly appointed Jacques Delors delivered a speech to the European Parliament closely matching Dekker's proposal. A few months later, Industry Commissioner Lord Cockfield published his White Paper, the basis of the Single European Act, which postponed the ERT's 1990 deadline for internal market completion until 1992. However, the ERT had achieved its main aim.

Trans-European Networks (TENs): From its beginning the ERT regarded the development of "A single interacting system or meganetwork with a single output- mobility" as a top priority. [16] Claiming that existing infrastructures formed a barrier to unrestricted flows of goods in the single market, the ERT argued alongside the Commission for the adoption of TENs, the largest infrastructure plan in history. TENs includes the Channel Tunnel, numerous airport expansions and 12,000 kilometres of new motorways. Through an intensive lobbying campaign, which specifically targeted national transport ministers, the ERT helped put TENs squarely on the EU's agenda, culminating in the inclusion of TENs in the Maastricht Treaty. In 1991 the ERT published Missing Networks, which advocated the introduction of “user charges…to distribute the funds for improving effective transport” i.e. toll roads and road pricing. [17]

The Maastricht Treaty: the ERT was very active during the 1990-1 Intergovernmental Negotiations for the Maastricht Treaty, meeting regularly with Commissioners and national policy makers. As early as 1985 the ERT had argued that the internal market could only be completed by introducing a single currency. The timetable for EMU implementation in the ERT's 1991 Reshaping Europe report is very similar to that contained in the Maastricht Treaty. In 1995, the ERT "wrote a formal letter to all heads of government saying 'When you meet at the Madrid Summit, will you please decide once and for all that monetary union will start on the day agreed at Maastricht and with the criteria agreed at Maastricht.' We wrote to them, we asked them to do that. And they did it. They put out an announcement in Madrid and said exactly that: 'We will do it.' “ [18]

The ERT post-Maastricht: In 1993 the European Commission put forward Delors’ White Paper on Growth, Competitiveness and Employment. At its media launch, Delors thanked the ERT for its support in its preparation; a week earlier he had taken part in the ERT's press launch of its similar report Beating the Crisis. Furthermore, Beating the Crisis suggested the creation of a EU-wide body based upon President Clinton’s Competitiveness Council. In February 1995 the EU set up a Competitiveness Advisory Group. Under Jacques Santer relations between the ERT and European Commission continued to be warm, since "By and large, our priorities are the same." [19] The ERT was largely happy with the outcome of the 1997 Amsterdam summit, after heavy lobbying, especially by the strengthening of the Commission President’s powers, which would “minimise that lack of coherence within the Commission which makes life so hard for industry.” [20] At the same time, the ERT was strongly supportive of the EU's expansion into Eastern Europe: "it is as if we had discovered a new South-east Asia on our doorstep." [21]

The ERT in the new Millennium: Prospects & Problems

On June 23rd 2003, the ERT held a 20th Anniversary Reception at the Palais d'Egmont in Brussels, with Romano Prodi as guest of honour. In a speech there, ERT Chairman Gerhard Cromme declared that the ERT "is proud of having being at the forefront of advocating these reforms [single market, EMU and EU enlargement] and of what the Union has achieved. Nevertheless, much remains still to be done..." [22]

In the new Millennium the ERT has continued to press for further integration, and has called for more powers to the European Commission. In 2002 the ERT told members of the convention on the EU’s future that a stronger Commission was "vital", since it was "the genuinely Europe-focused institution and the one most capable of articulating the common European interest above national and regional interests." The ERT also opposed any erosion of the Commission's powers in economic affairs by transferring them to EU member states or to a system of shared responsibility. [23] For ERT’s Wim Philippa “the Commission must fully retain its current executive powers”. [24] With the proposed EU Constitution ensuring that the Commission keeps the sole right to proposed new laws (Article I:26) and firmly establishing the primacy of EU laws over those of national governments (Article I:7) [25] the ERT’s wishes on the the EU’s political front appear to have been granted.

However, as Gerhard Cromme has recently commented, [26] the push for EU political integration in recent years has not been matched by sufficient changes in the economic sphere for the ERT. The ERT welcomed the call at the March 2000 Lisbon European Council to make the EU the “most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world” by 2010: [27] not surprisingly, as it had been heavily involved in the meeting’s preparation. In 2000, ERT member Daniel Janssen declared that implementing the Lisbon proposals would cause a “double revolution” in Europe: “reducing the power of the state and of the public sector and deregulation” and “transferring many of the nation-states’ powers to a more modern and internationally minded structure at European level” i.e. the European Commission. [28]

In reality, even by 2002 “The vision of Lisbon is slipping as fast at it was decided and the commitment is no longer there.”[29] Indeed, with the battle over the EU Constitution beginning across the EU, the “Lisbon agenda” is being downplayed to increase the chances of the EU Constitution being approved of in forthcoming referendums, and the ERT is not happy. [30] To use the old Chinese curse, the ERT may be starting to live in “interesting times”.

By way of a conclusion

Hopefully, this brief tour of the ERT’s activities over the years shows that is an extremely important player in moves pushing us towards a de facto United States of Europe. The ERT has been able to achieve many of its aims in alliance with the European Commission, an undemocratic, bureaucratic and unaccountable body par excellence. The ERT is no friend of the rights of Europe’s peoples to democracy and self-determination. For the ERT, the bigger the EU’s “democratic deficit”, with the Commission plugging much of the gap, the better.

1 The article draws a great deal upon Belen Balanya et al (2003) Europe Inc : Regional & Global Restructuring & the Rise of Corporate Power (London: Pluto Press). Unless otherwise indicated, the information in this article can be found in Chapter 3 of Europe Inc: “Writing the Script: The European Round Table of Industrialists,” pp.19-36.

2 George Monbiot (2000) Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain (London Macmillan), pp.320-1.

3 Newsweek 28 March 1983, quoted in “European Round Table (ERT): agenda setting for the EU” Corporate Watch magazine Issue 12 (Autumn 2000).

4 A full list is available at the ERT website There are seven representatives of British companies: Paul Adams, British American Tobacco; Martin Broughton, British Airways: Tom McKillop, Astrazeneca; John Rose, Rolls-Royce: Peter Sutherland, BP; Ben Verwaayen, BT; & Paul Walsh, Diageo.

5 There are eight at the moment: Accounting Standards: Competition Policy; Competitiveness; Employment/Industrial Relations & Social Policy; Enlargement & Neighbourhood Policy; Environment; Foreign Economic Relations: & Taxation.

6 Newsweek 18 April 1983, quoted in Corporate Watch, op cit.

8 Keith Richardson, former ERT Secretary-General, quoted in Balanya et al, op cit, p.20.

9 Caroline Walcot, former ERT Assistant Secretary-General, quoted in Balanya et al, op cit, p.20.

10 Keith Richardson, quoted in Balanya et al, op cit, p.62.

11 Keith Richardson, quoted in Balanya et al, op cit, p.31.

12 Keith Richardson, quoted in Balanya et al, op cit, p.20.


14 Ann Doherty & Olivier Hoedeman (1994) “Misshaping Europe- The European Round Table of Industrialists" The Ecologist, Vol.24, No.4 (July/August). http://www.itk/

15 Balanya et al, op cit, p.22

16 Balanya et al, op cit, p.22

17 Doherty and Hoedeman, op cit.

18 As the ERT’s 1991 document Reshaping Europe put it more succinctly: “Japan has one currency. The US has one currency. How can the Community live with twelve?” ibid.

19 Balanya et al, p.25.

20 Keith Richardson, quoted in Balanya et al, op cit, p.62.

21 Keith Richardson quoted in Balanya et al, op cit, p.29.


23 Paul Betts (2002) “Business chiefs seek stronger Commission” Financial Times 26 June, p.8

24 Interview with Wim Philippa, 18 May 2003.

25 Information c/o Democracy Movement.

26 Hugh Williamson (2005) “Companies hope to loosen their chains” Financial Times, 14 March, p.12.


28 Balanya et al, op cit, p.xx. Janssen was speaking to a Tokyo meeting of the Trilateral Commission.

29 Morris Tabaksblat, Reed Elsevier chairman, quoted in Betts, op cit, p.8.

30 Williamson, op cit, p.12.

London bombings

As I type the full extent of the carnage has not been revealed. I am fortunate that neither myself or people I know have been hurt by the attacks. However, it goes without saying that bombing innocent people is wrong, whoever is behind it.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

This sums things up perfectly

I saw this in Saturday's Guardian. It reminds me of Tom Lehrer's comment that satire died when they gave Henry Kissinger the Nobel Peace Prize.

Never mind the results, does it work in theory?

Simon Hoggart, The Guardian, Saturday July 2, 2005

Dr Jennie Blackwell, speaking at the British Medical Association's conference this week, told the health secretary, Patricia Hewitt, that the government's obsession with targets was making hospitals look like war zones, "with patients strewn all over the place".

This, she implied, was the result of patient care taking second place to the need to get the right numbers in the right boxes.

Ms Hewitt replied that she would not "resile" from targets, adding that "they are helping to achieve much needed improvements in services".

It was a very New Labour moment, one in which reality assaults intention, when the policy wonks and the think-tanks crash up against what is actually happening.
I was reminded of the no doubt apocryphal Treasury mandarin complaining: "It's all very well saying that it works in practice. But does it work in theory?"

Or, as I increasingly think when I see the government lamely defending yet another ambitious but failed scheme - the lifetime learning account, the CSA, the family tax credit shambles, Asbos, and, soon to come, ID cards - we ought to hear again from Groucho Marx: "Who are you going to believe? Me, or the evidence of your own eyes?"

Back to the oil peak

The black stuff has world order over a barrel

Everyone knows oil will run out one day, but some industry experts predict the decline will start as soon as 2008

Larry Elliott, Monday June 27, 2005, The Guardian

Crude oil is at $60 a barrel and rising. British motorists are paying record prices on the forecourts. The £1 litre may not be that far away. Traders on commodity exchanges are warning that a cold winter in the northern hemisphere could see prices, already up 38% since the start of the year, rise a lot further.
Policymakers are clearly worried by the short-term picture. The G8 summit at Gleneagles next week will discuss the likely impact of high oil prices on the global economy and what the rich countries of the west ought to do in response. Every other surge in the price of oil in the past 30 years has been associated with a slowdown or full-scale recession in the world economy, and the fact that the increase seen since the start of 2003 has so far been shrugged off is no cause for complacency. Higher oil prices raise business costs and cut the real incomes of consumers; that means profit margins are shaved and consumer spending is blunted.

The real problem, however, concerns the longer term. There is a strong possibility that what we are facing now is not simply a temporary mismatch between demand and supply that can be sorted out by Opec pumping more oil or by exploiting marginal fields in the world's most inhospitable places. Rather, it is that we are in the early stages of an energy crisis that will fundamentally affect our lives over the next few decades. If that is so, western policymakers need to be thinking hard - and thinking hard now - about what life is going to be like when the oil and gas run out.
Everyone knows that oil will not last for ever. The world is not going to move from current levels of production to zero overnight; there will be a long process of gradual decline. Using techniques originally developed by M. King Hubbert to assess the profile of US oil production, industry experts can estimate, with a high degree of certainty, the high point of global output - or peak oil, as it is known.

Hubbert calculated this with accuracy for the US, pinpointing the 1970s as the zenith of production. For the North Sea, peak oil was at the end of the 1990s.

The world as a whole has yet to reach that point. But before you breathe a sigh of relief, consider this. If the experts are right, global peak oil could arrive in 2008.

The estimates cannot be precise. It could be that a big fall in demand or the exploitation of new reserves could push the date back, but the experience of the US is that the opening-up of the Alaskan fields and drilling in the Gulf of Mexico merely shifted the date of peak oil back a few years.

Once peak oil has passed, the models suggest stocks will dwindle over a period of three decades at a time when, on current trends, demand for energy will be rising strongly. In 30 years, oil production could be down by three quarters.

This is a staggering figure. Two hundred and fifty years of industrialisation have been built on the availability of cheap fossil fuels, first coal, then oil and gas. It is not just our cars that depend on oil, it is our entire way of life. To take one example, the massive increase in agricultural productivity would not have been possible without oil-based fertilisers. Fossil fuels have made it possible to sustain a world population that has tripled since the 1920s. For the past century oil has been the lubricant for capitalism in a period which has seen the fastest growth, by far, in history.

A world without oil is bound to represent a massive economic, social and political shock. It's not hard to construct a dystopian vision. First, there will be a power struggle over dwindling oil stocks. Already, there are signs of a new Cold War emerging as the US and China seek to curry favour with poor African countries that are seen to have potential as oil suppliers. It could get a lot worse that that. The oil junkies of the west will be like heroin addicts suffering from cold turkey: prepared to do whatever it takes to get a fix. Given that reserves of oil and gas are concentrated in parts of the world that could hardly be called politically stable, this does not bode well.

Second, there is a threat of economic retrenchment. As the British scientist Colin Campbell puts it in a book published today* "Cheap and efficient transport opened the world to trade, while the manufacture of consumer goods exploded. The new energy also transformed agriculture, providing the food for a growing population that has expanded sixfold, exactly in parallel with oil production. Oil was in turn followed by gas, increasingly used for electricity generation, which brought power and light to households throughout the world. Now as the 21st century dawns we face the onset of the natural decline of the premier fuel that made all this possible, and we do so without sight of a substitute energy that comes close to matching the utility, convenience and low cost of oil and gas."

When we fret about whether the economy is growing by 2.5% a year or 3% we are ignoring the gorilla in the room: our way of life is unsustainable without a cheap and reliable form of energy. We may soon be waking up to lower growth, falling populations and a reduction in living standards. Indeed, without urgent policy action we are likely to get all three.

So what are we doing to prevent this? Well, not a lot. The first response is to deny there is a problem and dismiss talk of a pending energy crisis as scaremongering. A second response is to say that it might be a possibility, but will occur on somebody else's watch. A third is to follow the example of Mr Micawber and assume that something will "turn up". That "something" is normally nuclear power. In the light of the potential challenge, this is an inadequate response.

There is both a practical failure and a conceptual failure here. The practical failure is to see nuclear power as a magic bullet. Where it exists, nuclear has only been possible through enormous public subsidies and, as a report due to be published by the New Economics Foundation will outline later this week, the true cost of nuclear has been underestimated by a factor of three (even leaving to one side the possibility of terrorism or accidents).

There has been an opportunity cost, of course. Every pound spent on nuclear could have been spent investing in cleaner alternatives such as wind, wave and solar power. Some countries have seen the light. Germany has abandoned nuclear and is heavily subsidising solar energy produced by photovoltaic cells, currently 30 times as expensive as energy produced by fossil fuels, in the expectation that the long-term investment will pay dividends. Germany, Japan and the US are the world leaders in solar power; the UK is nowhere.

The conceptual failure is to assume not only that business as usual is possible, but that it is also desirable. Peak oil is likely to be the point of diminishing returns for the entire big-economy, growth-at-all-costs, free-trade, globalised model of capitalism. Factor in a 75% drop in oil production and the current strategies for production, distribution, transport and town planning don't look so clever. As energy prices soar, it will seem ludicrously wasteful to cart goods halfway round the world. Countries that do not have their own local supplies will have to pay through the nose. Protectionism will cease to be a dirty word. Localisation will be all the rage.

*The Final Energy Crisis; edited by Andrew McKillop and Sheila Newman; Pluto Press; £15.99.

Olympic prediction

I wouldn't be surprised in the next 7 years or so if the government gets some management consultants in (for very silly money) to spout their penny's worth about the 2012 Olympics. If that doesn't put the Olympic building schedule back even further and/or even more costly I don't know what will, if past and current experience here of management consultants with public sector projects is any guide.

Natural born billers

The sharply dressed men with blue-sky thinking have invaded all corners of government. At our expense

Nick Cohen, Sunday June 19, 2005, The Observer

After 20 years working for large and small management consultancies, David Craig thought he had seen every variety of human greed. The most striking was the director of an international consulting firm who boasted about how much time he spent in brothels at his clients' expense. The man wasn't entirely without principle and would finish by saying: 'Good sex means inflicting pain and you wouldn't want to do that to someone you loved.' I'm sure his wife is grateful for that.
A few years ago, Craig helped sell a project to a health authority that involved bringing over two consultants from America, even though there were plenty of people in Britain who would have done just as well. In addition to fees, the NHS agreed to pay £300 a week for hotel rooms, £50 a day for food, the rent on flats for their families in Hampstead and Kensington, fees for their children's private schools, taxis to take the wives to and from teas at the Ritz and shopping trips to the West End and train fares to take the husbands to and from the wives at the weekends.

It was only when the project manager hired a private plane to bring him back from holiday that the NHS found the nerve to object.

Whether the receipts they submitted were as straightforward as they appeared was another matter. As large buyers of flights and hotel rooms, consultancies can arrange with travel agencies to deliver covertly discounts of about 40 per cent. Last year, PricewaterhouseCoopers paid $54.5 million to settle a case brought by American retailers which said that rebates from travel and credit card companies weren't passed on to them. PWC said if it hadn't taken the money, its bills would have been higher.

Maybe they would, maybe they wouldn't, but what is undeniable is that the practice didn't stop with them. When Craig was working for another firm, he received a memo from a helpful colleague which read: 'Here's how we do it every time. We bill them for your air-travel expense. Then we get a kickback on your air ticket. But we don't give the client the kickback.'

Over-billing - fraud, to put it crudely - was everywhere. Craig worked in the London office of an international firm where clients were charged for the equivalent of 300 support staff, when in reality a mere 50 were in the building. The money was taken and 'dedicated to the noble cause of further enriching consultancy directors'. Enrichment also came from charging to clients time spent looking for new business elsewhere or time spent on the consultancy's business or time spent on the golf course.

And very rich they have become. The management consultancy game is worth £60 billion. Craig began consulting straight out of university with expert knowledge of nothing apart from Romantic poetry. A graduate who did the same today costs the client £7,000 a week. Directors are multimillionaires who don't open their eyes in the morning for less than £25k.

I can say all this because he has adopted the pseudonym David Craig and spilled the bean-counters' beans in Rip-Off! For once, the usually overheated marketing pitch that this is a book they didn't want you to read is true. Although Craig was a fluent writer who could back up every line, business book publishers wouldn't touch him for fear of offending the industry. So Craig set up his own publishers. Rip-Off! is in the shops and can be read online at He once wrote satirical novels and there is a gruesome relish in his descriptions of how consultants get their claws into companies. The question which baffles employees and shareholders alike is why managers let them do it. Craig replies by examining the insecurities of two types of executive: over-promoted plodders and corporate fashion victims. They're most likely to enjoy what Eileen Shapiro, a former consultant, called fad-surfing: 'The practice of riding the crest of the latest management wave and then paddling out again just in time to ride the next one.'

Many of the scams he saw didn't bother him. When a big company threw money at consultants, who was hurt? It was bit of a joke, he told me, part of the game. He changed his mind only when he returned home to launch his book and saw what had happened to British government. For the first time in years, the cynical Mr Craig was shocked.

He accepts that managers can get good work from consultants if they bring them in to run a tightly defined project. And of course not all consultants are greedy charlatans. But in general, the old rule applies: a manager who hires a management consultant shouldn't be a manager.

The last days of Tony Blair are seeing management consultants run riot. David Bennett, a former McKinsey partner, has been put in charge of the Downing Street policy unit, where he works alongside the astonishing John Birt. The former director general of the BBC gave tens of millions to management consultants to create an efficient internal market.

Predictably, administration costs ballooned - up by £140m - while staff numbers were cut. Birt moved on to McKinsey, which had received many a plump cheque from him, and as a sideline provides 'blue-skies thinking' for Tony Blair.

I remember well the young and radical Alan Milburn lashing the Tories for allowing management consultants to 'cash in'. In 1994, when he delivered his fiery polemics, the Conservatives were giving consultants £500m a year. In 2004, New Labour handed over £1.9bn. I think I know why Blair is doing it. In his first term, the battle to 'reform' public services left 'scars on his back'. His second was dominated by al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. Time is now short and he is turning to the consultants to deliver quick fixes.

If you have any feelings of sympathy for the Prime Minister, I would beg you to murder them at once. His impatience is understandable but he ought to know better. Every politically aware person has had ample time to learn that consultants have been a disaster for the Civil Service. The reason patients couldn't book appointments with GPs in advance is that the target culture is a consultants' culture ('Everything can be measured, and what gets measured gets managed,' is a typically bossy McKinsey slogan).

Time and again, consultants have advised spending billions on new IT systems for the Immigration and Nationality Department, Passport Office and Probation Service which came in late and over-budget, if, that is, they came in at all. The Benefit Card payment system was scrapped after about £700m had been wasted, the Child Support Agency (CSA) used £450m on a system that doesn't work and a £200m system for doctors to book hospital appointments for their patients managed to make 63 appointments in 2004 against a target of 205,000.

Current estimates suggest that NHS computerisation may cost £30bn, five times its original projected cost. Meanwhile, the oncoming car crash of the national ID card data bank promises to see £6bn or £10bn or £15bn pounds lost in the wreckage.

Craig is fascinating on why the public has lost so much money. Civil servants are used to dealing with each other and generally assume that people they meet have the country's best interests at heart. They aren't prepared for negotiations with consultants whose guiding principle is often how to hit the client for as much money as possible. They don't understand a world where the acronym Afab - 'anything for a buck' - is thrown around with sniggering nonchalance. Even those who have learned the score after hard-won experience can't use their knowledge because the line from Downing Street is that they're hopeless while the consultants are absolutely fabulous.

Afab explains the computer scandals. The government could and should have rented proven technology from other governments or companies which had tried it out and dealt with the teething problems. But there was far more work for the consultants if Whitehall reinvented the wheel every time a system was needed.

When the immigration computers failed, asylum seekers were left to rot in penury and racial tension rose. If the NHS IT project fails, patients will die. As Craig says, this isn't a game any more. If I were Sir Gus O'Donnell or Gordon Brown or, indeed, Tony Blair, I would read this book and then invite Craig into Whitehall to reveal the many and ingenious ways in which the taxpayers have been compelled to provide welfare for the wealthy.

2 cheers for London 2012!!

Well London has won the 2012 Olympics! I'm amazed; I thought Paris had won it- that'll teach Jacques Chirac to slag off the quality of food this side of the water. I'm sure the sport will be very good, but if the massive construction works that'll take place are under the aegis of the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) discussed below, in 7 years time either (i) the building programme will overrun and/or (ii) a lot of "taxpayers' money" will help to bail out the whole shebang. In any case, a number of seriously undeserving people will make a financial killing- that's state socialism for the rich for you!

Our very own Enron
All it has delivered is one financial scandal after another - but the government remains wedded to PFI
George Monbiot, Tuesday June 28, 2005, The Guardian

How much longer can this farce carry on? Everywhere the chickens released by the government's private finance initiative are not so much coming home to roost as crashing into the henhouse and sliding down the wall in a heap of blood and feathers. The prediction made in 2002 by the Banker magazine - that "eventually an Enron-style disaster will be rerun on a sovereign balance sheet" - could be starting to materialise.

The private finance initiative (PFI) is the scheme allowing private corporations to build and run our public services and lease them back to the government. The government says that this allows it to commission more schemes than it could with public funds, and offers better value for money. And it doesn't seem to matter how often the story falls apart.

Last week, after spending £14m on lawyers, consultants, architects and miscellaneous money-wasting schemes, the NHS ditched its plans for a massive hospital in west London. The projected cost of the Paddington health campus had risen from £360m to £1.1bn, while the number of beds had fallen from 1,000 to 800. This is pretty normal for a PFI scheme; in one case I've studied, beds fell by 20%, while costs rose by 1,100%. What makes this case unusual is that the project was dropped before the money was spent.

Last Wednesday, the government admitted that PFI projects for council house repairs had been a costly disaster. This is hardly news to anyone who has watched this programme's seven-year meltdown. But despite the admission, the policy has not been officially scrapped; councils are still told they will receive no new money for refurbishments unless they hand their houses to the private or voluntary sector.

On the same day, we discovered that the PFI computer system that is meant to keep a record of MOT test results for cars in the UK has been delayed by another year. It was supposed to have been ready in May 2002.

On June 17, Scottish ministers decided it was cheaper to spend £25m buying out the private financiers who built the Inverness airport terminal than to let them carry on. In six years, the corporations had made £8.5m on an investment of just £5.5m. This is a photocopy of the Skye bridge bail-out; it was bought back by the Scottish executive last year for £27m. A bridge that should have cost £15m has hit the public for £93.6m.

Two days before the Inverness announcement, the Ministry of Defence quietly dropped a £1bn PFI scheme for military training. It didn't disclose how much money it had spent developing it.

On June 14, a leaked government report revealed that so many corners have been cut in the construction of a £47m privately financed mental health unit in Leeds that it might have to be pulled down and rebuilt.

On June 10, the National Audit Office published a report showing how the companies that had built the Norfolk and Norwich hospital had, as well as making stupendous profits, legally walked off with an additional payment of £73m by exploiting the gap between the financial risk the government said they had taken on and the risk they had really shouldered. It wasn't as if the government didn't know this was coming: in June 2001, a summary of leaked documents that showed this was going to happen was published in this column. The Treasury sat back and watched.

On June 9, the Health Service Journal published an extraordinary admission by a senior civil servant in the Department of Health. PFI deals, Bob Ricketts revealed, were locking the NHS into 30-year contracts for services that might become useless in five. "I've seen some awfully grand PFI schemes," he warned, "that are starting to give us a real problem."

So what has the government learned from all this? Nothing. It is ideologically committed to part-privatisation. It won't disclose how much it is planning to spend on PFI schemes - a spokesperson at the Treasury says this is "commercially confidential" - but it is locked into £3.6bn of new deals this year. According to a spokesman for the Department of Health: "The government has no intention of abandoning PFI." The heap of blood and feathers, though brain dead, keeps running.

So the government fobs us off with spin, misreporting and lies. PFI, the Treasury tells us, "is a small but important part of the government's strategy for delivering high-quality public services". Small? £42bn has been officially committed so far. This, according to the public-spending specialist Professor Allyson Pollock, is an underestimate, covering only the 43% of PFI contracts classified as "off balance sheet".

Less true still is the Treasury's assertion that there is "no bias in favour of any particular procurement route". As people working for NHS trusts and local authorities will testify, the government made it clear that for certain kinds of projects, public funds are not available.

But the biggest lie involves the government's claims of value for money. "All PFI projects," the Treasury says, "were delivered within public sector budgets ... no construction cost overruns were borne by the public sector."

Well, it's a bit like hospital waiting lists: it depends when you start counting. The genius of PFI is that the overruns take place before the project begins. There are three ways in which this happens. The first is that the schemes are tailored to suit the private sector. Where public money might have been used to renovate a hospital, PFI demands that it is pulled down and rebuilt. But the two costs are not compared; instead we are told we have a choice between rebuilding it with public funds or with private funds.

Then the next fiddle kicks in. Civil servants, knowing that, as the former secretary of state for health announced, "it's PFI or bust", must mash the "public sector comparator" figure to show that PFI delivers best value for money. As Jeremy Colman, at the time the UK's assistant auditor-general, said: "If the answer comes out wrong you don't get your project. So the answer doesn't come out wrong very often."

The third fiddle is that the concept of "risk transfer" can be used to come up with any figure you want. You simply announce that x million pounds of "financial risk" is being transferred by PFI to the private sector, and hey presto, it's x million pounds more expensive to build the project with public money. As the Norfolk and Norwich hospital fiasco shows, the risk costing bears no relation to any actual hazard taken on by the contractors.

Is it an exaggeration to say that we might be facing "an Enron-style disaster" in the public sector? I don't know. But there's something familiar about Colman's warning that the "pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo" behind the private finance initiative's financial modelling "takes over from thinking. It becomes so complicated that no one, not even the experts, understands what is going on". And the record of the past three weeks is hardly reassuring.

See you at Hyde Park, Summer 2025

I'm trying not to be too cynical about the whole G8/Live 8 show. However, would anyone be surprised if we have a similar thing happening in 2025? The article below makes the point in passing that corporate capital needs the state to exist. Like the church and monarchy in medieval times, the one props up the other. Adam Smith, for one, would be appalled to see the apologists for this situation quoting him in support, in the same way that Karl Marx would turn in his Highgate cemetery resting place to see somewhere like North Korea being labeled "Marxist".

Mark Thomas looks closely at his wristband, News Statesman, Monday 20th June 2005

US foreign aid programmes give more back to the giver than to the needy and help ailing armies shoot more Palestinians. Is this a cause worth wearing a wristband for? By Mark Thomas

America is in debt. It probably owes millions merely from the bank letters that charge £20 to tell people they are in debt. America owes so much that I expect to see George and Laura Bush on TV advertisements sitting on a battered sofa, dressed in football shirts, saying: "We found it really easy to consolidate our debts into one loan with manageable repayments." However, it was the developing world's debt that Tony Blair visited Bush to discuss.

Blair returned home looking like a witness from the Michael Jackson trial and, as he usually does after trips to his friend George, emphasising their "special relationship". Disappointingly, though, there was no mention of drinking "Jesus juice" and sharing a bed.

Much was made of Blair's visit. America, we were told, is onside for the G8 summit - victory chalked up for Blair and Brown. Or, as Bono would call them, the "Lennon and McCartney" of politics, though I prefer the sobriquet "the Chas and Dave of privatisation".

Many may see the prospect of increasing American aid as a "good thing", but the fact is that the world would be a much better place if America cut its aid budget. Yes, you read that correctly, CUT it.

If Blair cared for poverty reduction and peace, he would get on bended knee to Bush and plead: "In the name of sanity, slash your aid and get back to the golf course."

As a US government website stated: "The principal beneficiary of America's foreign assistance programmes has always been . . . the United States. Close to 80 per cent of the US Agency for International Development's contracts and grants goes directly to American firms." So America's aid serves as a subsidy for private US companies (as always the free marketeers can't function without state support). If this money were given directly to US companies, rather than via the aid route, the World Trade Organisation would outlaw it.

So, while the G8 finance ministers insist that poor countries privatise their economies and scrap "impediments to private investment both domestic and foreign" in order to qualify for debt cancellation, the US runs a Keynesian programme of state aid to its own companies.

Granted, hypocrisy and self-interest are not necessarily reasons to cut aid programmes. Nor is the Bush policy of not funding clinics in the developing world that even mention abortion. Nor is the teaching of abstinence in place of safe sex - even this doesn't quite justify a cut in the aid budget: a policy change, yes, but a cut, no. What does justify a cut is that, of the $19bn (about £10bn) US aid budget for 2004, $4.8bn was for military aid, according to the Congressional Research Service. Since 2000, these free guns have averaged 26 per cent of the aid budget, the main recipients being Israel, Colombia and Egypt.

It was only a few weeks ago that Egypt changed its constitution in a referendum. Now, under the new, improved constitution, a massive two candidates can run for president. A mere four weeks ago, President Hosni Mubarak, what with the US military assistance, appalling human-rights record and one-candidate elections, was practically certain of getting a front-page photo in the Sun dressed only in his underpants.

Colombia is down to get an estimated $574m of military aid this year. So the US equips an army that colludes with right-wing paramilitary forces such as the AUC, in a country where human rights defenders and trade unionists are routinely assassinated.

Which leaves Israel, the largest recipient of US gun aid, with $1.8bn for 2004. This means that Israel (a country of six million people, representing 0.1 per cent of the world's population, with one of the highest per-capita incomes) receives nearly 10 per cent of America's total aid budget, for arms alone. And this figure is poised to rise to $2.4bn by 2008.

So what are these arms Israel gets? Well, no surprises here: Apache helicopters, F-16 fighter planes and assorted Palestinian-killing equipment. What you might not know about is America's generosity to the Palestinians. Usaid gave $8m to Save the Children in grants for projects in the occupied territories "to help children deal with the current conflict situation". Roughly $22m has been given to Care International for medical equipment and training to provide "basic first aid". So America arms the Israelis, the Israelis shoot the Palestinians and America gives the Palestinians some bandages . . . All in all, worth wearing a wristband for.

PS: The arms manufacturer General Electric, maker of the engines for the F-16 fighters that fly over the occupied territories, and recipient of US aid via foreign sales, owns NBC Universal. Universal bankrolls Working Title Films in a partnership deal. Working Title pays Richard Curtis to write its films. Richard Curtis is one of the founders of Red Nose Day and a fellow wristband-wearer . . . Love Actually? Er, money, actually.