Tuesday, March 14, 2017

And now, the end is near, and as we face the final curtain...

The votes took place, the Lords conceded... And then the murders began...

But seriously (and apologies to readers, but I felt that I ought to test a theory that's doing the rounds), we have reached the point of no return. Well, actually, we haven't, but that's another story. Let's just assume that we have for the time being. What happens next?

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceOf course, Theresa May formally notifies the invocation of Article 50 and negotiations for our departure commence. The EU Council meets to consider its negotiating stance, bringing together the divergent views of twenty-seven nations, all with their own red lines or issues of principle, whilst the European Parliament considers what it will or will not compromise on.

Meanwhile, the United Kingdom negotiating position is a mystery. This is either because they're keeping their cards very close to their chest or, more likely, because they aren't able to agree on what it is. After all, is the priority sovereignty, or immigration, or what?

For the likes of Daniel Hannan and Tim Montgomerie, it's all about sovereignty, the freedom to determine our own destiny in a global economy. People like Daniel and Tim are keen for us to make new trading arrangements and escape the sclerotic bureaucracy that is the European Union. They've been pretty clear that an accommodation with the European Union in terms of trade would be preferable, the so-called Norway model. The problem is that they appear to be in a minority on the Brexit side.

For Nigel Farage and his mates, it's about English Nationalism. Frankly, he knows that the Scots and Northern Irish don't give a hoot for his narrow-minded view of the world. And given that the major urban centres weren't keen on Brexit, and that UKIP do relatively badly in areas with a high ethnic minority population, his anti-metropolitan elite schtick appeals to people who gain little tangible benefit from the global economy. Some of them are wrong about that, but in any event, just because you don't gain anything doesn't mean that you've lost something. But they're convinced that everything will be better if we raise the drawbridge and send the foreigners home. There are lots of people out there who think like that, a lot of them in areas that traditionally vote Conservative. For them, sovereignty is immersed in the immigration issue.

So, how does Theresa cater for both sets of demands? A series of lobby groups - farmers, financial sector, health care, hospitality - are all seeking special arrangements to allow migrants for their businesses, probably in excess of her stated target of 100,000, whilst a bunch of people with votes want her to send them all home.

There is talk of deals with Australia, Canada and New Zealand which, if concluded, would probably means death to swathes of our agricultural sector given their ability to produce food more cheaply than we can - land is cheap and plentiful, and they have economies of scale that we simply can't match. A cynic would suggest that the emphasis on countries that are overwhelming white is not an accident, but nevertheless...

And it seems to be being forgotten that, whist trade deals for manufactured goods are relatively straightforward, trade in services, which makes up much more of our trade, is much more difficult to negotiate. There are influential professional lobbies that aren't keen on competition, and it's much easier to erect barriers both legal and cultural.

This is not going to be easy. And the negotiators for the other side know that. They have time on their side, and a set of core principles that must be defended if the European Union is to survive intact. And we have... confusion and a divided nation.

There is no sign of compromise on this side of the Channel - the "winners" are sour in their victory, the "losers" despairing in their sense of loss and angry that the lies told during the campaign have gone mostly unpunished. And when the choice offered is so increasingly binary, compromise is rather less likely than sullen silence.

So, Brexiteers. You wanted it and now you've got it. Come back and let me know when you've decided what "it" is...

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Vegetarians might wish to look away...

I'm rather fond of meat, and not terribly fussy about how it's cooked. And like my caveman ancestors, roast lumps of meat are perfectly acceptable. If you're like me in that respect, Latin America is quite a good place to go, as the parrilla is a serious meat-eater paradise.

In Punta Arenas, the nearest hotel to our hotel was Parrilla Los Ganaderos, and a brief walk past was sufficient to persuade Ros that this might be a good place to eat, especially as there was Patagonian lamb on the menu.

There is none of this haute cuisine stuff here. A lamb is boned (mostly) and fixed to a frame, from which it is roasted by proximity to hot coals. The succulent lamb is thus cooked and ready to serve.

We'd ordered the trio of lamb, which opened with some lamb ribs, and most delicious they were too. There was quite a lot of food though, compounded by the second element, a large hunk off of the shoulder. And that was where the problems started...

You see, whilst the lamb was truly delicious, the effects of my year-long diet were beginning to come into play. I simply can't eat the large meals that I used to be able to. And the prospect of a third lamb course was more than my digestive system could countenance. So, rather than waste good lamb, I called our waiter over, and explained that, whilst I had really enjoyed my meal, there was no need to serve the third element. Our waiter seemed surprised, but took our rejection with equanimity.

Next time, I'm bringing reinforcements...

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Puerto Natales: in search of astonishing...

Sometimes, you go to a place supposedly of outstanding beauty and it's a bit of a disappointment. Waikiki, for example, which Ros and I were decidedly lukewarm about. And, when you've travelled 9,000 miles or so, you really don't want to be let down.

A surprisingly comfortable bus took us on a three hour journey to Puerto Natales, a small town on the shore of Ultima Esperanza Fjord (yes, that's "Last Hope") and the gateway to the Torres del Paine National Park. and, whilst the journey was perfectly pleasant, our arrival into the town did not augur well.

The bus station is on the outskirts of town, next to the local prison, in a fairly grim suburb. Luckily, a convenient taxi whisked us away quickly to our home for the next three days, the Noi Indigo Patagonia, described as a boutique hotel, a phrase which can mean virtually anything.

Not a bad backdrop, is it?
We received an unexpectedly warm welcome from Nicolas, the enthusiastic manager, who introduced us to the Excursions Manager, Javier, and registered us. Everything we had asked for had been arranged, and we were directed to our room. One of the things that had attracted me to the hotel was the view... And, as views go, a fjord leading to snow-capped peaks has a lot to commend itself. They even left a bottle of something sparking, as well as diet-busting slices of chocolate cake. 

The town begged a little exploration, so we took a walk down to the port, where someone had clearly decided to invest in a tourism facility. The apparent absence of tourists was something of a blow, and the empty restaurant suggested that any tourists that did show up wouldn't stay for long, but the tourist information office was at least staffed - not that the person on duty appeared terribly hard pressed. We left, and headed into town, before making our way back to the hotel for dinner.

An early night was needed, for we were off to the National Park in the morning...

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

What better Valentine's Day gift than this?

A Magellenic Penguin - cute little
thing, isn't (s)he?
Flowers are nice, if a bit unchallenging. Of course, picking the right colour should matter, although I tend to pick colours that I like and hope that that suits the recipient. But, on Valentine's Day, it's the thought that counts, especially if it involves having to make an effort.

And so, this year, I thought about what to do instead, especially as we were going to be a long way from our local florist. And then it struck me - we were going to be convenient for a day out with something cute.

The Natural Monument Los Penguinos is on Isla Magdalena, a small rocky outcrop in the middle of the Straits of Magellan, but an easy boat ride from Punta Arenas. It hosts approximately 60,000 breeding pairs of Magellenic penguins, and the public can go and visit them, as long as they obey the rules - do not touch the penguins, do not leave the roped off path, do not approach within one metre of the penguins (even if they walk across the path!).

It did mean a very early start, but Ros is good at those, and we were soon on the water, heading for the island on a remarkably tranquil day for the region. It didn't take long before we reached Isla Magdalena and there were the penguins - hundreds and hundreds of them, wandering about, digging burrows and swimming in the shallow water on the shoreline.

Everywhere we went, more penguins and it became clear that the more mature penguins got the nesting sites closer to the water, and the relatively junior members of the community had to make their way further inland in order to find a place to nest. It's a fair way from the water, and uphill, so for the juniors, it's hard work to bring food for their chicks.

We only had an hour though, and it was back to the boat for the short journey to Isla Marta. You don't get to go onshore there, but the attraction is the sea lions, who bask of the rocky shore. Some of them swam towards the boat for a closer look whilst our captain made sure that everyone got a good look and plenty of pictures.

Sadly, it was time to head back to shore, but if you happen to be in Punta Arenas, we can strongly recommend the Solo Expediciones tour...

Monday, March 06, 2017

Suffolk Liberal Democrats launch a County Manifesto

Saturday saw me in Claydon, on Presidential aide duty, as the Party President, Baroness (Sal) Brinton, came to town. Now, admittedly, we're kind of used to having a Party President in Mid Suffolk, having had Ros in the role in 2009 and 2010, but it's always nice to see someone new. And, as someone had to navigate Sal from lunch in Claydon, to her afternoon event in Henley (no, not that Henley), it fell to me to do the honours.

That gave us a nice chance to catch up before she attended the launch of the Suffolk Liberal Democrat manifesto for May's County Council elections.

We did rather better than might otherwise have been the case in 2013, especially in Mid Suffolk where, despite getting just 14% of the vote across the District, we held our three seats and were only forty votes short of a gain in Stowmarket South. And, as since then, our poll standings have rebounded somewhat, we approach this year's elections in rather better spirit.

That is perhaps reflected in the main thrust of our manifesto, an outward looking, positive document. The Conservative-led administration (they don't quite have enough seats to have technical control) have, in spite of the cuts in central funding, squirreled away nearly £40 million into reserves over the past four years, whilst steadily cutting services across the piece. They've underspent even in terms of the budgets they've set, which makes you wonder what justification they have for taking the money from council taxpayers in the first place.

So, Suffolk Liberal Democrats are proposing to do something with the underspend;
  • a £5 million boost to adult social care
  • investment in the infrastructure to support new housing – roads, schools and doctor’s surgeries
  • funding for a county-wide mental health programme in schools
  • fixing our roads and pavements
  • investment in local bus services and make park and ride buses more frequent
  • protecting our libraries as a community facility
Frankly, we're not talking about going mad here, although I'm sure that Colin Noble will scream blue murder about events more than a decade ago anyway. But, with an aging county - Suffolk has significantly more people over the age of 65 than the national average, and it's likely to become even more of an issue over the coming decade - if there is to be meaningful adult social care provision in ten years time, action needs to be taken soon.

And, sometimes, you simply need to invest to save over the long time.

I'll be covering the manifesto in more detail over the next few weeks, with my own personal thoughts on the content...