Scottish Independence

As an Englishman who has never lived much north of London, Scotland to me has always been a little remote and abstract. Almost all of my trips there have been social and to the Highlands so I tend to think of Scotland as a place of dramatic scenery, remote landscapes, friends, parties, rain and midges. The same description (less the midges) would apply to other recreational locations such as Austrian and Swiss ski resorts. Until the independence campaign my view of Scotland was as a remote part of the UK – not fundamental to my quality of life but nice to have.

I was aware that, under the Benham formula, Scotland received a disproportionate allocation of central government funds but wasn’t surprised or disconcerted by that- it’s a large and sparsely populated region for the most part. I was also aware of North Sea oil, but viewed that as a UK resource rather than a Scottish one, not least because it was exploited with UK, not Scottish, money.

On this basis, my initial reaction to the whole Independence proposition was that it would be a great shame to break up the UK but I had no particular axe to grind and would be largely unaffected by the outcome. However the vitriol of the nationalist campaign allied to the blithe economic assertions of Alec Salmond and his ghastly retinue have rather changed all that. As UK politicians start making further concessions to the SNP, effectively increasing devolution and subsidy to Scotland I’m beginning to think that I would prefer to call the nationalist bluff.

For a start, I did not vote for anyone to share Sterling with another country. If Scotland wants to be independent it can jolly well have its own currency. The independent Scottish economy might or might not be a basket case, but if it is not controlled from Westminster it should not be supported by the non-Scottish tax payer, explicitly or implicitly. The current government has no mandate to discuss this, and I suspect that it should be subject to referendum if it were. While I applaud George Osborne for making this point in part, it should be emphatically stated by everyone that a shared currency is not, and will never be an option.

On the back of this, it should also be made clear that while further refinement of devolution may or may not happen, the choice that Scottish voters have is between the status quo and an independent Scotland with its own currency. The strength of remaining in the UK should stand or fall on the current offering, and back room deals to grant further power and subsidy to the Scottish Parliament should be explicitly ruled out.

Many, particularly unionist Scots, accuse the no campaign of possibly sleepwalking into losing the vote. This is, I think, missing the point. There is little or no downside to me in Scotland leaving the UK. For a start the electoral bias in Westminster caused by Labour’s disproportionately high number of MPs from Scottish constituencies would evaporate, and with it the West Lothian question. The important result of this would be that the remainder of the UK would be very unlikely to ever be stuck with a socialist Labour government ever again. This in turn would give an opportunity to resolve the huge problems of pensions, health spending and deficit from a more economically literate position.

We would also benefit from losing all the health and welfare spending caused by the current low levels of health and wealth of the average Scot, to the benefit of our own welfare spending. And of course, the Benham formula would no longer be necessary. Ok, we would lose the revenue from whisky production, shortbread manufacture and tartan sales and licensing. But we would also gain employment as Scottish based civil and public servants would have to be replaced with English and Welsh ones. I suspect that the economics are neutral.

Weather forecasts would no longer have to include the chance of rain in Stornoway and traffic reports on the radio would spare me listening to the tribulations of the M9 or A82 which currently block airtime as I slog round the M25. Football results would no longer contain details of the current state of the Celtic versus Rangers war.

Scotland would still be there for the social purposes for which I use it – and as I generally fly north I am already having to produce my passport to get on the plane so crossing an international frontier (in or out of the EU) is no additional hardship or inconvenience. Scotland would still play in the six nations, probably no better. A few prominent sportsmen would have to rebadge, but they can be replaced – as they would have been as their careers start to succumb to anno domini. But best of all, we would be spared the diatribes of the SNP coterie who would finally have to take responsibility for their own actions and problems rather than blaming it on the English.

Finally, if Scotland votes to leave then that’s an end to it. If the independent Scotland is a success then fine. Well done. If not, perhaps we could consider a new act of Union. But the terms might not be as generous. If the “yes” campaign loses, as most think it will, we face further decades of haggling, fanciful numbers and complaint. The SNP will be unable to admit that it was wrong and will continue to seek further devolved powers, while evading responsibility.

To my surprise, therefore, while I find the arguments put forward by the separatists risible I hope that they win.

The Downing of MH17 – My Perspective

The coverage and comment on the (probable) shooting down of the Malaysian airliner by Separatists is Eastern Ukraine is starting to grate a little. I see that some lawyers are now suggesting that families of the victims are now suggesting suing Mr Putin. Malaysian Airlines are blaming IACO (the civil aviation organisation). In all the blame allocation it is likely that the facts will become subservient to greater political or financial purposes.

Let’s review what is known:
• The aircraft was at 30,000 feet over Eastern Ukraine when it ceased flying.
• Early indications are that it was hit by a SA-11 missile, launched from Eastern Ukraine.
• The SA-11 missile is of Russian design and manufacture. It has been exported widely, including to the Ukraine (I think as part of the breakup of the former Soviet Union).
• Intelligence sources report that they intercepted communications by the separatists referring to shooting an airliner down.
• The separatists are engaged in heavy combat with the Ukrainian Army, and have been shooting down Ukrainian combat aircraft.

What is not known is who fired the missile and why. So let’s speculate a little.
The missile could have been fired by the Ukrainians, the Separatists or the Russians. I don’t think it was the Ukrainians as they are desperately courting support from the west and don’t face much of an air threat, if any, from the Separatists. Their armed forces are regular and well trained. There is a scenario which accepts all this, but notes that the Ukrainians stand to benefit most from this unfortunate incident and that therefore they fired the missile themselves and blamed the separatists. While I have no evidence on this either way, it seems unlikely that they would be able to cover this up for long. I therefore conclude that it was not the Ukrainians.

As the SA-11 has a range of about 10 miles, it can’t have been fired from inside of Russia. As the Russian army is not officially in Eastern Ukraine, the Russians too are in the clear – although they will get some heat as the manufacturer of the missile and more if it transpires that they supplied the system to the Separatists direct, rather than the Separatists acquiring it from captured Ukrainian stocks. It is possible that there are Russian Special Forces operating in support of the Separatists as covert advisors. If they are, then operating complex systems such as air defence missiles may well be within their remit. However, if they do exist and were operating the equipment they would be under extreme pressure to keep their presence secret and avoid politically embarrassing complications of the sort that the shooting down of MH17 has caused. Russian special forces are well trained, and while mistakes happen I think this is a less likely scenario.

Which leaves the Separatists themselves. We do know that they have been shooting Ukrainian military jets down and we know that the Ukrainian military has been attacking them strongly and successfully from the air. For sure therefore the Separatists have the means and motivation to engage aircraft. So the question then becomes how did they mistake a modern Boing airliner for a Ukrainian combat jet? It is important to remember that radar returns themselves only identify the location and (in some cases) speed and direction of movements of targets. Remember also that military radars in combat zones operate at the significant risk of having anti-radar missiles fired at them; there is therefore a premium on having them turned on for the minimum time. It would be reasonable to deduce therefore that the operators of the SA-11 felt under significant pressure and possibly mortal peril. It is also likely that they operate in a less structured environment than a regular army and have less robust command and control systems. I postulate that they interpreted the screens with a heavy bias of their previous experience (Ukrainian aircraft attacking Separatist ground forces) and therefore fired at what they assumed was a military target. From that moment MH17’s fate was sealed.

 I believe therefore that the deaths of the crew and passengers of MH17 arose as a result of a mis-identification of a target by soldiers under high pressure and perceived mortal peril. This sounds rather like many of the incidents of “collateral damage” and unintentional killing of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan by US, UK and other coalition forces over the past decade
So who is to blame?

The Ukrainians must be largely blameless as they are fighting an armed insurrection.

The Separatists made a mistake, but no greater a mistake than many similar ones made by western armed forces in the past decade. The argument in their defence would be largely the same as the one made by coalition forces after similar unintentional slaughter of Afghan civilians. Governments in glass houses should not throw stones.

The Russians make the SA-11, and certainly have been mischievous in creating and exploiting this insurrection. If they are to be castigated for making the weapon then many other arms manufacturing countries are likely to be in the same boat. If the weapon was captured from the Ukrainians then the Russians could reasonably argue that the blame lies with the Ukrainians for losing the system to the Separatists. If, as is possible, the Russians supplied the weapon to the Separatists directly then they are more culpable, but they will then make the collateral damage argument perfected by the UK and US in Afghanistan.

The unavoidable face is that the flight MH17 chose to be there. It was known that there was an air war going on, and any fool with access to the internet could establish that 30,000 feet is no protection against a surface to air missile. While taking another routing could increase fuel consumption, and thus cost, it seems to me reckless indeed to fly passengers through a combat zone where such weapons are active. The airline may complain that IACO should have told them, but that is cant. It is the airline’s job, specifically the aircraft captain’s, to operate the plane safely and to avoid unnecessary hazard. In this case, the hazard was probably under-estimated and clearly not avoided. The sorry truth is that a little thought and a few gallons of aviation fuel would have avoided the entire incident.  Yet strangely, no newspaper or lawyer is yet threatening Malaysian Airlines

Women in the Infantry and Armoured Corps

I see that the Ministry of Defence has restarted this hoary old chestnut again – I believe as a result of some European requirement.  I shudder to think how much this will cost the taxpayer (spelt us) so I thought I’d give it a bash myself.  (In an earlier life I was a soldier, and I then got quite heavily involved in weapons research so I do know my stuff).  But actually it’s pretty straightforward.

Firstly let’s agree that the purpose of The British Army is to kill Her Majesty’s enemies.  It may well do other stuff, but this is the thing that only it can do.

Lots of bits of the army do killing, but only infantry and armour do it close up.  Infantrymen close with the enemy and kill them in close combat using rifles, grenades and bayonets.  They do this on their feet, carrying heavy loads of weaponry, water, body armour and ammunition.  In general their basic load is about 25 kilos, which is just about OK for an averagely built fit man to carry. Note that they carry this everywhere, at all times. Often the load increases as extra weaponry, kit and ammunition is added (as it is for machine gunners and mortar men, among others). The simple fact is that a British Army infantryman is supremely fit – to the point of being professional athletes.

Can an average woman carry this load and keep up with the average man? No.  Perhaps a few exceptional women can, but most can’t.  This is not surprising – women are weaker and slower as any study of any sport will reveal.  Do women play men at Wimbledon? No, they actually play best of 3 sets rather than best of 5.  Jessica Ennis is a seriously fit and strong person, but she does not compete against men. If she did she would get beaten.  By miles.  Same with rowing, same with football, same with anything.  So why should soldiering be different?  It isn’t.

Now, I have conceded that a few women might be able to perform satisfactorily, but the expense of providing them with kit (even these women have smaller heads, hands and feet) and amenities to get few extra infantry soldiers isn’t likely to be worth it.  And, of course, one has to include the cost of the failures who can’t make the grade.

Of course, one could drop the grade to what an average woman could achieve, but that would mean soldiers going into combat with less kit.  Less kit means less capable, and therefore less likely to succeed.  Is that what we want – a politically correct army that can’t actually win a battle?

Or maybe we could just accept that women carry less – and let them fight anyway -while male soldiers carry a heavier load.  Its still a reduction in capability.  The separation of infantry into two classes (the strong and the weak) will not do much for cohesion either.  And if the (male) machine-gunner (with the heavier kit load) becomes a casualty would a woman be able to take over?  Probably not.  Speaking of casualties, how may women can carry a man, plus 20kg of their kit plus 25+kg of the man’s kit?  Not many, but its a requirement for all men.

Similar arguments apply for armoured soldiers -not least because they often have to act as infantry anyway. Tanks are heavy and all the bits in them are too.  simple maintenance tasks require weightlifting and loading the main gun involves holding a 15kg piece of ammunition in ones arms and then pushing it into the gun’s breech.  Its hard work.  Again, its a fundamental tenet that anyone in the tank can do anyone else’s job (in case of casualties etc.) so a woman would have to be as strong as her male counterpart.

In any case, how many women actually want to be combat soldiers, and live in a hole in the ground or a small metal box with 3 blokes for weeks at a time?  Not many, I’ll bet (few enough men want to do it).

And spare a thought for the men’s wives…would they really be happy to know that her husband is spending 20 hours a day with another woman’s head resting by his knees (as tank gunners do)?  I suspect not.

I have not gone into the philosophic argument about women not being killers etc.  There is, I’m sure, something in that but certainly women flying Apache helicopter gunships in Afghanistan have killed their fair share of Taliban.  Its not necessary to make the argument for the simple fact that infantry soldiering is not physically possible for women.

One has to ask who is kicking up this fuss and why.  How many women are actually applying to be infantrymen?  And on what basis has someone decided that there is a right to be a soldier?  There is no such right as there are tough medical constraints, educational standards, behavioral standards (no drugs, for example) and political requirements (no Taliban, no communists).  This has all the hallmarks of some silly lawyer being allowed to misinterpret laws…

There you go.  Conclusive answer at no cost to the tax payer. Next problem please?

Why I Voted for UKIP

It wasn’t that hard a decision really.  I’m very swayed by the arguments of FA Hayek in “The road to Serfdom” and thus not in favour of centralised government, least of all one that has never had its expenditure pass audit.  While there are many good Eurosceptic MEPs, such as Daniel Hannan, the reality is that they are part of the status quo and what the entire EC needs is a well applied boot to its backside.  Voting UKIP achieves this.

Were there a referendum today (which, of course there is not) I would vote to leave.  This is an argument to be covered in detail later, the short version is that my current assumption is that as we import more goods from Europe than we sell there it is in Europe’s interest to maintain us as a market.  Slapping tariffs on our exports to them would be reciprocated. There are many other arguments, which I’ll no doubt make on later blogs.

If there were a general election today, (which of course there is not either), I do not know how I would vote, but for sure UKIP would  be in contention.  There is a malaise in UK politics that has created the “Westminster Bubble,”  a coterie of career-politicians, senior civil servants and some media commentators (particularly the BBC) that have sold their principles for the maintenance of the status quo, specifically their continued employment.  Voting UKIP undermines them, and their complete and continued reluctance to contemplate alternatives to our current system of government, which consumes almost 50% of our GDP.  People forget that it is this, not the bank crash, that has led to the mountain of national debt that hangs over the future economic health of our children.

As it happens, I think that a UKIP vote will possibly damage the Conservative party least.  If it comes in at the predicted level he will certainly have the mandate to go to the EC and say “Negotiate or we’re out.”  I don’t actually think that the EC will be able to accommodate the restructuring necessary (remember the “principle of subsidiarity” that got John Major through the Maastricht treaty?)  But at least it gives Cameron the opportunity.

I do think that much of the UKIP coverage in the media has been unfair, but that is unsurprising and I think Nigel Farrage has done well.  Compared to the impact of the Social Democratic Party (formed late 1970s and now somewhere in the Liberal Democrats) he has achieved far more, and without the luxury of starting with seats in Westminster.  While one could argue that the SDP ultimately gave us New Labour it was a storm in a teacup compared to UKIP actually challenging the entire political construct.

Out of interest I include a poll on how you voted.  Feel free to click away

The thoughts, rants, insights and dissertations of a British man in his fifties.

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