31 December, 2007

Remember this?

Everyone will recall that Tessa Jowell, formerly a Blair Cabinet Minister and now minister for the Olympics found herself in a spot of bother two years ago with regard to her husband, David Mills, a tax lawyer working for Silvio Berlusconi. It seems that David had received $600,000 which he used to pay off a mortgage.

The money was used to pay off a joint mortgage David and Tessa had on their London home. David’s accountants referred the matter to the UK authorities as suspicious (they are legally obliged to do so) and it has been separately investigated by the Italian authorities investigating Silvio Berlusconi. The investigation has moved to London where it is being held in camera to shield it from public view (Why? I should like to know).

The Italian broadsheet Corriere della Sera claims to have a leaked report of the evidence, showing that the accountant Bob Drennan testified that David Mills wrote him a letter, backed up verbally, to Drennan, stating that he had ‘negotiated a few dangerous corners’ for Berlusconi and saved him from a sea of troubles which would have hit him had David Mills simply told the everything he knew. Mills reportedly said he had kept it quiet to shield his wife.

Now, here in Italy dodgy tax lawyers and attacks on Berlusconi by the largely left-wing magistrature are not really newsworthy items, but in England corruption allegations against a cabinet minister still (thankfully) are, so let’s concentrate on that.

One of the most common and straightforward forms of money laundering is, if you are especting money from a dodgy source, you remortgage a property for that sum (generating clean money from the bank) and repay the mortgage with the dirty money. Its disadvantage as a laundering system is that each step is discoverable: mortgages are registrable and therefore the information is a matter of public knowledge when they are made and again when the mortgage is released. With a joint mortgage both mortgagors have to sign the consent form, and of course are notified individually when the mortgage is satisfied.

There have been two mortgages.

First Ms Jowell said in a statement to reporters that she jointly owned the house in Warwickshire as well as that in London:

"What I did was sign a form that enabled the bank to take a charge on our house in order my husband could buy some investment he wanted. Both of our houses are in our joint names - it's as simple as that.
"I was perfectly happy in the division of our finances to sign the charge.
Later she says that the one in Warwickshire was solely in her husband’s name “My husband and I jointly own our family home in London. The house in Warwickshire belongs to my husband.

I have twice agreed to use our homes as security against a bank loan, and signed the relevant papers to do so.
On the first occasion, on 9th June 2000, my husband took out a loan using his Warwickshire house as security, to pay for home improvements and an investment made by him. Because the bank viewed me as a resident in the Warwickshire house, it required my formal agreement to this arrangement and I signed the relevant papers.
On the second occasion, 20th September 2000, my husband wanted to make an investment, and took out a loan using our London home as security. I signed the relevant papers. My husband has a number of investments and I knew there would be no difficulty in repaying the loan.
I knew nothing more about the nature of the investment.
I was not aware until recently that the loan had been repaid shortly after it was taken out, so our London home was no longer needed as security.”
Now, we are not talking about 75 years ago when the little woman at home could not be expected to understand anything as complex as banking or mortgages. This is an intelligent, educated woman – her website says she was educated at the universities of Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Goldsmith's, London. She is a visiting fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford.
And she was at the time a cabinet minister.
So we are asked to believe that this woman did not know whether she owned a valuable property in Warwickshire jointly with her husband or not, even after the bank had reminded her that she was signing the mortgage deed because she was living in the property not because she owned it. We are asked to believe that she knew there would be no difficulty repaying the loan, even though she knew the other house had been mortgaged just three months earlier, and that she happily signed a very large mortgage over her London home because hubby said he wanted to make an investment – no need to bother your pretty little head about man’s things. And we are asked to believe she sees nothing strange in her husband borrowing long term money and repaying it very shortly afterwards, not once but twice: she does not find this suspicious at all.
I’m sorry but I have an uphill struggle believing this. But now Ms Jowell, having demonstrated her keen attention to financial detail was then put in charge of Britain’s Olympics arrangements, the budget for which has risen from £2.5 billion to £9.3 billion plus a £2.2 billion contingency fund. ‘The budget is on track’ she said on 10th December.
Really, really, this won’t do. It won’t.

2008: the first good news?

In an interview in the Daily Mail, David Cameron appears to suggest - I think I can put it no stronger than that - that he would not be bound in government by the EU constitution signed by Gordon Brown. This is correct, of course - one government cannot bind its successor - but brave. It is the first time it has been suggested that the motion towards a politically united Europe is not on a ratchet, and can be reversed. Here's what he said:

“If we reach circumstances where the whole treaty has been not only ratified but implemented that is not a situation we would be content with.

"We wouldn't let matters rest there.

"We think the treaty is wrong because it passes too much power from Westminster to Brussels.

'We would address that issue at the time.”

He will be tested on this in 2008. In particular it will be suggested to him – and this may be right – that it will involve a complete renegotiation of our relationship with Europe. Let’s see how close he can stick to that text over the coming year. For me and countless others this is very encouraging however.

30 December, 2007

2008: eight wishes

A very happy new year to everyone. I am always optimistic at this time of year, although it tends not to last too long. Here are 8 things I'd like to see in 2008. I have excluded my winning the lottery, producing one of the greatest wines ever made and winning the Booker Prize for my novel. I don’t know why – these look equally far-fetched

1. At least one, better two, candidates in the US Presidential race that can be respected. Hillary looks dishonest, Obama lightweight, Huckabee and Romney mad, Giuliani shifty.

2. A new constitutional settlement involves HM The Queen abdicating in favour of Prince Charles, redefining our relationship with Europe, installing the referendum as the natural arbiter of constitutional change and disestablishment of the Church of England (a move initiated by the Church to distinguish it from the dross running the country)

3. Italy opts for a workable voting system which does not produce governments with different policies than the voters were presented with, and permits parliamentary majorities to implement them.

4. Australian independence to coincide with allowing one hand one bounce in cricket

5. Discussion of climate change turns to helping those people whose lives will be ruined by it, rather than persecuting those who drive cars and carry their shopping in plastic bags.

6. Further widening of the Freedom of Information Act. Why did I have to wait 30 years to learn Mrs Thatcher was locked in the lavatory in an American hotel?

7. The BBC is restricted to being a public service broadcaster. Jonathan Ross is knighted for resigning from the BBC in the public interest. Jamie Oliver knighted for services to chickens.

8. Belgium accepts the game is up, but cuts a deal where they throw in Luxembourg, the French get all the chocolate they can eat but Albert II becomes King of Greater France. Brussels becomes the independent Republic of Moules-Frites.

29 December, 2007

De Mortuis

Never speak ill of the dead, they say, although the Latin tag in fact means 'say nothing about them unless it is good' implying that those who usually speak and are silent have bad things to say. I don't agree that they are best left unsaid.

I have been critical of Benazir Bhutto since I first met her at university. Her death is a tragedy for her family, and for those who loved her, and difficult news for the West. But I maintain she was not the right person to run Pakistan. R.I.P.

27 December, 2007

The Journalist Militant

There are reports that a Sri Lankan minister has been kidnapped by journalists (yes, journalists) and had to be freed by police. It seems Labour Minister Mervin Silva went to Rupavahini television to complain that it had not covered a speech he gave on Wednesday.

"A henchman of the minister pulled the news director" (I think it means assaulted) "and all employees are protesting, demanding an apology," Rupavahini's director-general said. So they locked him in.

It makes you realise what tame morons our own TV journalists are. Just imagine if a minister gave the usual equivocal exculpatory drivel to Paxman and they simply locked him (or her) up until he came clean. I mean: improvement or what?

26 December, 2007

Italian News (9)

Four Italian families in 10 have abandoned the fixed line telephone and only use mobiles. In Italy there are 138.5 Sim cards per 100 inhabitants which suggests one third of people have at least two, both of which they use while driving.

Some 80 million bottles of spumante will be popped at the end of the year in Italy and 50 million bottles abroad, a 22% jump in value over last year. Almost half of the 300 million bottles of spumante produced in Italy every year are drunk between the middle of December and the middle of January.

Alitalia has sold lucrative take-off and landing slots at London Heathrow airport, some at record prices in order to bolster its balance sheet prior to takeover by AirFrance-KLM. Unions are concerned that the takeover will downgrade Malpensa, the airport near Como which RyanAir refers to as Milan, in favour of Rome.

4 people from Russia and eastern Europe have been sentenced to a year in prison for damaging the 'Barcaccia', the boat-like fountain in the Piazza Spagna, Rome

Roberto Benigni was voted by Italians as their Person of the Year. Benigni’s TV show ‘combines wicked satire with fervent Dante readings’. So that’s a ‘must watch’, then.

Second was Beppe Grillo, leader of the 'F*** off' rallies to eject MPs with criminal records. Silvio Berlusconi, an MP with....No,no,no.... was fourth, three ahead of possible general-election opponent Walter Veltroni.

The Catholic website Petrus said the Pope was drawing up plans to install exorcists in every diocese in the coming months so that 'possessed' people could get prompt treatment.

A decree has been approved allowing the expulsion of even legal immigrants from the EU who are deemed to pose a threat to society. A previous draft of the bill included deportation of gays but President Napolitano refused to sign it.

The website Wine News reports that unless there is a last-minute waiver, merrymakers this New Year will see a 2am curfew on alcohol sales in restaurants, night clubs and other places which offer entertainment. The ban on alcohol sales after 2am was imposed by a road safety law passed last October.

Firework-loving partygoers in Naples have named the latest addition to their New Year arsenal 'The Budget' because of its hard-hitting effect. ''It costs 250 euros and can blow up a whole building,'' said a doctor leading a prevention scheme in Italy's most firework-mad city. Other holiday crowd-pleasers like the Bin Laden, the Ratzinger and the Maradona Bomb, ''are full-blown explosives'', Dr. Mariano Marmo said

A 38-year-old Italian working at the Mount Lemmon Observatory in Arizona has discovered a new comet currently passing through the solar system. The Government has already taken steps to deport it if it carries on after 2am, and the Vatican plans to exorcise it, but there are alternative reports that it is merely a Neapolitan Firework called the Mariano Marmo.

23 December, 2007

Er.. those discs?

The Observer's Andrew Rawnsley, who is well connected in Labour circles, has a good article on how it all went wrong for Gordon. Among the many disasters, he lists the loss of the discs containing 25 million personal records as 'probably the single most damaging episode'. Er.. can we be told what's going on now, over a month later?


The police have said they will call off the hunt by Christmas: 32 detectives were assigned to the case and it has reportedly cost £500,000. So are we to deduce that the discs are now in someone's hands, someone who doesn't want to hand them in? What are we to assume without information?

22 December, 2007

Italian News (8)

The news according to Italians.......

The Consumer association Codacons says that the price of one kilo of spaghetti, which had been stable from 2004 to 2006, jumped 27% this year. Pasta sales have fallen by 3.9%.

In a recent poll Italians came out the least happy people in Western Europe. Walter Veltroni, Mayor of Rome and Prime Ministerial hopeful said the country had ''lost a little of its will for the future. There is more fear than hope''.

Consumer confidence in Italy fell in December compared to November.

Prices are rising faster than at any time for the last three years

Petrol is the most expensive in Europe

It emerged this week that Spain has now overtaken Italy in terms of per capita GDP.


Now the good news…

The UN has changed the calculation of per capita GDP and Spain hasn’t overtaken Italy at all

The government has survived yet another vote of confidence, this time to get its budget approved. This will raise minimum pensions, improve road and rail infrastructure and give the poorest Italians a one-off 150-euro bonus. The cost of government will be cut and future administrations will only be allowed 12 ministers. Next year’s budget deficit will be 2.2%, in line with EU guidelines

There has been a surge in Italian exports which will cut the trade deficit from 18.6 billion euros in 2006 to 7.6 billion euros. Italy has exported more than the UK or Canada.

Italy's tax revenue from January to November 2007 was up 10.1% on the same period of the previous year, reaching 451.2 bln euros.

Italian researchers have found a way of using the Salmonella bacteria to treat melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.

Some six million Italians will be using their cars to travel during the Christmas and New Year's holidays which will translate into two million vehicles on the national highways (good news if you’re not one of them)

Italy’s fine. Just don’t ask an Italian.

20 December, 2007

Prostitution

Harriet Harman wants to make prostitution illegal. Her reason is that it is impossible to get rid of the traffic in girls while there is prostitution.

This in many ways encapsulates New Labour, without doubt the biggest threat to our liberties since the war. There are three glaring problems here. The first is that she cannot distinguish between legal and normal (woman, a free agent, is happy to have sex in return for money) and the illegal and immoral (girls being sold into and held in illegal incarceration where they are forced to have sex with the customers).

Second Harman does not see how this is a denial of freedom to sex workers as well as their clients. What else will they do for money?

Third, like the rest of New Labour (eg Tony Blair on 'handguns') she thinks she just has to pass a law and the problem will go away. Just as it became impossible to own a pistol and so the supply of pistols was driven underground (you can buy one for £50 in an inner-city pub, more than ten years after Tony's brilliant legislative stroke) so prostitution will be driven underground. It will still go on, just as people still have pistols, but since everyone involved will be a criminal, there will be little or no distinction between what we used to call 'working girls' and trafficked slaves. So it will get worse.

It seems incredible that this woman can't understand this. She is presumably hoping for a quick PR fix after she was exposed for accepting illegal donations; or ducking away from her responsibilities in stopping the illegal traffic in women.

Harman is hoping men will be too proud to defend prostitutes. I hope someone does.

Yoof

Odd that the new LibDem leader should have to employ someone 20 years older than himself (Brian Eno) to advise on youth.

17 December, 2007

Bali

Bali seems a strange place for an environmental conference, given the vast Indonesian carbon footprint from ploughing up rainforest. But this was a conference about having a conference, so that’s OK. The world has turned up there to play the blame game, the developed world breast-beating over how much they have industrialised, the less developed countries saying they haven’t really got into this pollution thing and ought to be given a chance. I have two problems with all this.

The first is the absence of complete data. If a western country closes a smokestack industry and transfers it to a Less Developed Country, the recorded (guilt-based) figures for total emissions go down because the LDC is excluded from the calculations. But in fact it has not just stayed the same but gone up because we then ship the goods back to the West. And does anybody know what the leakages from Russia’s pipeline system are? One industry insider told me we don’t even know the percentage of pipeline that has been properly welded.

The second thing that troubles me is that while all this is going on the figures show that hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people are going to lose their homes due to flooding. Why aren’t we having a conference about what we are going to do about that? We are all so busy blaming each other about the causes of all this (and we don’t really know) and trading carbon credits that we take our eye off the real problem: coping with global warming’s effect on mankind. Kyoto produced a system where we would reduce temperatures by half a degree centigrade for a cost that could have given the whole world clean drinking water. This next committee of ineffective self-righteousness looks set to be even worse.

15 December, 2007

Italian News (7)

No Italians will be surprised at the results of a poll, among 10,000 women of 50 different
nationalities, that they are the world’s best lovers. British men (11th) were ‘not in very good shape’, the Greeks ‘smelly’, Germans (last) ''too self-centered’ and the Scots ‘too noisy’.

The national truck strike is now over. The whole country experienced shortages of petrol, ice cream and noise.

In Venice, fines will be imposed on funerals which run more than 15 minutes late.

The State journalism exam (!!) will henceforth not insist on manual typewriters but permit laptops. The historic change appears to have been influenced by the shortage of the old machines.

According to Istat, lunch is the main meal of the day for nearly 70% of Italians, and nearly three quarters (84% in the south) eat it at home. 87% eat pasta or rice at least once a day, and 85% fruit and vegetables at least once a day. 28% of males and 16% of females smoke.

Singapore Airlines has made a last minute bid for Alitalia. The airline says it knows nothing about late arrivals, strikes and losing customers’ luggage and is eager to learn.

Comedian Beppe Grillo presented to parliament a petition with 350,000 signatures. The proposed law would ban from office anyone with a conviction. Around 10% of Italian MPs have been convicted of an imprisonable offence.

Mr Prodi denied reports in the New York Times that Italy was a depressed nation and President Napolitano said this was a ‘one-sided view’.

This year’s life-size crib at the Vatican will not show the Nativity in a stable but in Joseph’s house with a pub next to it. There are unconfirmed reports that the wise men will be Messrs Prodi and Napolitano. A spokesman said the perceived 33% cutback in wise men was ‘a one-sided view’.

13 December, 2007

The Treatitution

So, it's been signed. I've said before that we must keep this scandal on the front pages, so let's remember first that it is Milliband, a weak euro-groupy, who has signed it (just in case he has prime ministerial ambitions later).

As for Gordon Brown, someone (a Scotsman, natch, describing himself as Europe Minister) was trying to defend him on World at One and in answer to the question wasn't this a bit of a stitch up could only say he wasn't the PM's diary secretary. It is now clear that Brown didn't want to sign because he didn't want to be in THAT photograph, recorded for posterity. In response to criticism, particularly from the excellent Sun, he went to sign it but too late to be part of the ceremony. Someone from the select committee said they weren't too strict about dates if it was something important (and presumably a treaty giving away large areas of Britain's sovereignty is important). So Brown has bottled, bitten his fingernails and then half-bottled. What a weak man. At least Chamberlain was sincere; this must be the lowest standard of person we have ever had in the job (against some pretty stiff competition).

Vince

Plaudits for Vince Cable who completed his final public duty as stand-in leader at yesterday's PMQ's. I said at the time they should pick him as leader, being the only one who talks sense, and many MPs, looking at the tawdry shambles that is Clegg and Huehne are now beginning to think the same.

Isn't there still time?

11 December, 2007

The Treatitution

The news is that surreptitiously, it would appear, Germany, with the backing of France and several other countries, has amended the text at the last moment (it is due to be signed on Thursday) to put back in all the stuff about the flag (still with only 12 stars, curiously), the anthem (smashing piece of music ruined by association) and the Festival (9th May: Europe Day - Hurrah!). Followers of this sorry saga will recall that this was the stuff they took out so that it didn't look like a constitution, in order to get Britain to sign.

The disturbing thing here is not that it has happened - European negotiations have a history of sly, underhand goings on - it is that it has been done with such barefaced chutzpah. The European apparat feels able to ignore Gordon Brown, over the African summit with Mugabe and over this. The Sun's editorial has it right:

'Gordon Brown is being played like a sucker by Europe’s power brokers. Brown pretends otherwise. Because he cannot admit he’s been conned.'

Perhaps this is Gordon Brown's chance to look as if he is listening to the people (nearly three quarters of us want a referendum, according to a recent poll) and veto it. My guess is he won't: at this moment he'll be biting those nails concerned the Tories will betray him as only against the anthem bit, not a serious doubter and therefore just a vacillating politician.

Brown wants this Treaty signed so it will be forgotten and the problem go away. It is our job to make sure it stays on the front pages.

09 December, 2007

Funny Time

The absurd President Chavez of Venezuela has declared that Venezuelan Time will now be put back half an hour. Chavez is of course a figure of fun - it is supposed to differentiate Venezuela from the time the USA is on - but it reminds me of the silly position we are in ourselves and the half-witted debate that goes on whenever the subject is brought up.

The name - Daylight Saving Time - is not just a misnomer, it is designed to deceive. Not one second of daylight is saved by pompous asses talking drivel in parliament. The days are just as long (or short) as they would otherwise have been. What has happened is thickoes - you have to be pretty stupid for this but it seems to apply to a large section of the populace - unable to get up or go to bed at a different time, wake up on the morning the clocks have gone back and say 'Gosh, thanks to those brilliant people in parliament it is lighter at 8am than it was'. Why on earth do we organise ourselves around these people?

Are you a farmer who finds it is inconveniently dark when you go out at 7am? Go out at 8. Are you a Mother who doesn't want her children walking home in the dark? Organise with the PTA that the school starts earlier and finishes earlier.

Leave the rest of us with the time the good Lord gave us.

Labour grant

The papers are full of the story of how Labour got a £180,000 grant to help staff understand the new funding rules, Ha Ha Ha.

Why, though? I mean why did they get a grant? It is the duty of a private citizen to understand the law (ignorance is no excuse) however complicated it may be. Do companies get grants for understanding fraud rules, or reporting requirements? It is the duty of a political party to make sure its staff understand how they are permitted to behave. I see no reason why the taxpayer should fund that.

I expect they jump on any excuse to pay themselves more of our money, and there are many similar examples. The more they are exposed the cleaner political life will be.

EU Constitution

Can someone explain to me how Belgium can sign the EU Constitution - I refuse to call it anything else - without a legitimate government?

08 December, 2007

Italian News (6)

Naples policemen, having stopped a speeding dairy van, accepted bribes of mozzarella to let the driver off without a fine, internal affairs officers said.

A Greek temple has been found in the sea in front of Reggio Calabria's main railway station. Some reports say it is Reggio Calabria’s main railway station.

An Italian researcher has found a way to stop cancers spreading by starving them. An antibody can be used to block the molecule in bone marrow, Bv8, that helps tumours secure a blood supply to feed on

The media hype surrounding the murder of a British exchange student in Perugia has tarnished
the image of the city, local groups have complained. The normally quiet mediaeval city is among other things the centre of the chocolate industry.

Italy may be penalised by The European Commission for the amount of advertising on television. Unfortunately reducing the adverts will mean people have to watch the programmes.

A company in Prato has invented an illuminated umbrella, the ‘Lumino’. The handle lights up due to a high-tec diode, very useful for .. er.. something.

The Censis survey of Italian life says eight out of ten Italians have no faith in politics and 76% say no one worries about anything that happens to other people. No change there then. Over half of Italians are dissatisfied with the state. Or there. The report says TV quality is poor (not enough adverts).

Padua - An Italian priest mistakenly used a picture of Silvio Berlusconi's head on Pope John Paul II's body for a Christmas campaign on the importance of forgiving people. Viewers are advised to look very carefully at the smiling figure who gives the Christmas blessing from St Peters

The head of Italy's employers' federation Confindustria has announced that absenteeism in the public sector is costing the nation almost 1% of GDP a year. A union spokesman was unavailable for comment.

04 December, 2007

Iran

The threat of Iran's nuclear ambitions has been perhaps the most disturbing aspect of global politics for the past couple of years. Diplomacy, we said, should cool the situation, not just as regards the Iranians but to prevent Israel from making a preemptive strike; that would lead to war, perhaps not now if the Israeli strike was successful, but in the future, when we took our eye off the ball for a second and Iran succeeded in developing nuclear weapons, because they would feel justified (and almost be justified) in attacking a nation which had preemptively attacked theirs.

But the diplomacy didn't seem to be working. At least Israel has stayed its hand, but Iran thumbed its nose at delegations from Europe and the 'Quartet'. It seemed as though something would have to give.

At this point many anti-war people (myself included) began to think the unthinkable. If Iran continued to develoop the bomb, the free world (not just Israel) would have to destroy its bomb making factories, or we risked a world war.

We learn today, however, that a new study suggests Iran put on hold its nuclear activities some time ago. What are we to think? Did our political masters know of this and yet allow the rhetoric to harden - in short did they coax me into supporting a war which would have proved unnecessary? Why? It is a Dr Strangelove sort of mindset which I had hoped we had abandoned in the 60s and 70s. Perhaps the report really is new and a pleasant surprise to all its recipients.

What is perhaps most disturbing about all this is that despite this being the Age of Information, we know so little about what is going on and, as our fathers did, have to trust that our politicians are sensible, and right. Then we look at those politicians...... and yet we know if our politicans are no good we should change them ... and we look at the others...

It's the uncertainty isn't it? Bush, Brown, Sarkozy, Putin, the Chinese, the UN, none of them seem any good.

Ah well, keep low and keep moving.

01 December, 2007

Italian News (6)

The good news: after two days of stoppages which blocked central Rome on Wednesday and Thursday, Rome taxi drivers went back to work on Friday.

The bad news: everyone else to do with transport, trains, buses, planes even funeral drivers went on strike. The workers of Alitalia, their company collapsing around them, did not miss the opportunity to walk out as well. Ironically, at least for Alitalia which has received billions in subsidy over the years, the strikes were about underinvestment.

Letitia Moratti, mayor of Milan and Berlusconi crony, is being investigated for abuse of office, in connection with some highly paid management positions in the city.

Industry minister Pierluigi Bersani has said he plans to eliminate nepotism in the workplace. Apparently 89% of Italians think that knowing the right person is the most important factor in getting a job and perhaps 70% of jobs go to a candidate on ‘raccomandazione’. The person Bersani recommends for putting the plan in place is....

The Italian agricultural association, which with the nation’s love of acronyms is unhappily called the CIA, has said that foreign food masquerading as Italian is costing farmers 60 billion euros each year. In Germany there are three times as many fake Italian products as real ones, one of the major offending items being parmesan cheese.

In Bolzano a cock has been fined 200 euros for crowing. The bird's owner was taken to court by a woman neighbour who accused the farmer of noise pollution.

Attempts by the Palazzo Ducale in Urbino to produce electronic frescoes have been hindered by the realisation that the fifteenth century masters did not have to rely on ENEL for their output.

Rome’s third airport will be built at Viterbo, to be used when taxi drivers block Ciampino and Fiumicino again. Alitalia has asked for a map.

In a first for European Royalty, Vittorio Emanuele di Savoia, the son of Italy's last king, has been cleared of peddling video poker games. He is continuing with his lawsuit claiming compensation for exile, citing what he might have done if allowed back into the country earlier.

29 November, 2007

Cormack

Picture the scene. Prime Minister's Questions, Brown on the ropes. Cameron has made one of the most savage attacks on him ever heard, and the vastly underrated Vince Cable says the PM has transformed 'from Stalin to Mr Bean'.

Blow after low is landing on Brown. A senior Conservative backbencher stands up. Will this be the coup de grace? No, for it is Sir Patrick Cormack, who defuses the tension by asking the PM what he would like for Christmas. The relief on the Labour benches is palpable.

Cormack features in the opening paragraphs of Peter Oborne's book 'The Triumph of the Political Class' for a couple of instances of his refusing to damage or embarrass the Government. He is almost the archetype Political Class man: we are all in this together, the little cadre that run the country; we don't want any fisticuffs, or strongly held views.

Really, his constituency needs to deselect him pronto.

28 November, 2007

State Funding for Politics

Two things can be confidently forecast about the Labour Party funding debacle: firstly that several party apparatchiks will cling to power even though their dishonesty and incompetence has been exposed beyond all doubt. The second is that there will soon be calls (from the Political Class, naturally) for State (i.e. you and me) funding of political parties.

The way they will express it is 'If we want to avoid this sort of thing happening in the future (as if it has been a natural phenomenon and not abuse of power by the Political Class) we should regulate by law the amount they can receive and this obviously leads to State donations'.

It would be hard to exaggerate what an awful thing it would be if this were to be let through. A minor, but significant argument against it is that small parties would find it hard to grow, starved of funds and unable to get them anywhere else (as a founder of the UKIP I am sensitive to this). But far, far more important is that the Parties (the big ones, that is) wouldn't have to try to behave in such a way as to attract membership and donations. The Political Class (and I am aware that is the third time I have used the term in this post but that is what it is all about) would become even more detached from the people than they are now.

I have occasionaly referred to the systemic corruption in Italian politics where they have State Funding. It is the same in all the others including the European Union itself.

No, we must resist it at all costs in the UK.

27 November, 2007

Oxford Union

From the Independent: 'Hundreds of protesters gathered outside the Oxford Union last night to voice their disapproval of the two men from the extreme right whom the illustrious debating chamber had invited there to speak.'

When I was an undergraduate at Oxford mnthg years ago we often had extreme left wing speakers without rioting that they shouldn't be given a platform. You don't just learn from people you agree with.

26 November, 2007

World Trade - a new era?

'Wake up to the dangers of a deepening crisis' and 'One of the most influential theories about exchange rates in the age of globalisation may be about to go up in smoke' shrieks the Financial Times. 'Of profound political importance' says Liam Halligan in the Telegraph.

The FT Article, by Wolfgang Munchau, discusses an increasingly commonly held belief. He traces world economic systems like geological strata. First we had the gold standard; then after the war we had Bretton Woods, the system under which all currencies were quoted against the dollar. Then we had Bretton Woods II which is what we have been living under without knowing it, and now that has come to an end.

In my view the theory, which to be fair Munchau doesn't much like, seems to have missed out a bit and exaggerated the recent bit. Bretton Woods established fixed exchange rates against the dollar which, to a diminishing degree, was backed by gold. After that we had floating exchange rates (which started for Britain back in Ted Heath's early years). And then we had globalisation.

What some refer to as Bretton Woods II is the system by which the Far Eastern economies, China, Japan and the smaller ones, sell goods to America in amazing quantity. What would normally happen under a system of floating exchange rates is that the Far Eastern currencies would then rise against the dollar. But that wouldn't suit China (we'll deal with Japan in a minute) because it would make its exports more expensive. So China manipulates the exchange rate, keeping the Yuan artifically low and their exports cheap; Chinese exporters can't hold dollars but have to sell them to the Bank of China at the artificial rate, and the BoC buys US Treasury Bills thus keeping the dollar relatively high and dollar interest rates relatively low so the American Consumer can buy more Chinese goods. So all Bretton Woods II is, then, is the failure of emerging economies to adapt to floating excvhange rates, and a large dollop of globalisation.

And now it is unravelling; the dollar is falling. But the dollar has been here before. In 1985 the problem was Japan. The US current account deficit was going through the roof, just like now, because Americans were buying Japanese goods, and the dollar had to fall to prevent severe recession. So the major powers, and Japan for the first time, got together and intervened in the currency markets to let the dollar fall. US exports rose, ironically to everywhere except Japan where they didn't like the idea of foreign goods. The people who suffered were the Europeans.

And this, in my view is what will happen again. Not currency intervention - the markets are too big for that, but an agreement between the US and China. Don't forget who suffers most if the US stops buying Chinese goods: the Chinese. Europe, with its export based economies and mature markets, think the euro is already strong enough against the dollar. I heard Airbus is unprofitable at $1.25; if it goes to $1.50????

Yes there will be a US recession, yes that will affect us, yes the falling dollar will affect us more. In the UK consumer spending might hold out, keeping our factories open. I am more pessimistic about Europe. If governments start holding the euro as their reserve currency it will make matters even worse. Unless something can be done we will import America's banking crisis, and we will import America's trade deficit. Europe will ask China to revalue the Yuan. But I have a feeling China is only interested in the USA.

24 November, 2007

Italian News (5)

Silvio Berlusconi says he intends to create a new Centre-Right Bloc, called The People’s Liberty Party which will absorb his Forza Italia. His traditional allies however have shunned the new proposal.

The Italian Sherlock Holmes Society celebrates its 20th anniversary in Florence on November 23rd

The Italian Foreign Exchange Office said tourists spent 4.8 bln euros in Rome in 2006, up 12.3% compared to 2005. With control free borders and a currency used by most of the rest of Europe, how do they know?

Archaeologists drilling into an unexplored area of the Palatine Hill next to the home of Emperor Augustus have discovered the Lupercal Shrine, the cave where adherents celebrated the suckling of Romulus and Remus by a wolf.

Farmers’ organisation Coldiretti says there has been a flood of Chinese tomatoes imported into Italy, amounting to perhaps 25% of the market. Coldiretti says that the imported tomato puree should be tested for safety. From January 1st all tomato puree sold in Italy will show where the tomatoes were grown.

This winter's influenza season is expected to peak between January and February and around three to five million people will catch the flu, according the Italian Society of Medicine. They’ll be giving us their names next.

A platoon of women soldiers took over guard duties at Italy's presidential palace for the first time on 23rd November

Vittorio Emanuele of Savoy, the son of Italy's last king, and his son Emanuele Filiberto, are claiming 260 million euros in compensation for their exile, which ended in 2002 when parliament decided to allow them back. They claim it was contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights. So far there does not appear to be a rush of politicians supporting the claim. Early days, I expect

The sports shirt maker Umbro, Italian for Umbrian, is in fact a contraction of Humphrey Brothers, a clothing firm in Wilmslow, Cheshire. Well, it was news to me.

The murder of Roberto Calvi known as 'God's Banker' was done by the Mafia to punish him for mishandling their money. There are reports of panic across the European banking system in case the idea catches on.

22 November, 2007

The French Strikes

Much of Europe reminds me of early 1980s Britain, and the French (and recent Italian) strikes are a case in point. There is a lot of jockeyng for position: these strikes are as political as they are specific, and may determine the next five years of France's economic development (already decided in Italy - Prodi keeled over like a friendly labrador at anything serious but stood firm for the right of hairdressers to open on a Monday. Yes: when the going gets tough, the tough get going).

The nature of the French strikes is, prima facie, enough to make you want to support the strikers. A previous administration (Mitterand's, I think) allowed railway workers to retire early, at 50. I have recently been reading Zola's La Bete Humaine, with its descriptions of early railway life and this looks as if it was a late 20th century solution to a strictly 19th century problem. Drivers sit in air conditioned cabs in front of something more akin to a computer than an engine, and as for porters - have you been to a French railway station recently? Why should they need to retire at 50? The pensions scheme is absurd and the government wants to stop it; the workers feel rightly aggrieved that they have done a deal and the government must stick to it (although they have been offered current compensation).

But it's more than that. Sarkozy has identified a large number of reforms which the French economy badly needs. If he loses this he will find it difficult to get the others through (this is what Prodi has learned in Italy) but the unions realise that this is only the thin end of the wedge.

Mrs Thatcher succeeded by picking the right fight at a time of her choosing (the increasingly unpopular miners at a time when she had surreptitiously built up coal stocks). My guess is that Sarkozy has chosen the wrong fight, and that he will back down. In short that he will be the same as Chirac, Mitterand, Giscard and the rest.

We shall see. In the meantime don't go to Paris (Rome is far nicer anyway and you can get a decent meal there)
T

The lost records (2)

Apparently the data that has been lost is not enough to access or open a bank account. We can expect, however, the usual crop of fraudulent emails asking for bank details, perhaps a special offer inviting you to ring a (hastily put together) call centre whereupon you will be asked for your password.

Watch out.

21 November, 2007

The lost records

Scarcely any need to inform readers of the latest cock-up: perhaps 25 million personal records lost, details of every child in the country. But we are used to government-created disasters, particularly when they involve computers and however awful, it will soon be forgotten. There is talk in the British press that this will bring about the end of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alastair Darling, but I am not so sure. I don't know much about the man, but I expect he is the same as the other New Labour apparatchiks, who have clung to their jobs while the edifice of public confidence collapses around them under the weight of their own incompetence. If he does go he will be able to say that he was told not to make any decisions without consulting his boss, only to find that the top man was incapable of decision making. Brown's fingerprints are too much over this to hand him the pistol and the whisky bottle right now.

No, what interests me is how the government happened to have all these details on disk - 25 million people! - and be posting them somewhere else. The answer leads us again back to Gordon Brown. His policy has been that everybody should be dependent on the state: there are examples of people earning £50,000 a year and still able to get government handouts, and he won't stop until Jonathan Ross is on some income supplement (the rest of us won't stop until he's on unemployment benefit but that's another matter). It is quite absurd that payments should be made to people who don't need them and the result is a bloated - and incompetent - state, hungry for information about you, eager to turn you into a dependant, a welfare junkie. And worse: they know who you are, where you are and what you're doing.

Applied for your ID card yet?

Perugia

Perugia is not a place that usually detains the world’s thoughts for long – an attractive hilltop town of about 150,000 people, capital of Umbria, centre of the Italian chocolate industry (or at least the part that isn’t owned by NestlĂ©, which also has a factory there) and home of the University for Foreigners (although there is another in Siena). But now the international press has focused on the bizarre murder of an English girl student, Meredith Kercher. As befits such a place the dramatis personae are an eclectic bunch: an American girl, an Italian man, a Congolese bar owner and a basketball player from the Ivory Coast.

It is not, to say the least, what one might expect of such a place. Perugia is provincial, not just in the sense of being a province but inward-looking, with a tradition of independence stretching back to its having been one of the twelve cities of Etruria and displaying a sometimes haughty disinterest to the Roman Empire. But the town has never seen anything like this. A friend who has been going there for 25 years says the place has changed almost overnight. People look at each other suspiciously; every hooded youth could be a drug dealer with a knife; or worse, a reporter.

The social fabric of Perugia, particularly in the evenings, is dominated by the Strangers’ University. This was set up by a local philanthropist in the early 1920s and soon appropriated by Mussolini as an international propaganda tool, for the dissemination of modern Italian culture world wide. Some people say that the problems started when, short of money, it found it could pay its way by attracting the children of the rich, many of them Arabs, now Russian. The deal seems to be something like a holiday gap year and the understretched students are easy fodder for the drug dealers.

The Universita’ per Stranieri is a good idea but it needs to change. It needs to become more of an academic institution, less of a summer camp. It needs to select its students academically rather than by wealth, but alas there is no tradition of this in Italy, where everyone can go to University and employers are prevented from discriminating between one university degree and another.

The Universita’ per Stranieri could be the goose that lays the golden eggs for Perugia or its millstone, a burden from which the town can never free itself, a druggy free-for-all that brings down the whole city. It must choose.

19 November, 2007

Fixed Term Parliaments

Unsurprisingly after the autumn election or non-election fiasco there has been a fair bit of publicity in favour of fixed term parliaments of four or five years. The idea is that it should not be at the Prime Minister's whim to play around with something so important. The case for fixed terms can be seen HERE. Two LibDem MPs have tabled a bill in Parliament, and ueber-blogger Ian Dale is in favour.

I am not at all sure that I am, though.

Firstly, the discretion to prorogue parliament and call an election is technically not the Prime Minister's but the Queen's. Now, I know that with most aspects of the Royal Prerogative, such as the right to declare war and appoint peers, HMQ doesn't get much of a look in, but I am not sure it is necessarily the case here. Remember when Tony Blair wanted to call an election after two and a half years (to match some temporary increase in his fortunes or more likely trying to get a few more years before a downturn in public opinion): there were rumours, presumably emanating from Buckingham Palace, that it should not be necessary and the Queen might not allow it. Blair might have called the Queen's bluff but that would have generated a lot of negative publicity. He held on until a decent four year period had expired.

Secondly, I have a general feeling that tinkering with checks and balances concerning the monarch's role should be given a lot more thought; it is easy to destroy an age-old tradition but not so easy to reinstate it.

Third, the calling of an election is very much a test of the Prime Minister. Heath called an election under the 'Who governs Britain' banner and the public replied that we had been paying him to. He was voted out. Brown dithered about calling an election he would certainly have won and the electorate now seem likely to penalise him. Whoever calls the election, the voting is in our hands.

Lastly the fear that a government might inflate the economy in time for a General Election is to my mind somewhat irrelevant. If it knows the election will be in five years time it can still manipulate the economic climate to meet that date - what could be easier?

People should think before tinkering with the Constitution. There are more important changes to be considered, such as the make-up of the House of Lords (see here)

16 November, 2007

National Motto

One certain sign the wheels are coming off the Brown PR vehicle is the call for a national motto: an obvious chance for public pillory, what boxers call 'leading with your chin'

Some fun stuff on Danny Finkelstein's Times blog (HERE) (I liked 'Mathematically, we could still qualify')

My offer: Kleptocracy, Bureaucracy, Hypocrisy

Barclays

Speaking of Barclays, its happy statement yesterday that it had only blown a billion or so on dodgy instruments and so there was nothing to worry about left me, I don't know, with a slight feeling that we haven't quite heard the end of this. Doubtless I'm wrong.

I am often reminded of the dictum of Christopher Fildes: giving capital to a bank is like giving beer to a drunk. You know exactly what he will do with it but you don't know which wall he will choose.

Northern Rock

As more information emerges from the Northern Rock debacle there seems to me to be a great deal to think about. A couple of days ago the government tried to stop publication of a leaked sales memorandum for the bank, which implied that the government’s funding (ie guaranteed by the Treasury and that means you and me) would continue beyond the agreed date of February and that it might be interest free. This funding amounts to something like £24 billion.

The stance taken by the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, (and I mentioned at the time that it was unfortunate that the bank he had to practise it on was New Labour’s in-house bank with branches in marginal constituencies) is that of the moral hazard. This says that if we indemnify depositors and investors against the risks they are taking, they will become risk happy: I could set up a bank tomorrow and it would have the same credit rating as Barclays because the government guaranteed the depositors. This is even more true of shareholders and professional lenders. Why should my taxes underwrite a South Korean bank lending to Northern Rock? Or a Canadian pension fund buying shares in it?

So everybody should stand to lose something? Not so easy. The people must have confidence in the banking system. After all, the reason I haven’t opened a bank is that the Bank of England would not have granted me a banking licence. And here we come to the nub of the problem and the largely unmentioned culprit. What used to happen, and the reason we haven’t had a run on a bank these few hundred years, is that the Bank of England knew what was going on in each bank, knew in advance of any problems and sorted them – even arranging for a takeover by a larger bank. And this has happened many times, to my knowledge. What changed was Gordon Brown’s new architecture for the financial system, a tripartite system with the Bank of England, the Financial Services Authority and the Treasury. Banking supervision was transferred from the Bank of England to the FSA so the Governor could no longer raise an eyebrow and call HSBC telling it to splash some cash. Gordon Brown, who drums himself up as an intellectual but didn’t seem to have the ability to think this through properly, is one of the main causes of this fiasco.

The answer now, apart from giving the Bank back its supervision of the banking system, and Gordon Brown apologising for introducing half thought through measures (Ha!) is that taxpayers’ money should not be used to bail out professionals. The loans should be at a proper rate of interest and should expire in February or within 6 months (there are some difficult maturities coming up so a short extension might be easier). To keep public confidence, particularly now that a large bank has been seen to go under, depositors should be given a 100% guarantee, but only up to £10,000. If you have that amount of savings you should have the nous to open an account at another bank.

Italian News (4)

Monte dei Paschi di Siena, which says it is the oldest bank in the world, has bought Antonveneta which in the last few years has been owned both by Algemene Bank Nederland and by Banco Santander. MPS seems to have paid far too much and has been put on 'credit watch' by several ratings agencies.

The toll of injuries among policemen rose to 40 by Monday morning from a night of street violence around the city's Olympic Stadium in the wake of the fatal police shooting of a Lazio fan on Sunday morning. The policeman who shot the fan said his gun went off by accident and is now facing murder charges.

The new Fiat 500 has been named car of the year. By my calculations this is the twelfth time the FIAT Group have won it. The first FIAT Cinquecento was built before the competition started.

A Gay art show has been put on in Florence after the Milan authorities refused it permission. I am told that many people in Italy do not believe there are any gays in the country at all so it will be fairly deserted.

Italy's tireless efforts to obtain a UN resolution against capital punishment have taken a step further after a successful committee vote. It will now be put to the General Assembly.

The lack of rainfall and high temperatures has resulted in early harvests for both grapes and olives with overall production for olive oil and wine down 10% or more over last year. Round here I can tell you it is more like 50%

Florentine Carlo Ferrini is the Oenologist of the Year according to the 2007 Wine Star Awards given by Wine Enthusiast magazine, foolishly ignoring the claims of some smaller Umbrian winemakers.

An Italian unmanned aircraft has set a European endurance record flying for eight consecutive hours with a full load. Built by Alenia Aeronautica, the Sky-Y aircraft set the record at the end of a one-month test campaign in Sweden. The Alitalia entry has yet to arrive at the testing ground but is expected soon.

14 November, 2007

EU: The Bottomless Pit

The EU spends over €100 billion of our money. But, for fear of making itself unpopular, it makes the national governments do the taxation. For the 'citizens' of Europe the EU just gives. And it knows how to publicise its giving: every road, building, training course has the appropriate wording to make you feel what a marvellous thing it is.

And how well is this money spent? Well, for the thirteenth year running the Court of Auditors has refused to approve the accounts. It has approved of about 40% (up from 33% last year, the Commission boasts, so it must be doing the right things!) leaving something like €60 billion which is subject to error, poor accounting or fraud. One of the favourites this year is that now agricultural subsidies are being doled out on the basis of the agricultural land area rather than production, they are being claimed by golf clubs and railway companies.

And yet we tolerate it. Why? Because the political class won't allow too much argument in case the thing unravels. As Daniel Hannan points out in the Telegraph: it's a racket - a mechanism for redistributing wealth to people who, directly or indirectly, are on its payroll. We need one country to refuse to pay its contribution until the accounts are in proper shape.

Don't hold your breath.

Jacqui Smith (2)


It appears that thousands of illegal immigrants have been cleared to work in the Home Office, some guarding important installations, one apparently guarding the Prime Minister's car.

Ms Smith knew about this four months ago, but, incredibly, all the Home Office's efforts (we learn this from leaked memos) have gone towards covering it up.


Ms Smith of course tendered her resignation.

(Sorry, I made that bit up. The rest, unfortunately, is true)

Too cool to blog

No, not that sort of cool. No posts for a while because temperatures, which have been very pleasant for the time of year, started to fall and we decided to have the heating on. The system, not used since March, promptly blew up and all the plumbers were busy (Note: next year test it in August). I have been slumped in front of the computer in a cryogenic stasis, unable to think.

Now after two minor floods and more than a day's work, we are getting there and my attention has been drawn to.......

08 November, 2007

Italian News (3)

- Roma campaign. A confusing one for non-natives, this. The Roma are Romanians, sometimes referred to as Rom, which sometimes means gypsies, and the city they have chosen to settle in is Roma. Giovanna Reggiani, the wife of an admiral was murdered while out walking in the capital, the culprit seemingly being a Romanian living in one of the many makeshift camps in the area. Prodi reacted to public outrage (there have been 76 murders by Romanians this year) by threatening to deport illegals who are deemed a threat to the state. This unfortunatey comes up against EU law which permits them to travel freely.

- Interview with Prodi: in an interview with the Financial Times Mr Prodi sought to take the heat out of the situation. Yes, there had been a massive influx of Romanians - perhaps half a million - and they made up 75% of the people arrested for serious crimes but that had to be set against the 22,000 Italian companies employing 600,000 Romanians over there. He is in talks with the Romanian foreign minister but in the meantime Veltroni the mayor of Rome is rounding them up.

- Biagi dies: the distinguished journalist Enzo Biagi has died aged 87. He ws a much loved figure in Italy, fiercely critical of governments of all persuasions

- Student murder: the death of a British student in Perugia appears to have been as a result of sex games with an American flatmate, her Italian boyfriend and a Congolese bar owner. Arrests have been made and police say the case is closed.

- MS Breakthrough: another astonishing success for Italian medical research. A team in Rome have established that EBV, a variant of herpes, causes Multiple Sclerosis, making treatment easier.

- 10 commandments: Police have discovered during the arrest of Salvatore Lo Piccolo, the Boss of Bosses, a list of rules governing the deportment of a mobster, which include 'Appointments must absolutely be respected' and 'Wives must be treated with respect' making the Cosa Nostra unique among Italians

- Saudi meets Pope: King Abdullah has a historic meeting with the Pontiff. These heads of small wealthy countries whose very word is law have to stick together

- Divorce in Fermo: a monk in the small Marche town has reportedly been offering, for money, to assist marriage annulment. Paul McCartney has reportedly asked if he will work for less than £20million

07 November, 2007

Youth Parliament

A hasty correction in case I have maligned them: the Youth Parliament is an independent charity with no party political affiliation. Its website (HERE) is pretty good.

Youth need advice and here is mine: putting your name to a New Labour press release is like accepting sweets from a stranger. Don't.

Jacqui Smith



No, I haven't got it in for New Labour women (the men are just as bad) but I have to tell you this. Ms Smith is, somewhat surprisingly, the Home Secretary. The Times reports (HERE) that after she had seen members of the Youth Parliament (I shall try to find out what this is - the main one seems childish enough - and how much it costs) three representatives, Natalie Irvin of the North East, Dan Kent for Sutton and Natalie Hall for Staffordshire all said exactly the same thing in their press releases including 'It is good to hear that gun and knife crime is a key priority for the Government' (which will be news to anyone who lives in a British city).

So the government makes a big splash about consulting 'Yoof' and then tells them what to say, dressing it up as their own thoughts. This, in a nutshell, is how the country is run. And not even an apology this time.

Alitalia

Alitalia is losing something in the region of a million euros a day, and has debts of over €1 billion. The Italian Government, with its keen eye for investment quality, has decided to sell its near 50% stake.

One of the bidders is Air One, the Italian internal airline with the heron on its tail (airone is the Italian for heron - geddit?) which says it wants to maintain its character. This 'character' is of baggage handlers who block the luggage tags reader while they go out for a smoke, ensuring your luggage goes nowhere, strikes, absurd over-staffing by militant unions and appalling delays such that you cannot rely on the airline to get you anywhere anything like on time.

I have done a fair bit of corporate finance advisory work in my time and my advice to Air One's CEO Carlo Toto is:

Lie down in a darkened room until you feel better.

06 November, 2007

Ruth Kelly


The cabinet minister with the connection to Opus Dei and the peculiar manufactured proley accent (which I can't imagine she had when attending posh girl's school Shrewsbury College) has admitted, after being found out by the Mail on Sunday (HERE) that money given to her for non-political communication with the electorate in fact went to making a piece of Labour Party propaganda. It was just around the time we all thought Gordon would call an election and she has a very marginal constituency.
Ms Kelly has apologised 'unreservedly' and..er...that's it.
This is the equivalent to being caught with your hands in the till, and she's a Cabinet Minister! I've asked it before and I'll ask it again: just what does it take to get these people to resign?

British Constitution

It used to be a test for drunkenness. Bertie Wooster, suspected by an aunt of being tight, was made to say it, and having got that right was only able to prove his sobriety by saying, if I remember rightly, 'She stands outside Fotheringham's Fish Sauce Shop, welcoming him in'.

Anyway we are due to hear a bit about the Constitution today, it is rumoured, in Gordon Brown's first Queen's Speech. This is the bit, if you remember, where he sets out his 'vision'.

So here is a suggestion or two.

House of Lords: 80% elected, the rest a minimal number of political appointees, enough to keep parliamentary business flowing, and ex-officio members, such as a couple of bishops, the Chief Rabbi, Head of the Muslim Council, former Prime Ministers and other holders of the Great Offices of State, Law Lords, Governor of the Bank of England, Head of the National Trust etc etc. Everyone to retire at age 75.

Voting: House of Lords Commission to oversee voting, prevent fraud, introduce new voting methods such as by computer etc

Referenda: Any constitutional change put to the people in a referendum. House of Lords committee to rule on what is a constitutional change (eg changes to Habeas Corpus in Anti-terrorism measures)

West Lothian Question: English Grand Committee as suggested by Rifkind, only English MPs to vote on purely English laws; Scottish Executive to be given tax raising powers.

Abolish Human Rights Act and submission of English Courts to European ones.

Well, that's a start.

Something tells me that none of the above will be in it. I am also guesing that there will be a few surprises, and that Gordon Brown will come out of it marginally better but not much. We shall see.

05 November, 2007

Enoch


One Nigel Hastilow, who looks, I shall mention in passing, like a cheap gangster, has apparently said 'Enoch was right', during an article on immigration given to his local newspaper in his capacity as a Conservative candidate. Presumably after some mild suggestion from the leadership he has thought it right to resign.

I'd have sacked him for stupidity. His leader Cameron has cleverly introduced the subject of immigration into the political scene, having taken the unpleasantness out of the verbiage. This was a clever move by Cameron, for whom it could be a vote winner. Hastilow's outburst was a gift to Labour.

In my view, more than half the country subscribe to the view 'Enoch was right', in what is known as the 'rivers of blood' speech, but less than 1% of them have any idea what he did in fact say. It was 'Like the Roman I see the Tiber foaming with much blood', a quote from Virgil's Aeneid. The Tiber. Not the Thames or the Ouse. 'Like the Roman'. You'd have thought even the daftest person might guess this was some sort of ancient quote. Virgil also coined the phrase 'timeo Danaos et dona ferentis' but each time anyone says 'I fear the Greeks bearing gifts' it isn't thought to be some racist comment on our European partners. I'm afraid the new ignorant class has been led by the Left to allowing the persecution of an educated man (Powell, not Hastilow). But he's dead now and it can't hurt him.

I think that with Hastilow's departure the average IQ of Conservative candidates will have risen but it all seems so silly,

04 November, 2007

The Political Class

I have been reading Peter Oborne's book The Triumph of the Political Class (Simon & Schuster) and for once I agree with David Mellor: 'Copies..should be sent to every voter'.

The Political Class is a term I have been using for some time, mainly about Europe, but Oborne (former political editor of the Spectator, now with the Mail) traces its rise over the last 30 years to its apotheosis now (in the unlikely event of it becoming a film, Apotheosis Now would be a good title).

Whereas we once had an establishment, the governance of the country is now in the hands of a self protecting class of people which can be entered only at an early age. Almost all of them have no experience of anything outside Westminster and politics is so much a profession that even party political distinction is blurred: they borrow each other's policies simply to occupy political space as if the asppirations and needs of a nation were a chessboard. The result has been poor government, based on preserving the interests of the Political Class above serving the people, low voter turnout (what's the point?) and corruption, many instances of which Oborne cites.

This is a stunning indictment of what we have allowed to happen in Britain. I hope the book is widely read before it is too late.

02 November, 2007

Sir Ian Blair

Sir Ian Blair has been described before as 'disturbingly on-message'. In truth he is the New Labour policeman, the Political Class copper. Even the triangular revolving sign outside New Scotland Yard has some New Labour bilge like 'working for a better London'. And like the rest of the new Political Class he doesn't want to resign even when he has been found out.

The report into the Jean Charles de Menezes killing however is critical of systemic failings in the Met. He was in charge.

Of course he must resign. What are people thinking of? We can't have the country's top policeman having no support from the public, no credibility. OF COURSE HE MUST GO.

Constitutional Fiasco

It won't surprise many people, I fear. The leaders of the 27 European nations are going down to Lisbon in December, Foreign Ministers too, to sign the Constitution. But the ceremony is scheduled for the same day as the Council of Ministers, to be held in Brussels. Why not do everything in Lisbon? Because Brussels gets all sorts of financial incentives for meetings being held there. So much for the esprit comunautaire. The politicos will sign, raise a glass of taxpayer funded bubbly to each other and then all fly in separate planes to Brussels for another freebie.

These signing arrangements are redolent of the Constitution itself: something for the political class to feather its own nest at the expense of the people.

01 November, 2007

Italian News (2)

- Hallowe'en, until very recently unknown in Italy, has caught on in a big way in the last couple of years; pumpkin growers report a huge increase in sales

- Italian medical research, a somewhat unsung success, has been active: Teams working under Luigi Naldini in Milan and Cesare Galli in Cremona have managed to rewrite human DNA in a breakthrough that holds promise for the treatment of a range of diseases.
Italy's leading expert on breast cancer Umberto Veronesi says that in ten years the survival rate among breast cancer patients should rise to 85%
Andrea Decensi, director of the oncology department at Genoa's Galliera Hospital, said a drug used to treat osteoporosis has proven to also be effective for the prevention of breast cancer
Teams working at Aviano near Pordenone and Rome's Tor Vergata University have discovered that chronic lymphatic leukemia (CLL) is more aggressive when the tumour cells contain a specific protein on their surface.Valter Gattei of the Aviano lab said the breakthrough was "promising" because the protein is "easier and cheaper to detect than other markers".
A team from the universities of Rome and Ancona have found a marker in human bile they claim can identify bile-duct cancer before surgery becomes the only, high-risk option.
Not bad, eh?

- Bread and pasta prices, currently being investigated by the competition commission, have been a major cause in the rise in the inflation rate

- Cortina d'Ampezzo, a ski resort, has voted to switch from the northeastern Veneto region to Trentino-Alto Adige. The referendum was held to preserve the Ladino language, spoken otherwise only in the Alto Adige, but some think the positive vote may have been influenced by the lower taxes paid by their neighbours in Alto Adige.

- The number of legal immigrants in Italy climbed 21.6% last year, over 2005, the highest growth in the European Union

- Dario Fo is the only Italian in a list of living geniuses published Monday in the Daily Telegraph.The Nobel prize-winning writer came seventh; the creator of The Simpsons was fourth, Osama bin Laden joint 43rd

- The Vatican has published a document from the secret archive saying the wiping out of the Knights Templar in the 14th Century may have been a little harsh. They were bad, but not that bad

- Signposts have been erected marking the via Francigena route for pilgrims from Rome to Canterbury. There is renewed interest because it has been shown to be quicker than queuing for Ryanair

30 October, 2007

The Sun

I am an avid reader of the Sun's editorial comment 'The Sun Says'; this paper, though intellectually a tad lacking, influences the votes of its millions of readers. The Sun Says has for several months been having a go at Gordon Brown's failure to hold a referendum, and now is coming out in favour of David Cameron's immigration policy. Is this a major shift in loyalty, the first since 1997? Interesting stuff.

David and Abdullah

There's been quite a lot of self-righteous breast beating about the visit of King Abdullah to Britain. My own view is that if they're so nasty don't buy their horrid oil or sell them our planes. Ha-ha.

But the strangest thing is the absence of the Foreign Secretary from the talks. Normally it would be irrelevant and I wouldn't mention it but in this case I think we have to remind ourselves that David Milliband is Jewish. Here is his reason: that he and his we are adopting a child - in America - and that he has to be present there at that moment. This is the strangest excuse and the more I think about it the less I believe it. David Milliband has long term prime-ministerial ambitions, it should be remembered. What is going on at these talks?

A couple of things need be said: firstly it ill behoves a Cabinet Minister to decide he doesn't like British adoption regulations and to do it in the more relaxed USA.

Secondly, there appears to be a feeling among a large part of the Labour Party that foreign relations don't matter. Remember the late Robin Cook leaving the Queen on her visit to India so he could see his mistress? But the Saudi oil fuels British factories with British jobs, and the arms contract, whether you like it or not, provides a lot of workers' livelihoods.

This being a personal matter I reckon he is gambling no one will question him too deeply. But I hope we shall hear more about Mr Milliband's abandonment of his post.

29 October, 2007

Currencies

The news is that the dollar has fallen to a new low of 1.4438 against the euro (although it came back a bit in later trading). The euro had been launched at around a dollar. So is this a good thing or a bad thing? And for whom?

The position of the US is that it has been spending more than it has been earning for some time now. It has a massive trade deficit. When it buys goods from China, it pays in dollars but the Chinese manufacturer is not allowed to hold dollars so it sells them to the central bank at a fiddled exchange rate with which it can't argue. The Bank of China then invests these dollar funds in American government stock (called T-bills). So China is lending the USA money to buy Chinese goods. The only way to get out of this deficit position is for the USA to devalue. Then the value of China's T-bill holding would go down (tee-hee) and China's exports to the US would become more expensive. But the Chinese weren't born yesterday, and their fixed yuan-$ exchange rate followed it up before it went down, and they are refusing to revalue. They may be forced to, however if the dollar falls against all other currencies; which it is trying to do.

Things are different for the euro. Consumer demand from more cautious European consumers has been much weaker than in the US. The euro-area's growth has been from exports (that is to say the factories have been working but non-Europeans have been buying the goods). And to keep your exports competitive you need a cheap currency, not one which is shooting up in value against the dollar, in which so many commodities from oil to wheat are valued.

So there was something of a race to the bottom - both the USA and the Euro trying to remain cheap - and it seams round one is to the US. I once read that the Airbus would be uncompetitive at 1.35. Presumably now it is losing money hand over fist.

Germany has in the past shown the way to manage a strong currency and export: go up market, keep your quality high, keep your costs low. It remains to be seen whether the eurozone can do this. If the dollar falls much further - and the US would like it to - there will be growing unemployment in Europe which will become a political problem.

Cut the regulation. Cut the taxes. But they won't listen.

27 October, 2007

Homosexuality

There has been a lot of publicity in Italy given to a campaign to promote homosexuality as something you are born with rather than something you acquire. The campaign features a baby with a wrist tag marked 'homosexual' (rather than male or female). Now new research on worms says that where a worm is homosexual it is written in the genes.

Only worms, but I hope religious leaders are looking at this: if there can be shown to be a homosexual gene then it must follow that God made homosexuals. Which rather changes things.

To date though no such gene has been discovered in humans.

Interesting fact: A lot of people say hoe-mosexuality (hom as in dome rather than hom as in bomb) on the basis that it comes from the Latin homo meaning man. But on that basis a female 'homosexual', attracted to men, would be a heterosexual. Instead it comes from the Greek hommos, meaning 'the same' as in homogenised milk. So it's hom as in bomb.

I expect you all knew that.

Euroopean Cnstitution

The Economist (HERE) quotes the Euro-loony Centre for European Policy Studies as welcoming the fact that the text of the constitution is opaque, because those countries which ratified the constitution last time are going to be arguing that it is the same as the failed Constitution they supported so there is no need for a referendum, whereas those which held or were going to hold a referendum will be arguing that it is a completely different document..... and so there is no need for a referendum!

What amazes me is that anybody can support this anti-democratic buro-fascism for a moment.

26 October, 2007

Off the hook!

ANSA reports that Berlusconi has been acquitted of bribery charges (he was charged with bribing a judge not to sell a state food company to a rival in 1985, but after acquittal the prosecution appealed). That is not a misprint: he was charged with something 22 years ago and has only now cleared his name. Such is the speed of the Italian justice system.

Really this must improve if Italy is to be regarded internationally as a country governed by the rule of law.

In a separate development, the papers registering Clemente Mastella as a suspect in the 'Why Not' investigation have arrived in Rome. It appears they are concentrating on something particular to Mastella and not to the investigation around Romano Prodi.

So it seems the two ageing political leaders might well be off the hook together, just as people are beginning to talk of a general election in the near future. My advice is for them both to retire - innocent - and leave this one to the younger guys (people under 70)

25 October, 2007

Threats

It seems that someone has sent a letter to Clemente Mastella, enclosing bullets and threatening him if he doesn't reinstate de Magistris (the investigating magistrate who has been critical of him and whom he has had transferred from his post).

I have been critical of Mr Mastella but this sort of thing destroys political debate. Indeed it works in the opposite way, for now he will be seen as something of a martyr.

So Italian politics has lost none of its ability to shock.

24 October, 2007

Italian News

The first of a regular mid-week summary of the news from Italy.

- Prime Minister Romano Prodi says he has confidence in Clemente Mastella. Mastella is being investigated for collaborating with a group of businessmen to defraud the EU. This news is hardy surprising because Prodi is subject to the same investigation (although only for abuse of office) and because he is desperately in need of support for his coalition in which Mastella's Udeur party is a member.

- Standard and Poors the rating agency has confirmed Italy' s debt ratings but said that the prospects for fiscal consolidation (that means sorting out the excessive public spending) do not seem good, due to rigid labour markets, the structural weakness of Italian public finances and the ageing population.

- Italian children are among the fattest in Europe according to recent research

- Evaded taxes in Italy exceed 100 billion euros a year and the bulk of the evasion takes place in the services and retail sectors, according to a new report by the economy ministry.

- A new law concerning the duties of newspaper editors will not apply to bloggers says undersecretary for culture Ricardo Franco Levi.

- Roma and Inter Milan both won in the Champions League

- Fanatical self-publicist TV girl and consort of Flavio Briatore, Elizabetha Gregoraci, claims she cannot even have a coffee with a friend without it appearing in the newspapers. Whether this is a complaint or bragging is unclear

- An Italian, Paolo Nespoli from Milan, is in space, the first Italian for 6 years. The importance of choosing a Milanese is that it is only south of Rome that they refuse to wear crash helmets.

23 October, 2007

Life with the mafia

The Italian papers, and many of the British ones, lead with the story that the mafia is the biggest business in Italy. I don't know (and I don't think they know) but it seems certain it is the only one which is well organised and with a proper international outlook.

But Italians don't live their lives terrified of the bullet in the post, or the horse's head in the bed. Other than the flower sellers in restaurants (sent in to check how many people are dining so the payments can be fairly calculated) there is only one way it affects the lives of, I would guess, 99.5% of the people: the pizzo, or protection, increases the cost of the goods ordinary Italians buy. Where the mafia are strongest, ordinary things such as food, rent etc are more expensive.

If you close your eyes a bit you don't notice it; it's probably no more than the money wasted through idle civil servants or outdated labour practices.

That's why nobody does anything about it.

22 October, 2007

Habeas Corpus

It used to be that if the State hadn't charged you with anything after detaining you for 3 days, they had to let you go. Slowly this has been whittled away, apparently due to the post 9/11 terrorist upsurge, and the limit is now 28 days. Nearly a month. Now the police want it to be 90 days - three months that you can be held in a prison without even being charged, much less convicted.

The Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has now admitted that there has not been a single instance since 9/11 where detention would have been necessary for more than 28 days. They just want the powers, you see.

If parliament lets this through it will have ceased to be the guardian of our liberties.

21 October, 2007

Benazir Bhutto

The Sunday Telegraph has separate articles from estranged couple Imran and Jemima Khan, the latter describing Benazir as 'a kleptocrat in Hermes headscarf'.

Even the highly critical Jemima, however, uses the term 'self-imposed exile' for Benazir's lengthy stay in a mansion in Surrey. It sounds as if she was absenting herself for the good of her people. In fact she was fleeing a series of corruption charges.

20 October, 2007

Clemente Mastella (5)

According to the ANSA News Agency, Clemente Mastella is under investigation for abuse of office and violation of the laws on membership of secret societies. Apparently the suspicion is that he and a group of politicians and businessmen conspired to misappropriate public funds into San Marino.

18 October, 2007

European Constitution

Mr Brown is off to Lisbon to sign us up to the European Constitution. He and Foreign Secretary Milliband say that none of the nasties apply to us - they have protected us with their red lines. They don't believe that and nor should we; they are lying. If you are interested in exactly what the red lines are worth see HERE. You can also sign the referendum petition at the same site.

Blair stitched Brown up by agreeing to this and so Brown has to support the Constitution and therefore can't allow a vote. We are being sold down the river for a piece of cheap politics.

The question is: what do we do now? Keep the pressure on; write to newspapers and MPs. A new opinion poll taken across Europe shows that 70% of Europeans want a referendum; but they won't get one. The political class want the thing adopted and damn the people. This is one of the most outrageous pieces of deception in living memory.

Burma

The plight of the poor Burmese could hardly be worse. A repressive regime which rejected the winning candidate in the elections, Aung San Suu Kyi, is kept in power by another repressive regime, China. The Chinese are not lovers of democracy, and particularly fear that the infection might spread over the border into the poverty stricken areas where the new wealth has not permeated. And China has interests in Burma: energy contracts which have privately enriched the Burmese generals.

Is this why the West does nothing, for fear of upsetting China?

There may be another reason. I once heard an interview with Aung San Suu Kyi and she was far from flattering about the West and its morality, loathing its materialism, loathing its interference in small countries which cannot resist. She took over this mantle from her father, General Aung San, who became a folk hero fighting imperialism. It may be we have little to expect from a regime run by her and that this is holding us back. Reprehensible, of course...

17 October, 2007

The Demon Drink

When they were trying to outlaw smoking, a number of people remarked that it will be drinking next. I confess I didn't subscribe to this view, but who knows? the first shots may be sounding.

A professor Ian Gilmour, for reasons, one can only suppose, of self-publicity, has sprayed the media with his views about alcohol consumption. Apparently the middle classes are at it. Some of them are drinking at the danger level of of three and a half bottles (per week, that is). The people of Surrey appear to be particularly guilty. Prof Mark Bellis, the director of the North West Public Health Observatory (did you know there was such a thing? Have a guess who's paying for it), suggested "substantial" increases in the price of alcohol could help to tackle the problem.

The first thing to say here is that these gentlemen really should try to get out more. I don't think I know anybody who drinks as little as this and we can't all be for the morgue at an early age. There is no scientific proof or even evidence that these levels are damaging, because there has been no proper study carried out. The second thing is to ask whether they had considered minding their own business. There is a nice little piece in the Mail (here)by John Mortimer 'The true sickness of our times is not that we eat too much, smoke cigarettes or knock off a bottle of wine in an evening. It is the ever-growing tendency of medical boards, Government officials, politicians and other groups.... to tell us how to lead our lives.'

As to Mr Bellis, here in Italy good wine is 1 euro a litre (52p a bottle) and plonk cheaper than that. And yet the Italians are living longer than the British. And you never see anyone drunk on the streets.

I suppose these ill-informed busybodies will only shut up when there is such a public outcry that the newspapers don't bother to print their self-opinionated drivel. We should start that outcry now.