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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

The road to the Somme. Some thoughts on strategy.

Amidst everything else that’s been going on over the last few days, Britain managed to commemorate the centenary of the first day of the Somme. For those who are unaware of the details 60,000 soldiers of a volunteer army became casualties, 20,000 died while the gains in terms of territory and dead Germans were minimal. While I found most of the commemorations cloying I thought the decision to dress up a bunch of young men in First World War uniforms and strategically position them in our larger cities was an act of genius.

But sadness and horror does not excuse the abandonment of cognitive functions. Many are happy to blame bad generalship and from the sounds of it there was plenty present that day but there were other, deeper, strategic reasons for the disaster.

First of all, Britain was fighting a war in Western Europe against a large, well-equipped and tactically skillful enemy. That is a recipe for a bloodbath. Britain repeated the exercise twice in the Second World War (May 1940 and June 1944 onwards). They were bloodbaths too. We tend to forget that fact because overall the numbers killed in the Second World War were much lower than than the First and because they achieved a succession of clear victories.

Secondly, Britain began the war with a small army. To make a worthwhile contribution Britain was going to have to raise and train a large army. Soldiering, like any other job, is one where experience counts. Anyone who is familiar with the rapid expansion of an organisation will know that this is a recipe for confusion and chaos. In the case of the British army the inexperience existed at all levels. Corporals were doing the jobs of Sergeant Majors, Captains doing the jobs of Colonels and Colonels doing the jobs of Generals. Haig himself (according to Gary Sheffield) was doing jobs that would be carried out by three men in the Second World War. Talking of the Second World War, it is worth pointing out that it took three years for the British to achieve an offensive victory (Alamein) over the Germans which is much the same as the First (Vimy).

Thirdly, Britain began the war with a small arms industry. Expanding that involved all the problems mentioned above plus the difficulty in building and equipping the factories. It comes as no surprise that many of the shells fired at the Somme were duds and even if they were working they were often of the wrong type: too much shrapnel, not enough high explosive.

Fourthly, the Allies needed to co-ordinate. Co-ordinating your efforts means that the enemy cannot concentrate his efforts on one of you and defeat you in detail. This was the thinking behind the Chantilly agreement of December 1915. The idea was that the allies – France, Russia, Britain and Italy – would all go on the offensive at the same time. Russia had done her bit in the Brusilov offensive. Now it was Britain and France’s turn.

Fifthly, the battle of Verdun. It is almost impossible to put into words the desperation of the French army by June 1916. It was fighting against a skillful and determined enemy for what had become sacred ground. It had reached the end of its tether and Britain had no choice but to come to its aid by fighting and thus drawing off the German effort. The original intention was for the more experienced French to have a much larger role at the Somme. Verdun put paid to that which meant that the British had to take the lead. As it happened, the Germans ended offensive operations at Verdun shortly after the battle began.

British troops attacking German trenches near Mametz, on first day of the Somme. From here: https://twitter.com/prchovanec_hist/status/749031026039586816

British troops attacking German trenches near Mametz, on first day of the Somme. From here: https://twitter.com/prchovanec_hist/status/749031026039586816

A source of satisfaction

When surveyed about what aspects of their lives give them happiness most people cite such reasons as family and friends, a decently paid job, or interesting hobbies. Sorin Hershko may have some or all of those. I don’t know. But in addition to any other sources of satisfaction he also has this:

40 years on, child hostages look back on Entebbe raid.

But the most emotional part of the day at the Peres Center, for most of the former hostages, came from the chance to reunite with Sorin Hershko, the IDF soldier who became a quadriplegic from an injury sustained during the operation and who was on hand to witness the celebration and receive an honorary certificate from the Peres Center for his bravery and heroism.

“After 40 years to see the children, to see the kids…”

Hershko said, trailing off, a broad smile on his face.

“I still them call children, despite the fact that they are all grown up and have families and their own children.

For me it is very important to see them and I am very satisfied that they are all here and well.”

The Lib Dems have less respect for democracy than General Pinochet

The Liberal Democrat party, with its host of 6 MPs (much reduced in 2015) have pledged to ignore the Brexit referendum result and to campaign for the UK to remain in the EU.

“Nigel Farage’s vision for Britain has won this vote, but it is not a vision I accept”, declared Lib Dem leader Tim Farron yesterday. “Even though the vote was close, the majority of British people want us to leave. But we refuse to give up on our beliefs”, he said.

Mr Farron, the relatively obscure leader of the party of heavyweights such as Cyril Smith, went on:

Mr. Farron argued that his party’s proposition was justifiable in a democratic society as older people’s votes were somehow less valid and because a vote against the EU was really a vote against Westminster.

“This was not a vote on the European Union alone”, he said, but a “howl of anger” against politics.

So, once the votes are counted, and if that ‘fails’, they are then ‘interpreted’ and in line with socialist logic, they don’t mean what a plain reading might fairly be taken to show that they mean. But is he not also saying that the vote was against him, as a member of the Westminster Parliament?

I would like to contrast this attitude with that of General Pinochet, well-known ‘strongman’ of Chilean politics from 1973 to 1990, who held a referendum on his junta (well, him) continuing to rule Chile in 1988, and who respected the outcome rejecting his continued rule, with a little prodding perhaps from General Matthei, the Air Force member of the junta (and friend of the UK in the Falklands War), who called for the result to be respected.

I suppose what we are seeing is a political auto-endoscopy by the Left, each trying to get further up their own arses than the other, with Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister indicating that the Scottish Parliament may have a veto on Brexit, a surprising interpretation of constitutional law from someone who is a solicitor.

I am confident that the bulk of people will see through all this, and see the Left, in all their shades, for the totalitarians that they are.

Mount Sorrel

There’s been an awful lot of this Brexit thing recently so – in the way of light relief – I’m going to talk about the First World War.

I think just about everyone has heard of Passchendaele which was fought in 1917. The better informed will know that its official title was the Third Battle of Ypres. Which makes this headline (from 12 June 1916) somewhat premature:

The Times 12 June 1916 p5

The Times 12 June 1916 p5

What they are referring to is what we now know – or more accurately: don’t know – as the Battle of Mount Sorrel. There are eerie parallels with the Somme. The attacker unleashed a huge artillery bombardment:

Artillery fire is not now used merely to demoralize the enemy or break up formations. It is used to annihilate, to obliterate every form of defensive work, and make life itself impossible on every yard of the ground attacked. I will not labour the point for the benefit of the makers of munitions at home.

He exploded mines. He came on in waves. He was mown down in his thousands:

When the infantry advanced they came, not charging, but with full kit and in regular formation, as if to occupy untenanted ground. They paid for it.

Only one difference: the attacker was German.

And how did the defender (mainly Canadian) respond to this? By organising immediate counter-attacks just as the Germans would on the Somme. At first they didn’t work. However, when they decided to sit down and do some planning – Arthur Currie take a bow – they succeeded.

Did I say one difference? Actually there were two. The Germans achieved surprise, to the extent that at the very moment they attacked there were two Canadian generals in the front line, there because “Oh it’s a quiet sector and we’re not expecting anything to happen.” One was killed, the other captured.

There’s also this:

Long after the issues of minor engagements in this war are forgotten, and when everybody has ceased to care whether at any moment we gained or lost a hundred yards or ground or a mile of trench, the memory of how the Canadians fought against hopeless odds near Hooge will be remembered, and Canada and the Empire will be proud, for generations to come, of the men whose deeds I have mentioned and of their no less gallant comrades.

Alas no. The war was too big for that.

For the second time in history, a surgical operation with a 300% mortality rate

Robert Liston was a nineteenth century Scottish surgeon known as “the fastest knife in the West End … at a time when speed was essential to reduce pain and improve the odds of survival of a patient; he is said to have been able to perform the removal of a limb in an amputation in 28 seconds.” A man of strong character and ethics, who did not hesitate to help render his own rare skill obsolete by performing the first operation under anaesthesia in Europe, over his entire career he saved many lives. But sometimes things didn’t work out so well. As recorded by the deadpan Richard Gordon in Great Medical Disasters:

Amputated the leg in under 2 1⁄2 minutes (the patient died afterwards in the ward from hospital gangrene; they usually did in those pre-Listerian days). He amputated in addition the fingers of his young assistant (who died afterwards in the ward from hospital gangrene). He also slashed through the coat tails of a distinguished surgical spectator, who was so terrified that the knife had pierced his vitals he dropped dead from fright. That was the only operation in history with a 300 percent mortality.

Now to our own times. Whatever the result of the EU referendum, George Osborne has in one swift operation destroyed his own career, made the split in his own Conservative party irrevocable, and stuck a knife in the vitals of the Labour party and left it there for anyone to twist.

One down:

Osborne warns of Brexit budget cuts

George Osborne says he will have to slash public spending and increase taxes in an emergency Budget to tackle a £30bn “black hole” if the UK votes to leave the European Union.
The chancellor will say this could include raising income and inheritance taxes and cutting the NHS budget.

Two down:

Tory MPs threaten to block Osborne’s post-Brexit budget

George Osborne is facing an extraordinary challenge to his authority as chancellor from 57 Conservative MPs, who are threatening to block his emergency budget of tax rises and spending cuts if Britain votes to leave the EU.

Three down:

The Labour Party, officially for Remain, will be asked to state whether it will support or oppose George Osbourne’s proposed austerity-plus budget. How will it answer?

Over his entire career Liston did far more good than harm. Desperate people camped out in his waiting room because however great the danger of going under his knife it was safer than going under anyone else’s. I wonder what will be said of Osbourne.

*

Update: According to Guido, Corbyn will oppose Osbourne’s proposed post-Brexit austerity budget. Labour has kept its anti-austerity credibility at the cost of effectively making a public statement that Brexit wouldn’t be so bad. With opposition from Labour plus the 57 Tory MPs plus those in other parties who would also oppose, Osborne’s budget is stillborn. As you were, folks. Which for both parties means bitterly divided. To have made a threat and have it shown to be empty within hours will not help the Remain campaign – or the Conservative Party.

Kitchener dies

On 5 June 1916, Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War, while on a mission to Russia, went down with the HMS Hampshire when it hit a mine. In so doing he became the highest ranking British soldier killed by enemy action.

His greatest achievement was in recognising that the war would be a long one and that Britain would have to raise, train and equip a large army. His estimate was that it would take at least three years for the British army to be effective which – if you take Vimy Ridge in April 1917 as Britain’s first unequivocal victory – was more or less correct.

His greatest failing was – assuming such a thing was ever possible – in not expanding Britain’s munitions industry fast enough which led to the Shell Scandal of 1915 and the creation of the Ministry of Munitions.

While it would take Britain three years to create an effective army the war still had to be fought. For two years France and Russia bore the brunt of the fighting and naturally wanted Britain, ready or not, to shoulder more of the burden. As Kitchener himself said: “We make war as we must not as we would like to.” This was never more true than in the battle that would start in less than a month’s time.

It is often said that he was extremely reluctant to tell the politicians anything and that by the time of his death his influence was on the wane. This is so often said that I begin to doubt it.

The Times 7 June 1916 p14. Click for the full obituary. Although The Times had started printing photographs before the war they were a rarity and became more so as the war went on. The fact that Kitchener gets a photo at all let alone such a big one says something about the esteem in which he was held. Notice the squint removed from the famous recruiting poster.

The Times 7 June 1916 p14. Click for the full obituary. Although The Times had started printing photographs before the war they were a rarity and became more so as the war went on. The fact that Kitchener gets a photo at all let alone such a big one says something about the esteem in which he was held. Notice the squint removed from the famous recruiting poster.

Tony Benn was right

Sometimes.

We are discussing whether the British people are to be allowed to elect those who make the laws under the which they are governed. The argument is nothing to do with whether we should get more maternity leave from Madame Papandreou than from Madame Thatcher. That is not the issue.

I recognise that, when the members of the three Front Benches agree, I am in a minority. My next job therefore is to explain to the people of Chesterfield what we have decided. I will say first, “My dear constituents, in future you will be governed by people whom you do not elect and cannot remove. I am sorry about it. They may give you better creches and shorter working hours but you cannot remove them.”

I know that it sounds negative but I have always thought it positive to say that the important thing about democracy is that we can remove without bloodshed the people who govern us. We can get rid of a Callaghan, a Wilson or even a right hon. Lady by internal processes. We can get rid of the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major). But that cannot be done in the structure that is proposed. Even if one likes the policies of the people in Europe, one cannot get rid of them.

Secondly, we say to my favourite friends, the Chartists and suffragettes, “All your struggles to get control of the ballot box were a waste of time. We shall be run in future by a few white persons, as in 1832.” The instrument, I might add, is the Royal Prerogative of treaty making. For the first time since 1649 the Crown makes the laws–advised, I admit, by the Prime Minister.

We must ask what will happen when people realise what we have done. We have had a marvellous debate about Europe, but none of us has discussed our relationship with the people who sent us here. Hon. Members have expressed views on Albania and the Baltic states. I have been dazzled by the knowledge of the continent of which we are all part. No one has spoken about how he or she got here and what we were sent here to do.

If people lose the power to sack their Government, one of several things happens. First, people may just slope off. Apathy could destroy democracy. When the turnout drops below 50 per cent., we are in danger.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth) : Like the United States.

Mr. Benn : As my hon. Friend says, in the United States turnouts are very low. That is partly caused by the scale of the country. The second thing that people can do is to riot. Riot is an old-fashioned method of drawing the attention of the Government to what is wrong. It is difficult for an elected person to admit it, but the riot at Strangeways produced some prison reforms. Riot has historically played a much larger part in British politics than we are ever allowed to know.

Thirdly, nationalism can arise. Instead of blaming the treaty of Rome, people say, “It is those Germans,” or, “It is the French.” Nationalism is built out of frustration that people feel when they cannot get their way through the ballot box. With nationalism comes repression. I hope that it is not pessimistic–in my view it is not–to say that democracy hangs by a thread in every country of the world. Unless we can offer people a peaceful route to the resolution of injustices through the ballot box, they will not listen to a House that has blocked off that route. 

– The Rt. Hon. Tony Benn MP, speaking on 20th November 1991 during the Commons debate about the Maastricht Treaty.

Jutland

On 3 June 1916, the British public finally got to find out about the Battle of Jutland. Sort of. At this stage things look bad. The British have lost more ships and more men than the Germans. And they have lost the opportunity to annihilate the German High Seas Fleet. But worse is to come. The Admiralty is claiming to have sunk 2 German dreadnoughts when they have done no such thing. Over the years it will emerge that explosive handling practices were appalling and communications were poor.

The Times 3 June 1916 p9

The Times 3 June 1916 p9

Fortunately, there is a crumb of comfort, a rather large one. The Times nails it:

It will not impair the efficiency of our blockade, or our ability to uphold our freedom of the seas for ourselves and our Allies, nor do we think that it will dispose the Germans to encounter that “main part of the English fighting fleet” in the avoidance of which they have hitherto shown such vigilance and alertness.

Jutland may not have been as decisive as Trafalgar but it was decisive enough.

Tunnel Vision – Switzerland vs the United Kingdom

If tunnel building were an Olympic support, I suspect that Switzerland would bestride the top step of the podium and its virtually unknown national anthem would blare out to the cheering crowd, thrilled by the culmination of a 20-year slog of building the Gotthard base tunnel, the world’s longest rail tunnel, which opens today, co-incidentally the anniversary of a British naval triumph against the French, the Glorious First of June (with those rebellious colonists being involved tangentially).

This twin-bore tunnel opened on time and within budget, and it runs level and almost straight through the varying geology of 35 miles of Swiss mountain, a fantastic achievement, but with sadly 9 deaths, but that seems very low over 20 years and 35 miles. If it can be traversed, per reports, in 17 minutes, that’s an average speed of over 120mph. The idea is to get lorries crossing the Alps through Switzerland off the Swiss roads. Switzerland is, of course, (along with Liechtenstein) surrounded by the European Union but outside it.

And meanwhile, as the Swiss literally give geology both barrels, in England, we have our glorious Channel Tunnel and the Channel Ports (as the Sage of Kettering relayed to me once ‘The problem with the Channel Tunnel is that it has a government at both ends.‘). Well, today a House of Commons committee has come up with a rather skeptical report about a new plan to cope with cross-Channel traffic. For those who do not drive in the South-East of England, there is a standing plan in place to cope with the vagaries of the joys of free movement of goods in the glorious European Union whenever the Channel Tunnel runs into a problem (e.g. when the French start horsing around, burning sheep etc.), called ‘Operation Stack’, where the Kent police close an entire motorway, the M20, and park lorries bound for the Continent on it pending the cessation of hostilities, typically a period of 5 days of so, when a major motorway becomes a lorry park, and to Hell with the locals.

part of the M20 was used 32 times last summer by queuing lorries – a process known as Operation Stack.

The British answer to this problem is, of course, to shell Calais and demand its return to English control (er, no), it is to build a 65 hectare lorry park at a cost of £250,000,000. This would be as big as Disneyland (the one in California) and bigger than the Vatican (a mere 44 hectares) and with the added bonus of no Pope. It will allow 4,000 lorries to be parked whilst the benighted lorry drivers await the restoration of normality. One might ask why each lorry space would cost £62,500 (c.$90,000 US)?

Do we see here cultural differences between the UK and Switzerland? The acceptance of failure and its normalisation, a tendency towards inflated cost and an attitude of weary resignation, against a positive can-do attitude that bulldozes through problems.

So why can’t we be like Switzerland?

Postscript: Eric’s comment indicates that the Swiss may not have been above a bit of creative accounting in completing the tunnel on time and in budget, for which I am grateful, I may have been misled by the BBC (which in Cyrillic was the acronym for the Soviet Army Airborne Forces, what a co-incidence).

Thoughts on the altered economic and ideological incentives faced by the rich and famous

Almost a month ago now, I attended an event, organised by Christian Michel, at which another friend, Professor Tim Evans, spoke about the public and private supply of public goods. You attend such events in the hope that they will make you think things that might not otherwise have occurred to you, and Tim’s talk had this effect on me. What follows is based on what I mostly wrote the day after that talk. I had intended to finish writing this and then post it here before going on a recent expedition to stay with friends in the South of France, but travel preparations got in the way of this. However, nothing in what I wrote then had to be said then or never, if you get my meaning, so here is what I put, suitably polished and amended, now.

Tim Evans’s theme was how, over the centuries, institutions for the supply of such things as healthcare, roads, lighthouses (mention was made in that connection of Ronald Coase), education, and suchlike seem to have oscillated, rather slowly and in timespans often long enough for most of those involved not to be aware of them, between private or charitable supply on the one hand, and government control and government provision on the other.

Tim’s other big point (assuming my recollection is about right – I took no notes) is that the perpetual game of political ping-pong that now rages with statists on one side and anti-statists like me (and like Tim) on the other sometimes does scant justice to the complexity of the institutional arrangements involved. So, for instance, arguments about healthcare are routinely presented, on both sides, as an argument between a total free market and total state control, when in reality medicine has long been a very mixed sort of economy. In the USA, typically held up by anti-free-marketeers as an example of what happens when there is no government control at all, the government is heavily involved with (the phrase “in bed with” also springs to mind) those quasi-political entities which determine what a qualified doctor is and who may or may not practise as one.

I like to think that I may have planted the seed of that last notion about governments and medical monopolies in Tim’s head, with a Libertarian Alliance effort of mine from a quarter of a century ago now, entitled How And How Not To Demonopolise Medicine, about which Tim has often said admiring things to me. I just re-read this, and many of the themes in Tim’s talk were alluded to in that also. At around the same time I wrote that piece, I recall expressing, in another Libertarian Alliance piece, a rather jaundiced view about charity, something Tim also mentioned quite a bit but rather more admiringly, particularly in the matter of healthcare.

Which got me thinking about the incentives faced by very rich people, and how these incentives are not the same as they are for regular people. For the super-rich, a charitable donation which is huge by anyone else’s reckoning is liable to be small change, for a start. But just as significantly, I surmise that the super-rich actually think differently from the rest of us, not just because thinking differently is probably what made them super-rich but because being super-rich then induces them some more to think differently.

→ Continue reading: Thoughts on the altered economic and ideological incentives faced by the rich and famous

A Poem of Two Chancellors

Regular commenter Niall Kilmartin started writing this poem as part of the Erdogan poetry competition but found his thoughts turning in a different direction:

*

        A Poem of Two Chancellors

Though Erdogan is just the man to merit mocking poetry,
Another leader claims my pen, a graver cause is troubling me:
I write of Merkel’s acts because they do not cause me levity.
Oh Angela, was Adolf’s far-from-noble dream once also thine?
I doubt it, yet it’s you, not he, who makes your country Judenrein
(And these days PC tells the Jews it’s hate speech if they dare to whine).
“The best man for the job? Why, choose a woman!” – that’s a bitter joke
When calling doubters ‘Nazis’ is the means by which you meanly cloak
What kind of ‘refugees’ are brought by all this ‘kindness’ you invoke.
We know they’re really migrants since we see they mostly are young men.
We know young men commit most crimes in any group – it follows, then,
That their rate (high enough at home) must here be multiplied again.
Think you, if most of them don’t kill, it will not be like World War Two?
(When, as you know, most Germans did not personally kill a Jew;
When most are scared or hate-filled, acts of killing only need a few.)
Now each one missed by Hitler will be hissed or spoken of likewise
By migrants who care not if they are heard by one, percentage-wise
from that subgroup who won’t just talk but will make sure that that Jew dies.
At least I can be glad most Jews you rule can flee abroad (absurd
that they’ll be refugees for real – and so will be by you ignored).
A few new graves, attracting vandals hypocritically deplored,
Alone will then commemorate them, those canaries in the mine.
Oh Angela, was Adolf’s far-from-noble dream once also thine?
I doubt it, yet it’s you, not he, who makes your country Judenrein.

*

These two lines made the poem for me:

A few new graves, attracting vandals hypocritically deplored,
Alone will then commemorate them, those canaries in the mine.

Over-fearful? I would be glad to think so. I usually do think so. But the quickest of internet searches throws up recent news stories like this one from Spiegel Online International, “Skepticism of German-Israeli Friendship Growing in Berlin”, and this one from Deutsche Welle (DW), “Immigrants Beyond the Law”. The latter story says that migrants from warzones such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan are not particularly criminal but says, ‘It is a completely different story with immigrants from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia though. “Activity quotas” for North Africans are no less than 40 percent.’ Wow. You would never guess from the strapline and first few paragraphs of the DW story that it contained such a statistic as that. Such evasion is typical and does much to increase mistrust.

I had never heard of Harriet Tubman before so…

I must stay I found this quite interesting!

In short, Harriet Tubman was a black, Republican, gun-toting, veterans’ activist, with ninja-like spy skills and strong Christian beliefs. She probably wouldn’t have an ounce of patience for the obtuse posturing of some of the tenured radicals hanging around Ivy League faculty lounges. But does she deserve a place on our money? Hell yeah.

Fascinating.