The question of what kind of border after Brexit will exist between Northern Ireland and the Republic will, I predict, become a very thorny one indeed as negotiations crawl into the autumn. Talk of ‘putting the border in the Irish Sea’ — somehow leaving the north inside the EU for customs and immigration purposes, but cut off from European funding — was a red herring that provoked DUP tantrums, but more significant was the weekend outburst from Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. As far as his government is concerned ‘there shouldn’t be an economic border… and we’re not going to help [the British] design some sort of border that we don’t believe should exist in the first place.’
Behind this is Irish irritation at glib remarks about the border by British ministers — so far entirely failing to address the problem that two countries not in a customs union must obviously have a customs boundary between them. Vague talk of number plate recognition, surveillance cameras and digital tracking at an open crossing is regarded not only as highly unlikely to prove effective but as a positive encouragement to renewed IRA mischief.
Secondly, Ireland stands to lose by far the most of any EU country from Brexit, since the UK buys 50 per cent of all Irish exports, and its political class feels justified in fighting accordingly — especially at a time when the Irish economy is otherwise motoring along nicely. It was even more enraged by Theresa May’s kowtowing to the DUP to keep herself in power. All this leads to the most significant aspect of the border issue, which is that it threatens to fuel a revival of Irish nationalism. As the Troubles in the north fade into memory, a self-confident younger generation, including the likes of Varadkar and his foreign affairs and trade minister Simon Coveney, no longer feel the reticence of their predecessors about expressing the aspiration of a united Ireland. Coveney, for example, has been developing an infrastructure plan which views the whole island as a single economic entity. If Mrs May and David Davis continue to duck and fudge as they have done so far, the tide of Irish history may begin to flow in a very unexpected direction.
There has just been a rather meaningless debate about whether Jeff Bezos of Amazon or Bill Gates of Microsoft should be labelled ‘the richest man in the world’. Both are notionally worth more than $90 billion, although Bezos was briefly ahead by a nose after a surge in the value of his Amazon shares. It was meaningless because such unimaginable wealth ‘can’t change how many people love you or how healthy you are’ — as the world’s fourth richest man, Warren Buffett, once remarked — and can’t even buy you more fun than, say, the $5 billion fortune of our own Sir Richard Branson. The point is that the only thing worth doing with humongous wealth, once you’ve bought the lifestyle you want, is to come up with a serious long-term plan for giving it away.
Gates and his wife Melinda, backed by Buffett, have created a $40 billion foundation dedicated to ‘zero malaria, zero TB, zero HIV, zero malnutrition… zero difference between the health of a poor kid and every other kid’; left-wing critics strive to find fault, but it is clearly making a difference in Africa and elsewhere. Bezos, by contrast, makes wacky investments in space rockets and recently tweeted asking for ideas as to how he should be ‘helping people in the here and now’, presumably because he lacks ideas of his own. On that comparison, I’d say Gates is ahead by a distance.
Speaking of Sir Richard Branson, the grinning self-publicist took a break from his own ocean-saving philanthropic efforts this week to show he’s still a canny dealmaker. He sold a 31 per cent stake in Virgin Atlantic to Air France-KLM, having already sold 49 per cent of it to the US’s Delta Air Lines. Delta is also taking 10 per cent of Air France-KLM, cementing a powerful new partnership in the transatlantic market.
Virgin Atlantic — now just 20 per cent owned by Branson, but wholly associated with him in image terms — is still the preferred carrier of many sophisticated travellers, despite a prediction in 2012 by British Airways boss Willie Walsh that it would be out of business within five years. Virgin Money is flying too, with four million customers, despite a widely held City view until a few years ago that Branson was unfit for anything to do with personal finance. And Virgin Trains, East Coast and West Coast, are full despite a recent Sunday Times survey showing that half of them habitually arrive late. The enduring power of Branson’s Virgin brand, combined with the foxiness of his joint venturing, has defied detractors decade after decade to become a wonder of the modern business world.
Sitting on its hands
My man who usually wears a pink tailcoat and carries a silver coffee tray at the Bank of England wasn’t able to give me his usual early word on which way the Monetary Policy Committee was voting this week — because after the breakdown of Acas talks over the Bank’s below-inflation pay offer he was out in Threadneedle Street wearing a Mark Carney mask and waving a strike placard. But, like me, he was betting there wouldn’t be an interest rate rise, even though three of the eight members present voted that way at the MPC’s June meeting. Since then inflation has unexpectedly slipped back from 2.9 per cent to 2.6 per cent, giving the committee an excuse to go on sitting on its hands and wondering whether it will ever be able to ‘normalise’ rates so that savings offer a fair return and debt carries a deterrent burden — or whether almost a decade of ultra-low rates plus quantitative easing has rendered central banks impotent for the next crisis, whenever it comes. There’s a debate for another day.