Nuclear proliferation and unpredictable behaviour


I’ve been following the analysis and commentary in the press this year about North Korea’s development of nuclear programme.  I haven’t followed it obsessively; it’s been more of a watching brief.  As the rhetoric has escalated over the last few days, I’ve had a growing sense of unease, put in context by an essay by Tony Judt.

The essay is Why the Cold War Worked (details at the end of this post).  Having seen the title, I was expecting to find reference to nuclear weapons early in the piece, but they don’t get a mention until the penultimate paragraph – as one of the new elements that resulted in the Cold War being different from anything that had happened in Europe before 1945.  Politicians couldn’t look to pre-War models and solutions to problems because there was now the potential to cause extensive destruction and immense loss of life so quickly and with a single missile.

Tony Judt notes that it took politicians, including US policy makers, many years to learn that nuclear weapons were strikingly unhelpful as instruments of statecraft.  In contrast to spears, they really were only good for sitting on.  He goes on to say (and this is the bit where I sat up and read it again):

Nonetheless, as a deterrent device a nuclear arsenal has its uses – but only if both you and your opponent could be convinced that it might, ultimately, be deployed.

Behaviour of the five nuclear-weapon states has, generally, been regarded as predictable, particularly since the end of the Cold War.  But when another country acquires nuclear weapons or carries out nuclear tests – Pakistan and India in the past; North Korea more recently – there’s a concern that the new member of the club won’t understand that these weapons aren’t to be used.

So, what happens if a country convinces others that its nuclear weapons capability might, one day, be deployed?  What impact does that have on the balance of power and statecraft – and on public rhetoric?  Is that country bluffing?  Does having nuclear-arms capability make that country more confident about using – and more likely to use – non-nuclear weapons?

And what if the behaviour of one of the acknowledged nuclear-weapon states becomes more unpredictable – perhaps through an unpredictable leader being in power?  Tony Judt’s essay provides insights, but little comfort.


Why the Cold War Worked appears in When the Facts Change by Tony Judt.  It’s a review of We Now Know:  Rethinking Cold War History by John Lewis Gaddis and The Conninform:  Minutes of the Three Conferences 1947/1948/1949, edited by Giuliano Procacci.  It first appeared in The New York Review of Books in October 1997.




I haven’t done a travel guide before, but I visited the Faroe Islands recently and the reading material didn’t quite prepare me for the islands.  So, here’s my take on visiting.

First, they are well worth a visit, but go soon.  There’s debate about how to benefit from tourism whilst protecting the islands.  The residents of Mykines – the western-most island, home to a vast colony of puffins – are seeing the detrimental impact of even the current limited tourism on paths and grazing land and nervous puffins.  Mind, I’d be a pretty nervous puffin if humans chased me and didn’t keep their distance.

If you can afford it, hire a car.  You can travel to most communities by bus, but you’re tied to the timetable and you’ll miss the joy of the Buttercup routes, roads with particularly beautiful scenery.

I stayed at various places across the islands, moving from west to east.  If you plan to do that, Airbnb is pretty essential, as there simply aren’t hotels.  Another option (and I didn’t realise how feasible this would be) is to have a base in the middle of the islands.  From there, you’ll be able to reach all but the southern islands.

It’s unlikely you’ll be able to avoid driving through the tunnels that link some of the islands and go through the mountains.  There are two types of these:  tunnels that are lit, with a lane for traffic in each direction; tunnels that aren’t lit, that are hewn out of the rock to form a single lane, that have passing points at the most irregular of intervals and have a ditch (often with water in it) each side of the paved roadway.  There are more of the latter than the former.  If, like me, you live in a town and reversing is limited to parallel parking, go into training!  Locals with right of way hurtle down tunnels and you have to get out of their way.  It’s very easy to misjudge the speed of the car coming towards you and/or distance to the next passing place.  I only had to reverse once, but it left mental scars.

Now, food.  Don’t be deceived by the articles that have appeared in the press over the last few months:  Faroese cuisine is confined to a few, very specific restaurants.  Outside that elite group, I found the food adequate, but a little like food in the UK pre-rocket, pre-avocado – even pre-broccoli.  However, grab any opportunity to eat langoustines, which melt in the mouth.  Getting a table in restaurants is hard, but not because they’re full.  I saw patrons tell people their restaurant is full, then leave several tables empty.  I’m semi-speculating here, but I think it’s about how busy they’ve decided they want to be, although exceptions seemed to be made for locals.  Ask a hotel receptionist to book a table for you – and that’s essential if you’re travelling alone, as the main group of well-known restaurants don’t have the facility for one person to book a table online; if you try, every day and time will be unavailable.  I was told that only the receptionists at the main hotels in the same group have the facility to override the system and make the booking.

Finally, paying for it.  I read that the islands are a cash society, but I only saw one shop that insisted on cash.  Credit cards are accepted in most places.

These are all practical points and don’t let them put you off.  The scenery is stunning, the air is clear and you’ll experience six types of weather in a day.  I saw a couple of mosquitoes in Klaksvik, but otherwise, it was a mozzie-free zone.  Don’t miss the ferry as a roundtrip from Hvannasund to the eastern-most islands of Fugloy and Svinoy – a bargain, but stay on deck if you get sea-sick!  And do make the trip to Mykines, but please don’t chase the puffins!

If you’d like any more tips, let me know – happy to help.


The Tourism of War


In the course of recent trips, I’ve been to Berlin and Sarajevo and it’s struck me that war can become a tourist attraction.

Bosnia & Herzegovina is outside the EU.  It has a stubbornly high unemployment rate and the country’s infrastructure still hasn’t been fully rebuilt since the war of the 1990s.  It might not seem an obvious victim of the financial crash, but I spoke to a man who’d lost his job at the Stock Exchange in 2010; his wife lost her job two days later.  Tourism is one of the few growth industries, with people working in hotels, as guides, drivers and so forth.

Mention Bosnia and people think ‘war’.  Tours in Sarajevo are to the Tunnel Museum – the remains of the tunnel that ran under the airport, providing a vital communication and supply link to the besieged city.  There are trips to the burnt remains of the 1984 Winter Olympic bobsleigh track and to see the bullet holes in the gravestones at the Jewish cemetery.  A little further afield, there’s the Winter Olympic ski jump site, the 70m and 90m hills clear on the hillside, with the letters ‘UN’ marked in white on the roof of the former judges’ hut; this was a demilitarised zone during the war.

And Sarajevo isn’t the only example.  Few people go to Berlin just to see the Wall and Checkpoint Charlie, but most people would expect to see the Wall at some point and have a sense of which side of it they are on.  It’s a key part of a trip to Berlin.  There’s an interest in what survived World War II and the styles of buildings from the Cold War period.  It didn’t appeal to me, but there’s a spy museum about the Stasi.

Similarly, a visit to Auschwitz might not be the main reason to go to Krakow, but many return moved, saddened and appalled – and glad they made the visit.  First World War battlefields, trenches and cemeteries; Ground Zero in New York; Robben Island; any number of places in the Middle East … the list goes on.

People want to see where epic events occurred and translate the news-story to something more immediate and more personal.  We want to hear stories of hardship, but also of heroism.  Bravery is acknowledged and respects are paid.  And we want to see this as history.  Almost by definition, tourists won’t be where a war’s raging, but we want to see that the bad times are over, that there’s a happy ending.

War shouldn’t define a country and what it has to offer.  By the time I left Sarajevo, I wanted to see the rest of the country – one of the last remaining primeval forests in Europe; the fascinating collisions of cultures; fortresses; monasteries; music; art.  Things that have nothing to do with the War.



There are a number of posts I could write about the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Manchester and London.  How the best way of retaining your sanity is to avoid television, news websites, the radio and social media, once you’ve got the basic information.  How you need to remember how many people die of diseases and medical conditions that could be treated or avoided if more were spent on research and health and social care.  How it’s essential to keep a sense of proportion.  And how desperately tragic it is for all those affected – the victims and their families and friends; witnesses; the emergency service personnel.

But as I set off for Prague at the end of last week, it occurred to me that a trip to Czechoslovakia would have held more than a frisson of danger 30 years ago.  And now, many consider it safer than London.

I started to work out where else was considered to be off-limits during the 1980s.  Large parts of Central and South America ticked the box, as did parts of New York City.  (I remember my aunt making me promise not to take the subway when I visited in 1991 and I walked so much that I returned home an inch shorter.)  Parts of Yugoslavia and Bulgaria were mainstream holiday destinations for Western Europeans in the 1980s, but I don’t recall anyone going to Romania or Hungary.

Going back a little further, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos were places to steer clear of in the 1970s, but they’re a mainstay of the averagely adventurous traveller’s bucket list now.  China, the same.

Depending on the decade, various parts of Africa have been worth avoiding and some still are.  Egypt is potentially combustible, but was safe enough ten years ago.  The Middle East has been volatile for most of my lifetime, with short intervals when trips have been perfectly feasible.

Many countries and regions go through periods of comparative violence and peace.  Paris is safer now than during the Second World War and during The Terror at the end of the eighteenth century.  The UK is safer than Northern Ireland was during the Troubles of the 1960s, 70s and 80s.  Violence and danger ebb and flow across the globe and over time, even though we want to live in a peaceful world.

I know I’ll struggle to remember that when there’s another attack in the UK, but I will try to do so and I’ll also pray for peace.

Yet Another Election


The weeks of posturing, polls, predictions and promises that mark the run-up to an election have passed me by.  I’ve been very busy with work and I didn’t know about the UK general election until a friend in New York asked me what I thought of it.  A quick trip to the BBC News app explained which election he was referring to.

Over the last few days, I’ve surfaced enough to take the pulse of the campaigning and rhetoric and I’ve been underwhelmed with what I’ve heard, seen and read.  More specifically, here are my thoughts.

1          I sense that Theresa May has lost her way.  She doesn’t seem as capable as she did before the election was called.  I’ve heard snippets of the flip-flop on social care costs, which has the hallmarks of a last-minute idea that shouldn’t have made it anywhere near a manifesto.

2          Apart from the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, appearing in a televised debate last week, Tory cabinet members seem to have been conspicuous by absence.  I don’t know whether that’s because they’ve absented themselves or they’ve been told to stay on the bench, but I’m confident that we’ll hear a lot from them if the Tories don’t hit a landslide at the polls.

3          I sense that old allegiances on party lines have been muddied by Brexit.  For many people, Brexit is the defining issue and they see neither Theresa May/the Conservative party nor Jeremy Corbyn/the Labour party offering anything that appeals to them on that crucial topic.  I wonder whether we’re heading for a political realignment that takes greater account of Brexit and who has a say in the form and terms of the UK’s exit from the EU.  Just a thought.

4          Labour’s campaign message – For the Many Not the Few – struck me as being more likely to resonate with voters and hats off to whoever came up with it.  Not so convinced by what seems to be Theresa May’s slogan, rather than the Tory party’s campaign message:  Strong and Stable.  From where I’m sitting, it only seems credible if the alternative is having Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister.

5          That said, with the television on mute, Jeremy Corbyn appeared more Prime Ministerial than Theresa May last week.  He looked purposeful and confident.  His head was held high.  He exuded authority.  But the television was on mute.

6          Personally, I’d like to see a hung Parliament and a coalition government.  I don’t have confidence in either Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn, the Conservative party or the Labour party, to run the country or negotiate our exit from the EU.  It would be ironic if a coalition required a deal with the Scottish National Party, which would no doubt want a further referendum on Scottish independence and might also seek to re-visit Brexit before forming a coalition government.

7          What I really wouldn’t want is another general election in short order, as happened in 1974.  We had a general election in 2015 and we have another one this year.  Last year, we had the EU referendum and we had vicarious participation in the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 and the US presidential election throughout the whole of 2016.  Even though I’m a staunch advocate of democracy and I’ve missed most of the campaigning this time round, I have a severe case of election fatigue.


London. 22 March 2017.


Last week was a grim time for London.  I don’t think it’s going too far to say that most Londoners felt there was bound to be an attack in our city at some point, but it’s still a shock when it happens.  It feels personal when it’s your city, when you have to go around police tape to walk home, when you have to look each way before crossing a lane of the Embankment because unmarked police cars are driving the wrong way to avoid the traffic jams.

The obvious things have been said.  Above all, there’s the mix of horror at what happened and deep sympathy for those who lost their lives, for their families and for those who were injured. There’s the observation that London has been through far worse than this and that those of us living in, and coming to, London should all carry on with our daily lives.  But these things are no less true for being obvious.

Our Common Good


It’s the most important book I’ve read in years.  Our Common Good, by John Nickson, looks at the state of UK society and sets out inspiring tales of projects and initiatives around the country that are trying to level an unequal playing field as public resources dwindle and new solutions are needed.

It’s convincing because each chapter sets out what interviewees have said.  Historians – including Mary Beard and Peter Frankopan – tell us about giving, philanthropy and society across millennia.  We have assessments of inequality in various guises, including access to health and the legal system.  We hear from people working with teenagers in East London and Oldham, children in Blackpool, communities in Northern Ireland and deprived areas of Surrey and Cheshire lying cheek-by-jowl with some of the most prosperous parts of the country.  There are tales of what hasn’t worked, as well as what’s turned out to be a success.

The book is in two parts.  The initial analysis of UK society and the inequalities within it is the best I’ve read.  Some of the points were familiar, but they had greater resonance because of the different voices used.  Until reading this, I hadn’t focused on:

  • The extent to which asset inequality in conjunction with generational inequality is impacting society and feeding a breakdown of trust between generations; and
  • How that breakdown of trust between generations is exacerbating (as well as being fuelled by) the disappearance of traditional community life.

The importance of community and the need for community-based solutions is one of the key themes of the book.  I think it’s also one of the reasons government-led initiatives are unlikely to succeed.  The initiatives I found most inspiring are small-scale, locally-based and punching way above their weight as they tackle problems in their immediate neighbourhood.

As I read the book, I realised that this is how people will make a difference in the future.  Yes, there’ll be transformational gifts for research projects, but even those are now looking at delivery – say, in the health sector – on a smaller-scale, focused on localities and communities.

I was also struck by the analysis of millennials’ giving and how many are more likely to give to causes than to charities; causes aren’t institutions.  The emphasis on volunteering and giving time rings true, along with the desire for businesses – particularly their own employers – to focus on customers, suppliers and employees, rather than shareholders/investors and ROE.  The most fascinating part of the book is around comments by Dame Zarine Kharas, co-founder of JustGiving, on how business and ethics should be inextricably linked.  If you read nothing else in the book, do read that – oh, and the comments by Peter Frankopan and Ben Elliot.

John Nickson is a friend, but that’s not why I’m waxing so lyrical about this book.  I’m singing its praises because it holds a mirror to our society and shows how it could, so easily, improve for the benefit of all of us.