Category Archives: UK

On Britain and Europe: why we must stay “in”


I have held off writing about the referendum being held on 23rd June on Britain’s membership of the European Union (EU), in part because it is such a complex issue and difficult to write about succinctly.  However, recent conversations with taxi drivers here in the south-east of England have convinced me that I should indeed respond to my friends across the world who keep asking me what my own thoughts are.  I very much fear that the referendum may indeed result in a majority vote to leave the EU, and this frightens me.

I have many concerns over the way in which the European Union ‘functions’, about the costs of this additional tier of European wide government, about the excesses of its bureaucracy and the lifestyles of its bureaucrats, and the attempts by some politicians to make it a truly federal centralised state.  However, I have absolutely no doubt that we have to remain within the EU and I have great difficulty in understanding the overly simplistic statements, many of which are erroneous, that are being promulgated by those advocating that we should leave the EU.  Quite simply, the UK is part of Europe, and whatever happens in the EU will affect all aspects of our lives whether we remain in or leave.  We must therefore remain ‘on the inside’ where we are able to influence the EU’s decision-making processes.  Britain has much to contribute to the EU, and much to gain from it.  Yes, I voted against our membership of the European Community in 1975, but the conditions were very different then, and more than 40 years of membership have so changed the context that I feel very strongly that we must remain in.

My taxi conversations shocked me because they revealed that many people are going to vote about a single issue that they think is true, and yet that in my view is quite simply wrong.  One taxi driver complained, for example, that we are paying £55 million a day to the EU, and that we could better use this money to support our health services and other government expenditure.  Whilst it is very difficult to measure the precise financial inputs and benefits of EU membership, it is worth noting that in 2015 the UK would have been liable for £18 billion in contributions if it did not have rebate of almost £5 billion.  In practice, the UK therefore paid about £13 billion to the EU last year, but it must be remembered that the EU also provided support for the UK of some £4.5 billion, mainly through payments to farmers and poorer regions in the UK.  Britain’s net contribution was therefore in the region of only £8.5 billion, or  just over £23 million a day, for which we also get many other intangible benefits that it is difficult to measure in precise financial terms.  Moreover, there is no guarantee that any savings  would actually be spent on relevant public services or social welfare, even if the UK were to make a net financial saving by leaving the EU.

Another taxi driver claimed that migrants were mainly living in ghettos and that large numbers were simply here to sponge off the generous British benefits system.  The impact of migrants on the British economy and society is indeed a highly charged subject, with much contrasting evidence being adduced to support particular ideological positions.  My own view is unquestionably that Britain has benefited hugely over many centuries from immigration.  From the arrival of Celtic people, through the Roman occupation (1st century BC – 5th century AD), and then the Anglo-Saxon (5th-7th centuries AD) and Norse (8th-11th centuries) invasions, Britain was born through immigration.  More recently in the 20th century, immigration from South Asia, the Caribbean and Africa has vastly enhanced our cultural diversity, economic vitality, and social distinctiveness.  Immigration from other European countries is but a new dimension of an old tradition.  To be sure, the UK (263 people/sq. km.), and particularly England (410 people/sq. km.), is more densely populated than many other European countries such as Germany (229 people/sq. km.) and France (121 people/sq. km.) (Figures from 2012), and there is undoubtedly pressure on housing as well as urban encroachment in rural areas in the UK.  However, recent migrants from the EU, about whom there has tended to be most criticism, appear to contribute £1.34 to the British economy for every £1 that they have taken out.  While those who migrated before 2000 contributed less, at £1.05, this is still a net financial benefit to the UK.  The bottom line, even if only financial figures are considered and all of their social and cultural contributions are ignored, is that EU migrants contribute more to Britain than they take out.  I very much prefer living in a country to which people want to come than in one from which people want to leave.

These were the conversations that precipitated my desire to write, but I also want to comment briefly on some of the other things that are being said about many of the political, social, economic and cultural dimensions of EU membership.

Political

  • I am amazed that so many people are saying that by leaving the EU we will regain our sovereignty.  Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, has made numerous statements about this, claiming that Britain will inevitably be led into a superstate if we remain in the EU and would lose its sovereignty yet further as a result.  Much depends on precisely how sovereignty is defined, but few states actually have absolute sovereignty because the world is already so inter-connected.  Not least, countries that sign UN treaties have to abide by them, and numerous trade and other international agreements limit the real freedom of national governments to take truly independent, sovereign decisions.  Moreover, whilst in the past some European politicians have indeed had a vision to create a politically united centralised European state, and I have no doubt that the creation of the Euro was one means of trying to do this through the back door, my judgement is that there is now much less appetite for a centralised vision of Europe than was once the case. Indeed, the voice of Britain in Europe has been one of the factors that has tended to limit some of the wilder tendencies of the centralists.
  • Others argue that Britain can be ‘great’ again only if we leave Europe.  This is complete and utter nonsense!  Whether Britain ever was ‘great’ can be debated (much of our ‘greatness’ was gained at the expense of others, thus belying our claim to greatness), but we are now a post-imperial, small and largely insignificant country on the edge of Europe!  It is amazing that we still retain some respect in the world.  In terms of population we are ranked the 21st largest country in the world, and in terms of size we are the 79th largest country.  We are dwarfed by China and India, which themselves dwarf the USA!  The future lies with countries such as these, and we need to learn to play by the rules that they will determine if we wish to play at the table.  Being part of Europe enables us to have a greater voice than we would otherwise have.  We should also not believe that by leaving Europe we will somehow be able to rekindle other special relationships.  Those who think that it might bring us closer to the USA miss the point that the USA is itself a failing state, and will soon have to grapple with just the same post-imperial trauma that Britain has come to grips with since the middle of the 20th century.

Economic

  • The most important point to note here is that European countries, and especially those in the EU, are Britain’s biggest trading partner as a bloc.  Again, it is possible to choose various trade figures to make different arguments, but I am persuaded by the argument that the EU is the “UK’s major trading-partner, accounting for 45% of exports and 53% of imports of goods and services in 2014”.  Were Britain to leave the EU, there is no guarantee that we would continue to retain a special relationship economically with the EU bloc.  Indeed, I would imagine that governments of other European countries would be so infuriated that they would probably seek to isolate Britain as much as possible in terms of any beneficial trade agreements!
  • I know that bankers are not the most popular people in Britain, and rightly so given their past misdemeanors!  However, the past battles between London and Frankfurt over which city should play the central role in Europe’s banking system testify to what will happen if Britain were to leave the EU.  Frankfurt would undoubtedly become the financial captial of the EU, and would therefore become much stronger in its competitiveness with London.  This is not to say that London’s financial roles would overnight become defunct, but it is to say that it will become very much tougher for London to maintain its strong position in the global financial markets, which would be to the detriment of Britain as a whole.
  • The UK attracts substantial inward investment because foreign investors have traditionally seen us as a strong and stable economy within Europe, and therefor a safe means of accessing wider European markets.  If we were to leave Europe, this incentive for foreign investment would vanish overnight, and we would have difficulty in attracting the further investment that has recently played such an important part in fueling our economy.
  • Further evidence of the likely economic impact of leaving the EU is the effect that the uncertainty has had on the Sterling-Euro exchange rate, which was around € 1.38 to the pound in early December 2015 and had fallen to just over € 1.26 by the end of February 2016.  Although it is very difficult to predict financial markets, most analysts suggest that the pound would fall considerably in value were the referendum to result in a vote to leave the EU.  Goldman Sachs, for example, suggests that “if the UK voted to leave the EU, the UK’s current account deficit would still be a source of vulnerability despite some recent improvement. An abrupt and total interruption to incoming capital flows in response to a ‘Brexit’ could see the pound decline by as much as 15-20%.”

Social

  • The social impact on the UK of  leaving the EU would also be very considerable, not least in terms of social diversity.  Whilst some people undoubtedly see an increase in diversity as being negative, I suggest that the greater social mobility and inter-mixing between European people that has resulted from the existence of the EU over the last half century has unquestionably been positive.  Understanding different societies better through meeting and socialising with different people is of great importance for reducing tensions and misunderstandings between countries, and this still remain of very great importance even though, hopefully, the devastating 19th and 20th century wars across the continent are now a thing of the past.
  • The European Union has also done much to try to ensure a fairer society across Europe, and acts as an important factor in seeking to promote a more communal and less individualistic society than, for example, exists in the USA.  I fundamentally disagree with the European human rights agenda as well as some aspects of European social legislation, but I have no doubt that the tempering social effect of the EU has been beneficial in reducing some of the excesses of rampant capitalism.
  • Another important aspect of social impact has been reflected in comments that I have received from friends across Europe, who simply cannot believe that people in the UK would be selfish enough, and foolish enough, to leave the EU.  This has two particular manifestations: first, the overwhelming reaction of my friends is along the lines of “if people in the UK choose to leave Europe, then we will have little sympathy for them in the future when life gets difficult”; but second, there is a genuine belief that the UK also has much to contribute to Europe, and it will be to Europe’s disadvantage as well if the vote is indeed to leave.  The British would be very much missed from Europe, but our truculence in having a referendum has already seriously dented our reputation.

Cultural

  • Finally, there are clear cultural implications of any decision to leave the EU.  While cultural exchange, and the ebb and flow of ideas, will undoubtedly continue if the UK was outside the EU, the amount of such exchange at many different levels would decline without the support and encouragement provided by the EU.  Not least, the implications for tourist visits are very substantial.  According to the Office for National Statistics, UK residents made 43.8 million visit to the EU in 2014, and EU citizens made just over 23 million visits to the UK in the same year.  For those who like visiting Europe, the thought of possible new visa requirements, and additional border checks, especially if European governments did not take kindly to the UK’s departure, is hardly a pleasant one!

These are just some of the more important reasons I believe without a shadow of doubt that despite problems with the European Union, we should unquestionably vote to stay in, and continue to play a very active role in reformulating the Union so that it better serves all of the people of Europe.  Yes, there are problems with the European bureaucracy, its legal system, and its many excesses, but the people of the UK would be far worse off outside it than remaining within it.  The UK is a small, relatively insignificant island off the north-west coast of Europe.  In a world increasingly dominated by large powerful states who do not necessarily share our values and interests, we need to continue to work together with people and governments from similar minded countries in Europe if we wish our cultural values, our social system, our economic vitality and our political structure to continue to represent the interests of the people of the UK and Europe more widely.

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Dissatisfaction with Virgin Media’s advertising and complaints management – eventually with a happy ending


My original post…

Not having had a response to the e-mails I have sent to Virgin Media complaining about their misleading advertisements and poor complaints management, I thought I would share the evidence more widely. I have long been frustrated by the poor quality of Virgin’s service, but wonder actually if any other company is better!  So, to summarise my frustration over the most recent incident:

1. The advertisement – or hook
I received an e-mail from Virgin (below) encouraging me to upgrade to 50Mb broadband – definitely desirable!  It mentioned no extra monthly cost, but did specify a P&P cost of £5.99.  It had also mentioned that I would receive 5 free HD channels for the same monthly charge.

Virgin costs

I should have thought about it, because saying “from £5.99” could mean anything – even £599.00!  I did, though, rather foolishly expect the charge to be £5.99, and so was surprised when my order receipt came back showing that postage and packing was £9.99 (as below).

Virgin order

When I later received a new statement of the cost, they had in reality only charged me £5.99!  So why did they say £9.99 on the above?

2. Delivery date
I should have known there would be problems here!  In their original response, they gave me a delivery date of 10th July.  However, on 11th July they sent me advance notice of the delivery date which was to be on 15th July (“between 8AM and 9PM”) but no mechanism for letting them know whether or not I might be in that day.  As it happened, this was not going to be possible, so I sent them an e-mail asking if I could change the date.  Needless to say there was no reply.  Fortunately, a great neighbour received it for me.

3. Installation – two hours
I guess for most people the installation should be simple – rip out the old, and put in the new.  To be fair, the new hub has four ethernet ports and two bands at 2.4 GHz and 5GHz, and the set-up instructions were clear to use.  So, I got it up and running relatively quickly.  The challenge was that I had previously run my Mac Airport Express from my old hub (without any problems), and once plugged in to my new hub it would no longer work.  OK, you could say that I had no need for it, but I wanted the added security, and everyone’s computers were configured to the old network.  Try as I could, I could not reconfigure the Airport Express, and after exploring various threads about this discovered that I needed to upgrade its firmware.  Next problem, I could not do this running Mavericks!  Eventually, I worked out that using one of our old computers running an archaic version of OSX it might be possible to upgrade the firmware.  Success, but only after 2 hours!

4. No HD TV after all that!
One of the reasons for going with the new package was that it had advertised that it came with 5 free HD channels:

Virgin HDI clearly had not thought this through sufficiently, thinking it meant what it said: “5 amazing HD channels for no extra monthly fee”!  What they did not say was that I needed a new TV set-top box, since I did not already have HD.  However, they knew perfectly well that I did not have this, and so should have tailored the original advert to me accordingly!  Indeed, the real factor why I went for the offer in the first place was that I wanted the HD – and it appeared to be at no extra cost!  The 50Mb/s, although useful, was not really that much faster in practice, and it is only the download speed!  The upload speed is less than 4 MB/s.

5. The complaint
Try finding from their website  how to write to Virgin Media to register a minor dissatisfaction, or complaint.  It is almost impossible!  Eventually, I did find a form to fill in from their site – but it may not have been to the correct department!  I also wrote an e-mail responding to one of those they sent to me.  Needless to say, I have not yet had a reply!

I do just wish that their marketing material was more accurate, and that they provided a better level of personal service in terms of the information provided!

Subsequently – towards a happy ending…

My original post was written on 20th July, and now on 4th August I can report a more-or-less happy ending!  Following my complaint to Vodafone, I did receive a ‘phone call, and after some discussion my helpful and polite interlocutor explained that almost everyone now had a HD set top box, and they had assumed therefore that I had one.  To this, I pointed out that they should have known that I did not have one, and their systems could easily be tailored to provide personalised marketing.  He did, though, kindly agree to send me a new free set top box so that I could indeed benefit from the 5 (!) free HD channels.  Brilliant – or so I thought.  So, on a Sunday, I set about connecting the box – only to find that I could only ‘phone them to make the final connection between Monday and Saturday. Why didn’t I think that might be a problem?  Oh well, missed the Commonwealth Games that evening, but not a big miss in the long run, and I could at least do e-mails instead (mad indeed!).  Come Monday, all connected!  However, the remote controller did not work.  I tried everything – new batteries, re-booting, finding different codes to connect to my TV…  Nothing!  So, yet again, I ‘phoned Vodafone.  The polite interlocutor took me through everything I had tried, but again no success.  So, he agreed to send me a new remote  – taking 4-5 days to arrive.  To be sure, I could use the buttons on the set top box to control it in the meanwhile, but scrolling through channels one by one to find the right one is far from easy.  Come Friday, I came home to find that a new remote had arrived.  Lo and behold, insert the batteries and “wow!” it worked.  Why was it not that simple to start with?

Thank you Vodafone for eventually getting me up and running – but what dreadful marketing and service!

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Trust, privacy and digital security


The pace with which the UK government is forcing through legislation to permit its security agencies legally to gather information about the use of digital technologies by people living in the UK raises ethical issues of the utmost importance. In the past, I have very much emphasised the significant concerns that citizens should have about the use of their ‘digital lives’ by both global corporations and governments. In so doing, I have sought to emphasise the interesting conjuncture of ideas surrounding the three concepts of trust, privacy and the law that lie at the heart of such discussions (for some early thoughts, see my 2010 paper on ICTs, citizens and states).

One of the most remarkable things about digital technologies, and particularly the extremely rapid expansion of social media, has been the ways that people have been willing to make so much information available for public view that was previously considered to be ‘private’. Why, for example, if people are providing so much of their information on-line for free should they have any concerns about whether or not governments make use of this? Social media companies have benefited hugely from the willingness of people to give for free without thinking too much about the consequences, and so too have those providing search engines and location based digital services.  So why should governments not likewise use this information?

In trying to unravel some of the complexities of these issues, it is useful to contrast two very different perspectives on what privacy actual is:

  • The dominant view would seem to follow Etzioni (2005) in accepting that privacy is in effect a good that can be weighed up against other goods. From this perspective, people are willing to give up some of their ‘privacy’ in return for various perceived benefits. Hence, people seem to be willing to let companies use information about their e-mail or search engine usage, in return for having a ‘free’ e-mail account or the ability to search the Internet for ‘free’ for some information that they want to find. Similarly, it can readily be argued that governments can, and indeed should, be permitted to pry into the lives of individuals in order to protect all citizens, especially if a justification, such as preventing potential ‘terrorist’ action can be provided.
  • An alternative type of definition of privacy, though, is offered by Friedman (2005) who instead sees privacy as a means through which we have power over our own lives. He emphasises the asymmetric power relationships between states and citizen. Few citizens, for example, possess their own tanks or fighter aircraft, and few have the digital analysis technologies that large corporations and governments possess. As he suggests, in referring to the state, ‘limiting its ability to protect us from bad things done to us by ourselves or by other people, may not be such a bad deal’.

In the past, I have very much supported Friedman’s arguments, and on balance still do. However, this is where notions of ‘trust’ become so important. From conversations in many different countries, I have come to the clear view that where people do not trust their governments, then they are much more willing for their digital lives to be known by companies, but where they do trust their governments then the reverse is the case. Governments have the power to do very bad things to their people, and digital technologies have the potential to offer them very large amounts of knowledge indeed in support of such actions.

The interesting observation to be made here is that it is actually the companies, be they ‘phone operators or social media corporations, that actually already collect this information on a regular basis, and indeed use it to generate their profits. Whilst there is much angst against governments for wanting to access some of this information, I am surprised at how little concern there actually is about the uses that companies already make of such information. Again, in part, this comes down to trust, but I think this is only in part. Companies seem to me to be much more circumspect in telling people actually what data they collect and how they use it. They leave the governments to take the flack in wanting to access such information!

The arguments currently being debated as the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill moves through the UK Parliament are ultimately derived from social contract theory. In essence, building on the ideas of Hobbes and Locke in the 17th century, the idea that citizens are willing to give up some of their rights to governments in return for protection of their remaining rights has become central to much of the way in which our governance systems work. Following Etzioni’s line of thought, citizens might therefore consider giving up some of their privacy in return for greater protection from other citizens (or ‘terrorists’) who for whatever reason wish to do them harm. It becomes incumbent for governments therefore to show that there is indeed a very considerable increase in the potential threat to citizens from ‘terrorism’, or indeed any other harmful effects, if they want to pry further into citizens’ privacy.

This is, in effect, what the UK government is seeking to do, without perhaps illustrating the full extent of the threat. As I learn more about these matters, and speaking with many people who I have come to trust over the last couple of years, I am becoming increasingly aware of just what the level of threat is, and I am much more persuaded by the arguments that some greater surveillance might indeed be necessary. However, the challenge for a government is that it is difficult for it to indicate just what these threats are because of the obvious security implications, and so citizens have to place a lot of emphasis on trusting their governments.

How can this be achieved? The most important thing in building trust on such matters is to have as full, open and transparent a debate as possible amongst relevant stakeholders. Rushing legislation through Parliament is therefore unwise, unless the level of threat is very severe indeed. I cannot judge this, but unfortunately recent failures of trust over such things as the UK’s support for the USA in the invasion of Iraq over ‘weapons of mass destruction’, make it very difficult for people to believe a UK government of any political colour on such matters.

MPs would therefore be wise if they are to pass this Bill to insist that immediately in its aftermath a wide-ranging and fully transparent consultation should take place, so that the issues are debated openly and constructively. This will take a considerable amount of time, but will ultimately be worth it, not only in rebuilding trust, but also in reaching a wise decision on how to balance privacy and security.

This does not, though,  resolve the concerns raised by Friedman, with whom my own allegiance really lies. The balance of power between states and their citizens is indeed unequal, and there must be mechanisms whereby governments and their servants can be held to account for their actions and misdemeanours. It is here where I believe the law is so important, and it seems to me that judges have a particularly crucial role to play in determining the appropriate balance. The separation of the judiciary from the executive is another important heritage of the British political system, and one that is shared to a greater or lesser extent in many Commonwealth countries. Whatever outcomes are agreed on in the consultation that I encourage, they must be enshrined in a very carefully constructed legal framework that can indeed insist on the severest of penalties for misuse of the powers that are being discussed in Parliament as I write.

 

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Filed under Commonwealth, Development, Ethics, ICT4D, Politics, UK

Amazing moon over Virginia Water


Going for a short wander down the garden late last night, I could not help but see the amazing moon – so large and bright! Although I am not an astronomer, and don’t have a telescope with a camera, the sight of the moon behind one of the trees in the garden was so beautiful that I just had to photograph the view – and of course the moon itself!  It’s the first time I have ever taken a photo’ that so clearly shows the craters on the moon (click on the image for a larger version!).

I discovered this morning that this phenomenon is know as a “perigee supermoon”, and it occurs as a result of the elliptical orbit of the moon around the earth.  Apparently, there are going to be five such moons in 2014, with the next being on 10th August!

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DFID’s Digital Advisory Panel


The UK’s Department for International Development has recently created a Digital Advisory Panel to provide advice to the Department in line with its digital strategy announced in December 2012.  The role of the panel is to take an overview of DFID’s strategy for digital and technology matters in its organisation and programmes, and to provide advice and challenge to the organisation. The panel met for the first time on 22nd October, and started to discuss the scope and priorities for their work programme.

The Chair of the Panel is Tim Robinson, CEO of LGC, and he joined DFID’s board as a non-executive director in May 2013.  Other members of the Panel (in alphabetical order, and as described by DFID blogger Julia Chandler) are:

  • Ken Banks is the founder of kiwanja.net and creator of FrontlineSMS, a mobile messaging application aimed at the grassroots non-profit community.
  • Rebecca Enonchong is founder and CEO of AppsTech, and sits on the board of VC4Africa, the largest online community dedicated to entrepreneurs and investors building companies in Africa.
  • Mark Graham director of research at the Oxford Internet Institute.
  • Nick Hughes formerly head of Global Payments at Vodafone Group, where he started M-PESA, is now founder and strategy director of m-kopa.
  • Stephen King is a partner in Omidyar Network UK and was formerly chief executive of BBC Media Action.
  • Rick Robinson is an Executive Architect at IBM responsible for the development and delivery of Smarter City solutions and a member of the Academy of Urbanism.
  • Kathy Settle is deputy director for networks at the Government Digital Service, where she coordinates development of government’s overarching digital strategy, working alongside “digital leaders” to create complementary departmental strategies.
  • Tim Unwin has many roles, including Secretary General of the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation (CTO), Chair of the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission in the UK, Emeritus Professor of Geography and UNESCO Chair in ICT4D at Royal Holloway, University of London.
  • Amy Semple Ward is CEO of NTEN, the nonprofit technology network, based in Oregon, US.

I am delighted to have been invited to serve on this panel, and look forward to some lively discussion as we seek to guide DFID in its digital and technological practices.

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Reflections on Montserrat – crafting a viable economy for 5000 people


The chance to work with the Ministry of Communication and Works on the tiny island of Monserrat in the Caribbean last week gave me a rare opportunity to reflect not only on the economic viability of many of the UK’s Overseas Territories, but also on the ways that people living in small island states cope in the aftermath of physical disasters.  Montserrat was devastated by Hurricane Hugo in September 1989, leaving some 11,000 of the island’s population of 12,000 without homes.  Ten people were killed, 89 were injured, and the cost of the damage was reported to be at least $260 million.  In the years afterwards, substantial reconstruction took place, but then in 1995 the island’s Soufrière Hills volcano became active again.  The island’s capital, Plymouth, was soon buried by more than 12 metres of ash and mud, which also destroyed the airport and harbour.  The southern part of the island became uninhabitable, and a strict exclusion zone was introduced to limit future loss of life.  Then, in 1997 a pyroclastic flow passed down Mosquito Ghaut, overflowing the valley sides and killing 19 people who were in the exclusion zone.  Subsequently, there has been ongoing volcanic activity, mostly consisting of ash falls in the south of the island, but in 2009-10 further pyroclastic flows also occurred.  This double disaster had immense impact on the island’s population, with some 8,000 people choosing to leave, primarily for the UK which had granted the islanders full residency rights in 1999, and British citizenship in 2002.

Although I broadly knew about the island’s history, it is impossible to appreciate both the impact of these physical disasters, and the resilience of the people without actually visiting the island, and standing on the hillside overlooking the devastated city of Plymouth.  Having spent a couple of days with Montserratians before visiting Plymouth, and appreciating something of their warmth and generous hospitality, I was left with an overwhelming sense of sadness just standing on the edge of an ash filled swimming pool overlooking the devastated landscape of the island’s former capital.

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Monserratians are determined people, and those who I met were adamant about not only their British citizenship, but also their love for the island and their wish to ensure that it has a viable economy for the future.  The cost of the necessary reconstruction and development is nevertheless very, very substantial.  Much is already being done: there are plans for a new harbour; geothermal drilling is underway to see whether it could provide a source of energy for the future; and a submarine cable is to be laid to support their international digital connectivity.  However, much still needs to be done to ensure that the island can once again be self-sufficient as it was before the volcanic eruptions.  The challenge is that it is extremely difficult to identify how best this can be achieved, especially with such a small population.

From my very short visit, it is not easy to see the niche areas that the Monsterratians can build upon to regain their economic vitality.  Thinking back to the late 1970s when the Beatle’s producer George Martin created the AIR studios, Montserrat was able to attract some of the world’s most famous musicians to its green and peaceful environment.  There are still beautiful landscapes on the island, but the nature of the recording industry has changed so much that it would be difficult to imagine such an ‘adventure’ working again.  Perhaps, though, George Martin’s house (Olveston House – on Penny Lane), which now serves as a most welcoming guest house for visitors, does indicate one way forward, in that the island could carve itself out as a niche for high quality, environmentally sensitive tourism.  It is certainly beautiful, and the people most friendly.  However, its airport is tiny, with the runway only able to take very small planes, and it requires a new, much larger harbour to attract cruise ships and yachts to the island. There remains, though, the inevitable “chicken and egg” problem: visitors will not come unless there are high quality facilities on the island, and few people are willing to invest without there being strong prospects for sufficient visitor numbers to enable them to recoup their investments.

On the more quirky side, any country has to turn to its strengths and opportunities.  The volcano itself is a source of interest to visitors on the neighbouring islands, with air tours regularly bringing people from Antigua to visit.  It seems a shame that Montserrat itself currently benefits relatively little from such initiatives, and it must be possible for innovative initiatives to be developed that could enable Montserratians to reap dividends from such opportunities.  For film makers wishing to produce films in apocalyptic settings, the old capital of Plymouth on Montserrat would make an ideal – albeit highly risky – setting!  The island is also known as the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean, not only because of its lush vegetation, but also because it was settled by Irish immigrants from St. Kitts.  The potential for its Irish heritage to be marketed much more strongly, could also foster enhanced tourism from Éire.  Some of the bays in the north of the island would also make ideal facilities for luxury yacht marinas, and their development could offer a very different kind of destination for those sailing the Caribbean.  Finally, the ultimate strength of any country is its people, and there is no doubt that better connectivity to the Internet will enable those who wish to stay on the island and build economic activity around the provision of digital services will  be able to do so much more effectively once the new cable is completed.  Already, one software company (Lavabits) is developing its business there, and with an educated population, well-connected to the diaspora living in the UK, there has to be further potential for the islanders to use the Internet, not only to attract tourism, but also to build a new digitally-based economy in Monsterrat.

It was a real privilege to spend time on the island.  I admire the resilience, fortitude and determination of those whom I met, and I greatly appreciated their warmth and generosity.

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The Sun in Constable country


A few days holiday earlier this month provided us with an opportunity to explore a corner of England that we do not know very well, namely the Essex-Suffolk border.   My ancestors between the 17th and 19th centuries lived not that far away in Coggeshall and Castle Hedingham, but we have never spent much time in this part of the country.

We chose to explore the Stour Valley and by great good fortune stayed at the Sun Inn at Dedham – what a find!  Dedham itself is a picturesque small village on the Stour, with its fine church dating from the 15th century indicating its past affluence as a wool and market town.  The village still retains a communal atmosphere, with the church having standing room only for its annual carol service, and it is the only place I know where the chemist and post office are in one and the same shop!  For those not wanting to be contacted, some parts of the village also fortunately still remain beyond the access of mobile connectivity!

The Sun is a wonderful, hidden away place to stay.  The young staff are efficienSunt and friendly, without being either intrusive or obsequious.  The rooms are each individually designed, with  pocket sprung mattress, Egyptian cotton bed linen, goose down pillows and duvets; luxury body products are sourced from Abahna.

The food is locally sourced and delicious, reflecting mainly an Italian style.  We particularly enjoyed the five course taster menu, but all of the food was well balanced, tasty, and very nicely presented. Highlights included the duck, saffron pears, pasta dishes and hake. The wine list, too, is unusually impressive both in its content and its value for money!  A particular feature is its “desert island cellared wine”, made up of wines purchased by the owners at bin end sales with just a charge of £15 added.  So, a 2001 Barolo Vigna Conca, Revello, costs just £54, the same as a 2007 Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru Les Champs-Gain, Maroslavac-Leger!

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Dedham is perhaps best known for being the place where the artist John Constable went to school.  It was a strange experience to walk in his footsteps along the valley and across the Stour up to where his home was in the nearby village of East Bergholt.  His father was a corn merchant who also owned the nearby Flatford Mill, and the local buildings and landscapes provided the inspiration for many of his famous paintings such as The Hay Wain (1821) and Dedham Vale (1802).  Walking along the river bank on a cold frosty December morning was very evocative of England past, and made a wonderful escape from the “business” and turmoil of London, less than 70 miles away!

The Sun Inn and Dedham are most definitely to be recommended by anyone wishing to discover a beautiful hidden away part of England, and enjoy English food (with a touch of Mediterranean influence!) and hospitality at its best.

Thanks to everyone at the Sun who made our stay so enjoyable and relaxing!

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