Stick a brew on, Calvin (2)

Coincident both with the last ever London Drinker and with the opening of a new Brewdog in my hometown, I managed to choose today finally (FINALLY!) to get around to brewing one of the beers I blogged about obtaining some months back. Well, it is just about the first time since then I’ve had a guaranteed time at home to keep an eye on things as they ferment and then undergo a secondary fermentation once bottled. Despite my original purchase being the product of a Twitter advertising campaign (one reason for me never ‘liking’ things on Twitter…), Brew Craft Beer has never once contacted me subsequently by e-mail or even by post; a level of marketing tardiness in this day and age which ought, in principle, really to be a prompt for another purchase.

Anyway, of the two kits I bought last summer I went for the IPA. Aside of a couple of small holes in the brewing instructions (resolved with the aid of a few scribbled notes for next time), this was a pretty smooth, if very long, process: three solid hours, plus equipment preparation (sterilisation) and then decanting into a demi-john, and then the washing up, is a fairly solid investment of time into something whose results are far from certain and certainly not guaranteed. Truth to tell, I suspect that the yeast might have been a little close to the end of its life (expiry this month), and I managed to overheat the water at the start of the mash (the difficulties of working with an electric hob, not gas!). Concentration, and speed of reaction, here is really important. The most significant problem, however, was at the sparging process, during which you really need an industrial-size sieve: I used the biggest one available in our kitchen but it was big enough to handle little more than one-third of the wort at one time. I think I remember my Dad using an old pair of Mum’s nylons at this point but, it seems, these days, equipment needs not only to have been thoroughly washed out, as in the past, but fully sterilised, too.

Time will tell as regards the taste of my IPA – eleven days in the demi-john and then a further two/three weeks of conditioning in the bottle – but this has so far been a rewarding process and one definitely worth repeating (and a good job too: the yeast in the Dilly-Dally is also up this month). Brewing in small batches is a pricey business, though: £12 for 4ltrs of beer, for just the raw ingredients alone (as I moaned about previously), makes this an expensive hobby in comparison to popping down to the Co-Op and picking up a few bottles of fully-formed and matured Innis and Gunn, currently at £2.89/660ml). But then, price has never been much of a prompt in comparison to experience gained and knowledge won.

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Time starting to do its telling (demi-john not here in its final position, obviously).

Now, I just need to find a local crofter who could do something with the draff. And, also, I need to start to think about a recipe for making Marmite, just in case that Unileaver loses attention on the UK as a result of its HQ move yesterday 😉 Though making Marmite is, it seems, quite another business entirely from that of making beer. (And, by the way, hats off and absolute respect for a live and active blog post that is just about celebrating its seventh birthday.)

And, as a reward for making it this far through a post about beer (and Marmite), here’s something for that handful of individuals for whom these things are not so important: the view from my kitchen window as I was watching my pots (or, indeed, not). Specifically, somewhat to the left of the position of the demi-john, looking East North-East and taken just before 2pm on an incoming tide.

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There she goes…

In a similar way to what happened to me just a couple of weeks back, I’m again sitting in my usual chair by the window, working on something or other on the laptop, when I caught the movement in the corner of my eye of a large dark object just below eye level moving this time right to left. A cat, perhaps: no, quite clearly an otter barrelling over the grass just outside the garden door and then down over the rockery towards the fence which divides our garden from the grassy strip separating us from the shore. Just managing to grab the camera which I keep on the adjacent window shelf and zooming in as quick as I could on the animal’s shape and general direction, I managed to get something on, er, film:

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The picture quality is clearly pretty poor – though it is, ultimately, a shot of an animal moving with a fair amount of speed taken through a window and on a day that was both wet and (though this has little to do with the quality of the shot) blowin’ a bit of a hoolie in the direction of the window glass. But, nevertheless, a moment of joy worth capturing as I realised – and impressively quickly, for me, precisely what I was seeing.

This is the second otter I’ve seen from this position in a couple of weeks: the other one to capture my attention was further away on the croft land which surrounds our property. I watched him – I’m guessing wildly here from his sheer bulk – move fairly slowly over the land towards the shore before taking a sharp left and heading for the cover of the remains of a long-ruined building. I got a shot of him too, but heading away from the camera reveals little more than a fairly sizable rear end and not much to identify it as an otter other than what is in my head of what I had seen a few seconds previously. This one here, I think, is a female – again, judging by the size: this one appears smaller. Her front end has been blurred by raindrops on the glass, but you do nevertheless get an impression of hindquarter power and muscle as she bounds determinedly and hastily towards, and then under, the bottom rail of the fence, as well as the denseness of the fur. A date, perhaps – or simply in search of tea. Beyond the fence, she disappeared on to the shore (at more or less high tide, but held somewhat at bay today by the force of the wind, she may have gone straight into the water or otherwise tracked over the seaweed-covered rocks), leaving no further trace but a blurred memory. And a snatched photo.

A she and a he, eh? Just 50 yards and a couple of weeks apart. I hope they meet – though I suspect they already have.

Book Review: Adults in the Room

It is impossible for the reader not to approach the closing chapters of Yanis Varoufakis‘s memoir of his six months as Greece’s Finance Minister with anything other than increasing sadness: sadness at the sapping of the revolutionary zeal of the minority Syriza government, worn down and demoralised by the weight of pressure and expectations which its election had created, and internally divided as a result of dealing with petty party politics as well as a shameful lack of mutual trust and discipline; and sadness at the evident disappointment with which Varoufakis, an indefatigable character who bounces back from one ‘no’ to the next, convinced of the unarguability of his econometric analysis and understanding of the data it reveals, begins to relate the events and the breakdowns in human relations and in Syriza’s collective narrative which culminated in his departure from the (party) political stage.

As I reviewed previously, this is a compelling narrative containing a lucid amount of detail of Varoufakis’s attempts to represent Syriza on the international stage and in pursuit of a good agreement with Greece’s creditors re-negotiating the debt and ending self-defeating austerity, drawn both from his diary and from recordings made of key moments and meetings. Never actually a member of Syriza – an ‘outsider’ to the party’s ‘insiders’ – he may have been guilty of a certain amount of naivety, and certainly a political naivety, which contributed to his downfall but his grasp of detail (a certain amount of financial economics is required of the reader) and his ability to build an apparently cohesive and diverse international support network, containing some rather surprising members (some of whom may, of course, have had agendas of their own), commands respect for the deliverability of his ideas, at least in terms of their potential.

As a person, it is difficult not to warm to him and, as someone who has also carried in his pocket a letter of resignation into important meetings on more than one occasion (never yet deployed, by the way), I also felt an affinity. His desire to represent the voters who elected him – he polled higher than any other figure in the 2015 Greek election, perhaps as a function of the size of his Greater Athens constituency and also his high profile within Greece – is clear but there are, as a result, some doubts over his ability to compromise. Varoufakis would of course not be the first politician to founder on the EU’s ability to say ‘non’ (or, better said here, ‘nein’). In these circumstances, however, a lack of agreement is not only unsurprising (and which also, at the same time, raises questions about the ability of the creditors themselves to compromise on something other than their ‘programme’) but the counter-view – that Greece was also suffering as a result of this continuing impasse – clearly has merit. Inevitably (this is his own memoir), his view of the process may not necessarily be a fully-rounded one (the true history of this clearly requires an examination of the views of other participants in the process) but it is, nevertheless, one that is firmly dug in.

For Europe itself, Varoufakis’s book raises a recognition of how the democratic deficit which is present in the powerful Eurogroup, the informal body which exists to co-ordinate financial policies within the Eurozone yet which has no presence within the EU’s treaties, and where a large part of the events related in Adults in the Room plays out as a result of its de facto role as the Commission’s representative on the troika, can be ended. Such informality gives dominant characters like Wolfgang Schäuble, the ‘architect of austerity‘, a platform but without democratic accountability or legitimacy. It was at the Eurogroup where the EU’s policy of containing the potential damage to the Eurozone played out, and where a solution for Greece was purposively denied so as not to provoke similar demands from deeply indebted others across southern Europe, thus protecting the position of the Euro. The remoteness of that from the concerns of ordinary voters surely has to be addressed not so much in the sense that ECFIN – the formal Finance Council including all Finance Ministers, not just those in the Eurozone, and which has a foundation in the treaties – is any the closer to such concerns but in the sense that the Eurogroup not only contains an element of power without responsibility arising from its informality but also that it introduces confusion around the locus of authoritative decision-making and inevitably creates a layer of insulation around its leading authority figures. It is difficult to escape the view as a result that greater political union must also accompany economic and monetary union.

The problems raised by the Eurogroup are heightened by the power of group dynamics and peer pressure: repeatedly, Varoufakis confronts his peers and persuades them of the merits of his approach and of the logical inconsistencies of their own models only for them, back in plenary session, to fold under the heat lamps of more powerful figures and the realities of geo-political relationships. ‘Twas ever thus – but the absence of democratic legitimacy on the stages on which most of the book is set, and which have driven Varoufakis’s career subsequently (he is currently setting up his own Europe-wide political movement, including in Greece), do need to be addressed and, if Adults in the Room provides an account which convinces reformers of what needs to be done in this direction, then it will have served us, the people of Europe, as well as Varoufakis sought to fulfil his mandate on the part of the people of Greece.

We will clearly never know whether Varoufakis’s original plan on taking office would have worked had the conditions for its implementation been reached earlier than June 2015 (although there is a certain amount of evidence that direct action might have forced compromise on at least the EU side of the troika). But, for a negotiator, there is plenty in here to suggest that the broad lessons of what was in essence a failed negotiation: of using popular revolutionary zeal to drive real change in relationships with a powerful negotiatory partner, having a genuine strategy in support, and otherwise not to let time and bureaucracy first create and then embed the spectre of inertia, continue to be both time-honoured and genuine. Ultimately, constructive disobedience, without a strategy which is independent of the actions of a negotiating partner which is prepared to take its time over delivering the conditions on which that strategy is predicated, is no strategy at all. Even if it does, ultimately, leave one free to resume life as an outsider.

Watching the tide roll away

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A small part of a flock of greenshank on Ardivachar beach, taken at quarter past six last night and just after sunset against a tide now well on the retreat.

Our own bay has seen a lot of greenshank this winter, and far more than I can remember last – mostly, these are likely to be Scandinavian birds coming here for their winter holidays, although there is an increasing resident population overwintering here too rather than heading off to south-western Ireland and the Med. As I write this morning, yesterday’s (and this early morning’s) blue swamped by a uniform, and increasingly chilly, grey, there is a large three-figure flock, recently swelled from the thirty or so birds we had a few months at the dark end of 2017, towards the far side of the bay busying themselves on the edge of an incoming tide.

Yesterday, with our bay also sparkling in the welcome sunshine that covered most of the UK, the flock was engaged in a kind of brief murmuration of some 200+ birds, twisting and turning in the sun, rising higher in a figure of eight pattern and taking their cues from a continually changing succession of invisible leaders, white bellies flashing in the sunshine against a sky the softest of blues as they did so, before settling again to feed and preen at the edge of the tide, all spread out and each settling back down into their own spot with the rarest of squabbles among them. There was no raptor obviously present among them, but greenshank, as easily disturbed as their smaller red cousins, often do this although rarely flying up more than a few feet above the water: food is still scarce and conserving energy remains a vital element of individual survival.

Talking of mumurations, this is a good excuse to link to this picture and report from earlier this year, but which crossed my Twitter feed for the first time also at the weekend. It’s somewhat anthropomorphic to see birds forming the shape of an even bigger bird to see off a predator, and thus we should resist the temptation to see anything in Daniel Biber’s terrific picture other than a great shot of a moment in, and apparently out of, time as well as a tribute to the lengths and the sheer hard work that photographers put in to capture meaning in a shot – although the collectivist in me so wants to see resistance to anthropomorphism, on this occasion, crumble!

Trade and workers’ rights

The end of the working week and my inbox brings me good news via the TUC’s International Department that the European Economic and Social Committee – an EU advisory institution bringing together representatives of workers, employers and civil society more broadly – has almost unanimously agreed an Opinion on the trade and sustainable development chapters of EU free trade agreements.

The EESC’s own-initiative Opinion, which plays an important part in the EU’s consultative decision-making process, makes a number of recommendations of interest to trade unions in the area of the EU’s future free trade agreements, including – amongst others – that:

– governments and companies should demonstrate respect for standards set out in the ILO’s Decent Work agenda, including – but not limited to – ratifying and upholding core ILO Conventions

– free trade agreements should establish an independent labour secretariat and collective complaints mechanism to oversee commitments to uphold ILO Conventions

– a dispute settlement procedure should be started without delay, with a mandate to substantively enforce compliance, where abuses are detected

– civil society monitoring mechanisms should be established in free trade agreements with a view to independent triggering of investigations where there are violations of the commitments to uphold ILO Conventions.

All well and good – and some of the reportage is focused on the failings of current free trade deals largely with the far east, as well as with TTIP/CETA (and other) proposals for free trade deals for which the EU has come under sustained criticism, and with some justification, in recent years.

Except that it is impossible currently to review the normal work of EU institutions from within the UK unless through the unique prism of Brexit. Once the UK has, er, regained its sovereignty, and is free to sign free trade deals with whomever it wants, then the ‘bespoke’* free trade deal it is seeking with the EU is likely to (should, in theory) feature precisely the sorts of commitments and obligations that the EESC is requesting the EU takes to future trade deals. Much depends on how the European Commission responds to the Opinion, but it is bound within the checks and balances under which the EU’s decision-making structure works to find it persuasive, aided not least by the near-unanimity with which the Opinion was agreed within the EESC. This is particularly important with Brexit in view not least in the context of the discussion which has been circulating around a UK/EU free trade deal based on a ‘Canada+++’ model (were, indeed, this to be on offer), and the impact this might have on employment and worker rights.

The Commission should make a quick, and positive, response ensuring that the Opinion does indeed form the EU’s approach to future free trade deals.

It is the case that the UK has ratified all eight of the core ILO Conventions mentioned chiefly by the EESC – although it is occasionally up in the dock even on these, including on freedom of association; and, most recently, in the context of its record on tripartite consultation (p. 430). However, the UK isn’t, so far, a serial abuser. Nevertheless, the warm words coming out of No. 10 on protecting workers’ rights after Brexit – and being countermanded by mavericks like Johnson, Gove and Whittingdale – with the debate here being most recently summarised by Owen Tudor at the TUC, may well melt away in the heat of the fires of desperation once Brexit realities start to bite. Brexit changes everything and, apart from no-one sensible trusting a Tory with their rights anyway, the future is – as the folks at the European Research Group have cottoned on – entirely up for grabs. In this context, the paper promises of No. 10 are worth precisely nothing, in contrast to which the EESC Opinion offers valuable protections. Even without the reference to core ILO standards – and, as I say, the UK is not guilt-free on these either, despite having ratified all of them – the sorts of review and monitoring mechanisms set out in the Opinion, including civil society (q.v. trade union) involvement, are likely to prove anathema to the ERG, Legatum et al. for whom it will, of course, be more ‘red tape’ bureaucracy and another reason why the UK needs to reach its own deals. They are, indeed, another set of rules by which the UK will have to abide – and not just in the interim if it wants trade with the EU to continue on as frictionless a basis as possible.

As such, these provide not only a valuable contribution to making sure that free trade has ethical, sustainable and people-based dimensions, but are also one more thing which must also be taken into account in defining the precise nature of the UK’s future trade, and people-based, relationship with the EU.

I’m sure that the EESC didn’t have Brexit uppermost in its mind when it was going through the process of developing its Opinion. But it’s good to know that, with the Workers’ Group supported by representatives both of the TUC and the ETUC, it may well be taking care of our own, both in the UK and the rest of the EU, on the crucial issue of trade links as the UK continues its stumbling, shambolic, shameful approach to becoming a third country with respect to the rest of the EU’s member states.

* Has there ever been a more ugly word than bespoke? At once both pleading, smug and conveying a full sense of superior entitlement in just seven ordinary characters…

Book Review: Talking to My Daughter About the Economy

As someone the titles of whose blog posts feature their fair share of musical references, I was delighted to see the recent publication in English of Yanis Varoufakis’s book which seems to reveal Varoufakis as a Billy Bragg fan (and/or of Vladimir Mayakovsky, of course). Given the subject matter being dealt with both in Varoufakis’s book and on Bragg’s best LP, and Varoufakis being at the University of Essex in the 1980s researching his Economics PhD, the links between a Greek economist and my generation’s finest songwriter is not as fanciful a reference as it might appear on the surface.

Not on my current reading list, I picked Varoufakis’s book up from a well-known airport bookshop outlet as part of a BOGOHP offer, teaming it with his more weighty memoir of his tumultuous term as Greece’s Finance Minister, Adults In the Room, having forgotten to pack any other reading material for my trip.

I make it that Varoufakis’s daughter would have been nine or ten years old when the book was first written (in 2013, predating that term by two years); at that age, I was lapping up the adventures of Julian, Dick, George, Anne and Timmy the dog and I’m really not sure I was then capable of much greater intellectual rigour, bright enough as I then appeared to be among the rest of my classmates. Perhaps nine year olds are a little more precocious these days – or perhaps the daughters of politicians and economists are, which does have a comment or two to make in itself about social mobility. While his daughter (who lives on an entirely different continent) is certainly his muse here, I suspect that this was really Varoufakis’s attempt to ensure he remained grounded at a time of increasing political activity; and, after all, being able to explain complex things in a simple way is an important academic discipline which all of us frustrated academics need to apply from time to time.

Mostly, he succeeds, although writing a ‘brief history of capitalism’ (the book’s rather racy sub-title, which I imagine Varoufakis had little hand in) can sometimes lead to over-simplifications and an unfortunate loss of nuance. It’s also rather less such a ‘brief history’ and more an attempt to provide a clear background to the Greek debt crisis, building on a variety of disciplines – history, myths and legends, economics and philosophy, and modern film narratives (The Matrix is refreshingly well explained and applied in a context fourteen or so years later) – to explain how Greece and, more specifically, its bankers had reached the point of bankruptcy and what that meant in the development of capitalist/market society relations. Using the language of myths and legends to explain the workings of dry capitalism is indeed a form of talking to the taxman about poetry as Varoufakis, clearly a romantic, would have appreciated. And, as was clear in the case of Varoufakis’s time in office, with about as much effect and impact in practice as might be expected from as scant a meeting of minds.

An economist by training, Varoufakis certainly has polymath tendencies and his approach is, as a result, original. Whether this diversity, coupled with his own temperament, made him the best negotiator for Greece at that point is a different story, although Varoufakis’s short time in office, before the pressure to replace him told with Alexis Tsipras, suggests not although this is best reviewed in the context of his later memoir. Which, by the way, is a compelling narrative, to judge by its opening chapters.

A regatta of despair

The EU’s publication yesterday of its new strategy for the accession of the countries of the western Balkans – Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Kosovo, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (the dispute over whose name looks finally to be moving towards a solution), Montenegro and Serbia – is a welcome attempt to seize the initiative after several years in which momentum has been lost, vacuums encouraged and alternative perspectives engaged with.

This is clearly long overdue: Commission President Claude Juncker’s statement in 2014 that the EU would not countenance any further enlargement til 2020, which caused particular consternation in the context of the debate on the Scottish independence referendum, and which was reiterated in 2017, might have provided a ‘break from enlargement’ for an EU apparently suffering from enlargement fatigue. Even so, it is not apparent that an EU with the pressures of dealing with Brexit, domestic political pressures in some member states and contemporary political difficulties stemming from the need to ensure a proper and effective separation of powers in others has, in the meantime, regained an appetite for enlargement to the south-east, however much ‘Europe’ might be seen as a natural home for the Balkans. For Balkans states themselves, neither is it apparent that the last three years or so have provided much in the way of clarity – indeed, probably the reverse.

All this is in spite of a strategy for enlargement to the south-east first being thought of as a credible prospect in 2000, with further flesh put on the bones in Thessaloniki in 2003. Apart from Slovenia, whose identity among the Balkans might well be questioned anyway, only Croatia has managed to accede to the Union in the intervening period. The years in the meantime have been, as myself and my colleague at the SEER Journal for Labour and Social Affairs in Eastern Europe, Bela Galgoczi, Senior Researcher at the ETUI, wrote about in 2015, ones of an abject failure of vision: in particular, a failure to recognise that enlargement is itself about the transfer of stability, peace and freedom into the immediate south-east neighbourhood, as well as the chance to achieve the transitional justice currently denied to so many and which remains key to prospects of a thaw of frozen human potential, and thereafter to a spring of growth and revitalisation.

The plethora of initatives which the EU’s new strategy launches are addressed to the minutiae of the problems within the Balkans which we all know of – chiefly, as Jasmin Mujanović attests: corruption, clientilism and entrenched illiberal elites – and may have some impact. After all, the EU is not without the capacity to launch detailed initiatives. What it does lack is the capacity for vision, or even a road map, and this is most manifest in this regard in at least two ways.

Firstly, the strategy – picked up extensively in the media reporting identifying the dates by which Balkans states might join the EU – is focused on encouraging ‘winners’. This is, at heart, a repêchage for the ‘regatta principle’ which has driven the EU’s Balkans enlargement policy over the years – that an individualised approach to separate member states encourages a competitive process between them, thus speeding up the slowest – taking its place at the heart of the ‘new’ strategy. But the regatta principle has patently been a failure either in terms of getting Balkans states into the EU, or in speeding up the process among the slowest: actually, it simply leaves the latter in the cold. No-one, it seems, is learning any lessons from Montenegro. Furthermore, the legacy of war in the 1990s has left border disputes unresolved in several cases; while, in others, the drive to create mono-ethnic states and entities has left atmospheres of simmering tension and mistrust, and a lack of a sense of resolution, which may lead to further conflict in the absence of a realistic prospect of a future within the European family.

Initiatives to address the main priority areas are still required but, in addition, the EU needs to abandon the regatta principle and replace it with a single round of enlargement – a ‘caravan’ in the words of Christophe Solioz – in which all countries negotiate access simultaneously. This would avoid some being left behind while allowing all to draw on collective strengths, creating a new regional dynamic and reinvigorating the enlargement process. By itself, this won’t stop senior political representatives giving support to, for example, irredentism within Bosnia and Herzegovina – but, for states located wholly within the EU’s processes, it would provide the mechanisms to deal with it appropriately.

Secondly, the EU needs to pay better attention to its own roots. The legacy of war, a violent recent past and the question of transitional justice were the reasons the founders of the EU proposed international solutions to the issues that had led to repeated war between France and Germany – chiefly, by putting the steel and coal assets of the Ruhr Valley above the control of nation states. That was – and remains – an extraordinarily successful initiative: and we need a little more of it for the Balkans. There is, perhaps, no direct equivalent of the Ruhr Valley within south-east Europe, but the lessons of the founding of the EU are clear: we need a repeat of such an international approach to resolving the issues of war, and continuing mistrust, suspicion and sense of lack of justice, which mar the region today. The EU itself is uniquely placed both to realise this and to implement an approach which implements it in practice: and the lack of the vision, to lever its own history to resolve new, analgous situations is, in this context, not only extraordinarily puzzling, but also immensely frustrating.

This may well demonstrate very effectively that our current generation of leaders are bureaucrats rather than people of vision, but we need a reinstatement of bold vision if we are to resolve the serious questions that we face in the Balkans.

A Carillion warning bell on pensions

The early news today was dominated by the well-placed press release from the Department for Work and Pensions Select Committee that Carillion had been ‘trying to wriggle out of pension obligations for last ten years‘, in the words of Frank Field, the Committee chair.

There is a lot to be written yet about the demise of Carillion, and the parliamentary authorities have tackled the pensions aspects of the issue with an appropriately forensic gusto befitting a private company falling into the arms of the public-backed Pensions Protection Fund to the tune of just under £1bn (or, perhaps, more). Today’s news was sparked by the release by the DWP of a response to some of the Committee’s questions by Robin Ellison, Chair of the Carillion pensions trustee company responsible for six of the company’s schemes, and who appears in person tomorrow to give evidence to the Committee. The letter’s well worth a look, even to non-experts, and there are several things to pick up from it although I wanted to focus here on just two headlines:

1. The trustees were seeking to secure higher contributions (it looks like in terms of deficit repair contributions) at each of the 2008, 2011 and 2013 scheme valuations based on advice they had received about the company’s covenant (basically, the extent to which it is good for its money and reflecting in reality a delicate balance of interests). However, they had been unable to secure agreement with the company and the Pensions Regulator decided not to exercise its powers to intervene.

2. The trustees were asked – and they agreed – formally to defer contributions to the scheme (again, it seems likely that these are deficit contributions although they might also be normal ones) in September 2017 to allow the company to secure more deficit funding, with these contributions due to be paid, with interest, by the end of January 2018. Of course, the company’s compulsory liquidation means that this won’t now happen.

The current Prime Minister has been voicing a few, superficially welcome slogans about what she will do in response to re-balance boardroom excesses (including on pensions) with the interests of hard-working employees. Aside of the speculation about a leadership challenge, however, I suspect that Theresa May is not particularly good for her covenant either, as evidenced not least by the backsliding from the earlier commitment to worker directors.

The Ellison letter is shocking for what it reveals about the lackadaisical way that workers’ pension schemes – conveying, let’s not forget, deferred pay – are treated at corporate level.

Firstly, it should not be possible for the Pensons Regulator to decide, repeatedly, not to intervene in a lack of agreement between scheme trustees and a scheme sponsor (such as Carillion) over how much the company is required to pay in contributions into the scheme, especially on the basis of technical advice about the strength (or weakness) of the covenant. Whatever the strengths of the regulatory regime in terms of the ability of the Pensions Protection Fund to absorb Carillion, TPR is going to cop it on this one, and not least from Frank Field’s Committee.

Secondly, in particular when set against this sort of regulatory backdrop, it should be possible neither for a company to hold the trustees of its pension scheme to ransom over a proposal to defer contributions to secure loan financing; nor for the banks involved to require (or appear to require) such a deferral before they will consider getting involved. Here, the trustees had little choice but to agree to the proposal given that the failure to secure the loan would have brought them several more immediate problems: the deferral is not their fault. It is, however, the fault of the financial industry which sees workers’ pension schemes, and the commitments that companies enter into in relation to them, as inconvenient irrelevancies. The upshot has been that Carillion has treated its pension schemes – whose aim is to provide income in retirement for Carillion’s workers – as a corporate and financial plaything in a very similar way to how Robert Maxwell used Mirror Group Newspapers pension schemes as collateral for loans to his business empire. It seems we have learned very little despite over 25 years of regulation.

At a time when the pensions industry needs to rebuild the confidence of pensions savers, including the young, the collapse of Carillion is a disaster for the workers who are directly involved and who will have to take a haircut on their pensions. More than that, however, it’s a disaster in terms of what it says about the continued inability of the regime within which schemes operate to prevent the manipulation and the abuse of pension schemes before problems arise. Any government worth its salt should be paying urgent and specific attention to the consequences of that.

Every Day Is (Not) Like Sunday

I was interested to see that the trial Sunday opening of An Lanntair, the arts centre in Stornoway, has made at least the local pages of the BBC website. The question of Sunday opening is a major trial for our northern cousins up on Lewis and Harris and the issue has been extensively chewed over recently on the blog of Hebrides Writer (a post on which I also commented directly last week). (Interestingly, Katie’s post on the An Lanntair trial got a lot more reaction than her excellent post a year ago on the LGBT History month exhibition at the same venue.)

Katie’s views on the issue were set out at length and she makes a number of points, among them that the consultation has been poorly handled, not least with regard to the concerns of staff working at the centre; and on the potential damage to the link between art and faith.

As a committed trade unionist, you’ll find no argument from me on the need for consultation on issues affecting staff to be handled properly – and I too remember Usdaw’s involvement in the ‘Keep Sunday Special‘ campaign in England and Wales (Scotland has no such laws on Sunday trading) in the 1980s. Usdaw’s involvement was founded on the specific concern that Sunday opening was a threat to workers’ rights not least in terms of undermining Sunday working premia – an issue on which, I suspect, it will have been proved substantially right, at least outside Usdaw-recognised workplaces.

On the issue of the link between arts and faith, I’m not so sure. Artists surely want to get their work out and, in the example to which Katie points, potentially refusing to collaborate with an arts organisation looks a spectacular example of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face, aside of the issue that a publicly-funded organisation ought to be there for all the community, including those of different faiths and, of course, none at all. But, more than that, we see things a little differently down here at the southern end of the Hebrides. A predominantly Catholic island, South Uist has no problems with the Co-op being open on a Sunday (right up until 10pm), and we have a swimming pool and a gym (on Benbecula – an island where religious affiliations are mixed) that are open, too (and, judging by the noise coming from the pool today, people were having a whale of a time). But no-one is going to tell me either that my hard-working crofting neighbours who take the time away from their sheep and cattle to pack out the local church on a Sunday are not properly Christian; or that South Uist doesn’t produce music worth listening to, as evidenced by Ceòlas Uibhist’s plans to build on these traditions with a new venue celebrating Gàidhlig music, dance and cultural heritage. I doubt – although I don’t precisely know – that the issue of Sunday opening of Cnoc Soilleir has been much debated within Ceòlas as it finalises its plans (and I fully expect it to be open). And neither is it about Gàidhlig itself, South Uist having a slightly higher percentage of Gàidhlig speakers than everywhere on Lewis other than Barvas – itself an important point in terms of the challengers to customs and traditions.

So the link between art and faith is not as simple as all that, and, while we should always be sensitive around issues of cultural heritage, the issue up at An Lanntair is really about a rather narrow version of interpretations of the Christian faith. I don’t think I’m missing the point here – the culture is (very) different on these two islands but Gàidhlig psalm singers sing from the heart and from an expression of their personal faith in their God: and I don’t believe that, were the arts centre, or the swimming pool, or the shops, to be open on a Sunday up on Lewis and Harris, that this will make that singing or that faith burn any less brighter.

The picture of today’s An Lanntair pickets on the BBC website story is illustrated with a biblical quote (from the Book of Exodus) about keeping the Sabbath Day holy, written in the pre-Christian era and for people for whom the Sabbath would have been (and still is, of course) Saturday, not Sunday. There’s an irony there which is not lost in the shift to Sunday as the holy day for Christians. Despite being a non-churchgoer myself, Sunday still seems to me to have a different character, and to be a day of rest, regardless of whether the shops and the swimming pool are open or not, and that’s been true regardless of when I lived right in the centre of Perth or here in a remote South Uist community. Sunday opening doesn’t define faith – your God does. And there is surely time and room for both, even on a Sunday. Or, indeed, a Saturday.

A tale of two birds

My favourite armchair is located adjacent to our east-facing lounge window, from where I can look out over the bay at Kilaulay just about thirty metres to my right and observe the coming and going of the tides, the constantly changing colours of the water and the sky, the view across the Eabhal on North Uist, up to the mountains of Harris (on a good day) and across to McLeod’s Tables and the Cuillins on Skye. As well as the ups and downs of the lives of the bird population – a variety of shore birds, largely, as well as a variety of farmland birds and our ever-present, and thriving, gang of starlings.

Treating myself to a morning on Twitter, as a result of an attack of the lurgy (a touch of Australian Flu, undoubtedly) getting on top of my other plans, I became aware at the edge of my vision of a large bird making steady, slightly laboured, progress southerly down the bay, level with my eyeline sitting down. Glancing up, and taking in the gull which was tracking it at a somewhat respectful distance, my first thought was ‘Oh, grey heron’, before I became aware of its reddish-brown colour… and then, as the chills ran down my spine and my eyes opened wider (probably my mouth also fell open, too, although I couldn’t comment), I became aware of the mightily powerful hooked beak at the front end, and then the white tail feathers at the back as it disappeared from my view, me looking backwards over my shoulder. Not a heron, then. We do get regular sightings both of buzzards and also hen harriers but this was clearly much, much bigger. White-tailed eagle, surely. Almost dropping the laptop as I leapt out of my seat, I dashed through the house to the bedroom, flinging open the window (and paying suitably scant attention to Aussie Flu) to get a better view… but nothing. It had gone. The rest of the local bird life continued without a great deal of bother – itself something of a marker since white-tails are largely, though not exclusively, birds of carrion rather than hunters of live prey. My look at it had probably totalled little more than a second, of which the first 0.25 was spent thinking it was a heron (and thus no time for photos, though my camera is usually on the ledge beside my binoculars, and my RSPB Handbook, specifically to help with bird ID).

Amateur birder that I am, I tried to recall exactly what I’d seen as well as the scene itself – recognising that sometimes my assessments and judgments are formed by what I have seen, and sometimes the reverse. But I’m fairly sure of what I saw: and, luckily for me, the Outer Hebrides birds website records an adult white-tail this morning at Baleshare, a little to the north of here as the eagle flies. So I’m taking that as confirmation.

It’s the first white-tail I’ve seen here in Ardivachar – though I know that there are white-tails and golden eagles further south on South Uist, with the hills and terrain being territorially more suited to both, although white-tails are also happy around farmland and, of course, the coast since fish is a major part of their diet. I’ve seen a white-tail before – both at a bird of prey demonstration (though static that day) and also from the little boat heading out of Portree harbour on Skye (though it was the ‘Lady B’ back in 2008), where the birds nest on the cliffs just to the south of the town. But that time – when a gull was also paying close attention – there was a very high chance of seeing one (and there was a bonus sighting not only of Sammy the Seal but harbour dolphins that day, too); this time, my sighting of this most majestic of birds – the UK’s largest bird of prey, with a massive 2m wing span – was in the absolute wild. Just for a second, or so.

A couple of hours later, I’m watching from the same spot (still hoping my white-tail would return) some oystercatchers and a few black-headed gulls, as well as starlings and redwings, poking about for worms on the grassy strip between the end of our garden and the shoreline, the tide being in retreat. It’s unusual to see shore birds do this except at this time of year and I don’t know whether it’s because food supplies are scarce at this time or whether they are looking for extra nutrients ahead of the breeding season. Probably the former. Noticing that one of our little population of redwings – a thrush-like migratory bird and winter visitor from northern Europe which is unusual in that it tends to move around rather than migrate to and from a particular spot – was scattering around the top of the picnic table, I popped out with a little extra help (some berry-flavoured suet) when I noticed one of its brothers lying on the thin strip of concrete path that runs around the house; quite dead, and recently so. Given its location, it must have fallen dead from a perch on the roof or chimney, perhaps succumbing to the winter cold (although it looked in good condition); or, alternatively, it might have been driven, sparked by fear and panic, into the window, a fate of many birds which break their necks on contact with the glass (although there was no tell-tale mark on the glass itself).

What to do? It had no BTO ring, so there was nothing formal to report, leaving the two choices of scooping it up and putting it in the dustbin; or returning it to the ground, perhaps a little softer than the unforgiving concrete on which I had found it. Of course, I chose the latter, placing it on the croft land outside the house where the energies that had given it such vitality in life could, in death, give nourishment to something else in the complex food chain. Nature is self-sustaining (when not interfered with by humans, that is) and a noble death for any animal is perhaps that it may then subsequently play it role and take its place in nourishing what comes after it. Including humans too, I might venture.