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Sensemaker: The big rejig

Wednesday 17 March 2021

What just happened


Long stories short

  • At least 58 people were killed by gunmen who ambushed a convoy returning villagers from a weekly market to their homes in southwestern Niger.
  • 70,000 UK Uber drivers were promised a minimum wage, holiday pay and pensions after being reclassified as workers rather than contractors.
  • The European Medicines Agency said there was no evidence the AstraZeneca Covid vaccine caused clots.

The big rejig

Britain wants to be a tech superpower offering leadership on climate change, deterrence against Russia and advice to anyone willing to listen on how to be a democracy in a flexible new world order increasingly dominated by China. If you don’t believe it, read the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, published yesterday.

This is the extended essay Boris Johnson knew he’d have to write – or at least commission – having promised a new Global Britain after Brexit. It answers one big question and poses another:

On China, it rejects the Tory hawks’ view that oppression in Hong Kong and Xinjiang rules out doing business with Beijing. The goal is to scold and engage because the UK has no choice. China is both “systemic competitor” and “valuable trading partner”. 

On Britain’s nuclear posture, it sets a new cap of 260 warheads, 40 per cent up on the old one, ostensibly to help deter rogue actors and cyber aggression rather than other nuclear powers. Why? It may be worth remembering there’s a rogue actor fond of cyber aggression in the Kremlin.

Beyond that the review foresees

  • 10,000 fewer soldiers in the army
  • the return of an aid budget pegged at 0.7 per cent of GDP 
  • a “tilt” to the East to piggy-back on its fast-growing economies
  • carefully cultivated relationships with Japan, India and the US
  • and a National Cyber Force flexing British cyber muscle because “cyber power is revolutionising the way we live our lives and fight our wars, just as air power did 100 years ago”.

The first draft was by John Bew, the prodigiously talented 41 year-old historian who wrote Realpolitik: a History. The published version manages to avoid delusional self-importance but isn’t short of blind spots and contradictions:

  • China is one of many places where the hunt for new markets will clash with standing up for British “values”. Turkey and Saudi Arabia are others.
  • There’s a theme of championing international rules and norms, while the EU takes the UK to court for violating its own Brexit deal. 
  • And there’s a false implication throughout that the tilt to the Indo-Pacific has been made possible by Brexit. It may have been made necessary by Brexit, but that’s different.

The UK is playing catch-up in the Indo-Pacific. As France and Germany have shown, nothing about EU membership ever precluded fast-growing trade there.  

Final note: these documents are inevitably written in puffed-up think tank-ese, which can obscure their meaning. “We will be a model for an integrated approach to tackling global challenges, integrating our resources for maximum effect,” it says. Translation: talk is cheap and money’s tight, so stand by for a lot of Britsplaining.


Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Greensill implodes
The supply chain finance firm founded by Lex Greensill is causing a good deal of collateral damage as it collapses. Credit Suisse, one of its biggest creditors, is preparing shareholders for a hit to otherwise healthy first-quarter profits. Softbank is expecting to lose its entire £1.5 billion investment. And David Cameron is being pursued by the Guardian for a full explanation of a trip he took to Australia in 2018 as a Greensill advisor and shareholder to persuade an insurer there to underwrite Greensill loans worth a reported £5.6 billion. Supply chain finance – helping big firms pay their suppliers when cash flow is tight – is a tricky business dominated by established banks. Greensill Capital grew fast as an interloper. Was it always too good to be true?


New things technology, science, engineering

Flush the cosmos
An electronically operated urinal has been interfering with signals from deep space in New South Wales. The WSJ has a fine piece of reporting on this and other annoyances for astronomers trying to map the cosmos in the age of cell phones, wifi, super-abundant satellites and the internet of things. Forget light pollution. When your telescope is a radio-telescope it’s radio signals you’re interested in, and they are out of hand.


Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Organic Greenland
There is evidence in the form of organic matter that Greenland’s entire ice sheet melted less than a million years ago as a result of a relatively modest rise in temperatures. And as the Washington Post notes, if it melted once it can again. The organic matter is soil excavated during the Cold War when the ice was much thicker than it is now, as part of a decoy organised by the Pentagon to disguise a madcap project to hide nuclear missiles under the ice. Ice cores removed then were stored in Copenhagen but not studied for more than half a century. The Greenland ice sheet is already melting faster than at any time since the invention of agriculture.


The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Astra U-turn
The Italian government’s decision to join a long list of countries suspending use of the AstraZeneca Covid vaccine was “political”, Nicola Magrini, the head of Italy’s medicines agency, has admitted. It was taken because “several European countries, including France and Germany, preferred to interrupt”. There are two ways of looking at this. One sees governments concerned above all to reassure vaccine-hesitant citizens that they are proceeding with an abundance of caution, with the long-term goal of higher uptake. The other sees herd instinct trumping evidence, and people dying as a result. At least Italy and others are expected to end their suspensions soon. 


Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Election fraud
It turns out there was blatant election fraud last year in the US after all. Emily Grover and her mother, Laura Rose Carroll, used Ms Carroll’s log-in as an assistant principal at a primary school near Grover’s Florida high school to rig the high school’s 2020 election for homecoming queen. Grover won and was crowned on the school football field last October. But the provider of the software used to run the election notified the school of 117 potentially fraudulent votes that could only have been stolen by accessing other students’ accounts. Grover, 17, has been expelled and sent to a juvenile detention centre. Her mother has been suspended, arrested and released on $6,000 bond.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Giles Whittell
@GWhittell

Photographs Getty Images

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