It can only be Carrie Lam

March 20, 2017

I am probably not going to win many friends from Hong Kong’s pro-democracy supporters by saying this, but on Sunday, when Hong Kong holds its “election” (in heavy quotes) for its next chief executive, only one candidate should be considered: Carrie Lam.

Or CY Leung 2.0 as she is somewhat disparagingly being called (CY Leung being the current chief executive).

A quick note on the election. In a democracy, the normal way of electing a head of state is for each member of the voting population to go to the polling booth and indicate who they would like to run the country.

But – and this is important – Hong Kong’s chief executive is not a head of state. It is the most senior official in Hong Kong’s governing body, which in turn is subservient to Beijing.

Hong Kong’s chief executive is not elected by every member of the voting-age population going to the polls. It is elected by a committee of 1200 members, many of whom have been hand-picked by Beijing.

Beijing have made it clear that they want Carrie Lam to replace CY Leung as chief executive.

And they should get their their way.

If Hong Kong was an independent nation, then one person stands head and shoulders above the others: John Tsang, the former financial secretary of the administration. An eloquent individual with a rational understanding of what needs to be done to improve Hong Kong’s lot. He also has a tough streak that seemingly belies his grandfathery moustache and the fact that in every publicity shot he has to be seen clutching a child.

But Hong Kong is not an independent nation and that is important.

It is part of Beijing, and if Beijing makes it clear that they want somebody as chief executive, then they should get what they want.

Hong Kong is a small and relatively insignificant region along the south coast of China. Very few people – either in or out of the territory – are seriously entertaining the notion of independence. And nor should they.

Much more can be achieved with Beijing as an ally than a foe, and the chief executive position is too important a matter for Beijing not to have their say.

But let this one go, maintain a sort of harmony and other victories can be had along the way.

What if Trump is right?

March 10, 2017

The very idea of reforming financial regulation is a thorny subject. Didn’t we, like, have financial Armageddon less than nine years ago?

And, yet, here is this brazen and brash Yankee president suggesting we now tear up one of the key pillars of legislation that will stop this happening again.

Yet what if he is right?

I have been writing about what has come to be known as the Dodd-Frank Act, and all the other legislation that was conceived in the wake of the GFC (that’s global financial crisis, folks) ever since they first were.

And all I can say is – well, gosh! – it certainly has turned the financial world upside-down.

The capital that banks now need has leapt to astronomical levels. So much so that, unless you are the number one or two in a particular sector or region, you might as well not bother.

The Royal Bank of Scotland is now largely concerned with its British interests, having given up its much-touted worldly aspirations long ago. European legislation similarly claimed the scalp of Barclays, whilst Australian bank ANZ no longer lists Asia as its number one priority. In the US, things have been no less painful, with Morgan Stanley and Bank of America Meryl Lynch visibly retreating from certain areas.

The resulting gaps are filled by those that have the might-of-muscle to move in.

This is not good for competition.

Worse.

Banks are now much choosier about the business that they involve themselves in, which is to say high-profit and low-capital. Who is to say that this is the best business for them to be in? The regulators and the law-makers are deciding the fate of these business lines, and they don’t even yet comprehend what the consequence of consigning these to an early burial might be; nor, indeed, do they always understand which business lines might be the ones to meet their maker.

I do not wish to be an apologist for the banks’ excesses, which in no small measure led to the collapse of the financial markets in 2008. A former boss of mine revealed what can happen if banks are allowed to run the world, with his excellent 2003 scoop against Goldman’s, the former CEO of which is now a top advisor to the Trump administration.

But banks do also perform an important service. Crucially, they lend money, provide liquidity and oil the cogs in the financial machinery that are right now clogging up with grime.

To repeat my question: what if Trump is right?

Dodd Frank – and other bits of legislation conceived post-GFC – were hastily put together in a sort of panicked and frenzied “ah, what the hell do we do now!?” kind of moment. The public was on the backs of the politicians (they still are) and those in power needed to be seen to be doing something.

There are inconsistencies throughout the legislation that has emerged since the financial crisis.

Here’s a case in point.

Regulator’s no longer trust banks’ internal models – those ingeniously-fabricated algorithms that are supposed to show how much risk a bank is actually taking on, which is then used as a benchmark for how much capital said bank should put aside. Thus for many risks banks now have to use a model ordained by the regulators.

And yet….

Those same regulators want banks to be able to have an internal model in place so that they can “accurately” report their expected future losses for accounting purposes; which, it would seem, regulators are prepared to trust.

I’m not saying we should just scrap all the financial legislation that has been conceived since the financial crisis.

But perhaps a little bit of tinkering wouldn’t go amiss.

Instead of simply dismissing Trump’s forrays into financial reform as mere bafoonery, maybe we should be prepared to reflect a little bit more.

Just… what if… Trump… is right?

Trump madness

January 29, 2017

When we lived in Sudan, we lived a couple of hundred metres from the mosque where Osama bin Laden used to go and worship.

In the 1990s.

He wasn’t actually there when we lived there.

In fact, I’m really hard-pressed to find anything that Sudan has actually done against the United States in – what? – the last 20 years. (Remember, when Osama bin Laden orchestrated the 9-11 attacks, he wasn’t actually living in Sudan and had only limited contact with his former home, his erstwhile sponsor Hassan al-Turabi, being something as a persona non grata with the Khartoum regime at the time.)

So why, then, this Sudan visa ban from the current megalomaniac in the White House?

I’m actually kind of hard-pressed to find any logical rationale to the current action from Donald Trump, other than shameless populism and a bloody-minded determination to live up to his electoral promises (which I had, unfortunately and a trifle naively, dismissed as simple electioneering; err… no, he is actually as crazy as he sounded).

Nothing really makes sense, and Donald Trump is acting far too hastily with his executive orders, and without proper guidance. You only have to look how quickly the courts overturned the visa ban – at least temporarily – to see this.

But anyone following Trump closely knows all of this – or if they don’t they are being disingenuous.

I want to make a point here that is slightly more nuanced.

There is a very good case to be made for an overhaul of immigration regimes in Europe and US. Even if you are not a right-wing fascist nutter, there is a case to be made here; and I have made it in previous entries.

But now is most definitely not the time to be making it. The likes of Donald Trump and UKIP leader Nigel Farrage have been riding on the tides of populism for two long, without the benefit of proper rational analysis.

This took the UK out of Europe – which may in fact turn out to be a good thing, but not for the reasons that the likes of Nigel Farrage so often espoused – but I now fear that populism is taking a far more sinister turn.

How did Donald Trump put it? “It’s time to fight fire with fire”.

Indeed it is. And that means being unreservedly pro-immigration. Irrespective of the consequences.

We have for a long time needed a proper immigration policy in place. And we still do.

But to argue for one now is to play into the hands of those privileged populists that seek to make political mileage out of the strife and suffering of others.

Just don’t plant a bomb, Dear Immigrant: that’s not very nice.

It’s not just the politicians that should rethink things

November 10, 2016

First Brexit. Now Trump. It seems fairly clear who holds the responsibility for this: those smarmy world leaders that are at the heart of the political establishment, which now has been very much shaken and could even be crumbling. They didn’t take Greece’s pain seriously. They chose to bail out the banks rather than let them gracefully unwind. They trounced all over Keynes’ legacy and dogmatically welded themselves to the idea behind austerity and then, when people pointed out that actually curtailing spending might not be the best way to stimulate growth, growled and snarled.

But this initial analysis is simple and unfair. It is certainly true that the politicians have for too many years acted with contempt for a large portion of society, but it seems that they are not alone.

Where are all these Trump supporters? Where are all the Brexit voters? Hidden? Ashamed? Frightened of being seen to rock this cozy establishment?

On social media, the only comments I seem to be reading is that the world is in some sort of crisis and a kind of incredulity that people could actually consider voting for Brexit or electing Trump. I.e, are people really this stupid?

But this misses the fundamental point of what has driven people in this direction, and until people start reflecting on that society is going to have a hard time stitching itself back together. Yes, politicians have acted with arrogance and contempt that beggars belief, but they appear not to be alone.

Suddenly, those who for years have lent their support to the political establishment find themselves in the minority, and that is an uncomfortable feeling.

With Brexit, I was strongly divided. I saw the benefits that staying could bring, but I also see the EU as an undemocratic supranational entity that does things its own way with little regard for due legal process upon which our societies have been built.

Had I been able to vote in the US election, though, there is not a snowball’s chance in Hell that I would have chosen Trump. There was nothing in his rhetoric that endeared me to him and, although Clinton had her baggage, she was the least bad choice of the two.

But recoiling in horror from the outcome and despairing at the stupidity of the supporters of Trump – or for that manner the voters for Brexit, who I do feel some affinity towards – just misses the point.

Something is changing with our societies and people are rocking the boat.

Politicians must start to understand why. We must, too.

New City Trail website

August 1, 2016

City Trail Publishing now has a new website. Much easier to navigate and more professional looking. All our current titles are there – Sudan, South Sudan, The Hague – in both printed and e-book format. Our brand new guidebook to Hong Kong is still in the making, but will be published later this year. Watch this space.

Duped

July 4, 2016

The Leave camp are going to have a serious problem. Or maybe they’ve always had one.

One thing that seems to be coming increasingly clear – at least, observing events from afar – is that not only have a lot of Remainers failed to understand the reasons behind the Leave vote, but many of those that voted Leave don’t seem to have fully understood what they were voting for either.

This could be a huge problem for the Leave camp.

You are never going to convince those die-hard Eurosceptics, who have spent all their life campaigning against the EU, that actually being part of this European project might not be that bad of an idea.

But you might just convince those that thought the world would be different when they ticked that Leave box that they made the wrong decision.

I have seen a number of people wavering on this and this is a reflection of the poor work that the Leave campaign did in preparing an exit strategy.

They probably didn’t think they had to.

As Sarah Vine has been repeatedly quoted as saying over the past few days – no doubt because it is such an awesome quote – “you were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off”.

No one expected the Leave campaign to actually work, let alone those that were behind the campaign. Every eurosceptic that I spoke to before the referendum were focusing on getting as close to the Remain vote as possible. Certainly they never thought they’d beat them.

But they should have thought harder.

Because it now appears that we are a country without a plan. And since we do actually live in a parliamentary democracy, folk, in case anyone has forgotten, leaving the EU isn’t simply a question of laying a hand on the Magna Cart and saying, “I solemnly swear to invoke Article 50”. As some that voted Leave thought it would be.

And now Nigel Farrage is gone, having tendered his resignation as UKIP leader today. One might have hoped that he’d stick around to try to… you know… formulate a plan. Or perhaps dust off the one that he’d had all along at the bottom of his sock drawer, but with all the excitement of everything had clean forgotten about.

All of this means that many people are feeling duped.

You might be able to win a battle with false rhetoric, grandiose promises and over-simplification.

But you can’t seal that victory.

Wrong reasons

July 3, 2016

17.4 million people – a little more than a third of the voting-age population – are not bigoted racists who think Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson are gods. This is perhaps the single most important thing to understand about the referendum, because if we fail to understand this salient fact then this country will remain hopelessly divided.

I in no way tried to campaign for one result or the other because for me it was just too difficult to call. There were too many complexities to the debate that I simply could not decide which side to come down on.

What frustrated me about the whole affair, and continues to frustrate me, is this constant barrage of misinformation and a lack of any real debate about the issues that matter. Some people have said that, with such an important issue as EU membership, perhaps it should not have been left up to the people to decide. If I’d have known that the whole campaign was going to be boiled down into such simplistic arguments that started to become meaningless, I would probably have agreed.

There is a very good argument to be made that the whole referendum should be run again, or declared null and void and let our politicians make this decision. After all, we do pay them to take decision on complex matters that we, the humble public, don’t really understand.

Perhaps.

But I don’t want to dwell here on democracy or whether the referendum was democratic or not. Countless others are already making that point.

I want to emphasise something much more fundamental. That, whatever happens to our standing with the EU, the result of this referendum must not be ignored.

Okay, two thirds of the voting-age population did not vote to leave the EU. But one third did. And they are important.

I understand that passions are running high, but it is perilous to ignore those in the Leave camp or to simply dismiss them as bigoted racists. This is what the EU’s political establishment has always sought to do and look where it has got them. The EU is lurching – or, rather, hobbling – from crisis to crisis.

That is not an EU I think we should be part of.

Now it is perfectly valid to think that we should remain a member of the EU. There are exceedingly good reasons to remain, and many people can see them much more clearly than the reasons to leave.

But there are also good reasons to leave. And failing to recognise and understand them, and to engage in a sober debate that doesn’t deride either side, is imperative.

But in amongst all the frustration and hot tempers, I am seeing precious little of this. And this is not a good path to go down. Hostility towards the EU will not go away if the referendum is voided. It must be understood for it to be corrected.

And above all, those that voted to leave the EU must have their voice heard – and not simply dismissed as stupid or daft or insane every time they tentatively suggested that leaving the EU might not be a bad idea. Otherwise all anyone will here are the Nigel Farrages and Boris Johnsons of this world, or those that have made anti-European rhetoric their career path.

(As an addendum to this entry, I am in the process of compiling a list of reasons why people might have voted to withdraw from the EU – besides the anti-immigration argument. But this is a hard list to compile, and needs careful thought, so it is not done yet. I am trying very hard not to demonise either side and to move things forward in a spirit of constructive debate. And incidentally, whilst the next couple of years of withdrawal from the EU might be painful, in the long-run things could turn out for the better; but that slightly contentious point doesn’t seem to ever be properly debated.)

Oh hear us

June 23, 2016

There is something rotten in Europe. As Brits go to the polls today, it is worth bearing that in mind.

With Remain having taken the lead (by between 2 and 8 percentage points, depending on which poll you look at), and an estimated 10% still in the undecided camp, it looks exceeding unlikely that Brits are now going to vote to leave the EU. Most of those who have not yet made up their mind will probably be swayed by the status-quo.

It is perhaps not surprising that there is such a vociferously strong anti-EU voice in Europe. We’ve always had this, ever since we signed up to the single market. It’s in our ethnic make-up. Like Belgians have their strikes. Or Germans have their sauerkraut.

But it is so surprising that Leave came so close to pulling us out of the EU with such a lousy campaign. This isn’t a crazy lunatic movement that doesn’t like the black fella, as some in the Remain camp constantly insinuate. This is a disparate movement of people that have some very real grievances with how the EU is run.

I think that few who have written about the EU would think that everything is hunkydory in the glitzy corridors of Brussels bureaucracy. Over the past months, I have spoken to many people with first-hand experience of the Brussels apparatus who think it is an utter shambles.

So which way are they voting?

In, of course – because they just can’t think of a good enough reason for voting the other way. Because one hasn’t been presented to them.

But, faced with such moderate thinking and a rather shambolic campaign, it says a lot that Leave seem to have come so close.

So if, as I strongly suspect, we vote to remain within the EU, some really tough action is required in Brussels to convince the British that what they voted for was the right thing. And we are not talking about another hastily put-together David Cameron whistle-stop tour of the European capitals. We need real change.

And that real change needs to start with a scaling back of Brussels intervention, a better reliance on the free market economy and an acknowledgement that there are certain powers Brussels does not have to sink its claws in for the single market to work.

And perhaps above all the EU needs to start engaging better with its citizens. Not this half-hearted campaign of misinformation and propaganda, but a real engagement to explain exactly what the EU is. Because what has emerged during this campaign – talking to people about it, reading comments on my Facebook feed and Twitter, tuning into the occasional debates – is that people still don’t seem to get the EU.

And for this to take hold, the EU needs to drop its veil of arrogance and deceit. The EU did not end wars in Europe. The EU is not irreplaceable. And the EU is most certainly not infallible.

Of course, I don’t think any of these changes are actually going to take hold – and indeed we may find ourselves in a situation where the political elite want to bind European nations into an even more tightly-knit bloc, so those pesky Brits can’t hold an entire continent to ransom again.

But if the EU don’t listen to what the British are trying to say – and I mean really listen – then this problem is never going to go away.

Why the Leave camp will fail

June 20, 2016

The other week, during my time in London, I had the privilege to listen to MP and shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn make the case for staying in the EU. Rarely have I heard such a masterful orator and, whilst I might not have agreed with everything he said, it was actually quite thrilling to listen to him make his case. Like hearing a well-read bit of poetry.

By comparison, the Eurosceptics on the panel often sounded shrill and desperate and occasionally a little bit crazy. At one point, one of the panellists – Gerald McGregor, a Chiswick town councillor – brandished a piece of paper in his hand, and suggested that David Cameron’s return from Europe before the referendum was a little like Neville Chamberlain returning from Nazi Germany before World War II broke out. Comparing the European project to Nazism isn’t really what folk want to hear.

And that is why the Leave camp will fail.

Not just because their standard-bearers seem to constantly be making obscure references to fascism or tyranny or to a world that now no longer exists (although that probably doesn’t help). But because arguing about leaving the European Union is a lot harder than arguing about remaining. And the Leave camp just don’t seem to have put in the effort to make this case clearly, passionately and rationally enough.

Of course, this isn’t all their fault. Rational Eurosceptics do have the very real problem of having to make their voices heard above those of charismatic and politically-ambitious spokespeople of the Eurosceptic cause, such as Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. Both likeable enough fellows, but they have managed to boil the arguments of why we might want to leave the EU into such crass shades of grey that they are easily put down by any Remainer with half a brain.

Maybe that is what people want to hear – the simplistic – because it is just too difficult to understand all the nuances behind what it would mean to leave a community that we have been wedded to for longer than I have been alive.

It is extremely difficult to make a rational argument for why we might want to leave the EU without sounding a little crazy, which is why I never try to enter this mine field. But I have some very good Eurosceptic friends who do make such a case very convincingly. The problem is that such convincing arguments never seem to enter the mainstream.

It is precisely because the Eurosceptic case is so much harder to put than the pro-European one that those in the Leave camp should have worked harder at making it. They should have made an effort to understand and explain the more complex areas of the debate, not simply glassed over this and repeated ad-nauseam the rather right-wing snub to immigrants or the subdued left-wing doff to the NHS.

Like what benefit does leaving the EU actually bring to people living in the UK? As with the Scottish referendum, people will be voting with their wallet in mind.

Like exactly why there is such a democratic deficit in the EU, and whether that really matters? Because many people don’t seem to quite get this.

Like exactly what comes afterwards? Okay, perhaps this is a difficult one to answer, since this is a great unknown, but at least they could have tried. At least they could have given us some plan as to what comes once we have taken this leap in the dark.

None of this to say that we shouldn’t leave the EU; I am still split 50-50 on this. Rather, the point of this blog entry is to reassure those committed Remainers out there that they don’t have anything to fear. The Brexiters had a far harder task of persuading people why they should hand back their membership card. And because their job was so much more daunting they should have tried twice as hard to do so.

At least.

And then, even without Hilary Benn in their arsenal, they might just have succeeded in winning enough of the electorate round to make a difference.

In or out?

May 24, 2016

With less than a month to go, I still haven’t made up my mind. One would think it should be simple. I spent five years working in Brussels, after all, and understand something of how the EU works. But the more I think about it the more I just don’t know. Maybe I should tick both boxes.

I think the problem is that we – the British people – are being denied a proper debate about the issues that matter. Which makes me a little mad.

We hear from the Nigel Farage camp that these foreign workers are coming and stealing our jobs. Probably want our women, too.

We hear from the Treasury that we’re going to be £4300 worse off – per year – if we were to leave the EU, with apparently not serious rationale for that number. I can invent numbers, too. Squiggledom. It’s twice a googleplex, so it’s pretty darn big.

So: in or out?

Immediately after my five-year stint in Brussels, I had decidedly made up my mind that we ought to leave this ill-fitting marriage. I firmly believed that the EU needed to be dismantled and rebuilt – and the only way to do that was for us to be out. But now I’m seeing so many more nuances.

Frustratingly, this trip to the UK has so far yielded no useful insights. I’m working in our London office at the moment, and one of my colleagues was handing out “Remain” bumper stickers today. When another colleague told him that he would probably vote to leave, the Remain colleague expressed surprised and said that he thought all financial correspondents would want to stay in Europe the EU.

If only it were that easy.

Here, then, are my meandering thoughts – from someone that really has not yet made up his mind.

Out

– We would be able to adopt our own policy towards immigrants, because to be quite frank the EU’s has so far been an utter disaster. This is not to argue for less immigration – as the dreadful right wing press often do – but just the fact that we would be able to control who comes to our countries, and therefore could make sure this is the right kind of migrant. Jobs are not finite – socialist France flirted with that idea, and to an extent still does, and it’s just blatantly wrong. Just ask Adam Smith. Except he’s dead. But those that come to this country should contribute to its well-being. This also goes for the refugees that we take. I firmly believe that we have a moral obligation to accept a certain amount of refugees fleeing from human rights abuses, but that should be on our terms and we should give them jobs as soon as we can.

– Our government should no longer be able to hide behind the ineptitude of the EU. There are actually things that the British government cannot do because the EU doesn’t allow it. This makes it much harder to hold them to account when they step out of line.

– The masterminds behind the EU project are a dishonest bunch. They were given very good advice that launching the euro currency when it was half-baked would result in a “Greece”. It could have been any one of the peripheral countries – that wasn’t known at the time – but they chose to ignore such advice because it fitted their own narrative. If “Greece” happened then that would be a very good reason to move towards more centralised fiscal control. Which may be a noble end in itself, but I’m not sure I want to place my faith in people that have to lie to get where they are going.

– When I was in Brussels, I lost track of the times I heard the European Commission express in all of sincerity that the EU was the reason that European nations weren’t still at war with one another. No! No! And no! The reason for the longest period of piece that we have had for millennia is globalisation, and the EU is a by-product of that globalisation. Not the other way round.

In

– Strength in numbers. It’s true that we are a small nation – the sun does now set on our noble Empire. So it’s nice to buddy-up to our European partners from time to time.

– We have more representation in Europe than people often realise. Although there is this huge gulf of democratic unaccountability – in the sense that we haven’t actually voted in most of the people that are making decisions for us – we do have a permanent representation to the EU and they are a pretty active bunch.

– Free movement of labour and free movement of trade – these are concepts I hold dear. I am, after all, a migrant worker. I wouldn’t particularly like it if Hong Kong suddenly chose to shut its door on my kind. And I like to think that I am contributing to their society – through tax and being a damn fine pillar of.

– We’ve pissed our European neighbours off a fair bit recently, by being so obstreperous. How about we now start to make amends?

– However you look at things it’s going to be expensive. Contracts will need to be renegotiated or updated, business deals will need to be done on a different footing, some firms may even decide to relocate. If you’re a lawyer, now is probably the time to cash in.

– What is going to happen if we leave? No one really knows. If we stay, there’s almost certainly going to be a relentless march towards greater federalism. And so perhaps that is what everyone needs. Better the devil you know, eh?

But, whatever the outcome of the referendum of June 23, it probably doesn’t matter as much as people think it does. If we stay, we carry on pretty much as before, with maybe a tiny bit more acceleration towards federalism. If we leave, well, it honestly isn’t going to be the end 0f the world that everyone is predicting. Do people honestly think that, after her initial hissy fit, Europe won’t want to engage with us?

Maybe I’ll just tick both boxes and let fate decide.