Tuesday, 16 December 2014

On Richard III and the Genetics of Royalty

I’ve been reading with interest the reports in the press on the doubts cast by DNA analysis on the direct descent of Richard III and the Tudor line from the earlier Plantaganet kings (see especially the report in The Guardian at http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/dec/02/king-richard-iii-dna-cousins-queen-ancestry). I’m presuming that it is the Guardian’s reporters who are at fault, rather than the researchers themselves, but unless my understanding of the family trees involved is awry, there are some mysteries here.

For a start, there seems little doubt that the body in the car park is indeed that of Richard III. The researchers have clearly done their job well in estimating the certainty at more than 99%. It also seems reasonable that the Society of Antiquaries portrait taken 25 years after his death (at a time when he was being vilified by the Tudor dynasty) is the most accurate we have, whether or not the hair has been coloured darker than it really was.

However, some of the Guardian’s comments about royal descent are eyewash, particularly since the researchers make the careful point that the break in DNA – the non-paternity event, as they put it – could have happened anywhere in the 19 generations between Edward III and today’s Dukes of Beaufort, and indeed it sounds as though there may be two breaks, one of them in the Beaufort line itself, as opposed to the Plantaganet line. There is nothing at all to suggest that the break happened between Edward III and Richard III. But if it did, my immediate reaction would be to wonder whether it is that Richard III himself was not the son of his apparent father Richard Duke of York, father also of Edward IV. The mitochondrial DNA is correct – it matches the modern-day descendants of Edward Duke of York through the female line, from Richard’s eldest sister Anne. It has been observed on other occasions that he was not a typical Plantaganet to look at – they were big and strong, vigorous and usually blond haired, well suited to medieval kingship that often depended on fighting skills and charismatic leadership.

Added to that, the report talks about gossip about illegitimacy during Edward IV’s reign. This kind of gossip was a common way of denigrating an unpopular king or one seen as vulnerable to challenge because legitimacy by blood was seen as essential to the passing on of kingly traits and charisma. Richard III declared his nephews illegitimate, but not because they were not the sons of Edward IV – they almost certainly were – but because Edward had not been married to their mother, Elizabeth Woodville, at the time of their birth, owing to a little unofficial bigamy. We don’t know whether Richard III actually believed this to be true, or merely used it opportunistically to put them aside because their presence was a threat to his own kingship, but it is one of the pieces of evidence often cited against the likelihood of Richard III being responsible for their death in the Tower of London. If they had been declared and were believed to be illegitimate, then they were not a threat to him. So this is a different kind of illegitimacy altogether.

Finally, the Tudors did not only rest their claim to the throne on descent from Margaret Beaufort, the legitimised daughter of John of Gaunt and his long-time mistress Kathryn Swynford (in itself rather a weak claim since it came through the female line not a direct male descendant, but certainly not a negligible one). They cemented this through the marriage of Henry Tudor to Elizabeth of York, the daughter of Edward IV (sister of the Princes who had been declared illegitimate, no less). Added to this, the Stuart line which gave rise to later monarchs (including the Hanoverians through the female line in the shape of a cousin of Charles II, granddaughter of James VI of Scotland/James I of England) was descended  from Margaret Tudor, daughter of Henry VII, who married James IV of Scotland. Thus the break in biological paternity would have to have happened in both the York line (descended from both Edward III’s younger son Edmund Duke of York and his second son Lionel Duke of Clarence, via the Earls of March, the latter again through the female line) and the Lancastrian line (descended from John of Gaunt) for there to be no biological link between the Plantaganet kings and our own royal family (see family tree link below - it won't paste directly into the blog unfortunately).


It is all rather complicated, isn’t it?

Thursday, 23 October 2014

The Bankers are the Culprits After All

Just when we were all (well, some of us, anyway) starting to think that perhaps we had been a bit unfair to blame all of the world’s current economic woes on the bankers, and that maybe after all we do need bankers and they do need to lend money and make a profit, I have come to realise that although we certainly do need bankers, the system really does need to change, and urgently.

We in the global North are suffering from economic conditions that are hurting our own working and unemployed poor, to the extent that in the UK our system of food banks – set up solely because there was a perceived need to support people who were ‘falling through’ the benefit system and actually unable to feed themselves and their families – is expanding, driven by increasing demand. And this at a time when the press is telling us that Things Are Getting Better, and that more people have jobs (though they also tell us that tax revenues are down because more of these people are self-employed or working part time, and on low incomes). Meanwhile food prices are soaring world wide, and only such items are textiles, plastic toys and cars remain relatively cheap (though the fuel to run the latter is of course prohibitively expensive) – and these only because they are made by workers who are being seriously exploited by multinational companies either in factories in Latin America and Asia or as migrant workers in the global North.

Thus large swathes of the manufacturing industries that used to sustain parts of the UK – and the picture is similar across the developed West – have now been outsourced to poorer countries in what we used to call the Third World where labour costs are cheaper and labour rights are non-existent or have been severely curtailed in agreements made between the big corporations and governments desperate to attract foreign capital investment. This is well known. However, what I hadn’t realised until recently is how much of all this is driven by financial institutions and their need for investment opportunities – so we are back to the bankers again.

The financial crisis of 2008–2009, which directly precipitated the world into a deep recession from which we are only just emerging, came about because of risky loans made to, among others, people taking out mortgages on property that subsequently fell in value. These bad debts, packaged and frequently changing hands in the financial markets without proper checks, caused the enormous failure of confidence that very nearly brought the whole international financial system down in ruin, and we ordinary taxpayers in the West are still paying for the bailouts and other government interventions that were required to prevent that global financial failure. It is a matter of debate whether the conditions that led to the financial crisis arose from the extensive deregulation of financial markets that occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s, in the wake of the departure of large-scale manufacturing in the global North and the resulting economic reliance of those countries on financial services. If so, the connection between those decisions and our current situation is striking.

The recovery from the recent deep recession is distinctly fragile, whatever governments may tell us, and this morning’s announcement that Lloyds is shedding 10% of its workforce in the UK, for example, is hardly likely to inspire new confidence. Little has, however, been done by governments to prevent a reoccurrence of the Crash, and possibly little can be done without much more co-operation between said governments, since the Big Banks, like other multinationals, can threaten to move their operations from one country to another if things do not go their way. In these circumstances regulation would need to come from a higher authority that does not yet exist, since the IMF and the World Bank are essentially lending and monitoring organisations, not regulatory bodies. Other multinational companies, however (with the possible exception of that pariah Tesco, whose financial shenanigans are as yet shrouded in mystery), seem still to be making a profit.

They are doing it, however, by driving down the wages and restricting the representation of those who work for them. In the global South this is done by employing a non-union and casual workforce and often by backing up sanctions against dissent with serious force and brutality, sometimes with the collusion or aid of the national governments concerned. In the North it is done by undercutting union-agreed wages, and by emascalating the unions (a process mostly already accomplished, a legacy of the 1980s under Mrs Thatcher and her ilk). It is largely a win-win situation for the companies, and a lose-lose one for the rest of us. However, the driver for this situation is not so much economic as financial. The owners of capital (mainly the banks and other financial institutions such as pension providers, insurance companies and the like) have to find somewhere to put their funds where these will make a profit. Once they could lend money at a reasonable rate of interest to small and medium-sized businesses and there was no need for finance to be internationalised in quite the way that it is now – although that trajectory was already in place as a result of deregulation. But with interest rates low, and a residual fear of bad loans crippling the relationships between financial institutions, banks and other financial institutions are looking for new investments, and this is where multinational involvement in poorer countries comes in. Foreign Direct Investment, or FDI, is now a big player in Third World industrial development. Low-wage and casual labour, high profits, and a ready market for goods in the global North where such commodities are no longer manufactured, make this an attractive option for those with money to invest.

Thus even industrial development is now finance-driven, rather than demand- or enterprise-driven. Money earns little if anything kept in the bank, since low interest rates originally arising from the recession have become entrenched as a bulwark against the bad debts that would arise if they were raised. There is still too much debt, generally in the form of mortgages and other secured loans, in the North, and central banks fear that raising interest rates to the level that they should be in the economic climate would ruin or seriously embarrass many borrowers. Since what recovery there is has come not from export-led growth, but on the back of consumer-led retailing, much of it funded by credit card, higher interest rates would risk snuffing it out. Capital investment has little option but to fuel industrialisation (and consequently urbanisation and frequently ecological degradation) in countries where hard-pressed governments see FDI as a way to increase prosperity. The prosperity that is created, however, benefits only a few in those countries, sometimes as a result of corruption, sometimes because of the way the industries are set up. Because the multinational companies ensure, as a condition of their involvement in industrial development, that their profits pay minimal or no taxes to the host country, and that dissent or unrest among the workforce will be dealt with in a draconian fashion that precludes negotiation for better pay and conditions, they are the ones who benefit – and of course the financial institutions that funded them.

So we are back to bankers again, and their colleagues in the pension and insurance companies. Money has always talked, as the proverb has it. Now it talks globally.

And what is the answer? What can we do, apart from deploring the situation? Part of the answer is that working people need to see each other as connected with each other, as brothers and sisters under the skin, as it were. What affects migrant workers brought in to countries of the global North to harvest crops or rural inhabitants forced to move into cities to work in low-paid and insecure factory jobs affects us too. If we allow corporations to squeeze their conditions, they will be able to undercut ours, and in the end we will be working for the same peanuts in the same poor conditions – or not working at all. The other is that our governments and central banks need to rebalance the system. Interest rates need to rise so that banks, private investors such as senior citizens with a pension pot to place, and ordinary savers, can invest in businesses locally as well as far afield or keep their money in savings accounts and still get a reasonable return for their money. Low interest rates only encourage people to borrow and/or spend rather than save, and at some point this has to come home to roost. You cannot build a successful economy long-term on borrowing, as I have pointed out in an earlier blog. Both the Chinese and the Americans have experienced this, from opposite points of view, though I am not sure that either of them have learnt much from it.

It is ironic that it was at least partly Chinese money, saved rather than spent by both private individuals and institutions as the Chinese economy boomed in the early 2000s, that flooded the United States and exacerbated the very situation of over-lending and unwise borrowing that led directly to the financial crisis of the late 2000s. We’re back to bankers again, and of course, in the end, to money itself. Marx had some hard words to say about Capital and its propensity to exploit those whom it employed. St Paul had some even harder words to say when warning St Timothy about the Love of Money, which he considered the root of all evil.

Maybe they were right, after all.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

On climate change, rainforests and saving the oceans

Climate change seems to have become a major concern, if not the major concern, of our time, for many in the West at least, in spite of the competing furies of war, terrorism, disease and the continued hunger of so many in poorer parts of the world (not to mention those in need of aid in our own backyards!) Is this because the others are familiar horrors, and familiarity breeds contempt? Is it the scaremongering that leads us to believe that if we don’t DO SOMETHING immediately the climate will go on and on getting warmer until we can’t live on the planet? – this seems to be a very real fear for many.

As readers of this blog will know, I am not all that convinced by the case for anthropogenic warming. The world has been much warmer than it is today, before humans ever arrived on the scene, never mind before they began burning fossil fuels. Cows emit methane, a much more dangerous greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and the Ice Age plains of Europe were full of their ancient relatives. But on the other hand, it is clearly true that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and the oceans are very high, probably the highest they have been for many millennia, and whether or not this has caused the relatively modest warming we have experienced over the past century or two, it is likely to be significant for the overall climate trend of the planet. However, I think we are concentrating far too much on reducing our emissions of carbon dioxide, which will only slow down the rise in CO2 levels, and not enough on reduction of the CO2 that is actually present.

The Earth has a very good balancing mechanism of its own, which works well if we don’t interfere with it. What is not much discussed, however, in comparison with reduction in CO2 emissions, is the way in which we are wrecking the Earth’s own carbon-reduction system. The rainforests (which are sometimes recognised in public debate as in need of protection) and the oceans (which seldom are) both play their part. It is fairly well known that the rainforests take in CO2 through their leaves, as part of the process by which they make food for themselves, and of course they also very usefully give out oxygen. A carbon-rich atmosphere should encourage them to grow well, which is itself part of the Earth’s climatic balancing system. I think we may just have learned the lesson that it makes no sense to cut down rainforests (which are long-term environmental investments by the Earth and which cannot be replaced quickly) in order to plant biofuel plants. I don’t seem to have heard much about that lately – and you can run cars on waste products from fish and chip shops, apparently, so I would hope that this madness has now ceased. But the rainforests still need much more protection from the rich(er) West because most of them are situated in tropical countries which have less other resources. We can do far more than we are doing in this regard.

Even more urgent, however, is proper protection of the oceans as an environment, because they too are a major sink for dissolved carbon dioxide. The fact that CO2 levels in the sea are so high at present means that the sea cannot absorb any CO2 from the atmosphere, as it normally would. It is effectively saturated. This may be partly because of the high levels in the atmosphere, but I think it may also involve some change in the numbers or behaviour of the plankton that do the absorbing. However that may be (and you only have to read the hotly debated issues in the scientific and pseudo-scientific press to know that no one has all the answers!), when I read that a recent survey of the ocean surface has calculated that across the globe, around 40 per cent of the surface is affected by human litter, much of it from ocean-going ships of various kinds, I almost despair. How long will it take us to give as much attention to our precious marine treasures as we do to galloping carbon dioxide emissions or (to a lesser extent) to the rainforests. All pollution is a serious matter, because the Earth can only deal with so much. If we want a healthy planet to live on we must look after all its elements, quite apart from the scenic beauty that surrounds us.

I think we are right to be watchful about rising temperatures. There are tipping points either way which can prevent the Earth from rebalancing the climate quickly (though so far it has always managed it in the end, over millions of years). But climate change can be caused by many different factors, of which carbon dioxide levels are only one, and quite possibly a small one at that. In any case, if we are really concerned about these levels then to neglect any part of the Earth’s own system for removing excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere seems a form of collective madness. Sadly, we humans seem rather prone to that – once an idea has taken root, we can be blind to others even when they are related to it, if they are related at a tangent. Maybe it is a kind of protective blinkering. After all, ‘human beings cannot bear very much reality.’ For most of the time, most of us do not sail the oceans, and so the reality of marine pollution is hidden from us. But it is real, and it is increasing from an already high level. To clean up the oceans must be a positive thing to do – but like the atmosphere we all own it, and must work together to look after it. History suggests that this is the task that human beings find most difficult. In order to do it, we have to have a sense of belonging together. But that’s the subject of another posting, another day!

Monday, 15 September 2014

Disenfranchisement and the Scottish Referendum

Two blog posts within a week! My readers will never recover from the shock. But this is urgent, because the Scottish referendum is almost upon us. So here goes.

It occurs to me to wonder how democratic this Scottish referendum really is, as I’ve thought further about the implications of what the Scottish Parliament has set in motion. You are entitled to vote if you are a UK citizen (and certain other groups) resident in Scotland. There is a provision for people who are out of the country at the time of the referendum, but none at all for those who were born in Scotland but are resident elsewhere in the UK. Yet these folk (I know a number of them personally) self-identify as Scottish quite specifically, and would be horrified to think of themselves being classed as English (or Welsh or Northern Irish, too, I daresay, but they would hate the English classification most). Indeed, the thought is quite ridiculous. These people are Scottish first, and British second, and take great pride in their Scottish heritage. Yet they are not permitted to vote in this referendum that may in fact, if the vote is Yes, strip them of their Scottish citizenship permanently.

It makes perfectly good sense for the electors to the Scottish Parliament to be elected by those who live in Scotland, as they will be the people whose lives that Parliament will affect by its policies. But when it comes to independence, and splitting off completely and permanently from the rest of the United Kingdom, it is a very different matter. Since Scotland has been part of the United Kingdom for many centuries, most Scots who are resident in the rest of the UK have done nothing but engage in simple labour mobility – they have gone where their work takes them. Their leaving Scotland implies no rejection of their Scottish heritage or sense of belonging there. Most could have had no idea that during the period of their exile the Scottish Parliament would demand and be granted a referendum on Scottish independence in which which they would not be entitled to vote. If ever there was disenfranchisement, this is it. Of course it may not be pure coincidence that this disenfranchisement directly affects the likelihood of a Yes vote. Those who have always seen the UK as a whole, and have lived in other parts of it outside Scotland, would, I suggest, be far more likely to vote No than those who have stayed within the country, and far less likely to appreciate Scottish Nationalism. How significant is this? Is this disenfranchisement of patently Scots people of many generations’ standing an accident? And it does seem strange that there has been little comment upon it, as though not many (apart from the Scots affected, presumably) have considered it.

Worse still, if the vote is Yes, those Scots people will, unless they abandon their careers forthwith and scramble back into Scotland before independence is finally declared, be permanently deprived of citizenship in the country to which they belong, and to which their families have belonged, the vast majority for many centuries. How can this be just? What will they then be – English? Welsh? according to the country they happen to be living in (this wouldn’t automatically qualify you to play for England at cricket or football, or represent a country at the Commonwealth Games, for example), or will they be left only with Britishness? I think some Scots have started to think about this – a letter or two about it has appeared in the newspapers – but it is something that should really have been considered long ago, before a referendum was agreed to by our foolish Coalition government. No wonder the Queen has advised the Scots to think very carefully. Above politics she may be, and unwilling to get involved on either side (quite rightly, as a constitutional monarch). But there is a coded message there. She knows it would be a mistake to tear the Union apart without very careful thought. I just hope the Scots who are entitled to vote will heed her advice.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Don't leave us, Scotland!

No one in the UK – or, for all I know, elsewhere in the world, can avoid knowing that the Scots appear to be (if the polls be believed) seriously thinking of leaving the United Kingdom. What seemed to me, and I think to the Better Together team too, a remote possibility when the referendum was first mooted, looks now to be what Wellington might have called “a damned close run thing”. God grant that we can look back at it as Wellington did at the Battle of Waterloo, and not with the chagrin of his opponent Napoleon Bonaparte.The very thought of having border controls between us makes me feel quite upset. I remember a few years ago travelling up that wonderful high road that takes you through the Cheviots into Lothian, where you come up to the sign that says ‘Scotland’ and the whole landscape changes as you pass over the geological join between England and its neighbour that was tacked on millions of years ago. Will we have to show our passports next time we go?

I count myself as English, when I think about it at all – and born and brought up in England, too, though there’s very little Anglo-Saxon English in me, when all’s said and done: I’m a nice amalgam of Celt, Viking and Scot – more Celt than anything else, probably, on my father’s side (his family came from Devon originally though our most famous member is renowned as the Bard of Bath); my mother’s family came from the north-east, where there are more Norse descendants than Saxon ones, and her grandmother was a lowland Scot. I don’t know of any Welsh ancestors, but the West Country celts are closely related, historically. And this mixture is very typical of those of us who are ‘English’. We don’t say much about our Englishness, for fear of offending the Scots, Welsh and Ulster folk, and we are a polyglot crew, it has to be said. So the idea of Scotland becoming independent ought not to worry us too much. If they do decide to vote that way, they will be bringing themselves all kinds of problems, economic and otherwise, I suspect – as Better Together keep telling them and Yes Scotland keep denying. Perhaps the only way to know for certain is to try it out; but what a gamble. However, we non-Scots don’t have a vote, so why worry? In a sense it isn’t our problem.

But in another sense it is. Not only will the loss of Scotland as a piece of national heritage be a terrible one – so many of our British heroes and heroines originated there (not least modern ones such as Andy Murray), but there will be a terrible rending politically, socially and economically if a piece of this integral structure we call the United Kingdom is torn off.  It will be an open wound for decades, and very slow to heal. There will be grief, trauma and economic struggle for both sides. And for what? Scottish pride, which they could have anyway – and always have had? The ability to make their own decisions, and be free of Westminster? They already have considerable powers, and the British government seem willing to concede more, if they decide to stay. Do they really want complete responsibility for everything, including defence? We have already seen how complex disentangling governance institutions will be if independence comes, not to mention the pound (one of the largest economic reasons to stay). Can this really be in the best interests of the Scots themselves, never mind the rest of us?

I have to admit I really can’t understand how Salmond has persuaded even 40 per cent of the Scots that it might be a good, or even viable option to leave the United Kingdom – and I must say I resent the suggestion that they might evict the Queen. Salmond is a clever politician, and a personable one, as well – I met him once, on a train travelling between London and Edinburgh, in the early 1990s, and liked him, though at the time I hadn’t a clue who he was, as he identified himself only as a nationalist politician; I only recognised him later from a newspaper photograph. But he was very persuasive, even then.

However, it doesn’t matter what I think (as any readers of this blog will no doubt themselves be saying at this point). We in the rest of the UK don’t have any say in the matter, although the outcome will affect us almost as much as it will the Scots themselves. So I can only say, sincerely: Scotland, please don’t leave us! We need you. We love you and your people because YOU ARE PART OF US.www.janeanstey.co.uk