We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

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

Thoughts on Spheres of Influence

Sean Gabb writes:

Sending money and weapons into the black hole of corruption that is the Ukraine is not a worthwhile cause. It is not worth defending in itself, and it is in the Russian sphere of influence. We have no business there.

There’s quite a lot in that paragraph but it’s this idea of “spheres of influence” – so beloved of Jonathan Mearsheimer – that I am going to concentrate on.

What is a “sphere of influence” I wonder? I suppose it is an agreement between powerful states that one of them gets to control a third state’s domestic and foreign policy. The key word here is “agreement”. Has the United States, or Nato or any Western institution ever accepted that Ukraine was part of Russia’s sphere of influence? I don’t think so, not least because I don’t think that the US has ever formally accepted the idea of “spheres of influence”. At least not for the rest of the world. It claims it for itself. In the 1980s, the Reagan administration used to refer to Nicaragua and El Salvador as being in “America’s back yard”. In other words those states were not going to be given a choice as to which path they took even if Cuba was for some reason. Of course, in that case there was no one able to seriously contest America’s contention. That does not apply in Ukraine.

But other than Central America, does the US have spheres of influence? Is Britain, for instance, inside America’s sphere? It doesn’t seem to be. If it was we’d still be members of the EU. And I’d have an SLR on my wall. And as for France and Germany they might as well be herding cats. So, no, the concept of spheres of influence does not appear to be one that the US recognises. What it recognises – however imperfectly – is self-determination, freedom, democracy, that sort of thing. If you are a democracy, and embrace freedom, the US will support you if it can. Or, as John F Kennedy put it – words that are carved in stone on his memorial in Runnymede, “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

So, if anything, the war in Ukraine is not a battle over spheres of influence but a conflict between two completely different concepts of international relations.

For what it is worth I think the American doctrine will win. The prospect of freedom means that the Ukrainians have sky-high morale. The fact that they are being aided by free(-ish) countries means they have – or will have – vastly superior equipment.

Thoughts on the death of David Trimble

I first became aware of David Trimble some time in the early 1990s. I was impressed. He was way more impressive in his media appearances than any other unionist of the time. I was so impressed that – wearing my National Association of Conservative Graduates hat – I interviewed him. We covered the basics of the Ulster issue, why Northern Ireland existed, and, er… memory escapes me. The fun part was when he claimed that the Conservative Party had ceased to be a British party. At the time pretty stinging.

Sometime later, after he had become leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, and about a week after the IRA had bombed Canary Wharf, thus ending their ceasefire, I walked in to his Westminster office – I had somehow managed to acquire a pass – and declared that I was working for him. And so I did for the next year. In that year, we had Drumcree II, John Major’s government losing its majority and endless talks about talks in Belfast.

About the first thing he said to me on that day I joined, after asking whether or not I took sugar in my tea, and quite unprompted, was that the British governent was forever on the lookout for a unionist leader who would on the one hand keep unionists in line while on the other making endless concessions.

I was lucky enough to have a desk in his office – there is less space than you might think in the Palace of Westminster. I learnt an awful lot.

I learnt that Henry VIII died a Catholic. I learnt some very grim things about the Republic of Ireland’s justice system and the retribution the IRA visited on Ulster Britons after Bloody Sunday. I learnt that there is a difference between a member of the Irish peerage and and Irish member of the British peerage. I learnt that there were moles in the RUC. I learnt that if you receive an invitation to a Royal Banquet the stated dress code is black tie but don’t you dare turn up in anything less than white tie. I learnt that there was a time when ballots were not secret. Your vote would be published. David looked up to see how one of his ancestors had voted in a previous election. He was delighted to find that he had voted Liberal. I learnt that joining the Orange Order was “something you just did” and that a lot of loyalists have Irish names (O’Fee, O’Hare, that sort of thing). I learnt that journalists will twist your words at the drop of a hat, while giving your opponents a free pass. I learnt that the IRA is something of an aristocracy and that beyond the leadership quite a lot of them are really rather thick. I learnt that internment is essential in defeating terrorism.

I also saw him lose his temper now and then. It was quite something to see so long as you weren’t on the receiving end, his face turning a very deep red indeed. By far the best explosion was the day one of his fellow Ulster politicians showed up. Within five minutes – it may have been less – the two were shouting at one another at the top of their voices. The meeting was not a success.

It wasn’t all shouting though. At some point in the day he would just stop being the leader of a political party and start playing Windows Solitaire.

To my mind if you want to do good in Ulster you have to understand the issue. That’s not so easy when an awful lot of people are trying to obscure it. Clue: it has nothing to do with religion and nothing to do with civil rights. David was very helpful in this regard. The upshot was Ulster for Beginners which I rather self-indulgently re-published here a while back.

Sadly, David’s understanding of the issue was not – in my eyes at least – combined with a strategy for getting the word out. Very quickly, his leadership descended into a series of fire-fighting actions which I felt took away from the key job of making the case for unionism.

I left shortly before the 1997 Blair landslide. It was a good time to leave. The Labour Party had never held unionism in any great affection and was determined to make some sort of deal with the IRA. The result was the Good Friday Agreement with the nonsense of power sharing and later on the abolition of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. It also included a promise from the IRA about disarmament which they probably didn’t mean at the time but after 9/11 probably did.

David became the first First Minister of Northern Ireland’s new devolved government but it didn’t last. What he didn’t see – I didn’t either – was that power sharing meant that voters had to elect the most extreme representatives their tribe could offer. The result was that the moderates of the Ulster Unionist Party and the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party were to all intents and purposes wiped out. So, it was with Trimble who eventually lost his Westminster seat.

David Trimble was one of the smartest, most knowledgeable people I have ever met. He combined that with an unusual ability – certainly amongst unionists – to get his message across. Had he been a mainland politician he would almost certainly have been a member of the Cabinet. It was even at one point suggested that he should join the Cabinet just the way he was. They say you should never meet your political hero. Well, I met mine and got to know him very well. And I am glad I did.

David Trimble as I remember him. Taken in the office at a time when taking photos on the Parliamentary estate was forbidden.

Book Review: Konstantin Kisin “An immigrant’s love letter to the West” Part I

Konstantin Kisin is a former stand-up comedian who, along with current stand-up comedian Francis Foster hosts the YouTube channel Triggernometry, which is partly a political interview show and partly a comedy show. His thoughts have even been referred to a couple of times here on Samizdata. Kisin is also a Russian who moved to this country when he was eleven to study, oddly enough, at the same English public school that produced Earl Haig.

And now he’s written a book. I have only just started reading it so these are initial observations hence the Part I bit. There may be a Part II but I promise nothing. Kisin is a good writer (all the comedy stuff showing through?) and a thoughtful one. As he says:

If there is one thing my Soviet childhood taught me, it’s that subscribing to someone else’s ideology will always inevitably mean having to suspend your judgement about right and wrong to appease your tribe. I refuse to do so.

Kisin’s essential argument is that we in the West don’t know how lucky we are. We don’t know what it is like to live in non-Western countries. We don’t appreciate how much better life is here. And if we do we don’t know why it is so much better. Kisin has seen Russia and he has seen Britain and it is not difficult for him to decide which is better. Which is why he is so angry when well-meaning (and not-so-well-meaning) activists start playing around with our traditions and institutions. They – the well-meaning ones – think that they’re just improving things. He thinks that they are playing a game of civilisational Jenga – at least he does since Foster came up with the analogy. Jenga’s the one where you have a tower made of sticks you remove them one by one and eventually the whole edifice collaspses, isn’t it?

So far I’ve read chapters on the Soviet Union, slavery (and the Soviet Union) and free speech. All good stuff. Or mostly. In one bit he says, “Think of it like Margaret Thatcher’s Section 28 – which forbade the promotion of homosexuality in Britain in 1988.” That’s not how I remember it. I remember it as local councils not being allowed to promote homosexuality as “a pretended family relationship.” Otherwise people were free to promote homosexuality to their heart’s content. And did. He also seems to think that people were broadly-speaking equal in the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union of my imagination has Zils, dachas and shops for party members only. Not equal at all. I suppose this is how distorted history gets propagated down the ages but that is the subject for another blog post.

Solved: the Scottish referendum issue

In 2014, Scotland had a “once in a lifetime” referendum on independence. And now, some of them want another one – a “neverendum” as it sometimes known. The UK government is disinclined to give them such a plebiscite – on the basis that “life” should mean “life” – so the Scottish government is thinking about holding a Catalan-style illegal one.

There is, however, an alternative. An alternative that doesn’t require any legislation and would allow the people of Scotland to make a clear decision.

I don’t know whether I read this, heard it or dreamt it but I seem to remember Enoch Powell extolling the virtues of Sinn Fein in 1918 (not something you would expect from an Ulster Unionist). In that year they stood in the general election (to the UK parliament (Ireland was part of the UK in those days)) on an abstentionist platform. If elected they would not take their seats, not accept any salary (a novel thing in those days) and not recognise the authority of Her Majesty’s government. They won just about every seat in what is now the Republic of Ireland – Dublin University was just about the only exception – and next to none in what is now Northern Ireland. Had the British government under David Lloyd George accepted this verdict there and then 3 years of bloodshed could have been avoided.

Perhaps a British Prime Minister – coming or going – should point out that were the Scottish nationalists resign their seats – they hold a majority – and then win the subsequent by-elections, the UK would be honour-bound to allow Scotland to pursue its manifest destiny as the Venezuela of the north.


Update I think I would have to accept there is a big difference between “once in a lifetime” and “once in a generation”. Unfortunately, “generation should mean generation” just doesn’t scan.

I should point out that while Sinn Fein did indeed do badly in Northern Ireland there were some Nationalists elected. By my estimate – complicated by the fact that some constituency boundaries appear to have crossed today’s border –  Nationalists of various stripes won six out of 29 seats.

On a more general point I am a little disturbed by what I an only describe as a rather colonialist attitude to Scotland. As far as I am concerned Scots have every right to choose to govern themselves or, as some point out, choose to be governed by the European Union. 

Some thoughts on the Assange case

Julian Assange is on the verge (as he has been for ten years, but this time for real) of being extradited from the UK to the US. The question I ask is, has he done anything wrong?

If it were the case that he had supplied information that would have been useful to a hostile power then I would say hang the bastard. But that is not what the US government is accusing him of. The accusation is that he helped to steal the information. Now, if someone steals my stuff, I want them to have their hands cut off. Along with a few other appendages. But Assange “stole” information not stuff. And remember the US government is not claiming that that information would have been useful to a foreign power.

Which puts a rather different gloss on things. US government information is – if we are to take the US government’s own position seriously – owned by the US people. They have every right to see it. More or less. As well as military secrets there may be commercial contracts which – possibly – they don’t want to disclose. For instance, one of my frustrations in the UK was that you couldn’t inspect the contract of a Train Operating Company because it was deemed to be “commercially confidential”. Whatever, it doesn’t apply in this case.

So, it would appear that all Assange has done is to supply the US population with something it already owned and had every right to have.

Have I got that right?

Similarities between the Russia-Ukraine War and the First World War

  1. The aggressor was looking for a quick victory.
  2. When the aggressor failed to achieve that victory a stalemate developed.
  3. The principle mobile weapon system (then cavalry, now armour) was shown to be highly vulnerable.

Of course, there are significant differences. The German army, for instance, never suffered from massive corruption and incompetence. And this time there aren’t multiple belligerent powers.

But if the similarities hold does this mean that we can look forward to a stalemate that lasts four years, kills millions and doesn’t really resolve anything? Does it mean we’ll have to do it all over again in 20 years? Let’s hope not but there’s another similarity which may play a part here. As Perun has pointed out, Ukraine – believe it or not – can call on greater military resources than Russia. It already has a larger army and if the West supplies it properly it will have more and better military hardware to bring to bear. And morale will be no contest. This would make it much the same as the situation in 1918. It took the Western allies 3 years to develop the war industries they needed but when they unleashed their superior military resources, allied to an effective tactical doctrine, the Germans were powerless to resist.

To the best of my knowledge the Ukrainians are yet to enjoy any major offensive successes. So, for the time being we’re very much in the 1915 part of this analogy.

A visual illustration of how much money printing has been going on


As a supplement to Johnathan’s post. A couple of points:

  • This is M2 which is cash and bank deposits. There are other measures like M3 and M4 which measure other forms of money. I would have preferred to have used M4 because – if I recall correctly – it is the broadest measure, but I couldn’t find a graph for that.
  • The black line is money supply growth; the red line is inflation (CPI).
  • The percentage increase in 2020 was greater than at any time since before the Second World War. Even in the middle of a world war there was less money printing.

Update 10/5/22. As Douglas2 points out this is a graph for the US. Ugh. Luckily TomJ has found a graph for the UK which looks like this: 

This is very similar so long as you are aware that the blue line has been moved 18 months to the right. It also suggests that this bout of inflation is likely to be short-lived.

What happens if Putin uses a nuclear device?

In the course of the Ukraine War, Vladimir Putin, Russia’s dictator, has from time to time hinted that he is prepared to use nuclear weapons. There is a tendency to downplay this. Many believe these are idle threats. When I hear this sort of talk I am reminded of the words of the late Helen Szamuely, “They mean it!” she would say. Having been partially educated in Moscow Szamuely knew what she was talking about. Not that we need her wise words. Just before the war, Mark Steyn interviewed his old boss, Conrad Black, on GB News. Black opined that Putin’s sabre rattling was “Kabuki theatre” or some such. As we now know, it wasn’t. He meant it.

But whether he means it or not we should at least be prepared.

What would he do first? Would he, for instance, use a tactical nuclear weapon to eliminate Ukrainian forces in front of him? Or we he indulge in nuclear blackmail: surrender or Kiev gets it? And what does the West – by which I suppose I mean the United States – do? If it’s a tactical nuke I suppose it could offer to supply Ukraine with tactical nukes of its own. But how keen would Ukrainians be to nuke their own territory? If it’s the blackmail option, does the West really threaten a nuclear response? Would such a threat be credible?

In the Cold War I was never particularly worried. I knew that if the Russians dropped the bomb on us we would drop the bomb on them. And I knew that the Russians knew that, so they wouldn’t. Now, things are not so clear.

Update 2/5/22

It’s very difficult to argue with Niall when he says, “The logic of deterrence is as valid as ever it was. The more the west radiates a will to react, the less likely Putin is to act. And the best way to radiate a will to react is to have the will to react.”

Also, thank you to Subotai Bahadur for his lengthy comment in which he points out that the nuclear club – both official and unofficial – is likely to get quite a bit bigger.

St George’s Day (Part II)

From the ever-brilliant Kristian Niemietz

Click for slightly larger version

Inflation: what happened last time

A lot of people in the media are calling it the “cost of living crisis” but us lot who were around in the 1970s know it as “inflation”. Back then – if the government’s figures are/were to be believed – it peaked at 25%. The 1970s were a pretty horrible decade all round. As well as inflation, there were constant strikes, bankrupt nationalised industries and a general air of doom. A Samizdata contributor, growing up in France even had an economics text book with a chapter entitled, “Britain: headed for the Third World?”

Since the mid-1980s inflation has been much lower. It’s been present but until now it has been far less of a day-to-day problem. So, what happened? The Thatcher government put up interest rates. For reasons that I may have once understood, but no longer do, this reduced inflation. But it came at a price. Huge numbers of businesses went bust or reduced their workforces. Unemployment skyrocketed. By the mid-1980s growth had returned but many previously industrialised areas did not recover and still haven’t. I doubt they ever will.

Are there lessons in this? Harbingers more like. Interest rates have been very low for a very long time. Homeowners – as opposed to businesses last time round – have borrowed a lot. If you are on an average income and want to own your own house and bring up a family that is what you have to do. Should interest rates go up, millions will find they cannot pay their mortgages. A cynic might argue that at least in the 1980s, the pain was borne by people who weren’t going to vote Conservative anyway. This time, that’s not so clear.

Update 16/4/22. I see from the comments that a lot of people in the US have fixed rate mortgages. Very sensible. I wonder if that is the case here in the UK? Also, how easy is for banks to call a loan in?

It occurs to me that lots of people with fixed-rate mortgages might not be all that good a get-out-of-jail-free card. If interest rates do go up that would severely depress house prices. Sure, homeowners would still be able to pay off their mortgages but their properties would be worth a lot less.

Homeowners of course are not the only borrowers. A few years ago – when I was into this sort of thing – I came across a couple of reasonably-large, barely-profitable companies with large amounts of debt that periodically needed to be refinanced. If interest rates go up they would be in a lot of trouble. I wonder how prevalent this is?

Will a dictator always shoot his bolt?

We don’t know what exactly was in Putin’s mind when he decided to invade Ukraine but despite some initial scepticism on my part it looks awfully like he did want some sort of swift victory in which he either conquered the whole country or perhaps just the eastern half plus Kiev. If that indeed was the aim, he’s failed. In doing so he has underestimated the West.

This week marks 40 years since something similar happened in the South Atlantic. When Argentina’s Junta decided to invade the Falklands they thought it would be a cakewalk. It had never occurred to them that Britain might fight. Ten weeks later the Falklands were back in British hands and the Junta were out of office. They too had underestimated the West. They’d also got the timing horribly wrong. If they had been a bit more patient, Britain would have gifted them the islands.

Any other examples? Hitler? Ach, let’s not do Hitler. Saddam Hussein certainly got it all wrong when he invaded Kuwait. Milosevic? From what I can work out he did nothing but underestimate his opponents.

Does it work historically? Off the top of my head, Cromwell would seem to be the first modern dictator. He had the good sense not to go to war against another state (or did he? What about the Dutch? We were always fighting the Dutch in those days weren’t we?) Whatever, probably not a disaster. And let’s face it, they didn’t have bolts to shoot in Cromwell’s day.

Napoleon famously got it wrong when he invaded Russia. But did he have a choice?

It occurs to me, while proposing this grand theory, that Putin may have done the precise opposite of shooting his bolt. Far from having too little patience he may have had too much. Would anyone have stopped him if he’d tried this in the wake of Maidan?

Update Turns out that Cromwell did indeed go to war with the Dutch.

Update 2/4/22 Lots of good comments mostly telling me how wrong I am which is a Good Thing, even if I have to say it through gritted teeth. I particularly liked this from Chester Draws, “In the west individuals have shorter attentions, because fortunately they stay in power less long, but parties can keep it up far longer than individuals. The Democrats in the US are playing a very long game, quite independent of who their leader is.”


Samizdata quote of the day

Dominic Cummings was completely right in his belief that ‘Generally, the better educated are more prone to irrational political opinions and political hysteria than the worse educated’. The history of communism is the most obvious example, Bolshevism being a student cult that was passionately believed in by some very intelligent, brilliant people long after it was exposed as a disaster.

Ed West