When I grow up I want to be a…

Binman.

Well, that’s what the five year old me used to say.  And after that obsession fizzled out I triumphantly declared that I wanted be a pilot.  Unfortunately the closest I ever got to that dream was tying the dog to the back of an aeroplane shaped climbing frame in the park and pretending to fly to some exotic and far flung destination.  The realities of life soon set in.

At secondary school you could ask me the above question and I would not be able to give a meaningful answer.  Infact, if you’d have asked me the same question at my university graduation I would have again have struggled to give a meaningful answer.  It was only after a disastrous foray into a company which promised better things that my mind was sharpened enough to actually sit down and think about my future.  And even now, I only have an aim.  The effects of a bitter financial crisis, double-dip recession, austerity and the Leveson Inquiry could quite easily conspire to derail my future plans at any given time.  After all, print journalism is a dying trade and thanks to News International journalists are only a couple of notches above bankers and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the global hate index.

Anyway, that is all beside the point.  For many people their ambitions and dreams have been placed on ice since the 2008 financial crisis.  A deep recession, low growth and biting austerity measures across the Western hemisphere have created a sickening cocktail which has plunged an entire generation into despair.  Currently, over 1 million people in the United Kingdom under the age of 25 are unemployed.  Countless more are still living at home and working dead-end jobs, biding their time and praying for that elusive opportunity to appear.  However, does the shock election of Francois Hollande offer a glimmer of hope to the millions negatively affected by a crisis which was created in a distant land and paid for by their taxes?

At first glance, it does.  Francois Hollande has explicitly stated that he is “the President of the youth of France.”  Standing against European and Western austerity, Hollande has spoken passionately throughout his election campaign and promised to refocus EU financial efforts from austerity to growth.  Although vague, current ‘radical’ policies of Hollande include the creation of 60 000 new education posts, a ‘squeeze on the rich’ and the implementation of a 75% tax rate for the super rich.  When combined with the complete Greek rejection of austerity are the troika demands for deficit reduction, austerity and tax rises dead in the water?  After all, it does pay for the currency sharing European nations to row in the same direction and strive to avoid the potential implosion of the Eurozone.

Unfortunately even with the election of Francois Hollande the policy of European wide austerity is far from dead.  Constrained by the very same financial markets that created the economic crisis and with French public sector spending currently accounting for around 57% of GDP, Hollande will undoubtedly be forced to continue with many of the policies laid out by his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy.  Quite simply, the unvarnished truth is that France must find 18 billion Euros of cuts by next year to maintain favourable to the markets and keep bond yields below the psychological danger zone of 7%.  And, as a reminder for those who think the impact of the markets is overhyped it is worth remembering that they have already helped to claim the scalp of several European governments; including that of the infamous Italian Lazarus, Silvio Berlusconi.

It is therefore highly likely that once the hype around Hollande and his ‘rejection of austerity’ has died down the new French President will be limited to making a few token populist gestures; paid for by the increased taxation of the rich.  As if to reiterate this point, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has already fired a shot across the bow of the new socialist President, warning that any previously agreed fiscal compacts were ‘not up for grabs.’

So, how does the recent European ‘rejection of austerity’ affect the millions of families across Britain who are struggling to make ends meet and the hundreds of thousands of well-educated young people unable to find a job with a promising career?  The simple answer is that it doesn’t.  Well, not really anyway.

Infact, to many of the public the only signs of any European spending will come from seeing a more confident Ed Miliband and subsequently resurgent New Labour exploiting the small benefits that any increased spending by a socialist President will no doubt bring.  And also obviously Francois Hollande is the President of the Republic of France and not the United Kingdom.  Aside from a few minor concessions on controversial tax issues such as the ‘granny tax’ and ‘pasty tax,’ it is highly unlikely that Osborne and Cameron will make a U-turn to dramatically increase spending.  Such an approach was confirmed only earlier today in the annual Queen’s speech and an Andrew Marr interview in which Osborne laughably declared that “the national mood is now very much behind the deficit plan.”

Evidently people aren’t.  Especially if you’re a pasty-eating pensioner with large savings and an unemployed grandchild.


Penguins, Princes and Crude Oil

Home to an estimated 500 000 penguins and until recently Prince William the Falkland Islands have an undeniably rich military history and even rich biodiversity.  Uninhabited by humans until the 16th Century, the ownership of the islands has been bitterly contested for generations between European powers in their quest for Empire and riches.

Situated only 300 miles from the Falkland capital Stanley, Argentina has regularly peddled the claim that the Falkland Islands (or Islas Malvinas in Argentina) and their inhabitants belong to Argentina.  Although vociferously refuted by the British government Argentina has refused to modify its stance throughout the years on such grandiose claims; this infamously culminating in the unsuccessful 1982 invasion in which 649 Argentinian and 255 British military personnel lost their lives.

Whilst still reeling from the events of 1982 Argentina is far from silenced.  Indeed, Buenos Aires is currently engaged in a severe diplomatic (and increasingly confrontational) spat with the United Kingdom.  Why?

At face value the answer is surprisingly simple.  Rocked by domestic problems, Argentina under President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has suffered from an agonising inflation rate that is among the highest in the world.  Estimated at around 25% per year, only the modern day dictatorships of Venezuela and Belarus can compete in worldwide rankings.  Furthermore President Kirchner has authorised a clamp down on Argentinian media by limiting the importation of newsprint to ‘authorised’ publishers and expanding controls over the content journalists can cover.  And in a final draconian sweep Kirchner has recently introduced a new ‘Terror Law;’ this allowing the state to imprison people for up to 15 years when convicted for a variety of trivial ‘offences’ that range from marching in protests to pulling money from banks in a highly probable economic crisis.

Faced with such unpopularity and domestic criticism, the Argentine government has developed a novel solution which centres almost solely on the Falklands.  Knowing that any rhetoric contesting the sovereignty of the Falklands maintains support, President Kirchner has chosen to whip up a frenzy of anti-British sentiment within Argentina.

Citing the recent stationing of Prince William in the Falklands as a Search and Rescue pilot, President Kirchner has lambasted the British government by declaring that such a stationing is a policy of militarisation by ‘a crude colonial power in decline.’  In retaliation UK Prime Minister David Cameron has blasted Argentina for pursuing a ‘policy of confrontation,’ simultaneously causing outcry in Buenos Aires by suggesting that Argentina’s claim to the Falkland Islands is a form of colonialism.

It should be noted that this diplomatic bickering is nothing new.  Since the formation of the United Nations in 1945 Argentina has attacked Britain both diplomatically, economically and militarily.  Likewise, the United Kingdom has largely done the same.  However, what is concerning Whitehall this time is the ferocity and extent of Argentine action.  For the first time since 1982, there is a fear that Argentina has lit the fuse of a political powder keg which has the potential to alter the balance of the entire region.

In addition to economic embargoes, diplomatic spats and legal intimidation, President Kirchner has succeeded in cajoling several high profile South American nations such as Peru, Chile and Brazil into an anti-British pact.  For example, only last month it was confirmed that several South American nations had been persuaded to turn away Falklands-flagged vessels from their ports.  Furthermore, in a recent high profile move Peru cancelled a scheduled visit by the Royal Navy frigate HMS Montrose as an act of solidarity with Argentina in its dispute with the UK over the Falkland Islands.

Although the Falkland Islands are believed to be virtually impenetrable in Western military circles, the recent British Strategic Defence and Security Review undertaken by the ruling coalition government has no doubt emboldened President Kirchner’s resolve.  Likewise, comments from high-profile Major Generals regarding current British Royal Naval capabilities have almost certainly not helped deter any Argentinian threat.  For many though, the increased Argentine threats and blustering regarding the Falklands have little to do with past grievances or a lack of British military clout.  Instead, the highly charged dispute has emerged due to the recent discovery of vast amounts of commercially viable oil – in 2010 Rockhopper Exploration announced that their preliminary Sea Lion well was commercially viable and that the oil was of a good enough quality to extract.

Showcasing the British ‘fair play’ mentality, the government had offered to share some oil revenue with the Argentinian government – even after the most recent threats.  Of course, to a faltering Argentine economy playing hardball to get the best deal possible is a valid strategy.  Flush with ‘free’ money, President Kirchner would be in a position to offer industry and individuals financial incentives as a means of ensuring political dominance.  In a country with severe economic and political problems such an outcome would no doubt be extremely well received.

Oil: the real reason Argentina is interested in the Falkland Islands

So, despite all the doom and gloom how is the situation likely to play out regarding the Falklands?

Well, it is blindingly obvious that the UK Government will not surrender the islands to Argentina without a fight.  This is not only because the islanders have insisted on numerous occasions that they wish to remain British and under the protection of the United Kingdom, but also because no British government could survive losing the Falklands as they have become a totem of British foreign policy.  David Cameron has more or less explicitly stated this policy by clearly maintaining that there will be no negotiation on the status of the Falklands.  In the meantime Argentina is likely to continue their policy of confrontation for the foreseeable future, or at least until meaningful negotiations are entered into regarding oil extraction and the 30th anniversary milestone of the invasion has passed.

Although grim, this does not mean that we should expect a military confrontation.  The dispatching of HMS Dauntless and unconfirmed reports that British submarines patrol the area are designed to deter aggression – not provoke it – whilst the stationing of Prince William on the islands for 6 weeks has given the conflict an international audience with a British bias.   It is also worth noting that Britain and the EU are quietly making it known to Argentina’s South American allies that trade sanctions work two ways.

This is not exactly gunboat diplomacy.  But it is effective.


Alex Salmond: Freedom Fighter

The future flag of the United Kingdom?

The rebels in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt would not exactly call him a ‘comrade in arms.’  Hollywood would no doubt decline any offer to create a movie documenting his ‘struggle,’ and apart from his arrogance he shares little in common with William Wallace.  I am of course referring to Alex Salmond – leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), Scottish First Minister and chief antagonist in the push for Scottish independence.

With the referendum date now pencilled in for 2014, who exactly is Alex Salmond, what do the SNP want and how will it all play out?

Famously protective of his private life, Alex Salmond was born in Linlithgow, Scotland and is married with no children.  Able to trace his ancestry to before the 1707 Acts of Union between England and Scotland, Salmond studied economics and history at the University of Saint Andrews.  Upon graduation, he pursued a career as an economist.

Unlike his private life, much more is known about Salmond’s political beliefs.  As a fierce left-wing supporter of Scottish independence, Salmond’s political career almost ended spectacularly early when he was suspended from the SNP due to his support and involvement in the radical socialist republican 79 Group.  As can be seen from this song the group are hardly politically liberal, open minded election material.  However, by 1987, Salmond had been able to claw his way back into the SNP, defeating the Conservative MP Albert McQuarrie in a local election.  It is here that his stratospheric rise through the ranks of the SNP began.

Appointed as SNP Deputy Leader in 1987, Salmond took advantage of the power vacuum within the party in 1990 by standing for and winning the leadership election.  Throughout the 1990s he was heavily critical of Westminster whilst maintaining heavy involvement in supporting policies promoting Scottish devolution.  However, by 1999 Salmond had resigned after facing a virtual media blackout, heavy criticism and the full force of Westminster for a number of political blunders including opposing the NATO bombing of Serbia through likening it to the Nazi German bombing of Glasgow.

Despite this, it was in 2004 that Alex Salmond had once again clawed his way back into the SNP and public eye.  Having entered into the 2004 SNP leadership battle, Salmond emerged victorious with a majority of around 75%.  Since then, he has overseen the continued electoral success of the SNP with these successes culminating in the 2010 general election in which the SNP emerged victorious within the Scottish Parliament.  Armed with a sizeable majority, the SNP have promised to hold a referendum on Scottish independence; the desired ‘yes’ vote being their final hurdle in a bid to become independent of the United Kingdom.  Arguably, this video explains the issue most succinctly.

Currently, the main three political parties of Westminster are opposed to Scottish independence.  In a rare display of unity, both David Cameron and Ed Milliband have spoken out against Alex Salmond, claiming that Scottish independence would profoundly affect the British Isles and considerably weaken the political union.  Both political leaders have also stated that independence would be ‘bad’ for the UK economy, especially if Scotland were to abandon Sterling and adopt the Euro.

How the independence referendum will play out is unknown.  All current indicators appear to support the conclusion that if a referendum were to be taken today the idea of an independent Scotland would be rejected by the population; Westminster arguably pushing an early referendum for this precise reason.  There is no doubt that Britain would be weaker should the union be broken.  Not only would the breakaway of Scotland throw the future of the remaining Union into doubt, but additionally there would be significant headaches for politicians involved in discussion over the military, economic policies and border controls.

It is also highly likely that whatever the result it will destroy the losing political party.  For the ruling Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition a defeat would likely be the final nail in a coffin for a political relationship that has already suffered heavily from the continuing slew of poor economic data, high unemployment and widespread public discontent with severe budget cuts.  On the other hand, for the SNP a defeat would signal the end of a party which does not appear to have much policy and substance past opposition to Westminster, support for independence and bribery of the population via free prescriptions and non-existent university fees.

And despite these problems, should Scotland become independent it must be remembered that the politicians will have a responsibility for at least a small portion of the often talked about and over-hyped national debt – all £1 trillion of it.  For a country with an economy only totalling £140bn this would be a substantial burden.  After independence the SNP would no doubt soon realise that money is no longer channelled from the wealthy South East of England towards a deprived and desolate Glasgow City.  The English taxpayer would no longer be responsible for funding expensive Scottish nationalism and Scotland would no longer have the benefit of a highly-trained and professional army, paid for and maintained by Westminster.

How sustainable are those free prescriptions and subsidised university fees now?