Jacob Rees-Mogg: the truth behind the moggology

Slide3For those of us of a certain age, Dallas was compulsive weekly viewing in the 1970s & 80s. J.R. Ewing, one of the show’s main protagonists was portrayed as a shallow, vain, covetous, egocentric, manipulative and amoral Texas oilman with psychopathic tendencies.

He was an utterly compelling TV villain. Few of us will have forgotten the final episode of the 1980 series called “A House Divided”, a real cliff-hanger where JR very nearly got his richly deserved comeuppance.

Fast-forward forty years to meet a real-life, bane of our modern times, Jacob Rees-Mogg. Jokingly referred to as the “MP for the eighteenth century”, he is an old school tie and waistcoat wearing, top hat sporting, very socially & politically conservative coxcomb – an appropriately archaic epithet some may say.Slide5

He was sent to live among us as a reminder of an earlier epoch when the UK was the only global superpower. In dress, manner and speech, he is the present-day embodiment of a former, grander, more class-conscious, less equal, more deferential, Imperial Age.

The halcyon era of the Pax Britannica when flying the Union Jack, the Royal Navy’s gunboats roamed the world’s oceans unchecked, keeping the sea lanes safe, so that our merchant adventurers could trade freely with Johnny Foreigner.

Rees-Mogg is part struggling investment management tyro, part EU-fixated right-wing Tory MP, and part putative high priest of Brexit.

Exuding self-confidence, with more than a whiff of arrogance about him, and apparently unencumbered by self-doubt or any form of introspection, he is the archetypal highly polished product of Eton College, one the UK’s most notorious public schools.

The moggology which has developed around him imputes great business savvy, superlative investment competence and enormous wisdom. This myth unfortunately does not stand up to closer scrutiny. As we shall see, his reach frequently exceeds his grasp, and he can be prone to making some very poor judgements and decisions.

JR-M can be the typical British, middle class, stuffed-shirt, all-round pain in the arse; boring for Britain as he chunters on and on endlessly about how the UK must leave the EU at the earliest opportunity because it is the spawn of Satan/work of the Devil etc. etc. A slight exaggeration perhaps but not so far from the truth.

On the other hand, he can also be extremely witty, droll and amusing. One of the most scrupulously courteous of men, the JR-M has earned friends and admirers in some of the most unlikely places.

A very entertaining piece appeared on BuzzFeed a couple of years ago, called “Everyone Took the Piss Out of Jacob Rees-Mogg at University.” It rehashed some of the more unusual episodes that took place during JR-M’s three years as an undergraduate at Trinity College, Oxford.

He was first introduced to his fellow students on going up to university via an appearance in a feature entitled “Pushy Fresher IV”, in Cherwell, the University newspaper. It profiled those people considered likely to become “notorious on campus”.

Rees-Mogg, went on to appear fairly frequently on its pages during his time at Oxford. He was far from being a normal run of the mill undergraduate; affecting a rather eccentric, upper class wannabe, young fogeyish persona around the university.  One wag even alleged that he wore double breasted, Saville Row tailored, silk pyjamas in bed.

Slide10One of the more amusing incidents recounted in the BuzzFeed piece recalled an exchange almost thirty years ago between a gamine and rather lovely Yvette Cooper, then President of the Balliol JCR and our hero.

She was campaigning to abolish sub fusc, the expensive formal gown and headgear that undergraduates were (and still are) required to wear, on the very sensible grounds that it put off applicants from state schools. JR-M was reported as suggesting that students should instead be encouraged to wear a “full morning suit”. He went on to say that the mortarboard was a key part of student dress: “I do so like to cycle around Oxford with it on.”

Slide11It seems absolutely certain that J. R-Mogg, during his time at university was a confirmed, attention-seeking contrarian who deliberately and repeatedly ignored that wise old Latin saw – “vir prudens non contra ventum mingit”. Some things just never change…

On graduating from Oxford in 1991 armed with a degree in history (class unknown – there are differing reports. JR-Mogg has not responded to a request for clarification) He headed for the City where he worked initially for Rothchild & Co.

According to a 2016 profile in The Spectator, he was taken under the wing of the legendary investment guru, Nils Taube, spending a couple of years learning the nuts and bolts of his trade at the knee of the Master.

Taube was described in his Daily Telegraph obituary as ‘one of the best [City fund managers], having returned more than 15 per cent a year for the two funds he ran continuously between 1969 and 2006 — a remarkable record’. Apparently, he died of a stroke shortly after being taken ill while working on his Bloomberg terminal at the ripe old age of 79. Surely, an indication of true dedication to his profession?

In contrast, according to a former colleague during his first stint in Hong Kong ‘Jacob was a pedestrian fund manager, always more interested in politics than investment — he never outperformed the index. He was great friends with Chris Patten and was always in and out of Government House, working on his political reputation.’

JR-M returned to Hong Kong in 2003 to manage the Lloyd George Emerging Markets Fund. He stayed for the next five years, surfing or more accurately, failing to surf the global commodities boom and the Asian markets bull-run.

According to an October 2017 Financial Times analysis of his performance, “….the fund trailed the MSCI Emerging Markets Index, the benchmark for many emerging market funds, in four of those five years.”

In his defence, JR-M boasted that under his management, the fund had grown from a “mere $50 million to $5 billion.” This clearly demonstrates that he is an excellent salesman but as the evidence shows, a journeyman stock analyst and picker.

Slide12 Fund managers are normally paid an annual fee calculated according to a fixed percentage of the value of the investment under management. If it grows, the fees increase. If it shrinks or stays the same, fees are adjusted on a pro-rata basis. This approach works very well for the fund manager, not so much for the investor though.

In 2007, J-RM left Hong Kong with two colleagues to found Somerset Capital Management LLP (SCM) of which he owns twenty per cent. The $64k question is: “Was he pushed, or did he jump?”

Was this move the classic reverse double ferret where our hero became FILA-FIHK-TILA – Failed In London And Failed In Hong Kong – Trying In London Again? Rees-Mogg knows but he’s not saying….

SCM was conceived as a specialist Global Emerging Markets investment management firm. Its website states “We believe in co-investment, we cap our funds and we prefer to focus on performance above asset gathering.” It is a challenging sector in which to prosper, but one where it is recognised that in the right hands, high risk can bring high returns.

The company now boasts forty plus staff and has over £6.5 billion under management with impressive offices in London, Singapore and very recently, Dublin. It strenuously denies that the opening of its new office in Ireland is in any way related to the chaos anticipated with the UK’s upcoming departure from the EU due to begin in early 2019.

Fortuitously, Jacob and his wife Helena are well on their way to amassing a sizable family fortune. Just as well really, as the loved-up, uber-fecund couple have six children to privately educate. She is in-line to inherit the £45 million Fitzwilliam estate. When that unhappy day finally arrives, it is thought the golden couple could then be worth well north of £100 million.  Moggwarts

Elected to the House of Commons in 2010, JR-Mogg reportedly works about 30 hours per month for SCM and draws a salary of approximately £180,000 per year for his efforts. Moreover, as a partner, he is entitled to a fifth share of the profits generated (£25.3 million in 2017/18).

This is in addition to his parliamentary earnings of £77,300 per year plus expenses. These amounted to £137,500 in 2016/17 (including £17.54 claimed for printer paper in June 2016).

Which naïve fool said that being an MP should be a full-time job, particularly when the tax-payer seems happy to pay for plenty of hired help to provide cover for those really busy times?

It would seem highly unlikely that there is ever any conflict between his role as an elected representative for North East Somerset where he is expected to speak for his electorate of 65,500 mainly rural constituents, and his activities as the fund manager of several billion ££s when he is legally obliged to act in the best interests of his partners and investors.

Slide13It seems certain that the stout West Country yeomen and women he represents are very content with their Member of Parliament sui generis. They must feel he is well placed to fully understand and empathise with the challenges and difficulties they encounter in their daily lives and then to act accordingly on their behalf.

SCM has over £1.7 billion under management in its only investment vehicles traded on the open market: the Somerset Global Emerging Markets (B) fund and the Somerset Emerging Markets Dividend Growth (A) fund.

Slide14Feel some sympathy though for the investors who may have been convinced by JR-Mogg’s self-confident, high-profile, well-networked, City “homme d’affaires” persona and his languid, rather exaggerated, faux-aristocratic manner and speech. As we shall see, all that glitters may not necessarily yield gold….

SCM’s fund performance over the last year has been dismal. In mid-August 2018, the City Wire Wealth Manager website ranked the SGEM (B) at 232/281 funds (0% 1 yr growth) and the SEMDG (A) at 241/281 funds (-0.7% 1 yr growth). Both funds languish in the bottom quintile of their sector.

This could only be described as a D-minus performance or in the argot of Eton College his old public school, a GTF or a General Total Failure.

Slide6JR-Mogg’s fairly recently departed mentor Nils Taube must be rotating in his grave at a rate of knots as heaven forfend, his erstwhile protégé fails to match key investment indices by a country mile.

Looking at performance over the last five years, the picture is slightly better. However, the performance of both funds is still middling at best.  SGEM (B) comes in at very average 100th/198 funds while SEMDG (A) ranks at 119th/198 position. They have returned a pretty anaemic 43 per cent and 40 per cent respectively in cumulative growth over the same period, placing them squarely in the 3rd and 4th quintiles of their sector.

In contrast, the top performing funds in the same sector have returned a relatively impressive 81 per cent growth over five years and 19 per cent over the last year.

The table compares SCM’s fund performance over one and five years with some of the more important emerging markets where they have reportedly invested their clients’ funds. The absence of any performance data on the SCM website is very surprising indeed in this age of information overload.

Slide8

The analysis provokes several interesting reflections:

  • Fund management really does involve “earning” lots of money in exchange for very little old rope
  • There are huge fees to be earned by even the most mediocre of investment managers
  • Salesmanship trumps stock analysis & fund management skills every time
  • The pattern of fund under-performance established at Lloyd George Management has continued with SCM LLP
  • The Emperor desperately needs some new clothes before he is rumbled by the markets and investors

For the tech-savvy reader, £1,000 invested in Apple shares five years ago would have yielded 298 per cent growth and would now be worth £3,980.  Investors in Facebook have done even better and £1,000 would have grown to £5,860, representing a stonking 486 per cent increase.

Slide7Rees-Mogg clearly has some very significant failings as an investment manager and guru. Indeed, some cynics might justifiably argue that a troop of half-trained monkeys could have done a better job by picking stocks at random or by simply investing in a low-cost tracker fund.

Why, therefore should anyone take his very confident claims about the supposedly vast benefits to the UK of leaving the EU with any degree of seriousness? The wild assertions he has made as one of the self-anointed “Oracles of Brexit” about this extremely complex issue are impossible to confirm or deny at this stage in the process of our departure.

However, the very underwhelming investment performance of his company provides indisputable evidence of his general fallibility, a lack of sound judgement in important areas and an inability to ensure that even his own business is managed effectively.

Rees-Mogg was recently reported as saying that it could take fifty years for the UK to even begin to reap a Brexit dividend. Not unsurprisingly, SCM which has a fiduciary duty to its investors, has begun briefing against him by warning its clients of the potential significant disruption to the UK economy posed by the hard Brexit so strongly advocated by err, Jacob Rees-Mogg!

Happily, for Jacob, Helena and their six children, they will be well protected from any of the adverse effects of Brexit through the splendid cushion provided by their very substantial family wealth. Would that this was so for the rest of us.

‘It is all very well having those views and being thought to be rather an eccentric but interesting lad when you are eight. But having the same views when you are forty-eight raises, I think, one or two eyebrows.

And, I think, he has allowed himself a bit to be taken over by his own image and caricature.’

Chris Patten – Former Cabinet Minister & Last Governor of Hong Kong

Jacob Rees-Mogg has a real ability to amuse, an attractive propensity not to take himself too seriously and a penchant for genuine self-deprecation. He is also as we have seen, a very successful salesman and marketeer, qualities that he is bringing to the Brexit debate in full.

Great care must be taken to understand the man behind the mask to avoid being dazzled by the superficial glitz of an unusually vivid and interesting personality.

To be charming, witty and charismatic is a very good starting point for any wannabe political leader.

However, other important qualities are also needed if that person is to lead successfully, such as: sound values, balance, vision, integrity, good judgement, reflectiveness, a deep knowledge of history, economics & geo-politics for starters and a degree of humility & introspection.

Many would argue that JR-M possesses the former qualities in spades but that he has a significant deficit in a number of the latter.

Why on earth then should the British people put their future economic well-being and long-term security in jeopardy by giving any credence to the very confident predictions of an over-rated, monomaniac like Jacob Rees-Mogg or equally, the opinions of the relatively small number of ne’er-do-wells on the far right of the Tory Party, in the European “Research” Group and elsewhere who are almost clinically obsessed with Brexit and driven to the point of recklessness and madness by it?

Our country and indeed the world, looks on in astonishment as he battles with Boris Johnson for the role of Macbeth or Macduff in “Brexit” – our 21st century national version of that Shakespearean tragedy. Slide16

One can only hope that the Great British Public will hear and then utterly dismiss the havering of Jacob Rees-Mogg and his absurd, equally attention-seeking, clown-rival, BoJo.

That would deliver for them both, some very richly deserved, just desserts indeed.  Together, they are jointly responsible for trying to create a right royal and very perilous Eton mess for the rest of us.

Returning to the question implied in the title of this essay: how real are Rees-Mogg’s much heralded, oft quoted achievements in business and therefore, how seriously should he be taken on the critical issue of Brexit? The answer is of course: not very much on all counts.

It is frequently said that emptiest vessels make the most noise, and this may well be true of the Brexit debate.  One can look at Donald Trump with amazement and wonder how a man without any redeeming characteristics, and lacking any obvious gifts except a massive capacity to tolerate risk has been able to become rich beyond the dreams of avarice? Clearly, these things are possible.

What is beyond doubt though, is that the good people of the United Kingdom deserve much better leadership in these very challenging times than either Jacob Rees-Mogg or Boris Johnson is able to provide.

The Tale of the Stink Bombs on the Bus

In the margins of my recent shock-horror revelation that I have begun an exercise programme, I had a splendid conversation with one of my oldest friends, Steven F. For some inexplicable reason, he was always called Fred at school. I will continue with that convention for the purpose of this little tale.

Fred and I have known each other since we were 8 or 9 and we were pupils at the same schools and in a lot of the same classes right up until our A levels. During our conversation, we revisited the almost forgotten episode of “The Stink Bombs on the Bus” an event that happened about 45 years ago. This was undoubtedly, one of the lowest and most shameful points (amongst many shameful and low points…) of my rather chequered school career. On the basis that it is often said that it is better to talk about these things rather than to hold them in, I would like to share the details of this sorry tale and the conversation with Fred with my friends. Names have been mostly changed to protect the various actors,

Me: Got a few aching muscles now after the training session, but feeling very good overall. As Tommy Carr, our tyrannical Welsh sports master at school used to say in his proper Valleys accent – “Remember boys, no pain, no gain”. And he was right. Shame it’s taken me 45 years to see it….

Fred: Mr Carr tyrannical? I think you might have been a bit luckier than you realised at the time!

Me: I can remember him getting in my face once after I’d “forgotten” my games kit for the 10th time that term and saying “You really hate me don’t you Lewis?” I’m ashamed to admit that I lied through my teeth and replied “No sir, actually I quite like you.” Well that set him off, and he then proceeded to leather my large backside with a stained old off-white dap (pumps for my northern friends and training shoe for everybody else) as we say in South Wales that he kept specifically for that purpose.

Of course that wasn’t the only time I got whacked at school – I fully recognise that I was not the easiest of pupils sometimes…. One particular exploit which resulted in the evacuation of a Red and White double-decker school bus, the rapid deployment of a replacement vehicle and quite a severe caning for me from the Deputy Head still causes me to pause occasionally and think “Did I really do that??”

In all honesty, I don’t think the various thrashings I received at the hands of a variety of teachers did me any lasting harm because I deserved all of them and I was fully prepared to face the music. That said, times have changed for the better and it is absolutely right that teachers and parents are no longer allowed to beat children. But getting back to Mr Carr, I think it fair to say that I probably had a different kind of relationship with him than you did!

Fred: I suppose so. I did actually start to like games when I was about 14, so I suppose I have probably suppressed most of what happened before that.

Me: I vividly remember my first games lesson in September 1970. We gathered in the gym and we had to choose a sport for our first winter term at the school. Tommy Carr said (and his words remain etched into my memory): “Well boys, you’ve got two choices, you can play rugby or you can play rugby. What’s it going to be then?”

Fred: Yes that sounds about right. You weren’t alone in hating Rugby back then though. My first bad memory actually goes back further to St John’s when someone decided to play a mean trick by nominating me to play for one of the school teams. When I queried it, after letting me stew for a bit, they said it’s OK, I was only the number 16 so in fact I would be a linesman. After an all too brief training (I never quite could sort out which way to point the flag), I found it quite hard even to keep up with the play. I set off running up the side of the pitch and suddenly the whistle blows and they awarded a line-out. I said what was that for, and they said I had been waving the flag in whichever direction it was. I hadn’t really been waving the flag at all, just flailing in my efforts to run as fast as I could. Anyway, they never picked me again, thank goodness.

Me: Ah, St Johns on the Hill or the “Dump on the Tump” as I used to call it. The headmaster was an unusual character as I remember and I’ve done my best to forget my undistinguished sojourn there.

Fred: Are you willing to reveal what you did on the bus?

Me:  “The Stink Bombs on the Bus” episode was not one of my finer moments, I’m afraid. It happened one Monday in September after a Saturday expedition to the joke shop on Christmas Steps in Bristol when I was about eleven or twelve I think. I’d purchased several phials of a very noxious fluid called Stinko. Each was equivalent to about 10 normal stink bombs. My intention was to resell them at a profit in school.

On the double decker bus going to school on Monday morning, I happened to sit upstairs next to someone who could only be described as a serially naughty lad and an unremitting recidivist. Without naming names, do you remember Roger Reece? I told him about the Stinko I had bought in Bristol and we agreed on a price. He handed over the readies and I gave him a couple of tubes of the malodourous fluid.

Then Reecy did something unexpected as I should have foreseen. He walked to the back of the bus where the stairs were. The bus conductor (those were the days eh?) used to stand downstairs right at the back of the bus by the door. He took the top off a tube of Stinko and said “I wonder what would happen if I tip this all over the shelf right at the back.” And then he proceeded to do exactly that and then opened the second tube and did the same with that one! I was a bit stunned by this, like a deer in the headlights, and I knew in that instant as my life flashed before me, that this was a bad day which would only get worse.

I retreated quickly to the front of the bus and hid. The Stinko fluid, remember we are talking of the equivalent of 20 stink bombs here, dripped down onto the poor old bus conductor and the double decker quickly filled with the intense smell of a thousand farts. To cut a long story short, the bus had to be evacuated in Chepstow bus station and taken out of service for a hose-down and a deep clean. The poor old bus conductor was taken away for decontamination and to be measured-up for the new uniform he needed. I’ll bet he wasn’t allowed to go anywhere near his wife for weeks. Other than suffering from slight shock, he was fine I understand, and fortunately went on to make a swift recovery.

Eventually, a replacement bus rolled into the bus station.  We were herded on to it and driven up to school, arriving well over an hour late. At this stage, apart from the other kids on the bus, nobody in any kind of authority had a clue who was responsible for the dastardly deed that had been committed. The odour-free replacement bus rocked-up in the school yard and there was a grim looking reception committee waiting for us; consisting of the Head Mrs Hurt, the Deputy Head Mr Papadopoulis, and a couple of heavies from the PE department to keep us under control. I suppose we’d call it “kettling” these days? Probably, Tommy Carr was there, cos that was exactly the kind of activity he relished as a PE teacher, but I couldn’t swear to it in all honesty.

We were lined up outside Mrs Hurt’s office and were told, in terms that left no room at all for any doubt, that unless the miscreants owned up, everybody on the bus would be on permanent detention for rest of their lives. The precise question asked of us was “Who was the idiot that had brought the stink bombs onto the bus?” At that point, I knew my goose was well and truly cooked, my chickens had come home to roost etc., and that I was going to have a really, really, poor day…

It’s hard to overstate the peer pressure exerted by the other 60 odd kids on the bus who were looking at a lifetime of detention unless I owned up. They knew exactly who the perpetrators were. Realising, that my case was hopeless and that no amount of charm or bullshit was going to get me off this time, I straightened my back, pushed out my chest, sucked in my stomach (to the extent that was possible in those days) and owned up to the crime, to the palpable relief of all the other kids, except Reecy. To his credit, thinking that it would be unfair for me to take the rap all on my own, he “fessed” up too.

We then got one of the most comprehensive, wide ranging and intensive bollockings it has ever been my privilege to receive. Punishments were meted out and mine was four of the best with some community service (permanent rubbish collection duty as I remember) thrown in for good measure. This was complicated a bit by the fact that Mrs Burt taught English to the top set in my year. I was a bit of a favourite of hers and also one of the better students in the class at the time. That didn’t last long though… Anyway, unable to bring herself to thrash one of her favourite pupils, she delegated that task to the Deputy Head, Mr Papadopoulis.

He shared none of her qualms in that respect. The deputy head didn’t use a cane, but a bit of 2 by 2 which he applied to my rear end with what can only be described as considerable enthusiasm. I can remember, taking my punishment like a man without so much as a whimper and then striding purposefully into the boys’ toilets, sitting down and flushing repeatedly to cool down my throbbing posterior.

And that in short, Fred, is the sorry story of stink bomb on the bus. I still think of this unfortunate episode from time to time, tinged as it must be with some regrets of course, and then chuckle and wish I’d struck a better deal for the Stinko with Reecy. But, hey, life is too short to dwell on the “What ifs and what might have beens” don’t you think?

We Have Reached Peak Jeremy Corbyn

jeremy-titfer

I am going to make a prediction that many people are not going to like. It is this – the June 2017 general election represented the high-water mark of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. Why is this relevant? Despite all the hoopla and excitable claims, the Labour Party lost. It won 56 seats less than the Tories and it was 64 MPs short of the 326 needed to win an outright majority in the House of Commons. We are still then lumbered with a Tory government, at least for the present.

That’s not to detract for a moment from the excellent campaign that JC and Labour ran. He performed much better than I (most of his MPs, the Tories or the commentariat) believed that he would do, and he was clearly able to connect with voters in a way that was completely beyond Theresa May.

However, if Labour is to win the next election, which may not be very far away, it will need to convince many more voters in those additional 64 seats needed that it has the policies and the answers they want. I think that this is unlikely to happen for a number of reasons:

  • Jeremy Corbyn and Labour did quite well, but against a weak Conservative leader and a hopeless Tory election campaign. There are Tories grandees saying that this was their worst election campaign in modern times. Theresa May became increasingly exposed and unpopular the longer the unfortunate process lasted. If it had gone on for another few days, Jeremy Corbyn could well have been moving into 10 Downing Street next weekend.
  • The Tories will not let Theresa May lead them into the next election whenever that that may be. They will appoint a leader with a much greater ability to connect with the electorate and far better political skills well before then. Instead of anointing the new leader as they did with Mrs May last year, there will most probably be a more rigorous selection process to properly assess the candidates.
  • There is talk of a Boris Johnson / Michael Gove joint ticket. Boris as the amusing frontman – or the limbic brain, and Gove as the frontal cortex of the duo to do the heavy lifting and serious thinking. It makes for an interesting image. Whilst there is no doubt that Michael Gove is a clever man, he is also like Marmite for many of us. To be effective, cleverness needs to be coupled with common sense and sound judgement. The high jinks and jolly capers of last summer’s Tory leadership election amply demonstrated this is one area where the Govester does not score highly.  When the term “loose cannon” was originally coined, Boris Johnson could easily have been the inspiration. The Tories need to think carefully about what they wish for.
  • The Labour manifesto promised a great deal but was rather disingenuous about how it would all be funded. Because the Tory campaign was all about Teresa May and because she hid herself away most of the time, the Labour promises were never really challenged by others in the Tory party who were better placed to do so. That’s not going to happen again next time around in my view.
  • The Labour manifesto tuition fees pledge got the full attention of young people and for the first time in my memory, got them out to vote in very significant numbers, predominantly for Labour. They’d slept through the Brexit vote last year to their detriment. They really helped to swing things for Labour this time. Full credit to Jeremy Corbyn for achieving this seemingly impossible task; albeit helped by social media, an effective, national & local Labour Party machine and a £30k sweetener…
  • The Tories will have learned some very bitter lessons about the hopeless manifesto they produced. They have already started cleaning house this weekend with the abrupt departures of the much disliked Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former joint chiefs of staff and pit bull enforcers who bear significant responsibility for the debacle. They will be utterly ruthless in doing whatever needs to be done to make the party electable, because that’s how the Tories behave.
  • Without doubt, the next Tory manifesto will be much more hopeful and positive. It will also have to match or neutralise the offer made to young people by Labour on tuition fees.
  • Many young people will be fed-up that the Tories are still in power and that their votes have seemingly had no effect. They may well be much more disinclined to vote next time or perhaps they may vote Tory, given the better offer the Conservatives will surely make to them?
  • If a newly installed Tory leadership has any sense, it will abandon the rush towards the US-style, drastically pared-down state, spending 35 percent of GDP, beloved of David Cameron and George Osborne and all their rich pals. The Conservatives have come a cropper with this before during the Thatcher / Major era. They cut taxes, looked after business and the wealthy with the result that our public services became threadbare and unreliable. They then got rightly tossed-out by a fed-up electorate.
  • The British are Europeans not Americans. We don’t like the high levels of inequality seen today in the UK, and we do like our NHS and our public services to work well. If politicians are straight and honest with us about their cost, we are prepared to pay for them too. A savvy politician will recognise this and aim for something between the Scandinavian model and where we are now. If the Tories are clever and wise, and they may well be under a new leader, then that is the line they could well take. The Labour leader will have to have something ready to counter this eventuality, should it come to pass.
  • In my view, it is almost certain that the next election will happen before the Brexit negotiations have got into full swing and well before the shape of the final deal becomes apparent. Because Labour has been all over the place about Brexit; because Jeremy Corbyn is ambivalent about the EU; and because very many young people want the UK to stay in Europe, the electoral implications of Brexit on Labour’s electoral fortunes are very hard to predict.

So where does that leave those of us who want the Labour Party to do well but who have had deep reservations about Jeremy Corbyn from Day One? I remain with my long-held view that it will be very difficult for Labour to win from the hard left. If it is to govern on its own, it will need to attract significant numbers of Tory, Lib Dem or SNP voters in at least an additional 64 seats to allow it, at a minimum, to scrape over the finishing line and to avoid having to be propped-up by another party. To do this will require a more moderate, centrist leader. He or she must be prepared to take on many of the manifesto promises outlined by Jeremy Corbyn and his team, because the direction of travel is good and they are popular with voters. They must also have a more honest and credible plan for funding those pledges which will stand up to rigorous scrutiny.

Jeremy Corbyn is going to be hard to shift anytime soon. However, if the Labour Party is to make good on its manifesto pledges and bring about the change that people so desperately want, then a new leader is needed urgently to take the fight to the Tories. Without a change at the top, Labour faces another 10 years in the wilderness.

Any ideas?

 

 

Tanna – the Movie

tanna the movie

Alerted in mid-February to Tanna’s first screening foray into the UK’s provinces, Rona and I decided to get ourselves over to the Harbour Lights Picture House in Southampton from our base in Devon to see what all the fuss was about.  We were not to be disappointed in the slightest by the cinematographic triumph that unfolded before us that evening.

Having now watched the film in its entirety, it is completely understandable to me why it has attracted such a high degree of attention around the world, both from film critics and film festivals alike. It is an extraordinary movie – intense, passionate, moving, spiritual and beautifully filmed. A complete one-off that explores the universal human themes of war and peace, love, loyalty and community, set entirely in the context of a small, South Pacific island which forms part of the Vanuatu archipelago.

The film was made completely on location in Tanna by two Australian filmmakers: Bentley Dean and Martin Butler. Both had previously worked together in making documentaries. Bentley Dean had initially visited Tanna in 2003 to make a film about the John Frum movement for Australian television.  The storyline is based on actual events on Tanna and was developed by the Australian filmmakers in close collaboration with the Yakel people. The film was shot is entirely in two Tannese languages – Nauvhal and Nafe and is subtitled in English throughout.

Based around the actual 1987 suicides on Tanna of two young star-crossed lovers, the story is a modern day, South Pacific tragedy. It follows the same dramatic arc described in Romeo and Juliet which in its time was the latest in a tradition of tragic romances stretching back to antiquity. In Tanna the film, as in Shakespeare’s play, the untimely deaths of Dain and Wawa, the eponymously named protagonists of the movie, help to enable reconciliation between those left behind. One important consequence of the very unfortunate events of 1987 was that “love marriage” between young people became socially acceptable as opposed to the Kastom or arranged marriage which had previously been the norm.

In addition to the central theme of a love frustrated, the storyline touches on the rivalry and competition that exists between neighbouring tribes on Tanna for land and resources. Also explored is the nature of community in that part of the world and how the desires and wishes of the individual are generally subordinate to the needs and security of the group in Melanesian societies.  Yasur or Yahul as it is called in the film, the volcano plays an important role as the spiritual home of the Tannese and a kind of Mother Earth figure.

The stars of the show are an attractive young couple called Dain and Wawa of the (real) Yakel tribe.  Dain is the handsome grandson of the Yakel Chief who has recently returned home from his travels. Wawa is a beautiful young woman who has harboured feelings for Dain from her childhood. In the context of the film, the Imedin people are their ancient enemies and there have been many conflicts in the past between the two peoples. In fact, it is mentioned that Dain witnessed the savage killing of his parents in their own garden by men of the Imedin tribe.

Dain and Wawa fall secretly in love and decide to marry which is forbidden under Kastom. When Wawa comes of age, her community decides that she should be married off to a man from the Imedin tribe. In love with Dain, she protests vehemently against this but to no avail. In one of the most revealing moments of the film she is told by an elder that “love marriage” is not permitted. Arranged marriage is at the heart of Kastom and it is about building alliances between warring tribes and preserving the peace. When Wawa continues to protest, she is told “It is not about you – it is about us” as the women of the Yakel continue to pile the pressure on Wawa to do the right thing for the tribe.

Undeterred, Dain and Wawa continue their romance and are discovered. Dain is expelled from the Yakel and sent into the wilderness. Preparations continue for Wawa’s marriage into the Imedin tribe until she runs away to find Dain. They try to find refuge in a Christian village on Tanna but that does not work out. In the end, frustrated that there seems no way for them to be to be together, they decide to take their own lives on the slopes of Yahul (Yasur) by eating poison mushrooms. This takes place in a spectacular scene with Yasur erupting violently in the background. Their bodies are discovered by searchers from their community and are brought back to their village. At their funeral ceremony in the village, the Chief of the Yakel declares that “We resisted the colonial powers and we resisted the Christians but if Kastom is to survive then we must make a place in it for “love marriage”. And so, it came to pass on Tanna.

One feature of Tanna that is extraordinary is the truly amazing standard of the acting by people who are not professional actors and who may have never watched a film in their lives. It has been reported that cast members did not regard the filming as being difficult because their roles were “performing what we were used to in our daily life!”  If you do have the opportunity to watch Tanna on a big screen, take it. You will not be disappointed. The quality of the script, acting and cinematography are simply stunning in a film shot in extraordinarily beautiful locations that nonetheless must have been pretty challenging at times for its makers. The fact that Tanna has been nominated for a raft of awards, including best foreign language film at this year’s Academy Awards, is a worthy testament indeed to the brilliant quality of its storytelling.

An Eulogy for Tim – Memories of a Very Special Son and Brother

1

DAVE

Tim was born on a warm, second Thursday in July just over a week after England beat Germany 4 – 2 in extra time to win the 1966 World Cup at Wembley. He was a beautiful and very affectionate baby right from the beginning. Like all the members of his family, he tucked heartily into his food from an early age, but fortunately for him, he never became as well-upholstered as the rest of us. However, as we shall learn shortly, sometimes it was not for want of trying! At the time, we were living over mum and dad’s business on the A48, between Newport and Chepstow. Our home looked out north to the great forest of the Wentwood and to the brooding heights of Grey Hill. There were plenty of lush green country lanes close by in which to take Tim for long walks which probably helped to keep him reasonably trim and fit.

Tim’s Down’s syndrome and complete deafness came as quite a shock to mum and dad and to all of us really, but they resolved to do everything possible to enable him to live as normal a family life as possible with us at home. Mum decided that she needed to find out as much as she could about how to help children with severe learning difficulties most effectively. When Tim was three, she enrolled on a two year, one weekend a month course at the Hill Residential Centre in Abergavenny to learn how best to stimulate and work with him to maximise the potential he had.

One of mum’s lecturers was a coordinator of special needs social services for Gwent. She provided excellent support for mum and dad and organised a place for Tim at the Hafod-yr-ynys day training centre when he was three. Although twenty miles away, Tim really enjoyed watching the world roll by during the daily minibus journey there and back. His love of riding in a car, or on a bus or train was something that remained with him for his whole life. Tim really liked to be on the move with all the wheels going around!

When he was two, our dear Grandma George who was almost universally called Mummums came to live with us. They adored each other and she was a very loving and calming influence on Tim as he tried to cope with his mental and physical challenges. As the years passed, Tim grew taller and stronger and dare I say it, quite stubborn and extremely determined at times. Without naming names, I wonder where he got that from mum? Being profoundly deaf and with absolutely no sense of danger at all, our parents were struggling to keep Tim safe and content at home even with considerable family support.

An expedition somewhere required at least three people and even then, sometimes disaster lurked not so far away. On one memorable occasion, he was returning from a lovely walk in the castle dell in Chepstow when he decided that it would be a fabulous thing to undertake a one-man sit down protest in the middle of Welsh Street and block the traffic. He could not be shifted and there were a number of unfortunate motorists that afternoon who returned home a bit later than anticipated from their errands in town.

In 1977, he went to live at Manor House in Frenchay, Bristol which was a residential home for children with a variety of disabilities. He came home most weekends and went on to spend sixteen very happy years there in the care of two fantastic women, Miss Tidder and Mrs Clark. They became extremely fond of him and looked after him brilliantly. Despite Tim’s profound disabilities, throughout his life he was able to attract and connect with the most wonderful people who loved him dearly and cared for him as they would their own. By 1992 though, he had become too old for Manor House and mum and dad were asked to find him a new home.

They looked at several, none of which they felt were suitable for our boy and were beginning to become despondent and worried that they might never find a good, kind, safe and caring home for Tim. And then one day they found Littlecroft and all of those concerns disappeared overnight. They knew immediately that they had found the right place and that they could put all their fears to rest. Tim and our whole family were so fortunate when he moved to the farm in early 1993. It gave him absolutely outstanding care, tranquillity, a real quality of life and genuine love for almost a quarter of a century. In recent years though, his health had deteriorated significantly. Early on Monday morning last week, after a short illness, he slipped away painlessly and peacefully, cared for by his dear old pals who looked after him so wonderfully right up until the very end at Littlecroft.

Thank you so very much to everyone who works there: to Lynn for having the idea in the first place and then putting it into practice wonderfully, for finding great people to work with and for always putting Tim’s needs before any commercial considerations; to Pauline for managing Littlecroft  with great competence, care and compassion, for stoically navigating the sometimes Kafkaesque care bureaucracy and never giving up, and for being Tim’s great friend; to Rob and Ben for being like true brothers to Tim and always looking out for him; and to all the staff for always being kind, caring and generally just brilliant. You are simply the BEST! Words alone cannot adequately express our immense gratitude and huge debt to you all. The Care Quality Commission once asked us in one of its surveys how we thought Tim’s care could be improved. We thought long and hard about the question for a couple of days but we couldn’t think of a single thing that we would change or alter.

We would also like to offer our sincere thanks to Dr Lane his GP, Dr Winterbottom and all the Community Learning & Disabilities team at the local NHS Trust for all the excellent care they provided Tim with during the last 23 years. And last but not least, over the last 50 years, various members of the family have given considerable help and support with looking after and caring for Tim. You know who you are and we are very grateful to you all.

Some of our Favourite Tales about Tim

PAULINE

Needless to say I have been thinking lots about Tim and all our adventures over the last 23 years. He had a marvellous sense of humour and often you would find him smirking behind his hand and you knew he had either done something or was planning it! My first memory of Tim and his “crafty antics” was on my second day at Littlecroft. We were all sitting at the table for a light, poached eggs on toast lunch. We all had 2 pieces of toast and an egg on each of them. We hadn’t started eating and Alan, a member of staff turned to Lisa on his right to assist her. Quick as a flash, Tim’s hand shot out, he grabbed an egg off Alan’s plate, stuffed it straight into his mouth and then put his hands down, flat on the table – the very epitome of youthful innocence. Alan turned back, totally unaware of what had happened to find only one egg left on his plate and Tim with a very crafty smile on his face indeed!

He learnt to do so many things for himself such as pushing the wheelbarrow up to the farm with the black rubbish bag. On arrival at the farm’s refuse bin, he would lift it out and put it straight in. One thing he would never do though was to turn the wheelbarrow around as you or I would do…no, it had to be done Tim’s way. He would go around to the front of the barrow and lift it straight up off the floor and walk around with it until it was facing the correct way to go back to the cottage. When we arrived back at the cottage, it had to be left in only one place in the garden – tipped up against the fence. If he was in the garden and you left anything about it would vanish, courtesy of Tim of course, but you always knew where to find it…over the garden fence!! This included on numerous occasions, the wheelbarrow itself. Tim was an extremely strong man.

Brixham became one of our favourite holiday retreats, it had everything for Tim to stimulate his senses. We would use the Western Lady ferry to and fro to Torquay on an almost daily basis. Tim would “ooo” and pat his chest, a sign he was enjoying the movement, wind, and sea air. We also regularly did the three-legged Round Robin or the Full Monty as it is known by some staff members. This consists of the steam train from Paignton to Kingswear, then a ferry to Dartmouth, a river cruise up to Totnes and finally an open top bus back to Paignton. On a warm and sunny summer’s day it is a trip that is truly heaven in Devon! It was six or seven hours on the move with plenty of wheels turning. Tim was in paradise. We would arrange to meet up with Val and the family, usually at Squires, a local restaurant in Churston. Val would always treat us to a delicious meal of fish and chips which Tim would thoroughly enjoy. When we visit Devon again and encounter once more the “fishy smell” that could only be Brixham, we will always remember Tim and the lovely times we had there with him.

DAVE

One of my favourite stories is about an excursion that Tim took when he was about twenty years old to Thornbury with our parents. Mum and dad were taking him out for the afternoon from Manor House and they needed to obtain some essential provisions in preparation for their trip. Mum went into a local supermarket to make the necessary purchases leaving dad in the front of the car contentedly engrossed in his Financial Times and our hero apparently dozing quietly in the back. Well, Tim decided that taking forty winks in a parked car was definitely not living up to his expectations for the afternoon’s jaunt with mum and dad and he therefore needed to liven the proceedings up a bit. So he gleefully stripped off every single piece of clothing he had on and threw them all out of the rear window of the car. This was quite an unusual thing to do in the middle of a crowded supermarket carpark, even by the fairly relaxed standards of the mid 1980’s. Saying that my dear old dad would have been rather discombobulated when he glanced into his rear view mirror and realised what was happening in the back of the car, would have been to understate his reaction quite a bit.  Knowing him as I did, I am very sure that he would have been shocked and appalled! I can certainly imagine and indeed I can almost hear the “duw duws” there must have been, even now at a remove of almost 30 years!

Remember, these were the days before mobile phones and dad had no way of sending an SOS to mum, fully focused as she undoubtedly would have been on her vital mission to procure the cool beverages and tasty comestibles needed to sustain the afternoon’s activities. Thankfully, she soon returned, her task successfully accomplished. The scattered clothes were then quickly retrieved from underneath the surrounding vehicles, Tim was dressed appropriately once more and seemliness & serenity were restored to the supermarket carpark. Happily for the world, Tim seems to have been the only member of our family who has ever had the slightest inclination or propensity to disport themselves publicly in their birthday suit.

PAULINE

Tim really did enjoy his trips to the local hostelry. One day, Lynn, Rob and myself were out at a darts match and we had taken Tim along to have a drink with us. Tim was stood at the bar with his back to a chap who was waiting patiently for his drink. The man did as we all do in a pub, and he looked up and down the bar whilst waiting to be served. Quick as greased lightning, Tim spotted his opportunity and his hand shot out, picked up the poor chap’s pint off the bar and down it went, whoosh!! in one go. He then quickly replaced the glass on the bar where he had got it from. It all happened so rapidly, we stood as if transfixed, unable to react fast enough. A few seconds later the man turned to pick up his drink, totally oblivious to what had happened. He looked down at his empty glass and did a double take with a look of complete shock on his face. Mr Innocent aka Tim stood there, grinning to himself as if it was absolutely nothing to do with him! We quickly had to step in, apologise and explain what had happened. The purchase of a replacement pint fortunately brought this potentially unhappy episode to a satisfactory conclusion!

I could go on and on as Tim was a real character and a very special person to us who will be sadly missed. I wouldn’t say Tim was part of Littlecroft, I would say Tim was Littlecroft and that will never change. Tim is still here with us, tidying up, blowing raspberries in the mini bus and grinning his cheeky smile of mischief behind his hand.  R.I.P Tim xxx

DAVE

Unfortunately, my very talented sister  who is facing her own health challenges, is unable to be here with us today to bid farewell to our boy. Soon after hearing the very sad but not unexpected news last week that Tim had left us, she wrote a beautiful poem which perfectly captures the very essence of him. I would like to take a moment to share it with you. 

For Tim

To a silent world our cariad brother came

He never heard or even spoke his name

Yet with a gift that many others yearn

Of being loved and loving in return

SO MANY thanks to those who loved our boy

As their own through sadness, light and shade

Who helped him be himself and give us joy

Memories of true devotion never fade

And when we’re asked how we’ll remember him?

As brave, endearing, funny, dearest Tim

Yn Awr Mewn Hedd

(Now at Peace)

The Power of the State versus the Right of a Citizen to Privacy

I’ve thought about the issue of the power of the state versus our individual rights and freedoms quite a lot recently. Events such as 9/11, 7/7 and the recent events in Paris and Brussels starkly illustrate just how important it is to get the balance right. Edward Snowdon, the whistle blower, was right when he said “…If we do nothing, we sort of sleepwalk into a total surveillance state where we have both a super-state that has unlimited capacity to apply force with an unlimited ability to know (about the people it is targeting) – and that’s a very dangerous combination. That’s the dark future…”

This is the dystopian vision of the future that Orwell foreshadowed in his book 1984 and nobody really wants to go there. I can remember watching Andrew Parker of the Security Service and Iain Lobban of GCHQ appearing in front of the Security and Intelligence committee to justify the intelligence gathering powers to be granted to the state by the Draft Communications Data Bill a.k.a. the Snoopers Charter. They provided a compelling case for the bill by emphasising the point that the primary responsibility of the state is to keep its citizens safe. Without the right to security and life, all other rights are meaningless.

In our modern communications age, it is becoming increasingly more difficult to track and intercept the communications of those people and organisations that would do us harm. Our security agencies need all the help they can get with this almost impossible job. But, as a well-known commentator in one of the UK’s lower rent national newspapers is apt to frequently observe: “…my golden rule is that if you give anyone a modicum of authority, they will always, always, abuse it.” And unfortunately he is pretty much spot on the money.

In another time and another age, back in the mid-1970s, the Nixon Administration had to grapple with its response to the Pentagon Papers leak for which Daniel Ellsberg was responsible. Donald Rumsfeld (erstwhile US Defence Secretary under President G.W. Bush and one of the principal architects of the debacle that was the 2nd Iraq war) the ultimate political insider who was then Chief of Staff to Nixon, observed on one of the White House tapes:

“….To the ordinary guy, all this is a bunch of gobbledygook. But out of the gobbledygook comes a very clear thing…. You can’t trust the government; you can’t believe what they say; and you can’t rely on their judgment; and the implicit infallibility of presidents, which has been an accepted thing in America, is badly hurt by this, because it shows that people do things the president wants to do even though it’s wrong, and the president can be wrong.”

And this is where people like Daniel Ellsberg, Edward Snowdon, Bradley Manning and even Julian Assange play a useful, if not vital role in keeping our democracy and our freedoms safe. Individuals on the inside or outside who are prepared to risk all to challenge, to question and even to expose the activities of a sometimes over-powerful state and who help to hold it to account, are in my view, an essential piece of the mechanism needed to ensure that the right equilibrium is established between the power of the state and the rights of its citizens. The old Quaker saw about the need to “speak truth to power” is as valid in 2015 as when it was originally coined.

Where do I stand with respect to the difficult question of safety versus liberty? I stand at the fulcrum wherever it is, where the benefits of safety are counterbalanced by our rights to freedom and liberty. This is not an easy thing to determine and it is an equilibrium that is constantly in flux. Right now, I think we are traversing an exceptionally difficult period where, in order to be safe, we may have to cede some of our freedoms.

At this point, the freedom obsessives will frequently quote Benjamin Franklin who said “He who would trade liberty for some temporary security, deserves neither liberty nor security.” But I disagree with him on this issue. He could not possibly have foreseen the rise of extreme Islam or the power and reach of the modern internet and the impact of both on our security. These factors combined with the activities of hostile countries like Russia and terrorist groups like Islamic State and Al Queda, are creating some very serious challenges for our democracy and security that were unimaginable in Ben Franklin’s day.

Paradoxically, I think that the very technologies that are said to be making us vulnerable will be the instruments that help to keep us safe. Whilst social media can undoubtedly be used for malign purposes, it can also be used to help protect people. Hackers against ISIL is a recent example where techy bods are getting together to take the IT war to the terrorists. And good on them I say. Wikileaks is a useful mechanism for encouraging governments to think more carefully about what they do and how they do it. The Panama Papers have lit a fire under the tax dodging super rich who will never again be able to feel that their illicit millions are safely salted away in impregnable tax havens. Facebook and Twitter are fabulous instruments for enabling people to share ideas and information freely. After all, human progress happens a millimetre at a time, facilitated by a million conversations like this one.

How to Save Syria: a deal with two devils is urgently needed

Dr Sarah Wollaston MP
Houses of Commons
London
SW1A 0AA

19/02/2016

Dear Sarah,

Next month will mark the 5th anniversary of the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, a conflict which according to various estimates, has so far cost the lives of between two hundred thousand and half a million people – men, women and children. In addition, an estimated 1.9 million people, both combatant and non-combatant have been wounded in the seemingly endless fighting. Beyond death and injury, the costs of the conflict to the civilian population have been immense.

Half of the country’s pre-war population, more than 12 million people has been killed or forced to flee their homes. There are thought to be 1.6 million Syrian war refugees living in Turkey. Another 8 million of more are either internally displaced within Syria or have crossed the border and are living in refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan. In 2015, over one million Syrians fled to Western Europe from the conflict zone and nearly 4,000 of them are thought to have drowned making the attempt. The first 6 weeks of 2016 have seen more than 80,000 Syrian refugees make the perilous journey to Europe.

As the Economist reported this week:

“Syria is a nasty complex of wars within a war: an uprising against dictatorship; a sectarian battle between Sunnis and Alawites (and their Shia allies); an internecine struggle among Sunni Arabs; a Kurdish quest for a homeland; a regional proxy war pitting Saudi Arabia and Turkey against Iran; and a geopolitical contest between a timid America and a resurgent Russia.”

It is now time for the West to act decisively to bring this dreadful conflict to a conclusion. A failure to do so will mean that the war will drag on endlessly into the future, destabilising the Middle East even further and allowing hundreds of thousands more Syrians to be killed and injured. An already over-stretched Europe will see millions of additional refugees in the years to come.

Further inaction is not an option in the face of this calamity of biblical proportions. It seems likely that the Syrian peace talks as presently configured will turn into an international talkfest that could go on for years without achieving anything significant. It is very clear to me that any realistic plan to bring the conflict to a rapid conclusion is going to require an ultra-pragmatic approach which will require the unthinkable to be thought. In practical terms this will mean the following:

 • Involving Bashar al-Assad in the peace talks. Christopher Hill, retired US Ambassador to Iraq and veteran of the 1995 Dayton peace talks which brokered the Bosnian peace settlement, speaking on the BBC Radio 4 this week commented “The biggest mistake the US and UK have made in Syria was deciding at the start of the conflict that they could not deal with President Assad”. He went on to make the point that due to the complex multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian nature of Syria, it is vital that he [Assad] be included in talks because without him a solution to the crisis is unlikely. And so he must.

 • Acknowledging the blindingly obvious, self-evident truth that the only significant, effective military forces in Syria at the moment are those of the Assad Regime and the Russians. Any rapid resolution of the conflict and the defeat of ISIL must inevitably involve the West doing a deal with two devils: Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin.

 • The West has a long history of dealing pragmatically with unsavoury leaders in pursuit of honourable objectives.

 • Assad and his local allies should be supported in taking on ISIL by the West and by Russia. The so-called “moderate” rebels in Syria on seeing the West line up with the regime and the Russians will recognise that the “game is up” and lay down their arms, disband and return to their communities. They will be very frustrated that their efforts to oust Assad have failed and disappointed in the West for its change of heart, but at least they will be alive and with a country and a future. Their security must be guaranteed as part of any future political settlement in Syria.

 • In exchange for lending its support to Assad, the West needs to extract a firm commitment from both him and the Russians, that minority groups in Syria must be protected. Prior to the civil war, there was a long history of religious and ethnic minorities in Syria living reasonably harmoniously with the Sunni majority.

 • A vital part of any peace deal in Syria will require a transition plan being agreed that will eventually see Bashar al- Assad exit the Syrian stage into retirement outside the country. If allowing Assad, the dignity of exile rather than the indignity of a war crimes trial at the ICC saves the life of a single Syrian, it will have been a deal worth making.

 • Post conflict there may be a requirement for some kind of UN led stabilisation force as happened in the Balkans in the 1990s. The UK and US must be prepared to support this with boots on the ground. This probably would also include a Russian component.

 • Syria will need to be rebuilt and that is going to cost many billions of dollars, much of which will have to come from Europe and the US. It must be made clear to the Syrians that support for the rebuilding of the country will only be forthcoming if there is significant progress in determining the future political arrangements for the country. These must include real democratic reforms, a realistic timetable for their implementation and the inclusion of significant constitutional protections as part of the political settlement for minority groups in the country.

 Vladimir Putin is clearly a very tricky customer for the West to deal with and making concessions to him, anathema for us. However, if peace in Syria requires that at least some of the Russian demands are to be allowed, then the UK and US must demonstrate some flexibility. For example, if the Russians request, as seems likely, continuing access to their Mediterranean naval base at Tartus as part of the deal, then we must be prepared to consider it seriously.

Yours sincerely,

David