Monday, February 27, 2017

It's cold, wet and decidedly south...

It was time to leave the warmth of Santiago behind, for the next stage of the adventure had arrived, and a three hour flight brought me to Punta Arenas, the major town of Chilean Patagonia.

The vista was, in truth, a bit bleak and austere, as the mountains are running out by this point, and the endless wind tends to discourage anything taller than a shrub. But then, it's the furthest south that I've ever been, beating Invercargill, New Zealand, and remembering what Orkney is like, there is something of a similarity there too.

The hotel was an oddity, looking like a small piece of Las Vegas, casually dropped on the edge of the Straits of Magellan, all glass and steel, with a casino bolted on. It was very nice though, and the room was comfortable, looking out across the Straits. I had to go out though, as I was short on steps for the day. And, in a light drizzle, Punta Arenas on a Sunday afternoon was not a sight to warm the cockles.

The next day was dedicated to some light tourism, with a call into the Regional Museum. Set in a nineteenth century mansion, it's not a huge exhibit, but with some preserved rooms, it does give you an idea as to how the wealthy lived in such a remote place. In those days, Punta Arenas was only really accessible by ship, and given how volatile the oceans are around Cape Horn and Tierra del Fuego, it wouldn't always have been easy to make the journey.

Dinner was taken at a restaurant called Los Ganaderos. A parrilla, the prime attraction is meat, and in particular beef and lamb - there are a lot of sheep in Chilean Patagonia. It was excellent, the only problem was that there was too much meat, and I couldn't even begin to contemplate the third course that completed the trio of lamb.

Replete, it was time to get some sleep, for tomorrow would see a very early start...

Friday, February 24, 2017

The slowest tour bus in the world...

I've learned that one of the best ways of orienting yourself in a new city is to take a city tour. And yes, the commentary can be a bit dull sometimes, and some of the sights unlikely to tempt you back for a second look, but you do get a sense of scale and a flavour of a place in a relatively short time.

And so, knowing that Santiago has such a thing, it was time to find it and, after a few false starts (the map wasn't very good), the bus stop was located and the bus caught.

One thing that I'd already noticed was the number of Chinese vehicles on the road, and the bus, designed to look a bit like a London Routemaster, was a Chinese model, painted red. As it turned out, it wasn't the fastest thing on four wheels, as it ground its painfully slow way around the downtown area. Past the Japanese Garden, past the hotel, and on into the upmarket districts of Las Condes, the bus pottered, allowing a good view of the architecture in the tree-lined streets.

I was a little concerned that, with a lengthy detour out to a shopping mall in the eastern suburbs, the day might be lost, but the accelerator was finally located, and the bus arrived at Parque Arauco, described as the 'fashionista mall of choice'. It is, I must admit, rather fancy, with Tiffany and Burberry represented amongst the array of international stores. There's clearly some money amongst the relatively well-to-do locals.

An excellent lunch of austral hake on a bed of pesto mashed potatoes, and a bottle of Patagonia's finest Austral beer, made for a fine repast, before heading into the mall to have a look around and to get some of my daily step count done.

Back on the city tour, and off to Bellavista, a rather hip and up and coming area of the city, at the foot of an isolated hill. The creaky old funicular to the top had a dauntingly long queue, so an exploration of the area on foot was the best option. Patio Bellavista is a collection of interesting restaurants and interesting gift stores seemingly designed for tourists, although the number of non-Latin Americans is still relatively few, given the cost of flights and the distance to be travelled.

I noted a few potential gift ideas but had reached the point where retreated to an air-conditioned hotel room seemed like a good idea.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

If it feels like the end of the world, then I might as well go there...

It's been a bit quiet here lately, predominantly for security reasons. But, now that I'm back, I can tell you about my holiday...

The announcement by British Airways that they were launching a new direct service to Santiago, Chile came at a convenient moment, just as I was thinking about a destination for some winter sun. Previously, the idea of flying to Latin America would be reserved for a break of a fortnight or more, but there's seldom time in February, and having to connect somewhere between here and there just takes too much time.

However, the new flights are overnight in both directions and, as I can sleep just about anywhere, such a journey becomes viable for a shorter break.

The route is served by the new Boeing 787-9 "Dreamliner", which has all sorts of bits and bobs that make flying a little more tolerable. Tinted windows, mood lighting, and a healthier cabin atmosphere make sitting in an aeroplane for fourteen hours less than truly awful.

Arriving in Santiago mid-morning, there was a bizarre delay as the ground staff attempted, ineptly, to bring the skybridge to the door of the aircraft, and a twenty minute delay ensued whilst they puzzled over the complex task. But, eventually, we were all freed to clear immigration, collect our luggage, which had already reached the carousel, and head out into a warm, sunny day.

You approach the city from the west, so Santiago has a backdrop of the Andes mountains, no more than twenty miles away from the centre of the city. And, even in February, there is still snow on the peaks, even if it is ninety degrees in the city. Luckily, despite a very early arrival, the hotel room was ready, so, after an early lunch, it was time to explore...

Strangely, for a city of more than five million, the central district, or at least, that part of tourist interest, is fairly small, and it was possible, despite the heat, to walk to the Plaza de Armas via the Parque Forestal, a linear park which follows the Rio Mapocho. It's not exciting, but it's pleasant enough, and the Plaza itself was as lively as one might hope.

The trip was off to a good start...

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

I have walked ten thousand steps, and I have walked ten thousand more...

Just before the New Year before last, I set myself the goal of walking ten thousand steps each day. I had managed forty-nine consecutive days when I was struck down with food poisoning and wasn't really capable of walking anywhere for three days.

However, on 18 February last year, I started again. And, according to my Fitbit app on my iPhone, I haven't missed a day since. I am, I admit, quite pleased with myself, as I did doubt whether I would have sufficient willpower to keep up with the walking.

It has, occasionally, involved some planning. Dealing with days when you spend twelve hours flying, time zone changes, meetings that involve sitting in a chair when you really should be walking, all of these and more have been handled somehow.

There are rewards. I'm about forty pounds lighter, four inches narrower at the waist and an inch at the collar, able to hike a bit, have more energy generally and have regained a wardrobe full of loud shirts that perhaps ought to have been forgotten. So it has been worth it.

However, one shouldn't just reach a milestone and stop. Which reminds me, I've got another loop of the village to do... 

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Federal International Relations Committee - I'm going to need another set of coloured pens, aren't I?

It's taken me much longer than usual to report back on what happened at FIRC's first meeting, and I am grateful to Caron and the team at Liberal Democrat Voice for fitting my piece in at rather short notice. It's just that I had almost forgotten just how much work there is to do with a new Committee, especially at a time of organisational change.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceYou can, of course, just wing it but, if I'm honest, laying down some ground rules early tends to avoid quite a lot of pain later. Thus, it is clear that whilst Robert, our Chair, will play good cop, I am to be the disciplinarian, creating structure, designing process, monitoring compliance, enforcing the Federal Constitution. It isn't necessarily glamorous, but then, dealing with things that go wrong subsequently is even less fun. And, if I say so myself, I'm good at it.

Paul Reynolds had written a very interesting paper on the Committee's policy role, and it was unfortunate that we didn't find time to discuss it properly - remind me to schedule it into a far more disciplined agenda for our next meeting - as we need to establish the relationship between ourselves and Federal Policy Committee. We apparently advise them, although as they have a place on our Committee, and we don't have one on their's, you do wonder how that works in practice.

We focussed on campaigning for the most part in our strategy session, and whilst I acknowledge that campaigning is essential, you do need to have something to campaign on, and unless we are a Party of ideas, we risk falling back into the routine of campaigning against things rather than for them. That got us into government, but it became increasingly clear that, once we had done so, and the Tories had stolen so many of our clothes, we didn't offer much reason to vote positively for us other than hard-working local MPs and an unproven ability to restrain the Tories from being more right-wing.

We also need to integrate our work with ALDE and Liberal International into that of the wider Party. It does, in the nicest way, feel like a bit of a hobby sometimes, a group of well-meaning souls debating big issues without always having much of a mandate to do so. Our delegations, after all, are made up for the most part of people who volunteer themselves and are selected by a process so opaque that even I don't really comprehend it. That can't be good, can it?

In fairness, it always seems to have been done like that, but in a modern age, we need to be more transparent. We also need to ensure that those who are included in our delegations as voting members actually earn their places. It shouldn't be too much to ask that they attend delegation meetings and voting sessions, although some of our people take a curiously dim view of having such obligations. So, that's another project for later in the year...

I also want to do some policy work, or at least make a credible contribution to it. That might be a bit daunting when you're surrounded by former diplomats, journalists and MEPs (we have two on the Committee, plus our remaining extant one), not to mention four Peers and an MP, but I do bring the perspective of someone whose background is not entirely British. Besides, policy is about combining knowledge with principles, and I like to think that my liberal principles are sound enough. 

Friday, February 10, 2017

How do you solve a problem like Donald, Theresa?

It has been a bit of a train wreck so far, hasn't it? However, whilst the air of chaos that surrounds the new incumbent in the White House shows no signs of abating, he is getting a worrying amount done. And, if you're a European or even British, what he has done so far is cause for some perturbation.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceOn trade, whilst there are perhaps grounds for axing the Trans Pacific Partnership, in doing so the way he has, he has undermined key relationships in a volatile region, where China seeks to maximise its power, soft and hard. If the Japanese and the South Koreans, in particular, sense that America is not engaged, they will be obliged to take a more respectful stance towards China. And, from the perspective of his near neighbourhood, his ruthless jettisoning of TPP, and the attempts to bully Mexico, spell trouble for NAFTA.

It does not augur well for a UK/US trade agreement, does it?

Now I accept that Trump has expressed a desire to do a deal, and heaven only knows that the Brexiteers desperately want to believe that he means it, but the problem is that he has a history of making deals that end badly for the other party and, more worryingly, for a bunch of innocent bystanders too. If he can bully the other side, he will, especially when they're desperate. And boy, are we going to be desperate.

It is already becoming apparent that a number of key potential partners, India, China, Australia, for example, are happy to do deals, but that relative freedom of movement comes with any such arrangements. Can Theresa May get over her hang-ups over migration figures, and even if she can, what will those who voted Brexit to cut migration think about being poorer AND having a bunch of foreigners coming into the country?

So, 'white' countries it will have to be. An all encompassing deal with the 'evil' European Union seems unlikely, and Australia and New Zealand are relatively small economies far away. That only really leaves the America Firsters, led by a man with a hair trigger ego advised by a man who wants to bring everything down. That's certainly not a negotiation I would enter with confidence and, to make matters worse, we already run a trade surplus with the US. Donald won't like that.

Oh yes, we could cut a deal with the rather sclerotic Japanese economy, or try to sell agricultural goods to the Koreans, but you can see our options withering away unless we're willing to compromise. And that, it seems, the Brexiteers are uncomfortable with.

It does, potentially, get worse. If the trend towards regional blocs continues, being outside of them all may make you nimbler, but it also makes you lonely and vulnerable to protectionism. And, you may have to sacrifice parts of your social model if national wealth diminishes in real terms, or grows less strongly than it might otherwise have done. There'll be plenty of people who voted for Brexit who won't like that either.

Now, is Theresa lying awake at night worrying about this? I suspect not. The more charitable might suggest that, as she is a woman of principle, doing what she believes to be the right thing, she has no reason to worry. In any event, the Opposition are insipid, or fragmented, or too few in number to really hurt her. I have a nasty feeling that she doesn't have the imagination to work out how badly this could (and I emphasise could) end up. If she did, she certainly wouldn't be able to sleep easily at night.

No, a combination of the Administration's apparent retreat from the strong dollar, a headstrong President and his belief that deals should favour America, leaves the British trade team with a potentially very challenging assignment. And we're fielding Liam Fox.

We're doomed, aren't we?...

Thursday, February 09, 2017

The Parish Council takes a cold, hard look...

Gosh, it was cold outside. Fortunately, the Church Room, where Parish Council meets, isn't very far away, and there's always tea available. Unfortunately, when I arrived, it was painfully clear that the heating hadn't been on, and it was almost as cold inside as it was outside.

We were, only just, quorate, but both our District and County Councillors had shown up, as well as my near neighbour, Ginny. The reason for her attendance wasn't entirely clear to me, but incentivised by the notion that we might get home early if we stayed focussed, we sped through the agenda.

Keith Welham, our Green District Councillor, gave his usual informative report, circulated in advance in a manner that I approve of. If only he was a Liberal Democrat... On the other hand, whilst it was nice to see Gary Green, our Conservative County Councillor, turn up, his reports are a thing of brevity. I have a nasty feeling that he doesn't have much grasp of what goes on at the County Council, but given that he certainly isn't alone on the Conservative benches, perhaps I shouldn't be too critical. Too many of them are merely bench warmers, as Jessica Fleming's shocking lack of understanding of contracts at our previous meeting demonstrated.

The financial report, in its newly revised format, allows Councillors to easily evaluate how our spending is progressing relative to budget - you would not believe how impenetrable the previous Clerk made things (quite deliberately to my somewhat cynical mind). We are in good shape, and have learned the hard way that taking on responsibilities from higher levels of local government is a fool's errand unless there is an established, sufficient, funding stream. Our (relatively) new Clerk, Jennie, is willing to adapt to the needs of the Council, rather than the reverse, which was the case under the old regime.

It turned out that we have a tree warden (Ginny), and she gave her report. Having a tree warden in a rural parish can only be a good thing, especially as our nature reserve has a lot of trees which need attention.

The motion to install a defibrillator in the old BT telephone box (long since devoid of a telephone, but still lit at night), was passed, with my abstention. Whilst I'm not against it, I wasn't entirely convinced that we had really bottomed out the financing going forward. There is a lot of talk about Lottery funding, and possible support from our County Councillor, and I'm sure that we can work something out. Just think of it as that cautious streak that comes from years of looking at accounts...

I had asked for street lighting to be discussed, as our street lights are, frankly, pretty ancient, to the extent that finding bulbs for them is becoming difficult. We need to think about establishing a capital fund to pay for new ones - there are currently ten in the village, and we own them. It was agreed that, in drafting the 2018/19 budget, this should be a priority. It would be nice to move towards having environmentally friendly LED ones, but any upgrade would be an improvement, both aesthetically and financially.

The cold was really beginning to set in now, and it wasn't a huge surprise that we reached the end of the agenda in a lightning forty-eight minutes, allowing us all to retreat to the warmth of our own homes.

It's good to be back...